Backpacking Meal Plans: Not all are created equal

Published by Sadie Hitsky, MS on

Have you ever found yourself pulling uneaten food from your pack after a backpacking trip? Or worse, found yourself racing down the mountain with nothing but food on your mind because you didn’t pack enough? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, you’re not alone.

The meal planning struggle is real!

Many people, even the most experienced hikers, struggle to pack the right amount of food for their hiking adventures. The good news is you don’t have to choose between having enough to eat and carrying a lighter pack. Striking a balance between the right amount of food without adding unnecessary weight can be achieved!

Beware of The Golden Rule!

Perhaps you’ve heard of or practice the two pounds (1 kg) of food per day recommendation. The problem with this approach is that the nutritional content of two pounds (1 kg) of food can vary drastically. If you don’t strategically plan what the two pounds of food will consist of, you risk falling short of meeting your nutritional needs. You will likely also pack an incorrect amount of food. This can have huge consequences on your hiking performance and overall enjoyment of the outdoors.

Three examples of 2 lb (1 kg) of food per day backpacking meal plans:

The meal plans in the photo above are examples used by three different hikers and each example weighs roughly two pounds (1 kg) each.

Backpacking foods are not created equal.

For example, let’s say you are planning which snacks you will take on your next hike and you are deciding between goldfish crackers and almonds.

  • ¼ lb (0.1 kg) goldfish crackers = 470 calories | 9 g protein | 2.5 g fiber
  • ¼ lb (0.1 kg) almonds = 600 calories | 21 g protein | 11 g fiber

By choosing the almonds, you will have a snack that weighs the same as the goldfish crackers but is much higher in important nutrients like protein, fiber, and total calories to keep you going on the trail. Essentially, the almonds give you more bang for your buck (weight)!

The photos below show how the nutrition content of meal plans varies.

5000 Calorie Backpacking Meal Plan:

The above meal plan includes a variety of ultralight homemade recipes offered by Backcountry Foodie. The meal plan provides 100% of the daily recommended amount of calories, protein, and fiber. Daily recommendations for vitamins and minerals are also met with the exception of selenium which is common for vegetarian diets. By consuming one brazil nut a day, selenium intake will be met. This meal plan was used by a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker, Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, during her thru-hike attempt of the Pacific Crest Trail.

5200 Calorie Backpacking Meal Plan:

The above meal plan is another example used by an ultralight backpacker. This meal plan, however, is deficient in all vitamins and minerals with the exception of iron and sodium. This is not concerning for short duration treks as the hiker will return to eating a normal diet before vitamin and deficiencies become concerning. A long-distance hiker, however, would risk malnutrition that could end a dream hike prematurely.

 

3500 Calorie Backpacking Meal Plan:

The above meal plan includes foods typically consumed by hikers and meets nearly 100% of daily recommended vitamins and minerals. Take notice, however, that this meal plan provides 3500 calories when compared to the two previous meal plans that provide 5000 and 5200 calories respectively. This is because the foods included fewer calories for the same weight. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, this meal plan is less desirable when trying to reduce your pack weight.

Beware of cookie-cutter backpacking meal plans.

Like every diet, what works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next. Nutrition needs for a person’s daily life should be individualized. The same can be said for nutrition needs on the trail. Your height, weight, gender, and fitness level all impact the number of calories and nutrients you need. Your preferences for certain foods will further differentiate your needs from other hikers.

Backpacking is a complex sport!

Understanding your nutrition needs on non-hiking days is challenging in and of itself. When estimating needs for an upcoming hike, certain factors can make determining needs even more difficult. Keeping the following factors in mind while meal planning is critical.

  • length of your hike
  • time spent on your feet
  • elevation gain
  • terrain type
  • weight of your pack
  • ambient temperature

When you consider these different variables, overall calorie needs can vary immensely from hike to hike. With planning and preparation (and some trial and error), determining your nutrition needs will become easier.

Practice makes perfect!

Have I turned everything you know on its head and left you feeling overwhelmed? Let me assure you that there is a solution to finding what will work for you on the trail. Learning what your diet should consist of requires practice and patience. Each time you hit the trail can be a new opportunity to build on previous experience and continue improving and learning about what works best for your body. Being your own experiment is the fun part of this process!

Step 1: Complete a 24-hour food diary

The first step to achieving adequate nutrition on the trail is to evaluate what you currently eat off of it. Tracking your intake on a typical non-hiking day using a 24-hour food diary will help gain an understanding of your daily calorie needs and what you typically eat. A 24-hour recall asks you to record everything you eat for one day. This will give you a starting point for calories, the number of meals and snacks, and types of food you want to incorporate on the trail.

Step 2: Start a backpacking food journal

A recollection of your food intake after a hike will provide valuable feedback. This means it is important to take some time after a long day on the trail and reflect on what you ate, how you felt and changes you might make next time. Doing so will help identify patterns of eating and help you evaluate if you are packing the right amount of food.

Also remember to keep in mind environmental factors such as climate, terrain, and elevation gain. These factors can impact your needs from hike to hike. For example, you might notice that you need fewer calories for a shorter, less strenuous hike compared to an all-day adventure with a large elevation gain. Be assured that the more you practice this, the better you will become at dialing in your nutrition on the trail.

Time well spent!

Food tracking might seem tedious but it provides great insight and opportunity to improve the nutritional content of your diet. Gathering this information is helpful in determining how close you are to meeting your needs. It also reveals where you may need to increase or decrease certain aspects of your diet. Collecting information about your food intake will provide a baseline moving forward. Then, you can make changes until you have achieved a meal plan that is enjoyable to eat while meeting your needs.

Disclaimer: This is general nutrition advice and you should talk with your physician before implementing any dietary or lifestyle changes.

Ultralight backpacking recipes & meal planning service 30-day trial

Backcountry Foodie offers a one-of-a-kind meal planning site that provides everything you need to prepare for your next backpacking adventure. The resources and recipes reduce your time spent meal planning by including pre-made templates like the 24-hour food diary and hiking food journal discussed above. Click here to learn more.

To learn how backpacking meal plans differ in greater detail, take a peek at this video.

If you’re new to our blog, here are a few more posts that you might find helpful:

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Sadie Hitsky, MS is a dietetic intern mentored by Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD. She has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University. Sadie is most interested in community focused nutrition and plans to be a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) soon after becoming a registered dietitian. She loves cooking, gardening, and all things outdoors – snowboarding, soccer, and most recently backpacking!

 

Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD is the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie™. Aaron is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with a passion for food. She spends much of her time experimenting with new ultralight recipes in her kitchen and later trail tests them to ensure that they meet backcountry adventurers’ needs.  You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and in the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.


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