There’s something about the smell of coffee brewing in a campsite, dreamy wafts of butter in the skillet and pancake batter toasting when it hits the heat floating on the chilly breeze of the wilderness. These were the first thoughts that came to mind when I sat down to chat with my friends Kristen and Nick Legan – Tech Editors at VeloNews and Adventure Cyclist, respectively – about their first bikepacking trip together; a week-long, 500-mile foray along the Great Divide Route through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
The longer I listened to their delicious stories, the more I realized just how vital food and fuel is to the success of a bikepacking trip of any length. Whether it’s a single night in the woods, or multi-week adventure. “Like any other big ride or tour, eating is hugely important.” said Kristen.
Anytime one of us would get grumpy or quiet while riding, we’d remind each other to eat because that was usually what was making us act so moody.
But, the more questions I asked about how they fueled their trip, the more I recognized that contrary to my standard opinion, planning to cook a great majority of your meals from scratch on a bikepacking trip can be a detriment. The preparations, time and process of cooking all of your own food while traveling exclusively by bike can hinder your physical and emotional success. But, by cooking a little, dining a little and “foraging” a little, you can deliciously fuel a bikepacking trip as a beginner.
Cook a little. (Just a little.)
While it may not be immediately obvious, the way you pack for a bikepacking trip influences how you eat while you’re out. “You want to minimize everything you bring with you!” said Kristen. The Legan’s left “normal” clothes and a few other little luxuries behind so their setup would be lighter and their ride easier. “And, so, you were able to make more space for food and snacks and cooking equipment, right?!” I asked, emphatically and with my mouth watering, still entertaining those dreams of pancakes in my head.
While it may seem strange, even a loaf of bread is really tricky to fit in a bike bag. Much less fitting in a cast-iron skillet. (Which means my grilled cheese + pancake dreams deflated quickly.) But as Nick showed me the little, ridiculously cool, hand-made penny stove he carries with him on his bike, I got a few other tasty ideas. The stove (crafted of a single aluminum can, cut in half and fluted to allow for a flame to burn between the layers) nests into a small cooking pot he uses to boil water along with a cup and a bowl to eat and drink from. The alcohol fuel for the stove is carried in miniscule Nalgene bottles away from any food in other areas of his pack. “That’s it. That’s the kitchen.” he said.
This super-lightweight, easy to pack set-up is perfect to boil water for coffee, make oatmeal and simple dehydrated meals on the trail. “Packets of instant coffee, ziploc bags of oatmeal, packets of maple syrup, nut butter, and little packets of dried fruits and nuts are all great, nutrient and calorie rich foods that are easy to carry and cook on your route.” he says. With a small pouch of cacao nibs, an almond butter packet, a maple syrup packet, a couple of dried apricots and a small tin of sea salt, you can make this satisfying bowl of oatmeal in your bikepacking campsite.
Penny-Stove Oatmeal with Apricots and Cacao Nibs
Combine 1 cup oats with 2 cups water in a small cooking pot over heat. Slice, chop or rip dried apricots and add to the pot with the oatmeal and water. Sprinkle with sea salt and cook until the oats are hydrated and tender. Toss in a handful of cacao nibs, and squeeze in maple and nut butter to taste (and perhaps more sea salt) and enjoy.
The bottom line: enjoy basic meals cooked in camp when it’s convenient, and scout for other delicious options when you can’t.
Dine a little.
The Great Divide Route happens to fall between a few small towns and rest stops familiar with the needs of cyclists passing through, so Kristen and Nick had the luxury of using them as resources. “Since we were touring,” says Kristen, “we had the luxury to stop at little cafes and bars along the way to get real meals.” “None of our meals were very gourmet but they were so delicious because we were so hungry and thankful to have food on the table in front of us!” “We had a really great meal on the night we finished our ride at the Montana High Mountain Lodge where they made home cooked BBQ and then eggs and sausage for breakfast. We also had these amazing burritos near Island Park, Idaho on our second day of riding. We each ordered a second burrito to go and had it for dinner later that night. Even cold, it was the best burrito ever.”
By knowing their route, Kristen and Nick were able to plot which stops to fuel up adequately. Plot your trip along a route that will offer you the opportunity to enjoy a hot, satisfying meal each night before making camp; this is good for your body, good for your soul when the miles get long, and makes for some tasty memories along your route.
Elevate your takeout game: carry a few folded sheets of aluminum foil with you in your bike bag and maybe a ziploc bag or two. Then, you can bypass the takeout box and leftover bread, the other half of your sandwich and even that extra side of bacon become delicious (easy to pack) snacks on the bike.
Forage a little.
For Kristen and Nick, cooking a simple breakfast in camp was always a possibility, and eating a hot dinner near their camp was a likelihood, but preparing their own lunch and mid-day ride food was not. “For the in between meals, we would stop at gas stations or forage to fill up on ride food,” said Kristen. While this is a far cry from cooking meals and snacks from scratch, she reports that they started really looking forward to the stops as they pedaled. “We tried to just take each store as it was and see what they had before making decisions.”
We tried not to think about what we wanted at the next stop because the gas station or shop might not have it and that would be devastatingly disappointing when you’re cracked and desperate for calories.
What were the best things they found on the gas station shelves? “Honestly, I really loved PopTarts (s’more and cinnamon) and super salty chips. They hit the spot out there. Little packets of tuna were also nice since it was some much needed protein and it was easy to transport.”
Whenever possible, they would swing by a grocery store for fruits and vegetables. “But those are hard to transport.” said Kristen, “so it’s a tough balance. “It was really important- emotionally and physically- to get a mix of food while riding,” reports Kristen.
If we only ate candy or sweet stuff, our stomachs will get really upset very quickly. So, we tried to follow our cravings, eating salty foods when we needed it and sweet foods when we wanted them.
“Mostly, I craved salt.’ said Kristen. “Things like chips and french fries tasted so delicious out there. But every once in awhile a sweet craving would come over when I would get really low on calories.” They didn’t always find what they were craving, physically or emotionally. “By the end, I was craving salads and greens and fresh vegetables because we hadn’t had much of that along the way.” The natural and civilized resources around them were also important for water. “We got water along the way from streams and rivers. We had treatment tabs to make sure it was OK to drink.” Nick adds.
We also foraged some huckleberries. They were everywhere along the way as we got closer to Missoula. They are such a wonderful little berry, kind of like a blueberry but on the wild side.
Foraged Tuna Salad
Grab a couple stalks of celery (easily packed and ported) from the grocery store, along with a packet of mayonnaise and mustard from the deli and squirrel them into your bike bag. Then, when you find tuna packets at the gas station you can mix up tuna salad and eat it with salty tortilla chips.
Lucky Penny-Stove Mac n Cheese
Some gas stations have a small section dedicated to products for home use (flour, sugar, baking soda.) Sometimes, it has boxed mac n cheese. Keep an eye out – you can easily make this in your penny stove with water, a splash of milk, and a couple of pats of butter (if you pick them up at the diner where you had dinner last night.)
Most gas stations sell very small cartons of eggs, which means you can make an omelet. Pick one up, along with a tiny carton of milk, fire up your penny stove and cook up the eggs to your liking. If digging out your stove isn’t an option, you can use the microwave at the gas station. Toss the eggs in your non-metal mug or a paper coffee cup and microwave for 30 seconds – one minute. Sprinkle with sea salt and eat with your pop-tarts! (Or the avocado that you squirreled in your bag from the grocery store!)
Make wise choices: use what’s available to you and listen to your cravings. Look first for foods that are least processed – salted nuts, packets of tuna, bananas and chocolate milk are great options. Your body needs carbohydrates, fat and protein to maintain your effort for several days, and needs salt to help replace electrolytes lost in sweat and your cravings are telling you what your body needs. If that Pop-Tart sounds like it would hit the spot, it probably will!
As a couple new to bikepacking together, cooking a little, dining a little and foraging a little worked because it gave them some edible, and emotional variety. The task of cooking wasn’t too strenuous that it put them out, dining out meant taking a break and enjoying a new, local adventure. And, foraging (at gas stations and on huckleberry bushes!) meant that their bike load stayed manageable, and that their fuel remained diverse. They didn’t worry about “bad foods” while on the trail, they just worked on making the wisest decisions they could along the way. “If it didn’t work right now, it’ll work later. So we’d hang on and keep the different things we picked up until we were hungry for them.” If you pick up a bar of chocolate though, eat it and quick. “Chocolate melts easily though so don’t let it go too long out in the hot sun, it’ll get everywhere!” says Kristen.
How to eat well on a bikepacking trip as a beginner? Pack wisely and bring snacks that are simple to cook and lightweight to pack, but don’t rely on your own in-camp-cooking alone. Plot your route around solid resources that give you the opportunity for hot, home-cooked meals that are good for your psyche on a long trip, and that are convenient for when you’re ready to put in the miles.
Get inspired by Kristen’s 7-Day Adventure along the Great Divide Route through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
Missoula Bound Day 1: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007722
Missoula Bound Day 2: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007848
Missoula Bound Day 3: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007868
Missoula Bound Day 4: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007853
Missoula Bound Day 5: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007883
MIssoula Bound Day 6: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007896
Missoula Bound Day 7: https://www.strava.com/activities/648007846