Planning your food for a cold weather backpacking trip is different than for warm weather. You must consider the additional demands cold temperature places on your body. Extra calories are required to keep the body warm, humidify the air you breathe, and fuel any involuntary shivering. Besides the heavy footwear and clothing you are wearing, the cold weather gear you are carrying on your back (tent, sleep system, extra clothing layers) is also heavier and bulkier, thereby increasing your workload. If you are trekking through snow, that will place extra physical demands on your body.
Winter backpacking can require an additional 500 – 1,000 calories per day, an average of 4,500 calories per day for men and 3,500 for women. Start planning the right foods before the start of your winter backpacking trip. Eating nutritionally sound foods will make the difference in your ability to stay warm and energized.
All foods are made up of varying proportions of the three basic food types – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. There are also vitamins, minerals, and water. The focus here is on the big three nutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) because each one can produce energy, although they do so differently and at different rates. Carbohydrates are the quickest to convert to energy and fats are the slowest.
Fat provides a slow and steady form of energy, so make sure you are getting enough in your diet. But do so gradually. A sudden change to a high fat diet has the potential to cause adverse gastric (heartburn) and metabolic effects, and these symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from a heart attack.
Winter Dietary Percentage
Food Type Description
|Simple Carbohydrates||kindling||4 calories/gram – released quickly & provides instant energy, but lacks nutrients. Foods containing sugar ending in “ose” (i.e. glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose) are simple carbs. Sugar, candy, hot cider, hot cocoa, refined bread/pasta/baked goods made with white flour. Consume the least simple carbs.|
|Complex Carbohydrates||sticks||4 calories/gram – released quickly & provide fast energy. Easy to digest. Foods containing starch & fiber. Cereal, bread, rice, pasta, dried fruit, beans/lentils, vegetables. Consume the most complex carbs.|
|Fat||logs||9 calories/gram – released very slowly & provide energy over an extended period; however, fat requires more energy & water to break down fats (from glycerol) into glucose and fatty acids (from acetyl-CoA) into energy. Nuts, seeds, chocolate, plant fats (olive oil, coconut), cheese, eggs, butter.|
|Protein||logs||4 calories/gram – released slowly & used primarily for cell repair & maintenance of muscle. Not a source of energy unless glucose stores are empty. High protein grains (rice, quinoa, soy, whole grain pasta), nuts, seeds, beans/legumes, tofu/soy.|
Vitamins and Minerals – are present in most foods and deficiency should not be a concern if you are eating a variety of foods. For long backpacking trips (more than 10 days), consider taking supplements to cover for the nutrient losses from dried foods, especially if you keep a vegan diet.
Water – drink it often (even if you are not thirsty!). The most important element for staying ALIVE is WATER. Although not a food type, water is essential for hydration and food digestion. In winter it is common to experience dehydration because there is less humidity which has a drying effect on the body. You must replace the bodily fluids lost through respiration, evaporation, perspiration and elimination by drinking water. Generally, this means you must drink 2 – 4 quarts of water daily, depending on your level of activity and body size.
- Always fill up water bottles when you cross a water source.
- Consume your water by eating soups and other brothy meals, and make hot beverages such as cocoa or cider at night. Warm drinks (and food) have a pleasant effect on the body when it is cold outside and also help warm you from within.
- Don’t drink icy water. Cold water will lower your internal body heat and give you the chills. Keep your bottle of water insulated by covering it with a sock, hat or similar.
- Cold weather masks your thirst mechanism, so it is common to not feel thirsty. Drink fluids anyway.
- Many backpackers purposefully limit fluid consumption to avoid the hassle of having to pee. Don’t do that!
Planning Winter Meals
Hot foods are a favorite choice in the winter. But preparing meals can also be much more challenging and time-consuming. The reason is partly due to the colder air and the fact that you might have to melt snow for your water. This will require increased time to boil, more stove fuel, and better pot insulation.
Freeze-dried one-pot meals are a favorite choice for the trail due to their reduced size, light-weight, and quick preparation, but you can also take purchased foods from the grocery store. Your winter sustenance should not: (1) be too bulky or heavy; (2) contain an excessive amount of sodium and protein which adds metabolic water burden; (3) be susceptible to freezing (i.e. foods with high water content such as fresh foods); (4) require a long cook time.
1. Breakfast – should be a simple and nourishing meal. It should be packed with calories, so you are supplied with energy to get you moving for a full day of hiking. A simple breakfast is one that doesn’t take a long time to prepare. You want to get up and get moving because it is cold! Sitting around the campsite during the early morning (cold) hours will lead to cold feet and body.
Breakfast meal suggestions include hot oatmeal, rice farina, or grits with dried fruit, seeds & nuts, hearty cold cereal (such as muesli, granola, or chia seed meals) with a hot beverage, and instant tofu or egg scramble.
You don’t want to consume too much sugar (simple carbohydrates) in the early morning. Getting an overload of sugar into the bloodstream will cause a hard crash soon into your hike. This is a mistake many hikers make by eating the packaged cereal foods, drink mixes, energy/candy bars, which are high in sugar and poor in nutrition. Always aim to consume close to the ratio of the major food types (see table above) during breakfast – a majority of your calories should come from complex carbs, a few from simple carbs, a good amount from fat, and some from protein. The added sugar (simple carbs) will help to get you started, and the complex carbohydrates and fat will metabolize slower to keep you energized throughout the morning.
2. Lunch – depending on your preference, you might decide to stop for a long lunch to take a rest, or eat finger foods as you hike. Maybe you found a rocky overlook with a view, and you want to fire up the stove for a hot meal. Or maybe you found a sunny spot and want to take an afternoon siesta after a quick bite. Just keep in mind that stopping for a prolonged time will lower your core body temperature and make you cold. Insulate the ground before sitting (use closed-cell foam sleeping mat) and have easy access to an additional layer of clothing. You’ll want to add that layer soon after you stop to preserve your core body temperature.
If you don’t want to stop for long, the other option is to eat as you hike throughout the day with snack type items. This works if you are short on time or worried about getting too cold by stopping. In either case, make sure you eat a variety of food types to maintain nutrition.
3. Snack foods – GORP, mixed nuts, dried fruit, dark chocolate, granola, energy bars, bite-size cheese pieces, coconut cookie chunks, sesame candy, bagels, nut butter, hard crackers, nut butter, and other high-calorie snacks. Just remember not to overdo it on the sugar. The sugar will give you a quick spike of energy and warm you, but then your body temperature will fall suddenly once it is burned off, and sometimes this can cause your body temperature to drop below its previous level.
4. Dinner – the last meal of the day is often thought as the grand finale. It should be interesting, taste good, and make you feel warm and satisfied before you fall asleep. In the winter, you might want to start off dinner by sipping on some hot tea, cocoa, or soup. This helps warm you as the sun begins to lower in the horizon. Sipping also holds your interest while you prepare dinner in the cold. As you are resting, your body will get cold quickly, so it is a good idea to make something hot right away.
The main dish in the winter frequently involves some type of one-pot meal that is rich in complex carbohydrates. Look for meals containing wholesome starches (wholegrain pasta, rice, quinoa, couscous) with a soupy base, an assortment of dried vegetables, and precooked dried beans/lentils for protein. And don’t forget to add the fat (olive oil, nuts, seeds, cheese) because it works wonders to keep you warm and feel full.
Dinner suggestions include whole grain pasta with a thick vegetable-based sauce, bean chili, lentil soup, instant rice with dried vegetables & nuts, couscous with dried fruit & nuts, and instant quinoa with dried vegetables.
5. Dessert – concluding your final meal of the day with a dessert is optional, but we do recommend you eat something extra if you ate dinner early. About an hour before you plan to fall asleep, eat a something rich in fat calories. This will help you stay warm through the night. A dark chocolate bar is a good option if you don’t want to heat up anything. If you decided to fire up the stove, be sure to use any water left over in the cooking pot. Reheat the water, pour into wide-mouth bottles, and bring them into your sleeping bag. They’ll warm up your bag and act as personal water heaters when sleeping. When you get up in the morning, you are also guaranteed to have water that is ready to drink or cook with the next morning.
Additional guidelines for winter backpacking food & cooking:
- Don’t pack fresh food in the winter or ready-made wet-pack meal pouches. These all contain water (subject to freezing) and weigh a lot (you have enough to carry). The exception is foods that are rich in oils (such as avocados, olives) or plant-based oils (olive oil) which are needed for higher fat. The packets of vegetable oil are prone to freeze, but will not be damaged if they do. You can easily make them viscous by warming between the hands. Take mostly dry meals (pasta, rice, quinoa, oats) baked goods (bagels, bread, crackers, cookies), or dried meals (more expensive but very lightweight and quick to cook which can save on stove fuel).
- Pack meals that are appetizing. Your appetite is reduced during winter activity (even through the food needs of the body have increased), so make sure the food you pack is something you want to eat. If the meal isn’t appealing to you before your trip, it is probably not going to be during it. In some situations, you will need to make yourself eat even if you are not hungry.
- Check the portion size. If you are purchasing dried meals from a new company, it is always a good idea to test out the food before you hike. Make sure the portion size claimed is going to actually be enough for you to eat. Many of the backpacking food companies overestimate what constitutes as a hiker’s appetite, particularly a thru-hiker.
- Food packaging should be flat, flexible, and watertight. Repack your food items before your trip to minimize carrying any extra waste. Then combine all the meals by type or another system that works for you. We recommend combining like meals into separate bags (breakfast bag, lunch bag, snack bag, dinner bag, dessert/hot drink bag). Mark the bag so it is recognizable.
- Minimize utensil needs. The only ones you require are a large cup (acts as a bowl and mug, insulated is best) and a plastic spoon (metal is not recommended for winter). If you are going to be in the snow, it might be a good idea to tie a string between the cup and spoon. Spoons are easily lost when dropped in the snow.
- Keep stove lighters warm & dry by keeping in your clothing pockets. Keep a spare lighter in your first aid kit. Electric lighters are more reliable than flint lighters, are often refillable.
- Winterize your cooking stove. Make sure your backpacking stove is equipped with a wind guard or windscreen. Use a reflector if necessary. Always boil and reconstitute dried foods with a lidded pot. See also cooking to conserve fuel.
- Relax with dish duty. Improper cleaning during frigid temperature has one advantage – no mold. We are not recommending that you forgo cleaning dishes, but you can get by with letting bits of food residue remain (saved calories for your next meal). If you are paranoid about germs, a quick rinse is fine. Soaping & scrubbing is really not necessary, especially if there is snow on the ground. Snow makes for a good cleaning – use it to scrape off leftover food residue. Wear waterproof gloves (rubber, latex) when doing dishes to protect your hands.