Those who like to travel light in the wilderness are always looking for the lightest backpacking food they can take. Of course, light doesn’t mean crackers or other things that have little weight for their volume. When hiking you need calories above all, so the lightest foods are those that provide the most calories for the weight. Here are some to consider, as well as two other ways to cut the weight of the meals you carry with you.
Nuts And Seeds
By far, one of the healthiest and most calorie-packed foods you can take with you are nuts and seeds. Mixed nuts, for example, typically have 170 calories per ounce, as well as the protein and amino acids you need. Sunflower seeds are similar (a bit lower in calories if raw). That compares to only 110 calories per ounce for pure sugar, or 75 calories for bread.
Olive oil is not only one of the healthiest (and most delicious) oils you can eat, but it comes with 240 calories per ounce. This is the most calories you can carry for the weight, making this the lightest of the backpacking foods. It can be carried safely in a small plastic bottle, and used for salads made of wild greens, on pasta, or just for dipping bread into. An added advantage in cooler weather is that fats produce heat as they digest.
Other Lightweight Backpacking Foods
Some crackers have 120 calories per ounce, and chocolate has about 150. Look at the nutritional label and try to carry foods that have more than 110 calories per ounce. That is the average, by the way, for any basic carbohydrates, whether in the form of sugar, pasta or potato flakes. You can certainly mix the higher energy foods like nuts with a few carrots or other low-calorie foods brought for health purposes, but try to keep the overall average up there if you want to go light.
What should you aim for with your calorie count? I try to keep my average above 120 per ounce. With a pound and a half of food per day that means around 2,900 calories. You’ll likely burn a little more than that each day on the average hiking trip, but losing a pound or two is no disaster for most people.
Skip The Backpacking Stove
Another way to save weight with your backpacking food is to bring only meals which don’t have to be cooked. This will be a problem for those that can’t get comfortable without a hot dinner, but some of us enjoy the break from cooking and washing pots. There is no reason you can’t have a healthy diet without cooking, and most backpacking is done in the warmer months, so why not try a no-cooking trip?
You will save the weight of the stove, as well as the fuel. There is a compromise that gets you one hot meal, without carrying the equipment. Just put a few frozen hotdogs in a sealed plastic bag and wrap them in the clothing in your pack to insulate them. In this way it should take them a full day to thaw out, so on day two you can cook them over a fire.
More Radical Weight Savings
If you really want to go light on your backpacking food, there are two other tricks to use. The first is called carbo-loading. You essentially avoid carbohydrates for a week or so, and then eat a lot of them in the two days prior to your trip, causing you body to store them. With this routine, your body can store up to 1,800 calories of carbs in your blood, liver and muscles, in the form of glycogen. That means you can pack less food (okay, it only gets you half-day’s worth).
The other less extreme and perhaps more enjoyable technique is to learn enough about wild edible plants to supplement your diet. I have eaten hundreds of calories of wild raspberries in a twenty-minute break while hiking in the Colorado mountains. If you know the seasons of the various plant foods where you’ll be going, you can essentially replace some pack weight with your knowledge. Even if you don’t want to plan on eating wild edibles, knowing them well means you can more safely carry the minimum amount of backpacking food you think you’ll need.