John Muir Trail, Part 4: Food

Planning meals for backpacking trips is hard. Foods need to be optimized for weight and – to a lesser degree – space. You want to bring just the right amount of food to be satiated, without being wasteful. People in your group must actually want to eat the food you bring. There should be sufficient variety to ensure you look forward to meals; but also, you want to avoid having to do too much planning and testing. Avoid meals that require long simmer times, which wastes fuel and patience. Watch out for “messy” recipes that involve oil or making glop which will be a pain to clean.

While you’re on the trail, the normal rules for nutrition are flipped; you want abundant fats, carbohydrates, simple sugar and salt. My main metric is “energy density;” how many calories per gram does something contain? The higher the calorie density, the more efficient it is to carry. Nuts and candy (sugar) are more than 5 calories per gram; dehydrated beans and rice are about 3 calories per gram.

How much food to bring?

Strenuous backpacking burns about 4000-6000 calories per day. Don’t plan on eating that much per day; it would weigh a lot (even 6000 calories of energy-rich almonds would weigh 1.2 kg or 2.6 lbs), and you’ll find that your appetite won’t match your energy demands.Most people who hike the JMT will lose 5-10 lbs. You’ll still be eating more than usual; a single “normal” serving for a 2000 daily calorie diet is too little.

I generally plan for 1.5 servings per person, with a 3000 daily calorie target; and I aim for about 1.3 – 1.5 lbs of food per person per day (590-680g).

Assuming you’re doing the JMT in 21 days, that is about 27-31 lbs of food per person. Most people divide their meals and mail their food in advance to resupply points at Tuolumne meadows (optional); Red’s Meadow (Devil’s Postpile); and Muir Trail Ranch. Even so, there is no easy resupply south of Muir Trail Ranch, and the stretch from Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney Portal will take 9-10 days, so you’ll need to carry 12-15 lbs of food.

If you bring a bit too much food, you can leave it the resupply locations for other hungry backpackers. Likewise, you can almost certainly scrounge for extra food at these spots, or buy extras from the stores. The PCT hikers in particular are voracious; their appetite has had enough time to adapt to match their energy needs. Sometimes you’ll find kind souls have organized the spare goodies, like in this bear box at Red’s Meadow:

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Give us our daily soup

One thing I’ve learned from my dad is the importance of soup when backpacking. After a long day on the trail, within a few minutes of arriving to camp I’ll start heating water for soup. It does wonders to restore spirits, erase cranky moods, and it will keep you warm as you finish setting up camp.

Oatmeal is yucky, granola is tasty

OK, maybe that’s a bit strong, but watch it on the heated breakfast glop. Cream of wheat and oatmeal are super-easy to pack and are nutritious, but you might face a rebellion if you try to serve that stuff every day. Sometimes, oatmeal just seems so… depressing and not fun to eat. Even though it’s served cold, granola (or other cereals) always seem to be something people look forward to.

“Lunch” is a series of snacks

I’d suggest that you don’t plan for a single large mid-day meal, but instead bring a steady stream of snacks you can eat throughout the day. Usually, this is some combination of energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, candy, and jerky; and also, powdered drink mixes for electrolytes and quick sugar.

Freeze-dried food packets?

It’s tempting to just buy the freeze-dried food packets which are ubiquitous at mountaineering stores (Mountain House, Alpine Aire, etc). This isn’t a bad option; some of these are quite tasty! But be sure to consider a few things first:

  • A single serving is too small; you’ll definitely want to plan 1.5 – 2x servings per person. Give the calories and serving sizes a careful look.
  • Read the directions ahead of time, because some packets aren’t just-add-water; e.g. we discovered a yakisoba noodle dish directions included stir-frying for 10 minutes, which was tricky with our cook kit on a windy day.
  • Test all the meals at home. We found that one of our friends just couldn’t stand certain items, they upset her stomach.
  • You’ll need to carry out the bags as waste; this can add up.
  • The food packets can be rather pricey. You can buy them in bulk online, but even so the costs can add up.

Meals that worked well

Breakfast

  • Granola, 3/4 cups per person, with powdered milk pre-mixed in (we used soy milk powder – to each their own).
  • Powdered eggs (1/2 cup dry) served on top of mashed potatoes (1/2 cup dry)
  • Additionally, somewhat watered down powdered protein shake

“Lunch” snacks

Note that lunch is, by a significant margin, the heaviest meal.

  • Assortment of energy bars, e.g. Kind bars, Clif bars, etc.
  • Turkey jerky
  • Drinks
  • Dried fruit – mango and ginger. Note that Trader Joes unsweetened mangos are reliably cheap and good quality.
  • Nuts

Dinner

  • Soup
    • Freeze-dried split pea (1/2 dry cup per person)
    • Miso (weighs practically nothing)
  • Cous-cous
    • Bulk cous-cous is cheap!
    • For each person, 1.25 cups dry cous-cous, plus veggie soup bullion cube, raisins, and sliced almonds (stored separately).
    • (Optional) Add a small glug of olive oil to liven it up
  •  Black beans and rice
    • For each person, 3/4 cups dehydrated black beans mixed with 3/4 cups instant rice
    • Add dehydrated veggies, 1 tbsp tomato powder, and chili powder to taste
  • These chow mein noodles – one bag per person.
  • Tea after dinner is lovely; it keeps people warm and hydrated, and weighs very little.

Packing

Remove excess packaging before leaving, and combine items where it makes sense. For example, I unbagged the chow mein noodles and put several together into a zip lock bag. For some foods, consider repackaging in double-bagged paper sacks which can be burned at your campsite, to avoid having to carry the waste.

Bring a backup meal

I always pack an extra breakfast + lunch + dinner in case plans changes or there is a problem. This has saved me on multiple occasions!

Figure out your bear cans

You are required to bring bear cans, and to completely fit all your food into them. Depending on your itinerary and resupply points, you will probably need the capacity to carry between 9-11 days of food. Make sure your food fits! For the three of us, we needed four 700 cubic inch bear cans.

Test your food and cook kit

I know I’ve said this earlier, but it’s really important that your group goes on a “test run” backpacking trip before your big JMT trip. Make sure that your “kitchen” works for you; does the stove heat water fast enough? Is the pot steady or could it tip over? Do you need a way to hold the pot to pour water into your mugs? Will people eat this food? Is there too little or too much?

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John Muir Trail, Part 3: Gear

What should you pack for a 200+ mile journey? Everyone starts knowing that they need as light a pack as possible, and promise to carry as little as possible; but all too often, they wind up carrying too much.

I think some people get caught in a “high-tech gear” mentality that causes its own problems. It’s tempting to believe that if you purchase the newest, lightest weight stuff, you can cut the weight and be more prepared. While it’s true that you can often spend $100 extra to shave a few grams, the returns on high-end camping gear are rapidly diminishing. For the most part, I urge buyers on focus on the middle-quality stuff; neither the heavy lowest-priced stuff, nor the extremely expensive ultra-light gear. But more importantly, avoid the mindset of buying neat gadgets that aren’t absolutely required.

A corollary of carrying as little as possible is deliberately planning to not prepare for certain circumstances; it’s impossible to bring enough gear for all contingencies. I’d suggest you list the climate ranges and obstacles you are planning for, and which conditions you are knowingly unprepared for.

Climate

Plan for mostly dry weather, with high exposure. During the daytime, you’ll usually be wearing shorts and t-shirts; you’ll be sweating a lot. Evenings can get cold quickly, down to freezing – but usually not too far below freezing.

  • A 3-season 15-degree sleeping bag is fine.  Don’t bring a 4-season monster sleeping bag; it’s not worth the weight and space. 
  • There may be rain; usually in the form of afternoon thundershowers. I’d suggest agreeing that rain will just suck, and you should only bring minimal rain gear like a lightweight jacket that doubles as a wind breaker. Consider whether you really need that pack cover.
  • Skip the ice gear unless you’re hiking early in the season, or it was a known big snow year. Leave the crampons, ice axes, and gaiters at home.

Mosquitos

Mosquitos can be bad, especially early in the season. Always bring some high-power DEET repellent; skip the hand-wringing about natural alternatives or lower-concentration stuff. If you’re going early in the season, bring a hat that has a mosquito net.

Otherwise, there’s not much extra gear you should bring; if bugs are a big problem, you can try to camp at higher elevations.

Hygine

Plan to be dirty and stinky. Accept it, and embrace it. Make a pact with your fellow travelers that nobody will mind a bit of B.O. and throw out the deodorant, creams, etc. Do not plan to use soap on your person; it’s not good for the fragile environment, and what’s the point?

Yes, you should of course occasionally towel off in a stream or jump into a lake. Hand-wash clothes in a stream. But you’ll find that once you get to camp after a long day and the chill sets in, it’s awfully hard to be as motivated to stay clean – and that’s OK.

You do  want to keep your sleeping bag clean. Your skin is covered with nasty dust + sunblock + mosquito repellent. At a minimum, I wipe my arms and nest off every evening, and wear clean(-ish) thermal underwear in my sleeping bag.

First aid

You’ll hear all sorts of wide-ranging advice on how much first-aid preparedness is needed, and how extensive your first-aid kit should be. I’m not at all an expert, and I’d suggest checking out this book (if you’re bringing an e-reader, be sure to carry a copy). That being said,  weight is limited, so any first-aid kit will need to make trade-offs weighted by the likelihood and consequences of various potential issues. You should plan for the problems you know you’ll have: in particular, there will be blisters, so bring lots of mole skin and blister care; and it’s all too easy to twist a knee or ankle, so bring ace bandages. You’ll want lots of ibuprofin for muscle pain and headaches. Your first aid kit should cover cuts, burns, allergic reactions (benadryl); but you can’t plan for everything. You might want to ask your doctor about altitude medication, but results may vary.

Water treatment

While on the trail, I heard several people proudly say that they don’t bother to treat their water and drink directly from the streams. While the Sierra water is pretty clean and you certainly won’t die doing this, there is a real issue with the parasite giardia; in fact, my dad got this several years ago in the Sierras. It’s not all that bad, but it’s not at all fun and would ruin your trip.  Treat your water.

Shoes

The single most important piece of gear to get right is your hiking shoes. Badly fitting or inappropriate shoes will ruin a trip; it’s entirely in your control to get right.  You should ensure your shoes are broken in, and that you’ve gone on a test trip  while carrying a full backpacking load up and down rough terrain.

It seems that hiking shoes have become increasingly popular; we saw a number of people hiking in them. I still like a full boot (especially when in rougher and rockier terrain) but boots certainly cause more blisters. A lot of people on the trail were wearing mini-gaters to keep gravel and dust out of their boots; it’s the 2016 hiker style!

Navigation

Any device with batteries is not to be trusted. Do NOT rely on GPS devices or your phone. Bring a good topo map, and know how to read it.

Phones

Mobile phones aren’t useful on the trail, and they’re surprisingly heavy. That being said, a phone is incredibly useful the moment you finish your journey, or if you have to leave the trail. I’d suggest bringing one phone per group.

Packing Lists

Everyone has a different goal for what a pack should weigh. It depends on your tolerance for losing certain comforts, hiking speed, how much food you eat, etc. My personal goal is that my fully-loaded pack, with 9 days of food and two liters of water, should be at most 40lbs (~18kg).

My meals average about 1.3lbs per person per day; so 9 days of food weighs about 12lbs. Two liters of water weigh about 4lbs. This means that my target maximum weight for a pack without food is about 26 lbs (~12kg).

Everyone has different packing lists. The REI JMT list is a fine place to start. I’d suggest that you think about your gear not as one list, but as:

  • Core – my required items
  • Shared – items the entire group uses (so the weight can be split)
  • Group optional – “extras” for the entire group
  • Personal optional – “extras” for me
  • Food

Core (target: 17lbs)

My core “personal essentials” backpack kit should weigh in at less than 17lbs. (For the purpose of weighing, I exclude the clothes I’m wearing – so I’m not counting the boots and one outfit). For the JMT, I packed:

  • Boots
  • Backpack
  • Empty water bottles
  • Flashlight (head lamp) and spare batteries
  • Rain cover for backpack (I just use a big trash bag)
  • Pair of sandals
  • Clothes
    • 3 changes underwear
    • 3 changes thick socks
    • 1 thermal underwear pants (for sleeping and cold mornings)
    • 3 fast-drying short-sleeve shirts
    • 1 pair fast-drying shorts
    • 1 pair fast-drying long pants
    • Small towel
    • Long-sleeve layer (thin and warm)
    • Down jacket
  • Note pad and pencil (not pen)
  • Sleeping bag (15 degree, goose down)
  • Sleeping pad 
  • Toothbrush, floss, toothpaste
  • Cash, credit card, ID, insurance card
  • Knife / multi-use tool
  • Sunglasses
  • Chapstick
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sun block (8oz per person, for 20 days)
  • Toilet paper
  • Duct tape
  • Lighters (2 per person)

 

Duct tape is incredibly useful stuff. Besides fixing gear, you can wrap your feet to prevent blisters. I’d suggest as much as 4 yds/person. A good way to pack duct tape is to wrap it around your water bottle.

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I know I’ll be pilloried for saying this, but I don’t think a compass is necessary. There are enough features in the Sierras that you’ll be fine as long as you can read a topo map and can figure out which way is roughly North.

I’ve found that a pair of sandals is absolutely essentialNot only do your feet demand you slip into something different when you reach camp, but sandals are also useful for river crossings, and are a measure of last resort if your boots become unbearable and you need to wear something. I love my lightweight, fast-drying closed-toe sandals.

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Shared (target: 6 lbs / person)

The per-person weight of shared gear of course depends on how many people are hiking together and sharing tents.

  • Maps
  • First-aid kit – I’d suggest packing your blister-care and ibuprofin separately, since you’ll be reaching for these much more often. 
  • Cook kit
    • Fuel
    • Stove
    • Pot
    • Cups
    • Utensils
    • Brillo pad – just a small square to clean-up
    • A bit of soap – you don’t need much, just 1-2 oz of Dr. Bronners. Cleans out cook kit if it gets oily. 
    • Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes
  • Tents
    • It’s a good idea to bring a tent footprint too, to help keep water out and reduce wear on the tent. Instead of buying a fancy tent-specific footprint, you just cut out a footprint from the 0.4mm plastic sheets used for painting.
    • My wife and I shared a tent; but I’d suggest considering personal tents. They weigh about the same fractional weight as a shared tent; and you’ll probably sleep better not being right next to someone.
  • Bear cans – there are different models; but the 700 cubic inch Bear Vault was by far the most popular choice. It weighs 2.5 lbs; we needed 4 of these cans to carry 10 days of food for 3 people.
  • Small shovel – for toilet needs. Plastic shovels do break; there are light metal shovels. 
  • Water purification – strongly recommended to bring a backup pump.
  • Spare nylon cord (at least 20 feet), nylon straps – it’s always useful to have some extra nylon cord – it can be a clothes line; fix shoe laces; fix backpacks; strap gear on; hold a tarp; etc. 

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Water purification

There are a growing number of purification options. Most people avoid iodine (except as a backup) because you have to wait and it tastes weird. For pumps, make sure you can either clean it if it gets clogged, or have a backup option. I’ve become enamored of the Sawyer squeeze system; not because it’s easy (it’s a bit of a pain) but because it’s very light and easy to keep clean (by backwashing), which makes it much more reliable.

How much fuel? Which stove?

It was hard to get data on how much fuel we should plan to bring. Of course, everyone will say “it depends.” In our case, we used a Jet Boil Sumo stove with half-pound ISO fuel containers. We were surpised to find we could get 5 days per half-pound container of fuel for 3 people, which included boiling water every day for: morning coffee; breakfast; soup; dinner; and tea.

We saved a bit of fuel by only heating pre-treated water, so we didn’t need to boil for an extended period of time to kill e.g. giardia. However, the more recent guidelines in the previously mentioned book Wilderness Medicine suggest that just 2 minutes of boiling probably suffice.

Optional shared items (target: 1lb / person)

There are some “luxury” items that benefit the whole group, so should be tallied as a shared weight. These include:

  • Solar charger
  • Cell phone
  • Water sack – for camp
  • Back roller
  • Pack of cards
  • Satellite communicator – I’d say about a third of people on the JMT trail were carrying a Delorme Explorer

Beware solar chargers. Some people on the trail were festooned with solar panels, and it seems ridiculous to have that many gadgets.

A back roller is surprisingly great. A compact roller only weighs a few ounces, and we found ourselves using it every night on our legs and backs. It made a big difference.

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Personal optional items (target: 2 lbs/person)

This is the hardest category; the line between “optional” and “necessary” can be blurry. I’d suggest you ask yourself “is this thing necessary for basic survival? Is bringing this going to make my trip so much better that I can afford the weight?” This is the category where you cut first when weight becomes an issue.

 

  • Trekking poles
  • Watch – ideally, with an altimeter
  • Camera – with batteries, or some way to keep charged
  • Binoculars
  • Books or e-book reader, like a Kindle
  • Toiletries – hand lotions, etc. These can get heavy!
  • Extra storage pouch
  • Pillow
  • Sitting pad
  • Star guide
  • Musical instrument

Trekking poles are so useful I debated whether to put them in the core category. They reduce wear on my knees, and saved me from a number of falls. If you use poles, I think these are one place where it’s worth it to spend the money on the ultra-lightweight carbon fiber models.

These days, bringing an ebook reader seems almost like a no-brainer. It’s lighter than a book, and you can read without making a rustle in the tent. And you can bring reference material for first-aid or navigation.