Cutting Food Weight on a Long-Distance Backpack

Thru-hiking season is almost here. This year’s hikers will soon start out on an adventure lasting anywhere from two weeks to four months or more. To prepare, many have spent weeks agonizing over their gear. Do they want a canister stove or a cat stove? A warm and comfortable inflatable mattress or a more robust, versatile Z-Lite? Should they go with a standalone tent or one that incorporates trekking poles into the design? Elaborate spreadsheets track their decisions down to the 1/10 of an oz. And although it rarely receives it, the weight of your food deserves at least as much consideration as the weight of your gear.

 

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For a weekend trip, most backpackers have fat reserves that they can rely on to supply a backup power source. But on a thru-hike those fat reserves will virtually evaporate after a couple of weeks, meaning that you’ll need to eat more (much more food) to travel the same distance. Couple that with the long days of a thru-hike, and the calorie consumption of thru-hikers can truly skyrocket. If you eat 2,000 calories a day now, expect that to go up to as much as 4,000 before you’ve completed your hike.

Unfortunately, not all calories are created equal. There are, of course, nutrition concerns, which we will address in a future blog post. But 4,000 calories a day can also have a huge impact on your pack weight. How much of an impact depends on what you’re carrying.

A typical carry on a thru-hike is five days (and some can be even longer). Five days at 4,000 calories a day comes out to a whopping 20,000 calories. To mitigate the weight of this, most experienced thru-hikers will aim to carry food with a higher calorie-per-ounce ratio. Let’s take a look at how much of a difference this makes to the total weight of your food:

20,000 calories (4,000 calories per day for five days):

  • 20.5 pounds at 60 calories per oz. (hummus, tuna, dried apples)
  • 15.5 pounds at 80 calories per oz. (raisins, jerky, bagels)
  • 12.5 pounds at 100 calories per oz. (instant rice, Clif Bars, candied ginger)
  • 10.5 pounds at 120 calories per oz. (Pita chips, Jolly Ranchers, doughnuts)
  • 9 pounds at 140 calories per oz. (chocolate, peanut butter pretzels, Cheez-Its)

It’s clear that keeping an eye on your calorie/oz. ratio can make a big difference in your pack weight. It’s also clear that you don’t need to give up delicious food to keep the weight down.

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If you don’t want to do the math on every calorie label you look at (and most hikers don’t), one shortcut is to look for foods with a high fat to water ratio. Fat punches in a whopping 225 calories per oz. (a thru-hiker’s dream: 20,000 calories of pure fat would weigh just over five pounds), and water is, well, water. Most thru-hikers don’t want to carry any more than they need to get to their reliable water source, much less packed in with food that won’t be eaten for days.

Another strategy is to carry an extra source of fat to boost the calorie content of your meals. While olive oil is most common, you don’t need to limit yourself. Try carrying roasted peanut oil, avocado oil, or even truffle oil (if you can swing the expense). Look for dehydrated dairy products (butter, cheeses, etc.) from retailers like Honeyville and Hoosier Hill. You can even carry individual sized packets of mayo (since those will stay shelf stable for longer than an opened Hellman’s bottle). This can produce some additional waste (i.e., weight) in the form of the empty packets that you’ll need to carry with you, but for many the added variety is well worth it.

For those of us that try to make sure we’re eating our fruits and vegetables in the frontcountry, making an extra effort to douse your food with powdered butter and olive oil can start out being a little counterintuitive. We’ve been trained to think of high-fat foods as ones to avoid. But on a thru-hike, food truly is fuel and your body will soon adjust to the high-calorie, high-fat diet you’re feeding it. So enjoy the denser food, and the lighter pack weight that comes with it!

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One last strategy for cutting your food weight on a thru-hike: ditch your stove and fuel.

For the right person, in the right conditions, this can be an excellent strategy. For the wrong person, in difficult conditions it can be inefficient, uncomfortable, and very dangerous. Consider what your needs are. Do you need hot coffee to get started in the morning? Are the foods you plan to carry without a stove heavier than what you have now? Is the heat and humidity making cooked food especially unappealing sounding, or would a hot soup or drink make the day’s cold, damp weather that much more bearable? Experiment with cold soaking some of your favorite foods before committing to a stoveless strategy. And if you do choose to ditch your stove a couple of months into your thru-hike (as so many do), consider adding it to your bounce box instead, for easy accessibility during the sections of the trail that might experience more inclement conditions.

Fortunately, there are plenty of backpacking foods that are just as good cold soaked as they are hot. One of my favorite high-calorie/high-density recipes for cutting weight is 7-layer bean dip. It cuts water while adding fat and packs a huge flavor punch. Plus, you get to eat it with Juanita’s tortilla chips (170 calories per oz.) and it’s hard to go wrong with that:

7-Layer Bean Dip (feeds two thru-hikers):

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Ingredients:

  • 1 package of Santa Fe refried beans
  • ½ cup dehydrated bell peppers
  • ½ cup dried tomatoes
  • ¼ cup powdered sour cream
  • ¼ cup powdered cheddar cheese
  • 3 tbsp. dried onions
  • 2 tbsp. taco seasoning
  • 2-4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 bag of tortilla or pita chips (preferably Juanita’s, or another high-calorie brand)

At home:

Combine all ingredients, except for the olive oil in a Ziploc bag. Be sure that the powdered ingredients are thoroughly broken up and incorporated.

On trail:

Stove method: Bring a half liter of water to a boil. Either add the ingredients to the pot or, for easier clean-up, allow the water to cool slightly and add directly to the Ziploc bag. Stir to incorporate and seal for 10 minutes.

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Cold-soaked: Two hours before you plan to eat, add a half liter of water directly to the Ziploc bag, or combine the dried ingredients with the water into a container with a screw top lid (empty peanut butter jars and restaurant take-out containers seem to be especially popular with thru-hikers). Stir to incorporate. Continue hiking until your bean dip has fully rehydrated.

Pull out the Juanita’s chips and enjoy!

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Laura Lancaster started backpacking at the age of 12 and hasn’t let up since. Currently a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, she thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and the Wonderland Trail in 2015. Laura has been published in Backpacker, Survivor’s Edge magazine, and American Survival Guide. You can see more of her work at lauralancaster.net.