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WINTER CAMPING: What are the Basics of your cold weather diet?

WINTER CAMPING: What are the Basics of your cold weather diet? by Christopher Hodges

As the snow swirls around right outside of my window here in Western Massachusetts, we are again gripped in the cold, snowy embrace of Mother Nature.It is here where my thoughts turn to actually hiking, or, even more ridiculously (to some), to thoughts of Winter Camping and Backpacking. The solitude of the Woods, when its muffled by snow....the ability to track various game animals....the ability to burn off scads of calories in the cold....there are a multiude of reasons to find oneself drawn to camping the outdoors this time of year. However, one needs, in my opinion, three to four times the amount of planning. Why is this?

Think about this fact in and of itself to start this discussion: 15 minutes spent just moving around in sub-freezing tempuratures is the metabolic equivalent of ONE HOUR OF EXERCISE. And, thats just walking around, or being sedentary outdoors, folks. What happens is your metabolism goes into overdrive trying to warm the cells in your body by burning fat cells. Shivering? That's our body's inefficient way of generating heat within our body to warm our cells. So, just think about the amount of calories one needs to consume, just for our core to remain warm. Winter backpacking can burn an additional 500-1000 calories PER DAY: Men need about 4500 calories/day, while women need 3,500 calories/day, just as a baseline. So, our body NEEDS those calories- so what should I look for when purchasing food? Well, lets look at 3 basic food groups we should focus on: Carbs, Fats and Proteins. To use a fire-building anaolgy, lets further divide down these 3 groups into sub-groups with some percentages of what you should consume, along with some easily portable menu examples.

When trekking around, ESPECIALLY if snow shoeing or cross country skiing, the #1 group (we'll call this our "Kindling") to consume are the Simple Carbohydrates: Foods that are released quickly and provide instant energy- any of the "ose"s- Glucose, Sucrose, Lactose. Sugar, candy, Hot cider/Cocoa, breads/pasta would be examples of this. Our 2nd Carb group(We'll call these our "Sticks" to our fire), the Complex Carbohydrates, are next in line.

These are very similar to our first group of Carbs, with one major difference- they have some serious "staying power" with our metabolisms- they provide that same instant burst of energy, but, with a longer sustain within our bodies. After this food group, we come to our #3 Group (we'll call these our "Small logs") are the Fatty Foods. These cells are released very slowly and provide energy to our bodies over a more sustained time frame. CAVEAT: One needs to consume food from this Group CAREFULLY, as the body requires water and energy to aid in digestion! Examples of these would be: Nuts, seeds, milk chocolate, plant fats (e.g. olive oil), cheese, eggs and butter. This now brings us to the "Big Log" part of our Fire-Food anology- Protein.

Group #4 are those foods that are released extremely slowly and are used primarily for cell repair and muscle maintenance. However, Protein, in and of itself, is NOT a source of energy unless your Glucose stores are empty. Examples of our Big Logs would be: High Protein grains (e.g. rice, quinoa, soy, whole grain pasta), beans/legumes. Well, now that we have a broad overview of the most important food types, how much should one consume of each?

Simple Carbohydrates: 4 calories/gram- 30-35% of your intake

Complex Carbohydates: 4 calories/gram- 20-25% of your intake

Fat: 9 calories/gram- 30% ofd your intake

Proteins: 4 calories/gram- 15% of your total intake


While many freeze dried products on the market are well balanced and complete, BE AWARE that dried foods lose their nutrients upon their processing! So, if you plan on spending an extended time in the woods (7 days or more), plan on bringing a vitamin replacement to make up for those deficiencies. (I use a liquid suppliment by that addresses just these issues- they come in EXTREMELY handy .5 oz squeeze bottles). And, as we've already established, performing ANY sort of activiy in the cold will drain your body of energy, but, whether you realize it or not, you will also dehydrate faster. So,a good baseline here is 2-4 quarts of water/day, depending on your body type and level of exertion.

Here's some Winter Water Tips:

1) ALWAYS fill up water bottles when you cross an available fresh water source. See MSR HyperFlow Microfilter and Glowing Nalgene 32 oz. Wide Mouth Bottle

2) Consume water through meals such as Soups and other brothy meals, and, make hot beverages at night- not only does it satisfy your body's need for fluids, but, it also heats your core.
3) DO NOT DRINK ICE WATER! The cold takes heat away from your core. Keep your water insulated by covering with something such as a spare sock.

and, MOST important

4) Some backpackers dont drink water because of the "hassle" of having to relieve oneself in the cold....IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, DRINK PLEASE!!!!!!

OK....we have the food/water basics....what sort of meals should I plan?

Again, as is my experience, these meals are based on my backpacking experience, so, weight is as much a consideration as nutrition. Obviously, as it is Winter, one would like Hot meals as opposed to cold, right? Well, yes and no. While hot meals are certainly preferable, do understand that processing meals when its fridgid out is/can be time consuming and difficult, especially if the weather isnt cooperating. Meal options such as freeze dried meals and MRE's (The US Military's Meals Ready to Eat) can be a HUGE help, as their prep times (especially with the MRE) are brief and the meals are typically nutritious. However, do be aware that many of these foods may contain Sodium or Protein that may add to your hydration burden.

So, the 3 things one needs to be mindful of, in regards to menu selection:

1) Must not be bulky

2) Must not be susceptable to freezing (i.e. foods with high water content)

3) Must not require a long cook time- remember, youre carrying ALL this stuff with you!!!

So, without further ado, here's some menu items you can base a trip around, with their respective meals:


Hot Oatmeal, rice farina, grits, dried fruits, HEARTY cold cereals (e.g. Muesli, Granola based cereals).

Simple is KEY- You dont want to consume too much sugar early in the AM- doing so will cause you to crash soon into whatever activity youre doing. One suggestion XMRE Lite Complete Meals


This one I'm flexible with- I frankly DONT like stopping while I've been in motion for awhile, so, I sometimes eat foods I can consume easily on the Trail (I prefer Protein bars and Onnit Nutrition's Warrior Bars).


Here's the crowning meal for the day, and, an opportunity to fill up your body's stores before the night comes in. The main point of dinner is to find a dish that is rich in complex carbohydates. Meals with simple starches (i.e. wholegrain pasta, rice,etc) that have a soupy base, an assortment of dried vegetables and pre cooked dried beans/lentils for your protein. And, dont forget to add some fat here: olive oil, nuts, seeds and cheese because these foods will do wonders to keep you warm throughout the night.  See Wise 72 Hour Food Kit 

Well, hopefully, you, Dear Reader, have found something helpful from this article. This will be part of an ongoing series of Blogs concerning Winter Activities. Stay Tuned for Part #2- Winter Backpacking Gear.

Christopher Hodges is a customer of ours and we appreciate his informative articles on camping, backpacking and outdoors