Pay attention to the menu

Backpacker begins its tips for your culinary delight in the wilderness with some stern advice "If you carry an extra day's worth of food, you might as well carry a rock in your pack. [...]Carrying emergency extra food is tempting, but how many three-season trips turn into unplanned epics? In a survival situation, water and shelter will be much more important than food."

So no extra sausage rolls for you, fatso! Instead, as a guideline for how much food to take, they suggest choosing "items that deliver 100 cals per ounce, like candy bars, trail mix and cheese. Total weight, two pounds per person per day is a good starting figure - but individual needs may vary."

Backpacking North says...
To begin with their first point, there is some truth to their idea that you don't necessarily need to pack an extra day's food on a three-season, weekend trip. If you are familiar with the area you'll be hiking, and with some basic compass skills, the likelihood of you getting completely lost is pretty slim. Of course, there's always the possibility that you might miscalculate the distances you plan to walk, or decide to spend another day out, bet even then you will in all likelihood survive for one day on an empty stomach.

Now, I'm not advocating not taking a reserve supply of food on all trips. The point is to use some common sense to determine the likelihood of you needing it. In summer, assuming I'm going somewhere reasonably familiar, it's not a high priority. If I was off hiking in a vast, unfamiliar wilderness, miles away from any method of communication, I'd definitely pack some extra food. Similarly in winter I always pack a little more than necessary, in case I need extra to fuel me through the night, or in the event that I suffer some kind of catastrophic gear failure.

In the end, the basic rules of wilderness travel apply; be prepared and always let someone know where you're going and when you plan to be back (there's even a website for that:


The Ultralight Cook's Companions

Let's turn to Backpacker's second point: the issue of how much food to take per day.

I almost dread getting into figures, fearing the wrath of those more fanatically obsessed with calorific minutiae than I, but as hard as I want to avoid it, it seems impossible. So rather than pull a bunch of conspicuous data out of thin air, let's take a quick look around the internet (although some would say that's the same thing) to see what other people think is a good average daily requirement.

Ray Jardine: 2.5 lbs (1.1kg) per day for thru-hiking
Ryan Jordan: 1.25lbs (.57kg) per day (at 125 calories per ounce, or 440 calories per 100g) for a 3-season, 3-day trip
Andrew Skurka: 1.5 lbs per day (also at 125 calories per ounce)
Mike Clelland: 1.4 lbs (.63kg) per day

Backpacker suggests two pounds (900g) of food per day per person, or 100 calories per ounce (28g). Comparing this to the data above, we can see that we could aim for less weight, and more calories. Something between 1.25 – 1.5 lbs (0.57 - 0.68 kg) per day, and that 125 calories per ounce appears to be a generally accepted standard.

Personally, I find thinking of weight per day a little too abstract and potentially unrelated to nutritional and calorific value. On the other hand, I find looking a the amount of calories provided per gram too detailed. But I'm a particularly unscientific person when it comes to food. For me, looking at the amount of calories I need per day is about as technical as I like to get. It's a lot simpler, but still far from conclusive. The amount of food you take should also, of course, be based on individual needs: your BMI, your metabolism, your stamina, your penchant for reindeer jerky... To repeat what appears to be the refrain for this series: what works for me doesn't necessarily work for you. It's impossible to give a guide that meets the requirements of every person. We're all different, so any figures are necessarily estimates which can at best be used as starting points. Still, for your edutainment, here are some numbers to delight and enthrall:

Average male: 2500/day
Average female: 2000/day
US Army: 4500 calories/day for strenuous work
Andrew Skurka: 3000/day for short trips (5000/day for his mega hikes)

Okay, so if an average male needs around 2500 calories a day, and Mr. Skurka recommends 3000/day for short trips, we can see that on a simple weekend hike we're really not going to need that much more food than we would eat on any average day sitting around on our backsides eating Nacho Cheese Balls.

Hence, I offer you the very scientific Backpacking North advice: "take a bit more food than usual." Finding an extra 500 or so calories to keep me going on the trail is never usually a problem. Between munching on chocolate, energy bars, jerky, and doubling up basic portions for breakfast and dinner, I typically have plenty of calories to go around, and frankly, I don't usually notice if I don't quite meet the values of some caloric intake table. I think most of us wouldn't be too upset if we burned off a little fat in the process of hiking either.

cookset 6.jpg

On a two or three day hike, it's highly unlikely that you won't have enough food, and even if you do go a little hungry, you won't die (probably; hopefully). To quote Backpacking Light's publication Lightweight Backpacking and Camping, "A few days of hiking at a significant calorific defecit won't kill you, and most of us, bu invoking some mental fortitude, can survive a few days without food with no long-term effects." For a longer hike (say a week or two) you obviously need to plan a little more so you get enough vitamins and nutrition, and don't end up hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest store with an empty food bag. But even if, owing to some miscalculation, you don't have quite enough food to last, have to ration out what you have, and may end up a little hungry, you'll survive. As ever, the most valuable data is that gained with experience of hiking: only you know what you need.

When it comes to ultralight food, the more relevant issue is how to reduce the weight of the food you want to carry. The type of food you eat is of equal importance to how much you eat.  Fast burning sugars are of less use than long burning carbs. The trick is in combining them sensibly, and spreading them out over the day, and this is where getting to grips with nitty-gritty details of calories per ounce can come in handy.


What to eat

If we look at the statistical nuggets shared by Messrs Jordan, Skurka and Clelland above, we can see that it's fairly typical to work towards an average of 125 cals per ounce (or 440 cals per 100g). Of course, the key word there is "average" - we can achieve this by mixing high-calorific density foods (such as cashews, olive oil, butter, chocolate et al) with less calorifically dense but still nutritious staples.

That might sound complicated, but guess what, it's pretty much what you do everyday when you cook. For hiking we just need to stack the deck in favour of the high-density foods to gain a few extra calories, and reduce the weight of the food we carry in the process.

A fantastic resource for discovering the calorific content of pretty much every food imaginable is the USDA food nutrition site. For example, without even searching for anything I can see that salted butter has 717 cals per 100g - already well above our desired average of 440 cals per 100g.  A quick look at couscous reveals a far below average of 112 per 100g, but that's okay because butter and cashews alone do not a tasty meal make. Combine the butter (or even better - and healthier - olive oil at 884 per 100g) and cashews with some couscous, dried tomato, a little chilli powder, and perchance some dates (because dates are great) and hey presto, you're well on the way to a tasty evening meal that doesn't weigh too heavily in the pack, and is quick and easy to prepare.

The USDA site is packed full of other info on the nutritional content of various foods, so you can easily balance your meals to get the vitamins, carbs, and proteins your cardiovascular system is desperately crying out for.


How to eat light

As far as ultralight eating technique is concerned, there are two camps (ho ho ho). Some like to eat on the go, and often will hit the trail without breakfast, snacking all day long as they walk. Such people tend to be those covering high milage, for whom constant movement is one of the benefits offered by ultralight hiking.

Others (such as myself) like to take it easier, hang around in camp for breakfast, eat snacks ont he trail, maybe have a light lunch, then settle down for a feast in the evening. Neither is better or worse than the other, and both offer their advantages.

Whichever method suits your hiking practice, it might help to divide up your calorie intake into breakfast/morning, lunch/afternoon, and dinner/evening. How you choose to do this again depends on your particular style. Lightweight Backpacking and Camping suggests:

  • Breakfast, 20-25%
  • Lunch 50-60% as a series of snacks
  • Dinner, 20-25% as late on-trail or in-camp meal

Personally, I tend to have about 20% for breakfast, 40% spilt between trail munching and a light lunch,  and 40% for an evening meal, but I know I have good stamina and can keep going for a long time on a fairly empty stomach. I also like the promise of stuffing my face in the evening as a reward for a good day's hiking.


How to cook light

One of the most significant changes I underwent on the road to ultralight was rethinking cooking methodology. While I always felt that taking pots, lids, cutlery, spices, detergent, a sponge, a fairly heavy stove, tins of tuna(!) was a pain, it never occurred to me that there might be another way... until I read about freezer-bag cooking.

One thing I always hated form my ultra-heavy days was the drudgery of cleaning a pot full of burned rice or oats. Wouldn't it be nice to eliminate all the preparation and cleaning up work from the campsite kitchen?

And what if all the food preparation were taken care of before you leave, at home, and cooking on the trail was simply a matter of pouring boiling water into a bag? In one fjell swoop (sorry) you'd reduce your pack weight and save yourself the hassle of doing the dishes. Welcome to freezer bag cooking.

Freezer-bag breakfast, with the addition of nature's bounty.

Freezer-bag breakfast, with the addition of nature's bounty.

Freezer-bag cooking, as its eponymous name cleverly suggests, is the art of cooking in freezer bags – also known as Ziplocs, Glad, and Minigrips – the same easy-to-seal bags you'll likely find stuffed in a bottom drawer somewhere in your kitchen. The method is simple: prepare your meal in advance in dried form (be it breakfast, lunch or dinner), add the appropriate amount of boiling water on the trail, and after a few minutes your meal is ready to be eaten straight from the bag. No mess. No cleanup. No nonsense. By using dried food you eliminate the water which is the main weight culprit in fresh foods, and, just as important, by cooking less you'll save on the amount of fuel that needs to be carried or collected.

You might be thinking that those flimsy plastic bags wont take boiling water, but you'd be surprised. It's worth checking at home to be on the safe side (I wouldn't want your coq au vin to spill all over your BPL Coccoon pants) but I've yet to experience a burst or melted bag. The best ones to look for are those that have a bellows-style bottoms that allows them to stand on their own.

It also helps to have something you can use to hold the hot bag of meal, and for this I recommend the ever-useful buff, a multi-use tool par excellence. A long-handled spoon or spork (no need for spork cover) comes in very handy too.

When you've eaten, just squeeze out the air, seal the bag, stuff it in your trash and pack it out.

So how might one go about preparing such a meal?
Often it's simply a matter of combining readily available ingredients. For breakfast, for example, I chuck a couple of packets of instant oats in to a bag and I'm good to go. By doing this you can also eliminate the weight of frequently excessive packaging.

For dinner, or more ambitions meals, it can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Couscous, as previously mentioned, makes a very easy meal, and you can add all sorts of pre-dried goodies to create a feast. If couscous isn't your grain of choice, there's always rice and potato flakes to bulk out your meal. The joy is in the art of combining dried ingredients into a tasty, quick meal.

While it's fairly easy to concoct a decent feast from readily available dried foods, if you want total control over backcountry cuisine, you should look into getting a food dehydrator. By drying whatever ingredients (or even complete meals) you fancy, you can take your gourmet lifestyle on the trail. I've only experimented briefly with dehydrators in the US (my dehydrator wasn't compatible with Euro voltages, so it got sold) but it's great fun and makes the house smell delicious. For more advice on the joys of drying all kinds of stuff out, take a look the king of ultralight dehydration cuisinehrxxLight. He'll even teach you how to dehydrate your toothpaste! While a good food dehydrator isn't cheap, at least in Finland you can rent one really cheaply from 4H.

Another great sourcefor recipes and ideas that I often refer to is Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple by Sarah Svien Kirkconnel.

If you have any good recipes, or know of any good links please add them in the comments.

One last thing: remember to be sensible when cooking in bear country. I can't afford my readership to fall any lower.

What does Backpacking North munch on?

I nearly always start the day with a couple of packets of oatmeal. I usually mix two ready-made packets of different varieties, typically combining an apple & cinnamon with a date-flavoured one. You could easily spruce that up with a dash of powdered milk, and maybe some ghee and brown sugar.

On the trail I snack on whatever home-made gorp I've concocted. This usually contains chocolate in the form of M&Ms or choc chips, cashew nuts, raisins, japanese crackers, yogurt raisins, and slices of dehydrated mango (delicious!). I often also carry a stash of jerky, and an emergency energy gel pack (on very rare occasions, on and off trail, I get a sugar crash, so I like to know I'm covered should I experience one in the middle of nowhere).

For many years, I often took along a tortilla or two, and a couple of packets of flavoured tuna to make a lunch wrap. Recently, however, tortilla and tuna have fallen out of favour. The tortilla nearly always dry up and break, and the tuna packaging is actually quite heavy. Instead I've started snacking on more gorp as I walk, and then for lunch I just eat a Clif bar (or equivalent protein and calorie-rich bar). Sure, it's less glamourous (and probably less healthy) than a delicious tuna sandwich, but for short trips where food variation is less important, it revives me, and keeps me moving.

On a not unrelated side note,  I always take along a tube of electrolyte tabs, with Nuun's Lemon-Lime being my favourite. They add a little taste to water, but more importantly restore mineral and electrolyte balance lost through extended activity. I've found they reduce aches and pains by keeping my muscles well lubricated.

For the evening meal I tend to be very lazy and just grab whatever packed, freeze-dried meal I happen to find in the stores. In the US, I grew partial to Backpackers Pantry Shepherd's Pie, which was a lot better than you might imagine. In my experience when you find one of those packaged hiking meals which is edible, you should stick with them and not get tempted by anything too exotic (Kashmir Curries and Moroccan Quinoa Casseroles are far better kept between you and your dehydrator).

Fred attempts to find flavour in a Mountain House meal.

Fred attempts to find flavour in a Mountain House meal.

If I was going on a longer expedition I'd start dehydrating my own ingredients and meals. But for quick, spur-of-the-moment trips, it's not worth the hassle. I also keep a plastic box in the gear closet full of leftover and unused meals, packets of oatmeal, etc, so I can grab something quickly and head off if the opportunity arises.

You might be wondering about rations. Those freeze-dried meals are nearly always labelled "for two", but when you look at the calorie content, you'll invariably find that they will just about provide enough for one when taking into consideration your increased activity. So good news, abandon all guilt ye who open at the dotted line.

What do others eat?

Lamb Tagine. © Fuizion

Lamb Tagine. © Fuizion

Food is such a personal choice it would be foolish to try to spot trends among the blogging cognoscenti.

However, when it comes to picking a favourite pre-packaged meal, there has recently been fervent excitement over the arrival of Fuizion's range of trail foods. I've yet to taste any of them, but the descriptions on their website already have my mouth watering. Bloggers are raving even more than usual abou them, and even a quick look at the photos reveals food that's a cut above your typical freeze-dried fare.

Check out what TerryRoger and Phil think about them.

As far as general tips and advice on trail food is concerned, there is a wealth of information available both online and in print.

Sam H. keeps it simple with advice and a breakdown of his food technique for an overnighter.

Stick shares his thoughts on freeze-dried food, including freeze-dried ice cream which I, too, have tried, and found to be a most peculiar experience.

Hendrik has much to say on the matter of food. Food for Thought part 1 covers the basics, part 2 gets into the realm of spreadsheets, and part 3 features some particularly nasty Chorizo. His post on stoveless cooking is also worth checking out.  I'm considering a few super ultralight trips this year, taking advantage of Lapland's laavu's and firepits to reduce weight to an absolute minimum, so this was of particular interest to me. More can be found on this interesting topic over at uloutdoors on Jake Down's guest posts (one and two), and in Finnish at Ilman täydennystä.

Another way to make sure you have ample food without having to carry it is to learn some foraging and hunting skills. How about taking along a Tenkara rod if there are some nice freshwater streams or lakes around? Or perhaps learning to identify mushrooms and herbs?

If you want to try the "ultimate ultralight backpacking snack", head on over to ShockinglyDelicious where they try out Mick Clelland's recipe for Super Spackle. I have to say is does look rather scrumptious.

Last but not least, in a first for Backpacking North, I offer you my recipe for Spicy Couscous with Dates.


Backpacking North's Spicy Couscous with Dates

This is based on a recipe I have at which I adapt for the trail according to what I fancy and have available in the cupboards. I've offered approximate alternatives here for some of the original ingredients, but feel free to mess with the ingredients and amounts.

3 tbsp dried onions
2 whole star anise pods (optional, but gives it a nice tang)
salt to taste
1.5 tbsp dried garlic (or less garlic powder)
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped and dried (or substitute sun-dried tomatos)
1 tbsp red chilli flakes (or to taste)
1/2 tsp black pepper, ground
dried equivalent of 4 large mushrooms, (a handful of porcini would be ideal), chopped or broken
1/4 cup chopped dates (although you can happily put more in)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup uncooked couscous
1stock cube or tbsp dried stock powder
1 tbsp lemon juice (optional, if you choose to carry it though, it's worth it)
1 tbsp olive oil/ghee
1.5 cups / 350ml water

1. At home, combine all dried ingredients in a ziploc bag and write 1.5 cups or 350ml on the bag so you remember when you get to camp after walking around lost for hours.
2. At camp, add the requisite amount of water and squelch it all around the bag so it's all mixed well.
3. Add the oil/ghee and lemon juice if you're using it.
4. Wait. The longer you wait, the softer the mushrooms (depending on how much you dried them). Tip - they are the weak point of the recipe in the field. You could soak them a little before if you want to.
5. Fluff with a spork and enjoy.

Until next time... I look forward to tips, advice, and hopefully some recipes from readers and bloggers!


Mountain House
Backpackers Pantry
Packit Gourmet
Real Turmat
Backcountry Cuisine
Freezer Bag Cooking / Trail Cooking
FBC 101
Brian Green's Freezer Bag Cooking and delicious Cranberry Chicken with Stuffing
More recipes than you can shake a dash of pepper at, at Backpacking Chef

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