My most dreaded inbox question for a long time has been the one pertaining to backpacking food, and what to pack. Not because I don’t have an answer to it, but rather because there are thousands of answers that are sufficient depending on the end use, and because it simply takes the a long time to answer that question well.
So today, if you’ve been searching for a backpacking food list, or ideas, I am going to do my best to show how I approach backpacking food and some of my ideas around it.
Value vs Cost
This is always my first consideration, because after all if we aren’t carrying several days of food in our packs then it really doesn’t matter a whole lot as to what we take. For overnighters a big sandwich or a pack of hot dogs works just fine, but when several days are in the mix, food requires more thought.
Value in this scenario is definite by calories and cost can be summed up in ounces carried. Calories per ounce is simple, but it’s at the top of the list in terms of importance when it comes to food in a backpack. In general I like to aim for a total average of 140-160 calories per ounce. This doesn’t mean that everything I pack falls in this range, but rather if I average my entire food for a trip it will fall somewhere in this range.
Off the bat this makes a lot of foods not overly suitable for this goal. Surprisingly, most freeze dried meals that have a reputation as being lightweight don’t come anywhere close to this benchmark, and then they require fuel and water in addition to that. They also are typically quite bulky as well.
On the contrary, other items such as a jar of peanut butter, which feels very heavy in the hand is actually quite good in terms of cost vs value. Peanut butter may be dense and heavy, but it packs a real punch in terms of calories per ounce.
The easiest way to achieve this is through high fat foods. Fat has 9 calories per gram of weight, while carbohydrates and protein have only 4 calories per gram. Foods high in fat content are more efficient in terms of their weight, and additionally they are usually more efficient in terms of pack space as well.
I brought up peanut butter for a specific reason, I like how it packs. All being equal in terms of calories per ounce, I will take the denser item. These foods that are dense take up much less pack space which becomes important on long duration trips. Trying to fit 10 days of food in a pack isn’t overly easy a lot of times, and foods that pack smaller do a great job to help out here.
For example it takes roughly 3 full size mountain house meals to equal the calories in one small jar of peanut butter. Not only is the peanut butter lighter overall, but it uses a fraction of the volume that 3 freeze dried meals do. For over night trips actually it’s not uncommon for me to just take a jar of peanut butter and a spork. No added stove weight, no cooking, and essentially no pack space. For longer trips I need a little more variety, but for one night it gets the job done easily.
When dense foods are focused on, it’s not uncommon for me to be able to put 2500 cal a day in 1 quart sized ziplock and have it weigh between 15-17 ounces. This is the biggest secret for using a small pack in hunting terms. Getting a load of 5-8 days worth of food in a 2800 cu in pack with all your gear comes down largely to food choices. Gear choices do make a considerable difference, but the food choices are what really limit how long you can stay.
As a side note, I know many hunters don’t care about carrying a big pack. For me I hate it. Big bags are wider, louder, and more restrictive while trying to hunt. Also they’re typically heavier, but my biggest concern in keep a pack small and tidy is having a small, nice carrying footprint on my back. This ensures that both the balance and maneuverability of the pack are better.
This isn’t an area where I’m normally overly concerned as long as I’m getting ample calories, but I do try to have some balance. I want to be getting at least some protein in, which I find is often the hardest macro nutrient to incorporate into backpacking food. This is mostly due to the fact that protein is heavy for its caloric content. The best overall solution to this when possible is fish and/or grouse, as they weigh nothing and provide great protein.
Other protein solutions can come from nuts and nut butters, the occasional freeze dried or dehydrated meal, or protein supplements. I’m not big on packing protein powder, but it is a very efficient way to make sure you get some protein each day in an easy manner.
For me though, the bigger concern here nutritionally is electrolytes and salts. I’ve had heat stroke twice in my life, and even with as much water as I can drink, I will end up there again without enough electrolytes. This is easily supplemented through tablets that I can drop into my water bottle, but some decently high salt foods also help me out here quite a bit as well.
This is where things get a little slippery in answering backpacking food questions. Everyone has a different amount of requirements to feel like they’re eating enough in the mountains. It took me several years to get efficient at packing the right amount of food for a trip, without starving or having leftovers.
This is the root of why I feel this question is hard to answer when people ask it, because it’s impossible to predict what someone will feel like on a set amount of calories per day. 2500-3000 per day seems to be a fairly well accepted number by a lot of people as a starting point. You’ll likely burn more than this per day while hunting, but I’ve found it nearly impossible for most people to eat as much as they’re burning. Not only does the weight of total food get to be too much, but most people feel sluggish If they’re eating 4000-5000+ calories per day.
Personally I struggle to get down 2500 calories a day while hunting, and can usually cut down to 1800 a day very comfortably, but this where everyone differs. I have friends that would be back at the truck stuffing their pack full of food if they only had 1800 calories a day.
The only real answer to caloric intake is to experiment and see what works. Starting out it’s easier to take more food rather than less and see how much you go through over the course of your trip. If you write everything down before and after your trip for a few times, you will start to have a pretty good idea of what works for you. This will also help you figure out what foods you like best, as there is a good chance that the leftover food will be the stuff you find less enjoyable to eat.
Cook vs No Cook
No cook food systems are something that I’ve been dabbling in for the last 8-10 years, and they actually are quite enjoyable. Typically the foods chosen when not cooking actually are higher calorie per ounce, Further cutting pack weight beyond the stove and cookware.
Another huge advantage to the no cook system is that it requires much less water on average. If you hunt in an area with limited or little water, it can be hugely advantageous to have a no cook food list, or to at least implement some food that doesn’t need cooked with water.
I will always have at least half of my food be comprised on things that need no water or cooking. This allows me to get away with camping overnight or even for two nights at a time on ridgelines with no water access by utilizing a 4 liter bladder that I can fill at the last water source. I will then use any cooked items on days when I find myself with more water available close by.
The biggest personal hang up for me with the no cook is coffee. As dumb as it is, the coffee is almost worth the stove, pot, and fuel even if all the rest of my food doesn’t need cooked. I often bring a stove for this reason even though I cook very little to no food. While alcohol stoves have limited function at times, this is largely why I like them. A simple titanium mug and a stove that weighs .2 of an ounce can heat my coffee for a total package less than 3 ounces.
If you see me in the field with an alcohol stove this is probably why. I’m typically using it only for warm drinks, and not cooking any of my food. I like this type of setup a lot, and it is just enough for me to enjoy something warm without having to hassle with cooking. At times when I am cooking food though, I will usually opt for a canister stove. They’re more fuel efficient and easier to boil water and/or cook with.
Those are the parameters in which I typically place backpacking food to start with. I look at how many calories I want, wether I will have a stove or not, and then narrow things down by weight and density. So now that we have some framework to evaluate some food choices, below are some more specific options and my general thoughts about them.
Instant Oatmeal- Roughly 105 calories per ounce. Instant oatmeal isn't terribly weight effective by itself, but with one ounce of coconut oil per packet it will balance out to right at 160 cal/ ounce. Instant oatmeal also can be eaten easily as a cold cereal with just some water added and it tastes great. It does need cooked however, if you're trying to mix coconut oil.
Pro bar- These are only about 120 cal/ ounce but they are probably my favorite bar of all time, especially for breakfast. The bars are fairly large so they still have 350+ calories per bar which is about ideal for me in terms of a breakfast size. I'm not a huge eater in the mornings. Plus they taste great and have a decent balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Probably my favorite meal bar all in all, and I like to have one per day in my pack.
Honey stinger- A lot of people really like these, but personally I find them a little too sweet. They are very high calorie for an easy snack at 140 cal/ ounce though, and they take up almost no pack volume. These make a great snack with peanut butter or another butter added on top.
Cliff Bar- The original in my mind. I love cliff bars and could probably live off of them. They only have around 110 calories per ounce, but they're dense and taste good to me. For short duration trips these are a great cost effective option for bars. For longer trips they're a bit heavy.
Almonds- Any sort of nut is a great backpacking option. At 168 calories per ounce these are no exception. I like almonds a lot and they're always a great snack choice if you like them.
Peanuts- Similar to almonds, another great choice. About 161 calories per ounce for peanuts and they provide a nice mix of carbs, fats, and protein. Another great, easy snack that needs no cooking.
Trail Mix- Depending on how it is mixed trail mix is around 140 calories per ounce. Typically high in fat and high in carbs, this is another great snack option. If you don't like nuts by themselves this is a good way to get them mixed into your food supply.
Snickers- A good sweet tooth option at a little over 130 cal/ ounce. Snickers are very easily stuffed into small spots in your pack which helps them keep pack volume low. If you want to take some candy this, along with chocolate covered nuts are probably the most efficient choices.
Protein Powder- Most whey proteins will be about 100 calories for a one ounce serving, which isn't great, but it is the best way if you want more protein with you. Because its a powder, it takes up little room for a supply of it, and it offers as much protein intake as you can usually get for the weight. I don't typically utilize protein powder, but if you do I think it is far smarter to consume it in the evenings. Consumption in the mornings before heavy exertion could lead to higher lactic acid build up and increased soreness.
Peanut Butter- One of my staple foods, peanut butter is around 160 calories per ounce and is very dense. I personally eat it with just a spoon, but it can be put on lots of other foods too. It has some protein and plenty of fat, with a few carbs mixed in. I doubt I will ever take a trip without a jar of peanut butter coming along.
Salami- Not the most efficient, but sometimes a little bit of salami and cheese can make you feel like a new person on the mountain. A good hard salami is ideal here, because it is much more shelf stable, and has a lot less water weight. 115 calories an ounce is about on par for a good hard salami. It easily lasts one week without refrigeration, and makes for a great snack when you're starting to feel a little worn down.
Cheese- Hand in hand with the salami goes a good, extra sharp cheese. Extra sharp, or harder cheeses hold up much better in backpacking applications. 110-130 calories per ounce depending on the cheese are good numbers to go by.
Heathers Choice- This last year was the first time I had eaten any meals from Heather's Choice. They differ from a lot of meals in the fact that they are dehydrated as opposed to freeze dried. Because of this, cold soaking them isn't really an option. They need very hot water, and a decent soak time to rehydrate well. I did feel better than I ever have with any sort of backpacking meal though, and the dinners taste incredible. Ingredient wise, these meals are awesome. They run about 130 calories per ounce depending on the meal, and I do appreciate that they are more compact than most freeze dried type meals. However, they still don't pack down great. These have become my number one choice if I want to take a backpacking meal.
Packaroons- Maybe one of the best backpacking snacks ever created. These are also made by Heather's Choice and are phenomenal. Made mostly from coconut, these have 170 calories per ounce packed into them and they probably taste better than any other thing on this list. They come in a variety of flavors and simply awesome.
Mtn House- If you haven't eaten one of these, there's a good chance you haven't backpacked much. Mountain House is the best of any of the commonly available freeze dried meals I have tried. Around 125-130 calories an ounce, these also aren't great weight wise without some added oil of some sort. They do have a lot of sodium, which for me isn't a bad thing, but for some it is a problem. My biggest gripe with mountain house meals is just how much space they eat up in a pack.
Instant Potatoes- Only 110 calories per ounce, but with some oil or butter that can be fixed pretty easily. Instant potatoes are popular for a reason. They provide a ton of food for very little money, and they taste quite good. In addition, if you plan on trying to eat a grouse or two, some instant potatoes are nice to have along.