Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Occasional Definitions: Hunger, Instant Coffee

Hunger: The feeling that attacks you from the inside after hanging your food and finding that you can't get it back down again. Fatal if not treated soon enough.

Instant coffee: The beverage version of freeze-dried food, but not made from pet droppings. Made instead from the dried body fluids of ticks and fleas removed from pets. The bugs are then squashed and their fluids dried. No matter how bad it tastes, it's still high in caffeine. And since it contains no water whatsoever, it is a useful backpacking food, or food-like substance. The preferred way of consuming it is to take a deep breath, put a tablespoonful on your tongue, then wash it down with water before breathing. If done right you won't have to taste a thing but will still get a nice buzz.

From: Fire In Your Hand

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Problem Preparation

As if food wasn't enough of a problem all in itself, it has to be prepared. Think about how odd this is, and how different food is from anything else you carry. Ready yet? OK, if not, then follow this.

Everything else you take with you is ready to go. Food isn't. By ready to go I mean it's already been made, tested, refined, buffed, smoothed, polished, painted, packaged, and improved. Again and again.

Food isn't like that. Food is one-off. Food is a throwback (sometimes literally). Each meal is unique. Each meal is hand made. Each meal is assembled from parts, while you wait. No other gear you take along is like that.

Whoa. What?

Some explanation first. For me everything is a tool. That would explain my car, if you ever happened to see it. Not that there is anything wrong with it, or even noticeable. But my car might be something different than what you expected. Part one is: I don't care what you think about my car. Part two is: Form follows function. Part three is: Read parts one and two.

For me it's about utility. A car needs to be capable of transporting me safely, capable of carrying the minimum load I need to transport, reliable, cheap to operate, and affordable enough to buy. After that I'll choose on looks if I have a choice, but that usually boils down only to color. In other words, I don't care about racing stripes or tail fins. My first two cars had no radio. OK by me.

I have the same attitude toward everything else though the criteria change. Clothing, housing, computers, cameras, tents, packs, friends. You name it. Food too. What meets my needs works. The rest is the rest, and you can have it.

So food is a tool, one which requires trailside assembly. Nothing else I carry is like that. This feature poses some problems. My previous post dealt with the aspects inherent in food itself. This time around I'm thinking about the process of turning food into a useful form rather than about food itself.

Let's break this down into two aspects. Let's call these cooking versus no cooking. They are like two separate worlds. Like the early days of the western hemisphere when books showed native inhabitants with their faces in their abdomens. Same planet, same human beings, sort of, but different worlds. Cooking and not cooking are like that.

Cooking is an issue in itself. Fuel, fire, pots, mixing, stirring, heating, cooling, eating, washing up: these are all points where serious problems can collect. If you have to cook something you have to decide what sort of cooking it's going to be. Boiling, steaming, frying, baking, roasting, simmering, steeping, and then juggle all the gizmos and do the timing and all that crap.

Summary: every sort of cooking is odd and tricky.

The more parts your food comes in the more problems you have, compounded by the complexity of the cooking process. Let's say that if you have to cook, or to approximate cooking, then steeping is probably the way to go. I just invented this term so let's say that steeping means adding hot water to food that's otherwise ready to go. Let's shorten this a bit more and say you'll probably usually dump hot water into a ziplock bag containing food, let it sit for a while, then eat it.

This is hard to beat. I've gotten to the point that I no longer carry even a spoon on my trips.

I mix hot water, food, and wait. Some food requires massaging in the bag to mix ingredients and water but that is about all it takes, except for the waiting. Sometimes it takes (or seems to take) way too long to cool. Anyway when the food is done I roll the bag's top to make sure it won't pop open, then tear off one bottom corner with my teeth and squeeze out food. If you like eating toothpaste then you know how this works. Instant mashed potatoes work best.

Hot meals don't get easier. I never touch the food, don't dirty any pots or utensils, don't expend effort on moving food from plate to mouth. If you're old enough to read you've forgotten how tricky it is to get food into your mouth while using a spoon. On the trail you get reminded pretty often. If you're having a really bad day you'll knock over the cooking pot and lose a whole meal. If not then the occasional spoonful will make a break for it before it meets your tongue.

Bag food is simpler.

OK, that takes care of cooking pretty much. I'll let it all go while mentioning only that I've tried steaming muffins a time or two and that works pretty well. But like anything even remotely resembling real cooking, it's messy and awkward on the trail.

That leaves the other half of the food preparation world, the not cooking. Not-cooking is sort of split in two as well.

One half is factory-made food, or food you've prepared yourself. The other half is food requiring no preparation at all. This is pretty much a non-issue. If you peel a candy bar or granola bar and eat it, just take care of the wrapper. If you eat a handful of raisins, deal with the bag you put them in.

Enough said.

The only wrinkle is dealing with food that has to be prepared a little but doesn't need heat. Some foods you can add water to and eat. Bulgur wheat can work this way, and it's possible to eat this cold but it's much better hot. Let's pull the plug and call it cooking. Even without heat.

Maybe a slight variation of this variation is sticking a bag of food inside your shirt in hopes of warming it a bit, in case it's really cold. The food gets lukewarm on one side at best, and not better, so don't bother.

Back to the beginning then. Cooking versus not cooking. Consider those the options. I cook as little as possible. It works. I can deal with it. If you like to cook, then I have some links for you. Be well. Eat hearty. Come backpacking with me sometime. I'd like to watch you fuss with your pots and pans, and maybe kick one over. That could be fun.


References: (from One Pan Wonders)

One Pan Wonders "Backcountry Cooking at its Finest"
Freezer Bag Cooking "Outdoor Food Simplified"
Alpine Aire Foods
Barking Buffalo
Emergency Essentials
Harmony House Foods
Just Tomatoes, Etc.!
King Arthur Flour
My Spicer
Recipe Zaar
True Lemon
Walton Feed

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Problem Eating

I think of all the issues associated with backpacking, food is the toughest.

Food has a lot of problems.

The worst, by far, is that it is necessary. If food was optional then if you thought it would be too hard to deal with on a particular trip, well just leave it at home. You can do that with a paperback book or a camera, but you won't normally try it with food.

Alan Dixon is a little different. He says that he can go up to three days without food and feels comfortable with the possibility. He eats a big breakfast before starting out and has a big meal after he finishes. That way he can do without at least one day's worth of food. He gets that much weight out of his pack and off his back.

OK. Food is still essential even if you eat less, but it has other problems than that. It is heavy. For the average person daily food weight will be 1.5 to 2 pounds. That adds up really fast if you've ever made an unsupported two week trip. Cut it to the bone and you're carrying 14 days of food at 1.25 pounds per day or 17.5 pounds total, and that is cutting it very slim. Not everyone can get by with so little. Expect to lose five to 10 pounds if you cover a couple hundred miles in those two weeks.

Another thing to keep in mind is that food is perishable. All of it. No matter how dry your food is it can get wet if the packaging is damaged. Even canned food, if you could carry it, can be damaged. If nothing else try dumping food on the ground while you're preparing or eating it. It happens. You might not think of spilling food the same as you'd think of having it rot, but the effect is the same: you can't eat it.

Food is bulky.

With dry food, if you have the right stuff, you can put it in small packages. Of course you repackage anything you buy, but some things you can get in bulk anyway, and these things are a bit easier to deal with. Nevertheless, unless you grind all your food into powder and pound it all into one big bag, you will have wasted space.

Even without unavoidable wasted space food tends to be bulky.

The best food you can eat is pure fat, but you can't do that and you wouldn't want to. Fat has the most energy for a given weight and is pretty easy to carry. Unless it leaks. But pure fat has little flavor and no carbohydrates, protein, vitamins or minerals, and you need all those too.

So you are stuck with bulk. Carbohydrates tend to be the bulkiest, but also the easiest to buy dry or dehydrate at home. Carbohydrates have a fairly low energy density but are easy to fix and eat (think instant mashed potatoes), and they go with just about anything. Carbohydrates make a good base for a more complex meal, so we are stuck with them and their bulk.

Food is odorous. If it wasn't you couldn't eat it. Try drinking pure vegetable oil. You'll probably start gagging early on but it won't be from bad flavor. There isn't any. Not enough to notice. Real food has a smell. That is where flavor comes from. It comes in through the nose, from the plate and from the mouth. The only true flavors the palate can sense are salty, sweet, sour and bitter, and you know that all food has more than those four.

It's often true that the more aromatic the food the better it tastes, but the aromas that attract us also attract guests, and we don't want any, especially at night. Hanging food isn't enough because food odor clings to backpacks, clothing, skin and hair. It stays with us day and night, and that is a situation we should always all be aware of. Aroma is part of the price we pay for having decent food along on a trip.

As I said, even the best-packaged food can leak. It happens. In fact, the more you cook or come close to real cooking the more likely it is that some of your food will get spilled. If you stay at one camp site then you will have it contaminated with spilled food before you even spend your first night, and it will get a little worse every time you handle your food.

Critters know where to get lunch, or a midnight snack. They aren't dumb.

We judge them by our own standards but turn that around for a minute. Think how well you would fare out in the woods, naked, for your entire life. It's too easy to say that animals are "adapted" to their environments and they have instincts to go by. They have to make a living, same as you or I, and when they find a place where they can get a free meal they do what you or I would do. If that place happens to be inside your tent some night, with you, try not to act surprised. It's the food what done it.

Food can be bad. Not go bad but be bad.

I've been there. Had great, nutritious, packable, light, highly resilient food. The only problem I had is that I began gagging on it. After a couple of days I found that I simply could not eat it. That happened twice. I had to dump a lot of food and make up the difference by spreading around what I had left. I came up about three days short, but was going fast enough that I finished about a day and a half early, so it sort of worked out. I didn't get too hungry and more importantly didn't get weak, which would have been worse.

But this still was not my idea of fun. I have found that if I have food along that I cannot eat, then I won't be able to. Being out in the middle of a long trip and having no choice doesn't matter. If your body will not accept the stuff as edible then you will not be able to trick your body. You will starve. Sounds really strange but it happens that way. Score one for your body, which cannot be argued with.

The last problem, and the converse of the previous one is that food can be too good. For me this is usually Snickers bars or some other candy. I like lemon drops and those little cinnamon red hots. All three are heavy but more important they are easy to lose control of.

I try to take them as desert but all too often I'll have a little extra at one meal, then a little extra at the next meal, and pretty soon I'm short. Most other foods don't work that way, partly because it's stuff that is pretty unappetizing unless cooked, and is cooked as one batch and eaten right away. Cooking a second or third meal at one sitting is too extreme, so I never over shoot on the "normal" food items, just the small, highly flavored or sugary items that can be gobbled right out of the pack in seconds.

Add to all this the expense of food and you have a bad deal all around. If food wasn't essential and yummy a lot of people would leave it at home. I would. Some day I may have this all figured out. Then again, maybe not.


Alan Dixon

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Got Bookworms?

One day I saw "I just stumbled upon the coolest website! Books for Hikers. It is put together by a retired reference librarian and it is a fantastic resource for those of us who obsess over books related to hiking. There is a great list of books there! I am impressed how well organized the site is. So easy! Obviously well read AND a hiker. I need to add this one."

It was at a site called "One Pan Wonders", which I had found some way or other while looking up some idea or other about food.

It's always good to find a new source of information, so I'm passing this along, and hope you can use it. Books for Hikers is a pretty little site. It is well designed. It is simple, and to the point. The owner is Linda "eArThworm" Patton.

"Ol' eArThworm is a university reference librarian, retired. Her new career is all trails-and-hiking related," she says. She sounds busy, doing part-time trail maintenance, being a hike leader, working for the Florida Trail Association, and serving as head of an Appalachian Trail Museum committee.

I'm not too familiar with the site yet, but it seems like the home page has a monthly feature about an individual book. For May 2008 the featured book is a memoir of a Florida Trail thruhike by Johnny Molloy titled "Hiking the Florida Trail: 1,100 Miles, 78 Days, Two Pairs of Boots, and One Heck of an Adventure". Following the title are several independent reviews of the book.

The categories are somewhat overlapping and cover such areas as general outdoor skills, food and cooking, hiking with children and pets, women's perspectives, and various individual trails. There is also a links section, connecting mainly to web sites about trails and trail associations.

If you pick a category, say "Appalachian Trail", you get to a list of titles. You get author, title, publisher and publication date. This is valuable in itself but personally speaking it would be nice to see at least a line or two, a hint, about each book's contents.

For the "Women Outdoors" section, each book listed has a link to Amazon.com, but that seems to be about it. This is true for a couple of other sections as well.

The "Food & Cooking" section is slightly different -- it is a plain list as well but a few of the listed books have links to either a review or to the book's web site.

The site owner also has a blog called "From Ol' eArThworm", on Blogger.com. You may enjoy that as well.

Overall I can't complain. I have another resource, and so do you. If you find a book that looks interesting, you may find a link either to a review, to the book's web site, or to an online book store. If not, at least you have a title to go by. Thanks, Linda.

A little later I'll get back to "One Pan Wonders" and other food sites and food issues, but for now, enjoy the books.


Books for Hikers