I have just started planning a 200 mile summer backpacking trip where I’m going to carry all of the food I need for two weeks. I’m not going to have a support team and I’m not going to make any resupply stops in towns or at huts. No bikes or buried food caches, either. In fact, the point of the trip is to hike over all of the White Mountain 4,000 footers in one continuous round without any assistance, carrying everything that can’t be gotten from the environment like water and fuel.
This trip very different from most of the longer trip plans I do on the Appalachian Trail where I can count on a resupply every 4 or 5 days. It’s also the first time I’ve attempted a hike that’s 15 days long without a resupply, although I went through a similar process a few years ago when I planned a 9 day hike through the 100 mile Wilderness in Maine.
I’m just getting into the planning process, but I thought I’d share some of my early thoughts about how to provision a trip like this, at least in terms of food and fuel. My friend Ryan (Guthook) has also been thinking about doing a long hike like on the Long Trail and I’m sure we would benefit from any insights or reactions you have.
The White Mountains are covered in forest, so I plan to use a wood stove to eliminate most of my fuel weight. I might add a sharper knife to my gear list in case I have to cook on rainy days and need to strip wet branches to get at the drier burnable core. Another option would be to carry some emergency esbit tabs. Both sound prudent. I’m not a big fan of esbit, but it burns when nothing else will and is far more packable than alcohol.
Food per Day
I’m thinking 2 pounds per day for planning purposes, but this might work out a bit lower. Sam Haraldson pointed me at some research a while back showing that long distance backpackers need about 1.75 pounds of food per day after the first week, and 1.5 pounds before that until their metabolisms rev up. That has been my experience on the 2 week hikes I’ve taken in the past.
On the other hand, I’m not quite ready to push the limit on food weight. In fact, I plan to carry 15 days of food even though my route only requires 13 days to complete if I stay on schedule. Atrocious weather and fatigue are likely to play a factor though and I want the option to sit out a day to rest or let a storm pass.
Caloric Density, Variety, and Volume
First off, I’m not into eating prepackaged backpacking meals because I like to limit the amount of crappy, chemical laden food I ingest. I’m also not into freezer bag cooking for such a long trip because it can be dreadfully boring. Been there, done that. I don’t ever want to eat couscous again!
Variety is going to be really important. I’ve been on hikes where I’ve gotten bored with my food and had problems eating enough to stay fueled. Provisioning 15 days of variety takes a lot of creativity and is something I need to really work on. For example, I’m looking into the prospect of cooking pancakes on this trip or bannock bread instead of bringing prepared carbohydrates, if only to keep things interesting. Cooking with wood, I will have an unlimited supply of fuel: the question is whether I can regulate the flame enough to fry something.
On average, I will be shooting for 100 calories per ounce to keep the weight of my pack as low as possible. That means I will be carrying a lot of Olive Oil which has 240 calories per ounce. Other caloric rich foods include nuts, dried fried, salami, pasta, cheese, cookies, cake, pudding, Nido (powdered whole mile), peanut butter and so on.
The volume that food takes is also going to be really important because I don’t want to carry a heavier, higher volume backpack if I can avoid it. The ideal would be to have all the food I need available in a compressed brick, or at least as packable, with as little volume as possible.
I used to believe that you could get all of the nutrients you need when hiking from your food, but I don’t think that’s going to work on a trip this long and this much strenuous elevation gain. I’m still calculating it, but I reckon it will be between 50,000 and 75,000 feet of elevation.
To compensate, I plan on taking a daily multi-vitamin at breakfast, mixing a quart of electrolytes for a noon-time refresher, and drinking a quart of Cytomax, also a powder, at dinner. I’ve used Cytomax as a recovery drink for winter backpacking and really like it. I think it keep my muscles from getting sore and it’s easy to digest.
I plan on filtering my water using the Sawyer Squeeze filter I picked up last year, but will bring along chlorine dioxide tablets as a back up. There’s usually plenty of water in the White Mountains within a half day hike unless I need to dry camp. I will be carrying my usual combination of a 3L flat platypus bottle (for evening camp storage) and 2 x 1 quart soda bottles and don’t foresee any difficulties on this front, although I’ve been warned about the need to carry extra water on some of the ridge traverse.
Hanging heavy bear bags near sun down is a real pain in the ass. I’ve done it with 16 pounds of food and it wasn’t any fun: imagine what it will be with 30 pounds! It would mean having to stop each day at least 90 minutes before sundown. Hanging in the food in the dark is a really good way to kill yourself. Don’t ask.
I think I’m going to try to rationalize using Ursacks, which don’t need to be hung, or a combination of Ursacks and bear bags since I can only get 8 or 9 pounds of food into an Ursack and I only own one. Either way, bear protection is a very real issue, not just to protect the bear, but because losing any food to a bear or animal could jeopardize my hike’s raison d’etre.
Those are my preliminary thoughts for planning out a food strategy for an unsupported two-week hike. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I really enjoy there trip planning exercises, particularly because they require optimizing a number of different variables.
In this case, I need to come up with a very compressible food supply that provides me with enough calories, nutrients, and variety to last 13-15 days, given a virtually unlimited supply of cooking fuel and a willingness to spend up to an hour a day cooking. That’s got me thinking about bringing less processed foods for compactness (grains, premixed flour, powdered eggs and milk), provided I could use the cooking time to cook food for a few meals at a time. I wonder if that kind of strategy would work, if my goal is to finish the hike and not to set a speed record.