Hit the Trail
An avid backpacker, Karin Munson often heads to the hills for five- or seven-day stretches, immersing herself in the serenity of woodland trails and towering mountains, testing herself and her abilities.
The Portland, Oregon, resident ticks off some of the places she’s explored: the North Cascades in Washington, Camp Muir on Washington’s Mount Rainier, the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, the Kalalau Trail in Hawaii and parts of the Pacific Coast Trail.
Munson also has another list—a long list of combined food allergies and intolerances for herself and her husband: no gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, bananas, garlic, onions, corn, peas, sesame, cranberries, crab, coffee and caffeine. None of these has stopped her from taking long treks several times a year, leading adventure trips and teaching wilderness navigation classes.
"Backpacking to me is setting aside the matters of the world and going where nobody else is, absorbing nature and appreciating why it’s there. It helps to bring clarity to my life and my relationships," says Munson, who runs the website GoneAlpine.com.
Before she identified her food intolerances, Munson felt sluggish and sapped of energy and mental clarity. Heart-pounding hikes and cliff-hugging climbs amplified the problem.
"I didn’t acclimate very well to altitude. My stomach didn’t feel well. I’d get kind of clumsy and I’d fatigue really fast," she says.
When she eliminated her trigger foods, ditched freeze-dried backpacker meals and made her own protein bars, her energy improved. "When I finally cut out my problem foods, not only did I feel better but our trips became so much more enjoyable because I wasn’t so exhausted from not feeling well," she says. "Everything just seemed to clear up. My energy was right on. I could last longer on the trail. I didn’t have to stop as often. It made things so much easier."
Backpacking on a special diet may seem overwhelming—What allergy-friendly products work best? What if there’s a medical emergency? How do you handle communal dining in a group?—but seasoned trekkers say it’s easy to have a successful trip. It just takes proper preparation.
"When I’m out there, I don’t want to worry about the technicalities of the trip, like what I’m eating. By taking care to prepare well, I can truly enjoy it," Munson says.
Serious backpackers stress the importance of proper gear. International adventure traveler Hilary Martin counts coconut milk, homemade trail mix, pea and rice protein powder and gluten-free, dairy-free pancake mix as part of her required equipment.
Last fall, the Boulder, Colorado, resident spent seven days trekking the spectacular Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, hiking amid snow-capped Himalayan peaks and remote mist-shrouded valleys. Then she headed south to the jungle of Nepal to see rhinos and ride elephants. A month later, she traveled to Iceland to walk on glaciers. This summer, she plans to hike through the Alps in France, Switzerland and Italy, all while avoiding dairy, eggs and meat and eating foods low in sodium and sugar. She eats gluten-free as often as she can.
With dangerously high cholesterol and an alarming rate of cancer in her family, Martin considers her whole-foods, plant-based diet a necessity. On her anti-inflammatory regimen, her chronically high cholesterol dropped from 223 to 150. Once told she could never hike or ski again due to knee problems, she was able to trek through the Annapurnas and ski without pain.
"I’ve figured out a pretty good system for traveling with food sensitivities," she says. I always travel with food. The good news is that there are so many foods that you can bring, even internationally."
Not only must her food be allergy-safe, it must also be lightweight, portable, shelf-stable and nutritious. Plus, her packed food must meet airplane security requirements. She packs shelf-stable coconut or almond milk in her checked bags, since it’s hard to find dairy-free milk in other countries.
"When you backpack, you want transportable food that’s not overly heavy," Martin says. "I carry a lot of trail mix, granola and nut butter packets. When hiking, I rip off the top of the nut butter and squeeze it out like goo. It’s a good combo of fat and protein."
She makes meal-replacement shakes with pea and rice protein powders in her BlenderBottle—a plastic drinking container with a whisk ball that mixes thick protein powder. She makes gluten-free muffins in advance, tossing protein powder into the batter to yield high-protein muffins.
"These are great for energy when backpacking, like a little meal in a muffin," she explains. "They’re easy to carry and they stay fresh in a zip-top bag for several days."
Preparation intensifies with longer trips. In 2011, certified medical assistant Jane Clements of Seattle headed out with her partner Gregg on the challenge of a lifetime—climbing Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, in Alaska. The highest mountain peak in North America at 20,320 feet, Denali is famous for violent weather, harsh winds and frigid temperatures of -30°F in April, when Clements traveled.
Clements had to pack meals for 26 days, burying caches in the snow along the trail. Food had to be quick-cooking at high altitude and totally free of gluten, yeast and egg for Clements and her partner.
"For six months before the Denali trip, we did a lot of field testing. I’ve been slowly building a repertoire of things that work for us. A lot of prepared foods like soup mixes have yeast in them. So we really don’t use prepared foods anymore," she says.
"We were able to source extremely fresh smoked fish, sausage and jerky without yeast or gluten and locally grown dried vegetables from the farmers’ markets in Seattle. The person running the farm or making the sausage is often the person manning the stand at the market, so we could find out the ingredients. We went right to the guy making the protein bars and had his assurance that they really did contain only three ingredients," Clements says.
"There are a few recipes that I would do variations of over and over again that would meet all the criteria that we needed. We leaned really heavily on rice noodles and freeze-dried vegetables, which are available on the Internet; they rehydrate kind of fast. We also relied on smoked salmon. We make a mean chicken curry with prepackaged chicken, all sorts of freeze-dried or fresh vegetables and powdered coconut milk. Add a spoonful of premade curry and you’ve got this amazing, fresh, very hearty meal served over rice or rice noodles. It’s got everything you need in it and it tastes like something you get at home."
Clements packed fresh vegetables for the first few days. "One thing about the way we eat on the trail—it’s not lightweight," she says. "The worst meal we had on Denali was a freeze-dried meal. It was free of allergens but tasted like garbage. We found it’s better to just cook real food but you have to be okay with carrying some weight."
Clements encourages hikers to test out their gear and cooking equipment in advance.
"A lot of time spent experimenting at home or on short trips is really helpful. Learn how to use your stove, how to cook on it, how to create a wind block," she says.
Clements and her partner conducted field tests on Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in Washington, to see what food and equipment worked best for them.
"We were trying out the harsh conditions on Mount Rainier to see if we could physically cook this food. That’s when I accidentally made my partner sick," she says. "We had bagged some soups the year before and I didn’t keep track of what was in them because I had discarded the packaging. They contained yeast—and he got as sick as a dog. It was late January and there were very high winds. The poor guy had numerous bouts of diarrhea in a not-very-sheltered area.
"After that, I stopped buying premade soup mixes," she says. "It’s really important for people with allergies to keep track of the packaging or make food from scratch."
Clements and her partner often backpack with their children, ages 12 through 14, climbing to Camp Muir at 10,080 feet on Mount Rainier and summiting Mount Adams at 12,280 feet. When climbing with her kids, Clements has to keep in mind their allergies to dairy, pork, gluten and egg, as well as make sure she has enough food to sustain them.
"Even when my children were very young, I could take them on these hikes and it was great as long as I had enough time and enough food," she says. "Any time you take kids into the backcountry, you have to bring almost twice what they normally eat. If you have enough food, you can keep them going. If you don’t have enough food, you’re in trouble—you’re going to have cranky kids."
"I’d only make them hike a few miles because of the altitude. But then they’d play really hard. They don’t rest like adults do. So they’re on this incredibly high burn and you really have to shove the calories into them. They eat more than you can imagine. We’re almost always clean out of food when we get back, whether it’s a day trip or a multi-day trip."
Backpacking has an additional set of concerns when there are food allergies, says John Lee, MD, pediatric allergist with Boston Children’s Hospital and co-creator of AllergyHome.org.
"The idea for kids with food allergies is to try to balance their safety with not putting them in a bubble. If children are aware of what they should and shouldn’t do and there’s emergency medication, a way to contact help, reasonable access to emergency care and plenty of safe food available, that does a lot to reassure everyone that the hike will go smoothly."
"The first rule is to have at least two epinephrine auto-injectors and make sure the child, or a responsible adult, is very comfortable with how to use them and when to use them," Lee says. "Every time someone uses epinephrine, no matter what—even if they seem to be feeling well afterward—they must go to a hospital emergency room to be evaluated. You can have a more serious rebound reaction a few hours later."
When far from a hospital, it’s wise to carry more than two auto-injectors, says Michael Pistiner, MD, MMSc, pediatric allergist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and co-creator of AllergyHome.org. When hiking, watch out for temperature extremes. Auto-injectors should be kept close to room temperature.
"In high heat, avoid direct sun exposure," Pistiner says. "In the cold, keep auto-injectors inside your clothing."
Backpackers with food allergies should talk to their healthcare provider before heading out into the wilderness, Pistiner says. They should also tell fellow hikers about their allergies, have a food allergy emergency care plan and have a functioning cell phone or other way to contact emergency help. People who have asthma are at higher risk for more severe allergic reactions, so they should carry their asthma medications, as well.
Another issue is cross-contact. It’s essential to avoid shared cooking equipment and utensils if they can’t be cleaned properly of potential allergens, Lee says. Cleaning thoroughly with hand wipes can remove allergens from hands; hand-sanitizing gels do not.
Backpacking and camping can be ideal activities for those with food sensitivities because you supply your own food, says Stephen Wangen, ND, founder and medical director of the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle and author of Healthier Without Wheat.
"Ironically, in my experience, one of the easier things to do when you’re food allergic is to backpack. You’ve just got what you’ve got and you eat it—and that’s it. It’s not like there are any temptations out there," says Wangen, an avid backpacker who is allergic to dairy and gluten. "You’re always preplanning your meals when you backpack and you can design them exactly around your needs."
Wangen often hikes in the North Cascades with people who are accommodating to special dietary needs. "I’ve been really fortunate to be in a group where we’ve always worked together. Everybody understands everybody’s food issues and it’s turned out just fine. We’ll set it up so there’s no dairy or gluten or there are safe alternatives," he says.
Hilary Martin agrees. "I actually think backpacking and camping are some of the easier things to deal with when you have food sensitivities. You’re expected to bring your own food," she says. "Backpacking can be so collaborative and there’s so much awareness of food sensitivities. You’re not such a weirdo today when you say, ‘Hey, I just wanted to check in with the group to see if there are any food sensitivities and to see if we can do a little menu planning that can work for all of our diverse diets.’"
Martin put this thinking into practice when she biked Utah’s 103-mile White Rim Trail with a group of ten people last fall. The group decided to have communal dinners.
"I was kind of stressed about it at first," she admits. "So I said to the person planning the trip, ‘I know we’re going to have communal dinners. I’ll gladly prepare one of the meals and I’ll make it gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian so everybody can eat it.’ The group decided to do all the other dinners that way."
Martin faces another challenge this summer, hiking through the Alps during the day and staying at local inns in the evening. When booking the trip, she asked the inns in advance if they could prepare vegan dishes for her.
"One hotel told me that I couldn’t get through Italy, France and Switzerland eating a dairy-free diet." And the thought of coming up with meals that excluded dairy, egg, meat and butter stymied the chef. Martin suggested a specific alternative: "I asked, ‘Can the chef make us really big salads with every veggie in the kitchen and no cheese?’ She said yes and we were back on track."
These gluten-free, dairy-free bars are packed with protein. Store them at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
1 cup gluten-free quick oats
½ cup puffed rice, chopped fruit or raisins
3 tablespoons brown rice protein powder
1 tablespoon coconut sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons creamy seed or nut butter (sunflower, peanut, cashew, almond)
2½ tablespoons honey or agave nectar
2 tablespoons coconut nectar or brown rice syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Line a 9x5-inch loaf pan with waxed or parchment paper.
2. Mix together oats, puffed rice, brown rice protein powder, coconut sugar, cinnamon and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
3. Place seed butter, honey and coconut nectar in a saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture boils. Boil for 1 minute. Then remove from heat and let cool slightly. Stir in vanilla.
4. Pour warm mixture over dry ingredients and stir well.
5. Pour mixture evenly into prepared pan and compress. Do this by placing a sheet of waxed or parchment paper on the batter and pressing down firmly. Then place an empty 9x5-inch loaf pan on the paper and put a heavy weight in the empty pan. Press down hard with your hands. Put pans (with weight) in the refrigerator for about 1 hour. Cut into bars.
Each serving contains 141 calories, 4g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 81mg sodium, 22g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 11g sugars, 6g protein, 13Est GL
Recipe adapted from GoneAlpine.com. Reprinted with permission.
It’s important to get sufficient nutrition when backpacking on a special diet, says Megan Forbes, RD, a Boulder, Colorado, dietitian who works with professional and amateur athletes, as well as patients with food allergies and yeast imbalances.
A former competitive triathlete, Forbes has competed internationally in cycling and running races, including the Triathlon World Championships in New Zealand and the Duathlon World Championships in Belgium. She doesn’t let her Crohn’s disease or her allergies to gluten, dairy, egg, peanuts, hazelnuts, corn, rice, yeast, orange and crab slow her down or stop her from competing in trail-running races.
"I bring all my own food. There are very few things I can get when I eat out," Forbes says. "When I’m out with friends and traveling, it’s not about food. I want to be healthy and have a good time. Having to stick to my diet doesn’t bother me any more. I just want to feel good on my trip."
When burning energy on long hikes, backpackers must focus on taking in sufficient calories to sustain themselves and keep themselves warm. Those calories often come from carbohydrates. But when you’re gluten-free, it’s harder to find safe, backpack-friendly carbs.
These date bars are high in potassium, as well as other nutrients essential to athletes. The more packed the mixture is, the better the bars hold together. Store bars at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
2 cups chopped Medjool dates
1 cup gluten-free quick oats
1/4 cup chopped hemp seeds, raw walnuts or raw almonds
2 tablespoons dark molasses
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Line a 9x5-inch loaf pan with waxed or parchment paper.
2. Mix dates, oats and seeds until dates are coated and not sticking together. Mix in molasses, honey and vanilla until combined.
3. Press mixture firmly into prepared pan. Then place a sheet of waxed or parchment paper on the mixture and press down firmly. Place an empty 9x5-inch loaf pan on the paper and put a heavy weight in the empty pan. Press down hard with your hands. Put pans (with weight) in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight. Cut into bars.
Each serving contains 154 calories, 2g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 2mg sodium, 31g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 20g sugars, 4g protein, 17Est GL.
Recipe adapted from GoneAlpine.com. Reprinted with permission.
Forbes recommends loading up on fresh fruit, vegetables and lean proteins before heading out for a hike and then relying on fruit and gluten-free energy bars, grain-free and gluten-free granolas, savory gluten-free crackers, kale chips, squeeze packs of nut butters, rice cakes and little baggies of protein powder and applesauce mixed together. For protein, she turns to nitrate-free turkey jerky and buffalo and cranberry Tanka Bites. For vegetarians, she recommends pea and rice protein powder, hemp and chia seed powder or soy protein powder—all of which you can typically take overseas. Pack the protein powders in closed containers with original labels, she cautions, "so it’s not just a white powder in a baggie."
Food planning need not be overwhelming, Munson says. Focus on safe, wholesome snacks and a few easy-to-put-together meals.
"When you’re out there, you’re limited to what’s available. You really don’t have as many concerns as you would just going to the grocery store and buying food. You’re eating what you bring," she says. "I think eating is highly overplayed when it comes to backcountry travel. Most people bring way too much of the wrong stuff, which adds weight and unnecessary waste."
The payback for all the preparation is the pride and confidence you feel on the trail, finding strength and peace in nature’s solitude and beauty and becoming more self-reliant, regardless of your food issues.
"Braving the elements—and doing so in good health—is rewarding. Just the fact that you can do it gives you a lot of strength and personal satisfaction," Munson says. "Being out where nobody else is, seeing the places that only remote photographers get into, experiencing what those are like—it’s pretty intense. It’s very empowering."