With a few weeks to Marathon Des Sables (MDS) a lot of people now start thinking about the food they are going to take to the race. If you need guidance on how to plan your food, and what food to take, check out my blog on this topic here.
Repackaging your food can generate some valuable savings of weight and volume in your backpack. Freeze dried meals, a popular choice especially for dinner, are packed protectively but some brands have quite heavy pouches. Normally you would eat the meal directly from the pouch the food comes in. However, in MDS you are provided with 1.5l bottles for your water and they make excellent pots, just cut the top off. This means you don’t actually need the original pouch, you just need to have your food packaged in a safe way that optimises space and weight. (Note that I don’t recommend using a cooking pot for eating in MDS for hygiene reasons as water is rationed and you don’t really have any for washing up).
Some people turn to vacuum packing of the food and I typically do this. I wanted to provide some tips should you decide to go down this route as there are some pit falls which can cause problems.
The first common pitfall is to create vacuum packed food parcels that are like rock hard cricket balls. These become very difficult to pack and can also cause rubbing if they end up against your back in the pack.
The second pit fall is to not use strong enough bags. This means the often sharp food pieces in freeze dried meals or noodles can puncture the bag.
The third pit fall is to not seal the bag properly or to seal it without extracting the air. This creates unnecessary volume and/or reduces the shelf life of the food.
So, what should you do if you decide to vacuum pack your food?
How to vacuum pack successfully
- Get a decent vacuum packer unless you can borrow one. These do not need to be expensive. I use this one and it was about £75 or thereabouts.
- Get a kitchen scale so that you can measure up exact quantities if you for example pack partial amounts of a meal or other food product. That way you can calculate how many calories you have packed as this will be required information to supply on the repackaged food. This of course applies to any type repackaging, not just vacuum packing!
- Use vacuum sealing bags that withstand boiling. These bags are a bit thicker and more durable than bags that cannot be boiled. It means that you minimise the risk of the bag being punctured. Also pick adequately sized bags for the meal or snack you are repackaging.
- Make sure you familiarise yourself with how your vacuum packer and the bags should be used so that you seal the bags correctly. For example, the bags may require a specific side facing upwards. Also make sure there is no food in the area of the bag to be sealed.
- Spread the food out thoroughly in the bag before extracting the air and sealing it so that it packs flat rather than in a ball. This will make it a lot more practical to pack in your backpack.
- If repackaging freeze dried meals I recommend you remove the oxygen absorbing pouch, purely for weight saving reasons. Especially if you repackage your food close enough to the race.
You can vacuum pack pretty much anything: food, powders, instant coffee, snacks… Just think about how you are going to open the packs on the go if you do, for example having a knife, multi-tool or a pair of scissors handy. Also, mark up all your repacked food items with the calorie content. You need to be able to prove you have enough calories in the event of kit heck.
Drawbacks of vacuum packing and other options
The main draw back of vacuum packing food is that it takes a long time if done properly. If you’d rather not have the hassle but still want to save weight, you can use zip lock bags or normal food bags on a roll from the supermarket (just tie a knot to seal and cut off the excess). Please note that the same potential puncture issue could apply if you pack food with sharp components whether you vacuum pack or pack in normal bags. Therefore you might be better off choosing bags of decent quality, such as bags for freezing food.
If you leave air inside a zip lock bag and then squash it, the zip seal can open and the food will then come out. Therefore, try to get as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing. This can be done using a straw for example. Bags with double seal might also be better in this regard.
Note that if you repackage into normal bags rather than vacuum pack, the shelf life of the food will likely decrease in comparison. I recommend that any repackaging take place as close to the race as possible to preserve the food.
Organise your food for the week
Whether you repackage your food or not, or how you choose to do it, it’s a good idea to organise meals and snacks into larger zip-lock bags for each day. This way you know exactly where your food is every day and what you have available to eat on that day. In the event of kit checks it is also easier to show you have enough calories.
Please note that it is your own responsibility to comply with the rules of your intended race, whether repackaging your food is allowed or not, what nutritional information you are required to supply, customs import regulations in destination / transit countries, and food safety. I take no responsibility for any problems arising as a result of you using the information in this blog.