Menu Planning Fundamentals

When you’re planning a major trip or a backcountry adventure — a long distance cycling trip, a backpacking trek, or a wilderness canoe trip — you’ll need more of a menu plan than “let’s have hot dogs.” These guidelines will help you plan menus that account for calories, nutrition, rough handling, and taste.

Calorie Requirements

The first step in planning a menu is understanding your needs. The amount and type of food that you’ll need at summer camp is very different than the amount and type of food you’ll need while backpacking in the winter. The energy you need from food is determined by three things:

  • How big you are. It takes more food to keep a 200-pound Scoutmaster running
    than a 100-pound Tenderfood Scout.
  • How cold it is. The colder it is outside, the more food you’ll need to keep yourself warm.
  • How hard you’re working. The more work you’re doing (hiking, paddling, bicycling), the more energy you’re going to burn and the more food you’ll need.

You’ve probably heard that a “normal diet” is about 2000 calories. This is only true if you are a standard weight adult doing minimal work at room temperature. In a few cases (smaller Scouts doing little work), 2000 calories may be too much food. In most cases, however, 2000 calories is far too little food for outdoor activity. In the worst case (hard work in cold weather), diets over 4000 calories may quickly become necessary.

To plan the calories you’ll need, download this worksheet. Given the body weight of a Scout, the weather, and the type of work you’re going to be doing, this chart will let you look up the range of calories you’ll need to plan for, the amount of protein you’ll need each day, and the approximate weight of the food you’ll need each day (assume dried food). When using this for patrol planning, it’s usually easiest to use the average weight of the Scouts in your patrol rather than trying to add the numbers for each Scout. When in doubt, err on the side of too much food instead of too little.

Protein Requirements

Your body requires protein to rebuild muscle after a long day of work. On trips longer than a weekend, it’s important to make sure that your diet has enough protein, or you’ll lose strength as the trip goes on. The red column in the chart shows the amount of protein you should plan for each day.

Be aware that planning for twice as much protein doesn’t mean that your muscles will repair themselves twice as fast – your body can only use so much protein at a time. For normal high adventure trips, there’s no point in adding lots of extra protein beyond the amount in the red columns.

Fat Requirements

“Lite” and “Low-fat” are not good ideas for wildness meal planning! If you’re carrying your food, fat is a good way to pack a lot of calories along. By weight, fat has more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein. This makes high-fat foods — a jar of peanut butter, for example — a very good way to add some “backup calories” to your menu in case your food is running short.

The menu planning chart assumes that about 1/3 of your calories in a day will come from fat. This ratio has worked well for Northern Tier paddling trips. In very cold weather, you may want to increase the percentage of calories from fat further. In very hot weather with lots of aerobic exercise (e.g. summer bicycle trips) you may want to decrease this amount.

Food Storage and Handling

At a weekend jamboree campout, it’s easy to bring along a cooler and a plastic bin full of whatever food you want. If you’re portaging your food through the Boundary Waters or carrying it in your pack over the trails, then you’ve got to make sure your food will pack well.

Here’s some tips for handling common scenarios:

No Refrigeration

This is the most common scenario for menu planning, since coolers become impractical more than a few hundred feet away from the parking lot. In addition to planning foods that don’t need refrigeration, there are some substitutions you can make:

  • Replace butter with ghee, Indian clarified butter. If sealed in an airtight package, ghee can be stored without refrigeration.
  • Replace milk with powdered milk. (Condensed milk is also technically an option, but is much heavier.)
  • Eggs can usually be replaced with powdered eggs. Although powdered eggs may not be available at your local grocery store, they are usually available through restaurant and cafeteria supply stores.
  • If you can plan several weeks in advance, you can order dried vegetables from a number of locations online. Troop 85 has previously used “Harmony House“ and Honeyville Grain — although we do not endorse these suppliers, we have had good experiences with them in the past.

Limited weight

If weight is an issue (and if you’re carrying your food, weight is always an issue), you can use most of the “no refrigeration” tips above plus a few more:

  • Use dried and dehydrated foods whenever possible. It’s better to purify water on the trail and add it when you cook instead of carrying that water down the trail to your campsite.
  • Avoid canned food. Canned food is heavy because of the water it contains, and once you eat it you have an empty can you’ll have to pack back out of the woods.
  • Carry fatty foods. Fat is the lighest way to add calories to your diet.

Rough handling

When you’re on the trail, a certain amount of jostling is guaranteed. Delicate items in your food may be smashed or crushed if not packed carefully.

  • Avoid foods that crush easily, such as (leavened) bread and crackers. Use tougher alternatives, such as pita bread, or plan on combinations that won’t suffer from crushing. For example, vanilla wafers and pudding works quite well even when the vanilla wafers have been smashed.
  • Clever packing can preserve some items. Vacuum sealers can compress some items (like elbow pasta) and make them very hard to crush. Round cookies (such as Oreos) can be stacked into tubes and vacuum sealed.

Preparation Methods

In the wilderness, there are two ways to cook your food: lightweight stoves and no-trace fires.

  • Troop 85 uses Coleman Peak One and Feather lightweight stoves burning white gas on backpacking trips. These stoves have very good temperature control, and can be used just like a two-burner camp stove. However, you’ll need to plan for the fact that you’ll have fewer burners available.
  • No-trace fires are usually small, so plan for meals you can cook with some flames and a moderate amount of coals. Dutch oven cooking is possible, but you’ll have to be prepared to carry the weight of an aluminum dutch oven. (You’ll also need to acquire an aluminum dutch oven, since the only ones the Troop owns are cast iron.) See your Scout handbook for guidelines on how to build a no-trace fire.

Variety and Taste

Even if you have a lightweight, no-refrigeration menu with just the right amount of calories, you still want to make sure that the menu is something you want to eat.

  • Vary your menus from day to day. Eating the same meal day after day will get very old, very fast.
  • Pack seasonings. A small package of basic spices like salt, black pepper, and red pepper will require no refrigeration and lets you add flavor to any meal.
  • Plan for dessert. At the end of a long day, a package of cookies or pudding is always well received.

Special Notes: Bad Ideas

Except in very special cases, these are almost always bad ways to plan a menu. If you’re falling back to any of these solutions, think long and hard about whether they’re the best way to solve your problem.

  • MREs. Meals-ready-to-eat are used by the armed forces because they are ready-to-eat, meaning that they don’t need any additional ingredients or water. Unfortunately, this makes them very heavy, since all of the food is packed fully hydrated.
  • Freeze-dried meals. Freeze-dried dinners are light and easy to prepare (just add boiling water), but become very expensive over a long trip. Freeze-dried dinners also tend to have few calories, meaning that you will often need more than one to fill out a meal.