If you’re planning a road trip this summer, you’ve got a problem. For once, it’s not the price of gasoline, which the experts say will be lower this summer. The problem is what you put in your body, not your car.
The problem only gets worse when you leave the road and your car behind and head off into the wilderness, the shore, or any trail away from civilization. Any hike will give us the activity and experience of nature that we all need. But it makes eating right all the harder.
Staying with a very low-carb diet, as I do to control my diabetes, is a special challenge. Since I’m leaving tomorrow on a road and hiking trip in northwestern Colorado, I have this challenge very much on my mind.
A correspondent named Cindy is also concerned. “Since you do so much traveling and hiking in remote areas, I have been wondering what you take with you in the way of road food,” she wrote me a couple of days ago. “I would love to read an article about how you manage your low-carb diet while traveling and what kind of meals/snacks you recommend for taking along when there is no refrigeration.”
The lack of a fridge is just one of three obstacles, and isn’t much of a problem when you go car camping. Insulated ice chests can keep our food cold enough for several days. But on a long hike we have to plan more carefully.
The second obstacle is cooking. We have to do without our ovens and microwaves. I had a good camp stove until TSA took it away from me a couple of years ago. That forced me to investigate replacement stoves, and I found one that works so well that I use it not only for backpacking trips but also to heat a cup of coffee or tea at a roadside stop. My Jetboil stove is small, lightweight, and incredibly fast.
The third, and for me the most difficult obstacle, is cleaning up after preparing and eating a meal on the road or on the trail. To avoid dealing with the mess limits my food choices even more than my very low-carb diet does.
Freeze-dried foods that you cook in the bag pouch by adding a little water would seem to be the obvious solution to all three of these obstacles. Outdoor outfitters like REI carry a huge assortment of brands and preparations. But I have never been able to find any that come anywhere close to the maximum of 12 grams of carbohydrates that I allow myself for any meal. Before I started low-carbing in 2007, I relied on Kettle Chili from MaryJanesFarm, and it is one of the lowest carb freeze-dried foods out there, but at 39 grams per pack is far too much for me.
Nowadays on my hikes I use my stove only for making tea or coffee. Otherwise I enjoy my food at what I think of as room temperature.
While my favorite road and trail foods keep changing, certain nuts are a constant. I especially like raw organic almonds, but they aren’t especially low in carbs. Just one-half cup would provide 15 grams.
Pecans are lowest in carbs. One-half cup provides 7 grams.
Some seeds make good road and trail food. Only three types have a good omega 3/6 ratio, and one of these, flaxseed, needs to be ground to remove the coating. However, one ounce of chia doesn’t need to be ground and provides 12 grams of carbohydrate, almost all of which is fiber.
Still, chia seeds are so small that I seldom use them as road or trail food. Two years ago I wrote about my new favorite here as “Sacha Inchi Seeds.” The company that marketed them at that time no longer handles them. However, Sequel Naturals in Vancouver, B.C., now sells them as Savi Seed. I buy them from VitaCost through Amazon and like them a lot (although my usual hiking partner says, "they taste like sawdust"). It takes all types to make a world, and Sequel Naturales says that one ounce of these delicious seeds have 5 grams of carbohydrate, all of which is fiber.
Jerky, whether beef or buffalo or elk or whatever, is another obvious choice for me. But be careful, because many brands have more than the necessary 1 gram of carbs per serving. Paleokits are a special kind of jerky made not only with beef but also with raw macadamia nuts, raw almonds, raw pecans, dried cranberries, and dried strawberries.
Canned fish and seafood is no-carb and very healthy, although it can be a little messy. I usually take sardines, canned tuna, or cannon salmon. Remember to take a plastic fork and napkins for eating them and baggies for storing the remains.
Olives are also potentially messy but carry well without refrigeration.
Organic blueberries are one of our healthiest fruits and also carry well without refrigeration for a day or two.
Hard cheese carries well without refrigeration and usually has no carbs.
Hard-boiled eggs can go a day or two without refrigeration. But be careful: On a road trip last year I ate a hard-boiled egg that I had cooked a couple of days earlier and hadn’t kept in a fridge or ice chest. I ended up with one of my worst stomach aches ever.
When we go car-camping rather than hiking or backpacking, it makes sense to get an ice chest. Then, we can take fresh eggs, smoked salmon, Greek yogurt, and just about anything that doesn't have to be frozen.
That will give us a greater variety. But even when we limit ourselves on the trail to a few foods, the experience of getting away and out in nature makes it worthwhile to stick with a very low-carb diet.
We don’t have to have a great variety of foods all the time. When we are at home we can experiment with dishes that we have to cook and require a bit of cleanup.
I am reminded that John Muir would hike through the Sierra Nevada mountains for weeks at a time on nothing but hardtack and tea. When President Teddy Roosevelt and Muir met in Yosemite in 1903 they ate nothing but hardtack and sardines.
As long as we have these other great road and trail foods, we can even do without the hardtack.