The best ultralight backpacking foods are high in calories, compact, and fast to prepare. In order to keep your food load as lightweight as possible, you want to carry foods that have 100 calories per ounce or more. One ounce is 28.3 grams.
The two most important indicators of a food’s calorie density are the percent of grams in fats, and the ‘nutritive content’ – add the grams of carbohydrate, fat and protein on the label and divid by the total grams in the serving. If that ratio is less than about 80 percent, you are carrying 20% of that food’s weight in water or non-energy-producing material such as fiber. Fiber is an important component of your long-term nutrition but it is an inefficient component of your trail diet because it adds weight with no calories. Then, look for foods with 35-40% or more of the total serving grams in fat.
The best ‘punch’ is provided by flavored olive oil which can be brought in a squeeze bottle and added at camp to boost the calorie density and richness of any meal. Many high-density foods are also very compact and durable (nuts, chocolate). Others require practice to pack for easy dispensing and minimum mess without a heavy container (nut butters, nutella). Specialty stores now sell powders like cream-base powder, cheddar cheese, cream cheese and coconut cream that can be mixed with trail food to boost the calorie density, as can powdered whole milk. Most meal bars or so-called “Power” bars and many prepackaged dehydrated trail meals are only mediocre for calorie density. Check the labels!
Examples of high calorie-density trail foods:
1. Nuts and Almonds.
Almonds are 160 Calories per ounce. Are a superfood because you can easily eat them while you hike or sliver them and add them to your morning cereal or dinners to boost their caloric value and add some crunch to your meals. While 75% of the energy value of almonds is in the form of fat, they also provide 6 grams of protein per one ounce serving, which can be difficult to eat enough of on a long hike. 24 almonds equal one ounce of nuts, you can take them straight from the bag and dispense with any extra packaging.
If you don’t like almonds or you want more variety, many other nuts and seeds provide excellent caloric and nutritional value, eaten separately or combined into all nut gorp combinations. Eating salted varieties of nuts can also help replace the sodium that you sweat out on long hikes.
Peanuts, salted and unsalted – 170 calories per ounce
Cashews, salted or unsalted – 160 calories per ounce
Brazil nuts, salted or unsalted, 184 calories per ounce
Pistachios, shelled, salted and roasted – 160 calories per ounce
Sunflower seeds, roasted and salted, 173 calories per ounce
Walnuts, whole or pieces: 183 calories per ounce. 100% nutritive weight; 1% carbs, 98% fats, 1% protein; 8.9 calories/gram
2. Peanut Butter – 165 Calories per ounce. Peanut butter is a hiker staple because it’s high in protein (7 grams/ounce) and is relatively low in saturated fat (2.5 grams/ounce.) It’s also universally found in food stores. When you buy peanut butter you want to get it in a plastic jar because it’s lighter weight than glass, and because you can use the jar to rehydrate other dried foods, no cook style, while you hike. Some like Creamy Jif Peanut Butter the best. Buy organic, less sugar, no pesticides.
Peanut butter is a great additive to oatmeal – makes it “last” longer. With cinnamon & peanut butter, oatmeal is much more tolerable for long spans of time.
Almond butter: 97% nutritive weight, 23% carbs, 57% fats, 23% protein; 6.8 calories/gram
3. Tortillas and Bread.
Flour Tortillas – 87 Calories per ounce. The problem with bringing bread on the trail is that it’s bulky and goes stale very quickly. Flour tortillas are great food bag item if you crave bread and need something to eat with spreads like peanut butter. Tortillas are high in calories and shelf stable so you can carry them in your food bag until you’re ready to eat them. The smaller 7″ or 8″ size is easier to eat with and less prone to spillage. Tortillas are typically white flour, which isn’t great for you. But if you can get your hands on wholemeal tortillas, that’s a lot better. Tortilla wraps. They are lightweight, have plenty of calories and nutrition. They also have a nice round shape, so you can put plenty next to each other into a small place.
Logan bread – requires a relatively larger time investment to make at home, but it is good stuff! Add more types of fruit.
Pita bread – A go-to lunch is half a pita stuffed with peanut butter & a jelly packet and the other half of the pita stuffed with peanut butter and dried fruit.
Granola. Easy to make at home. Use large flake oatmeal, honey and milk powder, then add anything you want. Cook in oven then add dried cranberries, currants, raisins.
Bob’s Red Mill Muesli – 98 Calories per ounce. Muesli is a mixture of rolled oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit that can be eaten hot or cold, with or without milk. Bob’s Red Mill Muesli, also available Gluten Free, has about 98 calories per one ounce serving, including 21 grams of carbohydrates. I typically eat 4 servings (1 cup) for breakfast mixed with dehydrated milk and extra raisins to further increase its caloric content. Muesli will fill you up and get you going in the morning but can be eaten at any time during the day.
Quaker Perfect Portions Oatmeal: No sugar, add as needed to package (12oz.)
Breakfast on trail *might* be a peanut butter & snickers tortilla.
Nido Dehydrated Whole Milk – 150 Calories per ounce. Nido is dehydrated whole milk that has a whopping 150 calories of nutritional value per ounce (8 ounces of milk prepared). On backpacking trips, pre-mix it with a cup of muesli in a Ziploc, add water, and eat it for breakfast. It also has 7 grams of protein per serving.
Wal-Mart makes an excellent Powdered Milk in individual 1 quart packets under their “Great Value” brand.
Meyenberg powdered whole goat milk, available in many grocery stores and food coops.
6. Energy Bars
Probars – 125 Calories per ounce. Probars are not like any other energy bar made. At 370-380 calories each (125 per ounce), they’re rich in raw foods and available in an assortment of flavors which keep them from getting boring on longer trips.
Bear Valley Pemmican bars are a staple in my bear can, they pack great, taste good, and have a well-balanced nutritional profile.
7. Nutella Chocolate Hazelnut Spreadd – 150 Calories per ounce. Nutella is a chocolate hazelnut spread that you can smear on tortillas or eat right out of the jar. It’s a great backpacking food because once you start eating it, it’s difficult to make yourself stop. If you experience loss of appetite on hiking trips, Nutella might be a good antidote.
A much healthier alternative is mix equal parts of honey with tahini (the ones made from only sesame seeds and nothing else are best) in a jar with good quality cocoa-powder, you get something that’s just as nice, higher in energy value and way healthier.
8. Olive Oil – 240 calories per ounce. At 240 calories per ounce olive oil is 100 percent fat, 0% carbs, 0% protein and thus 100% nutritive weight; 9.0 calories/gram making it one of the most calorically dense foods you can eat on the trail. It’s a great addition to many soups or pasta dishes and can quickly augment their caloric content, although you need to be a little careful how much you consume in a single serving because it really loosens up your gut (2 ounces is a safe daily limit). When carrying olive oil in your backpack, you want to store it in a plastic bottle that doesn’t leak – Nalgene bottles work well. Flavoured olive oil can add extra tastes.
9. Trail Mixes and Snacks
Peanut M&M Chocolate Candies – 140 Calories per ounce. Peanut M&M’s may be one of the best foods every invented for backpacking. Available in bulk or in individually wrapped packages they are easy to find in most convenience and grocery stores. Combining peanuts and chocolate, they provide a mixture of quick energy and longer burning fats. 99% nutritive weight; 49% carbs, 37% fats, 14% protein; 5.8 calories/gram
Fruit-nut trail mix: 96% nutritive weight; 48% carbs, 36% fats, 16% protein; 5.7 calories/gram
Dried mangoes. Sweet and easy to pack.
Whole Foods has good trail mix in several flavors.
2 parts English walnuts, 1 part Brazil nuts, 1 part dehydrated Bing cherries,
Carab Cocoa – Net Wt. 3.75 oz. 106 G 440 calories. All 8 Essential Amino Acids. Ingredients: Malted corn and barley, nonfat milk, soy flour, honey, almonds, raisins, oats, soy oil, sunflower seeds, cocoa, wheat bran, carob.
Pringles – 170 cal/oz
Entemann’s Choc. chip Muffins (190 cal/muffin). 2 muffins = a great cold breakfast
Entemann’s Pound Cake on shorter hikes. Loaded with fat and it smooshes up real small.
Archer Farms (Target brand) dark chocolate espresso trail mix =
Fritos (160 cal/oz) – Plus they can double as emergency tinder for a fire
M&Ms are just lots of sugar. Instead I’d chew on peanuts (or even better other nuts) combined with pieces of high cocoa content (70% or more) chocolate.
Almonds, M and Ms and muesli can all be mixed with raisins and peanuts to get a nice calorie-rich mixture for backpacking.
Chocolate – Green and Blacks 85% dark chocolate at roughly 600 calories per 3.5 oz bar
Crackers – put them in an empty Pringles can. Works well.
Angel Hair Pasta – 100 Calories per ounce. If you like to eat hot meals on the trail, Angel Hair Pasta is one of the easiest and fastest forms of spaghetti to cook, taking just 4-5 minutes to boil, or slightly less than the time it takes to cook Ramen Noodles. My favorite way to eat Angel Hair Pasta is to mix it with olive oil and a few ounces of shaky Parmesan Cheese (also over 100 calories per ounce) in the cook pot, making a tasty and calorie rich meal.
Dried tortellini. Half of one of the small Barilla tortellini packages makes a nice large meal. For sauce I save some pasta water & add part of a pesto sauce package and part of a spaghetti sauce packet. Toss in some pepperoni
For pasta prefer wholemeal, there’s just more good stuff in them. Takes a bit longer to cook, but if you’re concerned about fuel, put pasta in boiling water and then let it sit for a bit longer than normal wrapped in a towel or a coat or a sleeping bag and it gets cooked just as well with lots less fuel.
Little macaronis, pastina, orzo, cous-cous cooks fast and will soak up lots of butter/olive oil.
11. Meat Ideas.
Dried Beef, opened and allowed to complete drying in fridge, Very salty, makes great stews, rinsed.
Jerky any style. Whole Foods has good low salt jerky. Make your own beef and turkey jerky with 10% of the salt used in commercially prepared foods.
Pepperoni, bacon, ham – add some salt to bacon and ham.
Salami and other similar cured meats, as well as hard cheeses.
Tuna is low in calories per ounce but adds some variety.
12. Some meal ideas.
A. Trail Soup: a. two handful of dehydrated vegies, handful of beef bits, half a handful of rice, some dried onion. b. Chicken Noodle: 1 Mrs Grass packet, added 1 cup of water, 1/8 stick pepperoni, 2 handfulls extra noodles. c. Instant soups – good to replace salt, to flavor other meals.
B. Instant mashed potatoes – although not that calorie dense is a good carb treat.
C. Rice/Pasta Sides – 1 packet Knorr, 1/4 cup meat of choice, 1/pound of cheese. Add meat, boil and add rice. Add cheese and turn off to let cook in cozy.
D. Hormels Mary Kichen Corned Beef Hash 7.5 oz can of – 340 calories, 200 fat calories, carbs 22.grams. In the cold you need carbs to burn for immediate heat, but over the long-term Fat is better and you sleep warmer after a dinner of fried Corned Beef Hash, MRE Bread with a bit of Olive Oil spread upon it, hot chocolate, and dried apricots. Lastly there is an on-line company called Pack It Gourmet you should take the time to visit.
E. Powdered coconut milk is amazing. I prepare zip-loc bags of dehydrated white rice, coriander, bell pepper, carrots, peanuts, thai spices and the powdered coconut milk. When I rehydrate it, I add some oil. This makes for an incredible thai backpacking meal. Also, the coconut milk is calorically dense – 210 calories an ounce with 14 grams of saturated fat per serving.
F. Ramen noodles to which I add dehydrated green beans, onions, jalapeño peppers, and mushrooms, along with some dried soybeans, sunflower seeds, potato soup mix, shredded jerky.
G. dehydrated beans and veggies, instant rice, herbs and spices.
H. Trail Stew: handful of dehydrated vegies, handful of beef bits, half a handful of rice, some dried onion, 1-2tbs of bisquick/cold water.
I. Chilli: 1 chili seasoning packet, a handful of dried tomatoes-diced. a handful of cooked/dehydrated red beans, some chili powder to taste, add a handful of broken up/rinsed dried beef and red pepper.
J. Poached Trout: 1/2 cup of rice, 1-2 chicken bullion cubes, 1-14″ trout, cut into small steaks. Boil water and bullion, add rice and drop fish on top. Simmer for 1-2 minutes to insure trout is cooked. Turn off and wait about 15 minutes for rice to soften.
Cocoa Mixes around ~90 calories per .75oz packet.
Raw dark cocoa powder at some food coops and mix up your own cocoa mix with the addition of some sugar and powdered milk.
Coffee. a. Nescafe has little pack of instant coffee, they are called 3 in one. The barbarian way is to pour it into your mouth, than pour water on it, hold it in and then swallow. The civilized way is mixing it with water inside a bottle. b. Folgers makes coffee singles that are like a tea bag. c. French press devices available and JetBoil makes one for their unit. French presses have more “fiddle factor” but make a pretty good cup of Joe. d. Starbucks instant – hard to beat. e. Instant coffee with powdered creamer in a Ziploc. Spoon it out to taste.
Ala Olia: Garlic bits fried in olive oil added to any meal.
Salt and pepper
15. Dehydrated black bean flakes: 88% nutritive weight; 74% carbs, 3% fats, 23% protein; 4.9 calories/gram
16. Whole powdered milk: 87% nutritive weight; 42% carbs, 31% fats, 27% protein; 4.8 calories/gram
Of course, a trail menu consisting only of olive oil and nuts makes for monotonous and non-nutritious fare. Meals you don’t want to eat and just carry back home with you are going to deliver the fewest calories of all! So your trail menus should include a balanced variety of foods that you look forward to eating, so you will usually carry some lower-calorie-density foods. Balance them with as many grams of high calorie-density food per day as you can consistently consume. Paying attention to calorie density will help you work toward a tasty trail diet that has the lowest possible weight in your pack.
Conversely, some backpacking ‘staples’ will surprise you with their somewhat lower calorie density (jerky, oatmeal, brown rice, beans, mashed potatoes, breads). Some of these foods are in that category because of high fiber content, while others are there because of a high water content (such as vacuum-packed tuna or cooked chicken breast). The calorie density of foods in the latter group can be increased by dehydrating or purchasing dried versions for the trail.
Examples of lower calorie-density trail foods:
▪ Teriyaki beef jerky: 68% nutritive weight; 37% carbs, 5% fats, 58 protein; 2.9 calories/gram
▪ Instant mashed potatoes: 54% nutritive weight; 60% carbs, 20%fats, 13% protein; 2.8 calories/gram
▪ Instant maple-brown sugar oatmeal: 42% nutritive weight; 76% carbs, 16% fats, 8% protein; 2.7 calories/gram