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August 2015 Issue
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The dietary minefield

Dinner time two-days into the Five Passes route. Now’s not the time to mention you’re a gluten intolerant vegan! Photo: Mark Banham
Nutjobs and fruitcakes; intolerance and fanaticism. A connoisseur’s guide to eating in the outdoors

Going tramping with someone is a little like being temporarily married to them – in sickness and health, for better or worse – for a few days. So before you go it pays to ask a few questions so you know what you’re getting yourself into. In my humble opinion, the most important of these is the simplest: what do you eat?

There was once a time when the answer to that would be equally simple: food. But these days, cultural sensitivity, intestinal irritability, ethical considerations and whatnot have made catering for an expedition a minefield.

But fear not, we’ve put together a handy guide to navigating this dietary demilitarised zone.


The theory behind detox diets is that the toxins in our food are best removed by limiting your diet for a period of time (as opposed to just eating well, drinking water, getting a good night’s sleep and letting your liver do its thing). Depending on the level of fanaticism, that can range from cutting out sugar in your tea to subsisting entirely on watered down fruit juice for a period of weeks. There’s scant evidence to support most of these diets, but it’s a really fabulous sounding idea and people will always confuse cool ideas with facts – that’s why neuro linguistic programming exists.

Detoxers will often use a trip to facilitate their fast because in the hills they won’t be tempted by the coffee, chocolate and red wine. A word of warning: if you bring these ‘toxic’ foods with you, you’ll need to be ready to defend them with force on day three.


Not so long ago, refusing to eat your brussel sprouts or your mushy peas invited people to shun you as a culinary pariah. These days, refusing to eat gluten, lactose, yeast, tomatoes or whatever is positively trendy.

Much as it’s tempting to write it all off as new-age quackery, you ignore food intolerance at your peril. If you choose to put just a teeny bit of cream in with the pasta sauce, the consequence for someone with a lactose allergy can be volcanic bouts of flatulence – something to keep in mind if you’re sharing a tent.

That said, a food allergy shouldn’t put you off tramping with someone. But be careful; if you’re unfortunate to end up on a collectively catered trip with multiple, conflicting needs, then you may inadvertently find yourself on the abovementioned fruit juice detox diet.

Paleo diet 

Another one for the ‘Nice idea, but…’ file. The backstory to this one is that our digestive systems supposedly evolved to eat like hunter-gatherers, and when the ancient sumerians shifted to agriculture they cursed us to a future of bloating and blotchy skin. The solution is simplicity itself: just go back to eating like we did in the good ole days a few hundred thousand years ago and you’ll shake off all your modern day ailments.

There’s just one problem: we’ve yet to find any fossilised shopping lists, so exactly what we ate a thousand generations ago is a bit of a mystery. The paleo diet is more about romantic notions of what we might have eaten rather than actual evidence.

If you’re tramping with a hard-core paleo fanatic, feel free not to bring anything for them at all. Actual palaeontologists say early man would have experienced regular periods of famine and if your companion is serious about their paleo ethos, they should be happy to exist on the stores of body fat built up during more plentiful times.

Freegan dirtbags and lightweight freaks

Wouldn’t you know it, the rock climbing and mountaineering fraternity has produced its very own diet. The insalubrious corners of places like Yosemite’s Camp 4 and Arapiles Pines have produced their very own dirtbag diet known as ‘freeganism’. The central tenet is everything is on the menu, so long as it’s free (less time working equals more time climbing dude!).

In some countries, like Norway, expired but edible food must legally be given away rather than thrown away, making freegan adventurers a common sight. But in most other parts of the world, this diet requires a strong constitution and a penchant for dumpster diving. Be sure to stock the first aid kit with Imodium when travelling with freegans.

A close cousin of the freegan dirtbag is the lightweight freak. Essentially they’ll eat anything as long as the calorie-to-kilogram ratio is maximised. Olive oil is a staple.

Lightweight freaks can be great companions. You certainly never have to wait around for them to catch up with you, but communication is key. If you’re planning on cooking up provencal ratatouille from scratch and your tramping buddy is eating nothing but olive oil and crackers… conflict is pretty much inevitable.

Ethical considerations

You’re never going to find happiness in life if you’re leaving a trail of misery and destruction in your wake. So be nice to the cows and chickens, choose your fish wisely and don’t choke the sky with carbon just so you can snack on cheese from the other side of the planet. Makes enough sense.

But it’s worth being a little bit careful when adventuring with fanatically ethical eaters; if choosing low-impact, low-suffering food is good, then eating the thing that causes the impact and the suffering is even better.

Yep, the ultimate ethical food is people. Every SUV driving soccer mum you consume reduces the global demand for oil, frees up land, reduces traffic congestion and takes pressure off our overflowing landfills. If more people switched to ethical cannibalism, the problems that seem so daunting today could be devoured in no time.

You might want to sleep with one eye open around ethical dieters.