Are there any foods that should be off-limits when backpacking because they have a negative impact on performance or well-being? I am thinking that candy-bars and very greasy foods might be candidates?
I try to avoid the following:
Carrying water (i.e., food that has lots of water in it). The exception is fresh fruits and vegetables, which are worth the weight in my opinion.
Pre-made dehydrated backpacking crap. Overpriced and unappetizing.
The key thing is that being in the backcountry shouldn't really change how you think about eating. You cook food like you make at home. Don't expect that if you aren't a good cook at home you'll suddenly be a master backcountry chef. So, practice good cooking at home.
My bible on cooking and eating outside is the NOLS Backcountry Cookery Book. Just buy it. But the key ideas are:
Bring nuts and dried fruit (trail mix) for quick, fatty calories that you need to keep going during the day.
Bring tea, coffee, etc. to make hot drinks in the night and morning.
Bring dried grains (the book has a nice formula for deciding how much) for the staples.
Bring a bunch of interesting and interchangable things to help jazz up the grains. Your trail mix is the first one. Others are: tomato paste, salt, pepper, fresh veggies, garam masala, etc.
Baking mix and some margarine ("Earth Balance" has a nice flavor) are good to have. You can make pancakes, biscuits, savory fry breads, etc. that fulfill cravings.
Know the edible plants (and animals, like fish) in your area. REALLY KNOW THEM if you are going to eat...and enjoy.
Avoid foods that
- Are sticky or that leave a residue on fingers. It's hard enough to keep hygiene when backpacking.
- Require refrigeration. Maybe if you know it will be cold enough the whole time... but why
- Require being cooked through prior to eating (raw meats, etc). Cooking on long hikes is tricky enough and checking meat temp is difficult. Also likely to overlap with #2.
- Are not easily divided. We used to carry a small block of cheese. Now we carry it cut into chunks. Less handling means less risk of contamination.
- Are shared communally. That bag of trail mix everyone has put their hand in? Stay away unless you like Noro/Ecoli/etc.
- Are low salt. Unless you have a medical reason from a doctor to avoid salt, you need it when hiking. Even in cold you are going to sweat out a lot of electrolytes.
Also avoid a food mix that is too off balance. You don't want all protein, all carb, 0 fat, etc. You need all three to survive, all the more so when hiking for multiple days with a pack. Generally I go with a ratio of 1/3/1 - protein/carb/fat but that is just what works for me.
It depends on the kind of hike. But some of my 50 cents:
- If you don't want to take tools to cook, use food that comes self-supportive.
- If you don't have water, don't eat food that needs a lot of water (or dehydrating)
- If space is important, use freeze-dried food.
- If space is important, don't use food with lots of empty space in it, like normal bread, candy bars which are crunchy etc.
- If the hike is longer than some days or in hot weather, don't use food that degenerates fast (like meat).
Some of my favorite food is:
- Warm food: complete meals (well, minimal complete) in a metal case ... to be used on a mini cooker without the necessity of other tools (except a fork to eat)
- Biscuits which are concentrated, with cheese or ham (latter only in case of not hot weather/short hikes)
- In case of a short hike, I take an apple/banana (banana also good for short energy)
A lot of this is going to be subjective, but here is what I avoid:
Anything with sugar alcohols. The only exception being stevia/erythritol. Everything else causes gastric distress, at least for me. So watch out for sports bars and powders that contain things like sorbitol, xylitol, or malitol.
Dried fruits with too much fiber. Usually prunes or dried apricots. Again, gastric distress unless you only eat a little. But why bother bringing them at that point? Yes, I have experienced backpacking while constantly having to empty my bowels, and it's no fun. It also dehydrates you.
Store bought jerky. This might seem like an obvious choice for camping or backpacking, but I have always regretted it since store bought jerky always used low grade meat that is too tough and gets stuck in your teeth, and it's super salty which will make you drink more water. If you really want to bring meat, either freeze some meat before you leave or make your own jerky with a dehydrater.
Meat that goes bad easily, like chicken.
Food that is too low in fat. While your body can use sugar and carbs for quick energy, it needs fat to function properly. Nuts are good for this, of course. Just don't think you can go strictly on rice, beans, and pasta the whole time. Don't feel bad about eating a lot of fat because you're supposed to be burning it off by being in the outdoors.