Obviously, there is no one size fits all when it comes to food, so in this episode, I’m going to share what’s worked well for me on the trail plus 3 overarching guidelines any hiker can follow when buying or packing up your backpacking meals and snacks.
Listen to Episode 14: 3 Hiking Food Tips and Tricks
Or listen on Apple Podcasts \\ Google Podcasts \\ Spotify
Disclaimer: I’m a hiker, I am definitely not a doctor and not a nutritionist – if you have any ANY special concerns, medical conditions or allergies you’re trying to work around – please work closely with a doctor or nutritionist to find out what works for you.
This post may contain affiliate links for your convenience, see my full disclosure for more info.
3 Hiking Hacks To Pack Better Backpacking Food
I think we all can agree that hiking, and especially backpacking can be taxing on the body and food is the fuel that gets us through it.
So let’s start with some overall goals – at least for me, these are goals or guidelines I like to keep in mind when shopping for or packing up hiking food and backpacking meals.
Pack high calorie foods to fuel your body
I go for high-calorie foods, that are packed with protein or fat or both. This episode is actually inspired by a hiker who had reached out for advice because she said no matter what she did she kept bonking after only 6 miles or so but really wanted to train and build up to hike farther but just couldn’t.
She said she has been strictly tracking her macros (which means tracking carbs, fats, and proteins, and calorie intake) and was meeting all her macros while staying under 1,200 calories a day.
Wait, what?!?! Girl!!!! Your body needs calories! Repeat after me: my hiking body needs calories.
And now obviously this depends on the trail, the terrain how much weight you’re carrying, and so on – but it’s not unheard of for backpackers to burn more than 4,000 calories per day while struggling up and down over thousands of feet of elevation gain with a 30+ lb pack on.
Of course, you’re going to bonk early if you’re limiting yourself to only ~1000 calories per day.
Also – I gather the term bonk might be a regional thing, so just to clear that up, when I say that, I mean when you totally and completely run out of energy, you’re done, kaput, do not pass go, do not collect $200, you can’t hike any further cause you’re body is about to give out on you.
That’s what happens you don’t give your body enough fuel on the trail…. Ok, ok, this can also happen when you get too dehydrated or from hormonal swings or other health issues – but most commonly, hikers bonk when they’re not eating enough, not drinking enough, or not replenishing their electrolytes.
So while I don’t necessarily aim to eat 4,000 calories a day while hiking. I always make sure I have at least 2,000 calories, even on day hikes, and I don’t worry at all about going over that. I use that as my marker like if I have less than 2,000 calories packed – it’s a big red flag that I need to pack more food.
If you’re buying prepackaged backpacking meals – or any prepackaged food really, keep an eye on the calories, some things foods or even backpacking “dinners” might be shockingly low on calories, meaning you might have to eat two of those meals or add in some olive oil or avocado oil so you actually get your fuel in you. Then again, they may be perfect or even a little high in calories, which is fine, I’m just saying check these things ahead of time while you’re packing so you don’t find out you only packed 300 calories for dinner once you’re at your campsite.
A quick side note on electrolytes, I always always always keep electrolyte tabs in either my food bag or first aid kit, just because dehydration can be such a devastating issue for hikers – and so easily prevented with lots of water and electrolytes. I like Nuun tablets in case you’re curious, they’re light, actually packed with electrolytes and supplements without all the sugar and additives that are in other sports drinks.
Pack lightweight meals and snacks
my next guideline is for the weight of my food, and this is more applicable to backpacking than day hiking, but here it is, I aim to pack between 1 lb and 2 lbs of food per person per day. Again this is a guide that tells me, if I have more than 2 lbs of food per person per day packed, that is way too much food and I need to cut back. If I have less than 1 lb of food per person per day packed, I have too little and need to add in some extras.
Once you’re more experienced and have a better idea of how much you like to eat and how much you need on the trail, you can cut it closer to 1 lb, I really shoot for 1-1.5 lbs of food per day, but when I first started and I was scared of being hungry, I packed closer to 2 lbs of food.
Also a kitchen food scale makes this process magical, I don’t know how I lived so long without one.
If you’re loving this episode so far and want a list of specific hiking snacks and backpacking meals, you can download my Cheatsheet of Easy Hiking Snacks and Meals for free.
Don’t pack more food and smellies than will fit in your food bag or bear canister
My last big guideline is space, again this is more applicable to overnight hiking, but while I’m still at home, I pack up all my tentative food in my food bag or in my bear canister if it’s required and make sure that it fits!
If it doesn’t fit, I go back to square one. Haha no, just kidding! But I do know that either I have to cut back a little bit, or make some swaps for some other more compact food, or pare down some packaging if I can, or consider – can I eat the biggest things on my first day so I don’t have to worry about it that first night – a word of warning, that can be playing with fire and I’ve heard of many hikers who tried to use this tactic and thought they could fit all their smellies in their bear canister only to find out, on that first night on the trail after hiking in, that their food does indeed not fit in their bear canister.
So only rely on not counting the food you’re going to eat on your first day if you’re 120% sure the rest of your smellies will then fit into your bear can or bear hang or Ursack or whatever you do.
Those are my 3 guidelines when it comes to food and then even more specifically what I’ve found works for me and what I found made the biggest difference in how I feel on the trail, and off, is eating low carb high-fat food, or better known as keto. Because again, I noticed that I bonked most often when my blood sugar dropped, which like literally every 30 minutes on hard hikes because I was burning through high carb and high sugar snacks like they were nothing, so I kept having to stop and eat and then feel ok, keep hiking, feel super sluggish and have to stop and eat and the cycle continued.
Whereas now, eating high fat, high calorie, and higher protein foods, yes I still eat throughout the day but I feel good, I don’t have those sugar crashes or bonks like I used to, I don’t need to sit down every 30 minutes and have an empty calorie granola bar.
The only downside of this is that I do way more food prep and planning for myself to be able to eat this way, I dehydrate a lot of my own meals, I make my own keto-friendly oatmeal and my own homemade keto granola bars when I can. There are some low carb, sugar-free processed foods that are ready to go, and luckily I’ve noticed more and more coming out over the years, but they’re not nearly as common as of course Clif bar or luna bar or Nutri-Grain.
If you’re even a little bit curious about cutting back on carbs or sugar, I highly recommend trying it if you’re looking for more long-lasting energy throughout your days – do a ton of reading and research on it ahead of time, ask a ton of questions along the way, and also just know it is truly a lifestyle – if you try to cut out carbs for one day and then go hiking, you’re probably not going to feel super well doing that, literally just like with any dietary change, you have to give your body some time to figure out what’s going on and what to do with this new food you’re putting into it.
That’s my last tip – don’t do anything crazy or try anything too new (food or supplements) for the first time right before or during a hike. How many times in your life have you tried something new or tried a new diet and your stomach got all weird and rebelled on you? If we can prevent that from happening on the trail, that would be great!
I’ve heard this so many times from runners and some backpackers, who thought it would be a good idea to try eating GU packs for the first time during a run or a long hike and deeply regretted it, so I’m just saying, maybe experiment close to home first before packing these things on a long-distance hike.
Thank you so much for following the Hiking Lifestyle Podcast. If you want to download my cheat sheet of Easy Hiking Snacks and Backpacking Meal Ideas, you can download it for free here, and until next time happy hiking.