Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Long distance dining: food on the Tay watershed walk

The makings of a feast in Glen Feshie
Food is fuel and is thus a big deal on a long distance walk, but get the balance right in your food bag and it's not something you need to worry about too much. I did a lot of research on food and nutrition before the Tay watershed walk, reading outdoors blogs and loitering around the supermarket aisles looking for likely items, reading calories and ingredients.

As part of the planning and preparation it was time well spent as I ate well with little hassle throughout the walk. I didn't buy a single item of fancy, costly freeze-dried expedition food, and thrived on what was available in your average small-to-medium sized grocery shop in your average Scottish village. I hit on several things I liked and stuck with them, so kept it simple with just enough variety to avoid boredom.

For me, there were seven main considerations when working out my diet for the trip:
  1. Do I like it? Peanut butter got the heave-ho after a few days. I'd packed it due to its high fat, protein and calorie content and thought that pragmatism aided by hunger would overcome my distaste for the stuff. It was not to be. Peanut butter is just too horrible.
  2. Weight and bulk. The lighter and less bulky the better, of course.
  3. Calories. Needs to pack a high calorific punch relative to weight and bulk. For an evening meal it was easy to knock something together that matched, if not exceeded, the calorie content of an expensive freeze-dried outdoors meal. For hot drinks and to mix in with breakfast porridge I used a full-cream milk powder called Nido. This is the only foodstuff I bought in advance, and I sent supplies to myself at a couple of hostels I'd be staying at. Outside cities it's difficult to get, and shops tend to stock skimmed milk powder instead - useless for the hungry backpacker.
  4. Nutritional balance. Carbohydrates yes, but also protein and especially fat, which packs a mighty number of calories relative to weight and bulk. Protein and fat make you feel fuller for longer too. I've learned through personal experience that relying too heavily on carbs for energy leads to blood sugar crashes, irritability and ultimately a lack of stamina and energy.
  5. Easy to make. No dishes of Heston Blumenthal-esque complexity, no sweating wannabe Masterchef impressions. The journey from packet to stomach needs to be reasonably quick with as few steps as possible. Saves fuel too.
  6. Indestructible. Can it stand up to being squashed into a backpack and jiggled about all day? I plumped for tortillas over oatcakes as the lunchtime staple for this reason. Moist cereal bars were in, dry crumbly ones out (that means you, Nature's Valley!).
  7. How long will it keep for? Fresh fruit and veg were out, obviously. Around once a week, when I had a rest day, I'd stoke up on them: a carton of orange juice at breakfast, a few apples through the day, salad with lunch and dinner. I didn't get scurvy and was in rude health throughout the walk. Maybe the kids are right - greens are overrated! On the trail, tortillas kept well, tubes of Primula squeezy cheese were fine, and for protein smoked sausage and tinned fish.
 So, taking these considerations into account, this is what my daily menu looked like:
  • Breakfast: Porridge with a couple of spoonfuls of Nido; tea or coffee; a handful of nuts and dried fruit. Sometimes I'd have a tortilla with honey too.
  • Lunch: I like to have a proper lunch stop when I'm walking. I'd have a couple of tortillas with cheese spread and slices of smoked sausage. I'd also have something sweet - chocolate, a cereal bar, a couple of Tunnock's caramel wafers - whatever snacks I was carrying with me at the time. If the weather was good I might set up the stove and have a brew, but more often I didn't bother.
  • Dinner - main course: The big one, and the meal I looked forward to most. The basis of the meal would be either a packet of flavoured couscous (the Ainsley Harriott range is good as it contains some dried veg), Uncle Ben's flavoured rice (reassuringly short list of ingredients), or a packet of dried pasta and sauce cooked with a dollop of Nido in lieu of fresh milk. Then I'd add either a tin of fish - usually sardines or mackerel - or sliced smoked sausage, and finally slosh in some olive oil (this would go in at the start with pasta). My personal favourite was Uncle Ben's Mexican style rice with sardines. The rice is parboiled so the packet is relatively heavy, but on the plus side it only needs a tiny amount of water and is done in three minutes. This meal, including olive oil, packs around 750 calories. Beat that, la-di-da freeze-dried expedition food!
  • Dinner - dessert: Sometimes I'd just have a snack bar or mixed fruit and nuts, but on really hungry evenings I'd make up a packet of custard powder. Packets like the one in the photo above make up about 450mls of custard, which is a lot. Some Nido and raisins make it even more calorific.
  • Snacks and drinks: Throughout the day I'd have a few snacks. These varied but generally involved a bag of some sort of dried fruit and nut mix in the hip belt pocket of my pack, chocolate biscuits, chocolate bars, cereal and fruit bars, and occasionally beef jerky though this was often hard to get hold of. Whitworth's chocolate-covered raisins became a favourite treat. As soon as the tarp was pitched in the evening I'd make a massive mug of tea. I was using as a mug one half of the plastic caddy I used for carrying the stove and associated paraphernalia. This could take at least 700mls, so I'd boil around that much water and use two teabags and lots of Nido. Tea would be taken with a few squares of dark chocolate. In the morning I like a coffee. I'm a sucker for the real stuff so usually had Lyons coffee bags, a bit pricey but worth it for a morale-boosting start to the day.

I walked the Tay catchment boundary for two great charities, Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.
You can still sponsor me by making a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/taycatchmentwalkswlg

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