Planning what food you take on a backpacking trip can be the hardest thing to decide, expecially if you’re walking many miles from civilisation. But it needn’t be a mindless pursuit of calorie to gram ratios, forcing down gruel and bottles of olive oil. Here’s how to plan your backpacking food.
How much food to bring backpacking depends on a huge range of different factors including: length of trip, daily mileage, difficulty of terrain, the amount of elevation gained, pack weight, body weight, your metabolism – the list is endless. The best way of looking at is in terms of calories, i.e. how many calories to consume.
The recommended daily allowance of calories for men and women is 2,500 and 2,000 respectively, but that’s before you take a day of backpacking into account. You could feasibly burn double that if you’re spending 8-10 hours carrying a full 65L rucksack over rough mountain terrain – possibly even more than double!
It might mean carrying more weight but it’s always sensible to carry more food than you think you’ll need – especially on longer trips. If you’re planning to embark on a multi-day trip, go for for an overnight trip first and count how many calories you need to stay full and energised over two days – this should give you a pretty good idea of how much to take. There are also various hiking calorie calculator tools available online.
Take food that is high in calories, lightweight, packs easily (won’t suffer from being squashed), and won’t go off if it gets warm – soft cheeses aren’t a great idea in the height of summer!
It’s always a good idea to take backpacking food with a high ‘calories to grams carried’ ratio and a low pack-size, but don’t forget about basic nutrition! You could spend a week eating massive blocks of chocolate and pastries but it wouldn’t be very good for you. Eating a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats is important too, ensuring you recover properly for the next day.
Dehydrated and freeze-dried meals provide lots of calories in a light and small package, can be relatively nutritious (particularly whole meals made with natural ingredients) and only require boiling water to rehydrate, saving on gas. These make fast evening meals or breakfasts when you’ve got the shelter of your tent to retreat into while you boil up some water.
Dedicated camping food pouches are the most convenient but can also be the most expensive, so you may find cheaper alternatives in the supermarket. Porridge oats make a filling breakfast and you can easily make your own evening meals by combining space-saving carbohydrates (like cous cous or instant rice and noodles) with some protein (meats, cheeses, dried beans, meat alternatives) and a bit of flavour (herbs, spices dried vegetables). Try to vary it though – this author can never go near the cous cous, chorizo and tomato puree combo ever again!
Flavour and texture are important too, as you can soon get fed up of eating the same foods. Make sure you take food you know you’ll enjoy and actually look forward to eating, and bring a balance of sweet and savoury food. Adding some fresh fruit or veg will make your meals a lot more interesting, as will freeze-dried ingredients, herbs and spices. A bit of oregano, tomato puree and some sundried tomatoes won’t stop you getting scurvy but they can make a big difference to your morale, if nothing else!
It’s better to take lots of easy to eat snacks with you for keeping on the move. One big lunch can make you feel lethargic and you’ll need to keep your energy topped up throughout the day. Try not to eat too many sugary foods full of basic carbohydrates. These will give you a quick rush but you’ll soon find your blood sugar dropping. The blood sugar rollercoaster is a bumpy ride… Besides all that processed sugar isn’t good for your gut bacteria – someone think of the gut bacteria! Here are some good lunch and snack ideas for during the day:
Taking calorie rich foods is one way to reduce the weight of your backpacking food, as is taking foods low in moisture. Repackaging your food also allows you to take only what you need and can make packing more efficient. You could start your trip with a big cafe breakfast or finish it at a pub to reduce the amount of food you have to bring.
There are other tips to save weight indirectly too. Simply reducing your cooked meals to one a day allows you to take half the amount of gas. And if you need to boil water for cooking, cooking near a water source means you don’t have to carry all that water with you all day.
You might find it helpful to plan out exactly what you’re going to eat each day, separated into breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. Some of us prefer to bung a load of food with the best calorie to gram ratio in a bag and make it up as we go. But planning each day’s meal, and working out how many calories that provides, gives you a better chance of both making sure you have enough to eat and avoid carrying unnecessary weight.
It also allows you to eat anything that might go off first and choose the highest energy meals for the hardest days of walking – perhaps saving a convenient dehydrated meal pouch for that day. With a few trips under your belt, you’ll soon have your food planning sorted.