On a 50 miler, getting into camp every afternoon means a brief sense of accomplishment which is followed by a flurry of activity. Backpacks have to be emptied of group equipment. Water has to be filtered. Bear bag trees need to be located. Tents need erecting. And most important for many, dinner has to be prepared and eaten.
Meals on a backpacking trip assume an inordinate importance to Scouts. During the long afternoon climbs, everyone thinks about what they are going to eat for dinner. Then as soon as dinner is finished, hikers start to talk about what is on the menu for the next day. Changes in the plan, delays, short rations, confusion, or just plain bad food can send even the most mature backpacker into a temper tantrum.
Many groups believe in communal cooking. If there are twelve hikers on the trip, one meal is prepared and eaten by everyone. This fosters camaraderie, promotes equality, ensures consistent calorie consumption, and provides a common experience. No one is better off than anyone else and everyone has a vested interested in making sure the food is tasty, well prepared, and served efficiently. As a result, discipline and leadership become critical components of every meal.
On the other hand, some units reject communal eating as too restrictive or difficult. They break into smaller eating groups of three or four, each with their own menus. Teams typically are responsible for buying their own food, repackaging it, cooking it, serving it, and cleaning up afterwards. This eliminates the need for large cooking pots and sometimes makes menu planning easier. Eating groups work well if there are strong feelings about food (I won’t eat canned chicken). However, it is much harder for trek leaders to be sure that everyone is eating enough food to keep them going.
It’s rare and somewhat odd for hiking groups to decide they want to travel together but eat separately for every meal. Part of the experience of a long backpacking adventure is working as a group and sharing dinner after a long day on the trail. It is the perfect time to wind down, discuss the hike, and think about what everyone is going to have for breakfast.
Menus and Duty Rosters on a long trip are critical and can save a lot of aggravation. Posted Duty Rosters speed things up when you get to the campsite and eliminate arguments over who is supposed be helping. Duty Rosters also create a structure that young hikers like because they see that the work is fairly allocated and they understand their role clearly.
Menus should be developed and reviewed ahead of time so that all hikers can make sure they can eat everything planned. This is especially important if hikers have dietary restrictions or food allergies. Menus also help ensure healthy diets and minimize the possibility of skipping some of the planned meal because the group is too tired to prepare it.
When it comes to meal preparation, the assigned cook has a critical role to play. He is responsible for making sure that everyone gets a fair and equal amount of food. This means counting the cookies and slices of salami before handing them out. If hikers want to trade food or share after they get their meal, then great. However, there is nothing worse than being the last person in the chow line and finding out that all the bread or crackers are already gone.
Many backpacking classes teach that a hiker needs 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day to maintain energy and attitude. That is a lot! To put this in perspective, a typical one cup serving of a freeze-dried meal only provides about 250 calories. Therefore, you would need about 12 to 16 servings in a day to meet your energy requirements. Most Scouts cannot and will not eat that much, especially considering that appetites often diminish with mileage. Trek leaders should be watching to make sure that everyone is consuming enough calories to keep them going, even if it means pulling a sleeping hiker out of his tent to eat dinner.
Some inexperienced groups take and prepare too much food, which should usually be carried out if it is cooked and not eaten – a messy and unappetizing proposition. Therefore, all food portions should be planned and measured to reduce waste. You can also cut collective pack weights by skipping lunch on the first and last day of the hike, substituting personal emergency food instead. To compensate, plan a big breakfast on both days. Usually, Scouts do not like to stop on the last day for lunch anyway – they are too eager to get to the cars.
For lots more information about eating on the trail, menus, and cooking, visit http://50miler.com/foodnutrition/ and/or request a free copy of “Backpacking for Boys.”
Mike Dubrall writes about backpacking, snow camping, and other high adventure outings at 50Miler.com. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can be connected through the “50miler.com Outing Resource Center” on Facebook.