Meal prep is more challenging for me than for most people. It’s not that I have a special diet—I just don’t like sweets. To be clear, I loathe the taste of candy, cookies, chocolate, peanut butter, donuts, cake, etc. The idea of eating Pop-Tarts or Snickers is literally gag-inducing to me. Since most energy bars and other calorie-dense snacks are bound with chocolate, peanut butter, and honey, I’m out of luck. I’m also allergic (more annoying than dangerous) to some nuts and other raw foods, so that rules out whole categories of off-the-shelf snacks.
Typical backcountry eating for me
On weekend hikes, meal planning isn’t usually a problem because I can get away with carrying savory/salty/fatty foods that can go without refrigeration for a while. I should add that I am not a campfire/pot/pan cooker; I exclusively use the freezer-bag cooking (FBC) method.
What that means is I use my stove and pot to boil water and then pour that water into a quart-sized freezer bag along with the other ingredients. I place the bag in a homemade cozy for 20 minutes or more and then place the opened bag in my cooled pot for easier handling. Finally, I eat straight out of the bag with my long-handled spoon. Learn more about my lightweight cook kit.
A typical day’s meal in the backcountry might consist of
- Green tea or instant miso soup
- Energy gel (orange or coffee flavor)
- Summer sausage and Babybel cheese with a mustard packet
- Cheese crackers
- Freeze-dried dinner
Depending on what day I’m on (day 1 dinner will be much lighter than day 3 dinner), I’ll increase the portion sizes of the snacks and add protein via packets of chicken, tuna, bacon, or SPAM. This isn’t very nutritious, but I’m more worried about calorie density per ounce than anything else. I’m carrying my whole pantry on my back, so I want it to be as light as I can get away with.
Since my John Muir Trail (JMT) thru-hike will take place over 12 days, I find myself worrying more about macros than usual. I’m currently in my best physical shape since college. I’ve dialed in my weight and have built up a decent bit of muscle. I’m afraid that this level of exercise will erode that progress.
Short hikes versus long hikes
One of the problems with commercial freeze-dried meals is that they’re relatively expensive. It’s easy to justify the price for a weekend trip, but weeks of backpacking with these meals will take a toll. The 2-portion Mountain House meals usually go for around $9 and Good-To-Go meals go for closer to $13. Do the math.
Popular substitutes for these meals on the trail are Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides (grossly overpriced online, so buy locally). These routinely go for $1 per package in supermarkets. They take longer to rehydrate than freeze-dried products, and they come out more starchy, but they taste pretty good. I don’t mind carrying packets of protein for the first day or two, but mere 3 ounce packets of white meat chicken per day will become relatively heavy on long trips.
I’ve been experimenting with using lightweight add-ons to turn these cheap meals into dinners that not only pack in the calories, but also provide necessary protein, carbohydrates, calcium and potassium (both electrolytes), and Omega fatty acids.
Augmenting meals for long distance backpacking
There are many ingredients I can add to Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides to enhance the nutrition and flavor of the meals, but these are the key ones. Considering that we’re mostly talking about a tablespoon here and a quarter cup there, you can depreciate the cost of these add-ons over time. That said, buying the Knorr sides and these add-ons all at once will probably still cost less than what you would pay for 2 weeks of Mountain House meals.
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This is the most important add-on from a nutritional and quality standpoint. These types of meals are simply more enjoyable with chicken to chew on. And the chicken is surprisingly good! I usually add around ¾ cup diced chicken to each meal. That adds 170 calories and 25 grams of protein. The ratio is ¾:1, chicken to water.
I had to go to a Spanish market to find full-fat powdered milk. Most grocery stores carry non-fat. You want healthy fats like this out on the trail. I usually add more powdered milk than what the package calls for because I want the dish to be creamy. For every ¼ cup (dry) you add, you get a 30% calcium mixture that adds 160 calories, 7 grams of protein, and 11 grams of carbohydrates. The ratio is 1:4, powder to water
Nutritional yeast has a cheesy, slightly nutty flavor. Think of it as the healthy version of the orange cheese powder in a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese. I usually add 3 tablespoons to any meal that is already cheese-flavored. That adds 80 calories, 9 grams of protein, 14 grams of carbohydrates, and 370 milligrams of potassium. I do not add extra water to compensate for this.
Textured vegetable protein (TVP) is a soy product that vegetarians use in lieu of ground meat. It takes on the taste of the dish. You really don’t notice this in your dinner aside from a little ground-beef-like texture. I usually add 2 tablespoons per meal, which adds 40 calories, 197 mg of potassium, 6 grams of protein, and 3.5 grams of carbohydrates. I do not add extra water to compensate for this.
Chia seeds pack in Omega-3/6/9 fatty acids and antioxidants. There’s a mild, nutty flavor that’s easily overpowered and they offer the texture of celery seeds or coarse-ground pepper. These also make you feel more full after eating. I usually add 1 tablespoon per meal, which adds 60 calories, 4 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, and 5 grams of carbohydrates. I do not add extra water to compensate for this.
These are necessary since I don’t have a vacuum sealer. Even if I did have one, I’d still add one of these to the bag. I don’t bother with them for weekend trips, but I’ll be mailing my 7-day resupply to Muir Trail Ranch 3+ weeks before I plan to pick it up. The cost of this is worth knowing that my dinners—the hot meals I look forward to all day—have not gone rancid. Discard before you rehydrate your meal. They can be reused.
Preparing a long-distance backpacking resupply meal
Let’s say I’m preparing the Knorr Cheddar Chipotle Pasta Side. The first thing I’ll do is label a freezer bag with the name of the meal and the amount of water I’ll need. This is much easier to do when the ziplock bag is empty. Then I pour everything into the freezer bag and discard the original packaging.
This meal calls for 1½ cups water, ½ cup milk, and 1 tablespoon of margarine.
There’s something important to consider; the water listed on the package accounts for 10 minutes of boiling in a pot with the lid off. That means it accounts for a steady loss of steam. Since we’re using the FBC method, we won’t lose any moisture during the cooking process. That means there’s excess liquid in the recipe. My rule of thumb is to use ½ cup less water than the recipe lists to account for the discrepancy. But since I’m adding 3/4 cup dried chicken, which calls for 1 cup of water to properly rehydrate, I’ll actually add ½ cup of water to this meal.
My titanium cooking pot has measurements in milliliters and ounces, so I convert everything to ounces. I know that 1 cup is 8 ounces, so that’s 14 ounces of water so far. I do not add water to compensate for any add-ons aside from the chicken and powdered milk.
The powdered milk has a ratio of 1:4, powder to water. That means I’ll add 1 tablespoon of milk powder to the bag. The ¼ cup water necessary to rehydrate the milk would add another 2 ounces of water to my tally. That means I’ll label the bag, Chicken Cheddar Chipotle Pasta, 16 oz.
Then I add the yeast, TVP, chia, and silica gel packet to the bag. I also add any other seasonings I like, such as dried parsley, chives, mushrooms, crushed red pepper, cayenne, and black pepper. These seasonings vary from dish to dish.
For this dish, I’ll also drop in an olive oil packet (45 calories) from Subway and maybe a Tabasco packet (0 calories) from Panera Bread. I collect all kinds of condiment packets from fast food places for FBC, but that’s a topic for another post.
I never add salt or Parmesan cheese packets (45% sodium) to something like this because there’s already enough salt in the meal and the yeast will add more cheese flavoring than the Parmesan would.
This would probably take 35 minutes to fully hydrate in the bag in my cozy. If it’s not very cold outside, the meal will still be too hot to eat right away even after all of that time.
In terms of this meal’s nutritional value, I’m mostly interested in these statistics in this particular order.
Knorr Pasta Side
As you can see, the add-ons increase the original calories by 82%, the protein by 525%, and the carbohydrates by 28%. And the meal will taste better because of them!
We spend so much time trying to minimize our caloric intake in the real world that it seems anathema to try to maximize them. And talking about this stuff to non-backpackers will get you strange looks when you describe potential meals as being “not worth the weight.” Ounces add up to pounds after all and lightweight is the name of the game.
I’m planning to average around 17 miles per day on the JMT, which is low for me. The calories in these dinners will likely represent around 40% of my daily intake. This will be short of my daily burn rate, so I will lose weight. Hopefully, the added protein and carbs will help me to burn fat instead of muscle.
Like I said before, sodium will be high with meals like this. If you have high blood pressure, then this is not a good plan for you. This is just what works for me. Talk to your doctor before you adopt any new meal plan.
I covered most of my opinions on my food planning in the Post-hike impressions section of this post: JMT resupply bucket.
I want to specifically address the dinner meals that I augmented. They were excellent. I loved the taste of every one and never went hungry because of poor planning on my part. I still lost 10 pounds on the trip, but that’s what happens when you burn 6000+ calories every day for 11 days.
Something else happened on this trip that has never happened before. I shipped all of my food across the country to Tuolumne Meadows and Muir Trail Ranch. The jostling involved with those shipments caused the noodles in some of my meals to create tiny punctures in the freezer bags. This turned out not to be too big of a problem because I carried an empty (and thoroughly cleaned to eliminate food odors) Mountain House pouch inside my freezer bag cozy.
I brought it because I was worried about hydrating meals at high elevation where it’s very cold. The instant ramen meals wouldn’t pose a problem, but I thought the Knorr Pasta Sides might. They take 20+ minutes to cook properly at room temperature, so I figured it must take longer outside at elevation. I was right.
A side benefit of using this extra pouch was that it sealed the holes in the freezer bags as soon as I lowered them into the pouch and put the pouch in the cozy. It worked very well. By the time I was ready to eat, almost all of the water had been used to hydrate the noodles and/or was too thick from the sauce mix to leak out of the tiny holes.
But just enough flavored water leaked out that I felt it necessary to wash the pouch and cozy most nights. I didn’t have enough room for the cozy inside my bear canister until the last night and day, so I needed them as clean as possible to avoid attracting pests.
In the future, I’ll keep an extra freezer bag or two in my bear canister. If I can see that a bag looks beat up, I’ll simply pour the dry contents into the new bag and never have to worry about leaks and food odors and washing dishes (so to speak) on the trail.