The biblical 40 — or the other answer?

When asked how long I’m planning on taking to thru-hike the Bruce Trail, all 890+km, I’ve been answering “the biblical forty days and forty nights”.  It’s been a good soundbite. … I should know better — it turns out to be wrong …

I realized this when I began to seriously pack my food. I started my planning back in October by putting together a spreadsheet, one sheet of which included a proposed itinerary. I finger-walked along the maps in the current version 28 of the official Bruce Trail Guide. By then, I had enough experience walking with a full backpack to have a sense that I could complete more than 30 kilometres in one day. Online advice seems to coalesce around the idea of taking about 75% of that as an actual estimate of daily distance for day-after-day hiking. So as I traced my finger along the maps, I looked at terrain and forested areas, and (the scant number of …) available campsites. Roughly every 20+km, I ‘chose’ an area where I thought I might be able to hang my hammock and minimize my impact. I recorded these approximate locations in my spreadsheet. My estimated average daily distance calculates out to be 21.3km, with some days longer, and some shorter days along the tougher Bruce Peninsula. I needed the number of days to sort out how much food to prepare, to plan where I could re-supply, and to let my wife and family have some idea where I’d be and when I’d pop up.

Food Packing

I’ve been reading about hiking nutrition, gathering ideas and supplies — and avoiding taking action on actually packaging my food. In my defence, I’ve been dithering about modifying the typical high-carb backpacking meals to better suit my Type 2 diabetes diet of lower carbs and higher fats. I’ve also been wondering about the value of a ‘pantry-style’ cooking approach.

Some background: Nearly a century ago, my father paddled in the early wave of recreational canoeing. He and several fellow theology students took the month of May, from ice-off to serious bugs-everywhere-time, to paddle through the Algonquin area. In the time-honoured tradition of the northwoods, they carried canvas gunny-sacks of ingredients, i.e., one of oatmeal, one of flour, one of beans, etc. To make a meal, they chose from a very limited menu, opened whatever gunny-sacks they needed, and assembled their meal. Everything was cooked over open fire. (BTW, they slept in Egyptian cotton Baker tents, with no floors, and only a bar of mosquito netting that draped across the open front (if they kept the front tarp open). Fish, mainly Lake Trout caught with big silver spoons and Monel line, was their main animal protein source. They also carried double-smoked bacon on-the-rind.

I’ve been in discussion with an experienced backpacker who swears by a similar method she refers to as ‘pantry-style’. She carries dehydrated rice in one container, dehydrated beans in another, and so on, including grated Parmesan, oil, dried Nido milk, TVP, etc. Ahead of time, she figures out a rough menu, determines how much of each ingredient she’ll require, packs that amount, and goes. On the trail, she decides what she want for any particular meal, combines, adjusts spicing and calorie count, and cooks. She figures fewer wasted plastic bags, and much more adjustability. She carries plastic jars and bottles of various sizes, as well as Silnylon dry bags for the bulk dried ingredients.

For decades while paddling, my wife has always remeasured and packaged each meal separately, with each day again bagged together.

And that’s the way I finally decided this past weekend to deal with food along the Bruce Trail. For each day, I will have a a ‘Cliff’ bar to start the day off, a bag of granola for breakfast after an hour or so of early-morning warmup and hiking, a bag of gorp, a bag of jerky, a bag of carb-y snacks (mid-afternoon), and a bag of prepared hot meal at suppertime. I’ll probably hike another hour or two after that to get better control of my blood sugar before hanging my hammock. For any given day, these various meals and calorie-drips will all be packed in a bigger freezer bag, all of which for any given series of days will be carried in a odour-tight and waterproof aLOKSAK bag, and then in a URSACK (to hang at night to protect against mini-bears and not-so-mini-bears). In a slight nod to pantry-style, I’ll be carrying daily consumables in bulk, i.e., protein powder to be taken perhaps mid-day, instant coffee (SB tubes, not volgurs …), powdered NIDO milk, loose tea, and olive oil (and also probably parmesan and coconut) to bulk up caloric density if and when required.

A planned trip to Ottawa this past weekend fell through, and we had some ‘found’ days at home. So from the basement where they have been hanging from the rafters, I carried up my shopping bags of ingredients, and we spread them out. That’s when I looked at my spreadsheet and finally paid attention to the calculated count column of the number of separate meals I’d need to pack … and lo, and behold, it’s not the biblical 40 days! …

The upshot is that I’ve got all the breakfasts bagged, all the daily gorp bags made, and all the hot meals assembled. For breakfasts, I’ve taken my homemade nut-rich granola that I normally consume daily, and upped the caloric density by doubling the amount of nuts by adding walnuts, pecans and almonds, as well as putting in a suitable dose of NIDO dried whole milk. I’ll be eating about 150 gm (approximately 5–6 Calories per gram) of this dried breakfast each morning, probably often hydrated and warmed as a porridge.


Homemade granola, re-inforced with extra nuts and NIDO milk

Suppers are likewise packaged. I’ve been persuaded to use at least some pre-packaged freeze-dried and dehydrated meals (Mountain House / Costco style). These have been re-packaged so as to cut some weight but mostly to trim volume. I’m eating full packages of these as one meal, instead of the very small recommended servings. I’ve also made my own meals from basic ingredients. Each one of those suppers is different, often quite unique … I’ve got mixtures of foods that I’ve dehydrated (chili, beans, veggies), Asian noodles, South American quinoa mixes, North American amaranth, Jamaican dried soups, Thai and Mexican spices, coconut flour, … and the list goes on. Each of my concocted hot meals weighs in the order of 175+gm, with an estimated caloric value of 5 Calories per gram. I’ll be mixing each re-supply with quite the variety of suppers! Some I’ll probably quite like …


Suppers of my own concoction — and I’m the only one who has to eat them …

Gorp bags were fascinating to mix. One of our daughters brought back from California a variety of fancy-pants dried fruits from Trader Joes and other like stores. I have Thai dried fruit mixtures, California dried pears, sriracha coconut. I also have fig and banana bars donated by a neice of mine who’s on the national Beach Volleyball team. Each of these various packages got split up into an appropriate number of bags, with other ingredients such as nuts and seeds and coconut and chocolate added. So I have a series of 150 gm baggies of gorp, one per day, again estimated about 5 Calories per gram. Only two baggies are the same — and that was a mistake I realized after I’d closed them. Otherwise, each day’s gorp will be very different. One day I will savour dehydrated mandarins and macadamia nuts and shredded coconut with bittersweet chocolate. Another day, the mandarins will be combined with pistachios, prunes, and milk chocolate, with a fig-banana bar thrown in. And so on. Many of the days will have specific and rich connections back to friends and family. Perhaps I’ll even manage to pack along some outstanding shortbread promised by a friend! Oh, glory be!


Gorp bags, each one unique and each one deluxe!

So the protein-rich jerky still awaits final buying and packing. As do the carb-y snacks. I’ve got bags of Indian chana nuts, Jamaican dried bananas, Japanese wasabi peas — and still more to assemble. I also need to package the protein powder, the tea, and the coffee, and the milk — all in pantry-style, I’m thinking.

I’m estimating that my daily distance plus the ups-and-downs of the trail with my backpack will require something like 4000 Calories per day — and probably more. I’m essentially guessing that these quantities of food I’ve put together will carry me through the hike. Pre-packaged food comes with nutrient values. I have looked up the values for my component items using the standard USDA Nutrient tables. But I have not gone to the extra layer of detail to work out exactly how much in the way of carbs, protein, fats, and so on are in each meal. My low-ball estimate is that I’ll be carrying 3000 Calories per day, though I’m expecting that’s somewhat conservative. By carrying extras of olive oil (8.6 Calories per gram), and parmesan (protein + fats, 4.3 Calories per gam), and by relying somewhat on the lipids I currently am starting with above my belt, I’ll survive. And I can adjust as I go, and as the legendary hiker-hunger develops into the third week and beyond. I can add extra gorp, or a pantry bag of dried coconut (6.6 Calories per gram). Or eat my hosts out of house and home when I do get off the Trail for the occasional night …  (Thanks to all who have invited me!)

Lighter weight and lower volume …

One of the few pieces of my old canoeing isn’t coming with me on this ramble. Our old aluminum 1.5 litre coffee pot and lid have been replaced by a new 1.1 litre hard-anodized non-stick aluminum GSI Pinnacle Soloist pot. It’s actually a few grams heavier than the old coffee pot, but it takes significantly less volume. I’m also shedding a lovely stainless steel GSI mug for the much lighter plastic mug that comes with the new pot. The smaller volume means I could shrink the size of my homemade closed-cell foam pot cozy, and my homemade windscreen. I am also leaving behind a pot lifter and a pot scraper. All in all, these changes result in a savings of about 100 grams of weight and reduces the packed volume of my kitchen by about 25% — for a cost of $45 plus tax. In other words, about 50¢ per gram — which is evidently quite cheap in working towards lighter pack weight!

Amsteel magnifier whoopie sling lanyard

Amstel magnifier whoopee sling lanyard (in progress) — proof of concept and technique!

Ticked off

Last weekend, we found this beauty on the chin of a family dog down in St Catharines. I’ll be walking through this area exactly one month from today … This is a fully-engorged Black-legged Tick, a deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, the tick that transmits Lyme Disease. About 30% of the  deer ticks in the Niagara Peninsula are infected with the Borrelia spirochaete bacterium that cause Lyme Disease. That is the third highest infection rate of deer ticks in Ontario. The north shore of Lake Erie has the highest rate, and the Thousand Islands area the second highest infection rate.

When I squashed the tick to kill it (after taking photos of it using my iPhone shooting through my magnifier) the blood meal in its gut was completely dried out. I figure that tick had been on Lainey for perhaps five days and was about to drop off. Oh joy!

Black-legged Tick Ixodes scapularis

Fully-engorged Black-egged Tick, Ixodes scapularis, taken off dog in St Catherines

I have petitioned my family doctor to give me a prophylactic prescription for the antibiotic that the American Centre for Disease Control recommends for early infections of Lyme Disease. I hope to be carrying several pills of doxycycline to be used _only if_ I find a fully-engorged tick on my body. It takes from 24–48 hours for a tick to become engorged and to begin transmitting the Borrelia spirochaete from its gut into the host.

So! Daily tick checks will become an enforced reality. I’ve known about Lyme Disease since the late 1980s and have written two articles alerting my outdoor education colleagues about it. This will be my first serious (possible) interaction with the disease. I’m prepared — I hope!

I am also treating my shoes, socks, gaiters, pants, shirt, jacket, hat, and pack with a spray-on formulation of Sawyer permethrin, a synthetic analogue of pyrethrum, the African Daisy extract that’s used in the old-fashioned mosquito coils. Permethrin is a residual non-toxic insecticide that’s been used for decades by the Canadian military (and is also widely used in Canada for veterinary purposes, and for the treatment of human lice and scabies). The spray-on formation I’m using resists up to half a dozen gentle washings, so I’m hoping to treat several sets of clothing. Yet Permethrin is not available over-the-counter here in Canada, though it is readily available in the United States in many formulations, including much stronger concentrations than I am using.

The Meaning of Life

As we all know, the meaning of life is … 42. That’s the number of days I’m evidently going to be taking to trace Spring from Queenston to Tobermory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s