Gluten-free on the Trail
June 29, 2021 by Savannah Robar
Written by RMFI Program Manager, Lindsay Williams
Let's start with a bit of a backstory. I was 8 years old and in the third grade, I kept getting violently ill every two to three weeks. Terrible stomach aches, vomiting, dehydration, all that good stuff. I went through test after test to figure out what was going on and a few months into the process I had an endoscopy, a scope of my stomach and small intestine. In January of 2002 my mom got a call at work from my doctor telling her that I had Celiac Disease and to put me on a gluten free diet. Nowadays most people know what gluten free means but back then we had no clue what that was. After nights of research we learned that I could not digest wheat, rye, barley, and most oats and when I did my body would recognize this as a foreign invader and attack itself. It took us some time to nail down my new diet but once we did I started to become healthier and more lively like a regular kid. Now this is a lifelong genetic autoimmune disease that I can’t get rid of, there is no cure, the only thing that I can do is maintain a strict gluten free diet.
For the longest time I avoided anything to do with the backcountry because of my diet. It was easy enough to pack a lunch for a day hike and carry that with me but it scared me to try and plan gluten free meals that were easy and light enough to take in the backcountry. It was a whole different fear to think about going out with others and worrying if they would cause some sort of cross contamination where I would end up getting sick. What would happen if I got sick, how would I get out, what is the closest hospital, how quickly could I get out. All of these fears prevented me from doing backcountry trips or from even applying for jobs with a lot of backcountry time.
In 2018 I took a leap of faith and applied for a Field Instructor job with RMFI. In my job interview I made sure to ask about how my diet would work and if there would be any accommodations. I was assured it would be easy to work around my diet. So I took the job and pushed past the fear that had stopped me from pursuing other opportunities. The start of the season was easy in terms of my diet. We were doing frontcountry work so packing a few snacks and a lunch was like any other job I had. Grab a Larabar and some fruit snacks, make a sandwich and add some carrots to the side, fill up all of my water bottles and out the door I went. Easy peasy.
About a month into the job my first backcountry hitch was scheduled and to say I was nervous was an understatement. We were hiking 3.5 miles into the Bear Creek watershed for 9 days with a youth corps. The fear started to encroach each day it got closer. I was going out with one coworker from RMFI so we would be sharing food separate from the youth corps. She and I planned out our meals and she was very gracious to eat what I ate for dinner. She brought some snacks that I couldn’t have but then she didn’t touch the ones that I could eat. I had to bring my own pots and pans as there was concern about using kitchen sets that have had years of cooking food containing gluten. The day of the pack in came around and I honestly considered bailing and leaving but I kept telling myself that it was going to be ok. We got up there and set everything up, we went over the rules of my gluten free diet and how to keep me safe. For a first trip into the backcountry it went well and I was fine.
Hitches after this got a bit more complicated as it was a full stew crew of 5 to 6 people. This meant that my pot and pan that I brought could not cook enough food for the whole crew. At this point I decided to plan, prep, and cook all of my own stuff separate from everyone else. I bought the food that I needed, prepped what I could to make a lighter load and would cook before everyone else. Often I would go shopping for food with the crew but have a separate cart for my food. When out on site I would always cook my food first to limit any cross contamination. This meant that if the crew wanted to eat around 6pm for dinner and wanted to start prepping by 5:30pm I would have to be eating by 5:30pm and start prepping by 5pm. As soon as I was done eating I would start cleaning my dishes with a separate sponge to ensure I used clean water to wash my dishes.
Now you might be saying “this is excessive and she doesn’t need to do all of that. I mean what could really happen.” Well I will tell you a lot of people think that and that's ok. I don’t do all of this for anyone else, I do this for my health and safety. You see if I didn’t take all of these precautions I could get sick off of a little crumb. If I get sick I will end up with a stomach ache which will lead to vomiting, which will cause dehydration, and when I have nothing left in my system I will continuously dry heave until I am taken to a hospital to get fluids and medication that will stop my stomach from spasming. Once I can leave the hospital I am down for a few days to a week trying to recover. When I start feeling better my body still takes about six months to fully heal from that one event. Was that maybe a bit too graphic? Possibly but because of all of that I take the precautions that I need to to stay healthy.
So what do I eat in the backcountry? Well luckily at RMFI we all eat pretty well and take fresh fruit and veggies on our hitches, we don’t have to have the freeze dried food for every meal. My breakfast is always overnight oats made with oats that are gluten free. I like to put brown sugar and cinnamon in with the oats that night before and I add almond slivers to them in the morning. For lunch I often have a gluten free PB&J or left overs from whatever I cooked the night before. Dinners can vary from hitch to hitch but some of my go to’s are chili, stir fry, fajita bowls, and I always end each hitch with gluten free grilled cheese and tomato soup. Snacks during the work day consist of Kind Bars, Larabars, fruit snacks, carrots, and apples. Snacks after the work day consist of chips and salsa, peanut M&M’s, and gluten free pretzels and hummus.
I don’t feel like my diet restricts me too much in the backcountry and I feel that I get enough food to fill up on. The hard part about how I go about making my food is that it is quite lonely. The crew is typically hanging out around the kitchen area but it is still lonesome. It is a price to pay for my safety.
I am now a bit more confident in my skill to camp and work in the backcountry but I still have hesitation about backpacking on my own using freeze dried food. That is a hurdle that I still have to face. Until recent years I have not been able to find many, if any, gluten free freeze dried foods making food a large barrier for backpacking. As new things come on the market it allows for more opportunities for myself and others in the gluten free community. For now I am content with my day hikes and car camping where I can take whatever food I want.