Sunday, May 7, 2023

Food for long hikes

I've been preparing dehydrated meals for my hikes for 8 years now, and I often get people asking about my meals so I thought I would write another post about food I take tramping.

My starting point was preparing to walk the Bibbulmun Track in WA. I wrote a post about the food I prepared for that trip here.

Since then I've had more practice, and I've changed my dietary habits, reducing carbs in my diet and moving to intermittent fasting, so I no longer eat breakfast, just surviving on a good cup of coffee. I've also become really good at finding suitable food in supermarkets and Asian shops that can be incorporated into recipes to take hiking.

The important issue for me (and it should be for anyone undertaking extended periods of hiking) is that hiking food MUST be healthy and nutritious. It's OK to eat a bit of junk if you only hike one week a year, but when it's your lifestyle for any longer than that you are not doing yourself or your long term health a favour by indulging in high fat, high sugar food. I may be accused of being an elitist, but if you can't afford to eat healthy food then perhaps you should save up a bit longer before going on a long hike. Don't just listen to me, read this anecdotal study and this more detailed explanation about why you should eat better. I've never experienced "hiker hunger", a phenomenon where you are so hungry you need to eat massive amounts of food on arriving in a town after days on the trail. Sure I'll eat a big meal, but not any larger than any other meal I would eat.

The easy, but expensive, option is to eat commercially prepared and nutritionally balanced freeze dried meals. In NZ where tramping and/or adventure racing are national pastimes for 20% of the population, there are an ever increasing number of options out there. You may have heard of Backcountry Cuisine, but there's also Radix, Real Meals, and Local Dehy.

The cheaper option is to do it yourself, and for that you will need to get hold of a dehydrator, though you can use an oven on the lowest heat setting with the door propped open a little to allow airflow and the escape of steam.

For me, I like to have variety, so I've created a number of meals that I've found filling, tasty and nutritious. 

The first is one of the meals I created for the Bibbulmun and I'm still eating it: 

Miso soup with tuna and soba noodles. Soba noodles take next to no time to cook, tuna dehydrates really well, and rehydrates as easily, miso sachets come in a packet of 12 for less than $2, and I now use half a sheet of nori per meal. This adds iodine and micronutrients. I also now add some dehydrated mushrooms (easily bought at most supermarkets) and dehydrated vegetables.

I've learnt to cook rice and then dehydrate it, (just add hot water and you're good to go) as a much cheaper option than buying those prepackaged rice meals so prevalent in supermarkets and on the menu of many budget minded trampers. I buy packets of frozen vegetables - the stirfry mixed veg are great because they are chopped already into bite sized pieces - and dehydrate them. Recently, when preparing for the AAWT, I found some frozen roast veg, so I dehydrated them and then incorporated them into a pasta dish.

For my Pasta dish I will use soba noodles, or, in an attempt to reduce my carbohydrate intake, vermicelli noodles, though they do have some corn starch in them. You can buy the vermicelli in packets of five. I no longer use dehydrated beef mince, because there are easier dried protein options available that taste just as good, and save time preparing. The obvious is TVP (textured vegetable protein) but I've recently discovered a lentil and walnut mix which is also excellent. Go check out the vegan section in the supermarket. One packet can be divided into individual meal portions, which hugely reduces the cost per meal. To my protein I add dried vegetables and dried mushrooms, and semi dried tomato strips (another thing I've found, usually somewhere near the olives, in the supermarket), and bind it all together with a sachet of pizza sauce. The pizza sauce sachets come in packets of four and are amongst the tomato paste options at the supermarket. I use the pizza base one because it's got some herbs added. More taste! I also bring a supply of dried onions and garlic to add, but often I forget.

Green chicken curry is one of my favourite meals and I've found my current recipe to be perfect. I buy chicken mince and cook it in green curry paste (add as much or as little paste as your taste buds prefer) then dehydrate the curried mince. Once dehydrated I package individually, adding a heaped spoonful of coconut milk powder to each package. This little taste bomb gets rehydrated with your choice of mixed veg, mushrooms and choice of carb. It used to be rice for me, now it's usually the vermicelli.

I use a vacuum sealer for a lot of my meals, because removing the air not only prevents spoilage, it massively reduces the packed volume of the food. I always vacuum seal the dehydrated proteins, but I also seal the vegetables and soba/miso/nori packages, the latter because it stops the noodles disintegrating in my pack. In theory you should store the proteins in your freezer, but I don't anymore and haven't had a spoilt meal yet. I usually package up the dried vegetables and mushrooms in larger portion sizes because I'm using them in a number of meals on the same trip. I store the opened package in a ziplock bag. I just use ziplock bags for the vermicelli, though I always vacuum seal cooked and dehydrated rice, because rice can spoil.

I almost always take olive oil, or MCT oil, to add to my meals to give me healthy extra calories. No, fat isn't bad for you when eaten with whole foods and a fairly low carbohydrate intake. 

I have a few more meal options that I've found tasty for me. I adore beef rendang (I really must get back to Indonesia) so I will cook up beef cubes in a rendang sauce and then dehydrate them. I've also found some spicy tofu slices in the snack section of asian supermarkets and have made up a concoction with them as my protein source instead. I once dehydrated sauerkraut which was a wonderful tangy accompaniment to my meals. A bit of creativity and you can make some really interesting and yummy meals.

I haven't dehydrated pesto for a while, but it's still a great option. Making your own pesto allows you to omit the oil and then just add it back in when cooking. Same with hummus.

I'm aware that dehydrating food does lose some nutrients, which is why most commercially available tramping food is freeze dried. It's also probably more cost effective. But even so, what I eat is always going to be better nutritionally than eating two minute noodles and junk food.

Since I've changed to intermittent fasting I make sure I have a nutritious first meal. My usual options these days are:

Low carb chia pudding consisting of mixed nuts and seeds, dried cranberries, chia seeds, protein powder, milk powder and MCT oil. Just add water (and the MCT oil) in the morning and it's ready in a few hours.

Savoury mix consisting of dried hummus, dried peas, dried mushrooms, semi dried tomato strips, dried tuna or cut up salami, and sometimes cheese as well. Again, add water and eat a couple of hours later. I will often bring fresh mushrooms and fresh baby spinach, because both keep well for a few days.

I always pack snacks to eat between meals, but I usually don't eat them unless I feel my energy sagging and it isn't time to stop for a real meal break. Aside from homemade sugar free chocolate I no longer make my own snacks, but try to purchase ones that are made of natural ingredients and not too high in sugar. Pic's Peanut Butter Slugs are a favourite, as are Choc and Manuka Honey One Square Meals. In Australia I just put peanut butter in a ziplock bag (messy though) and eat it by the spoonful. I'm yet to find an energy bar in Oz I like as much as the aforementioned OSMs. I've tried the keto bars and they not only don't taste great, I feel that they are just another type of processed food to be avoided. Same with protein bars.

From time to time I make beef jerky, which always tastes better than the store bought options. It gets consumed far too quickly though....

Dessert? Whittaker's Chocolate of course!!

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