Planning a good menu for backpacking food on an outdoor adventure is usually pretty simple: some trail mix, a couple of freeze-dried meals, a few energy bars, some morning mix (usually porridge) and you are set. The problems begin when we add any of the below elements to the trip:
- More than 3 days – the need to start calculating food for many days requires either a more efficient menu or resupply points.
- Participating in a more aggressive form of hiking: mountain running, multi-day ultras, speed hiking etc – there is more strain on the body, and the caloric and dietary needs become extreme.
- Adhering to the lightweight school of thought – when every 10g counts (1g is too picky for me), finding the best return on investment (ROI) from food is vital to eliminate nu-necessary weight.
- Deep backcountry trip – when travelling far away from civilization, the food dependency is not only about daily sustenance, it also needs to accommodate some emergency redundancies.
- Personal preferences and limitations – from health issues to being bigger in size (requiring more calories) etc. What you might prefer, what your gastro system can cope with and more will determine the final menu, despite recommendations.
When I planned my last Cape Wrath trail menu in 2015, I did accommodate all of the above factors very well, but I approached the menu building from the wrong perspective: I looked at my Cape Wrath Trail (CWT) trip as a long backpacking trip, so for me it was just backpacking food. In reality, hiking the CWT is much more like an expedition ultra than a backpacking trip. Therefore, I’m creating an unsupported menu based on the needs of an expedition ultra for my CWT menu for 2016, especially as I will be going in similar speed and distance as is planned for the Cape Wrath Ultra in May 2016.
Another big mistake I made on my last CWT menu was creating a menu based on my eating habits at home. At the time (early 2015), that was mainly based on the Paleo eating habits, focusing more on protein, fats, and vegetables rather than simple carbohydrates and sugars. That was probably my main fail, as I later learned along the trip: my recovery between days was good but my energy levels during my hikes were not constant. I also found that I suffered from a lost appetite in bad weather conditions, so I was eating less.
For the 2016 menu I have delved into the world of ultra running – checking the recommended intakes, adding the considerations of an athlete’s needs and then modifying it with foods closer to what I usually eat, that will suit my palate. It is a good and light menu based on backpacking food, that will allow me to be completely self sufficient, but I am planning on buying food along the way when possible, focusing on what I will be missing: fresh fruit and vegetables. I will be walking for 8 days and 8 nights, and as part of smart planning in the backcountry, adding food for an extra day and night for emergency.
Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)
The RDI is a dietary guideline that is supposed to represent a well balanced diet that the health authorities in western countries recommend. In the UK (the USA is very similar but “allows” more salt), the RDI is based on a healthy woman with moderate activity levels, while for a healthy man with moderate activity levels, the recommendation is roughly 25% more across the board, according to the National Health Services (NHS).
The main thing I am taking from the RDI is the basic nutritional breakdown of a healthy diet into calories, fats, protein, carbohydrates, sugar, and salt. Each of these have a big part in my ability to push through the CWT and to walk long days, day after day:
- Calories – the energy blocks needed to operate the body: the key to being able to move (and not just function)
- Fats – slow release calories that are best used in low impact activities
- Protein – the building blocks for muscles and so a must for good recovery after a hard day of activity
- Carbohydrates – simple calories that are easier to break down and turn into energy
- Sugar – part of the carbohydrate group, representing the simplest energy block, it can also cause “crashing” feelings if intake is too extreme. Also great for boosts of energy
- Salt – very important for athletes as it facilitates the rebuilding of muscle tissue. If you encounter too many cramps at the end of the day it is usually a case of too little salt in the system due to sweating
This explanation is of course very, very simplistic, but for the case of deciding what to eat, how much and when to have it during the day, I find that it is enough.
For instance: I want to start the morning with a burst of energy (sugar) while having enough fuel to get me moving immediately (carbs) and later on, to have enough slow release energy to sustain my activity (fats). At the end of the day I want to make sure I have enough protein for muscle recovery, enough salt to prevent cramps and increase recovery, and enough energy to stay warm and efficient (for recovery) during the night with complex carbs. This is a simple formula to allow for easy menu building.
Nutritional needs during an ultra
Not surprisingly, the regular RDIs are much less relevant when examining the dietary needs of athletes during a multi-day ultra event. The huge amount of energy expenditure as well as the need for energy boosts, sustained energy levels to perform well, short recovery times and the repeated abuse on the body requires a different approach.
In an excellent article about the nutritional demands of ultra-endurance running, you can find very in-depth look into the needs of endurance runners, particularly in a Multi-Stage Ultra Marathon (MSUM). I am finding that my upcoming Cape Wrath trail trip falls under the category of a MSUM, so the findings from this article are extremely useful in prioritizing what foods to focus on. The research is invaluable for ultra runners and long distance fast hikers and I recommend reading it in full, but in essence the key recommendations are:
- Carbohydrate-rich breakfast (at least 100g carbs) of easily digested sugars and carbs while also consuming lots
of water to be fully hydrated. A handful of sugary trail mix (dried fruit/energy bar) just before starting to move will help sustain energy levels.
- While moving, it is recommended to consume at least 30-60g of carbs every hour, and while it is most easily consumed in drink form (energy/soft drink or tablet), a mix of trail mix/2 energy bars with lots of liquid will suffice.
- Ensure enough sodium consumption (hydration tabs are great for that) while on the move.
- Consume a snack rich in carbs, and containing some protein and sodium, within 30 minutes of stopping. This can be a recovery drink, a bowl of cereal, 3-4 toasts with nut spread etc. They recommend a homemade, powder-based milkshake based on some cocoa powder and skim milk powder.
I would add that it is probably smart to aim for several stages of food intake at the end of the day: starting with the homemade milkshake, moving to a solid protein and sodium rich meal and maybe even adding a pre-sleep recovery drink. The aim here is to meet your energy needs during the moving time and reduce the number of energy crashes.
My biggest challenge is in regard to coming up with ideas of what to eat – I will not have an endless supply of food every morning and night cooked by professionals; I need to make it and carry it myself. Since weight is such an issue, I must rely on methods derived from selecting and packing backpacking food while accommodating for the above recommendations, and so should you.
My limitations and taste
When it comes to actually creating the right menu for your adventure; your beliefs, habits and normal diet will make a huge difference. Just to take two of the leading examples in the world of ultra running and fast hiking:
- Scott Jurek is probably, by now, the leading authority in multi-day ultra runs, breaking the time record on the Appalachian Trail in 2015. His approach is one extreme: a completely plant based diet. On the other hand, Jurek is usually not self sufficient on his multi day runs.
- Andrew Skurka is, in my opinion, one of the leaders in the fast hiking/ultra running grey zone. Having completed most of the long distance trails in the US (including the Great Western Loop), he is almost always self sufficient on his trips. By his own admission, his menus on trips rely heavily on processed and junk food which he can easily process.
Personally, I see myself somewhere in the middle and to the side of both: I’m a meat eater but I can’t cope with processed food. I was raised on mainly home cooked meals, and my chemical and sugar tolerance is low. On the other hand, many of the recommendations made by Jurek (also in his book) are excellent and I find very close to my own heart, especially in terms of focusing more on vegetable-based foods. At the end of the day, I think I will be adopting some advice from each, dropping the bulk of the processed food (including freeze dried meals) and focusing on more carbohydrates and fuel as both of the above athletes do.
Some digging into my Strava account and checking their ideas about calorie burn shows an estimated burn of about 4,500 calories per 45km walk, or 100 calories per km. This seems pretty high to me, as I probably have better metabolism and food utilisation by now based on my experience, so an estimated 80 calories per km seems reasonable. Some of the days I have planned on the Cape Wrath trail will reach 60-70km, which means up to 5,600 calories needed; not at all realistic to carry. Instead I am hoping to be able to carry roughly 4,000 calories per day (and make them count!), as it will not make such a huge impact over 8 days. In a research done during the Dragon Back race in 2012, the results showed that the leading competitors had a huge calorie deficit during the race, assuming that they are more efficient and are choosing the right foods at the right time.
My plans for menu creation for the CWT 2016
My Cape Wrath trail menu has come a long way from my previous one, but it is yet to be finalized. Recipes still need to be tested, adjusted and added, while checking for availability. Below is my initial menu, but I will post the full nutritional values and recipes when those will be finalalised in about a month’s time.
My biggest changes in this menu compared to the previous one are the addition of hydration tablets, more varied trail mix, changing the kind of breakfast I eat, having a homemade milkshake immediately after finishing moving, and making my own dinners. The decision to no longer use the highly processed freeze dried meals is both to cut costs (at £8 each, they are pricey) and to try and have healthier foods for my stomach.
A cold cereal meal based on dried fruit, nuts and overnight germinated seeds; this is my morning super meal of the day, hopefully offsetting all the junk food to follow. I am experimenting with recipes and germination times, but I hope to get at least 500 calories from each meal, with high levels of fats and protein. My idea is to plan the nutritional guide for each meal based on non-germinated values and just “reap the benefits” of overnight soaked grains and seeds.
Daily trail mix:
This will be the regular mix of sweet and salty for making it more palatable. Using a combination of dried fruit, nuts, chocolaty snacks and salty snacks, I should be having enough simple carbs through the day even if I’m having trouble eating it all.
To make sure I actually consume enough calories through the day, I’m going to be eating Battle Oats bars again, as I did in my last CWT trip. These bars were great, probably one of the best backpacking foods I have had and am still using. I’m planning on eating 3 per day, in regular intervals, to supplement the trail mix.
The dedicated lunch plan is something I have been adopting over the last few months, experimenting with it during my winter walks on the Pennine Way. I have found that 6 oat crackers with 55g of dried meat (chorizo and the like) have done wonders for my palate, energy levels and enjoyment of food, mainly to balance all the sweet snacks. This can be eaten on the go very easily.
End of day:
This is the part where I’m focusing on consuming the right levels of proteins for quick and easy recovery with enough carbohydrates to support it. The recommended protein consumption for athletes is 0.6-0.9oz per lbs of body weight, for me that means roughly 90-135g of protein per day. To get this, I will focus on 3 parts:
Milkshake: Based on the recommendation in the article above, I will be experimenting with making my own simple chocolate milkshakes for end of a walk recovery. My goal is to combine this with a stretching session for maximum recovery and avoiding appetite loss at the end of a hard day.
Dinner: Unlike most of my trips in the past, I am now moving away from freeze-dried backpacking food as I have found that even the best of them cause me some serious indigestion (like most people). The freeze-dried meals are also very pricey and not really sustainable. I will be making my own high carbohydrate and protein meals, using a combination of whole protein vegetarian meals (grains and pulses) with whole wheat and dried meat meals. I will be doing a full write up about those recipes as I find ones I am happy with.
Recovery Drink: This is probably the most processed part of my menu, but I find that the SIS night Rego (that they sadly discontinued) works really well for me when I train just a bit too hard and need the extra help for fixing my muscles. I plan on having 75% of the recommended portion as a hot chocolate with some skim milk at the end of each day – it also tastes great and feels like a decadent desert.
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