I’m no ultra-light backpacker, but one of the mistakes I make from time to time is carrying too much food. Why, there was one trip long ago when I actually begged a black bear to take most of my food! He looked at me with disdain, said “I only need 40,000 calories a day,” and walked away in disgust.
So, now, I try to plan each trip of more than a night or two fairly carefully. What will I realistically eat? Do I need a one pound bag of trail mix for a three night hike? (No!) Do I want a big lunch or just some snacks? (Usually, the latter.) Do I want to cook a meal or just take freeze-dried meals? (Again, usually the latter.) I still get it somewhat wrong from time to time, but I cannot remember a trip where I starved at the end, not that a day with minimal food would be harmful.
Sometimes on short trips, I will splurge. A few years ago, at False Cape, I took my little Jetboil frying pan, butter, real maple syrup, and pancake flour, and made flapjacks. To top it off, a group at the neighboring sites had packed in hard-boiled duck eggs, which they shared. This past April while hiking solo near Jones Mountain in SNP, I was trying to prepare for a week on the Laurel Highlands Trail in May. So, I deliberately carried a lot of weight, including a small pot for the Jetboil and about a dozen ingredients weighing more than a pound, to make a truly excellent – if I do say so – Mediterranean tuna pasta. Yummy!
I weigh my food items as I prepare for the hike, and calculate the total weight of food for the trip, including the packaging. I look at what I will reasonably eat each day. I add a few luxury items, one of which is black tea with honey, one of the few things that weighs more packing out than in, since the tea bags absorb water. You always pack out your trash, don’t you? Don’t you? And I almost always throw in a chocolate bar, or two if I am going to share. I used to pack hot chocolate for each night, but found that I might only make a cup every few days.
To wrap up, I will talk about three trips recently where I got it wrong twice and right once. We’ll start with the most recent, seven days in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. This was really easy to plan, because the Appalachian Mountain Club lodges that we stayed at provide a great breakfast and dinner. All you have to do is bring lunch and snacks. My stuff only weighed 3.2 pounds, and several of my companions clearly had 6+ pounds of food, but I still had packed too much. Why? Well, one day we stopped mid-hike at the Highlands Center and had a real lunch of a panini, chips, and a coke. Another day, soaked and cold, we arrived at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut around 1PM and bought hot soup and some baked goods that the Croo had made. And other days, I was not hungry enough to eat even the little that I packed for the day. By the last night, I was putting stuff in the Through-hiker box. Plus, at each hut, you can buy power bars, chocolate, and so forth, so you could almost carry next to nothing.
The second recent trip that I screwed up was not really my fault. We were in the Cranberry Wilderness for three nights during April a couple of years ago, and had made camp and got a fire going. My two companions were making their dinner. I had a freeze-dried curry dish planned but just wasn’t hungry, so I didn’t eat – oh, God, was I glad of that later! About 8:30, I told them I was turning in, and I lay in my little tent, not sleeping, not quite feeling right. About 10:00 I realized that something was seriously wrong, dove out of my tent, made it about 10 feet, and threw up! That continued all night (and most of the next day). I threw up the tuna sub that I’d eaten in the Subway for lunch on the drive over. I threw up the Cheerios that I’d had for breakfast. I’m pretty sure that I threw up some pumpkin pie that I’d had the previous Thanksgiving! About 4AM, one of my buddies came over and asked “Are you going to live?” I told him, “Unfortunately, I’m afraid so!” Bottom line, I probably kept down about 1,000 calories over the four days and carried almost all of my food out, despite giving them some of my choicer goodies.
But, for my May trip to the Laurel Highlands, I pretty much nailed it. During six nights on the trail, I ate really well, and by the last morning, my bear bag, having weighed nearly 10 pounds at the start of the trip, was a wimpy half pound or less. All that remained was a couple of power bars, a small amount of trail mix, and a little dried fruit. Now, that felt good!
So, watch what you stuff in your pack, and in your face, on a trek. Your knees, ankles, feet, hips, and back will thank you. And no bears will sneer at you when you beg them to take the contents of a small grocery store off your hands.