Outdoor Smarts: ‘I’m Still Hungry’

Careful menu planning examines the rigors of high adventure activities and makes sure that calorie and nutrition levels not only meet energy requirements but also leave diners feeling satisfied.

Few things are more frustrating at the end of a long day on the trail than to still feel hungry when all that day’s meals have been consumed. Menu planning for long-distance hiking is especially important because hard exercise increases the appetites and nutrition requirements of Scouts BSA members and Venturers.

“You work harder moving over slippery surfaces or uneven ground, traveling uphill versus flat ground, and carrying large loads (like backpacks),” says Suzanne Girard Eberle, a Portland, Ore.-based sports dietitian, speaker, and author of Endurance Sports Nutrition, second edition (Human Kinetics, March 2007).

How much more energy are we talking about? According to Eberle: “Walking your dog around the neighborhood for an hour requires three times the energy, or calories, needed to sit quietly for an hour. Backpacking requires seven times more energy per hour than sitting quietly. And if you’re carrying a heavy load of more than 40 pounds, you are using nine times as much energy as you would be sitting still!

“In cold weather, the clothes and boots that keep you warm are heavy and require more energy to carry. Exercising at altitude also increases the rate at which the body burns fuel,” she adds.

Teens need more calories
If you are leading groups of a Scouts BSA troop or Venturering crew, the issue of menu planning becomes even more important.

“Teens already have high-energy needs,” says Eberle. Those in the midst of a growth spurt, particularly teenagers who are growing taller and adding muscle, can have a hard time keeping up with their daily energy needs on extended backpacking trips and other adventures.

Teens who are not physically fit or who are newcomers to an outdoor activity may also require more food. “They will be less efficient,” Eberle warns, “and that translates into working harder and burning more calories.

“We need carbohydrates for energy, protein to sustain us, and some fat to feel satisfied and help us meet our higher caloric needs.”

When and what to eat
But quantity isn’t the only consideration: The time of day you eat also plays a role in keeping your body working at maximum efficiency.

Eberle recommends eating a full breakfast whenever possible, preferably an hour before beginning each day’s hike or other high adventure activity.

“Half of your liver glycogen is used up overnight, and it is liver glycogen that converts back into blood sugar and fuels the brain. It also serves as backup fuel for exercising muscles,” she explains.

Practical breakfast foods include cereals with dried milk and honey, nutrition bars, freeze-dried eggs, pancake mixes, crackers, and packable breads such as pita, bagels, or tortillas.

On the trail Eberle recommends eating several times throughout the day, versus one or two large meals.

“Large amounts of food at one time divert blood to the digestive tract and away from your brain and muscles.”

Nutrition bars and electrolyte-replacement drinks (when alternated with straight water) are two outdoor standards that can be consumed throughout the day to keep up energy and electrolytes.

Nutrition bars travel well, come in a variety of flavors, and are intended for use during exercise. Sample a few different kinds before your trip, however, because flavors and textures vary.

Getting enough protein
The longer or more intense the outdoor adventure, the more important it is to choose a varied selection of foods, Eberle says.

“Finding enough carbs isn’t usually a problem thanks to sports drinks, energy bars and gels, candy, cookies and breakfast bars, bagels or bread, rice and pasta, fruits, and juices. Fat is available from nuts, chocolate, and other treats. A bigger challenge with longer trips is getting enough quality protein.”

Eberle recommends eggs (which can be powdered, or hard-boiled in advance), canned meats, peanut butter, tuna in foil packets, precooked or no-cook beans, cheese, and dried milk powder.

A one-pot meal that includes a combination of different foods can pack a lot of punch. Try a backcountry tuna casserole, with pasta, cheese (grated Parmesan is fine, but a hunk of cheddar can also be melted in), and foil-packed tuna.

Variety improves appeal
Eberle cautions that the stress of outdoor activities, which can include fatigue, cold, and altitude sickness, can make some foods seem unappealing, so a variety is essential. A greater choice of foods on the menu provides a better chance that something will seem appealing—or at least edible—to every member of your group.

Freeze-dried foods can be helpful. While an all-freeze-dried diet can be monotonous (not to mention expensive), having a few on hand offers an array of flavors and the chances for your youth to choose their own favorites. Similarly, just-add-water cups of soups and heat-and-eat noodle dishes offer convenient variety.

Finally, there are practical issues: Does anyone in the group have a food allergy? Can foods be carried without crushing or spoiling? Are they reasonably lightweight? Are they easy to prepare, even when you’re tired and the weather is bad? Will you have enough fuel and water to prepare the foods you bring? Remember, at higher elevations, foods take more time (and hence require more fuel) to cook.

If you’ve spent some time thinking about food choices, you can be certain that dinnertime will be eagerly awaited and enthusiastically enjoyed.

Karen Berger is the author of Backpacking and Hiking (DK Publishing Inc., 2005).


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  1. From the Scouting magazine archives: "I'm Still Hungry!"

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