Diet and rationing

  • Nutrition
  • Planning meals
  • Cooking organisation
  • Food for hot conditions
  • Food for extended trips

As a leader, your food will be of interest to other members of your group. You will be seen, especially by beginners, as a source of much wisdom, including about food. They may not ask you about it though, they may just look. What you eat, how you prepare it, and how much you share your experience, if not your food, will influence your group members, whether you want it to or not. While food may not be a critical leadership ingredient, it definitely adds piquancy to the trip.


Nutrition may not appear to be a major issue on an overnight trip, but it becomes more critical the longer you are out. Dietitians now know a great deal about nutrition and human performance. We can use this knowledge to assist our food planning. If you are serious about your performance on a trip, you would be choosing to eat foods that give you the best nutritional balance during the weeks before you head off into the bush for the weekend!

We need to consider what the human body needs, both directly for immediate energy and for replacing the stored energy used during periods of vigorous exercise.

Meeting energy requirements

Bushwalking, ski touring and similar outdoor activities require sustained effort of moderate to high intensity over most of a day, with short regular breaks built in. Participants generally are moving not only their own body weight but also a pack filled with equipment and provisions. These demands are generally significantly greater than everyday demands.

Table 27.1 gives an approximate guide to daily energy requirements for men and women involved in moderate to very active work over a period of six to eight hours. Most people require some 120 to 170 kJ/kg of body weight per day when some physical activity is undertaken. This guide is adapted from the National Heart Foundation's guide to daily energy requirements, and may be used by bushwalkers on normal trips under Australian conditions (other than snow trips).

Balance of food types

A high carbohydrate diet releases energy from carbohydrate combustion, and is the best source of energy for moderate to high intensity exercise. Those who enjoy outdoor activities will derive more benefit from a high carbohydrate diet than a high fat or high protein diet. For general bushwalking conditions, a suggested dietary breakdown might be 10% fat, 20% protein and 70% carbohydrate.

Generally, only extremes of climate affect energy expenditure. It is estimated that energy requirements increase only 3% for every 10°C below 10°C. For most Australian outdoor activities, a healthy diet high in carbohydrate will help give you the optimum performance. What you eat before you go is as important as what you eat during short trips. This means that other factors such as palatability, weight and ease of preparation are critical factors to enjoying food in the bush.

Most nutritionists say that the balance of a diet must be assessed over a substantial period of time, and that consumption over a short period is of no great consequence. Thus, from a total nutrition perspective, the overall balance of intake during a two or three day bushwalk or ski tour is not very significant provided the normal diet is well balanced.

Table 27.1 Guide to typical daily energy requirements

BuildWalking ratingEnergy required (kJ)
    Men Women
Slight Moderate 8800–10000 7900–9600
  Difficult 9600–11300 8800–10500
Average Moderate 10000–11700 9600–10500
  Difficult 11300–12500 10500–11700
Heavy Moderate 11700–13400 10500–11700
  Difficult 12500–14200 11700–12500


This is very important, as it is hard to eat bland, uninteresting food when you are tired, wet and miserable. Try things out at home if you are not sure how it will taste. If it tastes good at home, it is likely to taste marvellous when in the bush. Simpler foods are usually better, and hot is usually more palatable than cold, except in extremely warm climates. Ask to try what you see other people making. Be open to unusual ideas. On extended trips, variety is important. Mush may be acceptable for a few days, but after a week or more it gets very boring.

Weight and ease of preparation

Keeping the weight down is an important consideration. For persons of average build, a nutritious, well-balanced outdoor activity diet for trips up to about two weeks can be made up of foods which weigh about 900 g per person per day. When tired at the end of a hard day, ease of preparation can often make the difference between eating the planned meal, having a quick snack that may not be especially nutritious or energy giving, or having nothing at all. On extended trips, it is particularly important to have meals that are quick to prepare and need little washing up afterwards.

Carry only what you need

It is necessary to plan your food carefully. Make up a menu, set the ingredients, calculate the quantities, and only take that much. It is useful to have a standard measure for common food items e.g. half a cup of your usual muesli per person per meal required. Record meal plan details before the trip, and make notes about the outcome during or afterwards. For short trips, plan for and carry one emergency meal. On extended trips, it is wise to plan for and carry a whole day’s extra food. As leader, you may choose to carry a taste treat to share among the group when morale is low.

Planning your meals

Prior to the trip, work out meals on a day-by-day basis and translate your menus into shopping lists. Take your written menu on the trip with you, so you can swap meals around if you need to. Some sample food lists are in Appendix 2.

For overnight trips, a hot drink and a bowl of dense, uncrushable cereal is a common breakfast. Those who need a really quick start often take muesli or breakfast bars, and eat on the track. Missing breakfast altogether is not recommended because your muscles are likely to be carbohydrate-depleted unless you have planned your evening food intake carefully.

On extended trips plan for two types of breakfast—the uncooked breakfast for days when an early start is important (or when fires or stoves are banned) and a cooked breakfast for days when the pace is more leisurely or when a hot breakfast will boost morale if the weather is foul.

It is usually easier not to cook at lunchtime. Carry easily prepared meals of a nutritious nature. Sandwiches are sometimes convenient on the first day out. As leader, you need to ensure that group members understand the protocol of the group regarding lunchtime cooking. Some groups, for example, have a tradition of a hot drink for the whole group at lunch, and the group will expect one person to do this. Other groups expect a full hour for lunch, and the leader would have to tell everyone if less than an hour is planned or necessary.

Evening meal
Always try to ensure that you have daylight for preparation and cooking. This is the most important meal, so do not rush it. Socially it is a time of much trip enjoyment, and as the leader you should try to facilitate this.

Food rich in carbohydrates should be eaten at regular intervals throughout the day. ‘Scroggin’ is a favourite of many bushwalkers and skitourers – a mixture of nuts and dried fruits with chocolate, jelly babies or other sweets.

Food dehydrators
Food dehydrators have proved a useful and cost effective way to reduce weight of foodstuffs carried, while preserving the food value and allowing individual preferences to be met. Many experienced walkers and skitourers find home prepared dehydrated foods particularly useful on extended trips, where weight is a major concern.

Cooking organisation

There are advantages and disadvantages to cooking in groups. Group cooking helps beginners (particularly if paired with someone more experienced) and makes it easier to ensure a balanced diet for everyone. Cooking groups of two or four people are common, particularly with tent pairs for breakfasts and lunches but combining with another tent pair for dinners. Group cooking also tends to foster a spirit of cooperation. The disadvantages of group packaging of food include the problems of splitting up food in an emergency and the fact that less account can be given to differences in individual tastes. The benefits from group cooking seem to increase with longer trips.

Fire bans

Know the regulations and stick to them, including local variations. Be aware of the possibility of a total fire ban; if you are unsure it is better to be safe than sorry. Never, ever light a fire if there is any chance that it may get away. Never, ever leave an open fire unattended. If you can not put your hand in the ashes, you must not leave it! If walking during a possible fireban period, have some food that can be eaten cold for dinner, as well as lunch. Consider planning uncooked meals, or include some additional emergency food that can be eaten when cooking is not possible.

Food for hot conditions

Hot conditions in Australia can be hot and dry in the southern summer, or hot and wet in the northern wet season. Planning meals and encouraging healthy eating in these conditions can be harder than in cooler weather.

The best foods to take for a hot walk will be those which:

  • do not readily spoil over a two–three day period
  • provide high levels of energy per gram carried
  • can be consumed without cooking
  • provide a reasonably balanced diet.

Practical menu suggestions for hot conditions
The menu suggestions below have been compiled from observing many experienced walkers in hot conditions. However, everyone has individual tastes, and you should experiment and devise menus that you find satisfying.

Breakfast: Most walkers seem to base breakfast around cereals or muesli, containing rolled oats, dried fruit, sesame seeds, linseeds, nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. This can be eaten with water, fruit juice, milk from powdered milk, etc. Oranges, apples and bananas make a good accompaniment, and seem to travel best.

If you are able to cook (that is, it is not a total fire ban) raw eggs travel quite well if carefully packed, and make a tasty addition to breakfast. Hard boiled eggs tend to spoil quite rapidly.

Lunch: Most bread is good for one or two days, and dry biscuits are good thereafter. Cheese, salami, vegemite, peanut butter and jam are common fillings. Natural cheese will keep for at least three days, as will salami. Processed cheese keeps much longer, and the others will keep almost indefinitely. Flat bread tends to go mouldy after two to three days, and although it can usually be eaten without ill effects, it is not very appealing. An orange or other piece of fruit for each lunch is pleasant.

Dinner: Dinners are typically based around pasta, rice, potatoes or bread to provide the carbohydrate backbone of the meal. Potato salad will keep for two–three days if dressed with margarine/olive oil/vinegar but only one–two if dressed with mayonnaise. Pasta and rice can be taken pre-cooked from home, or cooked the day before if the next day looks like being a total fire ban. Pasta salads seem to keep satisfactorily for one - two days, and rice salads two–three days. For pasta, adding raw tomato, capsicum, olives, mushrooms, parsley and parmesan cheese, dressed with olive oil is generally appealing. For rice, fried bacon, corn, sultanas, peas, capsicum or anything else which takes your fancy will provide interest. Brown rice is generally regarded as having more complex carbohydrate and gives more sustained energy release than white, but takes longer to cook.

Nibbles: Nibbles of dried fruit and nuts, supplemented with Smarties, travel well. Foods with chocolate on the outside tend to melt and are unsatisfactory. Fruit bars or leathers are good, as are snakes and other jelly-based sweets.

Dry camp issues

Dry camps, meaning no source of water other than what you can carry, can be planned or unplanned. If unplanned, do the best you can with the moistest food you have, and perhaps pool the group’s food and water, especially if unsure of the situation for next day. As leader, you may need to monitor water use to ensure you do not have some dehydrated and unwell party members while others have stored and perhaps secreted water supplies.

If a dry camp is planned, ensure your food will be palatable, but don’t carry extra weight in food containers, such as cans, that could be carried as water.

One billy meals

It makes sense to minimise the number, size and weight of your pots and pans. Consider whether you really need a frying pan. Meals made in one pot save on washing up, fuel, juggling stove use, planning and timing. Some ideas include risottos, stews with potatoes and sauces that only need reheating in the pot with the pasta. You can cook cereals such as couscous, bourghul wheat and quick noodles in a bowl and add them to the pot with the main sauce or stew.

Food storage and packaging

Foods should be stored in either strong plastic or cloth bags, or in aluminium or plastic containers. The main considerations are sealability, weight and compactness. You may be able to recycle some packaging, but you may be able to buy a more durable product which may be worth the money in the long term. Specific use bottles have advantages in being durable and leakproof, and they have special internal coatings.

Compactness is a consideration. This is particularly relevant when empty. For example, carry muesli in plastic bags because the package gets smaller after each breakfast. Pre-mixed foods can be placed in marked bags or containers. Some people prefer to have each complete meal packed separately, while others sort all their meal types, say breakfasts or snacks, into bags according to the meal.

Fluid intake

Water is essential for all body functions. Digestion is impossible without it. Walking in hot weather or where there is excessive fluid loss through perspiration requires not only adequate fluid intake but also electrolyte replacement (sodium, potassium) to offset dehydration. Saline powder or salt/glucose should be taken in balance with water. The formula recommended is 2 g salt, 50 to a maximum of 100 g glucose in one litre of water, plus flavouring to mask the salty taste. An alternative is a formulated electrolyte replacer (e.g. Staminade, Gatorade (powder) or Vigorade (liquid)). In the specified mix with water there is almost instantaneous absorption into the body.

Food sources

In most urban areas of Australia, food from other cultures can be used to provide varied and interesting foods suitable for the outdoors. Asian food shops in particular offer wonderful ingredients including dried fish, seafood and seaweed, dried and semi-dried meat, dried and UHT bean curd, interesting sauces and pastes, spices, dried coconut milk, dried vegetables, lovely teas, endless dried pulses, pappadams, breads, interesting rice, and exotic packet soups, stews and desserts. It may be prudent to try unfamiliar items at home first.

Carbohydrates can be obtained from manufactured/processed foods; sweets; jams; biscuits, cakes, and bread; cereals; flour; sugar; spaghetti; natural foods, including honey, fruits (fresh or dried); leaves/roots of plants (fresh or dried vegetables); grains (a wide variety is available); nuts and seeds.

Fats can be obtained from plant sources, including oils in seeds and nuts (oil, margarine, nut butters) and animal sources (e.g. butter, cheese, milk, lard, meat fats, fish oils).

Protein for outdoor trips includes animal sources, including meat, poultry, fish, cheese and dairy, eggs; and plant sources such as beans, legumes (peas), nuts, seeds, and some vegetables, including dehydrated vegetables.

Complementary proteins
Certain combinations of vegetarian food groups complement the individual food values to provide ‘complete protein’. There are three such groups: cereal grains, dairy products, and pulses, nuts and seeds. Combinations of any two of these groups provide more complete nutrition than each group individually. This is particularly important for vegetarians, as meat will normally provide ‘complete protein’.

Food for extended trips

On trips of one week or longer, thorough menu planning is required to provide a well-balanced diet that will maintain good physical condition, with enough variety to boost morale and retain interest. You should plan for approximately 900 g of low moisture food per person per day. Packaging is critical—you need to consider both bulk and durability. Food should be measured out against a planned menu and bulk items (e.g. powdered milk and muesli) are better packed in one or two day group rations so they can more accurately last the distance. Effort put into planning, measuring, labelling and packing into meal serves beforehand makes meal preparation on the trip much easier if you are tired or when conditions are adverse.

Perishables should be eaten in the first couple of days or not taken at all, particularly in summer. Continental meats such as salami, cabana, smoked ham or bacon (not sliced) last quite well and should be packed in cloth rather than plastic, which sweats. Processed cheeses in foil or natural cheese in wax keep better than most plastic wrapped varieties. Margarine is preferable to butter which can go rancid. Powdered milk deteriorates in taste if kept too long.

On some trips you may use food dumps, placed in the area before the trip by the group members or a local person. As these dumps are often put in several weeks or months before the trip, they require careful planning. Perishable food is obviously unsuitable and particular care needs to be taken to protect the food from animals and vermin. Plastic drums or heavy duty plastic bags are generally the preferred containers. Burnable containers should only be used if you cannot arrange to collect drums at a later date. Drums have the advantage of providing more protection for the contents, and may contain a few cans, which must be collected with the drums.

On longer walks supplementary amounts of vitamins and minerals may be necessary. The B group of vitamins are important for the release of energy from carbohydrates, while vitamins C and E assist in providing a resistance to stress and promote tissue repair. Minerals containing phosphorous and potassium are essential to prevent cramp and fatigue, and to maintain normal muscle and nerve activity. Common salt provides sodium which is needed in heart and kidney function.

Food requirements for very long trips (more than four weeks) need to be planned very carefully to minimise the adverse impact on our bodies from the difficulties of providing sufficient nutrition to meet all requirements from food carried. This means that after about three weeks of daily activity, the body will begin depleting its stores of energy to supplement that available from the food eaten during the trip.


On most trips an unbreakable mug and bowl each, a spoon each, one sharp folding knife and one flat bladed plastic spatula for cooking can be enough per cooking pair. A small chopping board or cork mat can be used as an insulating base for the stove also. Two billies, one fitting inside the other, are plenty.

Cleaning up

Cleaning up is important when you are out in the bush for some time, using the same utensils over and over again. Bacteria can multiply easily, and their consequences can be devastating. Washing up needs to be done immediately, not left until morning. Leaving pans out for the local wildlife to clean up is unacceptable. Carry a dedicated washing up kit. Cut up a green scourer into small portions for single use only. Put each piece into your take-home rubbish bag after one use, as the amount of food trapped in them is substantial. Do the same with Chux cloths for drying. Scrape utensils before washing up, and use water as hot as your hands can bear.

Environment issues
Take any uneaten food out with you. Burying it can be hazardous to local wildlife as they dig it up, and is unsightly to others who use the site. Sand will wash most dishes quite well without any soap or detergent at all. Never wash dishes or yourself directly in a watercourse. Consider setting up a grease trap for disposing of washing up water if your meal was even moderately greasy, or if there are several of you. Otherwise, scatter well away from camping, toiletting and water gathering areas.

For a large group, you should establish specific areas for all of these things, outline the expected behaviour with explanations if needed, and help to make it all happen.

Final thoughts

Experiment, be open to new ideas, and think laterally about food in general and meals in particular. Talk to others, but be sure of one thing: whatever you try as the ultimate food, someone will have something different that will be more appealing to you at the time!

Further reading

Burrow J. & Norwak M. 1979. Health Food Cookbook. Octopus Books Ltd, London.
Food for Nordic Skiing, author and date unattributed.
Goodyer P. 1999. Eat and Run. Sunday Life! The Age, January 1999.
Kinmont V. & Axcell C. 1976. Simple Foods for the Pack, 2nd edn. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Scott D. 1985. Protein-Balanced Vegetarian Cookery. Rider and Company, London.