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December 2002

Finding Food For The Long Trail

We tortured 51 trail snacks and staples to pick the longest lasting foods for backpacking.

Nothing is quite as disappointing as unpacking your food bag and discovering good grub gone bad. Too much heat and hard time in an overstuffed pack can make crumbs out of your crackers, grow fuzz on your bagels, and transform a stick of salami into a bacteriological time bomb. But you don’t have to suffer crushed or moldy food just because you’re on a long hike.

So says Claudia Pearson, food-packing guru at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and author of The NOLS Cookery. “The longest ration I’ve planned was 12 to 13 days, and it all came out edible.” On those extended backcountry journeys, using good judgment (like not packing perishables in warm weather) is key to maintaining a healthy stash of food. Pearson adds these tips for keeping food edible.

>> Avoid fatty meats and dairy products, which spoil quickly.

>> Carry a resealable plastic container and plastic mug instead of a bowl and cup and pack fragile foods like cookies and crackers in them.

>> Seal packages to keep out air and moisture (the culprits behind bacterial growth) and consider canned goods if you must have meats or fish.

>> Protect food from heat, which fosters bacterial growth. Pack perishables deep in your pack to insulate them, and chill them in cold water or snow whenever possible.

These are good general tips, but I wanted to learn more: How would specific foods survive the rigors of the trail? To find out, I subjected 51 common backpacking foods to a week of packing in hot, humid weather (daily highs in the 90s). My mission: to determine which items would spoil, crumble, or melt fastest in typical summer conditions, and which would still be edible on day 8. The results on next page.

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