What’s missing from your backpacking meal plan
New research from MSU Denver’s Department of Nutrition reveals concerning deficiencies in popular foods for backpackers.
To reap the rewards of long-distance backpacking, every backpacker must put in some front-end preparation. There’s training for the miles you’ll cover, getting used to carrying a heavy pack and, of course, planning the food you’ll bring to fuel your efforts.
Little research exists into what foods most backpackers bring along and whether they provide adequate trail nutrition. Two professors in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Nutrition thought it was time to find out. Melissa Masters, Ph.D., and Micah Battson, Ph.D., combined efforts to research what backpackers bring along for meals and found some concerning results: All plans they analyzed were lacking in micronutrients, including fiber, folate and vitamins C and B12.
“It’s possible that micronutrient deficiencies could become concerning on an extended backpacking trip, impacting performance, injury and energy levels,” Masters said.
To perform their analysis, the MSU Denver faculty members examined popular meal plans that can be found online through blogs and backpacking-focused websites. This included homemade and pre-packaged meals such as the dehydrated options you’ll find in outdoors stores.
“Our goal was to examine a variety of types of meal plans for nutrition adequacy,” Masters said. “Meal plans are often optimized for energy density, palatability and convenience, with less consideration for dietary quality.”
The analysis considered six backpacking meal plans consisting of three to eight days’ worth of meals. A total of 18 days’ worth of meals were entered into ESHA Food Processor Nutrition Analysis software for nutrient analysis. “We analyzed calories, fiber, macronutrient and micronutrient levels as an average plus/minus standard deviation for all six meal plans,” Masters said. “Macronutrients were compared to Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges while fiber and micronutrients were compared to Daily Values.”
Masters and Battson determined that all the meals were adequate in all three of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and that they were also adequate in some micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). However, some micronutrients — including zinc, potassium, folate, vitamins B12 and C and others — appeared to be moderately or very low in backpacking meal plans, Masters said, adding that fiber was also low in some of the meal plans they analyzed.
These findings align with what Kelly Beaty, along with her practicum research team, found as well. A May recipient of a master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics at MSU Denver, Beaty also researched backpackers’ considerations for nutrition when planning for long-distance trips. A backpacker herself, Beaty has experience on the Appalachian Trail and understands how hard it can be to get adequate calories and nutrition while undertaking a long endeavor.
When backpackers stop in towns along the trails to replenish their supplies, they often have access only to gas stations or convenience stores. “So you might grab a Pop-Tart, an energy bar or some instant oatmeal,” Beaty said. “These aren’t terrible choices, but they’re not going to fill you up, either. You’ve got the constraints of what fits into your pack, also, and must be careful about buying foods that might get smashed.”
That last criterion pretty much rules out most fruits and vegetables, thus leaving backpackers short of the micronutrients mentioned above. Similarly, when Beaty and her team surveyed over 500 backpackers last year to see how their trail foods stacked up, nutrition was an afterthought.
“We asked what factors related to nutrition they considered when planning their foods and what they thought was most important to pack, with categories like cost, weight, caloric density, dietary restrictions and allergies,” she said.
Respondents considered calories, protein and fluids most important, while fiber and nutrients were at the bottom of the list.
This July, she’ll set up at two points along the Colorado Trail to survey hikers on what they’ve packed, asking them to unpack and document their food contents and then weighing it and taking pictures. “We’ll do a post-hike survey, too, to ask what they might change next time, and hopefully get a good sense of whether or not they met their daily requirements,” she said.
The end goal is to determine if the backpackers had adequate nutrition to feel their best along the route and to start making recommendations for what foods backpackers should consider based on these findings.
For those heading out on the trails this summer, Masters said to think about adding nutrition to the list of considerations when planning meals.
“Adding in foods like freeze-dried fruits, vegetables and beans to a meal plan, for example, can enhance both micronutrient and fiber content,” she said. “Little additions and changes to meal plans can make an impact to the overall nutritional quality of foods consumed while out on the trail, but the key is starting small.”