trail food, field rations, military rations, ultra-light backpacking Clear Springs Press

Trail Food

Chapter 1 - Trail Food

         From the neolithic until now, man has traveled, on foot, over long distances. We have been moving, migrating, exploring, scouting, hunting, invading, escaping, and just looking to see what is on the other side of the mountain. Traveling takes energy, energy that is supplied by food, food that has to come from the immediate environment, from non-perishable supplies carried on our backs, or from an established supply chain.

         Hiking takes a lot of energy. Energy is measured in calories. Exactly how much energy we need is determined by the nature of the activity, the intensity, the duration, the weight of the individual, the temperature and the individual's metabolism, etc. There are lots of charts and formulas to help you estimate energy requirements but your mileage may vary.

         Considering that the calorie needs and general fitness of hikers and soldiers are similar, consider the standard estimates of the US Army. According to the US Army the needs of the average soldier can be met by 3,250 to 4,600 calories for men and 2,300 to 3,150 calories for women per day and will vary with the size and activity level of the individual. Cold weather may increase caloric needs by 5-10 percent. Thru hikers can often burn 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day. In extreme cold, 6,000 or more calories per day may be required.

         How do you choose foods, recipes and meal plans that are light weight, supply all of the nutritional needs of the hiker, taste good and minimize the cost? From the information that follows, you will notice that the calorie density of grains, dry cereals, dry legumes and dried or freeze dried vegetables is approximately 1500-1700 calories per pound (3300-3740 calories per kilogram). Fats contain nearly 4000 calories per pound (8800 calories per kilogram). Jerky and dried meat contain approximately 1800 calories per pound (3960 calories per kilogram).

         To get a sense of perspective on the relative weight and cost of various portable food options, consider this comparison. Some of the numbers are approximations or estimates and should be used for rough comparison purposes only. Each option is for an arbitrary approximate 3,600 calories.

MRE's       4.9 lb.      $24 (At $8 per MRE)
Freeze Dried Entrees       2.2 lb.       $56 (At $8 per entree)
Canned Food + Crackers       5 lb.       $20
Cliff Bars       2.4 lb. $16 (At $1 per bar)
From this Book       1.7-2.5 lb.      $10-15

         Granted that prices vary and these numbers are somewhat approximate, the point should be clear that using the meal plan, recipes and strategies that are outlined herein, you can generally pack lighter, eat better and usually pay less. Not only that, you can also use these recipes for highly nutritious daily fare.

         To make food light weight, the water has to be removed. Water is heavy (8.35 pounds per gallon or 1 kg. per Liter). The removed water has to be supplied by natural sources along the trail. Some foods with low moisture content can be purchased off the shelf. Grains, grain products and dry cereal are already dry, calorie dense and relatively inexpensive. Many can also be eaten out of hand without any cooking or preparation. Nearly all can be made into a hot meal with the addition of boiling water.

         Legumes, dry beans and peas in all forms, are also low moisture and calorie dense. Cooking takes considerably longer than just boiling water. However, they can be cooked, then dried and later reconstituted with boiling water either alone or as part of soups and stews. Pre-cooked dried beans in this form can be purchased from food coops, some supermarkets and online sources. They can also be made in your kitchen using a food dehydrator.

         Vegetables are high in water content and not calorie dense. However, once dehydrated, they are about the same caloric density as grains and legumes. Dehydrated vegetables are not as nutritious as fresh vegetables but still have all of their fiber and minerals and some of their original vitamin and phytonutrient content. Dehydrated vegetables are available from food coops, some supermarkets and online sources. They can also be made in your kitchen using a food dehydrator.

         The most common and least expensive dried fruits are raisins and dried plums (prunes). The ones in the super market have had most of the moisture removed but still contain enough to be eaten out of hand. Further drying makes them lighter and more compact, but harder to eat out of hand. You can dry them further with your kitchen dehydrator. A large variety of dried fruits and berries are available from food coops, some supermarkets and online sources. They can also be made in your kitchen using a food dehydrator if you have a good source of the fresh product.

         Dried meat and jerky are widely available. These dried meats are shelf stable without refrigeration and weigh about 75% less than the meat that they were made from.

         Trail cooking has to be easy and simple. Cooked meals should require no more effort than hydrating a freeze dried meal with hot water. There are many dishes that can be prepared with this much ease.

         No-cook options are appealing because:

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