When planning backpacking meals, most people focus solely on calories. Yeah, calories are definitely important but (as I’ve ranted about here), they aren’t everything.
In addition to calories, your body needs many micronutrients for functions like:
- Repairing tissue
- Reducing inflammation (and that post-hike pain you feel)
- Metabolizing calories (yeah, you need nutrients to break down all that crap you’ve been eating on the trail!)
- Fluid balance
- Regulating blood pressure
- Providing oxygen to muscles
- Brain function and decision-making…
So, it’s not a good idea to eat nothing but Fritos and Pringles on the trail! (sorry dad!)
How the heck are you supposed to get all these micronutrients while backpacking? One solution is to incorporate these superfoods into your backpacking meals.
Title photo: Oatmeal with hazelnuts, dried pears, cardamom, and ginger.
1. Dehydrated Kale Powder
Kale is a nutritional superfood because it contains loads of calcium, iron, B vitamins, vitamin C, and other nutrients. You obviously aren’t going to lug around stalks of fresh kale with you on the trail. However, you can dehydrate kale until the leaves are brittle.
I then grind up the dehydrated kale into a powder. This powder goes into the cooking water before I make couscous or instant mashed potatoes. The best part? Even my picky daughter will eat the kale this way!
*You can also buy greens powders. These powders generally have other flavors added to them so you can mix them with water and drink.
2. Chia Seeds
With about 140 calories per ounce, chia seeds are a very calorie-dense food (see more calorie-dense backpacking food ideas here). They are also a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids. You’ve probably heard a lot of hype about Omega 3s. That’s because Omega 3s have benefits like reducing inflammation – which is great for reducing all those pains you feel after a long day of hiking.
Flax seed is also a good backpacking superfood. It has even more calories per ounce and tons of Omega 3 too. However, it doesn’t taste nearly as good as chia.
How to use? Put chia seeds in your morning oatmeal. Or, add chia seeds and some dark chocolate to your trail mix. Let the chocolate melt and all the chia seeds will get stuck in it.
Quinoa is a seed, but it is cooked and used like a grain. It is a great alternative to rice and has a heck of a lot more in terms of nutrition. You’ll get tons of protein from it (which you’ll need to repair your muscles), as well as magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, iron, copper, and B vitamins.
How to use? It takes quite a while to cook quinoa, so you could end up wasting a lot of fuel. One option is to buy instant quinoa at the supermarket. Or, do what I do: Cook a dish with quinoa in it. Then spread it on the dehydrator. Dehydrate until it cracks easily.
Once dehydrated, you get about 130 calories per ounce!
To rehydrate, all you need to do is add hot water and wait about 5 minutes. It doesn’t get easier than that!
You can find quinoa dehydrator recipes like this one in my book, Gourmet As Heck Backpacking Dehydrator Recipes. It will be out very soon!
4. Coconut Flour
I love the taste of coconut flour. It is a great backpacking superfood because it has a high calorie density and also nutritional benefits like:
- Aiding in digestion
- Keeps blood sugar levels stable
- Contains healthy fats
- Fights inflammation
- Good source of protein
- Source of electrolytes
How to use? If you eat oatmeal for breakfast, add a few scoops of coconut flour to it. Or, use coconut flour when making your own energy bars.
5. Cacao Nibs
Cacao nibs are pieces of dried cacao bean. Yes, that’s chocolate in its original form! Cacao contains a small amount of caffeine: about 12mg per tbsp. That’s not anywhere close to the 100mg you’ll get from an 8oz. cup of coffee. However, it will give you a pick-me-up as you hike.
Cacao is also an amazing source of phytonutrients. These nutrients help keep you alert, in focus, and in a good mood. The high amount of magnesium helps regulate more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body and keep nerve and muscle function going.
On top of that, cacao nibs are rich in iron – something female backpackers like me need to be particularly vigilant about.
How to use? Sprinkle cacao nibs on your morning oatmeal. Put them in DIY energy bars. Or bring a cacao powder (not processed cocoa) and drink it.
Virtually all spices are loaded with antioxidants and compounds which do wonders for circulation, fighting inflammation, digestion, immunity, and focus. Some of the best spices are:
- Mustard seed
How to use? I make my own backpacking meals with my dehydrator. So, I can easily add as many spices as I want to my meals (another reason to go the DIY route with meals). If you are buying backpacking meals, like the ones from Backpackers Pantry, then you can do this:
Bring a few little baggies with spice mixes in them. For example, cinnamon and nutmeg are great on oatmeal. A mix of coriander, cumin, turmeric, and ginger is great with couscous. Put generous sprinkles of the spice mix on your meals before eating. You’ll get a nutritional boost and your meals will stop tasting so bland.
*Read these Tips for Planning Backpacking Meals
7. DIY Dehydrated Fruits
The dehydrated fruits you get in stores usually is loaded with processed sugar and additives. So, while the fruit itself may have benefits, a lot of it is getting ruined by the sugar (which causes blood sugar to spike then crash, plus causes inflammation)..
Instead, you can easily dehydrate your own fruit to put in trail mix. My favorites are dehydrated strawberries and bananas.
Dried blueberries are also awesome and they’ve started making more appearances in our camping breakfasts.
You’d also be surprised how delicious dehydrated oranges, pineapple, and kiwi are. These are great for boosting your vitamin C intake on the trail.
Note that dehydrating does destroy some of the nutrients in fruits. I keep the temperature of my dehydrator at 104F/40C or below to preserve more nutrients.
An alternative is to buy freeze dried fruits. The freeze drying process keeps more nutrients intact. However, freeze-dried fruits are fairly pricy plus don’t shrink as much as dehydrated ones (and thus take up more space in your pack). Here’s how to make backpacking meals from freeze-dried ingredients.
Role of Micronutrients in Sport and Physical Activity