What to eat on an extended backpacking trip

| Comments (5) | Food JMT
Probably the first question you get asked about a long backpacking trip is "what do you eat?" This is definitely a central concern, since you obviously need to eat and food often makes up between 1/4 and 1/2 of the mass you're carrying. First, some constraints:
  • The nominal human caloric requirement is something like 2000 Cal/day, but more if you're exercising. Different people require radically different amounts of food depending on their metabolism, how fast they're going, how much weight they're carrying, etc. Backpackers probably aim for more like 3000 Cal/day, but you need to learn how much you personally need.
  • You want your food to be as light as possible. Carbohydrates and protein provide 4 Cal/gram and fat provides 9 Cal/gram. Water in the food costs as does fiber and other non-energetic components.
  • You probably need around 1g protein per gram of body mass per day.
  • In areas where there are bears (the Sierras definitely have bears) you need to store all your food so bears can't get at it. In some areas you can hang your food from trees, but it's better to use a bear canister, which is basically a big plastic bin. I use the Bearvault, shown below. For JMT, bear canisters are basically required. This creates a new constraint: food must also be compact in order to fit into the canister. Note that the canister itself weighs on the order of 2.5 lbs, so that's a substantial cost in and of itself. On the other hand, it's not like you're not going to bring food at all!

Within those constraints, you can more or less do whatever you want and there is a lot of variation. Lots of people use the traditional freeze-dried backpacker meals, especially for dinner. From one another hiker, I heard the legend of a Pacific Crest Trail (Mexico to Canada) thru-hiker who eats couscous and textured vegetable protein cooked in a plastic bag on the top of his pack by the heat of the sun during the day.

Another important factor here is palatability. You could of course load up your pack with dog chow (approximately 4 Cal/g) and eat that for every meal, but you'd probably get tired of that pretty quickly. There are plenty of trail stories of people who just packed the equivalent of dog chow (e.g., trail mix) and then tired of it 3-4 days out and were reduced to begging passersby for something different. Confounding the palatability issue, a lot of people lose appetite after long days of effort as well as at high altitude, and what you want to eat in those circumstances may vary. A lot of people also report losing their appetite initially and then regaining it with force after 4-5 days, which complicates resupply (more on this in a bit). Finally, you have to decide if you want to cook. Most people do, but the stove does weigh something, and then you need a pot to boil water in, plus the fuel, and so you're talking somewhere on the order of 250-600g, which isn't insignificant. My experience on recent trips in the sierras has been that I wasn't hungry for freeze-dried dinners after a long day and I don't much care if things are hot, so I just decided to take cold food this time.

As a practical matter, you can't take enough food for 11 days, so nearly everyone does one or more food resupply drops. I did mine at the Muir Trail Ranch.

My initial plan was as follows:

Meal Food Quantity  Calories
Breakfast  Granola 60g 294
Lunch Triscuits 56g 265
Almonds 56g 376
Snacks Granola 60g 294
Clif bars 3 783
Dinner Triscuits 74g 395
Peanut Butter  64g 400
Jerky 56g 146
Chocolate chips/m&ms  30g 152
Fun size snickers 2 ??

I packed all this stuff (except the clif bars and the peanut butter) into individual ziploc bags inside one quart-sized ziploc bag per day. The idea here is that you just pull out today's bag and you're good for the rest of the day. I also brought an extra day's food bag for backup.

This plan disintegrated really fast. Let's start with the triscuits. My general thought was that they were flavorful, salty, and crunchy, etc. so this would work out, but unfortunately while this is fine at home in front of the tube, on the trail, it's more like you're eating sand and you just have to shove it down. I only managed to choke down the full dinner portion of triscuits once or twice. Now for the jerky: I generally like TJ's beef jerky (teriyaki flavor) but I decided to mix it up a little bit and buy different flavors and somehow whenever I pulled out a dinner bag I got some disgusting flavor. The only ones that I concluded I could tolerate were the teriyaki and some spicy/peppery flavor. Also, jerky requires a huge amount of chewing, and this isn't really consistent with the objective of just getting calories in, especially when you're not really hungry in the first place.

Finally, there's the peanut butter; from a palatibility perspective it was fine, but from a dispensing perspective, a disaster. I packed it in these squeeze tubes, but they're pretty useless. I put chunky peanut butter in one and then when I went to squeeze it out, I got a small bit out and then it just clogged. When I squeezed harder, the plastic clip popped off the end and getting back on didn't really work out—I think it was broken somehow. The clip on the other tube actually broke before I left, so basically a bust. At the resupply point, I threw away the tubes and just packed the peanut butter into a ziploc bag, but this didn't really work any better, since you can't get it out with a spoon without making a huge mess. [And remember you don't want to get covered with PB since then bears think you smell like food.] Like I said, a bust.

So, the bottom line here is that I brought way too much food and had to do a bunch of re-sorting out at the resupply point. What I eventually settled on was something more like this:

Meal Food Quantity  Calories
Breakfast  Clif bar 1 240
Almonds 56g 376
Snacks Granola 60g 294
Clif bars 2 783
Dinner Triscuits 56g 265
Peanut Butter  64g 400
Jerky 56g 146
Chocolate chips/m&ms  30g 152
Fun size snickers 2 ??

Note that we've lost about 650 Cal here, so that's a pretty significant change, and even then I was really having to shove food down and often only ate like half my jerky or something. I wasn't wearing a power meter or anything, but at this point it's clear I was at a significant caloric deficit; at the end of the trip I had lost about 10 lbs even though I had a fair amount of food left in my pack and wasn't really ever feeling hungry.

Three other points that deserve making:

  • I deliberately deemphasized (yes, 3/day is deemphasized) energy bars even though I eat a lot of them during training. The theory here was that for the long term I should actually eat, you know, food. This was a mistake. I had energy bars left at the end but they were the thing I liked the best—probably because they're sweet—and I would have been better subbing them for some of the more food-type food.
  • I brought about 6-8 energy gels on the theory that I might need the occasional fast burst of energy to get over some pass (and this helped with Forester Pass and Mount Whitney), but I only ate a total of 2 gels. This isn't a big deal, but they're the only food I brought that contains a lot of water, so there is a weight penalty here.
  • One of the better moves I made was to bring a few packets of Propel powder. At altitude and in the heat you need to consume a lot of water, but it also gets boring because it's tasteless [this is part of why Gatorade was invented]. Propel is just flavoring, so it's super-light, and mixing up a bottle of flavored water occasionally can make it much easier to rehydrate.

All in all, though, my food seems to have worked out pretty well. Given that I didn't want to eat at all, it was always going to be an exercise in forced caloric input, and since I managed to get enough calories in without vomiting I guess you could call it success.


"You probably need around 1g protein per gram of body mass per day."
Really? You eat your body mass in protein every day? No wonder you had trouble choking it down :)

About 25 years ago, my brother did the PCT (Calif one year, OrWash the second), and I was responsible for mailing or delivering some of his food drops. He carried what was for a wuss like me an insanely heavy pack when he had to go 10 days between drops. I remember one physical drop where I could literally not stand up wearing his pack, and he just hefted it up, wobbled only a tiny bit, and headed off for another 15 mile day.

He said that food and food trading on the trail were pretty big thought items.

At what point does it make sense to just take some part of your food intravenously? Is that too high of a water content? I guess I wonder how you would do this differently next time...

I think never. Any time you poke holes in your body, you need to worry about infection and one of the things about nature is it's really dirty.

In terms of how I would do it differently next time: more emphasis on energy foods (bars, gels, etc.) and less attempt to eat "real food".

I tend to hike in the mountains in northern scandinavia, and there the constraints are a bit different. Most importantly buying food along the way is pretty hard in many areas, unless you want your food delivered by airdrop. It can also get cold, wet and rainy quickly.

Not to mention that you frequently have to cross rivers with freezing water. Only cold food is not really an option. You need to be able to produce something warm to eat and drink.

I have (so far) never carried food for more than 12 days, and that's heavy enough. Typical food rationing looks like this:

Dark/hard bread

1 bag of freeze dried food (Typically from Real turmat).

Mixture of peanuts, Russians and chocolate. (roughly 100g/day)

This way I end up with about 500g/day for food and fuel, or 6kg for 12 days. However, As I typically only eat 1.5 bags of freeze dried food a day it leaves me with 4 days of margin on a 12 day trip should I get stuck somewhere along the trail.

It's always nice to hear about people going through the effort of calculating exactly how much food they need, but I prefer going with the freeze dried and keeping a margin up here ;)

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