Confessions: Winter Camping Food

"What do you do for food?" is the one question I always get asked when I help someone get ready for their first winter camping trip. I wrote this article mainly because answering this question over and over was inefficient but also to show that there were alternatives to freeze dried or dehydrated meal plans.

I have spent whole winters eating nothing but freeze dried packs, months of eating professionally dehydrated meals and even just packing multiple days of a single type of food (I once ate nothing but peanut M&Ms on a 3 day trip!). After trying all the different types of food systems I have come to realize that having fresh food is well worth the extra weight on all but very long trips. Below I will outline my preferred food plans and why I have come to rely on them.

How Much Food Is Enough?

The first concern for most people is that they will have enough food. While winter camping you burn energy just hanging around at camp, never mind all the skiing you hope to do. I have found that 3000-4000 calories per day is what my body needs to maintain weight while winter camping. For context, a person on a normal day, with little to no activity, needs around 2000 calories to maintain body weight. When preparing individual meals I try to get about 800-900 calories for each. I try to have almost even sources of protein, fat and carbs. For an extra 500-1000 calories I pack Gatorade powder to put in my water (I have also developed a distaste for snow melt over the years) and beef jerky to snack on. Again this is what works for me and could vary depending on your body's needs.

Boil In The Bag Meals

Boil In The Bag, or BITB as I will now refer to it as, is a system where you cook your meals before hand, vacuum seal into portions and freeze for later use. When you are ready to eat you simply boil water, turn off the stove (remove from heat if eating leftovers at home) and rewarm it by soaking in the water for roughly 10-15 minutes. You don't actually boil the package in the water as the heat will break open the bag. If you did everything correctly the food should taste like it was just prepared. I've done this with many different foods with great success.

I personally prefer BITB meals over other options because I don't have to cook or clean at camp and it tastes as if you had just prepared it fresh at home. Since you eat directly out of the bag extra dishes are not required and packaging is still minimal.

You will need a vacuum sealer that can seal boil in the bag type bags, the FoodSaver brand has worked great for me.

BITB vs Freeze Dried vs Dehydrated

BITB is obviously heavier than dehydrated food but there is no at camp cooking and clean up, which is really the only advantage in that comparison. When comparing it to freeze dried options, where you only need to pour boiled water into a bag and wait, the main advantage is taste. Both dehydrated and freeze dried end up costing 2-5 times as much as BITB per calorie, (unless you make your own dehydrated meals, in which case would cost the same as BITB). The following is a breakdown comparison between freeze dried and BITB meals.

Backpacker's Pantry Beef Stroganoff Freeze Dry vs Hamburger Helper Stroganoff BITB

Batch weight: 187g vs 1200g
Batch calories: 440 vs 1550
Average calories per gram: 2.35 cals/g vs 1.29 cals/g
Batch cost: $11.50 vs $6-8 (depending on the price of ground beef)
Batch average calories per $1: 38 cals/$1 vs 194-258 cals/$1

Backpacker's Pantry Lasagna vs. Hamburger Helper Lasagna BITB

Batch weight: 198g vs 1200g
Batch calories: 760 vs 1450
Average calories per gram:3.84 cals/g vs 1.21 cals/g
Batch cost: $10.75 vs $6-8 (depending of the price of ground beef)
Batch average calories per $1: 71 cals/$1 vs 181-242 cals/$1

I picked the two above as they are in the lower and upper ranges for calories while still being a direct meal type comparison. In the end we have a rough average of about 3 cals/g for freeze dried packs and about 1.25 cals/g for BITB meals (for Hamburger Helper meals, which I have found to be one of my "go to" options for BITB but other meals average around the same). If you needed 750 calories for dinner than you would end up with 250g of freeze dried weight and 600g of BITB. You end up packing 350g more weight for 750 calories with BITB than if you went freeze dried.

350g sounds like a lot, especially in our current ski culture but it's really not. When it comes to food, (and food that I enjoy eating), I will gladly carry an extra 350g per day on a 5 day trip, (4 dinners for a total of 1400g extra over freeze dried). Anyone that I have ever handed a freshly wrapped taco, topped with hot sauce, melted cheese and sour cream while snow caving has never said "I wish I was eating a freeze dried meal right now to save 350 grams". On the other hand I have watched more than a few people start eating a freeze dried meal and not finish it due to taste.

Of course if you actually enjoy freeze dried meals then it make sense to save the weight. As for dehydrated food it comes down to not having to cook/clean while camping, if you don't mind those chores then it make sense to pack dehydrated food over BITB. And for very long trips or those which demand you to go fast/light then of course the lighter options make sense regardless.

My Meal Plan

BreakfastQuaker Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal86g340
BITB Bacon100g550
800mL Gatorade50g190

Breakfast Total: 236g1080

Lunch4-5 Assorted Chocolate/Nut Bars200g1000
1600mL Gatorade100g380
Beef Jerky80g240

Lunch Total: 300g1380

DinnerBITB Half Meal300g375
BITB Half Meal300g375
800mL Gatorade50g190

Dinner Total: 650g940

Grand Total: 1186g3640

I prepare and eat breakfast and dinner at camp whereas lunch is all day snacking affair. If you are more the type to stop for lunch and have a meal then you might want to replace a couple of bars with a meat/cheese/dense cracker combo. Sandwiches for lunch can also work good too and are easy to prep. If you don't like Gatorade there are lots of other similar powders on the market, including the time tested Hot Chocolate. If you hate bacon and beef jerk then just make sure to eat protein throughout the day as it takes time for it to be used for recovery and muscle growth.

Multi Day Planning/Packing

On most multi day trips you will eat breakfast before leaving and plan to be back before dinner on your last day, so you don't need pack 3 meals for every day you plan to be out. For example if you are doing a 5 day trip you would normally need 4 breakfasts, 5 lunches and 4 dinners. A 3 day trip being 2/3/2.

I usually pack my food in 2 places, in my pack and in my jacket. All food not being eaten while travelling is stored in my pack whereas my current day's lunch is stored in my jacket to keep warm.

Fuel Needs

I use pressurized fuel stoves and I can usually get away with one medium sized bottle (230g) for my own needs for a 5 day trip. I will usually carry a smaller bottle (100g) as a backup as it fits in my Jetboil stove anyway. If you are unsure then taking a little extra is a good plan and after a few trips you should get a better idea of your fuel needs. As for liquid/white gas stoves I'll have to be honest and say that I have no idea, it's been many years since I've used one.

Spork/Water Bottles

Buy the titanium spork and spare yourself breaking a half dozen plastic ones. I take 2 800mL single wall stainless steel water bottles. After pouring boiling water into them DO NOT close them and stick them in the snow, they will blow up (it's actually pretty crazy!). Instead create a nice bottle holder area out of snow and let them cool off with the caps off. Single wall bottles will allow rapid heat transfer so you can use them to iron clothes, dry gear or keep in your sleeping bag to dry it out. I will often put them in my down jacket pocket to force any moisture out of the clothes I'm wearing. When using them to dry/warm items make sure the caps are on tight!