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Bear Canister Bias

Thru-Fishing the JMT

5 x 8 Poncho as Shelter and Raingear

Esbit Stove Height vs Efficiency

Stoveweight vs Time Over 14 Days

Stoveweight vs Time Over 28 Days

Repairing Gear on the Trail

Washing Down Gear

Common Choices for Alcohol Fueled Stoves

Flying With Fuels

Resupply Options for Long Distance Hikers

MSR Pocket Rocket Tests

Pack Light Eat Right

Debunking Cookware Myths

For a Few Calories More: the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trail Foods

Water Purification for Long Distance Hikers

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trail Foods

Eating right is an absolute necessity for a thru-hiker.  Planning and experience can help you maximize nutrition and calories while minimizing cost and weight.

Probably nothing you carry on a thru-hike represents your personality and style more than your food bag.  Here's an example of a typical day's food during my last thru-hike.  

Food Item calories carbs (g) protein (g) fat (g) Weight (oz) cost
1 cup granola 440 64 16 10 3.28  .66
2 oz peanuts 320 10 8 14 2 .45
4 flour tortillas 580 100 12 12 7.2 .46
4 Tbsp peanut butter 380 14 16 32 2.3 .28
1 Snickers 280 35 4 14 2.07 .59
1 box Mac-n-Cheese 780 141 33 7.5 7.25 .99
4 Tbsp Parkay 380 0 0 32 2 .25
1 oz TVP ? ? 52 ? 1 .21
TOTAL 3160 364 141 121.5 27.1 $4.14  

Let's Break It Down  

  • My diet for the day broke down to about 49% calories from carbohydrates (4 cal/g), 33% calories from fat (9 cal/g), and 18% calories from protein (4 cal/g).  This ratio is close to the diet recommended for long distance hikers by Dr. Brenda Braaten* (see sidebar).

  • 3260 calories was sufficient for me to neither gain nor lose weight during my hike.

  • $4.14 seems like a lot to spend on a day's food.  I generally spent about $20 for a five day resupply, though, so it agrees with my last hike's expenditures.

  • 27.1 ounces is about 1.7 pounds.  Again, this agrees with my approximate food bag weight of about 8  pounds (+/- 1 pound) for five days.

  • As you can see, I prefer quick and easy to prepare, calorie-laden foods.  None of the items on the sample food list are exotic or expensive.

Five Things You Should Know About Backpacking Food

1. The Nutrition Facts panel on every food item sold in the United States is an excellent source of objective information for the backpacker.  Compare and contrast your favorite food items to figure out what packs the most punch for its weight and cost.  Don't forget to consider the ratio of calories from carbohydrates to protein to fat:  shoot for about 50% calories from carbohydrates, 15% calories from protein, and 35% calories from fat.  Take a clipboard to the local supermarket and write down the nutritional information for all the foods you think might work during your hike.  If you're thinking about buy-along-the-way, go to a small market and then a convenience store and try the same thing.  It can be fun to try and fish a resupply out of a very limited selection.

2. It's really hard to get enough fat and protein in your diet.  Many of the foods sold today are the dreaded "low-fat" variety; I avoid these foods like the plague.  Parkay Squeeze Margarine is my main source of fat.  It does not contain the trans-fat that has been linked to arterial plaques and comes in a bottle convenient for trail use.  For protein, I eat Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) when I can get it to supplement the protein in my diet from other sources.   Some carry tuna fish, but I can't bring myself to carry anything that comes in a can. Were I to find a can in a hiker box, I'd be more apt to eat it right on the spot than to put it in my food bag.

3. Many of the pasta and rice dinners contain dried vegetables.   Often I can find dried tomatoes and other dried vegetables in the supermarket.  These really help add variety, and there are some vitamins and nutrients as well.   Unfortunately, though, dried fruits and vegetables have lost much of their nutrition due to oxidation.  Fresh vegetables are a much better source of vitamin and nutrients.  In addition, taking a multivitamin every day can help ensure that your diet isn't lacking in some essential vitamin or mineral.  Don't overdo it, though; shoot for 100% of the USRDA, not more or less. 

4. Think simple.  Every food I buy can be cooked by the boil and soak method.  Stay away from non-instant rice and uncooked beans at all costs; they're both incredibly fuel intensive and will take forever to cook.  At the end of the day, most thru-hikers are interested in eating quick to prepare, calorie laden foods.

5. Freeze Dried Meals are very expensive.  The manufacturers take advantage of people's inexperience when it comes to backpacking food.  You can buy two whole days worth of food for the cost of a single freeze dried dinner. 

Don't expect your nutritional needs to be the same as mine.  I weigh 125 lbs, have a fast metabolism, and carry a very light pack.  Your caloric needs are particular to you; do your own research and figure out what works for you.  The information in this article can help to point you in the right direction but should not be considered a blueprint for what to buy.  

 

Notes
This article discusses the food items I have carried on long-distance hikes. I tend to be very tolerant of food, preferring that it be light and calorie laden rather than interesting. Also, I usually buy my food at small stores in trail towns, so exotic items are not included.

I'm not a doctor; the thoughts presented on this article are personal opinions based on my hiking experience.
 
*Nutrition for Long Distance Hikers
The information in this article comes from years of experience on the trail and several thru-hikes, but I am not a doctor. However, Dr. Brenda Braaten, an avid long distance hiker and registered dietician with a PhD in Biochemical Nutrition, has written a great series of articles on nutrition for long distance hikers. Many thanks for allowing Thru-Hiker to link to your work, Dr. Braaten!
 
AYCE says
Have some fun with your food, too! I like to carry foot long submarine sandwiches for my first night out of town. Pulling a giant sandwich out of your pack is like a crazy magic trick. It can be a real morale booster to have one odd food item to spruce up a special meal out on the trail. Check out Asian groceries for some very interesting dried foods. You can even buy a dried octopus. Fun!

Be wary of food marketing tactics. A good example is the different pricing for different Kraft Mac-n-Cheese products. For example, "Spirals" are now 5.5 oz while the "Dinner" is 7.25 oz. Both are $.99, but the "Dinner" has 33% more calories. This is a prime example of why you should look carefully at the Nutrition Facts label of anything you buy.