A guide to healthier dinner options for the backcountry
As do-it-yourself (DIY) backcountry hunters, we spend the months leading up to the hunting season preparing for the hunt. From scouting and shooting to exercise and trying to eat clean, we are intentional in our preparation. We take pride in harvesting free-range organic protein to feed our families throughout the year. Yet, as a matter of convenience and portability, the food we pack on these backcountry endeavors often falls short of this standard as options for lightweight packable food are fairly limited. This scenario has most of us eating freeze-dried meals that are loaded with sodium, soy-based protein, and carbs. Though I am far from a health nut, it kills me to read the nutrition label of my stand by Mountain House meal knowing that I spent the last few months choking down broccoli and chicken breast and skipping out on beer in preparation for the hunt. Doesn’t it make more sense to actually carry these healthy eating habits into the backcountry?
Prepping food the old-fashioned way: DIY
While a freeze dryer will cost a pretty penny, food dehydrators are fairly inexpensive. With this simple tool, you can turn home-cooked meals into a compact and lightweight portable meal that can be rehydrated just the same as prepackaged (and processed) Mountain House meals. This gives you the option to eat wholesome and balanced meals in the backcountry using meat you harvested the previous year. You can cater to your own tastes and nutritional needs and, let’s face it, it tastes better knowing you prepared it and knowing where all of the ingredients came from.
This does require more work and preparation. If you choose this route, you’ll spend some time in the summer months cooking, dehydrating, and packaging your meals for the upcoming hunting season. A good method is to make double batches of meals you are already preparing at home, then loading the leftovers into the dehydrator. A good source for recipes and instructions for DIY meals can be found at BackpackingChef.com.
A healthier alternative to the old standby meals
While making your own meals is a viable option to eating healthy in the backcountry, for some, the convenience of buying prepackaged and portioned meals is more realistic. In my search for something better than the industry standard, I stumbled across Heather’s Choice meals for adventuring. Heather was born and raised in Alaska and has a ton of experience both in backcountry travel and sports nutrition. She has a degree in evolutionary sports nutrition, is a certified psychology of eating coach, and runs her own nutrition consulting firm for athletes called OPENutrition. While obtaining these credentials, she was also a two time NCAA national champion rower for Western Washington University. When Heather wasn’t studying nutrition, she spent six seasons as a river guide between her home state of Alaska and Colorado. As a self-proclaimed nutrition geek, Heather wasn’t willing to accept the options available for packable meals and began dehydrating and packing her own. The idea caught on and Heather’s Choice meals for adventuring was born.
With menu options such as Smoked Sockeye Salmon Chowder, Elk Shepherd’s Pie, and Dark Chocolate Bison Chili, Heather has developed some great recipes for balanced portable meals. There are breakfast and snack options too, including Blueberry Buckwheat Breakfast to Orange Vanilla Packaroons. Heather’s Choice meals provide the convenience of prepackaged meals while not compromising flavor or nutrition.
Sustainably sourced protein
Heather uses grass-fed bison, elk, and venison, wild-caught salmon, and even quail as protein sources for her meals. Protein is one of the most important macronutrients, especially when hiking in rugged country. It leaves you feeling full and goes to work repairing and maintaining muscle. Heather’s Choice meals contain between 25 and 50 grams per serving. As hunters, we preach on the value of sustainable and natural protein sources and take pride in knowing where our meat comes from. Yet, when hunting, we eat freeze-dried mystery meat.
Freeze-dried vs. dehydrated
Virtually all of the conventional backpacking meals available today are freeze-dried while Heather’s Choice meals are dehydrated. Why? While the nutritional value of freeze-dried and dehydrated food are basically the same, the main difference is in weight and volume. Freeze-dried meals are marginally lighter, but take up more volume in your pack while dehydrated meals may be slightly heavier, yet come in a smaller package. Additionally, Heather’s dehydrated meals taste like home-cooked food with complex flavor profiles.
Calories per ounce
The golden rule of backpacking food when it comes to weight seems to be that you have 100 calories per ounce of weight. Most Mountain House meals are between 4 and 4.5 ounces and have between 450 and 500 calories, although most packages are marked as “about 2.5 servings.” The highest protein per serving is 22 grams. Heather's Choice entrees are all 4 oz net weight and between 500 and 650 calories per serving. With Heather’s Choice, each pouch is one serving. While both of the weight to calorie ratios are generally within the 100 calories per ounce standard, Heather’s Choice meals pack a more balanced caloric intake per 4 ounce serving in a smaller package. While consuming enough calories to fuel yourself is important, the source of those calories will greatly affect performance.
A quick comparison between two similar products; Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef Pro Pak and Heather's Choice Chipotle Cherry Pork Chili. Both weigh roughly 4 ounces, but the nutritional value is vastly different.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Mountain House meals that leave you feeling bloated, hungry, and short on toilet paper (believe me I’ve been there), take the time to prepare your own meals this offseason. If you prefer the convenience of purchasing prepared backcountry meals, give Heather’s Choice a try. I’ve sampled a few of the entrees, breakfasts, and snacks and can certainly vouch for the flavor and nutritional value. What good does spending the offseason eating clean do if you’re going to throw the diet out the window when it counts? Give your body the fuel it needs when it counts and you will be rewarded.