Getting Enough Calories While Backpacking

Backpacking is the ultimate in outdoor adventure!  It gives you such a sense of freedom and self-confidence when you are able to survive on your own in the wild. However, if you are planning to backpack for an extended period of time without access to food, you’ll quickly run into the problem of how to get enough calories to keep going on your adventure.
Getting Enough Calories While BackpackingBecause backpacking requires you to carry all your food with you, it’s essential to bring enough and to pack foods that are lightweight yet calorically dense.  In this article you’ll find tips on how to calculate your energy needs as well as which foods to eat and tricks to get you to eat enough while out on the trail.

Before starting a backpack trip, take some time to calculate how many calories are needed to maintain your weight without any extra activity.  You can use an online calculator or app for this by entering your height and weight. Most adults need about 1,800 to 1,800 calories a day.

With this as a baseline, then add in approximately how many miles you’ll be hiking and what kind of terrain you’ll be covering.  The more trail you cover in a day as well as how difficult (e.g. elevation gain, rocky or uneven ground) it is to hike the route will mean an additional expenditure of energy.  If you’re hiking during a colder season such as autumn or winter, you’ll probably burn more calories than in spring or summer.  It’s not uncommon to need upwards of 3,500 calories or more per day while backpacking.

Another factor that will increase the amount of calories needed is backpack weight.  Try to keep your backpack as light as possible prior to adding food so you won’t have to pack even more food to offset the load on your shoulders.  Be wary of overpacking too much food though because this will mean unnecessary weight and cause fatigue.

Once you know how many calories you need, start looking for foods that have the most calories per ounce.  Most hiking experts recommend 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of food per person per day.  If you can find foods that are more than 100 calories per ounce, for example, you’ll be able to pack significantly more food without increasing the weight of your pack.

The next step is to look for foods that you actually enjoy eating.Getting Enough Calories While Backpacking 

Oddly enough, it’s sometimes easy to forget to eat or to even lose one’s appetite while hiking.  It doesn’t help if all the foods you packed are unappetizing and you have to force yourself to eat them just to get some energy.

Instead, think of things you’d actually enjoy eating.  What flavors do you gravitate towards?  Do you prefer savory or sweet?  What are your favorite meals?  Do you love rice over pasta? What meals can you eat over and over without getting tired of them?

Don’t forget about spices and seasonings either.  These are so lightweight but can pack a big punch of flavor that will help you eat more to make sure all your caloric and nutritional needs are met. Just repackage them in a smaller container or plastic bag so they weigh less and don’t take up as much space in your backpack.

If you love hot sauce or other vinegar-based condiments that don’t need to be refrigerated, definitely take some with you. For convenience, get small packets of condiments like ketchup, mustard, and mayo to reduce weight and get the perfect serving size.  Some chopped or dried onions and cloves of garlic, as well as fresh herbs such as basil, cilantro, or mint, are only ounces and can also add flavor to a dish.

While putting together a list of ideas, you’ll also have to narrow your ideas down to foods that don’t require refrigeration. Without a cooler or heavy ice packs, all your foods will have to be able to be eaten at room temperature or warmer, depending on the climate and time of year.

If you must bring fresh foods, then you’ll need to eat those first.  Some fruits and vegetables are better suited than others for hiking.  Carrots and apples might keep longer but they don’t offer many calories for their weight.

Bananas can be an option because you can take several, all at varying stages of ripeness, and allow them to ripen as you hike. Still, bananas only average about 100 calories and weigh approximately 4 ounces so it’s not a good tradeoff for the weight. However, if you really love them and absolutely must have one every day, then that’s definitely worth considering.

Some high calorie foods that are easy and fast to prepare include dry items such as pasta, noodles, instant rice, couscous, quinoa, dry cereal or oatmeal, instant stuffing or potatoes, and soup mixes. Other popular snacks include nuts, seeds, dried fruits, granola bars, string cheese, trail mix, crackers, chips, and pretzels.  For additional calories, add nut butters, Nutella, avocado, or shelf-stable hummus as a dip or mix-in to any dish.

Breads also don’t need to be refrigerated so you can pack along some slices to make sandwiches such as peanut butter and jelly or meat and cheese.  Other breads that work well for backpacking are muffins, pita, bagels, and tortillas. Be careful though if you’re going to be in a wet or humid climate though which would cause breads to mold faster.

Meat options that won’t go bad include dried or smoked meats such as jerky, salami, summer sausage, pepperoni, or meat sticks like Slim Jims. Just make sure the casing is intact and the packaging doesn’t instruct it be stored in the refrigerator.  Another option is freeze dried meat which can be rehydrated while you cook it. Tuna is a very popular protein source among backpackers but, due to the water weight of canned tuna, it’s better to get the ones in plastic instead.

Now you may be wondering about eating junk foods because they are very high in calories and some hikers justify all the activity of hiking with eating candy bars and chips.  While it’s okay to eat some chocolate and other candy like M&Ms or Snickers, it’s not a good idea to get the majority of your calories this way.

The reason for this is because most junk foods are considered empty calories and don’t provide a lot of nutrition. The simple carbohydrates in these foods can also cause blood sugar spikes and crashes which leave you feeling more tired than before you ate.  Instead, get most of your calories from nutrient rich foods that will convert into energy a lot faster and keep you going longer.

When it comes time to cook meals, one tip to add in extra calories is to use oil or powdered milks, such as coconut milk powder which can also add some creaminess to the dish.  Bring a little bit of your favorite healthy oil along and add some when cooking things like rice, pasta, or noodles.  Not only will it make the meal taste better, which means you’ll eat more, but you’ll get some healthy fats and added calories in an effortless way.
Getting Enough Calories While Backpacking
Other add-ins to meals include high calorie seeds like chia seeds which have a lot of fiber.  Hemp seeds are a great source or protein and contain both omega-3 and omega-6 along with a neutral taste to mix into a meal.  Sesame, sunflower, and flax seeds can all be easily added to cereals, soups, pasta, and rice dishes.

Depending on the dish, you could also add in protein powder to your meals.  Bring along some flavored proteins like chocolate or strawberry to add to oatmeal or other hot cereals in the morning.  Adding protein to drinks is also a great way to get more calories and nutrition throughout the day as you hike while simultaneously staying hydrated.

In addition to eating three meals a day, snack often throughout the day while hiking.  Keep some of your favorite snacks nearby, whether that be in the pocket of your pants or jacket, in an easy to reach external backpack pocket, or attached to the straps of your backpack.  Make it easy to just grab a snack without having to stop hiking or take off your backpack.

If you have a tendency to lose track of time, set a reminder on your phone to help you remember to take a snack break or simply to grab that granola bar from your pack.  If you’re really not hungry when the reminder goes off, snooze it for half an hour and check-in with your appetite in a little while instead of silencing it altogether and forgetting about it.

When taking breaks from hiking to rest or enjoy the scenery, make sure to grab something to snack on.  If you have downtime between meals, try to distract yourself with a book or a game on your phone and combine a snack with it.  It’s easy to eat more when you’re distracted so you’ll easily get extra calories in without noticing.

As long as you prepare in advance, it’s quite easy to find a variety of options to get the nutrients you need to sustain your backpacking adventure.  Pick your favorite foods and make sure to have enough variety to avoid taste fatigue. If you like to journal your experience, jot down what you ate to make sure you’re getting enough.  In no time, consuming enough calories will be second nature and your hikes will be supercharged by all the good stuff you’re eating. has a wide range of Mountain High dehydrated food, you can purchase for your next backpacking trip. 

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