Ultimate Backpacking Food Guide


A man visits a doctor with carrots in his ears and celery up his nostrils. He mumbles, “Doc, I’m just feeling terrible lately.” The doctor responds, “Maybe you’re just not eating right.”

Eating right sounds simple enough, but backpacking can take a huge toll on your body. Follow this guide for power foods the next time you go on a backpacking adventure.

Backwoods exercise through backpacking burns a tremendous amount of calories. With limitations such as pack size and weight, it can be hard to replace every calorie you lose. That’s where proper planning and great nutrition choices come into play. Three things to consider for picking great backpacking food:

1. Macro & Micronutrients
2. Resting Energy Expenditure
3. Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

Macro & Micronutrients

What types of fuel will your body will need in order to thrive on your next hike? Much like a car that runs out of gas, the body will shut down if proper nutrition is ignored for prolonged periods of time.

Macronutrients are the nutrients your body needs the most of in order to do work. These include carbohydrates, fats, protein, and water. The amount you need depends largely upon your level of activity, age, and body type.

Micronutrients are just as important as macronutrients, but your body needs less of these to do work. These include vitamins and minerals.

While hiking, especially for more than a day or two, it’s important to get a good variety of foods that provide both macro and micronutrients. Let’s take a closer look at the macronutrients and why they matter.

Carbohydrates

Main duty: Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body.

They get used before protein and fat. Carbs provide 4 calories per gram. Foods high in carbohydrates include fruits, grains, and roots. Experts recommend that carbs should make up anywhere from 45-65% of your daily calories. (1) Carbohydrates come in three forms: simple, complex, and dietary fiber.

Simple carbohydrates contain one or two units of sugar. Examples include fructose (fruit sugar), galactose (milk sugar) and glucose (blood sugar).

Complex carbohydrates have more than two units of sugar. Examples include pasta, potatoes, beans, and rice. Because complex carbs contain many more units of sugar than simple carbs, your body takes longer to digest them. As a result complex carbs release glucose more evenly and slowly into the bloodstream than simple carbs. You should aim for a good mix of simple and complex carbohydrates while hiking. (2)

Unlike all other carbohydrates, dietary fiber cannot be digested by the body. However, this does not mean fiber plays a less important role in helping the body do work. Fiber helps lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent constipation. Studies show that we need 20-40 grams (more on higher calorie diets) per day. (3)
SUMMARY
Carbs are the main energy source for the body. The body breaks down carbs before fat, protein, and alcohol. Carbs come in three types: simple, complex, and fiber. You should get 45-65% of your daily energy intake from carbs. While indigestible, fiber helps the body have regular bowel movements and lower blood cholesterol levels.

Fats

Main duty: Fat in the body acts as a backup energy source used after carbohydrates and protein.

Foods and liquids high in fat include butter, cheese, oil, and nuts. Experts recommend that 20-40% of your daily calories should come from fat. One of the best parts about fat is the potential for energy. Fats carry 9 calories per gram, more than twice the amount of carbohydrates and protein. This is especially important for hikers looking for lightweight calorie dense food.

However, the body struggles to use energy from fat immediately. It takes longer to digest fats because fat floats on top of everything else in the stomach. Subsequently, you feel fuller longer after eating fat. Three kinds of fats exist in food: triglycerides, phospholipids, and sterols.

Triglycerides fats are used to create fatty tissues burned for energy.

Phospholipids carry hormones and vitamins across the body through the blood.

Sterols are alcohol and fat compounds with zero calories.

Foods high in fat are a great choice for backpackers looking to maximize calories and minimize weight. However, a balanced diet is still key for peak performance.
SUMMARY
Fats provide the body energy, insulation, tissue, and transportation of vitamins. While experts recommend 20-40% of your daily calories come from fat, hikers looking to maximize calories and minimize weight would do well to pack plenty of high fat foods. But always remember that the body uses glucose from carbohydrates first before energy from fat. Be sure to pack carbohydrates as well for quick sources of energy.

Protein

Main duty: Protein helps to build and repair tissue inside the body.

Foods high in protein include eggs, fish, poultry, lean meat, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, and soy products. (4) Protein should make up anywhere from 5-30% of your daily calories. Protein is used in the body to create new cells, maintain existing muscle tissue, and create new protein molecules.

Digested protein is broken down to amino acids. The body contains 20 different amino acids that it later uses to create more protein. Amino acids are either essential or nonessential.

The body can produce non-essential amino acids alone, but essential amino acids need to come from your diet. Animal protein (meat, fish, eggs, poultry) is similar to protein found in the body. Animal protein, unlike plant protein, contains all the essential amino acids your body needs to function. (5) This is not to say that vegan diets are secondary.

Many plants contain vitamins and minerals not found in animal protein. For best results, it’s good to mix both plant and animal food sources for a healthy diet.
SUMMARY
Protein builds and repairs tissue in the body. High protein foods include eggs, fish, poultry, meat, beans, and nuts. Digested protein is broken down into amino acids. Essential amino acids must come from your diet. Most animal protein is complete because it carries all essential amino acids. However, a balanced diet is key for optimal nutrition. Hikers would do well to carry a balance of plant and animal protein.

Resting Energy Expenditure

Before learning about what foods we need to pack and why, we need to find out how many calories we burn while at rest.

Even when you sit on the couch binge watching your favorite show for days on end, your body still needs calories to function. Kind of like a car that still burns gas even when it’s just idling in a parking lot. The heart still needs to beat and pump blood to the rest of the body. Cells continue to send messages. Muscles flex.

The amount of energy your body uses while at rest is called (you guessed it) resting energy expenditure. Surprisingly, this accounts for 60-70% of all your daily energy needs. Use this chart to calculate your resting energy expenditure.

Sex & Age
REE Equations
Males
18-30
(15.3 * weight in kg) + 679
31-60
(11.6 * weight in kg) + 879
60+
(13.5 * weight in kg) + 487
Females
18-30
(14.7 * weight in kg) + 496
31-60
(8.7 * weight in kg) + 829
60+
(10.5 * weight in kg) +596

For example, Ted is a 27 year-old male and weighs 75 kg. Ted would then use this formula:

(15.3 * 75) + 679 = 1826.5

In other words, Ted needs 1826.5 calories while his body is at rest, or just to watch his favorite Netflix shows. Who said being a couch potato was easy work? This leads to the last and final step of calculating Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

Total Daily Energy Expenditure

So we know how many calories we need on a daily basis while our body is at rest. From here all we need to do is calculate how many additional calories we will burn on average daily from backpacking. All activities together (resting energy expenditure + exercise) give us the TDEE.

This simple formula from ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal gives us calories burned per minute.

[(MET value) x 3.5 x (weight in kg)]/200 = calories burned per minute

The Compendium of Physical Activities lists common MET values for hundreds of various activities. Backpacking comes in with a MET value of 7.8.
DEFINITION
Met Value: A number expressing the energy cost (calories) of physical activities. An individual seated at rest uses 1 MET. The higher the number, the more intense the activity, the more calories burned. A MET value of 10 means you are using 10 times the amount of energy as a person seated at rest.
Let’s return to our main man Ted. He decides to take a 5 day backpacking trip hiking a total of 80 miles. That's 16 miles per day. He weighs 75 kg at the start of his trip. So his formula would be:

[7.8 x 3.5 x 75]/200 = 10.2375 calories burned per minute

From this we know that Ted burns 614.25 calories per hour. Let's say it takes him 5 hours a day to hike 16 miles. That's a whomping 3071 calories burned per day! Add the 1826 calories for resting energy expenditure and your TDEE comes out at 4897 calories in just one day!

Remember this is in extreme example. But now you have all the tools you need to calculate how many calories per day you will need. REI experts recommend that backpackers take 1.5 to 2.5 lbs of food per day. (6) But how do we get the most calories for the least amount of weight. This brings us to the part you have been waiting for since this article began -- the food!

Food to Pack

Planning for the extreme example, let's say you actually did need 4,000-5,000 calories per day. How do you get it without packing a ton of food that will weigh your pack down?

This is where calorie density comes into play. Fats have 9 calories per gram, more than twice that of carbs and protein. A possible solution then is to pack plenty of high fat foods, but not at the expense of a balanced diet.
DEFINITION
Calorie density is a measure of calorie content of food relative to its weight or volume.  It is usually measured by calories per 100 grams. (7)
So here it is, a list of all your macro nutrients from highest calorie density to lowest.

Fats

Oils
Calorie/100 grams
Total fat/100 grams
Saturated fat/100 grams
Hemp seed oil
888
98 g
7.5 g
Avocado oil
868
99 g
11 g
Corn oil
846
99 g
14 g
Extra-virgin olive oil
846
99 g
14 g
Corn oil
846
99 g
14 g
Canola oil
846
99 g
7 g
Butters
Calories/100 grams
Total fat/ 100 grams
Saturated fat/100 grams
Macadamia nut butter
811
85 g
14 g
Sunflower seed butter
740
63 g
7 g
Almond butter
670
56 g
5 g
Cashew butter
670
55 g
11 g
Peanut butter
670
56 g
7 g
Soy nut butter
670
55 g
7 g
Nuts
Calories/100 grams
Total fat/100 grams
Saturated fat/ 100 grams
Macadamia
720
75 g
12 g
Pecan
691
72 g
6 g
Brazil
656
66 g
15 g
Walnut
655
65 g
6 g
Hazlenut
628
61 g
5 g
Almond
575
49 g
4 g
Chocolate
Calories/100 grams
Total fat/100 grams
Saturated fat/100 grams
Dark chocolate
545
31 g
19 g
White chocolate
539
32 g
19 g
Milk chocolate
535
30 g
19 g
Twix Candy Bar
502
25 g
19 g
Snickers Candy Bar
488
24 g
13 g
Baby Ruth Candy Bar
459
22 g
12 g

Carbohydrates

Fruits
Calories/100 grams
Total fat/100 grams
Total Carbs
Dried cherries
350
0 g
83 g
Dried blueberries
325
0 g
80 g
Dried raisins
299
0 g
79 g
Dates
282
0 g
110 g
Dried pears
262
1 g
70 g
Dried apricots
241
1 g
63 g
Whole Grains
Calories/100 grams
Total fat/100 grams
Total Carbs
Millet
378
4 g
73 g
Teff
367
2 g
73 g
Pearled barley
352
1.2 g
78 g
Brown rice
111
1 g
23 g
Quinoa
107
2 g
21 g
Amaranth
103
1.6 g
19 g

Protein

Milk/Cheese/Eggs
Calories/100 grams
Total fat
Protein
Powdered milk
496
27 g
26 g
Goat cheese
364
30 g
22 g
Feta
264
21 g
14 g
Ricotta
174
13 g
11 g
Boiled egg
155
11 g
13 g
Greek yogurt
59
.4 g
10 g

Sources
Table 1: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. 2010. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 23. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page, http://www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/ndl

Table 2: https://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/highest-calorie-foods.php


Table 3-4: http://www.acaloriecounter.com/candy-chocolate.php 
popsugar.com

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