To Eat or not to Eat (contd)

The disillusionment with the M&S curry aside, the biggest factor that forced me to rethink camping food was running. While Scotland's hills provide superb playground from short jogs to long days, it is the linking of multiple days together that opens up, literally, whole new horizons. Alas, none of my previous approaches to cooking was suited to self-supported multiday runs.

The problem is twofold. On the one hand, running is far too much impacted by the load we carry. I have never obsessed about weight, not beyond eliminating the unnecessary ('light weight' is a synonym of 'short lasting', and I prefer durable), but for running the elimination approach was not enough. I found out that a load of up to about 6kg impacts my pace, but generally not the quality of my running. However, once it gets above 9kg or so, there is very little genuine running taking place. I managed to cut the base kit, including 0.5l water carried, to about 6.5kg. That leaves about 2kg for food ... and brings me to other issue.

The energy burn while running is just that little bit higher. At the same time I don't like running over multiple days on a large calorific deficit: feeling hungry takes away from the fun, impacts one's metal capacity, and makes subsequent recovery longer. Yet running I can easily burn more than 6,000 kcal per day, while the theoretical (and unreachable) limit of what I can pack into 1kg of food is ~9,000 kcal (pure oil). In other words, I'll never carry enough food not to incur a deficit, which means I need to pay attention to the calorific density of the food I take to make the most of it.

Since we are talking calories and running, there is an additional issue to be aware of. The ultra-runner experience seems to suggest that while on the move we can only absorb ~250kcal/h. This is worth keeping in mind when planning the menu: the bulk of the calories needs to come from the evening meal, while during the day small but frequent food intake is the best strategy.

Doing it on the Cheap

Breakfast is easy -- 2 packets of plain instant porridge; no milk required, just add boiling water and 75g or so of 60% chocolate for extra calories. Stir thoroughly, let it sit for a couple of minutes.

During the day my staple food is nut and raisin mix (I like the Tesco Finest variety, but it's too expensive; you can make a nearly identical mix from the nuts and berries Lidl sells, at about half the price), and oatcakes and hard cheese (I am particularly fond of the rough Orkney oatcakes, and Comte). The benefit of oatcakes is lower GI index, which means a more steady supply of energy, plus they are relatively high in fat (the mentioned ones are about 120 kcal per oatcake). Hard cheese has probably the highest calorific density of any normal food, it does not perish quickly, and I happen to like it. If I need a sugar hit, I take Jelly Babies -- not as good as a gel in terms of the hit but lot cheaper, and more fun (4 Jelly Babies correspond to ~1 gel).

The evening meal is where the main challenge, but also the opportunity for eating well, lies. It takes no genius to realise that the M&S curry and Uncle Ben's rice combo fails badly on the calorific density count, for much of the content of both the rice packet and the tin is water, and water is dead weight, i.e., negative calories. Yet it is easy to prepare a good, cheap, home made, meal that is also lot lighter.

My firm favourite is to make a tomato-based sauce, usually with chorizo, some olives, pine nuts, or whatever else I have around / take fancy to. I reduce this to a thick paste and simply pack it into a zip-lock bag. The trick is to use only as little fat/oil as is necessary for the cooking process, and then take some nice olive oil in a small bottle instead. This reduces the mess in case the zip-lock bag fails you (I confess, I double bag, just in case). Nalgene make small leak-proof utility bottles perfect for the oil; I find the 30ml bottle is about right for a single meal, and the 60ml for two (adding ~250/500 kcal respectively).

I normally tend to have this sauce with Chinese-style noodles. Ultimately, I want something that requires as little cooking as possible, for if I can reduce the amount of cooking that I do, I can significantly reduce the weight of the cooking paraphernalia (on that below). After much searching, I have settled on Sainsburys brand of noodles in round nests; they only require 3 min boiling (which can be cut to less if I leave them to sit for a bit), and they fit neatly inside a Toakes 0.5l pot, which is just big enough to cook two of them.

(As far as reducing the cooking time goes, couscous is the best option, but while I love it, I find it does not fill me up, so I prefer some form of pasta.)

I don't bother heating up the sauce, I simply mix it with the noodles in my food bowl, and add the extra oil, depending on the sauce maybe bringing some Parmesan to sprinkle on the top (if you are anything like me, you will realise quickly that draining the noodles is an awful waste ... makes a great soup instead).

The main shortcoming of this approach is that food this prepared does not keep very long; how long will depend on the ingredients (one of the reasons I like using chorizo), and the ambient temperature. Personally, I am happy with this approach for a two night trip in the usual Scottish temperatures, but one needs to use common sense, and if in doubt, reheat everything thoroughly. The other issue is that I still end up carrying quite a bit of water in the food, making it hard to get more than couple of days of food out of my 2kg allowance.

The answer to both of these problems lies in dehydration, which I shall come to in a third instalment of these posts of my camping food 'journey'.

A Side Note: The Kitchen Sink

I always take a 'bowl' to eat from, it means the pot is free for making coffee while eating -- the bottom of an HDPE milk carton makes a superb camping bowl; it is lightweight, it folds flat, the HDPE withstands boiling water, and it gets simply recycled at the end of the trip (for two nests of noodles, you will need the bottom of a six pint carton).

I don't bother with a cup. I carry a 0.5l Nalgene wide-mouth HDPE bottle: during the day this is my water bottle (I make it a 'policy' not to carry more than 0.5l at any time during the day, in Scotland it is rare that more is needed, particularly if I take the Sawyer mini filter), and in the evening it becomes my cup. It is fine with boiling water, the screw top means I don't spill it by accident in the tent, it holds heat rather well, and it can double up as a hot water bottle during the night.

Once I realised that I only need a 0.5l pot for one person (0.7l for two), it became obvious that the ubiquitous gas camping stove is a lot of dead weight to lug about (as well as bulk). The smaller canister weighs around 230g for 110g of gas, while a decent small stove weighs around 80g (there are smaller stoves on the market, e.g., the 25g Chinese BRS-3000T; mine flares out so dangerously when reducing the flame once it's hot that I will not use it again, and would advise against buying it -- the 55g saved compared to a proper stove from a reputable manufacturer is not worth it). There is also the high cost of gas, exacerbated by the accumulation of partially empty canisters after each trip (that these canisters are not refillable is an ugly blot on the outdoor equipment industry green credentials).

I find that the most weight-, as well cost-, efficient solution for short trips is cooking on alcohol. Alcohol stoves come in different shapes and forms, but my favourite is the 30ml burner made by this guy. It is spill-proof (the alcohol is soaked up into a some sort of a foam), and weights 14g; together with the small stand he also sells, and an alu foil homemade windshield, it comes to around 30g. I need around 50g of alcohol per day, plus 50g extra to give myself a margin for spilling my coffee (or to pour boiling water into my shoes when they freeze solid overnight). Small plastic bottles seem to invariably weigh 20g regardless their size up to about 0.25l, so for one night outing this translates to about 160g less in weight (and about £4 cheaper) than gas (so I can treat myself to more chocolate!).

The things to be aware regarding alcohol cooking:

  • It stops being weight-efficient after about 3-4 days (alcohol contains about 1/2 the energy of gas per weight; the savings come from being able to take only what you need and the low weight of the bottle).
  • It takes longer to boil water on the above linked stove than it does on a good quality gas stove, and you really need a windshield; but time to cook is something I am never short of on my trips.
  • Most importantly, alcohol stoves can produce fairly high amounts of CO if the oxygen supply is restricted by, e.g., a windshield, so always make sure there is enough oxygen getting through to the flame and the tent is adequately ventilated (the latter applies to all stoves, some gas stoves are considerably worse than others).

To be continued ... (on dehydrating food)