Food planning for 4-10 day outings

This post is for Ali.
IMG_2872Food (red sack, pringles can, orange drybag) for eight days on this trip.

Food planning for backcountry endeavors often goes wrong for folks.  I’ve lost track of the number of noob backpackers I’ve seen trying to rehydrate dried pinto beans in the backcountry, or hungry on day 3 of 5 with 7000 unpalatable calories still in their pack.  Like many things in life there are no secrets to backcountry food planning, just obvious rules which are out in the open but whose proper application takes practice and experience.  The following is my version of those rules, as simple as I can make them.

Why 4-10 days?  3 day or less trips are easy because if you take extra it shouldn’t add too much extra weight, if you take too little performance shouldn’t suffer that much, and in most weather such short trips will allow you to cheat and bring heavy, fresh, everyday food for at least half the outing (e.g. turkey, avocado and cheese bagel sandwiches for first and second day lunches, yum).  Trips more than 10 days I have little experience with, but the folks who do tell us that after a certain point your metabolism changes and that needs to be taken into account.  For trips between 4-10 days I seem to be able to take my “normal” on-trip calorie consumption, multiply it by days out, and go from there.  Which leads into the first rule…

1: Count your calories

When I come home with a pile of food for a week long trip, I sort it into breakfast, dinner, and snack piles which seem like they ought to be enough, then add up the calories present in each.  I do this every time, without fail.  A wise man once wrote that we pack our insecurities, and mine is without question going hungry.  Even to this day I’m much more likely to pack too much.  In the last few years I’ve intentionally confronted this by taking too little food by a small margin on some trips, but that is another matter.  Count your calories with reasonable accuracy, follow the rest of the rules below, and you’ll have enough but not too much food.  Almost guaranteed.

2: Know your needs

Two separate points here: know how many calories you’ll probably need per day, and know what kind of nutrition you’ll find to be palatable and good fuel given the probable conditions.  For me, I bring between 3200 and 3800 calories per day.  I drift towards the high end for strenuous trips in colder weather (or where I’m more likely to be cold more often), and less on warmer, mellower trips.  The only way to get this range dialed is to experiment on shorter trips, which means applying rule 1 to overnights.  Do it, it works.

Bringing the right foods for you is just as important as bringing enough food, if not moreso.  Food which takes extra energy to digest and/or swallow is not fulfilling its potential.  My stomach is fairly un-fussy, so the only guideline I really hue to for this is to bring more fats and chocolate for trips with plenty of temps below 40F, and more salts, simple sugars, and electrolyte stuff for trips with plenty of temps above 70F.  In the middle it doesn’t really matter much.

3: Maximize calorie per ounce

This is the third because even though it’s the easiest to grasp, it is the least important.  It is really easy, for example, to push into higher overall calories/ounce ratios at the expense of food you’ll actually eat.  If it weren’t we’d bring olive oil, pringles, shortbread, and almond butter to the exclusion of everything else.  I’ve yet to assemble a menu which went much over 120 cal/oz while still delivering ideal performance, but honestly I’m far from the most rigorous or precise and could likely do better if I put more time into planning.

4: Take notes

Rarely have I ended a long trip without thoughts on how to improve my food, and likely a few things in the food bag either uneaten or reluctantly saved until the bitter end.  It is very beneficial to record (in a photo) what you took on a trip, and in words what worked, what didn’t, and why.  It is equally beneficial to pay attention to trip partners food, and read online accounts of trips you’d like to do, paying particular attention to the food.  Especially if you’re buying your trip food primarily or exclusively out of a grocery store, food fatigue is a constant issue and new ideas are always welcome.

ak-mountain-wilderness-classic-10My food for the 2011 Wilderness Classic.


4 responses to “Food planning for 4-10 day outings”

  1. Envious that you can get away with eating snickers still. I read your recent review and it seems you might stray from that approach but it still sounds largely viable for you. I simply bonk eating candy bars on backpacking trips. I switched to Pro Bars a few years back and they are the best of both worlds for me. My biggest change needs to come in planning better dinners that are smaller in portion size but help me recover more efficiently and transfer some of the calorie intake to breakfast. I also started eating 4 meals a day: quick breakfast with Via coffee like you; move 2-3 miles and then eat meal 2 around 930-ish. That seemed to allow me to get on the move sooner and exploit limited fringe season daylight while maintaining energy throughout the day. I also love dehydrating my own meals when time allows but that is hit and miss. I made some great meals for my 8 day Highline trip a few years back that had the right nutrition profile while also being tasty. Not sure I will have the time and energy to do that again though.

    1. I’d like to get into dehydrating things, but it has never yet made it far enough up the list to actually happen.

      Depending on the trip (and the season/amount of available daylight) I’ll sometimes do a sit down breakfast in camp with hot coffee, sometimes do Via (either hot or cold) and put a bar in my pocket to eat on the move. In the later case I often stop late morning and have a hot brunch. As you say Phillip, switching up when you eat what can help improve energy recruitment and moral.

      I should also specify that I hardly ever stop and have anything resembling a conventional lunch. Usually it’s half a bar every hour (or the caloric equivalent), with maybe 2 15 minute stops throughout the day to eat, put my feet up, and replenish the snack reserve in whatever convenient location I’m keeping them.

      All of the above is for personal trips where I’m on the move 12+ hours a day more than anything because I prefer to do that. With the baby and all the mandatory stops which go along with perhaps I’ll get into fancier trail food.

  2. Great tips! Very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  3. […] wrote some detailed guidelines for food planning for a backpack a few years ago, but for the purposes of this post it is […]

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