Back to Adventure Alan's Ultralight Backpacking Home Page: This contains a wealth of information on backpacking with gear lists, trip reports, backpacking techniques for various weather and environments (cold rainy weather, alipine hiking, desert hiking), etc. While focused on lightweight backpacking, much of the content applies to all styles of backpacking.
Backpacking Food - Completely updated for 2008
Sample Food Lists
Keep it simple: My thoughts on backpacking food are not for all. I tend to take simple, inexpensive
trail food that requires little or no preparation. If you are interested in
a lot of hot meal ideas and delicious gourmet trail food, you may do better
to check with others. But if you are still interested read on.
- Take 125 to 130 calories/ounce of food - Maintain nutrition: Try to get the most calories per unit weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balanced diet with protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. A good target to balance calories and nutrition is 125 to 130 calories per ounce. In comparison, most backpacers don’t average above 100 cal/oz for their food.
- Take healthy, natural foods: like dried fruit, dried vegetables, nuts, whole grains, soybean jerky, vegetable oils, etc. Some ultralight hikers try to get in the 150 cal/oz range, but in my opinion their food is too high in fat and too low in other nutritional measures. I don't think this is a realistic or healthy way for most people to eat. On most of my trips even if I try to pump up the high fat foods, like peanut butter, nuts, vegetable oils, whole-fat powdered milk and chocolate, I always seem to end up around 125 to 130 calories per ounce.
- Don't carry extra food: 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. Some mainstream outdoor training courses (NOLS, Outward Bound) have two to three food-less days in their programs. This is not a recommendation for others to do the same. You'll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe you will bring a bit less next trip.
- "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 3.4 pounds or less of food.
- I am mostly veggie at this point (but do not wish to pitch my choice to others). Some backpackers may choose to take meat jerky that will keep virtually forever and/or hard, dry salami. The protein in these meats will complement grain proteins (grape nuts, crackers, grains in energy bars, etc.). Many of these meats are also high in fat, increasing your calories per ounce.
For green reasons, I am not fond of non-refillable, non-recyclable canister stoves. When I solo, I might 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 does limit 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, extremely efficient, and very light alcohol stoves, I have warmed to taking stoves more often — even when I solo. See the Stoves and Cooking Section which includes a nice demonstration video on Backcountry Tea (loose leaf, connoisseur style) using the Trail Designs Caldera.
- GORP: In the past, my basic food was the old standby GORP. I custom mixed 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 mixed to their specifications. I can eat almost anything.
- Un-mixed GORP fixings: Now, more often than not, I take my GORP unmixed. Some favorites are unsweetened dried mango, dried dragon fruit, un-sulfured dried apricots, sweetened and unsweetened nuts, and honey sesame sticks (all from TJ's, although most can also be found in natural food stores and food coops).
- Peanut M&M's (or even better almond) are still great. Cheap, tasty, high in calories, easy to pack and eat.
- Energy Bars:The best energy bars are compact and have reasonable caloric density and nutrition.
They are expensive though. I like Organic Vegan Food Bars, Pro Bars, and Lara Bars. They have healthy, natural ingredients, less sugars and good nutrition. The Pro Bars and Organic Vegan Bars are 125 calories per ounce.
- Soy jerky: I have two sources 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 jery.
- Peanut Butter boosts my caloric density. Cheap and easy to pack in. It is also a healthy fat. Get the healthier, un-hydrogniated variety.
- Packets of olive oil or canola oil to add healthy calories to my dinners.
- Cheese is a treat and adds calories, protein and calcium. But doesn't keep as well as some other foods. Cheddar cheese is around 115 cal/oz and keeps fairly well. Parmesan is around 130 cal/oz and keeps very well. These are not healthy fat.
- Crackers or Dense Bread add grains. These are good vehicles for eating the peanut butter and cheese. Some crackers can be quite high in vegetable fat (good) and approach 130 calories per ounce. Breads have low caloric density (higher water content and little fat), rarely getting over 85 calories per ounce. The honey sesame sticks mentioned above are 130 calories per ounce.
- Dried Fruit adds 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.
- Chocolate (as needed), to add fat and calories. I prefer small pieces of very dark chocolate (70% or higher) for dessert. Chocolate lovers will understand.
- Whole Fat Powdered Milk: Nestle Nido is a whole-fat powdered milk that is 140 calories per ounce and tastes great. It can usually be found at Hispanic markets. I use it to mix my own custom hot chocolate, and add it to breakfast cereals. Powdered milk is an animal protein that will complement vegetable proteins like soybeans and grains. Wonderful in coffee. Good source of calcium. Duh!
- Whole Grain Cereals: I alternate between two breakfast cereals mixed with Nestle Nido whole-fat powdered milk. 1) Grape Nuts or the similar Kashi Seven in the Morning with freeze dried strawberries and other dried or freeze dried fruits. 2) Whole grain muesli (the high quality organic sort like Bob's) mixed with dried cherries, dates, strawberries and raspberries (dried or freeze-dried), dried blueberries, walnuts and almonds, etc.
- Morning Caffeine — Tea: I make loose leaf tea, connoisseur style. See the Tea Section. Coffee afficiandos may choose to make “Cowboy Coffee.”
- Freeze dried dinners are an interesting subject. Some can be quite tasty. But most dinners are bulky, very expensive, high in sodium and many have low caloric density. It is probably best to minimize their use to a few dinners on a trip. Try to make some simple dinners of your own based on ingredients like instant rice, instant mashed potatoes or whole wheat cous cous (my favorite and from TJ's of course). I tend to use the simpler freeze dried meals that are lower in sodium and higher in fat (e.g. Backpackers Pantry Mac and Cheese). To them I add hot, freeze dried veggies from JustTomatoes.com to spice up meals and some olive oil to boost calories. Most of my dinners get a liberal dose of 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 re-hydrate my meals by pouring hot water directly into a quart baggie that contains the dinner (re-packaged from the original, bulky package). I wait for 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 limited in pack volume (or using a bear tin) freeze dried meals may not be a good choice. Taking them out of their Mylar packaging and putting them in quart baggies will help reduce volume.
- Hot Chocloate: I make my own with Ghirardelli Double Chocolate mix and Netle Nido. High in calories and delicious!
- See the Stoves and Cooking Section.
- 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.
There is no exact answer to this question. How much food you need depends on who you are and what you do.
In an example below, in order to not loose weight,
a 160 pound male hiking 10 miles a day, with a 3,000 elevation gain, would need
around 4,200 calories per day, or 1.9 pounds of food per day (assuming a caloric
density of 130 calories per ounce). This is a very rough estimate, and should
not be taken too seriously. You will need to some experimenting to determine
you own caloric needs for on the trail.
I do know that it's unrealistic to assume that 1.5 pounds of food per day (a
figure often used by ultralight hikers) will work for all situations, and for
all people. Also, 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 my opinion, running
a caloric deficit, especially on longer trips, is 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 loose 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 in to camp, I was almost psychotic with
hunger. My fault, I realize. I could have easily used 2 lb of food for
2008 Note: In the last ten years of backpacking I seem to have settled on around 1.7 pounds per day of food. This is for warm season backpacking with 10-15 miles per day (possibly more) with some off-trail travel. For lower mileage trips 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.
An (over) simplified example.
An estimate! (see Note 1):
- A 160 lb person has a base metabolism of approx. 2,400 cal/day.
- 10 miles hiking at 120 cal/mi is another 1,200 calories.
- Assume 3,000 elevation gain is another 600 calories.
Total caloric expenditure: 4,200 cal/day
1.5 pounds of food at 125 cal/oz = 3,000 calories. (see Note 2)
Caloric deficit = 1,200 cal/per day. Or around 1/3 lb of hiker per
Under this very simplified estimate, our 160 pound hiker runs
a 1,200 calorie per day deficit. They would loose 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. 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 1,200 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
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. My favorite two-person setup is the Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove System with an Anti Gravity Gear 3 Cup Pot. For soloing I take a stripped down version of the Trail Designs KEG. The stove, windscreen and pot are under 3 ounces! The production version KEG weighs only a bit more. Many Trail Design systems are available as Caldera Kitchens from Anti Gravity Gear. They include lightweight pot cozies, pot holder, and fuel bottle and stow ingeniously into a small stuff sack.
One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended while I perform camp chores.
I am not fond of non-refillable, non-recyclable canister stoves that are popular with many backpackers. While light, the used canisters just end up in landfills.
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 leaves 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 mintues 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 (loose leaf, connoisseur style)
using the Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove System (AGG Caldera Kitchen)