Figuring out how much food to bring on backpacking trips used to be really stressful for me. I would try to eyeball amounts and inevitably bring too much food, meaning my pack was way heavier than it should have been. Now, I use this system for calculating how much food to bring. It does take some time to calculate calories and make a meal plan but it’s well worth it to keep my pack light.
The Quick Answer:
Most people need about 21-25 calories per pound of their bodyweight when backpacking (or about 3,500 calories per day for a healthy man). This usually translates into about 2lbs of food per day. However, calorie requirements and amount of food needed can vary drastically depending on the difficulty of the hike, pack weight, and calorie density of the food you pack.
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Backpacking Calorie Calculator
How This Backpacking Food Calculator Works
This backpacking calorie calculator use the “Pandolf model.” It comes from a 1976 military study in which a researcher was tasked with figuring out how many calories soldiers burned when walking with their heavy packs on.
While the calculator is fairly good at giving you a ballpark amount of calories you’ll need, it can also be very inaccurate. The reason is because the calculator doesn’t factor in things like:
- What your actual basal metabolic rate is
- Muscle vs. fat you have on your body
- Hiking speed
- Terrain difficulty
- Whether you are male/female
- How long you are sleeping
- Outside temperature and weather
Also keep in mind that there are some issues with counting calories. As I talk about in this post about backpacking nutrition, calories do not always equal energy. For example, peanuts are very high-calorie but (as you can see in your poop), a lot of those calories are never absorbed by the body. Despite this, calorie counting is still the best way to figure out how much food you need to bring backpacking.
How Pack Weight Affects Calorie Needs
If you play around with the backpacking calorie calculator, you can see that your pack weight has a huge effect on how many calories you need 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.
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 – thus making it even more important to choose calorie-dense foods and plan meals well.
Other Ways of Figuring Out How Much Food to Bring Backpacking
1. Calories Per Pound of Bodyweight
An easy method of calculating how many calories 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|
2. Pounds of Food Per Day When Backpacking
If you don’t want to count calories, you can use the “pounds of food per day” method instead. Recommendations vary but are usually 1.5 to 2.5lbs of food per day. While this method is easier than tallying calories, it can be very inaccurate since it doesn’t take caloric density into account.
How Caloric Density Affects Pounds of Food Per Day Needed
Let’s say you estimate you need 2lbs of food per day on your trip. As the examples show, the foods you choose could result in a very different amount of calories.
- Uncooked macaroni = 106 calories/ounce. Two lbs of macaroni would provide 3,392 calories.
- Bread = 75 calories/ounce. Two lbs of bread would provide 2,400 calories.
- Starkist tuna in oil (pouch) = 58 calories/ounce. Two lbs of tuna would provide 1,856 calories.
- A fresh apple = 15 calories/ounce. Two lbs of apples would provide just 480 calories!
Calorie Density Guidelines for Backpacking
- Aim for foods with at least 110 calories per ounce. This will give you 3,520 calories/day in 2lbs.
- If you are thru-hiking and need to be ultralight, then aim for 150 calories per ounce. This will give you 4000 calories/day in 1.7lbs.
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. This recipe is in my ebook. Don’t forget you can get it here for 50% off.
Making a Backpacking Meal Spreadsheet
To making sure you are bringing the right amount of food backpacking, you will need to make a meal plan spreadsheet. This admittedly is a bit of a pain. However, it is worth the effort and gets easier over time.
To make a backpacking meal plan:
- Calculate 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
Sample Backpacking Meal Spreadsheet
Here’s an example of my backpacking meal spreadsheet. This was for an easy 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).
- 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.
- The calories came out to 124 calories/ounce.
- 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
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Below are pictures of some of the lightweight, calorie-dense recipes included in the book.
How many calories do you bring per day backpacking? And how do you calculate it? Let us know in the comments!