By Zach Lawrence
Packing the proper—and right amount—of food for your backcountry winter excursions can be overwhelming when you’re first starting out. You can get ideas online, but the bottom line is you have to find out what works best for you.
This guide will provide a baseline. Everyone’s dietary preferences and needs are different, but there are items everyone should include.
Whatever you do bring, make sure it will stay edible in the cold, and make sure you bring enough to sustain you for at least one more day longer than you plan to be out should something go wrong.
Why it’s Important
“The big reason behind it all is the process of digesting food and your metabolism is what will keep you warm,” says Adirondack Mountain Club Outreach Coordinator Tom Manitta.
Your layering system keeps you warm by trapping heat produced by your body, and your body produces heat by burning calories. “By consistently fueling your internal furnace with calories, much like adding wood to your fireplace at home, you’re giving your body the energy required to stay warm,” Adirondack Mountain Club Education Programs Coordinator Tyler Socash says.
What to Look For
When hiking in the winter, the goal is to eat what will sustain you and keep you warm. Manitta urges hikers to bring foods that are high in protein, fat, and calories.
In the winter, foods will be kept at below freezing temperatures most of the time. Therefore, popular summer hiking foods like Snickers and energy bars “will freeze up solid,” warns Manitta. If you decide to bring foods that may freeze, Manitta mentions that keeping them in an inner layer might help but be sure to bring along plenty of food that won’t freeze just in case. Any food kept in your pack can be wrapped in your extra layers to insulate them as suggested by St. Lawrence University’s Adirondack Semester Assistant Coordinator Will Madison.
Madison recommends to “definitely bring a lot of trail mix and granola bars.” The nuts, chocolate, dried fruits, and oats in these cover your protein, fat, and caloric needs. Cheese is great to bring in the winter too, but National Outdoor Leadership School Instructor Kim Covill said that it “can be really hard to cut when you’re out there.” She adds, “precut everything you can.” Bring “things that are just really easy to snack on” Madison said. “But bring a lot of food. You want a lot of calories.” Hot soup in a thermos is an easy, accessible option too.
When to Eat and Drink
In the winter, stopping for an extended period to eat could make you too cold. Socash advocates for “snacking regularly during cold-weather trips. Waiting until you reach your destination isn’t a safe nutrition strategy in the wintertime.” Keeping some food in bite-sized pieces in easy-to-reach, warm places like jacket pockets will make snacking much easier. Taking breaks as needed is key but having to stop to get food from your pack every time you need a quick snack will make you less likely to eat enough.
Drink often, too. Water is just as important to regulating body temperature as food. You won’t notice how thirsty you actually are in the cold, so it will take a conscious effort to drink enough. Having a hot drink to look forward to can help keep your fluid intake up. Madison advocates for bringing a thermos of hot chocolate with butter in it. “More butter, more better,” he says with a laugh.
Covill suggests bringing a stove in case melting water for drinking becomes necessary, but be careful. “You can’t just melt snow on a stove. It can actually burn the snow,” she warns. You’ll need at least a little water to heat with the snow to make it work.
In a nutshell, bring more food than you think you’ll need; bring protein, fat, and calorie-dense foods; keep your food and drinks warm; and eat and drink often.
Zach Lawrence is a former intern for Adirondack Explorer.