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Backcountry nutrition for peak performance

This is the scene I was rewarded with a couple of years ago while backpacking in the Colorado high country. It was definitely worth the climb (summit 13,951 feet) and although I kept my distance in respect to my mountain goat friends, I thoroughly enjoyed our meeting.

When Maggie and Amy asked me to do a guest post at The Balanced Platter and explained that June’s editorial calendar included the theme, traveling on a GF diet, I immediately thought of high-country travel—as in backpacking. No cars, trains, or airplanes needed—just a good pair of hiking boots and a loaded backpack.

So—what does it take to fuel your engine and nourish your body for “peak” performance? Follow these basic tips for sustained energy (a long day on the trail) and quick bursts (climbing the last 500 feet to the summit). You’ll also need some turbo-charged recovery food so you can sleep well, climb out of your tent at the crack of dawn, make a hearty breakfast, and start all over again—day after day. That’s what backpacking is all about—sustained energy. And yes, I call that traveling on a GF diet.

These are basic eating strategies for all-day energy. Although sometimes one category serves the purpose better than another, most meals and snacks are a mixture.

Complex carbs
High-fiber, complex carbs will help you plod along for long hours on the trail. They provide more sustained energy because they’re digested (broken down) more slowly than simple sugars. Oats, brown rice, quinoa, teff, granola, and buckwheat are all examples of complex carbs. Start the day with a blend of carbohydrate (complex and simple), protein, and fat. Oatmeal with dried fruit, nuts, and brown sugar is a perfect way to start the day.

Simple carbs 
Say you’ve been hiking along at a moderate intensity for 3 or 4 hours and you realize you’re about a half an hour away from a very steep 500 foot climb to the summit. You need a quick fix and that comes in the form of fast burning, simple carbs like GF jelly beans, dried fruit, honey, or chocolate chips. They’re easy to digest and the simple sugar goes immediately to your working muscles and nervous system.

High-quality, slow-burning fats are essential for backpacking. They provide more calories (energy) per gram, which you need when you’re physically active all day. Fats give you staying power. Mix them with complex carbs for long-lasting fuel. Nuts, seeds, coconut, and jerky (salmon, beef, bison provide fat and protein), cheese, and sausage are great choices for backpackers.

Many of the complex carbs (teff, quinoa, oats) and fats (jerky, nuts, seeds) all provide a good dose of protein as well. Protein helps repair the muscles and connective tissue you break down during long hikes. Protein is essential for recovery.

Nutrition bonus
Backpacking is physically demanding and stresses the body in many ways. I like to dehydrate nutrient-dense, hearty greens (kale, spinach, chard) and create my own dry soup mixes for a daily nutrition bonus of antioxidant protection. Hearty greens dehydrate well, weigh next-to-nothing, and rehydrate immediately. They’re perfect for backpacking. Mix the dehydrated greens with instant potato flakes and a gluten-free chicken base for a satisfying and nutritious side soup. At camp, all you have to do is add boiling water to the dry mix, stir, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes.

Granola-Style Energy Bars (Perfect to make ahead and eat on the trail)
Makes 16 bars
Courtesy of The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life (by Peter Bronski & Melissa McLean Jory)

What you need
1/4 cup almond meal
2 tablespoons raw shelled hemp seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecans
1 cup almonds
1 cup unsulfured dried apricots (about 6 ounces), chopped into chunks
1/4 cup certified gluten-free, rolled oats
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/3 cup maple syrup (grade B is thicker)
1 large egg
1 tablespoon coconut oil, melted, plus some to grease the pan
1 teaspoon gluten-free pure vanilla extract

What you do
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square pan.
2. Place the almond meal, hemp seeds, cinnamon, and salt in a food processor and pulse until well mixed.
3. Add the pecans, almonds, oats, and apricots and pulse several times until the nuts are in small chunks but not completely ground. Add the chocolate chips and pulse a few times, leaving larger chunks.
4. In a medium bowl (big enough to hold all the ingredients), whisk together the maple syrup, egg, melted coconut oil, and vanilla. Whisk for 1 minute to ensure all ingredients are mixed.
5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mash together with a fork. Use your hands if you have to.
6. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan. Cover with parchment paper, and using your hands, flatten evenly. You can also use an unslotted spatula to flatten the mixture.
7. Place on the center rack in the oven. Bake for 22 to 24 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool. Place the pan in the refrigerator to chill before cutting into bars. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Peace, love, and happy trails from The Balanced Platter!
PS Leave us a comment sharing your favorite gluten-free hiking snack.

make me a happy camper

Go ahead honey, it’s gluten-free!


Health-promoting homeopath and fetching superhero-ette, Naomi, of Straight Into Bed Cakefree and Dried fame, is the creative spark behind the “Go Ahead Honey, It’s Gluten Free” recipe event. Every month it’s my intention to participate and every month I pout and stomp my feet (superhero style) when I realize I missed the deadline again. Shirley of Gluten-Free Easily is the event hostess this month and I know if I don’t get with it and participate, she’ll give me all kinds of gluten-free grief.

Plus, Shirley picked something that’s right up my alley (err, I mean trail) — gluten-free camp food. Last summer my son and I backpacked half the Colorado Trail (close to 250 miles) and I pre-made and dehydrated all our dinners, so this assignment is perfect for me. It’s also a great way to use up all my CSA kale and collard greens. I love the stuff, but my gosh, my hair’s turning green.

Unfortunately, most of my recipes are in my head, made up as I go, or scribbled on the back of bank statements. I’m not the most organized cook, that’s why I call half of my recipes “launching pad” creations. The two I’m featuring here are in that category. Adjust and change ingredients to your liking.

Melissa’s mile high trail mix
what you need
dry ingredients
1 box Perky’s Nutty Rice or Nutty Flax crunchy cereal
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds

wet ingredients
1/3 cup almond butter
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup honey or agave nectar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
dash salt
coconut oil for greasing the pan
dried fruit *

* Gently blend in chunks of dried fruit after the mix has been cooked and cooled. I use a combination of unsulphured papaya, pineapple, mango, ginger, cranberries and/or raisins.

what you do
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Use 2 racks placed in the middle of the oven. Place all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix gently. Combine wet ingredients in a medium sized saucepan over low-medium heat; whisk/stir constantly until well blended and bubbly. Bring to a low boil for 1 minute, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. It will have a semi set-up texture.

Drizzle blended wet mixture over dry ingredients and stir gently until all of it has been mixed in. Spread out on 2 large, lightly greased cookie sheets and place one on each oven rack – unless you can get both cookie sheets on one rack in the middle of the oven. I just stack the two and use my convection setting, but a regular oven setting works just fine. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes, remove and gently stir (try to keep clustered bunches intact). Return to oven. If you are using two racks, switch the cookie sheets and alternate putting one on the top rack and one on the rack below. Continue baking for another 45 minutes or so; taking time to remove, check, and gently stir every 6 to 8 minutes. Alternate cookie sheet placement each time. Mixture should be a uniform golden brown color. Depending on your oven temperature, this should take a total about 40 to 60 minutes of bake time. Carefully watch how the mixture browns as oven temperatures vary and this stuff can burn quickly. Keep an eye on it. Don’t wander off and forget!


Cool completely. After the mixture has cooled, you can add the dried fruit. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator when not on the trail.

Garlic potato, kale and chicken backpacking soup
what you need
1 bunch kale
instant garlic mashed potatoes
instant chicken base
dried herbs of choice (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mixed Italian herbs)

Wash, chop and dehydrate kale according to your dehydrator directions. Using a medium sized bowl, combine garlic mashed potatoes flakes, chicken base granules and dried kale. Add salt, fresh ground black pepper and dried herbs of choice; blend well and place in ziplock bags. I use one package of Hearthland Foods garlic mashed potatoes (4.5 ounces), 6 to 8 heaping teaspoons of Vogue Cuisine instant chicken broth base, one bunch of dehydrated kale, assorted dried herbs, sea salt and ground pepper to make 2 very large soup dinners for backpacking (or 4 smaller meals). This is a fast and nutritious meal while on the trail as all you need is boiling water. Shake some of the soup mix into your camp mug or bowl, add boiling water and stir gently. Adjust water depending on the consistency you want. I like it very thick and creamy, like a potato bisque. I’ve also dehydrated celery leaves and added those to the mix. Be creative and enjoy!



You might also like the Colorado Trail part 1, part 2 and part 3, or nutrition for the backcountry, or I see no good reason to act my age.

Go forth and be a happy camper!

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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