It’s startling how many calories you can burn while having such a good time doing it! However, the big challenge facing many of us is how to deliver that many calories in a daily menu while keeping the pack light. The secret: Pack foods with a high Calorie Density. That is, foods that pack a high average number of calories per gram or per pound.
The Most Calorie-Dense Trail Foods
The two most important indicators of a food’s calorie density are the percent of grams in fats, and what I call the ‘nutritive content’, both of which are readily found on product labels. The ‘nutritive content’ can be determined quickly by adding the grams of carbohydrate, fat and protein on the label and dividing by the total grams in the serving. If that ratio is less than about 80 percent, you are carrying 20% of that food’s weight in water or non-energy-producing material such as fiber. (Fiber is an important component of your long-term nutrition but it is an inefficient component of your trail diet because it adds weight with no calories.) Then, look for foods with 35-40% or more of the total serving grams in fat. These two guidelines will allow you to evaluate your options quickly in the aisles of your favorite grocery store.
The best ‘punch’ is provided by flavored olive oil which can be brought in a squeeze bottle and added at camp to boost the calorie density and richness of any meal. Many high-density foods are also very compact and durable (nuts, chocolate). Others require practice to pack for easy dispensing and minimum mess without a heavy container (nut butters, nutella). Specialty spice stores now sell powders like cream-base powder, cheddar cheese, cream cheese and coconut cream that can be mixed with trail food to boost the calorie density, as can powdered whole milk. Surprisingly, most meal bars or so-called “Power” bars and many prepackaged dehydrated trail meals are only mediocre for calorie density. Check the labels before you buy!
Examples of high calorie-density trail foods:
- Flavored olive oil: 100% nutritive weight; 0% carbs, 100% fats, 0% protein; 9.0 calories/gram
- Macadamia nuts: 100% nutritive weight; 1% carbs, 98% fats, 1% protein; 7.3 calories/gram
- Almond butter: 97% nutritive weight, 23% carbs, 57% fats, 23% protein; 6.8 calories/gram
- Peanut M&Ms: 99% nutritive weight; 49% carbs, 37% fats, 14% protein; 5.8 calories/gram
- Fruit-nut trail mix: 96% nutritive weight; 48% carbs, 36% fats, 16% protein; 5.7 calories/gram
- Dehydrated black bean flakes: 88% nutritive weight; 74% carbs, 3% fats, 23% protein; 4.9 calories/gram
- Whole powdered milk: 87% nutritive weight; 42% carbs, 31% fats, 27% protein; 4.8 calories/gram
Conversely, some backpacking ‘staples’ will surprise you with their somewhat lower calorie density (jerky, oatmeal, brown rice, beans, mashed potatoes, breads). Some of these foods are in that category because of high fiber content, while others are there because of a high water content (such as vacuum-packed tuna or cooked chicken breast). The calorie density of foods in the latter group can be increased by dehydrating or purchasing dried versions for the trail.
Examples of lower calorie-density trail foods:
- Teriyaki beef jerky: 68% nutritive weight; 37% carbs, 5%fats, 58 protein; 2.9 calories/gram
- Instant mashed potatoes: 54% nutritive weight; 60% carbs, 20%fats, 13% protein; 2.8 calories/gram
- Instant maple-brown sugar oatmeal: 42% nutritive weight; 76% carbs, 16% fats, 8% protein; 2.7 calories/gram
Of course, a trail menu consisting only of olive oil and nuts makes for monotonous and non-nutritious fare. Meals you don’t want to eat and just carry back home with you are going to deliver the fewest calories of all! So your trail menus should include a balanced variety of foods that you look forward to eating, so you will usually carry some lower-calorie-density foods. I know that I do. I just balance them with as many grams of high calorie-density food per day as I can consistently consume. Paying attention to calorie density will help you work toward a tasty trail diet that has the lowest possible weight in your pack.
Here are some links to more information about the calorie density of many common trail foods, dehydrated trail meals and Power Bars.