Best Backpacking Food

Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious

Keep it simple, nutritious and save weight: I take inexpensive trail foods which are both tasty and nutritious. Specifically, foods that give you calories, protein, good fats, vitamins and other micro nutrients. This keeps you healthy and cruising along the trail with a spring in your step. Just as important are foods (and meals) that can be quickly prepared. My outdoor time is precious and I prefer to spend it hiking and enjoying my natural surroundings rather than food prep. What I show below incorporates all of these qualities and therefore is “the best backpacking food.”

Quick Links to Best Backpacking Food Resources on this Site

What types of food should I take?

  • I minimize freeze-dried backpacking food (but do use some like this). Be sure to read the labels carefully. Compared to homemade, many freeze dried foods while easy, are expensive, low on nutrition, & have tons of sodium.
  • Instead, I prefer healthy, natural foods: dried fruit & vegetables, nuts, whole grains like these tasty crackers, soybean jerky (veggie protein), vegetable oils, nut butterswhole-fat powdered milk, etc.
  • Therefore, while it takes a bit more upfront time, I mostly make my own uncomplicated & delicious meals out of the same heathy ingredients. Meal Recipe are here.
  • Finally, I do take some “healthier” energy bars like PROBARs.
Best backpacking food

While we make most of our own meals, there are some simple and healthy freeze dried meals like this Black Beans & Rice  that we do use. We doctor it up into one of our favorite dinners by adding grated cheddar cheese and corn chips. Recipe is here.

How much food should I take?

It is actually quite straight forward. Here is primer on: How to calculate your pounds of food per day.” You can probably save more weight on food than almost anything if you follow the primer!

  • My nutritious food weighs about 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food. This could save me 5 pounds or more of food on a trip (my 11 lbs of food for a 7-day trip vs. a typical backpacker’s 16 lbs).
  • How many pounds of food per day? 
    • Although it may vary, the short answer is around 1.5 lb/day for 2-5 day shorter mileage trips. The majority of the clients I guide for trips up to 5 days get by fine on around 1.5 lb/day.
    • The slightly longer answer is 1.4 to 1.7 lb/day for backpackers covering 10+ miles a day or for trips up to a week long.
  • A good target to balance calories and nutrition is 120 to 125 calories per ounce of food. In comparison, most backpackers don’t average above 100 cal/oz for their food.
  • Maintain nutrition: Try to get the most calories per weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balance of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins & other nutrients.
A simple and quickly assembled set of food for a 6 to 7 day trip. Aligning food in rows per/day helps to organize and provides a useful check that you've packed correctly.

A simple and quickly assembled set of food for a 6 to 7 day trip looks like this. Aligning food in rows per day helps to organize while providing a useful check that you’ve packed food correctly. Link to a detailed 7 day food packing list for the above.

Some quick ways to reduce food weight – but still eat healthy!

Best Backpacking Food

Convenient pouches of my favorite, almond butter 

  • Take calorie dense but nutritious food. As noted, food at 125 calories per ounce will weigh 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food for the same calories and probably has better nutrition.
  • Don’t carry extra food: The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is not as set in stone as others profess. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. (I’ve had to do this before and feel comfortable with my choice.) This is not a recommendation for others to do the same. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe bring just a bit less extra food on your next trip.
  • How to “Skip” one day of food: I eat a huge breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a huge meal when I get out. By boosting my off trail calories on the first and last day I eliminate carrying a whole day’s worth of food in my pack. So for a weekend trip (three days and two nights) I might carry 3 to 4 pounds of food. That’s about 1/2 the weight of the standard recommendation of 2 lb per day + an extra day’s food = 8 pounds.

Getting Protein

Getting protein is always a challenge on the trail. A creative strategy of cheese, powdered milk, powdered soy protein, nuts, whole grains, dried beans and the healthier high-protein trail/energy bars (and dried meats if you aren’t veggie) will get you most of the way there.

The protein in these meats along with cheese will complement the proteins in grains (rice, grape nuts, crackers, grains in energy bars, etc.) and other vegetable protein sources like soy and dried beans. Many dried meats like the hard-dry salami are also high in fat, increasing your calories per ounce.

Best Backpacking Food

Bison Jerky is another backpacking favorite of mine.

What types of food should I take for each meal?

Snacks

  • GORP: In the past, my basic food was the old standby GORP. Today, I custom mix my own, getting most of my ingredients from Trader Joe’s (TJ’s) and the bulk bins of my local food coop. When hiking with others I mix to their specifications. Feel free to get creative with your GORP!
  • Un-mixed GORP fixings: Now, more often than not, I take my GORP unmixed. Some favorites are whole raw almonds and walnuts, organic Thompson seedless raisins (TJs) unsweetened dried mango, apricots, papaya (all unsweetened & unsulfured) dried apricots, sweetened and unsweetened nuts, and honey sesame sticks (all from TJ’s, also found in natural food stores and food coops).
  • Honey sesame sticks: are 150 calories per ounce and a staple of my backpacking food (reliably from Whole Foods and online). I sometimes mix 50/50 with candied nuts (many nut options from TJ’s) for variety.
  • Peanut M&M’s (or even better almonds) are still great. Cheap, melt proof, and available almost everywhere (even on the GR20 in Corsica!) they are tasty, high in calories, easy to pack and eat. The advent of the dark chocolate version of the plain M&M’s into my GORP has changed the way I think about GORP.
  • Energy Bars: The best energy bars are compact and have reasonable caloric density and nutrition. They are easy to procure, no effort to pack, and easily unwrapped and eaten on the trail (even while hiking). They are expensive though. I like many varieties of Pro Bars, Kind Bars and Lara Bars. These have healthy, natural ingredients, less sugars and good nutrition. The Pro Bars and Kind Bars are close to 125 calories per ounce.
  • Protein Bars: Recently to increase my trail protein, I have been taking some higher protein versions of energy bars like ProBar’s Base Protein Bars or Cliff Builder’s Protein Bars (usually enhanced with soy protein). There are other manufacturers making good protein bars.
  • Nut Butters (peanut or almond butter–a personal favorite, from TJs or Costco) significantly boost caloric density. They are cheap and easy to pack. They are also a healthy fat, especially the almond butter. Get them in the healthier, un-hydrogenated variety. If you get them in a plastic jar you can take them on a plane or put them directly in your pack without having to repackage. They can also be added to hot meals, making a lovely Asian style sauce.
  • *Soy jerky: soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall) 1) Stonewall’s Jerquee (the overs and unders for a discount) and 2) a the moister Primal Strips Vegan Jerky. Soy jerky is not the highest in calories but it is veggie, tasty, and adds protein. Meat eaters may choose hard salami or meat jerky.
  • Dried Meats: For those that are not veggie, dried meats are another option for protein and food variety. I take meat jerky (my favorites are Bison Jerky and Turkey Jerky online or from TJs) and/or hard, dry salami (I take locally made salami without nitrates). Pacific Gold brand Beef and Turkey jerky that Costco sells doesn’t have a bunch of additives. Much cheaper than alternate sources.
  • Tuna in olive oil: Get the tuna in the plastic packages that is packed in olive oil . The olive oil adds calories and healthy fat. If you can’t find it, there is a more common canola oil version.
  • Freeze dried meats and soy”meats”: The following protein sources can easily be added to most meals (your preference) (Soy) Textured Vegetable Protein – chicken flavor, and (Real meat) – freeze dried chicken or turkey (1 oz per serving).
  • Vegetable Oils: Packets or small bottles of extra virgin olive oil (my favorite) or canola oil add healthy calories to my dinners. I usually add an ounce or two to most meals.
  • Cheese: is a treat and adds calories, some protein and calcium. Note that cheese doesn’t keep as well as some other foods, we always eat the cheese first. Cheddar cheese is around 115 cal/oz and keeps better than other types. Parmesan is around 130 cal/oz and keeps very well. However, these are not healthy fats.
  • Crackers or Dense Breads add whole grains. They are good vehicles for eating the nut butters and cheese for dried meats. Some crackers can be quite high in vegetable fat (good) and approach 130 calories per ounce. Dr. Kracker crackers online or at Whole Foods are high in fat and almost indestructible on trail. In France, I rediscovered Petit Beurre crackers that are delicious and high in calories. They go wonderfully with a strong cheese. Breads (and tortillas) have lower caloric density (higher water content and little fat), rarely getting over 85 calories per ounce. Use them sparingly for variety. When carrying a bear canister, tortillas are a favorite hiking substitute as they are more compact.
  • Dried Fruits, e.g. Dried mango, un-sweetened/unsulfured add important fiber, variety, minerals and vitamins. I use them with some discretion since they are lower in calories per ounce (around 80 calories per ounce). I try to get ones that are un-sulfured and unsweetened, and preferably organic. If you are on a budget, Costco has huge bags of inexpensive, high quality mixed fruit. Unsweetened mango slices from TJs and unsweetened papaya from WF and food coops are favorites.
  • Chocolate (as needed), to add fat and calories. I prefer small pieces of very dark chocolate (70% or higher–with nibs even better) for dessert. Chocolate lovers will understand.
  • You can add Cocoa Nibs with your chocolate for a delicious crunch and a lot of phytonutrients.

Breakfasts

  • Whole Fat Powdered Milk: *Nestle Nido is a staple in my backpacking diet. This whole-fat powdered milk is 140 calories per ounce and tastes great. It can usually be found at Hispanic markets or online. I also use it to mix my own hot chocolate, as well as add it to breakfast cereals. Powdered milk is an animal protein that will complement vegetable proteins like soybeans and grains. And, it’s wonderful in coffee. In addition to the Nido, I add a scoop or two of Plain Soy Protein Powder (cheaper when you buy it at TJs!) for additional protein (vegan) in my breakfasts.
  • Whole Grain Cereals: I usually alternate between two breakfast cereals mixed with Nestle Nido whole-fat powdered milk and soy protein powder.

Caffeine

Caffeine is important! Nothing can get folks grumpier and harder to get along with than not getting their caffeine the way they like it.

  • Coffee: Those that prefer coffee may choose to use Starbucks VIA packets (which have pretty much taken over backcountry coffee). Downside to the VIA is that it is expensive, but can be as little as $0.72 per cup at Amazon! Via packets can also be found slightly discounted at *Costco in bulk packages.
  • For better and less expensive coffee, although heavier and more fuss, use a *MSR MugMateTM Coffee/Tea Filter in a 16 oz mug (MLD 475 ml mug is my favorite). Pre-grind your coffee before the trip and package it into individual servings in ZipLok snack bags
    • The brewing technique suspends the gold filter in the mug. From there, add the coffee then slowly pour boiling water in allowing it to drain through the filter with each pouring. At the end you will have water almost to the brim of the mug and the filter mostly submerged in the water. After 3-4 minutes slowly pull the filter out of the mug allowing it to fully drain. You may wish to top the cup up with more hot water after removing the filter. This will be a full rich cup of coffee similar to a french press.
  • Tea: I make loose leaf tea, connoisseur style. See the Tea Section. Real tea doesn’t need to be ground, keeps longer, and is easier to cleanup (with the exception of SB Via). Tea bags are a less complicated alternative if  they are in individually sealed envelopes, and are reasonably fresh.
  • No Stove Caffeine: The no-stove alternative is chocolate-covered-coffee-beans. Yumm!

Dinners

  • For most meals try to make your own simple dinners based on ingredients like instant rice, freeze dried beans, whole wheat couscous (my favorite and from TJ’s), or instant mashed potatoes
  • Freeze dried dinners can be tasty, but most are bulky, expensive, extremely high in sodium and low in caloric density. It is probably best to minimize their use on a trip unless
    • 1) you really like them
    • 2) want hot dinners, and/or
    • 3) are very limited on time and inclination for pre-trip food prep
  • If you need to take freeze dried meals, try to use the simpler meals that are lower in sodium and higher in fat (e.g. Backpackers Pantry Mac and Cheese). If I bring them, I will usually add freeze dried veggies from JustTomatoes.com to spice up meals and then add olive oil to boost the calories.
  • If you are limited in pack volume (e.g. using a bear canister, or just a very full pack) freeze dried meals may not be a good choice. Taking them out of their Mylar packaging and putting them in quart, heavy duty, freezer baggies will help reduce volume. (Once you do this tho they will not keep for years like the mylar sealed ones.)
  • Most of my dinners get a liberal dose of hot pepper flakes, or ground cayenne pepper. I also use Dave’s Insanity Sauce (Please be careful it is the only sauce ever banned from the National Fiery Food Show. The NYT calls it the hottest culinary experience known to man.)
  • I rehydrate many of my meals by pouring hot water directly into a quart baggie that contains the dinner. I wait for 10-20 minutes and share the meal with my partner using long handled spoons. When you are done eating, zip up the baggie and KP is complete!
  • If you are doing the rehydrate in the bag, you may consider a Anti Gravity Gear Cozy.
  • Hot Chocolate: I make my own with Ghirardelli Double Chocolate mix and Nestle Nido. High in calories and delicious! [4 Tbsp cocoa mix + ~¼ cup Nido]

Miscellaneous

  • I do not bring vitamin supplements. I believe that well selected foods should provide ample nutrition.
  • Fresh food, although attractive, is not a good choice. It weighs a ton, and doesn’t keep well. I don’t take it, even for the first day.
  • Canned foods. A disaster! Why carry a metal can around with you? Ultra low caloric density, and you have to carry the empty can back out. Ouch! The exception is tuna in foil packets but only if it is packed in oil.

Cooking and Stoves

  • See: Best Backpacking Stove Systems for pro’s and cons of the best canister and best alcohol stove systems.
  • For green reasons, I am not fond of non-refillable, non-recyclable canister stoves. When I solo on short trips, I may skip the stove, eat cold food and take caffeine pills for my morning buzz (or make a cold powdered milk and instant coffee shake). Not cooking limits my food choices but makes for speedy meals on the trail and simplifies pre-trip preparation.
  • *Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove System: Since the introduction of greener, easy to use, extremely efficient, and very light alcohol stoves, I have warmed to stoves and usually take one—even when I solo.
  • One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended while I perform camp chores.

How to make Backcountry Tea (loose leaf, connoisseur style)

 

tea-video-image

Backcountry Tea using the Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove cooking system

Drink When Thirsty

The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty

Drink When Thirsty debunks the many myths about hydration and dehydration like “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and  “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated.” This article suggests that Drink When Thirsty is the best and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise.

It turns out that your body’s natural, thirst mechanism (700 million years old) works well to keep you hydrated and healthy during exercise. In fact, the amount of water your body requires is probably far less than what the Sports Drink and Bottled Water companies have been telling us.

 

People may be drinking too much water…

With all the hype about the risks of dehydration, it is actually over hydration (hyponatremia) that may be more of a risk. People are now having serious health problems from over hydration for endurance races and even hiking in the Grand Canyon—sometimes resulting in death1,2,3. [Note: Since I first published this post it has been shared by numerous Emergency Medical Treatment and Search and Rescue organizations for this very reason.]


Best hydration system

Best Hydration and Purification System – It’s NOT Complicated!

The simple, inexpensive Hydration and Purification System that Alison and use is shown above. When “drinking to thirst,” it has kept us well hydrated — even between distant water sources in the desert.

Excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List:

  1. Sawyer Squeeze Filter: We can drink immediately at water sources. This means both quick, effective hydration and less water to carry when we hike.
  2. Water Treatment Tablets: For fast, efficent water purification in camp. We can treat 3 or more liters of water in less than a minute. And it’s ready to drink 20-30 minutes later.

Drink When Thirsty – Myths and Facts about Hydration

I recently interviewed three world experts in the field of sports hydration (not affiliated with Sports Drink and Bottled Water companies)

  • Dr. Marty Hoffman, MD, founding member of the Foundation for Medicine & Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports, a member of the Wilderness Medical Society, and professor at the University of California Davis
  • Dr Tamara , D.P.M., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Exercise Science, Oakland University, Rochester, MI
  • Dr. Kristin Stuempfle Ph.D, Professor, Health Sciences, Gettysburg College

This is what I learned from these experts…


Myth1 – If you are thirsty, it’s already too late
Correct – Drink When Thirsty

  • All the experts in sports hydration I talked with adamantly agreed that Drink When Thirsty is the best and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise*.
  • As Dr. Hoffman’s puts it: “Drink When Thirsty works for prolonged exercise. Our bodies have a fine tuned feedback system that lets us know when to drink…there is no real danger of dehydration when people have access to water. Thirst kicks in, and people drink.”
  • This agrees with the recommendation from the Statement of the Third International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference, 2015to Drink When Thirsty; “Using the innate thirst mechanism to guide fluid consumption is a strategy that should limit drinking in excess and developing hyponatremia [over-hydration with significant health consequences] while providing sufficient fluid to prevent excessive dehydration.”
  • Excessive drinking when you are not thirsty increases the risk of hyponatremia, arguably a greater risk than dehydration.

*Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler says the natural thirst mechanism has been working in animals and keeping them well-hydrated for at least 700 million years. See more from Dr. Hew on how the human thirst mechanism works.

So why have we been told to drink, drink, drink?

Why do we continue to hear sayings like, “hydrate or die,” “if you are thirsty, it’s already too late,” and stating that “your athletic performance will drop if you don’t drink enough“?

Deborah Cohen, investigations editor for the BMJ [formerly British Medical Journal], wrote up her findings in the 2012 feature article, “The truth about sports drinks5“. This article implies that the sports drinks industry has dramatically increased sales of their products by:

  1. Creating a “disease of dehydration”
  2. Stating that the natural thirst mechanism is inadequate to keep athletes hydrated. [Cohen implies that the evidence for this view is lacking.]
  3. And that this “lack of evidence” is in part due to the close financial and other affiliations between the sports drink companies and the scientists/researchers and supporting institutions that produce the research to support this view.
  4. Cohen’s article gives examples of studies supporting the sport drink companies claims, that when reviewed by an independent panel of experts, are not deemed robust enough to support those claims.

Here are some excerpts from the article

“Sports drinks are increasingly regarded as an essential adjunct for anyone doing exercise, but the evidence for this view is lacking. Deborah Cohen investigates the links between the sports drinks industry [e.g. Powerade (Coca-Cola) and Gatoraide (PepsiCo)] and academia that have helped market the science of hydration.”

‘“The problem was industry wanted to sell more products so it had to say that thirst was not adequate,” Noakes [Professor Tim Noakes, Discovery health chair of exercise and sports science at Cape Town University] says.’

‘Disease mongering is a well documented phenomenon in healthcare6 and Noakes suggests that industry has followed a similar pattern with dehydration and exercise.

“When industry wanted to sell more product it had to develop a new disease that would encourage people to overdrink,” he said adding: “Here’s a disease that you will get if you run. Here’s a product that is going to save your life. That’s exactly what they did. They said dehydration is a dreaded disease of exercise.”’

 


Debunking Other Hydration Myths

The following debunks:

  • You need to drink a liter per hour
  • Dehydration is a big problem
  • If your urine is yellow you are dehydrated
  • Dehydration causes cramping

And finally it address the Big Question, “How much water should I drink/carry on a hike?


Myth2 – You need to drink a liter per hour
Correct – Drink When Thirsty

  • Again, Drink When Thirsty is the best strategy.
  • Dr. Kristin Stuempfle says that studies7 show that the human body can only process a maximum of  0.8 liters (27 oz) to 1 liter (34 oz) of water at rest. That is not what your body needs—just the maximum amount of water it can process if needed—an important distinction.
  • That maximum amount of water processed will go down during exercise. According to Dr. Stuempfle our body’s natural response to exercise is to shunt blood from the kidneys and the GI (stomach and intestines) and  put it toward motor (leg) muscles, heart, and skin (cooling). In addition, during exercise the body secrets a natural antidiuretic hormone (ADH) to slow urine output. All these combine to reduce your body’s ability to process water.
  • So if you drink more water than you need during exercise (i.e. not drinking to thirst) then your body is receiving more fluids but has less capacity to handle them. Thus the risk of overhydration, and possibly hyponatremia.
Drink When Thirsty

In cooler environments where water is plentiful you may not need to carry any water with you. Drink from the source, and you will likely not be thirsty when you reach your next water source.


Myth 4 – Dehydration is a big problem
Correct – Mild dehydration is not a cause for serious concern

  • It will not significantly impair performance or health
  • Dr Hoffman told me:  “Even a mild hydration deficit of 2-3 liters is OK (provided you were adequately hydrated at the start of your hike). You may not be happy about it, but it’s not a serious problem.
  • Dr Hoffman also told me: “Top ultra runners are still performing well late in the race [100 miles] with a few percent bodyweight loss. They could not perform as well as they do, if percent bodyweight loss and mild dehydration was a big impediment to race performance8,9.”

Myth 5 – If your urine is yellow you are dehydrated
Correct-  Urine naturally turns yellow during exercise, even when adequately hydrated

  • Dr Hoffman says that: “Trying to keep urine clear during exercise will cause over hydration.” There was complete agreement among all the researchers on this point.
  • Additionally Dr Hoffman said: “[during exercise] urine color is not useful, and should not be used, as an indicator of hydration status…During exercise, because of hormonal influences to retain fluid and blood flow being shunted away from the kidney, urine production should be diminished, so urine color will darken.”
  • And from Cohen’s article5: “The science of dehydration has led to another widely held belief that is not based on robust evidence—that the colour of urine is a good guide to hydration levels.” And also from Cohen’s article5: “There is a lack evidence for the widely recommended practice of assessing hydration status by looking at the colour of urine,” it suggests.

Myth 6 – Dehydration causes cramping
Correct – Cramping well understood but not likely from dehydration or electrolyte levels

  • All the researchers I spoke with agreed that cramping is complex, not well understood and likely has multiple causes.
  • They also agree that dehydration and electrolyte depletion are not likely the main causes.
  • Dr. Hoffman not only noted that cramping appears to be neuromuscular, but that dehydration or electrolyte depletion does not cause cramping. Dr. Hoffman said this finding has been known for a number of years. In fact, cramping has more to do with neuromuscular nerve misfiring—nerves sending a false signal to muscles to contract and stay contracted, as indicated in research10 by  Martin P Schwellnus, UCT/MRC, Research Unit for Exercise, Science and Sports Medicine, Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
  • From the New York Times Article A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp by By GINA KOLATAFEB. 14, 2008:
    • “DR. SCHWELLNUS proposes that the real cause of cramping is an imbalance between nerve signals that excite a muscle and those that inhibit its contractions. And that imbalance, he said, occurs when a muscle is growing fatigued.”
    • “There’s the dehydration proposal: you just need more fluid. But, Dr. Schwellnus said, he studied athletes who cramped and found that they were no more dehydrated before or after a race than those who did not have cramps.”

How much water should I Drink/Carry on a hike?

This is the big challenge for backpackers, day-hikers or others that need to carry enough water between distant sources. Unlike Dr. Hoffman’s “There is no real danger of dehydration when people have access to water,” there is a possibility that if we don’t carry enough water between distant sources that we could run out of water and potentially become dehydrated. On the other hand, if we are hiking a long distance between water sources and and decide to carry 5 liters of water we are carrying an additional 11 pounds. This too has serious downsides.

So the big question for hikers and backpckers is

How do you estimate the “right” amount of water to carry between distant sources?

 

The goal is homeostasis, or to drink the same amount of water as your body uses. But how do we estimate our personal water consumption needs for homeostasis in the field? There is likely no “right or exact” answer to this. Dr. Stuempfle and Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler agree that the following would be a reasonable strategy for individuals to estimate their personal water consumption in the field:

  • On test day-hikes (or a weekend backpacking trip), Drink When Thirsty and record the amount of water your drink per hour. Try to do this close to the same level of exertion, and temperature and humidity that you will expect on your backpacking trips (or long day hikes).
  • Use this consumption rate per hour as a starting point for estimating the amount of water you’ll need to carry between distant sources in the field for your longer and more serious trips.
  • It is best to be conservative (carry a bit more water) until you have tested out and fine tuned your personal water consumption rate over at lest a few longer trips in the field.
  • Obviously if it is hotter, more humid, you are working harder, or your pack is heavier, you may need more water per hour. But, if it is cooler, less humid, or you are not working as hard, you may need less water per hour.

On a personal note, when following Drink When Thirsty I frequently do not carry any water with me in the field (Sierras, Appalachian Trail, etc.). When I drink (using aSawyer Squeeze Filter so I can drink directly at the source), I find that I am unlikely to be thirsty until I reach the next water source. My wife seems to run a bit thirster, and in addition to drinking at water sources, she usually carries somewhere between ½ to ¾ of a liter between sources.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although I rarely carry water with me, the desert is the exception. This picture is from a drought year in the Southern Utah desert. So an unusually dry time in an already hot and dry place. I have collected a lot of water: for dinner that evening, breakfast the next morning & to carry during the day to our next reliable water source.

The only place we carry large amounts of water between sources is in the Desert Southwest, like Canyoneering in Utah. But even then, following Drink When Thirsty, we carry less water than the “recommended” amounts in guide books and other “authoritative” sources. We pull long days in the desert and feel healthy and fine. But we have years of field experience and comfortably know our personal water needs in the desert.


How the natural thirst mechanism works

Dr Tamara Hew-Butler, who has studied the natural thirst mechanism in animals, says it’s been working to keep them well-hydrated for at least 700 million years. The human thirst mechanism functions in two ways:

  1. Brain sensing electrolyte levels11: Your brain has real-time osmosensors that monitor sodium concentrations (more specifically, the amount of osmoles, for which sodium makes up the greatest amount) circulating in the blood. When sodium levels start to rise above normal, your body has a two stage response. The first response, is to slow urine output and therefore water loss (this occurs before thirst is triggered). If sodium levels continue to rise, your thirst mechanism kicks in and you become thirsty. It is important to note that you are NOT dehydrated at this point. All this happens before dehydration becomes an issue. This is your body’s normal mechanism to keep you from getting dehydrated. Dr. Hoffman and Dr. Hew-Butler both point out that as long as folks have access to water, their thirst will cause them to drink and not become dehydrated.
  2. Your heart (actually the main valves) senses blood volume (water): Your heart valves have barorreceptors that can detect a reduction in blood volume (water in the body). This also has a two stage response just the same as the brain’s osmosensor responses. Stage 1 happens at an 8-10% blood volume depletion and triggers an anti-diuretic hormone release which slows urine output and therefore water loss. You are not thirsty at this point. If blood volume continues to decrease, your thirst mechanism kicks and you get thirsty. Again note: that you are NOT dehydrated at this point. All this happens before dehydration become an issue. This is your body’s normal mechanism to keep you from getting dehydrated.
homeostasis-tamara-hew-1200

Figure source: 11 – INADEQUATE HYDRATION OR NORMAL BODY FLUID HOMEOSTASIS? – Tamara Hew-Butler, PhD, LETTERS, American Journal of Public Health, October 2015, Vol 105, No. 10, page e6


Summary

Drink When Thirsty, it’s been keeping hominoids well hydrated for millions of years.

Drink When Thirsty

References

1 Three Cases of Severe Hyponatremia During a River Run in Grand Canyon National Park – Emily A. Pearce, BS, et al., WILDERNESS & ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE, 26, 189–195 (2015)

2 Hiker Fatality From Severe Hyponatremia in Grand Canyon National Park – Thomas M. Myers, MD, et al., WILDERNESS & ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE, (2015)

3 Exercise-associated hyponatremia with exertional rhabdomyolysis: importance of proper treatment – Martin D. Hoffman1, et al., Clinical Nephrology, DOI 10.5414/CN108233

Statement of the Third International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference, Carlsbad, California, 2015 – Hew-Butler, Tamara DPM, PhD, et al., Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: July 2015 – Volume 25 – Issue 4 – p 303–320, doi: 10.1097/JSM.0000000000000221

5 The truth about sports drinks – Deborah Cohen investigations editor, BMJ 2012;345:e4737 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e4737 (Published 18 July 2012)

6 Moynihan R, Heath I, Henry D. Selling sickness: the pharmaceutical industry and disease mongering. BMJ 2002;324:886.

Peak rates of diuresis in healthy humans during oral fluid overload – Noakes TD, et al., 2001 Oct;91(10):852-7. PMID:11732457

8 Race Diet of Finishers and Non-Finishers in a 100 Mile (161 km) Mountain Footrace – Kristin J. Stuempfle, PhD, Martin D. Hoffman, MD, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 30, No. 6, 529–535 (2011) page 529

9 Association of Gastrointestinal Distress in Ultramarathoners With Race Diet – Kristin J. Stuempfle, Martin D. Hoffman, and Tamara Hew-Butler, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2013, 23, 103 -109

10 Cause of Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) — altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? M P Schwellnus, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2009 43: 401-408 originally published online November 3, 2008 doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.050401

11  INADEQUATE HYDRATION OR NORMAL BODY FLUID HOMEOSTASIS? – Tamara Hew-Butler, PhD, LETTERS, American Journal of Public Health, October 2015, Vol 105, No. 10, page e5

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

These tasty and nutritious backpacking meal recipes are healthier, have more calories and cost less than commercial, freeze dried backpacking meals. Keep it simple — there are enough nutritious backpacking meal recipes here to provide sufficient daily variety to keep meals fun and interesting. But there aren’t so many recipes that I spend too much time buying ingredients and assembling a large inventory of gourmet meals. I’d rather spend my time hiking than fussing with food.

Note: This is a companion piece to my top rated post, Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly which has more detailed info on nutrition and backpacking food choices.

Photo: Author eating dinner in the Alaska Range – credit: Andrew Skurka

Meal Rotation Planner — Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Keep it simple — I rotate 2 to 3 meal options for each trip. This provides enough food variety on the trail. By limiting meals to 2 to 3 nutritious backpacking meal recipes, I simplify food purchasing and meal prep.

Backpacking Meal Planner – example of a 3-day rotation
DayBreakfastLunchDinner
1None: eat large one off-trail#1 Wrap+cheese & mustard (fruit #1)#1 Rice+beans w chips+cheese
2#1 Muesli#2 Bison+sesame stix (dried fruit #2)#2 Couscous curry
3#2 Hot oatmeal/cream-o-wheat#3 Crackers+almond butter (fruit #3)#3 Chili mac
4#3 Grape-Nuts + strawberries#1 Wrap+cheese & mustard (fruit #1)#1 Rice+beans w chips+cheese
#1 Muesli#2 Bison+sesame stix (dried fruit #2)#2 Couscous curry
6#4 Quick breakfast meal bar#3 Crackers+almond butter (fruit #3)None: eat large one off-trail

If you don’t already have one get an inexpensive kitchen scale that weighs up to 11 pounds (5 Kg). Almost all the ingredients are measured by weight for these recipes.

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

If you don’t already have one get an inexpensive kitchen scale that weighs up to 11 pounds (5 Kg). Almost all the ingredients are measured by weight for these recipes.

Breakfast Recipes

The following are nutritious and filling breakfasts that should keep a spring in your step until lunch! They have healthy fats and a good amount of protein. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE RECIPES full page here, as a Google Sheet

Dinner mid-way up Mt. Olympus, Olympic Peninsula Washington State.

Dinner mid-way up Mt. Olympus, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.

Dinner Recipes

The following are nutritious backpacking dinner recipes. These are filling meals at around 700-800 calories per serving! They have healthy fats and a good amount of protein. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE DINNER RECIPES on a full page here, as a Google Sheet

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Rehydrating in a Ziplock bag makes cleanup much easier. Especially nice in “dry” camps. You usually use less fuel as you kill your stove as soon as the water boils. Downside is that the meal does not rehydrate as well as when it’s cooked in the pot, and rehydration can take longer. A long handled spoon pictured here helps reach into deep baggies without getting your fingers covered in food.

Dessert and Hot Drink Recipes

The following are just few ideas for desserts and after dinner drinks. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE DINNER RECIPES full page here, as a Google Sheet

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Cooking a meal in the pot does a better job of rehydrating a meal. Especially if you let it simmer for a few minutes after a boil. Downside is that the pot is harder to clean, especially with cheese. And food can burn to the pot bottom if you aren’t careful. (photo: Andrew Skurka)

Rice And Beans With Cheese And Tortilla Chips

Use these healthy freeze dried Black Beans & Rice (available at REI) or at Amazon. Open the meal bag and add 2 oz of Just Hot Veggies or any of Just Tomatoes FD veggies.

Then separately package in ziplock snack baggies:

  • 3-4 oz cheddar cheese (cubed or shredded)
  • 2 oz of lightly salted tortilla chips of your choice (lightly crushed)

Place both the cheese and chip baggies back in the meal bag and reseal it.

Meal Prep Directions

  • pour 17 to 18 oz hot water into the meal packet and set aside to re-hydrate
  • after about 5 minutes, stir in cheese
  • when full hydrated (about 10 min), crumble tortilla chips over the top and enjoy!

Note: eat in packet with long spoons unless you want to be scraping cheese out of your pot and/or bowls for some time.

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Dinner in a remote canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase.

Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear

Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking GearThe Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear is a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag. These bags are a perfect size and have a ton of uses. I’ve used them to protect my iPhone and other expensive equipment packrafting in Alaska, rafting down the Grand Canyon in winter, and trekking in Patagonia and the rain forests of New Zealand. Surprisingly, they are virtually unknown and you won’t find them on grocery store shelves. But you can purchase Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag here

Pint Ziploc Freezer Bags are nearly as effective as ALOKSAKs, but far less expensive. At $0.25 each, it’s easy to carry a few spares and replace between trips as necessary.  The thick plastic and double zip work well to keep water and dust out while preventing minor scratches. Unless you plan on having your gear submerged for long periods*, they are lighter, and easier to get gear in and out of, and less expensive than fancy waterproof bags or cases that weigh and cost far more. (*Note: If you really need submersible protection; i.e. your phone will be completely under water for some time, then you will need to get a fully submersible rated bag for your phone.)

Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear

Just a few of the many uses for a $0.25 Pint Freezer Ziplock bag. Clockwise from upper right: 1) store meals, cook in bag & eat from the bag, 2) keeping TP dry in an outside pocket of your pack [normal sandwich baggies are too fragile and leak], 3) protecting expensive cameras/electronics from dust and rain like this $800 Sony RX100 Camera, 4) and my favorite use, protecting my iPhone. Photo shows the proper way to fold the bag for the iPhone for best visablity and touchscreen use.

Many uses for the Best Cheap 25 cent Backpacking Gear

Here are some my uses for $0.25 Pint Ziploc Freezer Bags but there are a ton more. Tell me your uses in the comments!

  • Protect my iPhone: see more detail on how I do this below
  • Keep the fiddle factor down: Putting like-gear in Pint Ziploc Freezer Bags organizes “gear-chaos.” Quickly finding gear saves time and sanity. E.g. all my first aid kit fits in one baggie. My cables and electronics, spare batteries go in another. My camera stuff, spare SD cards, batteries, bubble level go in another.
  • Snacks: One day of snack food goes in one baggie (Pint or Quart size, depending) and is put in the side pocket of my pack for quick access.
  • Meals: A Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag is perfect for individual meals. Just re-hydrate in the bag and eat out of the bag. When done, zip it shut and your KP is done. (I use Quart size when Alison and I share meals.)
  • Perfect for storing cheese and dried meats like salami, or a potentially leaking bottle of olive oil.
  •  Protect other electronics and optics, including small cameras, binoculars etc. My Sony RX100 Camera is a bit on the delicate side. I put it in a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag if it is wet or very dusty (e.g. a windy day in the deserts of S. Utah). I usually leave the bag unzipped and folded over unless conditions are bad.
  • My standard travel electronics kit (when trekking worldwide) and even on extended trips in the US—spare charging battery, cables, wall-chargers, outlet adapters all fit neatly in one baggie.
  • Map & documents case. I generally don’t use heavy and bulky waterproof mapsets. I normally print my own custom maps and a time and mileage tables on non-waterproof paper. When arranged properly in a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag or even a quart size, I can keep these in my right hip pants pocket for rapid reference—even in the rain.
  • Waterproof TP and hand sanitizer bag. Allows you to keep this easily accessible in an external pocket, even in wet conditions.

How I use the Pint Freezer Ziplock bag to protect my iPhone

I carry my iPhone in my left hip pants pocket about 95% of the time. Here’s how I keep it protected but quickly usable. First, I use a simple and Light Protective Case with a Screen Protector. Then I put my iPhone in a Pint Freezer Ziplock bag with the phone display on the clear/non-printed side and then fold the extra over so that the display is easily readable and fully touch functional (except fingerprint recognition of the home button). I put the phone in my pocket with the phone display facing against my leg so that it is protected from getting damaged if I bump into something. [Note: make sure that you fold extra bag away from the face of the phone. This prevents the bag from getting hazed by the ziplock closure rubbing against the display side of the bag.] In normal use, I usually don’t zip the bag shut since I am just interested in is protecting the phone from perspiration from my leg and dust. Folding the bag over does just fine for this. The additional benefit of folding and not sealing the bag is that I can quickly extract my phone from the bag to take a photo. Only in heavy rain or when I think I might get a brief dunking, like crossing a stream will I actually zip the bag shut.

image

Some of the elements for my light travel electronics kit:  A substantial 6400 mAh external charging battery and a lightening cable and a micro USB cable. If traveling, I would add a wall charger (pictured) and a combo Power Adapter Travel Wall Charger (not pictured). All are well packaged and organized in a durable Pint Ziplock Freezer bag.

Field use kit: The iPhone 6 in a light but protective case sitting on top of a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag used to protect the phone from dust, scratches and water (effective, lighter and less expensive than elaborate waterproof cases!). Right: a substantial 6400 mAh external charging battery and a lightening cable.

dinner-900

Freezer Ziplock used both for in bag cooking (re-hydration) and to eat from. Zero clean-up after the meal. Zip the bag shut, put it with your trash and you are done. This is especially useful at dry camps or when it’s really cold when washing pots at below freezing is not fun.

The Big Three

Quick ways to reduce backpack weight

Quick ways to reduce backpack weight

Moving fast and light along the spectacular ridge line of the GR20 in Corsica. A minimal pack (and good pre-trip training) enabled Alison and I to do a 16 day trip in under 8 days. Pictured – the award winning Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack

Quick ways to reduce backpack weight. A few may surprise you…

  1. Look at The Big Three: Backpack, Tent/shelter, and Sleep System (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and ground cloth). You stand to loose a bunch of weight from these: as much as 10 to 12 pounds.
    1. Take a Backpack that weighs less than two pounds
    2. Take a Tent/Shelter that weighs less than two pounds
    3. Take a Sleeping bag that that weighs less than 1.5 pounds
  2. Look on The Backpacking Food Page to save a ton of weight at zero cost
  3. Get a weather report (the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative and accurate)—then pack for those conditions! Since 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less, this weather report should be quite accurate for the short time you are out. This will let you pack a tent, clothing, and sleeping bag appropriate for actual conditions. It will also deter you from taking inappropriate, “what-if-the-worst-happens!” gear, e.g. 6 pound tent, and a +10F sleeping bag for a balmy weather trip on the Appalachian Trail.
  4. Don’t take extra clothing. e.g. don’t take any more clothing than you can wear at one time.
  5. Take less: Be disciplined and leave a few items at home that you haven’t used in the last three trips. Put stuff like sunscreen and trail soap in smaller containers.
  6. Extra Credit: Browse The Gear Lists Page for other ideas and examples to save weight. This will give you a good examples of what type of gear is available and what is a reasonable weight for that type of gear, e.g. around 6-8 ounces for a rain jacket, or around 1.0 ounce for a pocket knife. Think hard if your gear is 2 to 3x heavier than the examples on these lists.
  7. Read my The Best Hydration — Drink When Thirsty. Use a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter to drink at the source (lake, stream, etc.). Then only carry a sensible amount to get to your next known water source. I.e. it makes no sense to carry 3 liters of water, almost 7 pounds, when your next water source is only two hours away.
  8. Remember to have fun! That will at least, lighten your spirit and mood.

How Do I Start?

  • Ground yourself in reality: Get all your stuff together and weigh it. If you’re like most conventional hikers, your equipment will weigh around 30 pounds, possibly higher.
  • Get individual weights for your heavier items like tents and backpacks. For stuff in the range of a few pounds or less you’ll want to buy an inexpensive digital scale that weighs up to 10 pounds.
  • See what you can leave at home. Anything you don’t bring is free weight reduction. Think hard about this one. Do you really need it?
  • Put together a spreadsheet (or at least a list) with all your equipment weights. This is an indispensable analysis tool.
  • Try to figure out where you’ll get the most “bang for the buck.” e.g. figure out how much a new item costs and divide that by the amount of weight it will save you over your old equipment. Target the items that give you the most weight loss for the fewest dollars.
  • Don’t try to purchase all your new equipment right away. Many items regularly go on sale or are closed out, e.g. Sierra Trading Post. Watch carefully over the course of a year and you could save 30 to 70 percent on your equipment.
Backpacking Food

Backpacking Food List – Simple and Nutritious for 7 days

NEW June 2016 – Meal Recipes are Posted. See Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes here

This list is packed with nutritious backpacking food for a “week long” trip of 7 days

  • 6 nights of dinners and breakfasts
  • 7 days of lunches and daytime snacks

That is you don’t eat breakfast on the day your go in. And you don’t eat dinner on the day you come out. This is equivalent to around 6.6 full days hiking. I’ve organized the food so that it should be easy to scale to more or fewer hiking days.

Note: any entry with a blank in “qty” means the food item is an alternative that may be a) added and/or b) substituted for another item on the list. For example if you are veggie, you could substitute one of the soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall) the meat jerky. And to easily add vegetables to my homemade dinners I use freeze dried vegetables from Just Tomatoes. I like the “Hot Just Veggies.”

A Simple and Nutritious Backpacking Food List for 7 days

Breakfasts (6 mornings)qtyoztotc/ozComments
Familia Breakfast (with Bob’s Red Mill Muesli)25.511.0125see Recipe Page
Grape Nuts/Kashi Seven Nuggets (my recipe)25.010.0124see Recipe Page
Oatmeal Breakfast (my recipe)25.410.8115see Recipe Page
Coffee, Starbuck’s VIA ($0.72/cup @Amazon)60.10.84g pkt  = 130-140 mg caffeine
Coffee for gold filter brewing 25g per 12 fl-oz0.9 alternative to instant coffee, less $
Tea – bag or loose leaf (4-6g per 12 fl-oz)0.1if using bags, sealed packets are best
Lunches (7 days)qtyoztotc/ozComments
Dense whole grain bread (lunch serving)32.06.080
Almond Butter (2 oz serv)32.06.0155pers fave – eat w bread/crackers
Tuna in olive oil 2.6 oz pkt (2.9 oz incl packet)2.965eat w bread, oil adds cal’s & healthy fat
Crackers, Dr Kracker (lunch serving)21.53.0125Awesome, high calorie & indestructible
Cheese (lunch serving)22.55.0115eat with crackers
TJ’s whole wheat tortillas22.04.080
Dry salami (without nitrates)22.55.0105eat with tortillas
Mustard packetsn/ato eat with cheese or salami
Bison Jerkey (3.5 oz bag)3.560 online, or TJs and Whole Foods
Turkey Jerky4.090 online, or TJs and Whole Foods
Primal Strips Meatless Vegan Jerkey (teriyaki)1.0100vegan protein option – up to 11g prot.
Stonewall’s Jerquee (soy based)1.5110veggie protein option – up to 14g prot.
Dinners (6 nights)qtyoztotc/ozComments
Black Beans & Rice w Cheese & Corn Chips (yum!)25.511.0115see Recipe Page
Chili Mac Dinner25.511.0120see Recipe Page
Curry Cous Cous Dinner26.012.0135see Recipe Page
Desserts (6 nights)qtyoztotc/ozComments
Snickers Bar or MilkyWay Midnight22.14.2135daytime snack or dessert
Chocolate (dark)42.08.0153great when eaten with dried fruit
Cocoa Nibs1.0150tasty when added to dark chocolate
Snakwell Cookie Packet21.73.4123great with hot chocolate
Hot Chocolate (make your own with Nido)22.24.4130see Dessert recipe Page
Snack Bars (for ~7 days)qtyoztotc/ozComments
Kind Bars41.45.6150
Lara Bar1.8130
Pro Bar Meal Bar23.06.0125healthy, easy to eat
ProBar’s Base Protein Bars22.54.9114adds 20g of soy protein
Cliff Builder’s Protein Bar22.54.9115adds 20g of soy protein
Snacks (for ~7 days)qtyoztotc/ozComments
Gorp (50% walnuts, 50% dried fruit – raisins?)72.014.0150 usually mix my own
Honey sesame sticks71.812.6150 online or at Whole Foods
Candied nuts (TJs has a ton of varieties)31.54.5150
Almonds, raw42.08.0165
Walnuts, raw185
Dried mango un-sweetened/sulfered32.06.090also great dessert with dark chocolate!
Apricots (dried, un-sweetened, un-sulfered)41.56.087also great dessert with dark chocolate!
Papaya (dried, un-sweetened, un-sulfered)100 at Whole Foods
Raisins, organic (Thompson, TJs)95
Generic dried fruit85
Jelly Bellies93
Tic-Tacs0mindless fun to eat on trail
Pringles150tasty, high in calories
Totals
Lb of food for trip11.5
Lb food per day1.7
Calories/day3,530
Calories/oz of food127

Cooking and Lightweight Backpacking Stoves

[fusion_text]Most ultralight backpackers take stoves. Just small light ones. When I hike with others, I take a stove and do civilized stuff like make coffee & tea and hot dinners. Sometimes, especially when I solo, I go ultra simple with no-cook food.

 

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How much food should I take? The detailed answer

There is no exact answer to this question. In my “The Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious”, I threw out the best guess of 1.4 to 1.7 lb of food per day. But how but much food you need depends on who you are and what you do.

2015 Note: In the last 15 years of backpacking I personally seem to have settled on around 1.7 pounds per day of food give or take a bit. This is for warm season backpacking with 12-18 miles per day (possibly more) with some off-trail travel. If I am going for killer trips, like 10-12 solid hours of hiking per day I will be more like 1.8 pounds of food per day.  But trips 12 miles and under, mostly on trail 1.5 pounds of food would suffice.

Over the years I have lowered my hiking pace, but hike longer and take fewer breaks. I find that a slower hiking pace of 2.5 miles per hour (average including stops) is much more efficient calorie-wise than hiking at a faster pace. Most accomplished long distance thru-hikers I have talked to use a similar approach. Also, I find the slower pace beats up my body less and I get up the next morning fresh and ready to hike another day.


Estimating How Much Food You Need

In an example below, in order to not lose weight, a 160 pound male hiking 10 miles a day, with a 3,000 elevation gain, would need around 4,000 calories per day, or 2.0 pounds of food per day (assuming a caloric density of 125 calories per ounce). This is a very rough estimate, and should not be taken too seriously. You will need to do some experimenting to determine you own caloric needs for on the trail.

From this it is clear that 1.5 pounds of food per day (a figure often used by ultralight hikers) does not work for all situations, and for all people. Although that 1.5 lb of food per day may work well for many people on a short trip (e.g. a 3-day-weekend)–where they not doing long miles and long hours of hiking per day. And for most of us, if you end up metabolizing/burning off a pound of fat on a trip [since backpacking is one of he supreme fat burning activities], all the better!

But just because you can get by on 1.5 lb of food per day, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to eat in all situations. In my opinion, running a significant caloric deficit, particularly on longer trips, is not a good idea. If you are a fit person, hiking many miles and hours per day, 1.5 lbs of food per day  is also not a good idea. See my example below for more details.

Factors to consider for how much food you pack

  • How much do you weigh?
  • Does your metabolism run high or low?
  • How far will you hike each day?
  • How fast will you hike?
  • For how many days?
  • How much elevation gain?
  • At what altitude?
  • At what temperatures?
  • How difficult is the terrain?
  • What type of shape are you in?
  • What are you used to eating?
  • How much excess body fat do you have?
  • Do you want to lose weight? Etc., etc.

In 2000 I took 1.6 lb of food per day (Approx. 125 cal/oz.) on a 5 day trip in the Rockies. I was hungry on the days when I hiked 8-10 miles mostly on trails. But I could deal with it. I would have felt better, and in the long run hiked faster with more food per day. One day, I did an 18 mile hike, most of which was off trail, with elevations over 13,000 feet. Boulder fields. Class 3 routes etc. I brought only 1.6 pounds of food with me. By 7:30 PM, when I got into camp, I was almost psychotic with hunger. My fault, I realize. I could have easily used 2 lb of food for that day.

An (over) simplified example of food need calculations. An estimate! (see Note 1):

  • A 160 lb person has a base metabolism of approx. 2,200 cal/day
  • 10 miles hiking with a 30 lb backpack at 120 cal/mi, is another 1,200 calories.
  • Assume 3,000 elevation gain is another 600 calories.
  • Total caloric expenditure: 4,000 cal/day
  • 1.5 pounds of food at 125 cal/oz = 3,000 calories. (see Note 2)
  • Caloric deficit = 1,000 cal/per day. Or around 1/3 lb of hiker per day (this is fat metabolized/burned)

Under this very simplified estimate, our 160 pound hiker runs a 1,000 calorie per day deficit. They would lose about 1/3 lb per day or around 2 lb per week. If our hiker was a bit overweight and didn’t mind being hungry this might be OK or even desirable. But it’s probable that they would feel better and hike faster if they weren’t running a caloric deficit.

For someone near their ideal weight, running a 1,000 calorie a day deficit might not be a good idea. It might be OK for a few days, but not for long outings. It’s not that you can’t do it if you have to. I’ve hiked 3 days without food. But is it a good idea to hike running a caloric deficit?

  • Is it good for your health?
  • Will you feel great and enjoy your outing?
  • Will you hike your fastest?
  • Will your body have the nutrition to recover after a hard day of hiking?
  • Will you be more injury prone?
  • Will you be alert and make safe decisions?
  • What will your moods be like around others?

After answering these questions for myself, I’d say that hiking with a daily calorie deficit is not a great idea.

Note 1: I realize that this is a this very simplified estimate. Base metabolism, hiking efficiency, etc. are variable. The best approach is to do some on or off trail testing and see what caloric intake works best for you. Note that you may be able to get by on a low calorie intake but your athletic performance may go down as well. I know that I can eat 2,200 calories a day and ride my bike 175-200 miles per week. I also know that if I do this, I feel terrible, I loose around 2 lb per week, I can be cross with those around me, and my overall riding speed drops 1-2 mph. At around 3,200-3,500 calories a day I feel great, don’t gain weight, and can train at high intensity.

Note 2: I believe that most of us will end up averaging around 125-130 cal/oz even when packing high fat items like chocolate and peanut butter, etc. as part of our food. I know that many try to hit the 150 cal/oz range, but I don’t think this is a realistic or healthy way for most people to eat. Just my opinion.

Backcountry Tea – loose leaf, connoisseur style

Most hikers are used to caffeine in the morning. Interrupting that habit makes for grumpy hikers who are not the best trail company. Caffeine pills help, but do not provide the same emotional (some would say spiritual) comfort of wrapping your hands around a cup of soothingly warm liquid.

Coffee has the disadvantage of oily, hard-to-clean residues in your cup and pot. Ground coffee only keeps fresh for a few days at most (some believe it is only minutes or hours after grinding).

I make tea. Loose leaf teas like Assam, Darjeeling (black tea) or Sencha (green tea) keep for months in the backcountry and are a cinch to clean up after. Here’s a five minute tutorial video about making loose leaf tea in the backcountry (about 19 MB)

Backcountry Tea using the Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove cooking system