Menu Planning for Lightweight Backpacking without the “Bonk”

This article is a slightly modified version of one published in the May/June 2013 Washington Trails Association Magazine.

Planning a tasty, sustaining diet for a backpack trip is a daunting task for many new backpackers (and some long-timers  too!)  How much do I need? What kinds of foods should I pack?  For a short trip you can live on power bars and ramen and a calorie deficit, and come out pleased with a little weight loss.   But on trips over 3-4 days, if you don’t have enough food or can’t bear to eat what you brought, the resulting lack of ‘fuel’  can mean a steady deterioration in your energy and a high likelihood of a serious “bonk”, potentially spoiling a life-list trip.  However, at the same time packing too much of the wrong kinds of food can have a big impact on your pack weight.

The secrets from two decades of trial and error?  (with plenty of error!)

  1.  Know your calorie needs for the trip you’re planning
  2. Map out a daily trail menu of foods you like to eat, that also have a high calorie density
  3. Weigh out your meals as you pack – don’t just ‘throw things in’
  4. Test and  refine

1.       Know Your Calorie Needs to Fuel the Trip You’re Planning!

You wouldn’t set off on a long drive across the desert without planning for how to fuel up along the way.  Likewise, backpackers need to map out their fuel needs for the trip they’re planning, in the form of calories from food, if they want a successful trip.

Most new backpackers are amazed at the calories they use backpacking compared to their ‘regular life’, especially while having such a good time doing it!  Based on research on metabolic rates for different activities, an average sized person with a 30-40 pound pack on a moderately strenuous trip will burn between 3000 and 4500 calories per day.  Certain conditions (more rugged terrain, high elevations, cold temperatures) can demand even more energy.   But individuals vary greatly in the calories they need to stay energized on their backpack trips.  So task #1 in backpack menu planning is to understand your own calorie needs.  Start in the target range, at the lower end if you’re smaller, carrying a lighter pack or planning an easier itinerary;  at the higher end if your weight with pack is greater or your trip plan is more demanding.   Calculate the calories you’ve packed, and how much you bring back uneaten.  Over time you will gain a good idea of your own body’s calorie demands for particular types of trips.  No brainer?  Probably.  But often neglected.

2.       Map out a tasty trail menu with a high “calorie density”

The big challenge facing backpackers is how to deliver our daily energy needs in a daily menu we look forward to eating while keeping our packs light.  Foods vary widely in their “calorie density” – that is, the calories (the basic unit of food energy) delivered by a food item per unit of weight.   For example, a fresh crisp apple carries around 240 calories per pound, while a bag of macadamia nuts carries almost 3300 calories per pound.   Since we have a certain calorie requirement to fuel each trip we’re planning, and the pounds in our packs will greatly impact our enjoyment of the trip, it’s critical for your trail menu to pack the highest possible calories per pound.

So how do you do this?  It’s a matter of checking out the calorie density of your favorite trail foods and putting them together into a total daily menu that has the highest possible overall calories per pound.

Start by making a list of all the items that you would consider packing for a day’s menu:  breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner.  Then work out the approximate ”calorie density’ of each food item – the calories per gram – by looking up the calories and serving size  for each food item from package labels or helpful websites like www.caloriecount.about.com.   The total calories per serving divided by the total weight of the serving gives you the calorie density for that item.  If an item has a calorie density of less than 3 calories per gram (~1800 calories per pound), see if you can substitute for something else you like with a higher calorie density, or increase the amount of other items in the daily menu that have a calorie density of  4.5 or higher (>2000 calories per pound).    Keep your work in a simple spreadsheet to refer to later.

There are some simple ways to identify high calorie-density foods, primary among them being a higher percentage of fat and a low water content.

Fat Content:   Fats are particularly important in a lightweight, high calorie diet because they pack 9 calories per gram, whereas carbs and protein provide only 4.  Fiber delivers zero calories per gram!  So aim for at least 30% of your food weight to be in fats.  (This is one situation in which you don’t have to worry about the health risks of a high-fat diet – you will burn it all off!)  Luckily some very tasty foods like nuts, nut butter, cheese and flavored olive oils have a high percentage of fat.

Water Content:    Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, and contributes nothing to the energy content of your food.  So, while you want to carry enough water to stay hydrated on your trip, you DON’T want to carry it hidden in your food.  There’s an easy solution to minimize water content:  instead of fresh fruits, veggies and meats, look for freeze-dried or dehydrated versions that can be eaten as-is or rehydrated at camp.  These components can be dehydrated at home or purchased from many sources.

Some Calorie Dense Trail Foods:

  • Flavored olive oil (bring in a small squeeze bottle and add to your meals at camp)
  • Nuts – particularly macadamias, brazils, walnuts, almonds
  • Nut butters – almond butter, peanut butter
  • Chocolate, chocolate-covered nuts
  • Shelf-stable full-fat cheeses or “hard” (aged) cheeses
  • Sesame sticks, full-fat cheese crackers
  • Shelf-stable bacon, salami
  • Whole milk powder

Some Lower Calorie-Density Trail Foods:

  • Instant dried beans, brown rice (high fiber, low fat)
  • Dried fruits:       dates, raisins, blueberries (unless flash-fried, like banana chips)
  • Dried vegies (unless flash-fried)
  • Breads, such as bagels, English muffins, tortillas
  • Many “high protein” or “high fiber” meal and snack bars
  • Jerky
  • Vacuum-pack salmon, tuna, chicken breast pouches (high      water content, low fat)

Of course, we cannot live on fat alone (as yummy as that might sound!).   You’ll want a balanced trail menu, with carbs for quicker energy, fat for sustained energy, and protein to maintain muscle….and most of all, you want a mix of foods that you look forward to eating!  Every viable trail-food menu will include some low and some high calorie density items.  Experiment with trading some of your lower-density for higher-density foods, and look for dehydrated or freeze dried alternatives where available, to get the average calorie density of your entire daily menu up as high as you can.

3.      Weigh out your meals as you pack, and use a checklist!

Many a great plan to reduce pack weight has been thwarted by poor execution:  you get to the night before your trip, and in a big rush you just throw things into a stuff sack, putting in some extras “just in case”.  Whether it’s trail food or trail gear, the best way to manage your pack weight down, while assuring you’ll have what you need, is to make a checklist and weigh everything as it goes in.

So once you’ve narrowed down and selected the foods you want to include in your trail menu, build your checklist by making a simple spreadsheet and creating a line for each food item along with the following:

  • A realistic daily serving size for each food item in your daily trail menu (in whatever measure you find easiest – some may be cups, some teaspoons, some ounces or grams)
  • The calorie density (calories per gram) that you got from the label or internet
  • The number of servings of each food item you’ll need for the days you’ll be out

I find that the best way to determine a realistic serving of a given food is to transfer a certain amount of that food into a zip-loc bag (perhaps starting with the serving size from the label), set it out on your kitchen counter, and scrutinize it against what you think you might reasonably consume in a meal.  If your meal will include multiple items, put the servings of each of the foods in the meal out at the same time.  Some people eat as much as 1.5-2 times the quantity of food on a vigorous backpack as they would at home, but your eye is the best guide.

Add more if it looks insufficient, or take some out if it looks like too much.    Measure out and record the volume (cups, teaspoons, ½ package, whatever) and weight in a serving using an inexpensive food scale – grams work well for this purpose.

Here’s an example of a simple menu spreadsheet where you can build your daily menu, check and balance the calorie densities, record your reasonably daily serving size, and then use it as a checklist to pack for a particular trip.

BACKPACK TRIP FOOD CHECKLIST EXAMPLE – 3 day/2 night   trip
Food & daily svg size Serving (gms) Calories per gram Calories # Servings to   pack – total trip Grams to pack –   total trip Check
Tang OJ powder (2T) 24 3.7 88 2 48
Via instant   coffee packet 1 0.0 0 2 2
Cocoa   mix+Coffee creamer (4 tsp) 37 4.9 180 2 74
Full-fat granola with nuts & fruit (3/4C) 93 4.7 433 2 186
Whole milk powder (1/4C) 30 4.8 144 2 60
Almond butter   (2T packet) 31 6.5 201 3 93
Wheat thins   crackers, vacuum pack (15) 30 4.3 129 3 90
Almond-cashew-walnut-sesame sticks mix 59 6.3 371 3 177
Macadamia   nuts (4 oz) 113 7.3 830 3 340
Peanut or   almond M&Ms (30 pcs) 116 5.7 666 3 348
Instant cream   of chicken soup mix (1 pkt) 17 4.0 68 2 34
Dehydrated   dinner (1 C dry) 60 4.3 260 2 120
Full-fat   tortilla (1) 58 2.8 165 2 116
Keeblers Samoa cookies (3) 39 5.4 210 2 78
Flavored drink packets 1 5.0 5 6 6
Total Calories 9717
Calories Per Day (based on   2.75 days) 3533
Average Calories Per gram 5.5

In this example, I’ll be out for 3 days and 2 nights so I need 3 sets of lunches and snacks but only 2 breakfasts and 2 dinners.  The empty box to the far right of each item is your checklist – mark the box as you put each item into the pack.  Put everything on your checklist so you don’t forget.  Resist the temptation to throw in extras “just in case” – you can certainly add some extra in your meal plan for emergencies, but do this deliberately.

4.     Test and refine

If you’re lucky and take care of yourself, backpacking is something you’ll be able to do for a very long time.   Use every trip, particularly your early ones, to try out different gear and food combinations.  Challenge yourself to see how light you can go and still achieve acceptable energy and comfort while hiking and while in camp.  Always consider the terrain, elevation, duration and weather report for your route as you make these decisions.  Everyone’s food preferences and calorie needs are different!   If you find that a certain food item consistently comes back uneaten, it may be something you can do without.   Look for new alternatives for your heavier items.  Over the years that you travel, your pack will get lighter while your confidence and enjoyment of your trips increases.

Sound complicated?  It might seem that way at first.  But as you get started, if you take it step by step with the basic tips described above you’ll find it becomes second nature. Plus you’ll use the same checklist for your future trips, occasionally adding and subtracting food items, so you only need to build it once and save it.  A deliberate, thoughtful approach to choosing the food and gear you load into your pack pays off in so many ways, as you find yourself moving lightly along the trail with the energy you need and the gear to succeed on the backpack trip that you’ve been looking forward to.  Happy trails, and happy (light!) eating!

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