Figuring out how much food to bring on backpacking trips used to be really stressful for me. If it were just me going on the trip, I might not have worried too much. It wouldn’t be fun, but I could go without a meal or survive eating nettles and berries until getting back to town if really necessary.
But I backpack with my young daughter. There is no way that I’m about to let her go hungry (kid + hungry = grumpy!).
Before I got diligent about calculating how much food to bring backpacking, I would just “eyeball” the amounts. Inevitably, I’d bring way too much food. Since I’m already carrying gear for the both of us, my pack got VERY heavy!
It does take some time, but now I carefully calculate calorie requirements and make a spreadsheet to plan meals. The system means that I don’t stress about whether we have enough food, bring extra weight, or end up throwing away uneaten food. Here’s how it works.
*The title image shows 13,719 calories worth of food, which weighed a total of 6.9lbs (124 calories/ounce). This comes out to 4 days’ worth of backpacking food at 3430 calories per day. Or 2 days’ worth of food for 2-3 people.
- Calculating daily calorie requirements for backpacking
- How pack weight affects calorie needs
- Backpacking food spreadsheet
Daily Calorie Requirements when Backpacking
A typical adult requires about 1800-2800 calories per day. However, when backpacking, that amount can jump to 5000+ calories per day. (1)
Bear in mind that there are some issues with counting calories. As I talk about in this post about backpacking nutrition, calories do not equal energy. Rather, food contains calories (from carbs, fat, or protein) and our bodies then convert these into energy. There are also some issues with how calories in food is counted, such as how we don’t absorb many of the calories from whole peanuts but will absorb calories from peanut butter (the evidence can be seen in your poop!).
These issues aside, counting calories is still the most reliable way of figuring out how much food to bring backpacking.
There are three different methods which can be used to figure out how many calories you’ll need per day when backpacking.
Method 1: Calories Per Pound of Bodyweight
The easiest method of calculating how much food to bring backpacking is to go by your bodyweight. Backpacker gives these guidelines:
- Less active/rest days: 5-15 calories per pound of bodyweight
- Moderately active (60 minutes of easy hiking without pack): 16-20 calories per pound of bodyweight
- Very active (60-120 minutes of hiking on elevated terrain with a pack): 21-25 calories per pound of bodyweight
- Extremely active (long day of hiking with a pack): 25-30 calories per pound of bodyweight
For most backpacking trips which involve carrying a pack plus a bit of difficult terrain, it breaks down to this:
|Weight in Pounds||Calories Per Day|
|2-3 year old||1000-1400|
|4-8 year old||1400-2000|
|9-13 year old||1800-2600|
|14-18 year old||2400-3200|
Method 2: Pounds of Food Per Day When Backpacking
A lot of popular backpacking websites recommend bringing a certain weight amount of food per day when backpacking.
- REI recommends 1.5 to 2.5lbs of food per day
- Section Hiker recommends 2lbs of food per day
- Adventure Alan recommends 1.7lbs of food per day
However, using the “pounds per day” method can be a really bad way to calculate how much food to take backpacking because it does not take into consideration caloric density.
Calorie Density and Backpacking Food
Let’s say that you need 3500 calories per day while backpacking. As the examples below show, caloric density will affect how much those calories end up weighing:
- Uncooked macaroni = 106 calories/ounce. To meet your daily calorie requirements, you’d need to eat 33 ounces of pasta – or 2lbs worth of food per day.
- Bread = 75 calories/ounce (yes, I’ve actually seen people bring bread backpacking!). You’d have to bring 47 ounces of food, or nearly 3lbs of food, per day.
- Starkist tuna in oil (pouch) = 58 calories/ounce. You’d have to bring about 60 ounces of tuna, or 3.75lbs of food!
- A fresh apple = 15 calories/ounce. You’d have to eat 233 ounces of apples to get to 3500 calories – or 14.5lbs of apples!!!
Obviously, you aren’t going to eat just bread, pasta or tuna while backpacking. And you definitely shouldn’t bring fresh apples! But, the examples show how the caloric-density of food can drastically affect the weight.
Calorie Density Guidelines for Backpacking
If you want to reduce the weight in your pack (which will in turn reduce the amount of calories you burn), you really need to choose calorie-dense foods.
*As a general guideline, shoot for foods with at least 120 calories per ounce. This will give you 3500 calories/day in 1.8lbs.
*If you are thru-hiking and need to be ultralight, then shoot for 150 calories per ounce. This will give you 4000 calories/day in 1.7lbs.
I dehydrate my own backpacking meals. Even healthy meals can come out to more than 150 calories/oz. That means I can easily carry my own food plus my daughter’s food on trips, along with all our other gear. I’m a small, 110lb woman – so every ounce I can shed from my pack really matters!
Lots of junk foods are very calorie-dense (Fritos, anyone?). But, as I talked about in the backpacking nutrition post, getting the right nutrients is important for having a good trip. You can find a list of calorie-dense healthy backpacking foods here.
I made this healthy, yummy eggplant stew with pinto beans (above). When dehydrated, it weighs just 3.98oz for a 603 calorie serving – or 151 calorie/ounce! The recipe will be in my dehydrator cookbook. 🙂
Method 3: Backpacking Calorie Calculators
You can find a lot of backpacking calorie calculators online. Almost all of these use the “Pandolf model” for calculating calories.
The Pandolf model comes from a 1976 military study. The researcher was tasked with figuring out how many calories soldiers burned when walking with their heavy packs on.
Here is the calculation:
M = 1.5 W + 2.0 (W + L)(L/W)2 + n(W + L)(1.5V2 + 0.35VG)
- M= metabolic rate in watts
- W= subject weight in kg
- L= carried weight in kg
- V= walking speed (meters/second)
- G= the grade of any incline (%)
- N= “terrain factor” (a paved road has a terrain factor of 1.0 but a gravel road is 1.2)
Calculators based on the Pandorf method can give you a general ballpark figure of how many calories you need when backpacking. But there are some serious issues.
For starters, the Pandolf method was only tested with 6 subjects! That’s hardly enough people to give conclusive data. It also doesn’t account for decline in slope. No wonder this study on the Pandolf method have found that it underestimates calorie needs! There is also a 2013 calculation from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). But it’s even worse than the Pandolf method since it was only tested on 3 subjects and doesn’t include load.
There is a newer scientific study which sets to answer how many calories are burned when walking. The study looks at pack load, speed, and terrain grade. The data was compiled from 3,414 trials involving 32 subjects.
The new calculation:
V̇ o2walk-L/V̇ o2walk-UL = Wbody+load/WbodyV̇o2walk-L/V̇o2walk-UL=Wbody+load/Wbody
Where: V̇o2walk-L and V̇o2walk-UL are walking metabolic rates under loaded and unloaded conditions, respectively, Wbody + load is the total weight of the body plus load and Wbody is body weight only.
Before you start doing any crazy math, please know that….
Backpacking Calorie Calculators Are Not Completely Accurate!
It simply isn’t possible to plug in a few numbers and get an accurate description how many calories you will burn backpacking. Why? Because there are soooo many variables to consider, such as:
- What your actual basal metabolic rate is
- How much muscle vs. fat you have on your body
- Hiking speed
- Elevation gain/loss
- Terrain difficulty
- The weight of your pack…and that it will get lighter each day
- How your pack weight is distributed on your body
- Whether you are male/female
- What you are eating on the trail
- How long you are sleeping
- Outside temperature and weather
Any of these variables can completely change how many calories you need per day. (3, 4, 5, 6) However, the calculator can be a good starting point for figuring out calorie requirements. Here’s what I recommend:
- Use the calculator to get a ballpark figure
- Bring this many calories per day on a shorter backpacking trip
- At the end of the trip, see whether you ended up hungry or had too much food.
- You’ll know whether to pack more/fewer calories on the next trip.
Just keep in mind that calorie needs typically increase as a backpacking trip progresses. For example, on long thru-hikes, you’ll need to eat more calories at the halfway mark than at the beginning. It has to do with your metabolic rate increasing as you exercise and shed fat, as well as calories required to repair your body. (7)
Here is the backpacking calorie calculator based on the Pandolf calculation:
How Pack Weight Affects Calorie Needs
If you play around with the backpacking calorie calculator above, you can see that your pack weight has a huge effect on how many calories you burn per hour while backpacking.
- A 150lb hiker going 3mph on a 1% slope will burn about 274 calories per hour without a pack.
- The same hiker with a 40lb pack would burn about 334 calories per hour.
It was previously thought that each kilogram of body weight cost you more than pack weight. The newer study found that pack weight actually incurs the same metabolic cost as body weight! That can easily mean and extra 100-300 calories per hour.
That’s why going lightweight is so important when backpacking. Ironically, the more food weight you carry, the more food you will need to eat. So, plan how much food you take backpacking carefully.
Making a Backpacking Meal Spreadsheet
This admittedly is a bit of a pain in the ass. For shorter backpacking trips where weight isn’t such an issue, you can probably just eyeball the amount of food to bring.
Before I got diligent with meal planning spreadsheets, I just brought along how much we normally eat plus a bit more since we’d be more active. Inevitably I’d bring too much food.
For longer trips or when weight really matters, you really need to make a spreadsheet. It’s pretty straightforward:
- You figure out how many calories you will need per day.
- You make a list of everything you will eat each day
- Tally up the food and see if it meets your calorie requirements
- If you are serious about nutrition, you can also calculate protein and fat
Sample Backpacking Meal Spreadsheet
Here’s an example of my backpacking meal spreadsheet. This was for a weekend trip with my daughter, baby, and husband. I calculated about 7500 calories all three of us (I was breastfeeding the baby so needed the most calories at 2700; my husband got about 2500 and my daughter 1800 daily). The hikes were easy and relaxed.
- We eat a cooked meal for lunch. Many backpackers just snack for lunch.
- I first tally up the meal calories. Snacks are in a separate column. If I were on a longer hike, I would have specified which snacks were to be eaten each day.
- We actually ate breakfast at home on the first day. But, since we had breakfast on the third day before heading home, it totals 2 days of food.
- The calories came out to 124 calories/ounce. The cookies and other snacks had a low calorie density — but we enjoy eating them so brought them on this short trip.
- All the fruits and veggies are dehydrated, so they don’t weigh much
*I could have also brought this same amount of food for a 4-day backpacking trip. It would have worked out to about 3400 calories per day. Here (below) is how that spreadsheet would look. *The calorie count is off by 1 because of how I rounded the half calories.
Calorie Distribution for Backpacking Meals
Tallying up calories is easy, but getting the distribution correct took me a lot of trial and error. My biggest mistake was always not bringing enough snacks. I also would pack too much for breakfast.
Here are some general guidelines to go by when planning meals. Bear in mind that your needs may be different depending on factors like whether you like to have a cooked lunch, how strenuous your hikes are, and etc.
- Breakfast: Try to eat at least 400-600 calories for breakfast an hour before you hit the trail (or at least 20% of your daily calories). Some people like to have a much larger breakfast, but it will make you feel sluggish if you have a lot of hiking to do that day. So, don’t go too much about 25% of your daily calories for breakfast.
- Snacks: When hiking vigorously, you’ll need to eat about every hour. Try to get 120-240 calories per hour when hiking. One mistake I always made was taking too few snacks. Around 35% of your daily calories should be from snacks. If you are skipping lunch, then up to 50% of your daily calories should be from snacks!
- Lunch: I like to have a real, cooked lunch and will budget around 15% of my calories for lunch. However, I’m not thru-hiking nor am I usually trying to cover a lot of miles on a hike. If you are skipping lunch, make sure you have enough snacks. Also make sure those snacks have a lot of variety so your lunch doesn’t end up being just GORP. For example, I love trail hummus and crackers for lunch.
- Dinner: About 20-25% of your daily calories should be for dinner. That probably means around 400 to 750 calories for dinner. Note that many backpackers end up eating huge dinners though because they don’t calculate enough calories for the rest of the day. This is not a good system for fueling your body!
- Breakfast: About 20-25% of calories
- Lunch + Snacks: About 50-55% of calories
- Dinner: 25-30% of calories
Since my backpacking meals are “balanced” – meaning that they all contain a carb, protein, fat, and some fruits/veggies (even breakfast!), I don’t bother calculating the protein and fat contents of each meal in my spreadsheet. If you are very diligent about nutrition, then you can add these to your spreadsheet.
How many calories do you bring per day backpacking? And how do you calculate it? Let us know in the comments!