Chimney Rock Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Ask Me: How Do You Plan Food for Backpacking?

In Ask Me, Backpacking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , , , , ,   |   4 Comments

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.

 

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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 nearly three decades 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 per day, probably with a little buffer of extra food. 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 balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
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. A hot dinner that’s simple but filling and gives me what my body usually craves, which is salt, fat, and fluids. While dehydrated meals made for backpackers have improved in flavor in recent years, and they’re easy, they’re also 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 smoked salmon, cheese, 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 occasionally backpack without a stove to save weight when I’m walking 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.

 

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You might be interested in my tips in “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun,” and all of my skills articles.

I hope that’s helpful. Thanks for writing.

Michael

 

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4 Responses to Ask Me: How Do You Plan Food for Backpacking?

  1. Justin   |  October 31, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Do you precook the chicken or meat before it is vacuum packed?

  2. Jeff Ross   |  October 30, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Grant,
    Michael had some great points, and I follow a lot of the same principles.
    I keep it simple and agree, you may not replace all the calories you burn, but for a week or so, but with some planning you will not go hungry,
    I use a couple books to help me prepare for my trips, the last was a 6 day trip into the Grand Canyon, down to Thunder River, Tapeats Creek, and Deer Creek.
    here is a link to that blog;
    http://www.allflagstaffhomes.com/Hiking_to_Thunder_River_in_the_Grand_Canyon/?Id=29994

    Most of my cooking is boiling water and adding to a already prepared dehydrated meal I did at home.
    The two books I use as guides which have proven to be invaluable are Freezer Bag Cooking and Recipes for Adventure, and with time you will adjust to your own tastes.
    I am a little lighter than Michael and try to stay at 1lb of food per day, though for this last 6 days trip I was close to 7 lbs for the 6 days.
    If we did not have to carry so much water, I may not plan so hard on controlling weight for the meals, but most of our trips into the Grand Canyon, we are carrying at least a gal or more of water, and at 8+ lbs per gallon, that adds up fast.
    We watch closely the Rule of 3 I read someplace,
    To survive, you may last…..
    3 minutes without air
    3 hours without shelter
    3 days without water
    3 weeks without food.
    so if you use this principle, as Michael said, you will be fine without all the food you think you need, but water is a different story.

    I feel it is important to balance weight to calories to stay as light as possible,there are things I just will not take. One is gorp, which when you look at 1 cup of standard gorp, this can be 450-500 calories. Not sure you need that many calories for a snack, so I stick with assort bars and try to have 200 or so calories per bar, two a day one each for the mid morning and afternoon stack. I control the needed calories and the weight per calorie.
    I never miss breakfast, lunch or dinner and see to be fine.
    I can say, if you hike with a group, if you have that craving, someone always over packs and is carrying way to much food, gorp being almost always one of those things, so bum some off of them and let them carry the extra weight:)

    As with Michael, have never been to hungry and sometimes have a meal left over for what ever reason.

    Hope this helps,
    have a blog coming out on my site on preparing for food and water on a extended trip, hope to have out in a couple weeks. not sure what area you are hiking in, but hiking in the Grand Canyon means making a few adjustments to what you fix for meals, and prepare for water so some of the suggestions may not fit as well.
    Enjoy
    Jeff

    .

    • TJ   |  July 15, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Jeff or Michael:

      Quick question on backpacking and food storage in the Grand Canyon. I am tentatively planning our families first backpacking trip next April down to Bright Angel Campground next April. How do you keep your food secure in the evenings? I know of hanging bear bags in trees when here on the east coast but in the grand canyon there are no large trees to really do this. I know there are also no bears but I assume plenty of “critters” that I assume would love the ease of getting onto a backpack with gorp, bars, cheese etc. How is this generally handled in the grand canyon?

      • mbirgen   |  July 14, 2018 at 3:56 pm

        I know that the question is from 2016, but you never know who is reading the comments for more information. If you are on the main train for the Grand Canyon and camping in the required campgrounds, there are animal-proof boxes for all your food. Take all your food out of the backpacks immediately upon getting to camp. The rodents are very aggressive. Make sure you check the younger people’s packs because they will often forget to remove their snacks.

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Grand Canyon Hiker