Every year, Rachel and I plan a long distance trip through the backcountry, which gives me the chance to geek out on backcountry nutrition and meal planning. As a Registered Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist, I tend to take the process fairly seriously and get lost in spreadsheets, calculating calories, and optimizing for nutrients.
This year, as we plan for the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m back to my ways. Trying to find the optimal meal for hiking ,while also factoring in the difficulties of hiking for weeks on end. As well as relying on trail towns and mail drops for food resupply.
Given the unique conditions, which pair limited food access with high caloric demands, it’s hard to have a perfect diet. So, instead of aiming for perfection – I aim for density.
Caloric Density vs Nutrient Density
In the thru-hiking world, there’s a lot of talk about caloric density. It’s not uncommon to burn 4,000 – 6,000 calories in a single day, and since you’ll be schlepping those calories around on your back, you want them to weigh as little as possible.
Unfortunately, this search for calorically dense food can result in a backpack full of highly processed foods, with high calories, but low nutrient value.
Sometimes that’s okay. After all, you have to get those calories somehow.
But, if you’re consistently relying on high calorie, low nutrition foods, it will likely catch up with you, especially on a long thru-hike like the PCT.
It could even lead to nutrient deficiencies, such as scurvy. Yup, just like a sailor.
So, when I’m planning backpacking meals, I start by ensuring I have a variety of meal items that are not only calorically dense but nutrient dense. On the PCT, these are the foods I might mail to myself, since I’ll be less likely to find them in trail towns.
Powdered Coconut Milk
I’ve heard of a lot of people packing powdered whole milk, which they mix with muesli or oatmeal in the morning.
Personally, dairy doesn’t make my stomach too happy, especially when it’s in a powdered form. So, I prefer powdered coconut milk. If you’re lactose intolerant like me, you might prefer it as well.
Like powdered whole milk, you can mix it with your breakfast or add it to coffee for some extra flavor and calories.
Powdered coconut milk is also slightly more calorically dense than powdered whole milk. Per tbsp, dried coconut milk has 50 calories, and powdered whole milk has 35 calories. That’s because coconut has a higher fat content.
The primary drawback of powdered coconut milk is that it contains less calcium, which aside from just bone health, is also important for muscle contraction. But you can make up for this by eating other foods that are high in calcium like nuts, and some dried fruits.
Powdered coconut milk is also an ideal choice for Vegans.
Here’s a simple breakdown of a sample breakfast using powdered coconut milk:
- 2 tbsp coconut milk = 100 calories
- 1/2 cup muesli = 280 calories
- ¼ cup walnuts = 180 calories
Total Calories = 560 calories
Nuts are a calorie and nutrient powerhouse. They’re also super convenient to add to breakfast, or stuff into your pockets and snack on as you skip along the trail.
Like coconut, they’re calorically dense due to their high fat content; fat is one of your best friends when hiking! Aside from being light, it’s also one of the primary energy sources when engaging in long distance aerobic activities, like thru-hiking.
Nuts are also a good source of protein as well as antioxidants, minerals and other micronutrients, which can be hard to come by when hiking.
I like to bring along a variety of nuts. Here a few of the various nuts I like, and some of the benefits of each.
Walnuts: An excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent inflammation. They are also one of the more affordable nuts. 1 oz of walnuts (about 14 halves) contains 185 calories.
Almonds: A good source of vitamin E, calcium, vitamin B2, Vitamin B2 and fiber. A 1 oz serving (about 28 almonds) contains 162 calories.
Cashews: High in magnesium, copper and manganese. A 1 oz serving (about 18 nuts) contains 157 calories.
Macadamia Nuts: These are the most calorically dense nuts, due to their high content of healthy monounsaturated fats. A 1 oz serving (10-12 nuts) contains 204 calories.
Brazil Nuts: Known for their high selenium content, but they are also a good source of copper, magnesium and phosphorus. A 1 oz serving (6 nuts) contains 186 calories.
Dried Fruit & Berries
The food suggestions so far have prominently highlighted fat so far as a fuel source. Now it’s time to include some carbohydrates. One of my favorite carb sources is dried fruit and berries.
Like nuts, these are easy to add to breakfast, or snack on as you go. They’ll help you restore your glycogen stores to fuel you up hills, but they’ll also provide you with vital nutrients like vitamin C. Vitamin C is important for tissue repair and immune support. However, keep in mind that dried fruit typically has less vitamin content compared to its fresh counterpart.
So, never pass up the opportunity for fresh fruit when in town.
Mango: When fresh, mangos are a good source of vitamin C and vitamin A. It does lose a majority of the vitamin content during the drying process, however. Still, mango is delicious, is a good source of sugar when you need a pick me up on the trail.
I personally prefer the dried mango with no sugar added. 40 grams (5-6 slices) of dried mango contains 160 calories.
Cherries: Tart cherries are delicious, and they are a good source of calcium and vitamin A. A quarter cup contains about 120 calories.
Bananas: Everyone knows that bananas are a good source of potassium, which is important to replenish when hiking through hot temps, where you’re likely to lose electrolytes as you sweat.
I like to make dried bananas at home using a food dehydrator and will often sprinkle walnuts, cocoa, cinnamon, and vanilla on them to give some extra fun flavor.
Jerky and Dried Meat
Getting quality sources of protein can be difficult on the trail, yet protein is an important part of your diet, helping you to properly recover from the stress your body endures on the trail.
Obviously, there are other vegan sources of protein, including nuts, beans, and quinoa. But I also like to include some dried meats. Not only does this help provide me with some protein, it also can help lift my spirits a little at the end of a long-haul where I’m feeling drained.
Here are two of my favorites.
Freeze Dried Chicken: This is too expensive to include it in every meal. So, instead we like to space it out and randomly add it to meals to help increase their nutrients. We often add it to our quinoa meals, but it could be added to a variety of meals, like noodle meals and ramen.
Salmon jerky: You can buy salmon jerky, but it’s typically pretty expensive. By making it myself with a food dehydrator I’m able to reduce the cost a little. This is an incredibly satisfying salty snack, that I always enjoy snacking on. This is the recipe I like, and I typically leave the skin on to increase my nutrient and calorie intake.
A lot of people base their hiking meals around couscous. Personally, I don’t like couscous and find quinoa to be a more nutrient dense alternative that also provides more protein.
Quinoa often gets lumped into the whole grain category, although it’s actually a seed. The magic of quinoa is that it’s considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. This makes it another great choice for vegans.
Quinoa is also high in manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, folate, iron and Vitamin B1.
The process of making quinoa is similar to making rice, using a 1:2 parts quinoa to water ratio. One dried cup will give you about 3 cups of cooked quinoa, which provides about 222 calories.
You can provide quinoa with some spices and several of the following food items to make a tasty backcountry burrito bowl (a personal favorite).
Dried Bean Flakes
Who doesn’t like beans? Delicious and nutrient dense, beans and legumes are a good source of protein, fiber, and starchy carbohydrate, which can help to replenish glycogen stores.
Dried bean flakes are also super light, and cook up quickly with just a little bit of hot water. To provide some variety, I usually bring both black bean and pinto bean flakes. One half cup contains about 150 calories and weighs 40 grams.
To provide some flavor I often add a pinch or two of the following seasonings:
- True Lime
- Smoked Paprika
- Chipotle Powder (for spice)
- Garlic powder
I’ve heard of people dehydrating vegetables at home, but I’ve always found it to be a real pain. Therefore, I’ve found it’s worth saving the time and effort to just buy dehydrated vegetables to add to your meals.
These can make any meal more interesting and enjoyable. Plus you’ll increase the amount of nutrients you’re getting. Below are a few of my favorites, which can be combined with the dried bean flakes and quinoa to make a burrito bowl.
- Sweet potatoes (a good source of starchy carbohydrate)
- Bell peppers
I already mentioned that fat is a good calorie source for hiking, providing 9 calories per gram. So, why not just cut to the chase and head straight to the oil?
We usually bring a small plastic container of olive oil, which we refill. However, when your thru-hiking, it can be difficult to refill these containers, so another alternative is to buy smaller single serve packets. I personally don’t like those because they create a lot of trash.
While haven’t taken coconut oil with me on a hiking trip, it’s also a good way to supplement your calories. Coconut oil is also a source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which can be digested more quickly than longer chain triglycerides (LCTs). However, if you take this path, start out low and test yourself at home. Your gut can take some time to adjust to MCTs, and you might want to be near a bathroom… not on a trail.
You can incorporate both oils by simply adding to your meals. 1 tbsp of olive oil or coconut oil contains about 120 calories.
Cocoa and Dark Chocolate
We can’t forget dessert.
Dark chocolate is one of my favorites off the trail, as well as on the trail. Aside from providing a nice supply of calories, it tastes good and also provides iron, magnesium, copper and manganese.
I like to break off a square or 3 after dinner, or during a trail break. Trader Joe’s provides one of the best deals with their Pound Plus Dark Chocolate which contains a nice 220 calories in just 3 squares.
The primary challenge of bringing chocolate hiking is keeping it from melting. Well, it probably will melt, so just keep it wrapped up safely so it doesn’t melt onto anything else.
Balancing Calorie Quality and Convenience
Like I said before, it’s difficult to create a perfect backpacking meal plan. There are a lot of different ways to go about meal planning, and keeping up with your calorie intake is always going to be a challenge on a long thru-hike like the PCT.
That means there’s a place for Little Debbie, Snickers Bars, cookies and cream. But, they don’t need to be the foundation of your backpacking meals.
The items I included above are the food items that have worked well for me. I’m sharing them with hope that they also can help you develop a foundation to build on. With a good meal plan foundation, you can take care of your basic nutrient needs. Then you can supplement calories where necessary, with those foods that are more conveniently available.
Do you have a question about anything discussed here?
What else would be helpful to know about backpacking meals, and nutrition?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
I’m also planning future posts on hiking nutrition, and backpacking recipes that include some of the food items shown here. If you’re interested in reading those when their available, sign up for our email list, below.
Thank you so much for the information, this is super useful! I’ve been researching food and dieting a decent amount recently in preparation for my own 2021 PCT NOBO thruhike (see you out there??), and I’m always looking for more resources. Do you have any diet book recommendations?
Hey Tom – So happy this was useful for you. Are you looking for a diet book that’s hiking specific, or just general diet info? If you’re looking for something hiking specific, I haven’t come across many books on the subject. I do plan to write some more articles in the future, which will be available here. You can join the email list to get notified of those. Also, I’ve found the following to be good resources as well.
– Pack Light, Eat Right
– Backcountry Foodie – Some great info on her blog and videos, located under resources.
Both of these resources above are from Registered Dietitians too.
And, maybe we’ll see you out there! When is your start date? We will be starting the PCT NOBO on March 18.
I’m mostly just interested in nutrition in general. I’ve recently been reading a lot of Michael Pollan’s books, (In Defense of Food, Cooked, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.) and I’m looking for some new perspectives in the area.
My start date isn’t until late May, but I’m planning on sprinting to Canada so you never know!