by Diane Spicer
Satisfying backpacking food: an elusive quest every hiker knows a little something about.
Ever wake up at midnight in your sleeping bag and re-live every bite of dinner?
Or can't fall asleep because you're hungry?
Realistically, there's only so much you can do to achieve a full stomach on a hiking trip.
The other part?
Let's geek out on brain biochemistry, to be exact.
You might think it's a full stomach you're after, when in fact, it's a way to satisfy your bossy brain.
Brain cells need a steady (some would say relentless) supply of fuel molecules in order to keep performing their important work.
You know, the work you depend on to keep yourself safe on a hike:
So you have to fool your brain into thinking you ate more than you actually did with the limited rations in your backpack.
Is that even possible?
Yes! But it takes some planning and knowledge.
If you had to sit down and eat until your stomach was completely full, you couldn't do it.
You have a built in warning system in your brain that says "that's enough, go do something else for awhile".
(At least that's what mine says. In a British accent, no less.)
Scientists call this loss of interest in eating once you've gotten a reasonable volume of food in your stomach by this name:
Backpackers call it a curse.
So you're going to have to get sneaky about provoking a satiety signal between gut and brain.
And believe it or not, there's a Satiety Index you can use to do that.
Let's just cut to the chase here.
Some of the foods which register as "really filling" on the satiety index are no brainers for backpacking:
These have an additional benefit to you: lots of soluble and insoluble fiber, which has been noted to fill you up even when not high in calories.
If you rehydrate these foods with generous portions of water, you'll also get a lot of volume out of them.
So if you can carry enough of those backpacking foods, and manage to get enough of it into your stomach at any one time, you'll feel full enough to also feel satisfied.
If you can spare the weight, here's another highly satisfying backpacking food to carry:
The oil component leads us into the next important issue for feeling full after a backpacking meal...
The same scientists who gave us the index also gave us another clue to how to feel full after a backpacking meal: palatability.
Enter your clever brain again, and with just one word: fats.
There's a simple logic to it, because foods high in fats contain more calories AND taste really good, so you tend to think of them as palatable.
This means pack a lot of nuts, nut butters, cheese, trail mix containing chocolate chunks, in addition to the food already mentioned above.
But eating them in moderate amounts will pay you back with more stamina, endurance, and the all important feeling of fullness:
High protein foods keep you feeling full longer.
If you're eating small amounts of protein at supper time, you will probably wake up in the middle of the night with screaming hunger pangs.
Another trick you can use to trigger that "full" feeling, if you don't mind getting up during the night, is to ingest a few mugs of water along with dinner.
The high volume in your stomach will send a satiety signal to the brain, at least long enough for you to fall asleep.
Thanks, stomach stretch receptors!
Do you sometimes crave baked potatoes, and big slabs of heavy breads with butter during a multi day backpacking trip?
Or a huge bowl of guacamole with salty chips?
These foods rank high on the satiety and palatability scales.
So if at all possible, bring along some butter or guacamole for your first night out, or a big hunk of aged cheese that can be added to dinners for several nights before turning rancid.
Bring a small amount of high quality olive oil, and add it to breakfast and dinner hot entrees.
When your body is sending clear signals for fats, salt, protein, now you know how to game the system in your favor on a backpacking trip.
Simply pay attention to the factors that make you feel fuller after a meal:
Tip: Keep a food journal on your next backpacking trip for just this reason.
Satisfying backpacking food is way more than just your favorite flavor of instant oatmeal!
Get deliberate about your food choices, and watch your mood, stamina and attitude improve.
For more trustworthy and specific tips on hiking food and nutrition, try these Hiking For Her Fast Facts booklets.
Satisfying Backpacking Food
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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