Friday, June 27, 2014

Hiking With The Ten Essentials, #8: Nutrition

The 10 Essentials of Hiking, #8: Nutrition

I recently read on Discover Magazine's website  about a study that concluded that the absolute number one factor in determining whether a prisoner was given parole or not was how recently the presiding judge had eaten a meal or snack. In other words, a human’s blood sugar levels are freaking important. “Nutrition” basically means “energy.” We need energy, just as your cell phone, power drill, or automobile does. Without energy, none of our “gadgets” work, no factories are making goods, no machines are in use. Just the same, without food, you will quit working. Your decisions become less intelligent, your body becomes less resilient, your overall functioning in every capacity is diminished. So, bring some food on the trail with you any time you head into the backcountry. Food is abundant, cheap, and absurdly convenient to procure in this culture. Certain foods are better suited to hiking than others, but smart, practical (and even tasty) foods are available very, very affordably. Below I’ll list some of the best foods to consider in terms of nutrition, weight, and “packability.” (NOTE: I have zero affiliation with any of the retailers or manufacturers mentioned. I’m also not a nutritionist or food safety expert; these are simply personal opinions.)

Nuts and Trail Mix
hiking foods nuts and trail mix
I find nuts to be the perfect trail food. They come in all varieties (I’m partial to peanuts and almonds myself). They are light, durable, nutritious, and pack a ton of “good” calories into each bite. Nut butters are also a great choice, but a little messier to negotiate. Single size packets are available for peanut butter and other nut butters, but you end up paying three or four times what you would from a jar. Trail mixes are also great choices, of course. I try to limit the candy and sugar often added to trail mixes in favor of dried fruits and natural sweeteners.

Energy Bars & Gels
hiking food energy bars gel
Prepackaged energy bars and gels are extremely convenient and easy to pack. Many varieties are made with fairly healthy ingredients considering they are a processed food. I’m partial to Clif Bars personally, but countless items are out there. I can see the appeal of GU Energy gels given how light and convenient they are, but I personally can’t get into such a highly processed concoction. It feels like space food. These items can also get very expensive very quickly, especially when compared to other items like bulk nuts and whole grains like oatmeal. (Click here for a review of Greenbelly Meal Bars, designed by an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.)

Dried Foods
camping foods backpacking
The truly hardcore might consider investing in a dehydrator to make their own dried foods. Plenty of dried foods are easily available at any grocery store or camping goods store. Dried foods are extremely light and can pack in a lot of calories for little weight. In most cases, however, you will need to boil some water to rehydrate the food. This can add weight and complication, of course (click here to see how you can build an 8 oz. ultralight cookset for just over $20.) “Specialty” dried foods that cater specifically to outdoors enthusiasts like those made by Mountain House are very popular and readily available. I simply cannot justify the price, myself, when other options are available such as oatmeal, pastas, and rice. For those with more disposable income, however, these seem to provide quality foods in well designed packages.

Meats and Cheeses
meats for camping and backpacking hiking
I have a weakness for jerky. Honestly, I don’t believe it is an especially healthy food unless you’re making your own. The nitrites and preservatives are bad news. That said, I love it, and the ease, convenience, and great taste of jerky leads me to throw it in my pack frequently. I am also very “carbophobic” as I am now a reformed fatty (I lost over 100 lbs. a few years ago.) Jerky is light, keeps well, and also packs a lot of calories into small portions. Packets of tuna, salmon, or other fish are healthier alternatives for those wanting some protein. They are heavier, however, given all of the water they contain. They also have an intense smell, the better to attract bears and critters. Lastly, I often bring packaged string cheese with me on the trail. If backpacking, it seems that individually packaged string cheese can last at least a few days in most circumstances.

Fresh Foods
fresh foods hiking backpacking camping
Even if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip and trying to save weight and space with dried foods, you should eat at least one fresh item each day, I believe. The nutrition and the roughage will aid in digestion and keep you feeling better. Apples and oranges are pretty durable in the way of fruits. Celery or carrot sticks are a great way to get some fresh veggies in the mix.

Don’t get stuck lost on the trail without any fuel. Unless you know how to safely forage for food, a lack of energy for the mind and body can become a quick downward spiral into bad decisions and emergency situations.

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