What to eat on a 1300 km run?

Simply the best: muesli!

How to go about food planning?

There are a few basic questions that should be asked first:

  1. For how many days will I be out between re-supply spots?
  2. How much food/ how many calories do I need per day?
  3. What will I be able to find along the way? Do I want/need anything that I might not be able to get at a food store along the way? Other questions to take into consideration are:
  4. How transport-friendly is the food? (How much does it weight? Can it go bad?)
  5. How nutritious is my food (Not all calories are created equal!)?
  6. How easy will it be to prepare the food? (How long does it take to prepare? How much gas does it need?)

1. For how many days do I need to carry food?

For me, this was the most difficult question. Knowing how many kilometers you can/want to do per day will give you a rough indication of how many days it will take you to go between re-supply spots. However, to estimate your daily mileage can be tricky if you feel that your physical fitness is still “under development” and you are not very experienced running in this particular the terrain/climate, or with that amount of gear. Generally, it is a good idea to plan in a little extra food in case you need a day longer (due to injury, weather, navigation, store opening hours…), but since you will have to carry the extra weight for many days you don’t want to be too conservative. Going hungry for a day might not sound so bad when planning your trip from the kitchen table, but going to bed hungry after a long day of running/hiking will quickly wake up your grumpy you. In fact, we once ended up with too little food for one day, which felt pretty stupid and unnecessary. (Fortunately, we met some friendly locals who invited us for (lots of) sandwiches but running with food-worries in the back of your head is not worth it. From that day on we always carried one “emergency” dinner with us. The 300 g extra weight was worth the piece of mind.

Where to re-supply on Gröna Bandet?

Common places to which you can ship depot boxes are:

Åre (STF fjällstation), Gäddede (camping), Hemavan (STF fjällstation), Kvikkjokk (STF fjällstation), and Abisko (STF fjällstation)

Did you send food to all these places?

No. At all these places you will find supermarkets or at least small shops, so we decided to buy most of our food there. The main reasons for this were that we found it difficult to estimate months in advance how many days and how much food we would actually need. We didn’t want to end up having to throw away or carry along excess food and if we needed more we would have to go to the store anyway. It also felt strange to ship food across the country if it could be bought locally. So what did we ship? We did not send anything to Åre and Kvikkjokk. To all other places, we sent maps for the upcoming section, hygiene articles that might be hard to find or only available in large packs (e.g., a few magnesium pills or allergy-friendly sunscreen). Since we sent back the old maps, we could also send back un-used items.

To Hemavan, we sent new shoes and socks and so we added food for a few days, as well as energy bars and luxury snacks such as Lind chocolate and dried fruit. Since the mountain station in Abisko is a few km away from the (only) supermarket, and we knew there would be no stores along the last section, we decided to send food for five days to Abisko. Since we expected to take seven days for the final section we reasoned that in case we arrived in Abisko with left-over food this would not be too much, but we wouldn’t have to buy everything at the small (and expensive!) store at the mountain station, either. We found this planning worked out quite well; we never ended up with too much food and there was nothing that we missed desperately.  The major drawback to this strategy was that whenever we passed a store we spent a significant amount of time with the planning, shopping, and repacking of food.

Are these the only places to buy food?

No, there are lots of places to get food along the way. Even in the small supermarkets in the villages, we found suitable options. It felt good to support the local stores and we also found some cozy cafés along the way. I will add a list of stores that we came across later.

2. How much do I need to eat?

Here, it comes in quite handy that I recently became a licensed personal trainer, so if you want to calculate your calorie needs for yourself, here are some formulas:

Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) (how many calories you need to keep your weight) depends on your basal metabolic rate (BMR), (i.e., how much energy you need at rest) and on your energy expenditure of activity (EEA) (i.e., how much extra you burn due to physical activity).

The most commonly used equation to estimate your BMR is the Mifflin – St Jeor equation:

Men:         BMR = 10 × weight(kg) + 6.25 × height(cm) – 5 × age(y) + 5

Women:   BMR = 10 × weight(kg) + 6.25 × height(cm) – 5 × age(y) – 161

So my BMR would be: 10 x 60 + 6.25 x 173 – (5 x 32) -161 =  1360 kcal

The estimation of your BMR is relatively accurate (though it varies a bit depending on e.g., your muscle mass). What’s much harder to estimate is the amount of energy you need due to physical activity. Generally, your physical activity level (PAL) can be summarized in a number that reflects your average lifestyle:

1.4 – 1.7: rather sedentary (e.g., office worker with no/little exercise)

1.7 – 2.0: moderately active (e.g., construction worker or running one hour daily)

2.0 – 2.4: vigorously active (e.g., manual agricultural worker)

For endurance athletes, this value can go up to 4. If you want to incorporate exercise into your PAL value, you can take the PAL level that corresponds to your lifestyle (or type of work) and add between 0.025 and 0.05 for each weekly hour of exercise. Thus, assuming a “lifestyle” PAL of 1.5 at camp (for cooking, resting, setting up the tent etc.), plus 1.96 extra for daily walking/running (assuming 0.035 x 8h x 7 days/week) would result in a total PAL of 3.46.

To calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), you now multiply your BMR with the PAL. Thus, my estimated TDEE on the trail, this would be :

1360 (BMR) x 3.46 (PAL) = 4706 kcal (TDEE)

This number will give you a VERY ROUGH idea of how many calories you need per day. However, since many variables (level of lifestyle activity, intensity and duration of exercise) have to be estimated it is not very accurate. Did I count my calories every day? No, definitely not, but doing the calculation showed me that I needed more than an extra chocolate bar if I wanted to run/hike for several hours each day.

3. What kind of food can I expect to find along the way and what should I send out to depots?

A typical stop at a supermarket: indulging on fresh food

The answer to this depends largely on how flexible you are in terms of what you can/want to eat. If you have special food requirements (e.g., allergies or gluten intolerance) or if you want to eat ready-made outdoor meals every day (and don’t want to deal with food shopping) you should definitely ship your food ahead. The downside of this is that it requires lots of planning and that you need to carefully stick to your route a time schedule. Moreover, you might end up having to wait for the post office to open (if you arrive late or on a weekend) and in northern Sweden, packages don’t always get delivered all the way to their final destination, but you might have to pick it up at the next bigger city.

Using the shops and supermarkets along the way will allow you to get fresh food every once in a while and most likely you will have to carry food for fewer days. You will lose time for food shopping though, and you’ll sometimes have to improvise since the selection is more limited in remote areas. Yet, even as a vegetarian and someone who cares somewhat about the nutritional content of her food, I was generally happy with what I found at local supermarkets.

Our staple food which we could find in every store consisted of: oats/muesli, red lentils, couscous (which we later swapped for mashed potatoes because we could get it in smaller packages and it tastes surprisingly good with lentils), instant soups (mostly for flavoring), (parmesan) cheese, dried fruit, energy/chocolate/granola- bars and all kinds of nuts and seeds. Along the trail, we mainly picked blueberries and cloudberries.

4. How to pick transport-friendly food?

Food you don’t want to transport further than out of the store: watermelon and feta cheese salad

We had a 300 kcal cut-off line, meaning that food with fewer kcal (per 100g) was a no-go. Unfortunately, that excludes pretty much all fresh fruit and vegetables, even if e.g., an apple would survive a few days in a backpack. Parmesan cheese can typically go for a few days without a refrigerator and is a good source of proteins and calories. We also re-packaged most things into ziplock bags because you don’t want the paper bag of your oats to rip open inside your backpack and the hard-plastic box of our instant-coffee was too bulky. Reusing ziplock bags for the same food items works fine (but replace the cheese bag!).

5. Are calories all that matters?

No, definitely not. Some people seem to think that you need to make up for the calories that burn, but that it does not matter where these calories come from. I strongly disagree with that. Just because you will burn the calories from a pizza or candy doesn’t mean that you should make these foods your major source of energy. If you worry about compensating for your lost calories you should also worry about replenishing your vitamins and minerals. I would even argue that, unless you are underweight, your body can easily deal with a temporary calorie deficit by burning some stored fat, but poor nutritional content will make you more susceptible for injuries and illnesses.

So what did I look for when balancing the weight, calories, and nutrients of my food? First, a reasonable combination of macronutrients, i.e., carbs, proteins, and fat. Given that carbs and proteins contain 4 kcal and fat 9 kcal per gram, it makes sense to lean a bit heavier on fat. For this, I simply added oil to my dinner, and nuts and seeds are a great source of fat, as you also get lots of proteins, and minerals “for free” with them. Chocolate bars will also provide you with fat and calories, but with little extra. Carbs are important for muscle recovery, but I didn’t worry too much about them as they are quite abundant (e.g., oats, mashed potatoes, candy). Proteins are not a primary source of energy for your body, but they are needed for recovery and basic maintenance. Not only body-builders but also endurance athletes have a somewhat greater need for proteins (some amino acids get oxidized during endurance training). For some reason, proteins and protein enriched products are pretty hyped at the moment, but in reality, it is not difficult to reach your recommended daily dose of proteins (ca. 1g/kg/day for moderately active people and ca. 1.6g/kg/day for endurance athletes). Another thing that people seem to confuse is that meat is not the only source of protein (check out pumpkin seeds with 30g protein per 100g). What vegetarians should take into account though, is that plant-derived proteins typically don’t contain the complete set of all nine essential amino acids (i.e., amino acids that need to be ingested from food because the body can’t produce them itself). Fortunately, it is not very difficult to assemble complementary sources of amino acids. Just eat a somewhat varied diet and combine grains and legumes (think: rice and beans, pita and hummus, or, as in my case, oat and lentils) and you’ll be fine.

Also in terms of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and trace elements), it is definitely a good idea to swap candy-bars for dried fruit and potato-chips for nuts and seeds. We also picked and ate lots of (probably several kilos) of blueberries and cloudberries along the way! That being said, I don’t think that it is necessary to cut out all junk-food and candy. Chocolate can serve as a great source of motivation, and a pizza at your section-goal is definitely fine, as long as the majority of your food is from the more healthy tiers.

6. Is my food easy to prepare?

No matter whether you carry camping gas, alcohol, or fuel tablets for your stove, you probably don’t want to cook a complicated dish when you are cold and hungry from a long day on the trail. If you prefer to only boil water (e.g., if you only carry fuel tablets and a non-coated aluminum pot) your best option is to go for ready outdoor meals. These can be quite expensive though, and with just a little more effort you can make your own dish. We opted for red lentils with couscous or mashed potatoes. The lentils need to cook for about 5 min, but bringing them to a boil and letting them soak for a while (e.g., setting up the tent in the meantime) works well. We used dried soups to vary the flavor between, well mostly tomato-basil and broccoli-cheese. The good thing about mashed potato powder is that if you find out that you are more hungry than you thought (happened quite often), you can just add more powder and water while eating, without having to turn the stove on again.

For breakfast, we ate oats or muesli with lots of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Initially, we cooked the oats, but then we found out that just adding water actually works, too. Lunch/snacks typically consisted of energy bars, crispy bread with cheese, nuts, and chocolates. Since we used our gas only for cooking in the evening and coffee in the morning it lasted for quite a while. Most of the cabins along the way have gas stoves which we sometimes used to make more luxury meals like pancakes.

Finally, many mountain stations offer a breakfast buffet, where, with some patience and good will, you can easily consume half or your daily calories already in one meal.