Knowing what to eat when hiking and also that you will have to carry all this backpacking food is not always easy.
This article will give you the basics on how to prepare your daily rations of backpacking food realistically and efficiently to use on all your hikes even your day hike.
When preparing your backpacking food stock before going on a hike, you must first and foremost:
- Maximize the nutritional efficiency of each of your backpacking meals in terms of calorie intake, and
- Minimize the weight and volume of each of your backpacking food rations.
These two essential parameters revolve around four rules that you can adapt according to your eating habits and your practices:
You will find my latest backpacking food lists at the end of this article to better illustrate this guide.
Rule # 1: Identify your daily nutritional requirements in Calories (cal)
Knowing your daily needs for caloric intake is an important parameter because it will condition your ability to provide effort, to recover from your day of hiking, and to refill your energy reserves to be in full shape the next day.
If your caloric intake is too low, fatigue will quickly slow you down, and your thermoregulation will be less effective.
The Result: by accumulating the hiking days and by providing the substantial effort needed for walking on uneven terrain with the weight of the backpack on your back, your physical and mental condition will degrade quickly.
You will suffer from thermal discomfort at night in your sleeping bag (in short, you will get cold!), and every morning you will feel more and more tired and weak.
So, at any cost, do not try shorting yourself the necessary caloric intake for your good physical condition just to lighten your backpack, without considering the pros and cons!
Unless, of course, you know your needs and your metabolism very well, and that you are ready to ration yourself and limit your resources, for the sole purpose of rushing into the first pizzeria you find on your way back to civilization!
Finding the right caloric balance is done over time by practice and experimentation.
One piece of advice: every day, take notes of your sensations. Did you overeat? Not enough? Was the ration sufficient? You will then be able to review your notes before your next hike, so you don’t reproduce some of the mistakes.
Calorie calculators can be found easily on the internet which can help you get a quick idea of your needs without having to go through lengthy and painstaking tests.
Click here for a handy calorie calculator.
Then you only will have to fine-tune. The formula generally uses age, weight, height, and type of activity.
Even if you just go on a day hike, make sure you pay attention to your nutritional requirements.
Rule # 2: Learn the caloric equivalent by the weight of each food
Keep in mind that 100g of food must bring you at least 500 Cal.
I mix rule # 1 and # 2: if you need 3,000 Cal per day, you need to carry 21 oz (600g of food), that is 7 oz (200g) of food per meal.
There you go. Those who are in a hurry now have the basic ideas to take to the supermarket or the local organic shop! For the rest of you, we will dig a little deeper.
I like this calculation because it works all the time, when I’m in a hurry, tired, dehydrated, far from my favorite store.
It can be applied roughly, to avoid loosening up and adding a little of this or that, because it looks so good, and then you end up emptying the rest of the muesli into your Ziploc and completely mess up your quest to reduce weight!
“And what about this? Should you take it?”, “Oh! Yes, for some more grams…”
Hell, No! We have a mathematical rule, and we will apply it.
A little reminder:
- 1 g of carbohydrate = 4 Cal (or 4 kcal)
- 1g of protein = 4 Cal (or 4 kcal)
- 1g of fat = 9 Cal (or 9 kcal)
Another little reminder: Cal (upper case C) is equivalent to kcal (kilocalorie) which you will mostly see on the nutrition facts label of food products, also not to confuse with cal (lower case c) which is equivalent to 0.001 kcal or Cal. Sorry for my geekiness!
Read the nutrition labels of each desired food product.
This will take some time at first, but soon you will have the knowledge of a wide range of possibilities that you can adapt to your desires and needs of the moment.
530 Cal per 3.5 oz (100g) for milk chocolate. I take at least one chocolate bar of 3.5 oz (100g) a day.
What food is good for hiking?
There are the classics: chocolate can easily exceed 500 Cal/3.5 oz (100g), nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, nuts in any shape…) that contain between 600 and 700 Cal/3.5 oz (100g).
Potato chips and dried banana slices also represent an excellent weight/calorie ratio.
Peanut Butter, an extremely high calorie food ((600 Cal/3.5oz (100g)) rich in fat, which you can eat as a snack, breakfast or dessert. Ideal for long days of walking during which the body must draw on your body fat reserves.
To summarize, do not listen to nutritionists: the combination of fat/carbohydrates, this is exactly what you need!
One mistake to avoid: only bring butter with you, thinking that you understood everything about mathematics and that 3.5 oz (100g) = 900 Cal and you say to yourself: “We have a mathematical rule and we will apply it!”
Trust me, three meals a day, just butter-based, well, it can be heavy on the digestion and the spirit.
On the other hand, you can smooth out our studious calculation by taking with you instant mashed potato (350 to 400 Cal/3.5 oz (100g)) and salted butter in a small airtight box which will give about 750 Cal/3.5 oz (100g). Do you get the idea?
By following this rule (# 2) you will eat good things that are effective from a nutritional point of view, or only useful in energy supply and weight to carry with sometimes a little monotony… well yes!
Rule # 3: Take only dry or dehydrated food on the hike
Besides drinking water, there is no need to carry the water contained in food.
You can always rehydrate your hiking food at the time of cooking, with water you have gathered on the spot.
Water that is already in certain foods can represent 80% of their weight, and much more in some cases.
For 3 liters of milk, do you prefer to carry 105 oz (3 kg) of liquid milk or 10.5 oz (300 grams) of milk powder?
Out go canned ravioli, your best chicken broccoli Alfredo in a jar recipe, or pumpkin soup carton!
You can also chooser ready-made sachets of freeze dried ready to eat meals.
The disadvantages of this type of backpacking food are:
- the high price (count around $10 – $15 / bag),
- the relatively low calorie intake (between 200 and 300 kcal / serving) and
- the small portion size (one bag is supposed to represent two meals, but you will quickly notice that after a long day of walking it will leave you hungry).
However, they represent a rather interesting alternative to vary the taste of other meals.
Rule # 4: Manage food packaging for hiking
Managing backpacking food packaging means anticipating the production of waste.
Before going on a hike, make sure to get rid of unnecessary containers (plastic packaging) or rigid containers.
Recondition your food in Ziploc bags: they are robust, waterproof, weigh nothing, and as you empty them, they will take up less space in your hiking backpack.
Care to weigh your waste when you return home, it’s always instructive, and take notes to do better next time!
Some additional backpacking food tips
- Keep a balance between salty and sweet food base, whatever your usual food habits. Once on the trail, many things are happening at the metabolic level, the needs change, we must acclimate. Salt is essential to replace the one evacuated by perspiration to overcome the problem of dehydration. Sugar in all its forms is an efficient fuel for the effort as well as for recovery.
- Try to remain simple when choosing your foods; it gives you more possibilities for adaptation. A prepared dish does not allow you, like instant mashed potato or rice, to adapt it to your desire of the moment: salty, sweet, plain.
- Avoid food surprises. This is not the time to discover a brand new food that will go wrong (in terms of taste and nutrition) while you are lost in the middle of a storm.
- Plan at least one ultra-simple meal to prepare. In that case, the freeze dried ready to eat meal finds its place in case of heavy tiredness after a long day of hiking.
- Consider that a part of your backpacking food needs nothing in terms of addition or preparation. The important is to know that you will be able to eat something cold, hot, rehydrated or not, always to be able to compensate for possible trail problems (not enough water to cook, no more gas, burner down, being lazy or too tired to cook).
- Take vitamins even if the risk of deficiency is low over short to medium trek lengths and if on longer trails where there are ways to reprovision. But as you will expend significant energy during your trek, I recommend giving everything needed to the “machine.”
- Pay attention to the cooking time of certain foods (rice, lentils), soup especially if you carry the energy needed for cooking (gas, fuel, alcohol). Know that there are precooked and dehydrated foods (rice, quinoa).
- I always take food I love to eat and some I like less. It’s essential to be able to eat something good depending on the circumstances (comfort food), but be sure to have something that will stay and wait at the bottom of your backpack if you are too greedy.
With those four basic rules and my advice coming from my experience in the field, you are now able to prepare your food rations for hiking, depending on your needs, your tastes, and your eating habits.
You can follow my tips in a very radical way to achieve energy efficiency and a lower weight at the expense of pleasure to eat, or you can give yourself some margins, cheat a little on Rule # 2 to not be in a smashing mood on the trails!
As promised at the beginning of this article here are some backpacking food ideas I brought with me on my last hike.
This list of hiking food is worth ten meals (Note that once in the field I eat when I want, and what I want, my only concern is getting my daily calorie intake).
The weather forecasted for my hike was not the best, with a drop of temperature and some snowfall.
So I compensated for these more tiring weather conditions by increasing my caloric intake: 3,000 Kcal/day, which means 1,000 Kcal/meal.
- 3.5 oz (100 g) of pre-cooked quinoa <> 355 Kcal
- 7 oz (200 g) of potato chips <> 1,080 Kcal
- 6.5 oz (185 g) of Balisto bars (10 bars) <> 930 kcal
- 19.4 oz (550 g) of muesli <> 2623 Kcal
- 2.8 oz (80 g) chocolate powder <> 692 Kcal
- 4.4 oz (125 g) instant mashed potato <> 453 Kcal
- 3.5 oz (200 g) organic crackers <> 910 kcal
- 9 oz (254 g) of dry salami <> 990 Kcal
- 4.5 oz (130 g) petit-beurre biscuits <> 639 Kcal
- 10.5 oz (300 g) of milk chocolate <> 1,665 Kcal
- 2.1 oz (60 g) salted butter <> 435 Kcal
- 6.8 oz (194 g) instant soup <> 640 Kcal
Total: 91 oz (2,578 g) for 11,412 Kcal
In the end, I had a surplus of 1,412 Kcal compare to my theoretical predictions.
That will give me a choice, for the next time, to quickly get rid of some food or to tell myself that I can spend an extra night and have a light lunch in the outdoors.
So make proper preparation, hydrate yourself and take notes, and you will know precisely what is your best backpacking food, and the most adapted for any trail, for as many days as you have planned.
Thanks for the information! You supplied a good balance of common sense and analytical value. I just finished reading, “A Walk in The Woods” by Bill Bryson and found it interesting that his main staple was Snickers Bars while hiking the AT. It would make sense as a source of sugar but somehow seems contradictory to a long lasting energy supply. You ever bring candy bars as a source of energy when backpacking?
I didn’t read the book but in the movie with the same title, I can’t remember seeing Robert Redford, playing Bill Bryson, eating candy bars while hiking the AT. Maybe I should watch it again 🙂
I use candy bars but not the usual commercial ones, sugar filled and not that healthy. Mine are raw food cereal bars with a much lower glycemic index.
By the way have you seen what happens to a snickers bar squeezed in a backpack during a summer hike?
Do you have any strong opinions regarding high-fructose corn syrup vs natural sweeteners. Wondering if you’ve noticed any changes in how you feel under load between those two.
I will never consider using high-fructose corn syrup for the simple reason that the majority of HFCS is produced from genetically modified corn and maple syrup or honey would be my first choice for natural sweeteners.
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Great post Lara. Me and my husband typically take what we used to use when on long distance hikes & cycles, aka: Electrolyte Gels, Fruit and also Peanut Butter Sandwiches.
I feel like the fats are more slowly released into the bloodstream giving you a more steady flow of energy, as opposed to the direct hit of sugar from the gels (I know alot of Cyclists who swear by these!)
And I agree with you, the fats are more suited for me too.
Good article. I’d recommend it to many.
As for myself, I follow different rules. Being someone who isn’t far removed from the lifestyles of my ancestors (who were from Siberia and Central Eurasia), I just eat as they did. Preparing raw dried meat, heavy grains, dried cheeses, etc. isn’t difficult and definitely saves money.
Then again, I would not recommend my methods to everyone. I am conditioned to these (heavily animal product-based) dishes and have eaten them for a long time. I don’t eat many of the products angled towards the backpacking crowd. Lots of it doesn’t sit well with me and I simply don’t need to invest in them.
Regardless, I understand why you made this set of rules in the way that you did. They are good ones that plenty could benefit from.
Thank you for your interesting input. I agree with you and I used to share your eating habits that my dad used to teach me, when we were hiking the mountains for weeks. Dried meat and cheese with some dried fruits, all homemade. Now I became a vegan and I had to find other ways to correctly feed myself in the mountains.
Nevertheless, I really appreciate your comment.