backpacking meals

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Every time I go backpacking the same question arises. How much food should I take backpacking? If you are new to backpacking that can be difficult to figure out. Even an old geezer like me who has backpacked for over fifty years has to stop and think before heading out into the wilderness.

So how much food should I take? The answer most often quoted is 1.5 pounds of food per day. However, that answer is rather simplistic. Just because you won’t starve to death on 1.5 pounds of food per day doesn’t mean you won’t run a calorie or nutritional deficit on your hike.

Although you may want to lose weight by watching how much you eat, athletic performance suffers if your body doesn’t get enough food. Therefore, a number of factors need to be looked at to determine how much backpacking food you should take.

  • Are you male or female?
  • How much do you weigh?
  • What is your age?
  • What is your physical condition?
  • What is the weight of your backpack?
  • How many days will you be on the trail?
  • How difficult is the terrain?
  • How many miles for each leg of the hike?
  • How many hours do you expect to hike each day?
  • What altitude will you be hiking at?
  • What is the total elevation gain?
  • What is the average hiking temperature?

How Many Calories Do You Burn Backpacking?

A rough ballpark estimate is you will burn about 3,000 calories per day on average. However, this is just a starting point. For example, a 160-pound male hiking 10 miles per day with a 3,000-foot elevation gain would need 4,000 calories per day in order to not lose weight. Similarly, a 115-pound female would need approximately 3,300 calories.

Above all, if you are carrying a heavy backpack, have greater elevation gains, or the trail gradient is steeper, you will burn even more calories. If your trek takes you over rugged terrain or rocky, steep ground you can easily burn 6,000 calories per day. Therefore, you may want to actually calculate calorie requirements based on the particulars of your trek.

How To Calculate The Calories You Need

The first thing you need to do is find out how many calories you burn so that you can determine how much backpacking food you need.

This is determined by calculating your basal metabolism rate (BMR equals the least amount of energy burned in a resting state) and adding in the calories burned during activities during your waking hours.

Use a BMR calculator such as the one here to find your basal metabolism rate.

Next, calculate the number of additional calories burned based on the activity levels and duration of the hike. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account the altitude or ambient temperature which can also affect the number of calories burned.

However, similar to the BMR calculator, the hiking calculator here or here can be used to approximate the calories burned while hiking.

Alternatively, sports nutrition experts estimate backpackers burn between 300 to 600 calories every hour depending on the hiking parameters. Obviously, hiking uphill over rocky terrain with steep gradients put your hike at the upper range of caloric expenditures.

In addition, your body has to work harder at high elevations or temperature extremes. You can easily approximate how many calories are burned by multiplying the hours on the trail by the estimated calories burned per hour as determined by trail difficulty. Add those calories to your BMR to determine how many calories you burn per day.

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How Do I Meet The Caloric Requirement

Can I just weigh my food using the 1.5 pounds of food per day rule of thumb? It would be nice if things were that simple. For instance, if the calorie content of all foods were the same then it would make no difference what foods you take. But that is not the case.

The number of calories per ounce of each food type differs. On average, there is roughly 125-130 calories per ounce of food. Some foods such as butter and olive oil are high in calories per ounce. However, others such as vegetables are low in calories. If you strive for a balanced diet while backpacking then using the average number of calories per ounce makes sense.

  • First, take the total number of calories needed per day that you calculated earlier and divide by 125 (the average calories per ounce of food).
  • Next, divide the result by 16 (because there are 16 ounces in a pound).
  • Finally, this result will be the number of pounds of food you need to take per day to meet the caloric requirements of your hike.

How Can I Make Sure My Nutritional Requirements Are Met

Nutrition is an important part of a balanced diet. Calories keep the body’s metabolism working but nutrition keeps the body functioning properly. A nutritionist will tell you that you need a variety of foods and more than just calories to function effectively. As a kid in grammar school, the Geez learned that different foods are included on each rung of the food pyramid.

A well-rounded diet includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, essential vitamins and minerals. Therefore, be sure to include dairy, fruits, grains, vegetables, meats, and fats in your backpacking meal plans.

Because backpacking is a strenuous activity, nutrition isn’t the only concern. Your body sweats to maintain your core temperature without overheating. You excrete minerals and salts through the skin in this process. Therefore, a well-rounded meal plan should include a good electrolyte mix added to the water in your hydration reservoir or drinking bottle to replace minerals and salts lost through sweating.

RELATED ARTICLE: Winter Hiking: Reclaim Your Fitness

backpacking food

What Kinds Of Foods Should I Take

The older I get the less weight I am willing to carry in by backpack. Because there is very little I can do to decrease the base weight of my pack, I like to concentrate on those items I have control over. Hence, the best backpacking food to carry are foods that are lightweight, calorie-dense, and nutrient-rich to minimize pack weight.

Experience is the best teacher. Caloric food values only tell part of the story. In order to determine what foods are best for you, try fixing and eating different foods before your next trail adventure. Consider hiking, as well, to see how your body responds to your meal choices. If you get hungry quickly or feel less than energetic, then your backpacking food needs to be higher energy foods. For example, fruit & nut trail mix, peanut butter & crackers, beef jerky, protein bars, and sweet potato crisps provide backpackers with quick energy

When backpacking in hot or humid weather during the summer months you will need to pack additional nutritional snacks and meals. They should be lighter in weight than the more hearty food needed for autumn or early winter trekking adventures. The best backpacking food for cold weather usually weighs more and takes up more space. Therefore, the overall weight of your backpacking food varies depending on the time of year and seasonal weather.

What Is The Caloric And Nutritional Value Of Different Foods

Earlier I said that on average backpacking food has 125-130 calories per ounce. For example, the total of dairy items, meats, grains, vegetables, and fruits in your backpack should approximate this. But what if you want to customize your food choices to the best backpacking foods?

A number of calorie and nutrition calculators are available on the internet for you to use.  This is one of the best online resources for calories, lists hundreds of foods. Be sure to change the tab to “show per ounces” on the “Please choose your serving size” question. You can then calculate how many ounces of each food to pack to reach your desired calorie goals.

Most of us are not too concerned about nutrition on the trail. However, a well-balanced diet includes fats, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You can just make sure you include an assortment of nuts, grains, dairy, meats, fruits, and vegetables. Or, if you want to customize your backpacking food ideas and choices, you can use an online nutrition resource to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need in your backpacking food.

The Geez learned over the years how to dehydrate most backpacking food items. Properly dehydrated foods maintain their nutritional value. Dehydrating also saves weight and you can create great-tasting meals. You might want to check out the book I wrote, Forking Good, for “Heat-n-Eat” trail foods that go beyond freeze-dried.

Forking Good: Backpacker's Guide to the Art of Dehydration and Gourmet Meal Creation

In summary, before you plan your next backpacking adventure consider realistically what your trip entails. How many hours and miles will you hike each day?

  • What is the elevation gain?
  • What is the trail gradient?
  • What is the trail difficulty?

Only by knowing these will you be able to determine your calorie requirements and take enough of your best backpacking food to meet those requirements. Although many of us can stand to lose a little weight, you don’t want to run in excess of a 1,000 calorie per day deficit. Your hiking strength and ability to complete the backpacking adventure will suffer.

What are calorie-dense foods?

Calorie-dense foods are food items that have greater calories per ounce than most foods. An example would be olive oil which has 265 calories per fluid ounce. Compare that to carrots which have 8 calories per ounce. Calorie rich foods also include nuts and nut butters, quinoa, salmon, avocado, dates and many others.

What are nutrient-dense foods?

Nutrient-dense foods are those that contain more beneficial nutrients such as protein, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and the like. The following are some of the most nutritious foods available: almonds, chia and pumpkin seeds, lentils, oatmeal, swiss chard, beets, broccoli, garlic, eggs, cheese, salmon, sardines, blueberries, apples, and many others.

How Much Food Should I Take Day Hiking?

Backpacking and hiking are similar activities. The main difference is the excess weight carried in a backpack versus a day pack and the number of hours spent away from home. The best answer is to calculate the time spent on the trail, taking into consideration the elevation gain, trail gradient, and trail difficulty. Calculate the number of calories burned during the hike and take enough food to equal those calories.

backpacking food

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The Geez

Senior Hiker

I’m Dan Cousins the Geez behind Old Geezer Hiking.

Tag along with me as you explore how to hike safely and gain confidence on the trail. Learn the best places to hike and the latest backpacking and hiking equipment for older hikers. Discover how to dehydrate your food for nutritious tasty meals on the trail.

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