Wait! You’re telling me Mountain House isn’t ultralight?!?

When buying ultralight gear thru hikers expect high performance for minimal weight. They should have the same performance expectations of food. Thru hikers are known for losing a significant amount of weight due to inadequate calorie intake. This can lead to a trek ending prematurely. With a little planning and creativity this can be avoided. A series of upcoming blog posts will provide guidance on ultralight meal planning. Let’s start with…

How do you define ultralight food?

Thru hiker calorie needs far exceed those of the weekend warrior. It’s difficult to even estimate calorie needs for such treks as most are unable to put in the amount of trail time prior to leaving for their thru hike. One, however, can estimate calorie intake on a day to day basis and for weekend trips. Keeping in mind that it is possible that calorie intake for a thru hike can double typical daily intake and reach upwards of 5000 calories per day. The thru hiker gold standard for food weight is two pounds per day at typically 100 kcal/oz.  When reviewing calorie content of commercially prepared food I quickly realized that meeting my 5000 calorie goal would be harder than expected.

For example…

5000 calories at the typical 100 kcal/oz = 3 lbs 2 oz daily.

5000 calories at an ultralight 155 kcal/oz = 2 lbs daily

This is a weight savings of nearly 8 lbs when carrying a week’s worth of food!

Quick tips for calculating calories with the 2 lb goal in mind

100 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 3200 kcal

125 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb)  = 4000 kcal

150 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 4800 kcal

175 kcal/oz x 32 oz (2 lb) = 5600 kcal

The numbers above are useful when reading food labels and determining if the chosen food meets the calorie goal set. Be sure that you multiply the calories listed by the number of servings the package contains. Packaging can sometimes be misleading. Companies often state that the package contains up to 2 1/2 servings when in fact it equates to one thru hiker serving. Take this number and divide by net weight to determine the calories per ounce (kcal/oz). Many hikers repackage commercially prepared meals into ziploc baggies as the packaging itself is over-sized and quite heavy. Some foods will appear as if they are ultralight by the calorie per ounce ratio but require the purchase of two meals to equate to the same calories of a lower calorie per ounce meal. This doubles the amount of money spent and likely equates to the same weight as a single packaged meal. Those tricky manufacturers!

Now that you’ve chosen a calorie goal and shopping for ultralight foods, what does this look like in terms of weight?

Let’s say your estimated calorie goal is 3000 calories. If consuming ultralight food at 150 kcal/oz your daily food weight will only be 1.25 pounds. Lucky you!!

Jumping on the ultralight trail food wagon yet?!?

An extensive review of commercially prepared trail food can be found in the files section of the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group. The review not only includes calories but also the protein, carbohydrate, fiber and fat content of food. Nutrition content of such foods and relationship to hiking performance will be discussed in future posts. Water required to prepare such meals is also something to be considered and will be discussed in upcoming meal planning posts. It is my hope that the review will encourage hikers to be more aware of the foods purchased as not all are created equal.

If commercially prepared foods are so inadequate, what should I do?

This is when homemade trail food can be considered. Contrary to popular belief homemade trail food can be made to be high calorie, lighter weight than commercially prepared food, significantly less expensive and prepared in a minimal amount of time. Each of these will be discussed in detail within future posts. Preparing a 5000 calorie meal plan can be done within the two pound weight goal. I will share with you how!


Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Curry: 640 calories (109 kcal/oz) for $9.  Homemade Wasabi Pad Thai: 1248 calories (155 kcal/oz) for $2.

 Why such dedication to ultralight meal planning?

As mentioned in my bio, I have a history of being an endurance sport athlete to include open water swimming, triathlons and ultra trail running. Consuming adequate nutrition to maintain weight and strength has always been challenging as consuming 5000 calories per day is no easy task. My body is incredibly sensitive to inadequate calorie intake so much so that it will certainly end my trek early. I begin to struggle physically, then feel a little grouchy (aka “hangry”), then emotional including unexplained crying spells followed by my body completely shutting down and unable to continue moving forward. The progression occurs within a short period of time. As a dietitian, it would be disappointing to be forced off the trail early because I didn’t meal plan well enough. Thus, this is the reason why I have such an interest in ultralight meal planning.


PC: Glenn Tachiyama

Until next time…

Consider joining the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group as this is where you will find experienced foodies and thru hikers representing all of the long trails throughout the United States. Your questions will not go unanswered.

For additional tips & tricks consider following my Instagram and/or Facebook feeds as I share the results of ongoing meal planning experiments in the backcountry.


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Comments 12

  • Sandy Blake : Jan 30th

    I Will be following your blog as i plan my Washington pct trail hike in July 2017! Best of luck on your thru hike!

    • Aaron Owens : Jan 31st

      Awesome! As a Washingtonian, you’re going to love it! Thanks for following.

  • Dr. Steve Mayner : Feb 3rd

    Aaron, looking forward to this discussion. I’m definitely on the ultralight and make-your-own path. I follow a keto nutritional way of eating, and would welcome any creative insights on ultralight keto-friendly options that you can recommend.

    • Aaron Owens : Feb 3rd

      My ketogenic diet focus is treatment of pediatric epilepsy which is quite a bit different from that used for weight loss, sports performance, cancer treatment and a number of other uses. Ability to continue following the diet on trail will depend on how the keto diet is implemented as it varies depending upon purpose of the diet. Future posts will not directly include keto specific foods. However, you will likely gather ideas as many of the ultralight foods discussed do contain a higher percentage of fat when compared to most commercially prepared foods. Thanks for following!

      • Randy : Feb 15th

        Beyond the other advantages of a keto / high fat diet, I think one often overlooked – and particularly relevant in this context – is weight savings. I became very focused on this way of eating when I realized I had the potential to carry less (but more caloricly dense) food. I think Andrew Skurka did an article on this diet from the hikers perspective.

        • Aaron Owens : Feb 15th

          Absolutely! My meals are significantly higher in fat for the very reason of weight savings. The trick is going to be determining if they’re shelf stable for greater than six months as fat can go rancid.

      • Angelika Thomas : Feb 15th


        If you are truly interested in lowering your food weight while hiking /thru hiking you cannot dismiss the Ketogenic diet. You’re doing yourself and your readers a disservice by failing to explore it. I’m sure you know that fat is the most calorically dense micronutrient of all 3 and will deliver more energy than any form of carbohydrate. As a result you will carry less. Period. It’s that simple – that is once you get yourself fat-adapted.

        You’ve pointed out your knowkedge of the Ketogenic diet begins and ends at its usefulness for treating conditions such as epilepsy – I entourage you to explore its usefulness for athletic performance and by extension for lowering your pack weight. It’s truly worth your while – even at the expense of losing any dietetic designations… I’ve always been a proponent of saying what I think, rather than what some institution tells me I should say.

        I suggest the writings by Volek and Phinney to start the exploration of the subject – they are the true pioneers in the subject of ketogenic diet for performance.

        • Aaron Owens : Feb 15th

          Thanks so much for your comments. Apologies if my comment sounded as if I’m dismissing the use of the Keto diet for sports performance. My blog will not include Keto diet (for now) as I’m not knowledgeable enough to accurately write about it. My meal plans are certainly higher in fat when compared to the typical thru hiker diet for the very reasons you mentioned. It’s that I haven’t focused on counting the carbs in my meals to truly call them ketogenic. I plan to investigate all of this further after returning from my trek.

  • Kevin : Feb 3rd

    Hi Aaron, Awesome idea to truly consider food weight for a thru hike. I’m a fellow endurance athlete and coach (and biomedical engineer) and would love to help with the hangry and full on bonk. I’ve cured many people who are super sensitive and can crash fast. Kevin


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