Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Art of the Gear - Part 2 Eating

As I stated in a previous post, I love good food.  I not only love eating good food, I love making good food.  I have a great appreciation for well made home cooking.  That does not say I do not appreciate the masters of haute cuisine and their over-the-top radical creations, I just am not in that league in either skill or pallete.

I will pay for a well stacked hamburger over the tenderest filet mignon, even if it were free, any day of the week.  The home cooked meal is what brings comfort and routine into our taxing lives.  Be it mac and cheese, goulash, collard greens, buscuits and gravy, fried chicken, clam chowder, grilled cheese, or even english muffin pizzas, these primal dishes are catalysts to our happiness.

Meaning I will be sacrificing a great deal of my happiness on this hike, to a point.

Under the assumption "I will need to eat" we can break down further to a simple fact of human physiology and the law of conservation of energy.  For the body to function properly, it must take in at least as much energy as it uses to maintain homeostasis.  If insufficient calories are taken in, then it must start tapping the available internal stores that exist in the form of fat or proteins.  Once these stores are consumed, the body will begin to consume anything and everything else available in an attempt to survive.  But that takes time, and can cause all sorts of problems along the way to starvation.  It is highly unlikely that anyone would be fool enough, or for that matter be capable of starving to death on the AT.  I doubt at any time anyone could be longer than a days hike from a McDonalds dollar menu. 

What one does have to worry about as far as food consumption is maintaining all the other things required for the human machine to run effectively under the rigors of a long distance hike.  Raw calories are as close as the nearest beef stick or bottle of olive oil.  The vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidents needed to make the machinery run smoothly are usually less of a priority.  Thru-hikers might be content on popping a multi-vitamin as it is compact, lightweight, and requires little thought.  This may be true, but one should not pass up the opportunities for fresh fruits and veggies as they will always be the best, if not the most easily packable sources.  A little creativity and an understanding that the added weights will in the long run be to one's benefit should warrant packing in the produce.  A nice raw vidalia onion in the morning can't be beat for providing one with vitamins, minerals, complex sugars, and of course solitude.

I will pass on describing the specifics of menu selection, as I anticipate it to be more a grazing experience, adhering generally to a philosophy of que sera sera than to actual planning.  There will likely be some ever present standard food items however.  The top ten follow in no particular order:

  1. M&M's (For energy, caffeine, morale, and general unmeltiness)
  2. Nuts (The natural compliment to M&M's of course.)
  3. Oats (Steel cut preferred, but instant rolled oats in a pinch)
  4. Peanut butter (No, it is not a nut.  Look it up)
  5. Olive Oil (Concentrated calories, cooking aid, and tasty lip balm)
  6. Spam (Spam spam spam spam spammity spam... curse you Monty Python)
  7. Tortillas (Lard, flour, and water. How can you go wrong with that?)
  8. Tuna (Smelly bear bait...but full of those omega-3 fatty acids and iodine)
  9. Coffee (Hi, my name is Pervy, and I'm an addict)
  10. Salt
These are what one would call staples.  The rest is where opportunity and personal taste take over.  Variety is important, as it will prevent boredom as well as maintain good nutrition.  Whole grains are a must, as is steering clear of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is harder than one would think.  I will hopefully relate to another rant on the excesses of HFCS in the American diet and the related maladies we endure because of it.

One other note regarding food before I move on to the eating gear.  I am rethinking the caloric intake aspect of this little journey.  I keep reading things on hikers needing to consume 5000+ calories and still loosing weight.  I worry about this for two reasons.  First, I believe my natural metabolism is very slow.  I recall playing sports in school, particularly soccer with the miles of running, and never losing weight.  It was very disconcerting to a young person, but knowing more about nutrition and the human engine, I have a better understanding, and some new theories.  I will develop my theories and present them here at a later date.

Second, I worry that once this hike is over, my "engine" will downshift drastically while my appetite remains high, leading to packing on the pounds again in short order.  Not something I really want to revisit.  The only hope I have is that walking will be of such an uncontrollable habit that this becomes a non issue.  It may mean I will be spending the same amount of money on walking shoes that I did on food however.

As Alton Brown would say, on to the hardware.

There are three basic components to trail cookery:
  1. Something to put food into (cookpot, mug, ziplock bag, coconut shell)
  2. Something to eat food with (fork, chopsticks, fingers)
  3. Something to heat food with (a stove, the sun, under one's armpit) 
If one lives only on finger food such as granola bars, cheesy poofs, and pop tarts, this is a moot point, but I am making the assumption my diet will be a bit broader than this.  I also feel the act of preparing a meal is a critical aspect of maintaining morale.  It can be both a social activity to bring folks together, and a form of ritual and comfort when one finds themself in prolonged solitude.

One of the most important cooking activities on the trail will be heating water to a boil.  For a six month period, assuming roughly 32 oz. of water per day for cooking, that's approximately 320 lbs. of water that will be boiled, which in case you are wondering would require roughly 45000 btu's of heat (please feel free to check my math).

A simple enough task one would think, but mankind has a pension for making simple things more complicated than needed.  Exhibit A would be the microwave oven.  Based on years of research into radio waves and the forerunner of the technology that powers our amazing wireless world, it is a device that has been relegated by most to being used for make carcinogenic popcorn, cardboard pizza edible only by teenagers, and of course, boiling water.

I was, in my younger years, caught up in the neo-technology thing.  If I couldn't have the latest and greatest, I would at least know everything there was about it.  For lack of my own Magwich (read a book folks), I quickly lost pace with the tech being churned out.  When I did have the finances, I bought the best I could.  For camp cookery that was the MSR Dragonfly stove.  It could burn anything from kerosene to gasoline, and sounded like a jet engine when it got going full out.  I never actually timed it, but would imagine one could boil a pot of water in about a minute.

After one year, the plastic bit that makes up the very crucial fuel bottle pump cracked and broke for no apparent reason.  I am sure if I were so inclined I could send it back for replacement, but I haven't the time to deal with customer service for something I rarely use anyway.

As I have learned through this, and my experiences in the manufacturing and design world, simple is better if one can live with it.  So, as I had done so many times at work, I agreed with myself that I had to find a better, simple way to boil water.

Through my research I came across many mousetraps other folks had devised.  The one that many long distance hiker beat a path to in moderate weather was a series of crafty little alcohol stoves.  They were homemade from a variety of aluminum can products ranging from V8 cans to the old Heineken mini-keg cans.  There are several commercially made versions, if one is skill deficient with hand-tools, but I love to tinker so the homemade versions were right up my alley.

The two most common, and most popular, seem to be the ubiquitous super cat stove and the slightly more complicated popcan stove.  Again, there are several flavors of each, but the basic versions demonstrate the simplicity of this cooking device.  Both are easy to use, whisper quiet, and will boil one's water in under 15 minutes with optimal conditions.  If someone is so impatient that waiting 15 minutes for hot water is a bother, that person probably should not be hiking, and should seek therapy to learn how to slow down before their heart gives out.

These stoves can use any form of alcohol one wishes, so long as the water content is not too high.  For details on the variety of fuels available and preferred, follow my links page for the Super Cat stove and Zen Alcohol stove websites.  Both have invaluable resources regarding the performance and manufacture of this nifty little device.  Even if one does not hike, it would be handy to stash this little beauty in the household 72 hr. emergency kit that EVERYONE should have.

The remainder of my hardware is much easier to explain, and is selected mostly based on budget and personal preference.  To eat my food, I will be carrying a long handled spoon of the titanium variety, and a pair of travel chopsticks.  I thought about getting a spork, but the ones I've had the displeasure to use are exactly what one gets for having any tool that isn't quiet good at either thing it pretends to be.  Chopsticks on the other hand are far more versatile and sanitary than a fork and worth the effort to gain proficiency.  It is one of those tools that has been refined (as much as a stick can be refined) and proven over several hundred years.

Lastly in the cookery categories is what to put the food in.  Again, budget and preference prevails here.  If one is looking for very light and very cheap, I have heard Walmart offers a small aluminum grease pot with a tight fitting lid that works well for backpackers.  Apparently I live in an area where they have forgotten how wonderful recycled rendered bacon grease is to use for cooking, and thus I can not find one.

In lieu of this, I have chosen a basic lightweight nonstick cook set that has folding handles, and a lid that doubles as a frypan.  I prefer the nonstick for cleanup purposes, cuz I really can't see scrubbing my cookware out with pine cones.  With todays nonstick eco friendly coatings it is worth it...until I change my mind anyway.  Most of the actual "cooking" beyond heating water will probably be done inside ziplock bags, so this is a moot point.  But until someone shows me how to fry bacon and eggs in a bag, this is how I'll roll.

One last major component, at least until I remember that I forgot something, falls under the category of Something to put food in.  This would be the all important food bag.  Without this important article, my M&Ms and canned Spam would be scattered throughout my pack never to be found.

In reality, the main function of the food bag is to allow every morsel to be easily dangled from a tree limb at night, thus preventing the nocturnal creatures from making off with one's sustenance.  It must, therefore, be durable so as to keep small clawed paws from getting in easily, and waterproof to keep one's Ho-Ho's dry.  It must also be large enough to handle the 20+ pounds of food it will likely need to contain.

As for the other brick-a-brack that I will have, it is vapor at this time.  These are the odd sundry items that will likely change with availability on the trail such as scrubby pads, small ditty bags, etc.  Nothing worth delving into as it is not worth sweating the small stuff...

...that is until Murphy's law proves otherwise.

This post was a long time coming, but I do get distracted at times by the realities of life.  Enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment