Is it possible to maintain my vegetarian/vegan diet while backpacking?
This question is a common one that we get from backpackers. Meat eaters claim a vegan (or vegetarian) won’t be able to finish their hike because they can’t possibly consume enough calories, protein, or fat, and will become weak and sickly.
This is NOT true. You will not need to adjust your dietary restrictions to complete your backpacking trip. As long as you consume the right type of plant sources and maintain a high level of healthy calories, we are certain you will feel more vibrant than your meat-eating counterparts.
Food: What to take, where to get it, how much?
The first problem vegetarians face is finding foods to resupply with in smaller towns. Meatless and dairy-free options are limited. Second, vegetarian fare is often filled with highly processed ingredients, too little calories, or other unfavorable attributes. The challenge of finding appropriate food is nothing new, especially for vegans. Clearly, acquiring food suited for backpacking will require a little more effort and planning. So, which foods should you to take and how much? We’ll cover all these topics here.
There are six types of nutrients: carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Of these six nutrients, only the first 3 (macronutrients) provide calories in the form of energy for the body: carbohydrate, protein and fat:
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Fat makes up more than the combined calories of a protein and carbohydrate, so if you need calorie density, why not just focus on a ratio that is highest in fat? Read on!
Carbohydrates are most important when it comes to backpacking (or any form of endurance activity). Why are carbohydrate calories so important? Because the primary purpose of carbs is to provide energy. Carbs break down into glucose for immediate energy needs and the surplus is stored as glycogen for future energy needs. Once glycogen stores are filled, the remaining calories are converted into fat.
The type of carbohydrates consumed – complex and simple – is also important.
Simple carbohydrates (sugar) provide a quick burst of energy.
Complex carbs (starches) provide sustained energy.
Backpackers should focus primarily on complex carbs.
Fats are important for long-term energy needs. Fat serves as the storage substance for the body’s extra calories and the body depends on burning calories from fat stores once it burns through calories from carbohydrates. Yet, fat is slow to digest and does not convert into quick energy. That is why it is important to have a reserve of fat cells available rather than rely on them as quick sources of energy.
Fat is also important for insulating the body and keeping warm in the winter.
Protein is needed to maintain muscle, bone, skin, hair, and other tissues. Protein calories should not be counted on for energy. Failing to take in adequate carbohydrates will require the body to use protein as an energy source, which can limit your ability to maintain muscle and tissue. You don’t need as much protein as you think.
Speaking of protein and vegetarians, the obsession with protein in the United States is unwarranted. There is a common misconception out there that we need a lot of protein – in fact only 1 in 10 calories should come from protein.* If you eat plenty of the nuts and grains mentioned here, you will get more than enough of the recommended protein.
Don’t worry about the caloric ratios – just incorporate a variety of whole grains, dried fruits & vegetables, nuts, seeds, and non-hydrogenated oils. This will provide a high amount of carbohydrates and adequate protein and fat.
How Many Calories
Backpacking burns a high amount of calories. In general, you will need to consume from 2,000 calories (easier hiking) to 4,500+ calories (difficult/cold-weather) mountaineering. Look for meals or snacks that will give you 100+ calories/ounce. If you carry 1.5 – 2 lbs of food per day (standard for most backpackers), this should provide you the number of calories you need.
Carbohydrates from starches are very important, but look for ones that are not highly processed – whole grains are more nutrient dense. Ramen noodles are a popular item for many hikers since it is readily available, cheap, and fast to cook, but are overloaded with sodium. In addition, the noodle is highly processed and has very little nutrient content. We recommend quick cooking carbohydrate-rich foods coming from whole grain sources such as,
Whole Wheat Pasta. Couscous is a great choice because it is fast cooking (5 – 10 minutes). Also look for pasta shapes that are easier to stow in your backpack, such as penne and elbows.
Dried Beans, Bean flakes & Split Lentils. These provide carbohydrate & protein benefits. Choose the fast cooking red split lentils. Any other type of lentil will take too long to cook.
Instant brown rice & brown rice farina (cream of rice) for breakfast. Outdoor Herbivore’s organic creamy brown rice breakfast dish is loaded with fruits, nuts, and spices and contains 500 calories per serving. Instant rice dishes paired with dried ingredients have endless menu possibilities.
Granola & Muesli (Oats). Look for those that contain plenty of nuts, seeds and dried fruits for added taste and calories. We make a fruit and nut muesli that contains soy milk already mixed in the cereal (just add water). It contains over 700 calories per serving!
Dehydrated Quinoa. Quinoa is a high protein, complete protein & wheat-free! It is highly versatile, lightweight and fast cooking. Our dehydrated quinoa requires a 5 minute stand time after hot or boiled water is added. You can use regular Quinoa that has not been pre-steamed and dehydrated, but it will require 15-20 minutes of cooking/hydration.
Whole Wheat Tortillas. Most are contain preservatives so they will stay fresh in your pack unrefrigerated for at least a week. Flour based tortillas tolerate temperature changes very well, are lightweight, plus have endless possibilities as a menu item – wrap beans, rice, peanut butter & dried banana, eat as a bread with olive oil/toasted over a campfire.
Hint for keeping tortillas fresh in your pack: Insert a paper towel between each tortilla. Repackage them into a zip-lock freezer bag. You can roll them up or keep them flat in your pack. The paper towel prevents them from sticking together by absorbing humidity from the air. We find this particularly helpful while hiking in the Southeast. This also works for drier climates because the paper towel will also absorb the moisture present in the tortilla and insulate it so it doesn’t dry out.
Carbohydrates from simple sugars are also important, but keep man-made sugars (commonly found in energy bars & vitamin drinks) to a minimum to avoid energy spikes & crashes that will leave you lethargic. Consuming fructose (found in the natural form of fruit sugar – not refined from corn) is fine because the body gradually and properly converts natural fruit sugars for energy. Besides fruit, other great choices of natural sugars include brown rice syrup, maple sugar (granules are great for backpacking), date sugar or crumbles, molasses, and honey.
Fructose from dried fruits (not corn). Fruits such as raisins are great to pack out and offer about 100 calories per ounce. Dried bananas are also excellent, as well as dates. The only ones we do not recommend are berries as they don’t have many calories. Most people like the taste of dehydrated fruits better than freeze-dried. Freeze dried fruits are crispy and airy, whereas dehydrated fruits are chewy and pliable. Try them both and decide which you prefer.
Natural sugars to pack out or look for in meals/energy bars include brown rice syrup, maple sugar (the granules are great for backpacking), date sugar, unsulfured molasses, and honey (powdered honey works great for backpacking, but is obviously not vegan).
Minimize man-made refined sugar. A better choice for a refined sugar is the sugar sourced or evaporated from sugar cane (not beets, which are often genetically modified).
Avoid artificial sugars. Artificial sugars are usually low calorie and do not break down in the body properly. Their long (and short) term risks are also questionable.
Pack out olive oil. It makes your dishes taste better, plus you’ll get the extra calories & healthy fat. Avoid the hydrogenated oil, of course.
A single serve packet of olive oil like the one we carry (.5oz – about 1 TB) has 120 calories. You can buy the single packets or repackage your own oil into small squeeze containers (sold at outdoor stores). A tip for packing out olive oil tis to wrap PTFE (white plumber’s tape) around the bottle’s threads. This will create a better seal and prevent the oil from leaking. More tips on olive oil.
Another good fat (and protein) to take out is almond butter and peanut butter. Outdoor Herbivore now offers dried organic peanut butter powder (with fat, no additives) to make it easier for you to make as much as you need. If you don’t need much, Justin’s Nut Butter makes travel-sized squeeze packs; nut butters can also be repackaged from jars into travel-sized plastic squeeze bottles.
Keeping it Lightweight
To keep it lightweight, you need to look for dried foods and pack extra oil to boost the calorie content of meals.
Aim to carry around 1 lb of food per day and be critical when selecting foods that will give you the calories that you’ll need per weight (over 100 calories/ounce). Look for meals that include healthy fats from whole food plant sources – think seeds and nuts. For example, coconut, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, sesame, sunflower, cashews, chia seed, olives…
Purchase Dried Foods. Dehydrated foods are generally more cost-efficient over freeze-dried meals. The taste and texture of these two are not the same. You’ll have to decide which you prefer. Some differences between the two are in our article “Camp Food Preparation Tips.”
GORP remains an excellent snack because it is easy to make, stores well, tastes great, and contains a lot of calories. Munch on it throughout your hike for a gradual energy release.
You can easily make your own GORP using a combination of dried fruits, nuts, seeds (sunflower is great), and even chocolate. You can add bittersweet/dark chocolate made without lecithin (or other animal products) if you want to keep it traditional. Also try carob chips if you want a chocolate taste. A decent milk-free chocolate chip manufacturer is Enjoy Life.
Look for Organic. As outdoor lovers, we are big supports of purchasing organic. Organic is a more responsible way of farming and is much better for the environment. Even if you don’t care about the organic cause, you should know eating organic is more important if you are a backpacker.
The pesticides sprayed on the skin of non-organic fruits or vegetables (and contained within the flesh) does not disappear in the drying process. It only concentrates it.
It is easy to overeat fruit in the dried form since the juicy flesh of the fresh fruit is what fills us up. A few handfuls of dried fruit can easily equate to consuming an entire fruit bowl of the fresh equivalent since fresh fruit is often 80% or more in water! The moisture is what accounts for much of the size & weight of fresh fruit.
Most backpackers consume a high amount of dried fruits (to keep up with calorie needs, satisfy sugar needs), so pesticide exposure will be much GREATER than consuming fresh fruit. Unless you like the idea of pesticide seasoning as part of your fruit snack, purchase organic. Organic can not contain harmful additives such as sufites either.
Tips for Planning Backpacking Food
Purchase ahead of time and stock up. Most dried foods have a long shelf life as is, dried without the use of questionable, additives. That is because removing water by drying is a form of preservation; Generally, you can purchase dried foods a year ahead of your trip.
Watch out for the ingredients. Check the sodium content. Is salt or sodium derivatives listed in the first few ingredients? Look for those that include a variety of recognizable vegetables, grains, herbs, and spices. Otherwise, you many dread meal time on your trip.
Watch for the packaging. We’ve mentioned before about the cook-in bag method that many commercial camp brands use. These heavy weight bags are designed for pouring in boiling water and eating directly from the bag. These meals can be bulky, heavy and difficult to pack. With all due respect to the supporters of these bags (and those that prefer to eat from a bag), it just does not resonate with us.