Ultralight Backpacking Meal Planning Tips for Thru Hikers

Ultralight Backpacking Meal Planning Tips for Thru Hikers


For those that have followed previous posts, you are aware that I set a goal of preparing ultralight backpacking meal plans at 5000 calories per two pounds of food for my upcoming PCT thru hike. I’m excited to share that I pulled it off!

After experimenting with more than one hundred ultralight recipes over the last year, forty-two of these will be going along with me on my trek. See my previous post for examples of ultralight recipes that made the final cut. Forty-one different bars, snacks and treats are also included in the ultralight backpacking meal plans developed. A list of these and their nutrition content can be found in the files section of the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group. It is my hope that the variety will prevent boredom and I’ll enjoy the food included in the resupply boxes over the course of the trek.

Homemade ultralight backpacking recipe breakdown:

  • 12 Breakfast recipes
  • 19 Lunch and dinner recipes
  • 2 Snack recipes
  • 5 Dessert recipes
  • 4 Beverage recipes

Many of the recipes used can be found in our Ultralight Recipes for Outdoor Explorers cookbook.

Backcountry Foodie Ultralight Recipes for Outdoor Explorers Digital Cookbook


Purchased ultralight energy bar, snack and treat options:

Ultralight backpacking meal plans:

  • 10 completely different 5000 calorie meal plans that will be chosen from based on food cravings, water availability and fuel required
  • 4 menus to be used specifically in the Sierra Nevada when space is at a premium in my bear can
  • A total of 345 pounds equating to 795,389 calories of homemade and purchased foods will be consumed over the course of the trek

Average nutrition content of each ultralight backpacking meal plan:

  • Carbohydrate: 480 g (39% total calories)
  • Fiber: 50 g (exceeding daily recommended goal for adults)
  • Protein: 114 g or 1.7 g/kg (9% total calories, meeting the goal recommended for athletes)
  • Fat: 256 g (46% total calories)

For those familiar with daily recommended nutrition goals, you’ll notice that carbohydrate and fat content of menus are flip flopped. This is due to the high fat foods used in the development of ultralight recipes. Many have asked how I created such recipes. To be honest, I cannot take credit for the original recipes used as they were obtained from a variety of trail cookbooks, online forums and online cooking web pages. The recipes were used as a base and adjusted accordingly to meet my ultralight backpacking goals.

Recipe adjustments to meet ultralight backpacking meal planning goals:

  • Replace non-fat milk with whole milk (NIDO) and coconut milk powders
  • Replace rice with protein-rich chickpea pasta and quinoa
  • Add whole nuts, nut butters and nut powders to increase caloric density
  • Choose lower weight dehydrated fruits such as strawberries versus apricots
  • Include olive, coconut and sesame oils in recipes as much as possible (oil to be added on trail)
  • Use a variety of beans as an additional protein source (I’m vegetarian)

Key points to keep in mind when preparing backpacking meals for thru hikes:

  • Use newly opened product whenever possible as the best by date will be longer than that of a product that was opened several months ago
  • Document best buy dates either in a notebook or on the food bag to ensure that the meal is consumed prior to the expiration date
  • Always sanitize counter tops with either a disinfectant spray/wipe or bleach water
  • Wash your hands frequently and wear gloves to ensure that bacteria exposure is limited as much as possible
  • Ensure that meals are completely dry when packaged to prevent mold. Desiccant packets are not necessary if the meal is completely dry.
  • Fully vacuum seal bags to prevent exposure to oxygen
  • Ziploc bags are not air tight. Therefore, oxygen absorbers are not useful
  • Become familiar with the shelf life of various foods as shelf life of meat is significantly shorter than fruit and vegetables
  • Avoid using ground nuts as they will go rancid much quicker than whole nuts
  • Recipes including oil will potentially go rancid if consumed several months after preparation
  • Freeze meals, if space allows, until just prior to consumption. If freezer space is not available, store meals in a cool, dark, dry location such as a Rubbermaid tote in a garage.

Additional food safety and dehydration resources can be found in the files section of the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook page.  The Dehydrating Divas and Dudes Facebook group is also an excellent resource.

Meal preparation and menu planning recommendations for future thru hiker classes:

  • Experiment and fine tune recipes now as you would with gear. This will greatly reduce stress associated with meal planning prior to your trek.
  • As soon as you find recipes that you enjoy, prepare several additional servings and store for various time periods. Check for shelf stability at one, three and six months after preparation. By doing this you will feel confident in the recipes chosen.
  • Begin dehydrating fruit and vegetables months in advance. If properly dehydrated and stored, they will be shelf stable for your trip. This will also reduce stress prior to your trip when time spent preparing is at a premium.
  • Refrain from buying bars, chews and snacks on sale months in advance. Oftentimes the products will expire prior to the completion of your trek.
  • Begin tracking calorie intake during backpacking trips NOW so as to better estimate calorie a goal for your thru hike. This doesn’t have to be complex. A simple notebook with estimated intake will suffice.

So, there you have it. Ultralight backpacking meal plans can be accomplished with a little forethought and organization. It is my hope that the information shared will help others improve nutrition intake while thru hiking, reduce likelihood of excessive weight loss, retain strength and potentially increase the likelihood of completing the trek.

Until next time…

Check out my Instagram and/or Facebook feeds for daily interactions with other hikertash foodies as I thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail (update: soon to be Appalachian Trail starting 5/23/17).

Also consider joining the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group as this is where you will find experienced foodies and thru hikers representing all of the long trails throughout the United States. Your questions will not go unanswered.

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Struggling with meal planning for your upcoming thru hike or backpacking trip? This post provides 22 tips for how to create ultralight backpacking meal plans including how to adjust recipes to meet high calorie needs, safely preparing meals for the long distance hikes and preparing for your trek in advance. For more post likes this one, visit our blog at www.backcountryfoodie.com/blog. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingmealplantips #thruhiking

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Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, LD is the founder of Ultralight Meal Planning for Outdoor Explorers 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. Aaron also offers a nutrition consulting service where she helps outdoor adventurers meal plan for their next big trip. She counts calories so you don’t have to! You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and in the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.

Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, LD is the founder of Ultralight Meal Planning for Outdoor Explorers 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.