By Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD • Updated May 22, 2022
This post may contain affiliate links.
This article originally appeared on The Trek.
When buying ultralight gear, thru-hikers expect high performance for minimal weight. They should have the same performance expectations of food. Thru-hikers are known for losing a significant amount of weight due to inadequate calorie intake. This can lead to a trek ending prematurely. With a little planning and creativity, this can be avoided. This post and videos will provide guidance on ultralight meal planning.
How do you define ultralight backpacking food?
Thru-hiker calorie needs far exceed those of the weekend warrior. It’s difficult to even estimate calorie needs for such treks as most cannot put in the amount of trail time before leaving for their thru-hike. One, however, can estimate calorie intake on a day-to-day basis and for weekend trips. Keep in mind that it is possible that calorie intake for a thru-hike can double typical daily intake and reach upwards of 5000 calories per day. The thru-hiker gold standard for food weight is two pounds per day at typically 100 kcal/oz. When reviewing the calorie content of commercially prepared food, I quickly realized that meeting my 5000 calorie goal would be harder than expected.
5000 calories at the typical 100 kcal/oz = 3 lbs 2 oz daily.
5000 calories at an ultralight 155 kcal/oz = 2 lbs daily
This is a weight savings of nearly 8 lbs when carrying a week’s worth of food!
Quick tips for calculating calories with the 2 lb goal in mind
100 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 3200 kcal
125 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 4000 kcal
150 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 4800 kcal
175 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 5600 kcal
The numbers above are useful when reading food labels and determining if the chosen food meets the calorie goal set.
- Be sure to multiply the calories listed by the number of servings the package contains. Packaging can sometimes be misleading. Companies often state that the package contains up to 2 1/2 servings when in fact, it equates to one thru-hiker serving.
- Take this number and divide it by net weight to determine the calories per ounce (kcal/oz).
Many hikers repackage commercially prepared meals into Ziploc baggies as the packaging itself is oversized and quite heavy. Some foods will appear as if they are ultralight by the calorie per ounce ratio but require the purchase of two meals to equal the same calories of a lower-calorie per ounce meal. This doubles the amount of money spent and likely equates to the same weight as a single packaged meal. Those tricky manufacturers!
Now that you’ve chosen a calorie goal and shopping for ultralight foods, what does this look like in terms of weight?
Let’s say your estimated calorie goal is 3000 calories. If consuming ultralight food at 150 kcal/oz, your daily food weight will only be 1.25 pounds. Lucky you!!
If commercially prepared foods are so inadequate, what should I do?
This is when homemade trail food can be considered. Contrary to popular belief, homemade trail food can be made to be high calorie, lighter weight than commercially prepared food, significantly less expensive, and prepared in a minimal amount of time. Each of these will be discussed in detail in future posts. Preparing a 5000-calorie meal plan can be done within the two-pound weight goal. I will share with you how!
Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Curry: 640 calories (109 kcal/oz) for $9.
Homemade Wasabi Pad Thai: 1248 calories (155 kcal/oz) for $2.
Why such dedication to ultralight meal planning?
I have a history of being an endurance sports athlete, including open water swimming, triathlons, and ultra trail running. Consuming adequate nutrition to maintain weight and strength has always been challenging, as consuming 5000 calories daily is no easy task. My body is incredibly sensitive to inadequate calorie intake, so much so that it will certainly end my trek early. I begin to struggle physically, then feel a little grouchy (aka “hangry”), then emotional, including unexplained crying spells, followed by my body completely shutting down and unable to continue moving forward. The progression occurs within a short period of time. As a dietitian, it would be disappointing to be forced off the trail early because I didn’t meal plan well enough. Thus, this is the reason why I have such an interest in ultralight meal planning.
READY TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BACKPACKING NUTRITION AND MEAL PLANNING?
Backcountry Foodie is your go-to resource for over 200 ultralight backpacking recipes, an automated meal planning tool, sample ultralight backpacking meal plans, virtual masterclasses, YouTube videos, and podcast interviews.
Individualized nutrition coaching is also available if you’d just rather a dietitian do all the work for you. Schedule a FREE 15-minute consultation with Aaron (aka Backcountry Foodie), and she will be happy to discuss your meal planning needs with you.
DISCLOSURE: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means we may receive a modest commission if purchases are made through those links. This adds no cost to our readers and helps us keep our site up and running. Our reputation is our most important asset, so we only include links for products that we use ourselves.
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Here are additional posts that you might find helpful…
- Ultralight Backpacking Meal Planning for Thru-Hikers
- How to Create a Quick & Easy Backpacking Meal Plan
- Backpackers Are Athletes, Too!
- Backpacking Nutrition: Fueling Farther Using the Goldilocks Approach
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN CD, is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with over 20 years of nutrition and backpacking experience. She’s also the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie, an online ultralight recipes and meal planning platform for backpackers. She also enjoys teaching hikers about backpacking nutrition via virtual masterclasses, YouTube videos, and podcast episodes. You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.