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

Overview

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.

Cooking and Stoves

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.

What types of food should I take?

Snacks

Breafasts

Dinners

Miscellaneous

How much food should I take?

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:

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 that day.

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):

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 day.

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?

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.

Cooking and Lightweight Stoves

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.

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 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)