What is food doing in the equipment section? Well it relates to equipment in terms of weight and bulk you have to haul on your sled, to cooking gear, and travel style. Menus can be identical to warm season camping. But for travel during the day, there is a discussion for lunches and the fireless vs fire/stove style.
Why bother dehydrating water laden foods in winter? Food freezes and keeps, right? Well, hauling sled is a lot of work, especially in colder temperatures when the snow is like sandpaper and there is no glide on that heavy sled. Hauling a heavy sled in deep fluffy snow where you have to break trail, and every step sinks down and pulls up with snow on the snowshoe, can be exhausting. Hauling up hill, gravity is relentless (as it always is), and that sled just wants to take off downhill away from you. In tough hauling conditions, every bit of weight matters, and where you can save weight on the sled you should. Therefore it makes no sense to me to be hauling much of your food as bulky frozen water. Dehydrating food is just as important in winter as it is in summer.
That said, I am not a total dried food zealot in winter, and I too sneak in some water heavy foods such as cheese, which is a staple for lunch. A buddy brings abundant supplies of fruit cake which is a highly concentrated yummy trail food, and is easy to thaw, or it never freezes much because it is so full of fat. Cookies full of fat also are great and can be eaten frozen because they stay soft. Dry cookies like shortbread don’t freeze at all, and can be eaten comfortably at any temperature.
For foods that you need to slice, such as cheese or salami, you should pre-slice it at home. Cheese will freeze solid into a block and it’s virtually impossible to slice frozen. I have cheese slices for every lunch, and so I pre-slice the cheese at home and pack it in its own individual lunch pack. Each wrapped lunch goes into the bottom of my sleeping bag the night before, and its totally thawed by morning. During the day, I pack my lunch against my hot water Nalgene bottle which is covered by an Outdoor Research Bottle Parka. The insulated hot water bottle bleeds enough heat to keep my lunch thawed. Another method is to wear your thawed lunch in a hip pack on the inside of your insulation to keep it thawed.
“Lunch” on our trips has evolved with our experience, and it’s no longer a long sit down meal when hauling sled. Instead we snack periodically all day long when travelling. No fires are needed for our lunches, which saves lots of time and precious daylight. Individual snack and hydration breaks are maybe 5 minutes or so, which does not give you a chance to develop a chill, yet deals with fatigue. When base camping however, we take leisurely day trips, and sometimes we make fires and roast smokies (sausages) or other tasty, fat laden treats, and we’ll boil up a pot of water for extra rehydration.
Dehydration is always a problem in winter. You have to consciously remember to drink often, especially in the morning and evening. I power hydrate in the morning until my gut is bursting, and can usually get by with one 1L water bottle during the day. But I will also drink slush water when its available, or eat snow as I am sled hauling. Eating clean snow is fine when working hard, contrary to advice not to do so, as often espoused in the popular media. It’s hard enough to vent excess heat to keep from getting overheated and wet, so cold snow is welcome down the gullet, and it helps in rehydration. My buddies sometimes carry two 1L bottles for their daytime hydration needs. There have been days for me when 1L during the day was not enough, and I was severely hurting setting up camp, dying for a drink before the stove or fire was set up and firewood secured. You should not let yourself get desperate for hydration.
Everyone’s physiology is different, and I have learned that you need to accommodate these differences in a flexible way so that no one gets dehydrated, hypo-glycaemic, chilled, or fatigued. When someone needs a break you take a break. Obviously people should have reasonable similar fitness levels, or be prepared to travel at the rate of the lowest fitness level. It’s important that everyone plan for the lunch style of the day (fire or fire-less), otherwise it won’t work.
I recommend that meat should be pre-cooked at home, or use pre-cooked deli. It will lose a fair amount of water if pre-cooked should you not have time to dehydrate it, and it saves a great deal of cooking time. Time is at a premium in winter camping.
You will need headlamps since you will be cooking and eating dinner in the dark for much of winter. In fact you will be doing a good deal of camp work in the dark, and going for the call of nature in the dark, so whatever you do, do NOT forget your headlamp. Bring extra batteries, and bring at least one extra headlamp should someone in your crew have theirs fail. Headlamp failure has happened on several of my trips, so I strongly recommend more than one extra headlamp. The new small AAA LED headlamps are easy to pack and are very light, and worth their weight in gold if a headlamp fails. They are also easy to lose in the snow or bough bed, so keep an eye on them.
For cooking gear, life is so much easier using a pot set with bail handles that you can use in a fire. Cooking over an open fire you can easily grab a hot pot with a leather gloved hand. Fiddling with a pot gripper is not fun. You have no way to hang a pot off a stick without a handle. If you camp on lakes, you will be hauling your water with those same pots and you need handles. Just try hauling water in two pails at once without handles and you will understand. The bail handle attachment also stops the pot from falling through the pot hole, should you consider cutting a pot hole in the top of your woodstove. Lowering pots into a hot woodstove greatly reduces the time needed to boil water and cook. You can get extremely dehydrated in winter so you will find you have a great demand for hot liquids, so boiling time matters. Concentric sheet steel rings can be cut to fit a variety of pot sizes into the stove pot hole, and you will also need a cover sheet when not inserting a pot.
One of the techniques for packing food on a sled is to use a cardboard box inside a duffel or tank. It contains the food conveniently all in one place, and it is not much extra weight. When you are done your food, you can have a box burning ceremony which is always fun. If there is extra room in the cardboard box, when hot tenting I will pack the pipe elbow in the food box to help protect it from being dented, since it does not fit inside my stove. Because the box sticks up in my duffel packing system, I also can see where not to sit down on my sled when on a rest break.
Low fat diets are not good in winter. Go for fat! But in moderation based on your group, since going from a lean healthy urban diet to suddenly gorging on large quantities of fatty foods fat can upset the digestive system. My favourite dinners on my menu use olive oil. It will freeze solid in a Nalgene. Simply place the Nalgene bottle in a heated pot of water off the flame, and it will quickly melt and be pourable. Butter will freeze rock solid and totally unusable, so if you want butter for spreading on toasted bagels in the morning (mmmm), its best to thaw the butter in the bottom of the sleeping bag the night before – make sure its in a Nalgene jar and multi-bagged because if it leaks you and your sleeping bag are doomed. Speaking of bagels, pre-slice them at home because they freeze into blocks of ice. I put a piece of waxed paper between bagel slices to keep them from freezing together. Margarine is a good substitute for butter in the winter. Margarine in my experience will not freeze solid and remains spread-able. I bring mine in a Nalgene jar should it get so cold that I might need to thaw it briefly in a pot of hot water.
There will always be lots to discuss about food, so I am sure the Discussion Forums will be busy.