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