A Backpacker’s High-Calorie Meal Plan for One Day
Many people have trouble coming up with a high-calorie meal plan that is nutritious and wholesome for long-distance backpacking. This can be a real challenge for those who have high-calorie needs and want to avoid junk food on the trail.
On the trail, there are three main strategies for planning meals. You can purchase packaged meals, assemble your own from dried (dehydrated or freeze-dried) ingredients, or dehydrate your own meals. The focus of this article is on the first two options.
My interest in nutrition started in college when I took a nutrition course as a part of my biology and health science degree. I went to nursing school, ultimately ending up in Health Care Informatics. Along the way I became proficient in analyzing scientific data and developed an understanding of how data can be manipulated. I shy away from fad diets and concentrate on the basics, concentrating on the nutrients that make up a healthy, wholesome diet. When I wrote the chapter on nutrition in my book, The Hungry Spork, I had it reviewed by another Trek writer, Aaron Owens Mayhew, a registered dietitian and thru-hiker, just to double-check myself.
How to determine calorie needs is a complex topic. There are formulas but they are, at best, only a starting point. If you like formulas, use any number of online calculators to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Then apply another formula, called the Harris-Benedict equation, to find out how many calories you need during varying levels of activity. IdealProtein.com has a calculator that combines the two. The Harris-Benedict multiplier of 1.9 (multiple your BMR by 1.9 to get your calorie needs during strenuous activity) may not be high enough for thru-hikers. The US military has a scale that goes higher, up to 2.4.
An easier method is to do a rough estimate by weighing food for one day, aiming for 1.5-2.5 pounds of food per person using typical backpacking foods (predominantly dehydrated or freeze dried). Experience is your best guide. If you consistently come back from multiday trips with extra food, scale back. If you are losing an excessive amount of weight, you need more calories.
Calorie needs can be extremely variable and it bears repeating that formulas and food weight can be wildly inaccurate. Anecdotal reports of calorie requirements from hikers range from 2,500 calories a day to more than 5,000 calories a day. Consider such factors as age, build, metabolism, miles per day hiked, and the ruggedness of the terrain.
Quality of the Calories
If you listen to podcasts featuring The Trek’s thru-hikers, it’s common to hear that people realize at some point in their journey that their food plan isn’t working, especially if it involves a lot of empty calories. While it’s true that adequate overall calories are an important consideration, the quality of the calories also matters.
Carbohydrates are the main fuel needed for the energy to crank out the miles. There is a time for the simple carbs that you get from sugar, especially if you’re powering up a big climb. To avoid big spikes in blood sugar and insulin, it’s helpful to have complex carbohydrates that take longer to digest, such as those from whole grains.
Protein is often neglected in the typical backpacking diet, which tends to feature oatmeal, rice, potatoes, pasta, and other carbohydrates. Protein isn’t used for fuel as much, but it is needed to repair and build muscle. When thru-hikers start increasing their mileage from ten miles per day to 20-30 miles a day, it’s because they are getting fit and have built the muscles to do that. Meat is the easiest way to get protein, but vegetarians and vegans can combine different plant-based foods to get complete proteins. Protein can’t be absorbed quickly in large quantities so it’s best to consume small amounts with every meal. Sports nutrition experts recommend 0.45-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Fats are another potentially neglected food component since they are heavy. Fats are a fuel source, they make food taste better, and they also make you feel full longer. A small bottle of olive oil in a leak-proof container is a valuable addition to your pack. Fats are also found in cheese, peanut butter, milk powder, and chocolate.
High-Calorie Meal Plan for One Day
Here is a sample meal plan for a day that provides over 4,000 calories and 165 grams of protein, just to show that it can be done. Most of the options are healthy, whole foods that are minimally processed with as few additives as possible. This is a lot more food than I need and I doubt that I could eat all of this in a day. If you need even more calories, it’s not hard to push this to 5,000 calories. Double some portions and add more olive oil (it’s part of the pasta recipe that follows) or other high fat/high-calorie items such as full fat milk, chocolate, and jerky.
Breakfast (561 calories): Plain instant oatmeal (2 packages), full-fat powdered milk (1 tablespoon), chopped hazelnuts (1 tablespoon), raisins (1 tablespoon), brown sugar (1 tablespoon), roasted flax seeds (1 teaspoon), chia seeds (1 teaspoon), 6 pieces bacon jerky
Morning snacks (672 calories): Gourmet jelly beans (1.4 ounce), energy bar with 20 grams of protein, peanut M&Ms (1 ounce), hydration powder mix (24 grams)
Lunch (671 calories): Tortilla, dehydrated black bean flakes (1/2 cup), dehydrated quinoa (1/4 cup), sunflower seeds (1 tablespoon), string cheese (1), biltong (1 serving)
Afternoon snacks (436 calories): Gourmet jelly beans (1.4 ounce), energy bar, cashews (1 ounce)
Recovery drink powder (240 calories)
Dinner (1479 calories): Pasta with meat sauce (see options below: packaged food with enhancements or recipe for homemade, each 800 calories), hot chocolate mix (1 serving), full-fat powdered milk (1 tablespoon), 2 ounces dark chocolate
Carbohydrates: 524 g
Protein: 165 g; Fat 195 g
Sodium: 3543 mg
Calorie calculation spreadsheet available here.
Enhancing Packaged Foods
If you don’t have the desire, time, or equipment to make your own food, you can purchase packaged foods. Read labels and search for the ever-increasing numbers of purveyors who are making healthier freeze-dried meals than ever before Be sure to check nutrients, though, and make some strategic additions to improve calories, nutrition and flavor. Some packaged freeze-dried dinners have only 300 calories per serving and by increasing the servings, sodium levels go sky high.
Most thru-hikers repackage food anyway, so while you have the bag open, add ingredients from bulk containers of freeze-dried foods. Look at the base ingredients and add more freeze-dried beef, chicken, or sausage crumbles. You can also add instant mashed potatoes, instant rice, unflavored protein powder, healthy ramen noodles, bean flakes, or grains (cooked and dehydrated). While freeze-dried vegetables or fruits are great for flavor and nutrients, they can be bulky and don’t provide many calories. Add these only if you have space (if you’re carrying a bear canister, space will be limited).
On the trail, make it a habit to add a tablespoon or more of olive oil to just about any savory food to increase the fat calories.
Here is one example of how to beef up the nutrient value of Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce. One serving is only 240 calories (390 mg sodium). One package of 2.5 servings is 600 calories and a whopping 975 mg of sodium. Focusing on calories, we can add ¼ cup of freeze-dried sausage and a tablespoon of olive oil to provide 860 calories (1390 mg sodium). To bring the sodium down, we can play around with different ingredients using ½ package (1.5 servings) of lasagna. By using ¼ cup freeze-dried ground beef, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 package of wheat ramen noodles, and 1 tablespoon of cheddar cheese, we have 780 calories (718 mg sodium). With either set of the enhanced ingredients, the protein and fat calories are substantially increased (protein increased from 14 to 38-47 grams; fat increased from 8 to 37-46 grams). We can work similar magic by adding healthy, high-nutrient-value ingredients to other appealing foods that are empty calories by themselves such as instant oatmeal, mashed potatoes, and white rice.
Recipe: Italian Marinara, Sausage, and Orzo Pasta
Ingredients (One Serving)
2 tablespoons tomato powder
½ cup orzo, cooked and dehydrated
¼ cup freeze-dried sausage
4 slices dried tomato
1 tablespoon freeze-dried cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon freeze-dried Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Italian spice blend
1 teaspoon minced dried onion
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt (optional as freeze-dried sausage may contain salt)
Black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil (on the trail)
At home: Combine the dry ingredients into a bag.
In camp: Add enough hot water to cover the dry ingredients. Start with ½-1 cup.Add olive oil. Stir well to moisten throughout. Add hot water to the bag. Rehydrate for 10-20 minutes until softened. Add more hot water to taste if desired.
Nutrition information: calories 851; carbohydrate 106 g; protein 37 g; fat 34 g; sodium 691 mg
Some specific products in the article are listed below. Generic products are not listed individually but general sources are suggested. These products and purveyors have relatively healthy ingredients with fewer additives than many mainstream competitors.
–Nido full-fat milk powder
–Trader Joe’s Gourmet jelly beans
–Jelly Belly jelly beans
–Epic bacon jerky
–Clif Builder Bar (20 grams protein)
–Kate’s Real Food energy bar
–Tailwind Nutrition Recovery Drink
–Tailwind Nutrition Endurance Fuel
–Sarabeth’s Hot Chocolate Parisienne
–Instant oatmeal – plain flavor
–Koyo Ramen Noodles
–Honeyville (source for freeze-dried meat)
–Karen’s Naturals (source for freeze-dried fruits and vegetables)
–Thrive Life (source for a variety of products)
–Packit Gourmet (freeze-dried cheese and other foods in small amounts)
–Bob’s Red Mill (source for plain mashed potatoes and other foods)
Food can be a surprisingly controversial topic with people vehemently staking out their territory. My philosophy is based on a desire for real whole food with a minimum of additives within the constraints of a backpacking diet that limits fresh food. Combined with that is my everything-in-moderation approach. If there are foods you can’t or won’t eat, you are encouraged to substitute what works with your preferences. If you have a particular food you crave that isn’t particular healthy or wholesome, go ahead and include it but balance out the rest of your diet with better options.
It takes a little forethought and planning to eat a high calorie healthy diet of nutrient-rich and delicious food, but it can be done with relative ease, either by enhancing packaged foods or assembling your own from dried ingredients.
This article was adapted and expanded from A Backpacking Meal Plan With 4,000 Mostly Healthy Calories at IngasAdventures.com.
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