The Camper's Checklist: 5 Essential Healthy Foods

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Kristine Don As Memorial Day weekend approaches, the call of the wild grows stronger, drawing experienced campers back to their favorite sites before they are overrun during camping season. The calmer spring atmosphere offers ideal conditions for an outdoor family adventure — complete with fewer bugs flying around and fishing at its best.

Camping may not be a necessary survival skill anymore, but people still love being outdoors and feeling connected to the natural world. Plus, it has become a more enjoyable experience thanks to constantly improving techniques and equipment, including the introduction of RVs and houseboats in addition to pitched tents.

Yet even as camping methods and motivations evolve, some basic truths will always remain the same. For example, campers will always be drawn to the best that nature has to offer, and they should always plan ahead to ensure they have everything they need. That includes having the right healthy, natural foods on hand, even if they plan on hunting and fishing for meals.

Know Where You’re Going

The first step is to choose your destination — if you don’t already have a favorite, that is. It’s important to know the general area you’ll be in so you can find your way back to your site. With hundreds of national parks across the country, finding a suitable spot isn’t difficult.

To narrow your search, consider what you want to do during your adventure. If you want to make time to fish, find a park with ample water sources. Acadia National Park in Maine, for instance, includes 6,000 lakes and 32,000 miles of rivers and streams tucked into 17 million acres of forest. On Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain, you can hike up to “the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard.”

Without the stress of fighting for survival, modern camping has taken on whole new dimensions. People plan camping trips and expeditions just to explore America’s variety of landscapes or to learn more about their natural world.

Places like Badlands National Park in South Dakota are as popular for camping as they are for their complete fossil accumulations and diverse ecosystems. Washington’s similarly diverse Olympic National Park adds the benefit of unobstructed views of mountains, glaciers, rain forests, and the ocean.

Once you’ve decided where to camp and what to do while you’re there, you can choose the best equipment to make it a successful trip. No matter your destination, though, one of the most important steps in your preparation should be to pack enough healthy food to last.

It's Not the Time to Eat Poorly

When you're in the wilderness, even if you're near other campers, you don't want to be caught without food or water. Hiking, fishing, hunting, climbing, rafting, exploring, and other fun camping activities use up a lot of energy. Eating poorly can deprive you of that energy and make for a more difficult trip.

Even a more leisurely camping trip can put stress on your body as you brave the sun, wind, cold, heat, and outdoor challenges that it doesn’t deal with from day to day. With enough nutrient-dense, healthy foods at your disposal, you can fuel up to keep going and not overexert yourself.

You may think that because you're out in the wild, you can go back to your roots and use hunting and gathering skills, but that can be dangerous. Instead, trade the hunter-gatherer urges for a more conscientious approach, and make sure you bring enough of these healthful goodies along for the ride:

1. Baked Potatoes: Potatoes are incredibly easy to pack, and after a long day of traversing nature’s playground, they offer a healthy, delicious, and convenient way to replenish your energy. They’re even easier to cook; just wrap them in tin foil, poke a few holes in them, and place them on a rock close to the campfire for about 30 minutes.

Baked potatoes are worth bringing along because they’re great sources of fiber, protein, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals. Potatoes also contain plenty of magnesium, which is scarce in most other convenient camping foods.

2. Trail Mix: Trail mix is the ultimate camping and hiking staple because you can fit days’ worth of it into a single bag. It’s as tasty as it is nutritious (depending on what your mix is made of) and can provide up to 700 calories or more for you to burn on nature’s back trails.

Those calories include ample amounts of protein, healthy fats, carbs, and more than 14 essential vitamins and minerals. The best trail mix includes mostly nuts and dried fruit, including almonds, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, bananas, and blueberries, as long as they’re not covered in sugar.

3. Canned Fish: If you don’t plan on fishing or simply want to ensure you have enough, canned fish is a healthy and affordable must-have. With an abundance of calcium and phosphorous, wild-caught sardines are a great alternative to milk and dairy, which don’t typically make good camping staples.

If sardines aren’t your style, wild-caught salmon may be a more enticing choice — especially the canned versions that include the bones. They contain a variety of easy-to-absorb minerals that aren't easily found in other foods but that your body needs to make it through rough terrain.

4. Chili: Like trail mix, chili can be whatever you want it to be, and it’s already one of the best parts about camping for many people. Nearly everything you need for the chili of your choice comes in a can or easy-to-carry package. Plus, making it only requires a pot and a campfire.

Beans, vegetables, and tomato paste alone provide a significant amount of protein, fiber, and lycopene — one of the few antioxidants that is not reduced by cooking. With a little grass-fed beef, you can add extra protein and vitamins for a stronger boost of energy.

5. Jerky: Jerky has been almost synonymous with hiking and camping food for hundreds of years — and for good reason. It can fit neatly into the smallest of packs and offers a nearly perfect balance of the most important minerals and nutrients. Jerky is so popular that you can find a large variety in health shops, grocery stores, and even convenience stores.

As with all foods, the quality of your favorite jerky matters. The best brands are those that contain 100 percent grass-fed meat, which not only is more humanely raised, but also contains much higher levels of essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Camping is meant to be fun, and connecting with nature can awaken a primal excitement and joy that’s still a basic part of human nature. Make sure you have what you need to meet the challenge wherever you go, from the right equipment to an ample supply of delicious, nutrient-dense food.

Kristine Don is a big-time science nut who dabbles in the world of health and wellness from time to time as the editor and content manager at SmartyPants Vitamins, home of The Good Gummy and one of Inc.'s 500 Fastest-Growing Companies of 2015.

Related stories: 

10 of the Coolest Parks for RV Camping

15 Awesome National Parks for Camping This Spring

The Most Dangerous Camping Destinations

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