Hiking in cold weather can be immensely rewarding but it comes with its challenges. Winter weather brings stunning sunrises, snow, and frosty mornings – all perfect for hiking. Rosy cheeks and a billowing breath might seem like a pleasant thing, but in reality, your body is working flat out to keep your muscles functioning properly. It churns through calories at a rapid rate leaving you open to exhaustion and injury.
The best way to keep you energised and warm is to eat a substantial diet.
Here are some examples of how!
Starting with the first meal of the day, you want to stock up on a hearty breakfast. The ideal dish for doing this is porridge/oatmeal. A steaming bowl of oats is packed with slow-release carbs that can energise you for the whole of your hike. Add in some cinnamon, dried fruit, ground nuts, or brown sugar to improve the taste and to give you that extra fuel boost for the day. Serve this with a hot drink, such as coffee or tea, to include a dash of caffeine to your diet which ensures you hit the ground running!
If you’re camping overnight, it’s still possible to make this same breakfast on a camping stove. All you need to bring are some sachets of instant porridge and coffee then add boiling water and stir! If you have time, it might be worth experimenting with your own home-made recipe of oats. The trick here is to add milk powder to the dry mix which can then be rehydrated when you pour water over it later.
After starting your hike, you want to keep your body ticking over for the rest of the day. Try to avoid waiting too long between meals and don’t wait until you’re hungry to eat. Snack regularly and in small amounts. The blood flow in your body will actively move to your muscles whilst you’re hiking. This disrupts your stomach functioning and means often you won’t feel particularly hungry when hiking.
Try to override this and stop for a snack every couple of hours or graze on something whilst you’re walking. Hiking snacks should be things that are easy to grab out of your bag, and food that’s energy-dense and high in calories. Snacks such as fruit n’ nut bars, trail mix, beef jerky, nuts, and dried fruit are all good options to eat. They’ll give you a burst of calories and are a healthy mix of fats, complex carbs, and protein to keep you warm and moving all day.
Buying a thermos can be a great investment for cold days. Before you leave home, or when you’re making breakfast in your tent, boil some extra water and make a flask of tea or hot chocolate to carry with you. This is a great shortcut because it’s unlikely you’ll stop for lunch to set up your stove, and it’s easier to do it in the morning when you’re already boiling water anyway. A sugary tea or hot chocolate can be exactly the thing you need to boost your morale and keep you warm throughout the day. Clasping a cup of steaming hot chocolate to your numb fingers whilst you stop and admire the views is something really special.
It’s winter, so you can expect the sun’s going to set early. For those out day hiking, it’s time to head home for a warm bath and a glass of wine sat by a roaring fire. For those with a little more adventure on their mind, this means setting up a tent and preparing food for dinner before you turn in for the night. Again, you might not feel hungry at first as your body winds down, but you must eat.
Your options are generally limited to adding boiling water to dehydrated food. It’s possible to carry tins of beans and tuna or other types of food that require greater levels of cooking, but this comes with several complications. If you need to carry a frying pan or other cooking utensils on your hike, it’s going to dramatically add to the weight of your pack.
Ideally, you want to have a single stove, one pot, some boiling water, and a spork. It’s simple to pack and easy to carry. The other problem of trying to cook more complex food is that often they are perishable and don’t store well. The food you carry on a winter hike should be easy to pack without worrying about anything going off. This pretty much rules out all meat, fish, and dairy products and explains why dried, cured, and rehydrated food is excellent for hiking trips.
The food you bring for dinner will also depend on a number of additional factors. Firstly, how much water is required to cook the food? And secondly, how long does the food need to be cooked for? For example, if you’re going on a hike in a desert or coastal area where you can’t refill your water easily, you don’t want to waste half your supply on cooking food when lots of it is lost through steam!
This also ties into how long the food needs to be cooked for. Carrying gas adds to the weight of your bag and camping gas burns faster in cold conditions. You don’t want to be boiling a pack of pasta for 30 minutes and have no fuel left to cook your breakfast the following morning!
If your budget allows, there are specially designed dehydrated food packets that you can buy from outdoor equipment stores. They’re expensive but are excellent for hikers in terms of taste, quality, and cooking time required. However, their price might put off some people if they’re looking for a cheaper alternative. Instead, head to your local supermarket and look for quick-cook pasta pouches that only need boiling in hot water for 5-minutes before they can be eaten.
These pasta pouches are the perfect compromise between price and functionality. They’re light, fast to make, and are really tasty. It’s the perfect way to get a hot meal at the end of your hike without all the complications of cooking and the expense of the specialist trail meals.
Another good tip is to bring some dried meat, jerky, or salami with you. They store better than fresh meat and can be added to your pasta to give you that protein boost at the end of a long day. The protein will help with muscle recovery and is slower to digest, making you feel less hungry and keeping you warm as you sleep.
As with breakfast, it’s worth making a hot drink to eat with your dinner. Unsurprisingly, the temperature will drop dramatically at night when you’re winter hiking. Going into your sleeping bag with a full stomach will ensure you have a cosy night’s sleep.
If you have enough water or gas to spare, boil some extra water and put it into a tightly sealed bottle. If you place this in the bottom of your sleeping bag it will act like a hot-water bottle throughout the night to keep your toes toasty. Obviously, test the bottle first to make sure it can hold the hot water and not burst or leak.
If you’re open to a slightly stronger drink, never underestimate the value of a small bottle of whiskey to warm the belly! There can be nothing better than sitting out under the stars, having just eaten a hot meal, sipping at a lovely fiery whiskey. It might not technically keep you warm, but there’s no denying drinking whiskey gives you a feeling of heat with every drink!
The equipment you carry with you will impact the amount of cooking you can get away with. For example, some cheap stoves and flimsy pans will take a long time to heat up with much of the heat blowing away and escaping in the wind. Buying a speed cooker such as a jet-boil can be a very valuable purchase. These jet-boils use insulation and flame protection to make sure as little of the heat is wasted as possible.
This allows more water to be heated faster and with less fuel. Which allows you to carry a smaller quantity of water and gas, saving you both weight and space. When it’s a cold night and you’ve been hiking all day, the last thing you want to do is fiddle around with a pot and stove that doesn’t work properly.
Clearly, there are numerous techniques and foods to keep you warm during winter hiking. Play around with some of these ideas and see what works for you. Perhaps you prefer another carb to pasta and want to try instant rice instead – do it! If you’re vegetarian or vegan, look into nut butters and protein balls instead of the jerky or chocolate bars. That way you’re still getting your fill of fats, carbs, and protein whilst eating something you find tasty!
Keep experimenting, explore the outdoors, and don’t be afraid to get out there for some winter hiking.