One of the best things about winter backpacking and mountaineering trips is the food. You can eat just about anything and never feel guilty about it, including these Ritter Sport Bars which pack over 630 calories each!
Seriously though, winter nutrition is an important subject if you’re going to be out backpacking, snowshoeing or climbing for any length of time because you need to eat 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day, which is 25-50% more than you need for 3 season backpacking.
Eating this much food in a day takes a certain amount of discipline and I’ve learned that the food that you bring has to be something you really enjoy eating, because you HAVE to eat it. The caloric demands of wintertime travel require that you consume lots of fuel to keep going and stay warm.
While there is a good deal of overlap between the foods you bring on 3 season trips, there are some important differences which you need to be aware of. For example, you don’t want to bring along food that requires a long time to cook or a lot of water to rehydrate. Water and time are in short supply in the winter because it takes extra fuel to melt snow and because you can get chilled if you have to wait a significant time for breakfast or dinner to cook.
There are also certain foods like snickers bars, a staple of 3 season backpacking, that should be avoided in winter because they become too hard to eat safely in winter. On the flip side, you can bring along foods in winter that would otherwise be unsafe to bring for 3 season hiking such as pre-cooked steak tips or Indian takeaway, because the outdoor winter temperatures will preserve them.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the foods I like to bring along for breakfast, snacks, and dinner for winter hiking and camping. What are your favorites?
I like to pre-hydrate in the morning by consuming a lot of hot fluids and at least 800 calories of food. I’ll usually make a couple of large mugs of hot instant cocoa and eat it with a double serving of Trader Joes ginger granola mixed with hot water. After that, I like to munch on some cookies or graham crackers while I melt more snow to top off my 3 liter-sized water bottles.
Lunch (Constant Snacking)
Lunch is best eaten on the run because stopping will just you make you cold. I don’t actually eat a formal lunch, but snack throughout the day from when we break camp in the morning until we dig a kitchen at our evening camp site.
My usual snacks are Trader Joes cookies, bulk chocolate broken into little pieces so it melts in my mouth, Ritz crackers which are loaded with butter and salt, small chunks of hard cheese or salami that I’ve cut up beforehand, gorp, brazil nuts, Justin nut butter packets which I squeeze into my mouth, packets of GU, Oreos, beef jerky, and small chunks of dried fruit. Another favorite of mine is Terra Blue chips which you can crush to make more room in your pack.
I don’t bother bringing cliff bars, power bars, or other similar summer staples because they turn into frozen rocks in winter and are difficult to eat.
In the middle of the afternoon, I sometimes mix up Cytomax in one of my liter bottles if I’m feeling tired or need a little more pep before a significant climb. This is a performance drink that is buffered to make the sugars in it easy to absorb and that I find assists in recovery at night when I’m asleep.
I often have less of an appetite at dinner than I’d expect because I’m tired. It doesn’t matter. You have tp eat, so I make sure that I bring something that I really like for dinner and I’m not going to be ambivalent about chowing down on.
Like breakfast, hydration is important, so I start dinner by making a large pot of soup and then add ingredients to it that cook up quick and have a lot of calories, like noodles, rice, polenta, mashed potatoes or pasta. The trick is to create a glop-like meal that is appealing, substantial and tastes good. If I’m cooking pasta, I’ll usually throw in some cheese powder or an alfredo sauce to thicken things up and load it up with taste. Another alternative is to cook up some quick rice and throw in some pre-cooked shredded chicken and spicy Indian or Thai curry that you’ve repackaged before your trip to spice things up.
For dessert, I usually drink a cup of herb tea, eat an almond Hershey bar, and then turn in for the night.
When you pack up your food bag for a winter trip, it’s really important that you count your calories carefully and portion out your snacks and meals in advance. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are not eating enough because you will wear down fast. Also make sure that you have packed all of your favorite foods. I’ve been in situations where I discovered that I was not as thrilled about some food that I’d packed as I hoped I would be, and had problems getting it down. Don’t chance this – pack something that you’ve tested at home and you know you’ll like in advance. Winter is not as forgiving as 3 season backpacking.
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Very interesting and sensible. Would really like to hear a little more about your winter kitchen setup–the picture of the tent over an apparent trench is intriguing.
Also, how do you clean up after meals in the winter? Do you use snow to clean your cookware/dinnerware? How do you discpose of any food waste from cleaning up? Etc.
Really enjoy your blog.
I want to move away from the "just-add-water" dehydrated meals and into some more healthy foods. There's a lot of good ideas in this article. Thanks!
@MSG – the kitchen design is pretty traditional. You dig a U-shaped trench and then lower the U part a bit to form a table for eating, while sitting on a sleeping pad. You can raise up the sides for a wind break or use a tarp to cut the chill. If you use silnylon, shown here, you need to be very careful not to set it on fire, otherwise you can really hurt yourself.
Clean up – I just scrape out the pot with my spoon as best as possible and put any waste into plastic bags to freeze and pack out. I try to keep dirty water to a minimum.
@David Some people argue that dehydrated foods take too much energy to rehydrate in winter and that you should use freeze-dried foods instead. I'm experimenting with some fruit and rice soups in that area myself. I'm also going to play around with making Indian take-away bark this winter – ie. spread the Indian food onto wax paper and freeze at home. Easier to heat up in camp.
I love packing food for winter trips, you get so much more variety and volume and as you say not feel guilty :)
My favourite breakfast in the winter is oat porridge, raisins, powdered mild and a little nutrasweet. Boil water, add to porridge and let it "stew" in a pot (with cosy insulation). Simply superb
What is the Brand/Model of this tarp/tent from your winter-backpacking-food webpage?
i enjoyed your article very much, very informative. winter backpacking is challenging and rewarding. thank you for posting!
Some good ideas here, like other commentors, i want to get away from eating just dried or dehydrated stuff on winter trips.
I rely on things like snickers bars in the winter (more so than summer). I keep a couple in the thigh pocket of my soft shell pants all the time, where they stay/get soft enough to eat.
I’m also interested in the brand of pyramid tarp that you are using for the winter kitchen
Great suggestions here. I’m glad you mentioned the pre cooked steak tips, because that’s always been my fallback! Even at their coldest, they never quite freeze. And it’s always great to throw them on a stick over an open fire for a treat rather than adding a pot/pan to the mix. Without bringing the pot however, it can make water a tricky thing. I still bring a water purifier for running streams and drink as much as I can there before taking some excess with me in an insulated container (that I keep under my jacket and in my sleep system overnight.) Gatorade takes longer to freeze so I usually keep that as a backup as well. I learned my lesson with camelbacks in the winter as a novice haha…Any other suggestions would be great though!
I wouldn’t recommend using a water filter in winter. If it freezes, even partially, it will crack the filter.
eating without fire… two weeks ago I was on a hike in the Florida everglades with no access to dry land. Everything was underwater. So cooking was not an option. At least in the everglades I was not worried about my food freezing so I had plenty of choices. This article opened my eyes to additional concerns like just the extra calories required to stay warm.
Hi, over the years I’ve found couscous a great food. It’s quick to make and you can have it with many things. I even made it into a chocolate dessert which tasted great.