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Low Sodium Backpacking Meals: Pass On the Salt Please

Sodium Look at the Label
Sodium Look at the Label

I’ve been trying a few new meal options over the past month in preparation for a multi-week section hike along the Appalachian Trail, which has included testing out Mountain House and Harmony House backpacking meals and Knorr Rice and Pasta sides. Frankly, I’ve been appalled by the amount of sodium included in these meals, especially since the other trail food (nuts, bars, salty snacks) I often eat during the day, also have their share of added salt.

For instance, here’s a list of backpacking meals, mainly dinners, I’ve compiled that lists the amount of sodium per serving and by package, since more often than not you’ll eat the whole thing in one sitting. As a point of reference, US Guidelines recommend eating a maximum of  2300 mg of sodium per day.

 Servings per packageCalories per servingSodium per serving (mg)Sodium per package (mg)
Alpenaire Foods Black BartChili w/ Beef and Beans22907501500
Alpenaire Foods Mountain Chili22705901180
Alpenaire Foods Southwestern Style Masa w/ Beef23307701540
Alpenaire Foods Thai Style Chicken w/ Noodles2250420840
Backpacker's Pantry Katmandu Curry23406101220
Backpacker's Pantry Thai Coconut Curry w/ Beef2270375750
Backpackers Pantry Louisiana Red Beans and Rice23005801160
Backpackers Pantry Shepards Potato Stew with Beef23006701340

Good-to-Go Classic Marinara with Penne
Good-to-Go Herbed Risotto1410420420
Good-to-Go Smoked Three-bean Chili1340360360
Good-to-Go Thai Curry1380500500
Harmony House Southwest Style Mixed Bean Chili4603981592
Harmony House Mama Mia Italian Vegetable Soup4463351340
Harmony House Beefish Barley4554561824
Harmony House Corn Chowder4213221288
Harmony House Greek Lentil Soup4754521808
Harmony House Hearty Texas Beefish Stew4604301720
Harmony House Super Savory Split Pea Soup4862751100
Hawk Vittles Black Bean Stew1292891891
Hawk Vittles Cashew Curry163315351535
Hawk Vittles Lasagna190222162216
Hawk Vittles Moraccan Stew1645902902
Hungry Hikers Beef Stroganoff2318467934
Hungry Hikers Chicken Pot Pie22405641128
Hungry Hikers Murray's Hurried Curry25406491298
Hungry Hikers Shepard's Pie22405641128
Knorr Pasta Sides Alfredo22606701340
Knorr Rice Sides Beef2.52308102025
Knorr Rice Sides Cheddar Broccoli2.52405701425
Knorr Rice Sides Chicken Broccoli2.52306401600
Knorr Rice Sides Creamy Chicken2.52405501375
Knorr Rice Sides Mushroom Flavor2.52306601650
Mary Janes Farm Organic Curry in a Hurry1.5350550825
Mary Janes Farm Organic Mac 'N Cheese1.5310170255
Mary Janes Farm Organic Black Beans and Rice1.53806801020
Mountain House Beef Stew2.52008902225
Mountain House Noodles and Chicken2.52206901725
Mountain House Beef Stroganoff w/ Noodles2.52607901975
Mountain House Lasagna with Meat2.5250360900
Outdoor Herbivore Basil Walnut Pene1692565565
Outdoor Herbivore Bee Good Couscous17517575
Outdoor Herbivore Chunky Chipotle Chili1406738738
Outdoor Herbivore Lemongrass Thai Curry1623570570
Packit Gourmet A Shepard's Cottage Pie247018603720
Packit Gourmet Dotties Chicken &' Dupplngs128015601560
Packit Gourmet Market Pasta Puttanesca1400350350
Packit Gourmet The Big Easy Gumbo137013601360
Packit Gourmet Tuscan Beef Stew233017803560

Even if you’re not at risk for high sodium intake, meals that have a large amount of sodium in them can be unpleasant to eat, if only because you have to drink so much water to overcome the thirst they create.

Using the list above, I’ve picked out a few of the meals with less salt, mainly from Good-to-Go and Outdoor Herbivore that I plan to eat every week with a little rice added in. I’ll also eat a few of the higher sodium meals, but not on successive days.

While eating meals high in sodium probably wouldn’t affect me if I had to do it everyday for a short weekend trip, it’s not something I want to subject my body to over a period of weeks. Finding all this extra sodium in backpacking food, some of it quite extreme, was a real eye opener. There’s got to be a better way.

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  1. Philip, I would not worry about sodium while backpacking, except in very cold weather (as you do.) Generally, there is a rather wide variation in the sodium regulation mechanisms of your body. (Unless, of course, you have some other problem.)

    Sodium itself is not well balanced.. (Chlorine is used for digestion and other bodily mechanisms so eliminating salt can lead to other problems. Simplistically speaking, we evolved in an ocean, hence we carry a similar salt and mineral mix around with us to keep or bodily cells alive.) Taste is how we know we need salt and water is generally used to dilute and eliminate salt. If you get too much, you drink more to sweat, urinate any excess. Not getting enough can be a serious problem. Better to err on the side of caution especially if you are hiking. Water tastes really good when we get too much salt.

    I carry a small salt shaker with me. Mostly I rely on the salt in foods like Knorr’s Sides, preserved meats, nuts and salty snack foods to insure I get enough. If I am getting too much, none of these taste all that good and perhaps dried veggies, fruits, etc are on the menu, instead.

    Generally, I need about 2-5 times normal salt intake while hiking. If you are a construction worker you may not notice any changes in your diet. If you are a sedentary office worker, 8-9 times your normal diet may be needed. It depends on your activity and physical condition.

    Most experienced hikers have a meal plan, but few stick to it religiously. Some days you sweat until it feels like you are in a rain storm with all your cloths saturated. Other days are easier with only enough to keep you body moving. Your output of salt will vary tremendously. It is not just water that makes you sweat, it is the balance between salt and water. An experienced hiker will generally balance his meals to the conditions he expects, and, also balance his salt intake with water intake without really trying.

    • I’m not that worried about the health impact. High sodium meals makes me unpleasantly thirsty….for example, I need to drink 3 liters of water after eating a Mountain House Beef Stroganoff or Lasagna. I’d much rather eat meals with much less salt and have control over how much I add.

      • Curious how people have different reactions to the same sodium levels. I have personally never had a problem with a meal being too salty. I however add salt to most meals so perhaps my pallet is different.

        I can see your point though that its too much for a large part/majority of the population

      • Same here. I must be used to a lot of salt because I am very rarely thirsty after eating these high-salt meals. Then again, I’m very rarely thirsty most of the time.

  2. After I thought about it when I read similar concerns previously, I need to replace the salt I lose to sweat so I don’t really concern myself with the amounts in the food. However, I do not notice needing to consume copious amounts of water with said meals either. If you are used to a low sodium diet then maybe that would account for some of that. I don’t add salt to very much but generally don’t go out of my way to purchase low/no sodium foods (and often don’t have a drink with dinner at home).

  3. When it Rains, it Pours! No wonder I’m so thirsty all the time.

  4. Hello, this is my first visit to this site and I am pleased to be here! Planning a section hike of AT in Penn and VA during September and October. Pleased to find this sodium article. I have Menuire’s Syndrome – diagnosed after months of vertigo-like symptoms. Told I must reduce sodium intake. I DO NOT want to have dizzy spells on the trail – the only “treatment” is taking Valium and being knocked out for hours to sleep off the dizzyness, with grogginess for a day or more. Most packaged meals and soups are loaded with sodium! I did find that Uncle Bens “ready rice” packages are very low sodium – plan to use them with additions and lots of hot sauce! Would appreciate other recommendations for other lower sodium options, and will post more choices as I discover them. Thank you.

  5. I agree that it’s too much sodium! One reason it’s so high is (IMHO) to make up for the absence of flavor. That’s one of the many reasons I prefer to dehydrate my own food. It’s actually quite easy–I cook up a batch of a one-dish meal to serve 8, eat one serving, freeze three (for later home consumption) and dehydrate four (my dehydrator has 4 trays). That’s of course if I’ve already tested the recipe–otherwise I dehydrate one serving and try it out before doing any more. I live alone, so that’s really the only practical way to cook. For a couple, eat two, freeze two, dehydrate four. For a larger family, perhaps forget the freezing part?

    • I brushed off making my own meals because it was such a hassle, but I may justt change my mind, As you say, the salt is there to counter the blandness. I really would rather eat real food.

  6. wow, I had no idea they were that packed in sodium. I’ll be taking a closer look at the food I bring on my hikes.

  7. I like a lot of the Packit Gourmet offerings. but I don’t know why they just can’t offer a low-sodium version of their gumbo, chili, dottie’s chicken/dumplings, tortilla soup. When I emailed them, they just ignored it.

    • If you want a fast response post the same question on facebook or Twitter. Brands are better at responding when the interaction is public.

      • Thanks, we’ll see what happens. I just left a note on their FB page. I almost wanted to link your post to the page to corroborate my opinion that their recipes are too salty, but wasn’t sure if you were fine with people linking to your page. The fact, though, that they have the number 1 and 2 saltiest offerings in the backpacking food offerings in your list above does indicate something!

      • Link away. It’s the internet. Link as much as you like!

  8. Thanks, this is exactly how I think as well, it’s whatever, it’s the internet! But it seems people can be so touchy nowadays on some parts of the internet, now that it’s becoming more and more like real life (for some).

  9. As to the fact that the body can regulate higher amounts of sodium while hiking long miles, it still makes me feel like crap the next day. But when I take meals I prepared myself, I feel much better. On my trip, I will eat as much healthier stuff as much as I can but of course “hiker hunger” will eventually take over and then at that point all food is fuel. I know I will eventually turn to Pasta Sides and the like. I have in the past. Though still, they make me feel awful in the short run. Maybe in the long haul, having them periodically won’t matter much. In any case, more and more people are aware the impacts excess sodium has on one’s health. And since there hasn’t been a well documented medical study on the health changes in thru-hikers, pre- and post-trail while relying on high sodium foods, we can never really know what the true effects are. Yes, the need for sodium increases while enduring excessive physical activity, but just like with all things, not every body is affected the same. For me, listening to my body and making changes accordingly is the way to go.

  10. I too hate high amounts of sodium , I find my self eating alot of rice and salmon / tuna , for breakfast oats and honey… I think the thing I eat that has the most sodium is smoked summer sausage but I don’t eat alot of it just as a snack …

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