How to Eat Healthy While Camping in the Woods

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Photo: cruiznbye

A weekend in the woods is a great opportunity to get moving. In fact, hiking on a flat trail is equivalent to walking on the treadmill at a three percent incline (and we all know that walking is good for our health) [1]. Exercising (or just hanging out) outside has mental health benefits, as well: Several studies suggest humans are inherently drawn to nature and experience reduced stress when exposed to it [2]. Being in the great outdoors also gives our lungs a break from the inflammation caused by cities’ traffic congestion, construction, and other pollutants [3].

But while time spent outdoors can improve our health in several ways, it may make it harder to choose healthy options at mealtime. Whether it’s camping out of the back of your car, cramming a canoe with as much gear as possible, or heaving the bare minimum onto your shoulders and hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, packing food to keep campers healthy and energized takes a little planning.

The Challenges of Camp Food — and How to Surmount Them

Hot dogs and s’mores over the open fire. Sports drinks, candy bars, salami sticks, and chili pie — all foods people have been eating in the great outdoors since the dawn of recreational camping. These treats are pretty tasty (we admit it), but they also tend to be packed with sugar, sodium, and preservatives, which can fall short of fueling days filled with physical activity and (in the case of refined sugars) might set you up for an energy crash later in the day [4]. Luckily, it is possible to avoid nutritional pitfalls on the trail with some common-sense strategies.

Plan It Out

Before going on a trip, it’s important to write out a menu for each and every meal you’ll be eating, including snack time! These choices are final once you hit the trail, so it’s crucial to be prepared ahead of time. A good menu also serves as a packing list and ensures food is allocated to meals correctly so no one ends up with a dinner of canned peas on the last night. Be sure to take into account the number of campers on the trip as well as their personal appetites and the number of days and nights you’ll be out in the woods. Remember to pack the correct cooking tools.  And always bring along at least one extra day’s worth of food, just in case.

Tips for Car Camping

If you’re able to drive your car right up to your tent site, then you have the luxury of carting in a cooler. This makes it much easier to bring along fruits and veggies, which will give you access to important vitamins, minerals, and fiber while out in the woods. Pack produce that lasts and doesn’t bruise easily, such as oranges, apples, carrots, and celery, and place produce in hard-sided containers so it doesn’t turn to mush. Plain yogurt and fresh eggs are good sources of protein (as long as they’re consumed early in the trip, before the cooler loses its cool). Cheese, cold cuts, cooked quinoa, hummus, and homemade veggie burgers can also be stored in a cooler as long as they’re eaten within a few days.

Pack the cooler with ice packs or large chunks of ice (rather than smaller cubes) to keep food cold longer. Other keep-cool tricks? Freeze drinks, other liquids, and any freeze-able foods several days in advance of a trip so they can act as additional ice packs in the cooler before they’re consumed. During the trip, open the lid as infrequently as possible and don’t lift it the whole way up whenever you reach in to grab something. Plot out your meals so you can pack the foods that you'll eat early in the trip at the top of the cooler; this will cut down on time spent rummaging around with the lid open.

Tips for Backpacking

Even if you can’t bring along a cooler, there are a lot of healthy options for eating on the trail. Here are some tips for making sure campers have healthy choices at each meal.

Photo: iris

Breakfast
Alternate days with light breakfasts and heavier breakfasts depending on how much physical activity you have planned for each day. A great breakfast option is pre-measured baggies full of rolled oats cooked over a camp stove (or instant oatmeal packets if you’re feeling lazy). Instead of dumping sugar on top, sweeten the oats with dried fruit or honey. If you have a lot of activity planned for the day, mix in a handful of nuts to help those calories last longer [5]. Oats and nuts are both great sources of fiber, which is particularly important on the trail (when it's harder to eat produce to keep your digestive system stoked). Other solid breakfast choices are whole wheat pancakes (be sure to pack a more nutritious topping than artificial syrup) or a veggie omelet made with powdered eggs.

Snacks
If you’re hiking or swimming during the day, you’re likely to get hungry between meals (especially if you’re travelling with a larger group, which makes lunch stops less flexible). Certain fruits and veggies — such as apples, carrots, and celery sticks — will last a few days in a pack and are great for snacking (and sneaking some produce into your diet). It’s also a good idea to give each camper their own bag of trail mix — try a healthy granola recipe or the classic combination of nuts and dried fruit — to work on throughout the trip. Protein and granola bars are also options for easy snacking; just be sure to choose varieties that are low in sugar and preservatives.

Lunch
Think smorgasbord. It’s useful to bring foods that can be assembled without heat so you can stay on schedule to get to the next campsite or scale the next rockface. This means more fruits and veggies (at least for the first day or two). It also means whole grains, such as whole grain pita bread or wraps, which pack easily, are a good source of fiber, and will leave you feeling fuller longer than white breads [6]. Fill pita pockets or wraps with all-natural nut butters, hummus and veggies, or tuna, which is a good source of protein (purchase tuna in pouches, not cans, for lighter packing).

Dinner
Dinner can be a great time to get creative with camping food since you’ll have time to pull out the cooking equipment, start an open fire, and explore some serious flavor profiles. Packing different spices from home in separate baggies can make for a more flavorful meal and may add some nutritional benefits, such as antioxidants (cloves) or improved digestion (cumin and ginger).

When it comes to the main event, try beans, corn, brown rice, and salsa with Mexican spices in whole grain tortillas for Tex-Mex night. Or use whole wheat pita bread to make easy pizzas — just add sauce, cheese, and veggie toppings and toast it in a pan over a cook stove until the bread is somewhat crispy and the cheese has melted. Prepare a side of beans for a little protein and to make the meal more filling. For dessert, roast fruit over the open fire with a little honey and nuts (Or go ahead: Have a s’more or two).

Stay hydrated!
Remember to drink water at each and every meal (and between meals) while living outdoors. It’s a good general rule that each person has a minimum of two filled, 32-ounch water bottles to drink throughout the day. Know in advance what your water sources will be and whether you’ll have to bring your own, or treat the water available to ensure it’s safe to consume.

Sticking to healthy foods while enjoying the outdoors will supply enough energy to fill each day with adventures and keep a healthy diet on track. While things like weather, wildlife, and other aspects of the natural world may not be predictable, well-planned meals won’t ever let a camper down.

How do you stay healthy on the trail? Let us know in the comments below!

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Works Cited

  1. Workload comparison between hiking and indoor physical activity. Fattorini, L., Pittiglio, G., Federico, B., et al. Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Sapienza University of Rome. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012 Oct;26(10):2883-9
  2. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Gladwell, VF, Brown, DK, Wood, C., et al. School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex. Extreme Physiology and Medicine, 2013 Jan 3;2(1):3
  3. Common lung conditions: environmental pollutants and lung disease. Delzell, JE Jr. University of Kansas School of Medicine. FP Essentials, 2013 Jun;409:32-42
  4. Weight management in the performance athlete. Manore, MM. School of Biological and Population Sciences, Nutrition and Exercise, College of Public Health and Human Sciences, Oregon State University. Nestle Nutrition Institute Workshop Series, 2013;75:123-33
  5. Nuts: source of energy and macronutrients. Brufau, G., Boatella, J., and Rafecas, M. Nutrition and Food Science Department, CeRTA, University of Barcelona. The British Journal of Nutrition, 2006 Nov;96 Suppl 2:S24-8
  6. Influence of whole grain barley, whole grain wheat, and refined rice-based foods on short-term satiety and energy intake. Schroeder, N., Gallaher, DD, Arndt, EA, et al. Department of Food Sciences and Nutrition, University of Minnesota. Appetite, 2009 Dec;53(3):363-9

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