One of the most important things about planning a trip is mapping out your meals and calorie intake during your adventure. This week we had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Aaron "Sling" Owens, (The Backcountry Foodie), regarding her Pacific Crest Trail ("PCT") and Appalachian Trail ("AT") adventures, and how she made and planned all her meals for her hikes. Being a dietitian, she provides us with the necessities your body will need to help fuel your adventure.
What is your inspiration for making your own backpacking food?
I've been a competitive athlete in some form since I was six years old. Fueling for sports has always been a part of my life. As I've grown older and transitioned from high intensity to endurance sports my nutrition needs have changed. The number of calories needed to maintain my energy level are much higher than what most women require. My body is extremely sensitive to caloric deficits which shows itself in a progressive manner. I'll start to feel fatigued when I shouldn't, hands will shake uncontrollably, emotions go haywire and I'll eventually be unable to keep walking until able to eat again. Due to my body's sensitivity to food intake, I started panicking when initially preparing for my PCT thru hike. How on earth was I physically going to carry enough food?!? I even went to my doctor to talk about what I should do if I couldn't eat enough. The only plan we came up with was "just make sure you eat enough". So, I began experimenting with dehydrated food as commercially prepared products are extremely expensive when planning a thru hike. I'm also a vegetarian and prefer to eat organic foods which further increases the cost of foods. With the combination of my unique nutrition needs and background as a dietitian, my journey into the homemade trail food world began.
What is the process behind making food for hiking?
Believe it or not, it's actually quite easy. Number one rule is to make foods that you know that you already like! Never go into the backcountry with food you've never tried. Setting up camp with a hungry belly and having to force yourself to eat a meal that tastes horrible is the worst way to end a long day. With that said, I encourage hikers interested in making their own food to experiment with a wide variety of recipes. After that, it's a matter of learning about home dehydration or purchasing dehydrated foods. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, portion out into single servings and store until ready to be consumed. It only gets complicated when preparing food for thru hikes as shelf stability becomes an issue.
What nutrition necessities are important while thru hiking?
This will vary from hiker to hiker as not everyone's nutrition needs are the same. Generally speaking, adequate calories and protein are at the top of the list. Inadequate calories can lead to fatigue and excessive weight loss potentially ending a hiker's thru hike prematurely. Due to the day to day stress a hiker puts on his/her body, protein is needed to help repair and rebuild muscles. Many traditional thru hiker foods are low in protein and high in sugar which is not a preferred mix. In my case, fat content of food plays a huge role as it keeps my energy level stable for longer periods of time. Fat also has over twice as many calories per gram weight than carbohydrates (sugar) and protein. My ultralight meals are based on this concept of high calorie for low weight of food.
What is your dietitian background?
I've been a dietitian for 16 years with my focus, up until now, being children with special health care needs. I've worked in a variety of settings to include state government, home visits, enteral nutrition supply company, outpatient clinics and hospitals. The last seven years of my career were dedicated to the Ketogenic Diet which is used to treat children with epilepsy. The high fat diet can also be used for a variety of other things to include weight loss and improved sports performance. My meals, to an extent, are related to my ketogenic diet background due to the high fat content and my need for sustainable energy.
Do you always make your own food while hiking?
I do now! Haha! We recently went on a car camping trip prior to leaving for my second thru hiking attempt this year. Because all of my homemade food was to be consumed over the course of my trek on the AT, we took a variety of commercially prepared food with us. Thankfully, we were car camping and able to drive to town. Substitute meals were needed nearly every meal because the commercially prepared foods tasted terrible compared to my own food.
What is your go to hiking recipe to pack?
There are lots! Vegan chili, vegetarian burritos, pesto pine nut hummus, sundried tomato couscous, sweet potato mash, chocolate peanut butter milk, peppermint latte...I can go on. I love my food! :)
How much do your packages weigh?
On average drinks weigh 2-3 oz, meals 4-6 oz and desserts 3-4 oz.
What are your goals with your recipes?
I don't have particular goals for single recipes but an overall daily goal of 150 kcal/oz or 5000 calories per two pounds of food. Not all recipes are high in fat and loaded with calories because I love them just the way they are. On average, my recipes vary from 110 kcal/oz to 175 kcal/oz. This allows me to mix and match recipes with an overall average of 150 kcal/oz. I also keep in mind the protein and fiber content of recipes with a final goal of 1.5 gm/kg protein and minimum of 30 grams of fiber per day from all food consumed.
What is your biggest hiking accomplishment?
What turned out to be long section hikes of the PCT (375 miles) and AT (505 miles) this year were certainly my greatest hiking achievements!
Are you solo hiking?
Yes, will start out alone but will meet a new trail family along the way.
What are you go-to hiking brands?
Darn Tough socks, Smartwool and Icebreaker wool clothing, Solomon boots, Osprey backpacks, MSR stove, Mountain Hardware clothing, Enlightened Equipment sleeping quilt, Exped sleeping pad
What clothing do you pack for your trek?
AT: wool t-shirt, hiking skirt, wool socks/underwear/sports bra (daily hiking clothes), lightweight race t-shirt, running shorts, socks (sleep clothes), extra pair of underwear and socks, rain coat, puffy jacket, poncho and Buff. That's it! I was hiking in the middle of the summer in 80-90 degree weather.
PCT: All of the above plus - wool base layers, windproof beanie and gloves, goretex shell mittens and rain pants. Poncho stays at home.
What do you do to stay in shape off of the trail?
I never really go off trail because I live in Washington State where miles and miles of trails are within minutes of my home. I typically hike 5-10 miles a few days a week with my dog, Ella, and go on multi-day weekend trips with Ella and my significant other, Chris. We're always on the move checking out new trails. I also hope to return to trail running competitively once my leg injuries heals.
What advice do you recommend for beginners wanting to start hiking?
The first step is to get outside. Start using familiar urban hiking trails and then work your way up to trails leading deep into the forest or mountain ranges. It's okay to start out only walking for a mile. Also, don't let fear of the unknown stand in your way. If you do, you'll miss out on so much beauty that will likely change your life.
You can follow Aaron and her adorable puppy, Ella's upcoming PCT adventure here:
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A now very hungry,
Back Country Momma
*All photos belong to Aaron Owens*