Ultralight backpacking...good foods to take?

10:05 p.m. on April 13, 2008 (EDT)
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I have this new interest in ultralight backpacking and im in the process of learning how to really slim down the ol' pack. However, I'm having a hard time with food that doesnt weigh me down, and I dont like to starve. Does anyone have any suggestions or personal favorite ligt weight foods they like to take?

10:03 a.m. on April 14, 2008 (EDT)
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hmmm. I would say power bars or the protein gel packs would be great and not wiegh you down too much.

Als, you should carry water with vitamins to make sure you've got calories in everything you take. I work for a marketing company promoting the new Snaple Antioxidant Waters and I must say they are more tasy than regular water and they give me a little energy boost on my hikes- Im definitely a fan :)

10:19 a.m. on April 14, 2008 (EDT)
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Most of my calories come from on-the-trail snacking. Someone aptly said, "lunch starts at breakfast and ends at dinner," when you're on a long-distance hike. The most-fuel per unit weight is going to be nut mixes, carefully-chosen energy bars, dried fruits, and perhaps whole-grain tortillas with dried hummus or a tube of peanut butter. Breakfast becomes, rather than a main meal, sort of a kick-start. Dinner becomes, rather than a main meal, a ceremonial hot meal at the end of the day.

In warm weather, for breakfast, I'll usually take a cold cereal and supplement it with a hot drink. Something like Grape Nuts or a nutty granola of some kind is pretty dense. I'll usually mix powdered milk, dehydrated berries, chopped peanuts and brazil nuts, and some kind of sweetener in with mine ahead of time.

For dinner I'll package a home-made dehydrated meal, or choose one of the commercial dehydrated meals that minimize packing material per unit calorie. Sometimes I wind up taking my kitchen scale to my local outfitter when choosing pre-packaged meals. I compare the weight they publish for the food with the weight of the entire package and look for the most food for the least packaging. Also, I calculate calories versus food weight, and try to get the most calories for the least food weight.

A good guideline for through-hikers going ultralight and trying to cover the bigger miles is that at least 60% of your calories should come from daytime, on-the-trail snacking.

I don't worry too much about food weight when going on ultralight hikes. I just make sure I take enough calories, try to minimize the food packaging where ever possible. And I realize that my sub-10-pound base weight will be all I'm carrying toward the end of the trip.

11:40 a.m. on April 14, 2008 (EDT)
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As a friend who runs a guide service says, expeditions, major climbs, and long multiday hikes are no place to diet or cut back on calories. You will probably lose weight anyway. I have found that on major expeditions and climbs, even with shoving down 5000 calories per day, I lose weight (most I lost was 20 pounds on a 20 day Denali attempt, even sitting out storms in the tent for 8 of the 20 days, and eating over 5000 calories per day - I have never gained weight on a major expedition, though I came close with the super-sized, tasty, nourishing meals on Kilimanjaro and in Antarctica).

Basically what you want is the highest density of calories/pound of food, which means foods high in fats (abt 9 kcal/gram), with plenty of protein (abt 4 kcal/gram) to maintain muscles, with high carbohydrate snacks to nibble constantly to keep energy levels up (abt 4 kcal/gram). Many people tend to have meals of mostly carbo on the trail, because rice, pasta, dried potatoes, etc are easy to prepare. This is good at supper (replenish the day's calorie burn to get the glycogen back in the muscles for the next day), but the total of calories needs to be much higher than your daily sit-at-the-desk job (which for many people is in the 1500 kcal/day, well below the 5000 you need for the more challenging hikes).

So - energy bars are often high in fat (just read the labels), and easy to snack on during the day as Wildebeast says. Jerky gets the protein in and is about 1/3 the weight of the equivalent un-dehydrated meat. The starches I mentioned (rice, angelhair spaghetti, potato flakes, etc) are rehydrated with the water you get at the evening campsite and are pretty light for the calories (but you have to repackage them in ziplock bags to reduce the excessive amount of packaging they all come with). Freezedry meals often tend to have too much salt and many are too spicey for a lot of people (though I like things spicey), but they are light for the calories provided (you may have to repackage some of them and rehydrate in your cookpot - remember you have to pack all that aluminum foil packaging out with you).

There are some good books that review various types of backpacker and expedition meals. I like June Fleming's book for a starter, though it is now getting a bit dated in terms of the pre-packaged meals. Still, it is excellent for preparing your own food.

Oh, yeah, take your own spices, not just salt and pepper. It can really make a meal more tasty. And use a real, high-calorie sweetener - the backcountry is no place for artificial, zero-calorie sweeteners. You need the calories.

1:59 a.m. on April 15, 2008 (EDT)
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I like to keep my food light, but tasty! I dehy my own refried beans, take little packets of salsa, and put the pre-packed cheese into it--great supper with mission carb delight burrito wraps(they are my fav because the high fiber slows down the glycemic slam) I also will take pre-cooked bacon for just-add-water potato soup. I splurge with the some of the soft-bite meats and cheese for soft burrito shell lunches with mayo packets.

You see from above nuts are a great calorie/protein to weight ratio. try slicing some almonds to throw in your oatmeal. Makes the meal stick longer.

I also like the just add water instant pototoes with dehy hamburger and cheese--wah-lah! You have potato cassarole in your cup at camp! Use higher fat meat. Just remember to throw your hamburger in your nalgene at lunch so you don't have to waste lots of fuel cooking. The bacon is also really good in the four cheese instant potatoes.

Package tuna and mayo packs with cheese--decent fat and good protein.

My meals usually come in at a pound a day or less. I also have taken groups of teen girls out for several day trips, and have had them raving about tasty trail food. Yes, picky girls! Even had one delighted at a peanut butter, bacon, and mayo burrito for dinner. I didn't say that I always agreed with their, um, palate... :)

Remember ketchup, mayo, salsa, and cream cheese packets. Makes a nice variety, especially for longer trips.

Best lunch EVER on the trail though was a peanut butter and almond butter and honey wrap stuffed with fresh huckleberries and wild blueberries. Oh, my. I would have paid a fortune for that lunch!

11:22 a.m. on April 16, 2008 (EDT)
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I find a lot of my food on the trail. I subscribed to the Yahoo Group ForageAhead, which has a large abundance of foraging information. I've also gotten a few books that help to identify many foods that are available all around. I still carry food, but knowledge of the foods on the side of the trail help to slim down the pack, give you an extra purpose and objective while you're walking, help you to appreciate nature more, and many are extremely tasty! Plus you don't need to find a place for storing dirty wrappers and used trail food pouches.

10:43 p.m. on April 16, 2008 (EDT)
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3:03 a.m. on April 17, 2008 (EDT)
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You can skip all the other energy bars, and go exclusively with Larabars, as they are the most natural, thus easiest to absorb, energy bar out there. They are also the densest; unwrap them, and pack them together like bricks, to saran-wrap the whole bundle together. Every flavor is the best, if that's even possible--and it is!--and that's because I know because I've eaten them all.

2:12 a.m. on April 19, 2008 (EDT)
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Olive oil gets drizzled on anything that can be eaten with it. This is especially so for carbos (rice, pasta etc). As much protein I can get as well that includes milk, soy and animal. There is a Chinese market near where I live that has the most oily jerked pork and turkey. Its great along with oil packed fish (sardine/tuna). Those foods pack a lot of energy into a pound of 'carry-ons'.

4:42 p.m. on April 19, 2008 (EDT)
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Favorite lunch: Whole grain "Ezekiel Bread" tortillas, raw fresh-ground peanut butter from a tube, and dehydrated banana leather (jerky?) strips. Roll-em up, chomp while hiking.

I second the "olive-oil-in-almost-everything" advice. It never hurts to add it to whatever you're cooking.

Todd22, the advisability of foraging depends on where you're going. In the highly populated and impacted national parks and forests in California, any kind of foraging is illegal, because it reduces the food supply for the animals who live there full time.

second gear, I've found that dehydrating anything high-fat doesn't keep very long. I sent ahead some home-made jerky, which I made at home and really loved, in a vacuum-packed bag in a resupply on the JMT. After going through the mail system, it sat around for several weeks before I got to it. By then, the fat had gone rancid and I got sick for over a day from it.

11:52 p.m. on April 19, 2008 (EDT)
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I plan to eat about 4000 calories per day, with good balance between simple/complex carbs, fats, and protein, and keep it all to ~2lbs per day. And I don't like to cook, so don't do anything beyond boiling water. So breakfast is usually oatmeal (quick oats, not instant) fortified with nuts, dried fruit, granola and powdered whole milk. Add a couple sticks of beef jerky and a cup of coffee. About 1000 calories. On the trail I'll down 400-500 calories of gorp over the next few hours. Lunch is usually peanut butter, or a 7oz packet of chicken,tuna, or salmon on a whole grain tortilla plus dried fruit and nuts, and a probar. Another 400-500 calories of gorp during the afternoon. Dinner is a 2 person prepackaged dehydrated meal fortified with either dehydrated milk or protein powder and another probar. And maybe 4-5 jolly ranchers during the course of the day.

I have kept this up for a couple of weeks without too much boredom, but not sure how it would wear over an extended thru hike.

7:57 p.m. on April 20, 2008 (EDT)
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I agree with home pack dehy--if I through hike, I would depend much more heavily on commercial food. I am talking near home stuff (up to 7-8 days). While I even vac-pac commercially prepared, pre-cooked bacon, I would not send it on an extended trip.

We also have to consider who is needing what on a forum like this. If I were a 22 year old fit man, I would eat very differently than a 40-something middle aged woman. How many miles is each person expecting to do average, what temperatures are expected, what elevation gain-loss is, who else might get fed, etc...it all needs to be factored in, making some of these decisions very tailored.

Thus, I do not think we can make "blanket" statements. I know we just like to glean tid-bits from each other. I know I have gotten ideas of tweaking classic foods--like instant oatmeal --where I eat Kashi brand with sliced or diced almonds. They "stick" longer. I use a melita coffee filter. I pre measure each day's coffee into a filter, take one out for that day, and pour the water through...nearly instant coffee that is tasty and homebrewed! These are minor examples.

Another consideration is literally taste. While personally bars are fine on occasion, I get really tired of them. At the end of long day in a beautiful spot, I love the visceral experience of tasty trail food, dark chocolate for dessert, eye candy of the view while I eat, and people I care about to share it with me.

And speaking of preferences--chocolate covered raisins for trail food is my favorite! I like the quick sugar for muscle fatigue, and the fiber helps slow down the other digestion for a little longer burn. And it seems to help the body stay, um, balanced while out. Some people find a high calorie low fiber diet when out a bit, um, bothersome.

7:08 a.m. on May 8, 2008 (EDT)
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On any Kayak trip I do of more than one week, I bring...

For Breakfasts:

Quick Cooking Oatmeal
Dried fruits and berries
Powdered whole eggs
Bacon bits
Maple sugar
Powdered milk
Alpen or Muesli or Muslix
Nature Valley Granola Bars (The almond bars have more almonds than all it's other ingredients combined...Thrice. Drool.)

For Lunchs:

Bagels - Variety
Peanut Butter - Single serving packs
Jam - Single serving packs
Extra old cheddar cheese - Single serving packs
Noodle Cups
Nature Valley bars

For Suppers:

Commercial freeze dried meals
Instant Smashed Potatoes
Instant rice
Noodle Cups
Grated dried cheddar cheese
Nature Valley bars

For Snacks:

G.O.R.P.A.M.A.M - Good Old Raisins, Peanuts, And M And M's :)
Nature Valley Bars
Turkey Jerky (Just saying that makes people smile. Try it!)
Homemade fruit leather "Rollups"

For Drinks:

Hot Chocolate powder
Iced tea powder
Poweraide powder

For Condiments:

Olive or Canola oil in small reusable squeeze tubes
Salt, pepper, misc. spices
Ketchup, Mustard / other condiment packs from fast food places

7:35 a.m. on May 8, 2008 (EDT)
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Mountain House Pro Pack and a lexan spoon

11:22 p.m. on May 8, 2008 (EDT)
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A lot of oatmeal.

A lot of electrolyte powder.

A lot of short, dry pasta, and dehydrated sauce.

A lot of nuts.

Beans, too, if you can reason the weight.

Depending on how you hike, and how long you hike per day, around 4000 calories is a good number to try to intake per day. Lot of carbs...like, 100's of grams per day. As for protein, the formula goes: 3/4 of your BODY WEIGHT in lbs. = grams of protein per day...and, any less and you'll likely start losing weight. You must monitor you caloric intake like a hawk for a couple of weeks, at home, but eating as though you were in the backcountry, putting down however many miles you'd would normally do in a day. Logs of carbs, protein, calories, fat (All the sub-dividions too, of course), and important vitamins like Naicin and Glutamine must be kept. Then use this info to tailor your in-field diet to your simulated needs.

Vitmins are light and stash ANYWHERE, as do fish oils and flax oil (Omega 3's). Bring your flinstones chewables with you next trip...

I completely agree on the ketchup/mustard/relish/mayoniase/sweet-sour sauce/soy-sauce packet idea! Anything to keep meals a bit above ordinary is worth the weight on my back.

Don't forget the little bottles of Tabasco...or even better, little Boseman bottles filled with different sauces...

Sausage and cheese!! Big old logs of sausage, and whole mini-wheels of cheese.

Peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, with strawberry being the recommended jelly, take the cake, though, as my favorite backcountry food. There's nothing like summiting, taking out lunch, and smearing up a PB&J.

5:56 p.m. on June 3, 2008 (EDT)
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Fantastic World Foods. I buy mine at Glen's Markets, they have couscous, rice dishes, chili, black beans, etc. Most of the time I mix them up in the same bag and scoop out what I need. Just be careful to read the instructions, some of them are prepared by adding boiling water and letting it sit for 5 minutes, others have to be cooked. The best part is that they are organic and vegetarian.

7:33 a.m. on June 4, 2008 (EDT)
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Whatever your food choices may be, if you're going to try something new, try it out at home before you hit the trail just incase the change comes with intestinal consequences -

And take stuff you like - if you don't like it at home you won't like it on the trail.

11:49 a.m. on June 4, 2008 (EDT)
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Fred said


And take stuff you like - if you don't like it at home you won't like it on the trail.


Several people have recommended energy bars of various sorts. On many of my extended expeditions, the energy demand is so high that we supplement the 3 meals a day with 2 or 3 energy bars between meals. I find that after a 2 week to a month trek, I can not face energy bars for several months afterward.

I would also note that for many folks, tastes change with altitude - things that taste great at home are hard to stomach at 10,000 or 15,000 ft. This is probably a subtle effect of AMS (altitude sickness), but you can learn what kinds of foods affect you differently by trying them out on short trips. Some people seem to prefer spicier foods on trips, some have more problems with spicier foods. But what Fred said is the place to start - take stuff you like at home. Which means, as he also said - try it at home to be sure you like it and that you can prepare it properly (sometimes foods get a lot harder to prepare over a backpack stove, so the home trial should simulate the on-the-trail conditions).

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