Being self-sufficient for a few days is one aspect of bikepacking that most of us enjoy as it enables us to explore more remote areas. The downside is that the more self-sufficient we are, the greater the weight and volume that we have to carry. Paradoxically as kit has become lighter and lighter, food becomes proportionally a greater part of the total weight so it can be tempting to cut down on food to save weight and bulk. There are, of course, commercially produced dried foods, particularly for evening meals, some of which taste quite good as well . But they are very expensive and only available from outdoor stores so difficult to pick up when on the road.
First the (over-simplified) nutritional science. For slow burn endurance activity we need a mixture of carbohydrates and fats to provide energy plus protein to aid muscle recovery and rebuilding. At a slower pace our bodies convert fat into the energy but as effort increases carbohydrates become more important as they are converted into energy faster – which is why we need to eat both types of foods. In 8 hours of riding, depending on body size, we are going to need in excess of 4,000 kcals. In order to achieve these levels of intake day after day we need to temporarily bypass some of than usual nutritional guidance. Just eat lots of fresh food, especially vegetables and fruit, when you return to more populated areas.
So here are some suggestions for lightweight, high energy and low bulk food.
Energy density. Look at foods in terms of their energy density so you get maximum calories for the weight- muesli, oats, peanut butter, cheese, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, flap jacks, cereal bars, fruit malt loaf, oat cakes, chorizo sausage, dried ham, vegetable pate all pack a lot of long lasting calories for their weight. These types of food are fairly easy to find in the Europe and the UK.
Fat content. Foods with the higher fat content will have more calories, and because fat takes longer to digest, will keep you feeling full longer. Fat has more than twice the calories of the same weight of carbs or protein of the same weight. But don’t overdo it as fat can be difficult to digest. Remember riding uphill after a full English?
Packability. Carbohydrates particularly bread and pasta can take up lots of space. Couscous is low bulk and and also is very quick to cook so saves on fuel too. Precooked rice in foil packs also doesn’t take up much space and only need warming up. Oat cakes or denser rye breads take up less space than bread. All of the energy dense foods mentioned above give a high return of calories for the space they take in your pack. Get rid of as much packaging as possible or use plastic bags to repackage foods to make them more easily stored.
Avoid. Instant foods such as packet soups and flavoured noodles – they may be light but they’re very low energy. Also take it easy on the very refined carbohydrates- jam, chocolate, sugary breakfast cereals – as although they provide lots of calories your energy levels will peak and crash. However, honey or jam is fine with oatcakes or rye bread as it gives a good mix of fast and slow release carbs. Also avoid food that takes a long time to cook e.g. brown rice, pulses as you need lots of extra weight in fuel to cook them. I find it too easy to take a lot of sweet foods to eat during the day so a small plastic pot of Marmite helps add a savoury taste at times.
Finally, don’t just buy stuff because it has lots of calories or doesn’t take up to much space – you have to like eating it as well!