Nov 26, 2019
One of the questions hikers/bikers frequently get is, “What do you eat?” The correct answer, of course, is “A lot.” But that’s true not only in terms of volume, but also variety: It’s possible to eat lots of different things!
As a human, you should be trying to get your food groups regardless. While hiking/biking, this becomes even more important. Like it or not, hiking/biking is an athletic endeavor, and it’s much more difficult when your body isn’t a well-oiled machine.
That said, you don’t necessarily need to keep your eye on getting 100% or more of the recommended intake of everything, every single day. For the most part, you can broadly focus on three food groups: protein, fruit/veggies, and whole grains. If every meal has a decent source of each of these, you’re doing well.
Fruits and Veggies
Probably the hardest food group to consistently get is fruit/veggies. These don’t pack well, they spoil, they take up a lot of space, they’re delicate, and they don’t come in odor-proof packaging. It’s rare you’ll see a hiker/biker carrying 3-4 days worth of fresh fruit and vegetables with them.
While a lot of the nutritional value is lost in the process, dried fruit and vegetables can help fill the void. They’re available almost everywhere (including places you can’t buy produce), they’re dense, and they don’t go bad.
Whenever you’re in town, it’s OK to pig out on pizza or barbecue or whatever, but make sure some much-needed vegetables are part of your indulgence, as this is one of your only opportunities to have them. And while carrying a week’s worth of fruit is nigh impossible, there’s always room in your pack for a tangerine or something. Take one for the road.
After fruits and veggies, the next hardest food group to get is protein. While many good forms of protein require refrigeration (eggs, meat, dairy), many don’t (nuts, beans).
Even among foods that require refrigeration, there are many outdoor-friendly options, like jerky, spam, tuna, and powdered milk. Cheese can last a few days, depending on the type of cheese, the weather conditions, and how you store it.
While beans are an excellent source of protein, iron, fiber, and many other vital nutrients, the problem is they’re most often stored in cans. The weight of the can, surprisingly, isn’t such a problem, but the space the empty can continues to occupy is an annoyance. Fortunately, it’s becoming increasingly common to see beans come in soft plastic packages (the same is true for tuna and Spam!), and it’s also becoming more common to find instant refried beans, which cuts down on both space and weight.
Nuts and nut butters are easy to carry, dense, have healthy fats, and can be eaten on their own or used many different ways.
Whole grains, for the most part, are fairly easy to carry. Some of them eventually spoil (like bread), but you’ll almost certainly finish eating them before they do. Good options here include instant rice, oatmeal, tortillas, bagels, english muffins, noodles, and instant potatoes. While some are more nutritious than others, all of them are fairly easy-to-carry and provide much-needed energy.
There are countless foods a hiker/biker can carry with them, but for now, here’s a list of good staples to choose from:
- Oatmeal, granola, cereal
- Granola/cereal/protein bars
- English muffins, tortillas, bagels
- Instant potatoes
- Instant rice
- Packaged meats (tuna, Spam)
- Dried fruit
- Peanut/nut butter
- Powdered milk
- Powdered peanut butter
- Protein powder
- Carnation, Ovaltine, Nesquik
- Cajun/creole spice
Let’s break down a few of these:
For nutritional reasons, it’s always better to eat whole grains than white bread. Get whole wheat if you can. Most notably, whole wheat has eight times as much fiber as white bread, along with a slew of vitamins white bread is missing. Since a hiking diet is low on fresh fruits and vegetables, getting nutrients where you can is imperative.
Tortillas are the best way to go here, since they’re dense, highly portable, and can be used many different ways. It’s easy to take any food and wrap it in a tortilla. The only downside to tortillas is they can tear, especially corn tortillas.
English muffins are also an excellent choice, with bagels close behind. Unlike tortillas, bagels and English muffins are leavened, so air takes up a lot of their space. That said, they’re still fairly dense and durable. English muffins get the nod here since jam and honey will never drip through the middle.
Oatmeal is probably the most common thing you’ll see people use, and for good reasons: it’s cheap, healthy, lightweight, energy-dense, available everywhere, and since it barely has flavor of its own, it can be prepared different ways to taste. Surprisingly, oatmeal doesn’t need cooking, not even the not-instant kind! A good soak will do the trick. The downsides to oatmeal mostly involve taste: it’s bland, mushy, and doesn’t taste good cold.
Granola is essentially toasted oatmeal, along with some oil and a sweetener, usually honey. As a result, it’s even more calorie-dense than oatmeal, though the added calories are mostly empty (not always a bad thing). Granola costs more, but it’s tastier, can be found in many different flavors, and can be eaten as a cereal or by the handful as a snack. Granola also requires no preparation.
Boxed cereals (Cheerios, etc.) present an alternative to granola. The nutritional content varies wildly, but some are quite healthy, and the variety is endless. Most box cereals are also cheaper than granola. For hiking/biking trips, our favorite is Grape Nuts: dense, relatively healthy, commonly found, and tastes great with a little cinnamon.
Finally, there are granola bars. For our purposes, energy bars (like Clif bar) and breakfast bars (like Nature Valley) will be collectively referred to as “granola bars”. Energy bars marketed for sport/outdoor activities can be quite pricey compared to breakfast bars, but the ingredients and nutritional content tend to be better. Nevertheless, it would be expensive to rely on either of these as a mainstay of your diet, and either way, most people wouldn’t count granola bars as a “meal”. For our money, a handful of granola or box cereal has essentially the same effect as a granola bar, and it’s a lot cheaper.
On the surface, it would seem jerky is the obvious answer here: light, barely takes up space, and is both calorie- and protein-dense. While all those are true, jerky is expensive, and compared to fresh meat, contains shockingly little iron. From a nutrition standpoint, protein is almost all you get, and you pay a lot for it.
Better options include tuna and Spam. While they’re traditionally sold in small metal containers, it’s becoming increasingly common to find them in plastic pouches, essentially a wrapper. Spam is hardly any healthier than jerky and contains a lot of sodium, but since you’re likely to be sweating a lot, that may not be such a problem. Tuna, on the other hand, is an excellent choice from a nutritional standpoint.
More and more, I find myself relying on powders on hiking/biking trips. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, they’re lightweight and both energy- and nutrient-dense. Best of all, powder takes the shape of its container, making it easy to squeeze into the last bit of space in your pack.
Powdered milk provides protein, calcium, and vitamin D. If you’re relying on breakfast cereal in the morning, powdered milk is almost a necessity, and it also goes well with oatmeal and granola.
Fortified chocolate powders like Carnation, Nesquik, and Ovaltine are packed with added vitamins, and who doesn’t like chocolate? For the most part, they don’t have too much sugar either. Not only can chocolate powder be used on granola, cereal, and oatmeal, but tastes great dusted onto trail mix or over peanut butter on a tortilla.
Peanut butter powder doesn’t reconstitute into peanut butter all that well, and it doesn’t taste good eaten by the spoonful. But it does well to add a peanut butter flavor to anything, like oatmeal, and when combined with a little spice, can give bland foods a Thai flair (noodles, tuna, and so on). Peanut butter is already energy and protein dense, and gram-for-gram, powdered peanut butter is even more so.
Protein powder, depending on the flavor, can act as a stand-in for any of the above. In a pinch, vanilla can act as a stand-in for milk! Protein can be hard to get on the backwoods, and protein powder is an easy, lightweight way to carry it with you.
Variety is the spice of life, but you don’t need a lot of variety in your spices to add life to your trail food. We recommend carrying only two: cinnamon and cajun/creole. Almost everything falls into one of those two categories. If it’s supposed to taste sweet, use cinnamon. If it’s supposed to be savory, use cajun/creole.
These are simple enough they barely qualify as recipes, but here are a few meal ideas to get you started:
- Oatmeal, cinnamon, handful of trail mix, protein powder
- Grape nuts, cinnamon, powdered milk, powdered chocolate
- Granola, powdered peanut butter, powdered chocolate, handful of nuts
- Tortilla, peanut butter, powdered chocolate, handful of trail mix
- English muffin, peanut butter, honey, raisins, cinnamon
- Tortilla, tuna, creole spice, powdered peanut butter
- Instant potatoes, beef jerky, creole spice
- Instant rice, refried beans, creole spice
- Noodles, powdered peanut butter, handful of nuts, creole spice
The question you may now be asking is, “How do you cook and prepare this stuff?” If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed none of these require cooking! We’ve written an entire article on going stoveless. If you’re interested to know how that works, check it out.