A large number of backpackers create meticulous spreadsheets to track the gear they need for trips, and when asked what type of food they plan on bringing, eerily resemble a deer staring into headlights. The answer, by the way, is usually “Snickers & Mountain House”. Now, I’m not saying Snickers is a bad choice (in fact, it’s a trip staple for me!) but with a bit of pre-planning, spreadsheet-making, and bulk-buying, you can ensure you’re getting enough daily calories, spending money wisely, and not wasting pack weight on less-than-calorically-ideal food. Check out the info below to see how I handle backpacking meal planning.
Understanding Caloric Needs
Understanding how many calories I’m going to need to keep my body fueled for my desired task is the first step in the meal planning process. Unfortunately, there’s no tried and true number of calories you need per day, as a wide variety of factors are at play. Your body weight, pack weight, number of miles, hiking time, and elevation gain/loss are just a handful of things that require consideration.
Backpacker.com suggests the following simple formula for estimating calorie usage for a full day of backpacking: Bodyweight (lbs) * 25 – 30 calories/lb (Both) = range of calories per day. Using my 170lb self as an example, that gives me a range of 4,250 – 5,100 calories per day.
While I started with that range as a guideline, after trial and error I discovered that my sweet spot for a long day of semi-strenuous hiking with a light pack load was about 3,000 calories. If the hike is very strenuous, I increase that number to about 4,000 calories. Start with an estimation using the formula above, and then tweak accordingly each trip until you’ve dialed it in, as no formula can take into account the quirks of your metabolism.
Calories per Ounce
Now that you have an approximate idea of how many calories you need to keep your body fueled, the next step is deciding what types of food you should bring. The primary metric I measure here is calories / oz. Foods with a high calorie / oz ratio are going to give you a much more favorable energy output to pack weight ratio versus heavy, calorically low foods. So, what types of foods fit the bill here?
SectionHiker.com has a great list of calorically dense staples, which include
- Almonds (160 cal/oz)
- Peanut butter (165 cal/oz)
- Tortillas (87 cal/oz)
- Muesli (98 cal/oz)
- Nido (150 cal/oz)
- Granola bars (120 cal/oz)
- Nutella (150 cal/oz)
- Olive oil (240 cal/oz)
- Angel hair pasta (100 cal/oz)
- Peanut M&Ms (140 cal/oz)
After trial and error, I’ve found the following to be some of my most-consumed food on the trail:
- Instant beans (113 cal/oz)
- Instant rice (105 cal/oz)
- Block of cheddar cheese (120 cal/oz)
- Olive oil (240 cal/oz)
- Coucous (108 cal/oz)
- Ramen (just the noodles. 127 cal/oz)
- Peanut butter (165 cal/oz)
- Trail mix (151 cal/oz)
- Snickers (100 cal/oz)
- Chocolate covered raisins (135 cal/oz)
- Kind bars (142 cal/oz)
- Dried vegetables (91 cal/oz)
If I eat nothing but peanut butter all day (not advised), I would carry 18.2oz of peanut butter per day of hiking to achieve my 3,000 calorie goal (3000 calories / 165 cal/oz = 18.2oz). So how do you decide what food to bring?
What I find most helpful here is to set some guidelines on when you want to consume how many calories. I consume about 20% of my calories in the morning as breakfast, 60% of my calories spread throughout the day as quick snacks, and 20% of my calories at night for dinner. Applied to 3,000 calories that comes out to a 600 calorie breakfast, 1,800 calorie snack spread, and 600 calorie dinner. This allows me to then seek out high calorie, affordable ingredients, which leads us to…
Price per Serving and Buying in Bulk
The ingredients listed above were not chosen strictly for their high calorie / oz ratio, but also because they are affordable, mostly shelf-stable, and easily purchased in bulk. To calculate your price per serving, you need to know the following information:
- Price per item
- Weight per ingredient for your desired meal
- Servings per item
I’ll use one of my favorite recipes from Andrew Skurka as an example:
After shopping around Amazon and my local grocery stores, I discovered that this recipe costs me about $1.85 / serving, gets me just above my 600 calorie dinner goal, and is a phenomenal bargain compared to Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, and other freeze dried food manufacturers. And the best part is, with the exception of the cheese and the fritos, one large ingredient purchase yields between 29 – 48 servings. You can’t beat that.
To calculate your total cost per day of food, run the exercise above for all the food you plan on bringing. Or, just use this spreadsheet that I created. Simply input your ingredients, desired serving size per ingredient, calories per serving, the price of the ingredient, amount of servings you’ll get from what you purchase, and a link to purchase. Calories per oz, servings per container, and price per serving are all auto calculated. Totals are summed at the bottom.
Recipes must fulfill the following criteria before being used on a trip:
- Primarily use high calorie / oz ingredients
- Primarily use easily-purchased-in-bulk ingredients
- Must only use my TOAK titanium pot
- Easy to make. I can’t stress this one enough. The last thing I want to do after hiking 15 miles is cook a dinner that takes 45-minutes.
I’m a huge proponent of “less is more” when it comes to recipes. Find 5 – 7 recipes or snacks, test them out, and if you like them, those are your recipes. By running the same handful of recipes, you can buy in larger bulk, and keep the cost down even more.
With that being said, below are some of my favorite recipes. Note that the vast majority of these are from Andrew Skurka, who inspired me to really start considering the food I bring with me on trips.
- Peanut sauce & noodles
- Curry coucous
- Pesto noodles
- Polenta & peppers
- Beans & rice with fritos
Example – Daily Food
Using the spreadsheet above as a starting point, I create three separate tables (Breakfast, Snacks, Dinner) which sum to a daily total for weight, calories, price, etc. As an example, please view this link and select “Example – Daily Food” tab or use the image below as a sneak peek.
My total daily calories comes in just above 2,500 (this is low, but used as an example), weighs 19.5 oz, and costs a whopping $7.02 / day after I’ve made my bulk purchases. A bargain! That gives me 128.2 calories / oz, which I’m quite happy with.
With a little bit of research, work, and upfront spending, you can easily put together a backpacking meal plan that is high in nutrition and calories, and low in weight and cost. Meal planning has quickly become one of my favorite trip planning activities, as it’s a puzzle where the end result is a fueled body and lower pack weight, which allows longer days of doing what I love.