Monday, September 29, 2008

JMT - Planning Food

Next we’ll discuss planning and packing food for the John Muir Trail. Attitudes regarding food on the trail were about as diverse as gear styles. Some people were way short on food due to what appeared to be inappropriate planning. For example, one couple ate only one meal a day for several days while doing 20-mile days, and Doug, despite having underpacked food on two previous JMT thru-hikes, still failed to pack enough snacks for mid-day calories. Then there were people like Isaac who planned on eating 2400 calories a day, knowing full well that he’d lose about 20 pounds over the course of the trip. Packing insufficient food, whether intentionally or unintentionally, seemed quite common. Also, some people chose not to carry a stove, and others carried a stove.

In addition to style, there are a number of other constraints that can make planning a challenge. You have to think about variety of taste and texture, calorie distribution (i.e. balancing carbs, fats, and proteins), size of food and calorie density (all this food needs to fit in the bear canister you’ll be carrying), cooking time (to minimize fuel usage), durability (some crackers will just turn to dust after being in a pack for a while), perishableness, balance of food groups, etc.

Calculating Calories
We’ve done a lot of backpacking and have plenty of experience packing for two-to-three-day trips. However, we’ve never actually calculated how many calories we carry, so determining a target calorie count was a bit of a guesstimate. If you read several different discussions of backpacking calorie requirements in books or magazines, you will undoubtedly get several very different calculation techniques and recommendations. One thing to keep in mind is that even though you may need a certain number of calories to replace the calories you’re burning, it may actually be a physical challenge to consume all those calories, even if the food is available.

We ultimately decided on 3000 calories per day for Sarah and 4000 calories per day for Brian. In hindsight, we definitely could have survived on fewer calories and lightened our loads. On the other hand, Sarah lost weight, so maybe she should have eaten more. All in all, we came pretty close to packing an optimal quantity of food.

We took a very analytical approach to our food planning. Between the two of us, we needed 7000 calories a day. For 17 days, that would be 119,000 calories. Then we broke those down by meals. For breakfast, we planned on eating an oatmeal concoction daily. We chose a variety of dinner entrees and for planning, averaged the number of calories in those dinners. Then we needed to get the rest of our 119,000 calories from lunch and snacks. Here’s the math:

Total calories – 7000 calories per day x 17 days = 119,000 calories
Breakfast calories – 1100 calories per day x 17 days = 18,700 calories
Dinner calories – 1000 calories per day x 17 days = 17,000 calories
Snack/lunch calories – 5000 calories per day x 17 days = 85,000 calories
(Yes, there is a bit of rounding here.)

Furthermore, we figured we could eat large meals at the cafés at Tuolomne Meadows and Reds Meadow, so on those two resupply days, we planned to get our 5000 snack/lunch calories at the cafés. So instead of packing 85,000 snack/lunch calories, we packed 75,000.

Once we’d determined how many snack/lunch calories to pack, we made a big table listing all of the different snack/lunch foods we could think of packing – granola, trail mix, M&Ms, fig bars, Clif and Luna bars, etc. For each item, we wrote down the number of calories per serving, the number of servings we’d pack, and then the total calories represented by each food item. For instance, we brought some Gatorade powder, which is 200 calories a serving. We brought 18 servings, for a total of 3600 calories. All right – only 71,400 snack/lunch calories to go!

We needed to calculate the calories in each resupply, too, so the table also had columns for each of the resupplies. We brought two servings of Gatorade with us at the beginning of the trip and packed three servings into the Tuolomne Meadows resupply, five into the Reds Meadow resupply, and eight into the Muir Trail Ranch resupply. Whether you use a table or some other organizational system, definitely make sure you have a system to make sure the right items are getting into the right resupplies. 119,000 calories is a lot of food and it’s easy to miscalculate or mispack items without a good tracking system in place.

Also, it may seem obvious, but keep in mind that packing for a hike like the JMT is not the same as packing for an overnight trip. An overnight trip is really a day and a half trip. If you are like us, you get home on the second night and have a huge dinner, so during the trip, we’ve actually run a calorie deficit, to be replenished at home. A calorie deficit is fine on a short trip, but if you continue with such a deficit, in several days you’ll likely be hungry, lacking energy, and spending your time dreaming of food instead of enjoying the scenery.

Shopping and Other Preparation Tips
Backpacking dinners, such as Mountain House or Backpackers’ Pantry, are easy to find at most any sporting goods store. REI has a particularly large selection of these sorts of dinners. If you plan ahead and watch their sales, you can sometimes get a deal.

Any store that sells bulk foods is a great place to get snacks or buy ingredients to make your own meals. Bulk foods are often cheaper than packaged alternatives, and with bulk foods, you can buy just the amount you actually need. If you are in the Northwest and near a WinCo Foods store, take advantage of their great bulk selection. Sometimes your regular grocery store (places like Safeway, Kroger, etc.) will have a bulk foods section, though in our experience, these places have a fairly limited selection. Natural food stores are also a good place to try. Online, Harmony House Foods has a great selection of natural dehydrated foods at a reasonable price (especially their backpacker sampler).

Packing your own meals instead of buying dehydrated meals can be quite economical and gives you more control over what you are eating. We find that these meals often feel more like “real” meals than dehydrated meals do, and we like that our own meals don’t have as many preservatives and other additives. We got most of our recipes from two cookbooks put out by The Mountaineers – Backcountry Cooking and More Backcountry Cooking. (Incidentally, these are great resources for general camping as well, though if we aren’t backpacking, we’ll often substitute fresh food wherever possible.) One thing to keep in mind, especially when packing your own meals, is that it’s always good to try the meals before you go. It stinks to sit down at the end of a long day of hiking, ravenous, only to find that dinner is an unappealing pot of sludge.

Definitely take the time to remove extra packaging and put things in Ziplocs instead. The packaging for store-bought backpacking dinners is especially inefficient. While cooking right in the packet is convenient and avoids dirty dishes, heavy reliance on these types of meals will almost certainly mean you’ll need to repackage them to get everything to fit in your bear canister. Real Ziploc bags are more durable and have better zippers than generic bags – save yourself the hassle of cleaning messes out of your pack and spend the extra money on Ziplocs. This is especially true in bear country, where you really don’t want your pack smelling like dinner. But remember that Ziplocs are not odor-proof. We packed several meals with curry in them and found that anything that was stored nearby – from M&Ms to fig bars – took on a slight curry flavor.

We think variety is important for a trip this long. There are definitely people who can pack the most efficient calories regardless of taste and force themselves to eat it. However, if you’re like most people and you get completely sick of eating too much of one thing – ramen noodles/trail mix/<insert overpacked food here> – then you probably won’t end up eating it. Then instead of getting the calories you need, you just have dead weight in your pack of undesirable food that you have to pack out. Variety is also key in deciding whether to carry a stove or not. If you have a lot of variety in your snacks, a stove may not be necessary. However, if you are eating a lot of the same thing, a hot meal at the end of the day can provide welcome relief from the monotony.

Remember to give yourself plenty of time to plan, shop for, and pack your meals. We spent multiple afternoons over the course of the summer getting everything ready.

Breakfast
Our standard breakfast is 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal, 1/2 cup powdered milk, and a couple tablespoons each of wheat germ, flaxseed meal, brown sugar, nuts, and dried fruit. For nuts, we used sliced almonds, chopped walnuts, or chopped pecans. For dried fruit, we used cranberries, raisins, or dates. Dried blueberries or apples are also yummy options. We usually use whole oats, but for this trip we used instant oats so that “cooking” was as simple as boiling two cups of water and adding our mix. This recipe made two servings.

Dinner
For dinner, we chose several meals that we like and rotated through them several times. The meals were barley and curry, red lentils and rice, red beans and rice, and pre-packaged dehydrated dinners.

For dehydrated dinners, we brought Jose’s Chicken Mole, Wild West Chili, Katmandu Curry, and Chana Masala, all from Backpackers Pantry. Since backpacking dinners tend to be low in calories (on average they contain roughly 350 calories per serving), we also packed soups and smoothies for nights when we were eating these meals to boost our dinner calorie count. As it turned out, the smoothies were really foul and we ended up tossing most of them – that was the one case where we didn’t heed our own advice of trying a meal before bringing it on the trip.

For beans and rice, we brought Zattarain’s brand mix. This mix has the disadvantage of being slower to cook than the dehydrated beans-and-rice dinners made especially for backpacking, but we think the texture and flavor is better.

We made the other meals – barley with curry and red lentils with rice – from recipes in the previously mentioned cookbooks. The curry in both of these recipes provided a nice contrast to our daily snacks, and curry is supposed to be an anti-inflammatory, which is good for a hike this long. The downside, as mentioned, is that curry flavor tends to ooze into all your other food. Curry M&Ms aren’t bad, but weren’t quite what we were expecting.

We also brought eight or so tea bags to go with breakfast or dinner. Given the weather we had, these were entirely dispensable. They probably would have been really nice if we’d had colder or wetter weather though.

Lunch and Snacks
On the trail, “lunch” for us is really a series of snacks, starting shortly after breakfast and ending about dinner time. We packed a large variety of items for snacks.
  • Trail mix – We brought several different kinds of trail mix, totaling 24,000 calories. In general, trail mix is a good, dense source of calories.
  • Granola – Another major source of calories was granola, which accounted for 17,000 calories. We used our mug to eat it since picking it up with your hands is messy (and your hands are often too dirty to eat from). We also used the granola for breakfast on mornings when we wanted to get on the trail quickly. Then we’d wait until later in the day to cook oatmeal.
  • Bars – The third major component of our calories was an assortment of Cliif, Luna, and Odwalla bars. We normally don’t eat these sorts of bars while backpacking, but they are convenient to pack. We budgeted about 1 1/2 bars per person per day.
  • Bagels and peanut butter, hummus and tortillas – We used these items in early resupplies where the bread wouldn’t spoil. Powdered hummus rehydrates easily with the addition of cold water. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but not bad either.
  • Triscuits – These worked well because they are fairly sturdy crackers. We put them in our last resupply because we were concerned that any other bread product wouldn’t be good by the time we picked the package up.
  • M&Ms – Mmm, chocolate! M&Ms were great for dessert or for a pick-me-up.
  • Gatorade – We packed enough Gatorade powder for a quart a day. We find that Gatorade can provide a much-needed pickup in the middle of a hot afternoon.
  • Other – We packed a number of items that weren’t a significant portion of our calories but provided some welcome variety. These included dried fruits (cherries, apricots, and cranberries), jerky, fig bars, banana chips, and veggie chips.
  • Food at resupplies – At both Tuolumne Meadows and Reds Meadow, we took advantage of the restaurant and general store to have a hot meal and get some calories from fresh foods.


Of all the different aspects of a JMT trip that need planning – transportation, permits, gear, etc. – food may be the most difficult to get right. The consequences of getting it wrong may be the most severe as well, in terms of discomfort and unhappiness on the trail. There are lots of different valid approaches, but ours worked well for us, and we hope future hikers can use it or adapt it for their own needs.

3 comments:

dmeb said...

How much does the 4000-calorie eater weigh? :)

Tj and Mark said...

Thanks for the info, planning for this summer and I like your ideas

Anonymous said...

These comments here are ridiculous...Anyway, thanks for the article, I'm doing the JMT in a few months and planning resupplies for the first time is pretty daunting. Definitely borrowing some ideas from you, thanks!