Camping Gear

Ask Me: How Do You Plan Food for Backpacking?

Posted On July 14, 2016 at 10:06 am by / Comments Off on Ask Me: How Do You Plan Food for Backpacking?

Hey Michael,

I was wondering if you have any hints or tips for planning out your food for bigger backcountry trips. Food planning is always something I have neglected and I think I could save myself some pack weight and have better meals with a little extra planning and direction (in true Bill Bryson style, I usually stick to noodles when in the bush).

Thanks as always, Michael. I hope you are your family are finding some fun adventures!

Best,
Grant
St. Louis, MO

Hi Grant,

First of all, I’m not someone who feels a great desire to eat “gourmet” style out there. I want my food to taste good, for sure, and the food I eat is satisfying. If you’re not hiking far, it’s easier to carry a little more and spend time preparing special meals. I tend to hike far, sometimes very long days, so I don’t want to spend much time in food preparation in the backcountry. That said, I do spend a bit of time planning my food for a trip, but that’s mostly so that I’m packing smartly: enough food but not too much.

My priorities are:

1. Replace calories, as much as possible, understanding that you can’t always replace all the calories burned when you’re hiking all day. But on a typical backpacking trip of a week or less, you’re not likely to run into a big energy deficit.
2. Keep it simple, not time consuming.
3. Minimize pack weight, recognizing that food weight is a significant portion of my total pack weight and that food weight drops every day. That factors into my planning, in that I want to eat my heaviest food and meals early in a trip and save my lightest for later in a trip because I’m carrying those meals farther.

I always plan specifically what I’ll eat every day and weigh my food; otherwise, I’m guaranteed to carry much more than I’ll eat. I know it’s heresy among many backpackers to caution against carrying too much food, and it’s fine to carry a little extra.

But in 25+ years of backpacking, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve run out of food before the end of a trip, and it has never been a disaster. Far more times, I’ve carried at least a couple pounds of food throughout a trip without ever touching it, and a couple of pounds of superfluous weight is significant. In reality, on most backpacking trips, you’re rarely out longer than expected, and if you run low on food, you’re probably only going a little hungry for the last day because you can usually get to a road within a day.

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Camp below Phelps Basin, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

Jeff and Jasmine Wilhelm, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

I plan two pounds (or slightly less) of food per day when backpacking, even when I’m hiking 20 miles or more per day. For most trips of five days or less, I probably don’t need two pounds per day; and on longer trips, when my appetite increases, I will plan two pounds or slightly more per day. If I were planning a long thru-hike, where my appetite may increase significantly after the first couple of weeks, I would plan a bit over two pounds per day. But even on a long trail, you’re typically hitting a town every week or so, where you can really pack away some big meals and erase much of the caloric deficit you’ve built up on the trail.

To keep it simple and give myself a high ratio of calories per ounce of food, I consistently eat:

1. A substantial breakfast of instant oatmeal (three packets because oatmeal has a high ratio of calories per ounce), dried fruit like raisins and mangoes, a bagel or similar, and tea.
2. Lunch on cheese, pepperoni, sardines, or peanut butter on a bagel or similar.
3. Snack during the day on GORP, energy bars, dried fruit, cheese and pepperoni on crackers (I often pack crackers in a small, plastic, sealable container to avoid crushing them), candy bars, nuts, chocolate-covered almonds, etc..
4. And eat a hot dinner that’s simple but filling and gives me what my body usually craves, which is salt, fat, and fluids. I don’t really like dehydrated meals made for backpackers, and they’re kind of bulky and heavy for the amount of calories they deliver. I’ll cook pasta (types of pasta, like thin spaghetti, that cook fast to use the least fuel), rice, or couscous, and add protein (chicken or fish that’s vacuum-packed or smoked salmon). Or I’ll have a dinner that’s soup-based and includes substantial appetizers like cheese, pepperoni, and crackers. I also like having hot cocoa and chocolate or a big cookie for dessert, for the added calories and to rehydrate.

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My daughter, Alex, tending the stove at Hell Roaring Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

My daughter, Alex, tending the stove at Hell Roaring Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

I sometimes backpack without a stove to save weight and walk farther, eating only dried fruit, nuts, cheese, peanut butter on bagels/pita, and the like. And it’s never disappointing, as long as you have enough and really incorporate variety into your meals over the course of each day, mixing it up between sweet and salty.

 

In a related post, I answered a reader’s questions about planning food for backpacking with kids. You might also be interested in my tips in “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun,” and all of my skills articles.

I hope that’s helpful. Thanks for writing.

Michael

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