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Outside: Eating right in the backcountry doesn't have to be hard

Preparing as much as possible in a home kitchen takes the burden of cleaning away from the campsite. Cutting and portioning vegetables, even pre-cooking whole meals to heat up quickly on a camping stove, can make for an enjoyable weekend in the wilderness that’s mostly hassle-free.
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A frosty scene from a cozy campfire at Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County.

Spring will be blooming soon, and the summer hiking season will swiftly follow. Camping and backpacking trips require a good amount of planning and preparation, and one of the most important things to sort out is what to eat. 

Meal planning is a little easier when camping with a car or trailer because weight and refrigeration aren’t the largest concerns, but there is still some benefit to having a plan before packing the car. 

Preparing as much as possible in a home kitchen takes the burden of cleaning away from the campsite. Cutting and portioning vegetables, even pre-cooking whole meals to heat up quickly on a camping stove, can make for an enjoyable weekend in the wilderness that’s mostly hassle-free.

“For car or trailer camping, I still pre-make as much as possible. It’s much easier to have things like breakfast burritos, burger patties, even spaghetti and meatballs frozen ahead of time to just heat up. It keeps everything cleaner, I don’t like dealing with food prep and cleanup with raw meat when we’re outdoors,”  Longmont resident Jennifer Jensen said.

“I want to feel like I’m on vacation and not constantly cooking.” 

Easy breakfasts packed with whole foods, complex carbohydrates and protein are good for quick starts on chilly mountain mornings. 

“For breakfasts, veggie scrambles or loaded oatmeal are my go-to favorites. You can really make oatmeal more interesting by adding dried fruit, nuts, chia seeds, nut butters or any other toppings you like. The ingredients travel well and there are loads of combinations to fuel up for a long day,” said Amy Wansing of Neptune Mountaineering.

Lunches should be lightweight and easy to eat on the move, whether it’s a day hike or a backpacking trip. Hard cheeses, crackers, cured meats and protein or granola bars make for healthy and nutritional meals on the go.

More preparation and planning is needed when it comes to backpacking treks, whether it’s just a few days or a couple months. Weight is a factor, as well as ease of preparation and nutritional content. The difficulty of the route, in addition to the length of each day’s hikes, and the calories that will be burned are considerations. 

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills,” now in its ninth edition since 1960, is considered by experts and novices alike to be an essential read for mountain climbers and backpackers. For food planning, the manual recommends 1.5 to 2.5 pounds (approximately 2,500 to 4,500 calories) per person, per day. 

Modern technology and food science have made things a little easier for backpackers. Dehydrated and pre-packaged meals can be purchased from outdoor retailers such as REI and Neptune Mountaineering, or in some cases directly from company websites. 

Backpacker’s Pantry has its roots in Boulder, but there are plenty of varieties on the market, including Greenbelly, Good-To-Go and Mountain House. For those with dietary restrictions, many companies have vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Still, when planning a lengthy expedition, the cost of the meals can add up. Denver resident Alyssa Leib, who also studies nutritional science, is planning a trek along the John Muir Trail in California this summer. Starting at Cottonwood Pass, about 30 miles south of Mount Whitney, Leib and her hiking partner expect a 240-mile trek north through California’s deserts and the Sierra Nevada range.

Leib said last year she picked up a food dehydrator to practice for a few days on the Colorado Trail, but the John Muir Trail is a much larger endeavor. 

“I’ve run out of food on a backpacking trip before, which was not fun, so I usually have a whole spreadsheet to make sure I’m getting enough calories,” Leib said.

Food dehydrators are relatively inexpensive, along with a vacuum sealer, but proper planning and research can offset the cost of  20 days worth of meals for an epic trek. 

“I know my body doesn’t function super well on a high-fat diet, and I’m a vegetarian, so it takes a concerted effort to make sure I can get enough carbs and fiber,” Leib said.

To balance her dietary needs and make sure she gets needed nutrients, Leib is using lentils and other higher-protein grains such as quinoa in her spreadsheet. 

That sort of work isn’t for every hiker though.

“If you want to go the dehydrator route, it's a great option, and there are some low-cost options on the market. If not, get creative. Couscous is extremely lightweight and only requires soaking in hot water for a few minutes to cook. Same with Ramen noodles. You can buy dehydrated refried beans online, and many Asian grocery stores have dried vegetables for sale. Add some spices or bring individually packed hot sauce and you have a reasonably tasty backcountry meal,” Leib said.