Category Archives: Food

Hungry? Articles in this category focus on planning, preparing, and consuming food appropriate for wilderness activities.

How To Backpack Paleo Style

BaconLet me start by saying that I am neither a caveman nor an expert in paleolithic food consumption.  I have not published a PhD dissertation comparing The China Study with benefits of dino-dining.  I leave dietary science research to the more qualified, or at least the more openly opinionated.  I’m just a simple minded outdoorsman, trying to make my way through the wilderness carrying as many calories in as few grams as possible.

What is the Paleo Diet?

Mixed VegetablesPerhaps oversimplifying, the Paleo Diet consists of foods that were available and consumed during the paleolithic period.  In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten, paleolithic refers to the Stone Age, starting 2.5 million years ago and ending 20,000 years ago.  The Paleo Diet is generally described as the diet of the hunter-gatherer.   In other words, Paleos had to either kill it or find it on the ground.  I am guessing the 3 second rule was longer then, maybe more like 3 weeks.  At any rate, the diet was made up primarily of meat, vegetables, and seasonal fruit.  Products of the future agriculture age, involving food processing and probably government labeling, were not included.   Grains, pastas, and breads are not considered part of the diet.  So in other words, hamburger yes, hamburger helper no.

I have no idea how we know exactly what these homo sapiens did and did not eat.  Perhaps anthropologists have examined cave drawing banner ads, or conducted internet polls.  These experts seem pretty confident that forbidden items include: refined sugar, grain, dairy and legumes.  Some actually say the only vegetables Paleos can eat are ones that do not require cooking. It is okay to cook and eat vegetables not requiring cooking, just not to cook and eat the ones requiring cooking.  My stone age cerebral cortex is throbbing.

As a side note, I have found no reference to cannibalism.  I assume if it occurred during the paleolithic period it would still be okay today, but cannibal helper would be strictly forbidden. Assuming of course I got all this right.

Paleo Backpacking

As I consider them, the similarities between Paleo-sapiens and Backpack-sapiens are indeed eerie.  Both are clearly:

  • mobile wanderers
  • opportunist gatherers
  • occasional hunters
  • fire makers

They are also

  • usually hungry
  • dirty and stinky

Paleo-Packer Compatibility

Many of the traditional backpacking staples are clearly non-Paleo.  The modern Paleo-Packer would have to brutally club to death his desire for oatmeal, ramen, and even the peanuts (legumes) from good old raisins and peanuts (GORP).  Many of the things we consider non-perishable and light weight are disallowed, where as things that are perishable and heavy, such as fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit are just fine.

Sweet PotatoesSurprisingly, almost every Paleo recipe book includes sweet potatoes.  Apparently the paleolithic landscape was simply littered with wild yammers.  I am not sure how wild; for example, were they gathered or actually hunted?  At any rate, they must not have required cooking, but they probably were, since all of today’s recipes call for it.

Another popular modern Paleo dish is called PemmicanPemmican is a supposedly nutritious concoction of fat and protein.  Used as a high energy source by arctic explorers, it can be made from whatever resources are available: beef, bison, deer, elk or moose.  Pemmican is basically 50% dried pulverized meat, combined with 50% clarified (melted) animal fat.  In some cases berries, such as  chokeberries, are added.  Seriously?  How much choking can one energy concoction contain?

Paleo Backpacking Options

As I hunted through various resources, websites and books, I was able to gather a list of traditional or at least common Paleo Backpacking food choices:

  • Pemmican (though it may melt in warm climates)
  • Foil packed tuna
  • Foil packed chicken
  • Jerky (beef, turkey, elk)
  • Summer sausage
  • Salami
  • Sardines
  • Almond butter
  • Dried fruits (apples, apricots, bananas, mangoes, dates, etc)
  • Raw or dehydrated vegetables (sweet potatoes, yams, broccoli, onions, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, etc)
  • Coconut Oil
  • Almond flour products (muffins, pancakes, whatever)

Unsolicited Advice

Through my research I also gathered there is a non-believing splinter clan whose advice can be summed up as:

Hey caveman, shouldn’t you be spearing and clubbing your way through the wilderness?

The problem here of course is the word advice.  According to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics / Nutrition, offering advice on Paelo diets without a license is illegal.  They have aggressively gone after Steve Cooksey, clubbing him over his Paelo diet blog.  The Institute for Justice has joined the fray, offering their hairy-knuckled support for the Paleo blogger.  They are now representing Steve in a free speech lawsuit against the North Carolina nutrition board (Cooksey v. Futrell).  You just cannot make this stuff up.

It is ironic that a caveman has launched a free speech lawsuit against a modern science board, whose intellectual beef against him appears to be “ugh“.  That of course is merely my opinion, and not advice.  In fact, nothing in this Paleo diet article should be construed to be advice.  Personally, I would advise against anyone offering advice, if doing so were not clearly illegal, at least according to the North Carolina Board of Neanderthals.

I do wish the caveman Steve well in his lawsuit, and hope the North Carolina board ends up consuming a significant portion of humble pie.  Is it okay if I recommend the Paleo sweet potato pie?  Probably not.

How to Survive – Logan Bread

Ambiguity is fun.  Is Logan Bread the answer, or simply part of the question?  Or perhaps, both?  I was at a dinner party recently where a woman, after sampling a brownie-like item declared:

Logan BreadThis tastes healthy.

There was immediate recognition, by all within ear shot, exactly what was meant.  Needless to say this pronouncement did not create a mad rush towards the serving tray.  The feeling was one of reverent respect for the apparent wholesomeness, combined with a surprising decline in actual desire.

To sustain life, backpackers eventually require sustenance.  Classic conflicting forces are usually at play: bulk, weight, calories, nutrition, shelf life, and taste.  How do you create a compact, non-perishable, quality source of tasty calories?  Is it even possible?

According to legend, in the 1950’s this very challenge faced an expedition team set on summiting Mount Logan.  The resulting recipe, Logan Bread, meeting all desired requirements, is now referred to as the pinnacle of do-it-yourself energy bar-dom.  Given its historical predecessor, known as hardtack or sea biscuits, one could claim the competition was not particularly stiff.  Others counter, however, it was in fact the stiffest thing imaginable – 6 parts flour, 1 part water, and 2 parts broken teeth.

Bread RationIf the Logan Story indeed cracked our long toothed desire for outdoor substance, it must be an amazing tale, climaxing in an amazing recipe – one in which we can confidently entrust our backpacking lives.  Recipes are full of details, and details are important.  It can mean the difference between the rise and fall of our daily bread.  As I delved further into this expeditionary tale, I found nagging conflicting details.  The shear variety of recipes claiming the title Logan Bread, calls somewhat into question their validity.  How can there be so many different recipes claiming this one momentous 1950 event?

Most claim the event was an expedition to the top of 19,550 foot high Mount Logan, Canada, the second highest peak in the Northern Hemisphere .  Impressive.  Others, however, refer to Mount Logan, Alaska.  To many of us uneducated, there is probably not much difference between Canada and Alaska.  There is in fact a Mount Logan Alaska, however, it stands a mere 6,204 feet high, making it the 17,576th highest peak in the US.  This hardly rises to a level worthy of legend.

If details are important, how can we intrust our detailed recipe for life to someone who cannot tell the difference between 6,204 feet and 19,550 feet?  That percentage of error is over 68%.  If we calculate the error based on difference between peak rankings of 2 and 17576, the percentage error approaches 100%!  So exactly how much wheat flour are we really suppose to add?!

To make matters worse, you can find a Mount Logan in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Ohio, Washington and Wyoming.  Perhaps this explains the plethora of recipes purporting to be Loganesque.

There does appear to be some common ingredients.  Almost all  Logan Bread recipes contain some combination of the following:

  • WLogan Bread Ingredientsater
  • Wheat Flour
  • Brown Sugar
  • Powdered Milk
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Oil
  • Salt
  • Baking Powder

As fibrous filler, they recommend a variety additions including:

  • Dried Fruit
  • Oats
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

To spice it up, many include

  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg

One major area of divergence seems to hatch from eggs.  Some included them, many do not.  The argument against eggs seems to be one of shelf life and sickness.  Backpackers appear to have an irrational fear of eggs and salmonella, which if I am not mistaken is caused by salmon eggs, which is why I prefer to use a spinning lure.

More concerning to me is the complete lack of chocolate chips.  Seriously, are we expected to believe life is worth living without chocolate?  For my Logan Bread, I have added a healthy dosage of dark chocolate chips.  Luckily, chocolate contains antioxidants, so a healthy dose can be a lot.  I base this improved recipe on an expedition to my own backyard compost heap, which I coincidentally call Mount Logan.  To me, without the chocolate, standard Logan Bread tastes a tad too much like the smell of my own Mount Logan.

Check out this recipe at:

http://howtowilderness.com/food/logan-bread

Or other recipes at:

http://howtowilderness.com/food/backpacking-recipes/

How To Forage the Forest

Those of us of a certain age remember Euell Gibbons, a man of seemingly normal human intelligence, declaring on network television:

“Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible.”

Pine Tree with Food BowlWhat an idiot!  Not Euell, me.  Years I wandered through thick pine forest, lugging my rolled oats and dirt flavored granola bars, never once realizing I could simply eat the trees.  This fruit of knowledge, however, raised new concerns for me, such as:

Which goes better with fresh trout, red fir or white fir?

Still something in the back of my mind was just not right.  The same could also be said for most of the front.  If our forests are enormous arbor buffets, minus the sequoia sized sneeze guards, surely they would be filled with herds of grazing obese Americans.  In my wilderness wandering, most white trash trail-ers I encountered were small, scrawny, and seemingly starving.

If I remember correctly my Latin roots, forage comes from the words fore, meaning in front of you, and age meaning unavoidable death.  For the Greeks, forage derives from the word forge, meaning to make falseForage therefore loosely translates to:

before you lies certain death because this is all totally false.”  Loosely.

manzanita berriesThere are two reasons to forage in the forest, neither of which is particularly appealing:  revival or survivalRevival is an increased spiritual interest in something.  It is true we have become disconnected from our natural food chain by, well, our grocery food chains.  Food magically appears hermetically sealed in plastic, completely removed from its source, usually by underpaid migrant workers.  Reconnecting to our wild food roots, regardless of how bitter they taste, is the dream of the forage revivalist.  For the survivalist, well I guess we just got ourselves into such deep doo-doo that we need to eat a few logs to get out.

There must be food in the wilderness.  After all, birds and squirrels are eating something.  Some of it sounds surprisingly similar to their plastic wrapped relatives:  wild strawberries, blackberries, asparagusonions, and miner’s lettuce.  Some things seem totally lacking. I have never found miner’s croutons or miner’s lettuce dressing.  Also, some of it seems down right weedy: dandelions, cattails, and oh come on, seriously, nettles!?

The forest foraging marketing department could use some serious revamping.  I have reviewed a wide variety of foraging books, guides, and websites, and offer up some of these apparent pearls of wisdom:

  • Braken fern tips, when tightly curled are delicious.  As they begin to uncurl they become bitter and poisonous.  Recent studies have also linked consumption to esophageal cancer.
  • Wild asparagus is delicious steamed or boiled, unless leaves have formed, in which case it become toxic.  Eaten raw, it causes nausea and diarrhea.
  • Nettles should be cooked to remove the stinging hairs.  If undercooked, even slightly, they can cause miserable tissues swelling in your mouth and throat.

Warning Sign - Poison OakFrankly, it is difficult to image that Mother Nature has not been sued, let alone the authors of these foraging guides and books.  One author strongly recommended that new foragers maintain a yearly journal.  Based on the labyrinth of risks to life and limb, I declare optimism has never been so bold.

One piece of supposedly helpful advice:

Eat only what the bears will eat. 

First, why are we close enough to their dinner table to see what they are eating? Second, if they really want it, I am pretty sure they are going to get it.

Perhaps this advice simply means we should behave like a bear, focusing on things easily recognizable and digestible such as berries and fish.  I have to point out that bears also eat grubs, and frankly if your hiking partner Steve get’s between bear and cub, he is pretty much in play as well.  I suppose we can indeed take lessons from the bear.  Given a strong enough driving hunger and the element of surprise, we might be able to take out Steve ourselves.

Foraging appears to be growing in popularity, though I am not sure how successful these scroungers actually are.  A suspiciously significant amount of coverage is given to creating brews and teas from pine needles and manzanita berries.  I am not sure too many people are actually starving in the wilderness from a lack of boiled twigs.

Black OakPlants with seeming potential, such as oaks which sustained centuries of Indian tribes, begin to generate reservations when you realize their acorns have to be harvested, sorted, dried, stored, mashed, leached, boiled, shaped into a patty, and only then cooked on a rock.  My instant oatmeal pack is looking pretty good about now.

Maybe the skills required are so refined, that commercial providers are better suited for foraging.  There is a restaurant in California called Forage in the Forest that serves, get this, hamburgers. Call me cynical, but it seems this hunger game has crossed over from gathering to hunting.  If hungry enough, I suppose poached food will have to do.

We now return to Euell Gibbon’s pine nuts.  I have to confess that by now I am no longer sure if this refers to edible seeds, or simply the people like him who think pine trees are edible.

I am slightly embarrassed to say I experienced perverse pleasure when I first heard Euell Gibbons died of malnutrition.  I am not completely convinced this is true, so I personally refuse to Google it for fear of spoiling the immense irony.  I suppose it is possible old Euell simply passed away in his sleep, bludgeoned to death by troop of starving backpackers.

How To Keep Wilderness Food Sanitary

Food Handler Cert CardIn most of our United States anyone serving food to the public, including a wilderness guide preparing meals in the backcountry, should be Food Handler Certified.  The goal is preventing food borne illnesses.  The industry certification covers standard topics such as causes of food borne illness, factors that contribute to food related diseases, and basic food safety measures to decrease risk.  Like water born bacteria in the wilderness, food bacteria cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.  The appropriate approach is better safe than sorry.

The Partnership for Food Safety Education refers to their food safety strategy as the FightBAC!™ Guidelines.  Get it?  Fight back and fight “bac” – as in bacteria.  The four principles are:

  • Clean
  • Separate
  • Cook
  • Chill

Adventurers who have spent any time in the wilderness will immediately recognize the challenges to these four food safety tenets.

Clean –Wash Hands and Surfaces Often

Wildernesses contain a far greater abundance of dirt than of clean.  In fact, I am pretty sure my fingernails have never been packed with clean.  For environmental reasons, soap is discouraged in the wilderness.  Even so called bio-degradable camp soaps can have a negative impact.  It is possible to create a sanitizing solution with 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water, but wilderness disposal may be an issue.  So what’s an ethical packer to do?  Two effective sanitation techniques are ethyl alcohol (such as Purrell®) for hands, and boiling water for food surfaces (including pots, pans, and cutting utensils).  It may be possible to clean hands with boiling water, but it probably involves the extra resources of a first aid kit.  One thing you may have to get used to is the idea that clean and sterile are not the same thing.  It is possible to sterilize some pretty dirty surfaces, including you hands.

Separate – Don’t Cross-Contaminate

Raw FishThe push for separate but equal food is designed to prevent raw meat contaminates from migrating to other foods and surfaces. Cross contaminated foods such as produce, which are not cook, will significantly increase food illness risk.  Fortunately most backpackers do not bring raw meat on outings, and dehydrated foods are far less likely to cross-contaminate. Even so, you should clean surfaces and utensils when switching between the types of food being prepared.  If you catch fresh fish, it should be treated careful, and cooked and consumed quickly before bacteria can develop.

Cook – To Proper Safe Temperatures

When it comes to food bacteria, the smart approach is retardation.  In other words, we want to keep food in a state that retards bacterial growth.  Oxygen, temperature and moisture are key factors.  Dehydrating food retards growth, and allows us much more flexibility in wilderness storage temperature.  Once food is re-hydrated, however, we need other means to increase safety.  Two ways to keep food out of the danger zone are cooking and chilling.

Most meats are safe if cooked to an internal temperature of 145 F. degrees.  Ground meats and poultry should be cooked to 160-165 F. degrees.  For some backpacking food, the pre-trip cooking, dehydrating and storage are probably bigger risk factors than the wilderness “re-heat” temperatures.   However, better safe than sorry, so reheat foods to the appropriate and safe temperature.

Chill – Refrigerate Promptly

Unless you are snow camping, refrigeration is probably not an option.  This means foods which normally require refrigeration may not be appropriate for backpacking.  Some items, like air sealed hard cheeses for example, are probably safe for a few days.  Dehydrated foods are safer (and lighter to carry) than foods with moisture.

Leftovers, although useable at home, can be dangerous in the wilderness.  Once re-hydrated, many foods become unwanted growth opportunities.  Fortunately, most backpackers are hungry enough to consume the food they have carried.  This is especially true when reminded that if they do not finish it, depending on local regulations, they may have to bury it or carry it – neither of which is particularly fun.

Conclusion

Being in the wilderness makes sanitation challenging.  Being far from the civilized comforts or your own personal bathroom makes the consequence of poor sanitation even more challenging.  Do yourself and everyone else on the trip a favor – remember to clean, separate, cook and chill.  In fact, chilling in the wilderness is the primary reason I backpack.

For more information on food safety, check out:

http://www.foodsafety.gov/

How To Count Calories

The subject of food can be very complicated, or it can be fairly simple.  It depends on what you are trying to achieve and how scientific you want to be.

Summer in High Sierra - Snow
Summer in High Sierra

Your daily caloric burn will fluctuate based on a variety of factors.  According to the side of a box of cereal,  US recommended daily allowances are based on an intake of 2,000 calories.    While outdoor trekking your burn rate may be significantly higher depending on the the weight you are carrying, the distance you are carrying it and difficulty of the terrain you are carrying it over.   A typical range for a summer trek may be 3,000 – 4,000 calories per day; for winter it may be closer to 4,000-6,000 calories per day.

For sake of argument, and we do like to argue, let’s assume a summer time daily burn of 3,500 calories.  If your goal is to gain weight on the trek, you’ll have to carry more than 3,500 per day.  If you are willing to lose some weight, you can go for a under 3,500 a day.   The longer your trip, the more these daily loads of calories pile up and compete for your pack’s capacity for weight and space.

Food comes in some fairly standard forms:  Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats.  You may have determined, from your own experience or through consultation with your doctor, what you believe the optimal balance is.  Recommendations vary widely. Here is a sample of some I have recently seen:

  • Carbohydrates       60 %     50%      50%      40%
  • Proteins                   25%      35%      27%       30%
  • Fats                          15%      15%      23%       30%
Larabar Energy Bar
Energy Bar

If you don’t like these numbers, keep looking.  You can pretty much always find someone recommending whatever you want.

You may find, however, that your opinion regarding optimal distribution while outdoor trekking may be different than your normal optimal distribution. Frankly, the difference comes down our old friends weight and bulk.

So how much does a calorie weigh?

It depends on the source of the calorie.

  • 1 calorie of Carbohydrate = .25 grams
  • 1 calorie of Protein = .25 grams
  • 1 calorie of Fat = .11 grams
  • 1 pound = 453.6 grams

Using these guidelines, to get to our target of 3,500 calories per day would require:

  • In Carbohydrates: 3500 * 0.25 = 875 grams / 453.6 = 1.92 lbs
  • In Proteins: 3500 * 0.25 = 875 grams / 453.6 = 1.92 lbs
  • In Fats: 3500 * 0.11 = 385 grams / 453.6 = 0.85 lbs

Many of us have been taught to think that fat is bad, but in terms of calories to weight efficiency, fat is awesome.

Most foods we carry are not pure forms of carbohydrates, proteins or fats.  They are usually a mixture of the three, and probably also contain water and fiber, which add weight but not calories.  Food labels are a great way to help you compare energy to weight efficiencies.

Calories Per Ounce

Using some basic food items I had in my house, I calculated the calories per ounce using the following formula:  grams per serving * .03527 = ounces per serving; calories per serving / ounces per serving = calories/ounce.

  • Olive Oil – 261                  (Serving labeled: 120 c / 13 g )
  • Butter – 202                     (Serving labeled: 100 c / 14 g)
  • Peanut Butter – 168        (Serving labeled: 190 c / 32 g)
  • Raw Almonds – 160         (Serving labeled: 170 c / 30 g)
  • Ritz Crackers – 141          (Serving labeled: 80 c / 16 g)
  • Wheat Thins – 128           (Serving labeled: 140 c / 31 g)
  • Raman Noodles – 125      (Serving labeled: 190 c / 43 g)
  • Quick Oats – 106              (Serving labeled: 150 c / 40 g)
  • Fig Newtons – 100           (Serving labeled: 110 c / 31 g)
  • Dried Mangoes – 97         (Serving labeled: 120 c / 35 g)
  • Dried Cranberries – 92    (Serving labeled: 130 c / 40 g)

To hit a total of 3500 calories in:

  • 2 lbs requires an average of 109.4 calories / ounce
  • 1.5 lbs requires an average of 145.8 calories / ounce
  • 1.0 lbs requires an average of 218.7 calories / ounce

Some backpackers take great care to figure out the calories per ounce of every food item they carry and create elaborate spreadsheets to track and balance the distribution by day, by meal and by category (carbohydrates, proteins and fats).  How retentive you get in your approach is probably driven by how close to the limit of your weight and bulk capacity your trip plan is pushing you.  For example:

If you are relatively healthy and traveling on a short weekend trip you pretty much have all the weight and bulk flexibility you need.  You can still attempt to minimize weight by optimizing calories per ounce, but you risk giving up some significant food pleasure in the process.  Unless you are practicing for some future longer ultra-light trip, enjoy yourself.  Go ahead, throw in that subway sandwich, that fresh avocado, that box of Pop-tarts, that entire loaf of garlic bread, or whatever floats your boat.

HammerGel High Calorie Gels
High Calorie Gels

As your trip plans get longer, however, weight and bulk do become more important.  A 3-5 day trip may require that you start thinking about getting your pounds of food per person per day back closer to 1.5 lbs.  As you can see from the above calculations, you are not going to be able to do that with just dried fruit and Raman.

If you push up the mileage and days of duration, you are probably going to have to take a serious look at ultra-light backpacking, where it is not uncommon to target closer to 1 lb per person per day.

To get to this level of efficiency takes some serious planning and calculation, not only by increasing the fat content in your food, but by optimizing in every area.  For example, if you carry foods that do not need to be cooked, you can save on the weight of stoves, fuel and pots.   Carry a lighter tent and a lighter bag, and you will burn fewer calories and therefore need less food to replenish.

Whatever your food strategy, paying closer attention to calories per ounce can be eye opening.  Clarified butter, oil, peanut butter and Nutella just may move up a notch on your food chain.