The Ugly Truth About Pop-Tarts!

 

“You’re not going to tell me pop-tarts aren’t ultralight, are you?!?

Actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. A significant amount of my time over the last year was spent reviewing various blog posts and forums discussing foods typically consumed by thru hikers. It was shocking to learn that foods reported to be calorically dense for the trail aren’t calorically dense at all. Pop-tarts, a thru hiker staple, actually fall near the bottom of the list when compared to ultralight foods available.

How to define ultralight based on 2 lb (0.9 kg) daily food weight:

100 kcal/oz or 3.6 kcal/g = 3200 kcal

125 kcal/oz or 4.4 kcal/g  = 4000 kcal

150 kcal/oz or 5.3 kcal/g = 4800 kcal

175 kcal/oz or 6.2 kcal/g = 5600 kcal

Essentially, ultralight foods can be defined as those that meet a determined calorie goal without exceeding the maximum daily food weight goal. Confused, yet?!?

For example: Goal of 3500 kcal with a maximum weight of 1.5 lb (0.7 kg) daily would require foods to be an average of 145 kcal/oz or 5 kcal/g.

Calculations:   3500 kcal ÷ 24 oz (1.5 lb) = 145 kcal/oz       OR       3500 kcal ÷ 700 g (0.7 kg) = 5 kcal/g

Let’s take a quick look at a few thru hiker favorites. Do they meet your goal?

  • Ramen noodles – 127 kcal/oz
  • Idahoan instant mashed potatoes – 110 kcal/oz
  • Knorr Pasta Sides – 110 kcal/oz
  • Pop-tarts – 108 kcal/oz
  • Quaker Instant Oatmeal – 106 kcal/oz
  • Beef Jerky – 80 kcal/oz
  • Tortillas – 80 kcal/oz
  • Tuna fish – 31 kcal/oz

An initial review of over 100 thru hiker favorites can be found in the files section of the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group. Additional foods will continue to be incorporated into the list as time permits.

As you’ll see in the file, many commonly available foods do not meet ultralight criteria. Don’t panic just yet! Keep reading to learn how to maximize the foods that are available.

Ever participate in a grocery aisle photo shoot? Here’s your chance!

Next time you visit the grocery store don’t be shy, take photos of food labels and review the numbers later when you have time at home. If someone asks what you’re doing, this presents a perfect opportunity to share what an amazing journey you’re about to embark on. Trust me! Fellow shoppers will think it’s pretty cool that you’re considering your diet while on trail.

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Make sure the that net weight of the food is visible in the photo as you will need these numbers when calculating how many calories per serving.

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Make sure that the print is legible in the photo as there is often a glare making the label difficult to read.

Back to trashing pop-tarts…

Just kidding! I’m not suggesting that a complete thru hiker diet makeover is necessary. However, I do feel that current diets can be augmented by using more calorically dense foods achieving the ultralight goal set.

An example of one of my meal plans…

5000-kcal-foodie-meal

  • Raisin Pecan Granola – 137 kcal/oz
  • Cherry Lime Quinoa Salad – 150 kcal/oz
  • Vegan Chili – 177 kcal/oz
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Milkshake – 147 kcal/oz
  • Mango Chia Pudding – 143 kcal/oz
  • Chocolate Honey Stinger Waffle – 160 kcal/oz
  • Gingersnap Honey Stinger Waffle – 150 kcal/oz
  • 2 Caramel Honey Stinger Waffles – 150 kcal/oz
  • 2 Single Serving Nutella – 160 kcal/oz
  • Kind Dark Chocolate Cocoa Breakfast Bar – 122 kcal/oz
  • Justin’s Vanilla Almond Butter – 157 kcal/oz
  • Justin’s Honey Almond Butter – 165 kcal/oz

Stats: 4960 kcal at an average of 151 kcal/oz for a total of 2 lb 1 oz (0.9 kg)    

As you can see, this meal plan includes foods at varying kcal/oz levels with the average meeting my 150 kcal/oz goal. By using this method, calorie and weight goals are met while also consuming foods that I enjoy. This might seem complex now but will be simplified in the meal planning blog entry that’s to come.

Enough already about calories and weight! What about protein, carbohydrates and fat?

Yes, let’s move on to talk about high performance expectations thru hikers should have of their food. I will briefly touch on metabolism as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of research studies dedicated to endurance sports nutrition. Metabolism is simply your body’s ability to burn the fuel (i.e. food) consumed to produce energy. How well you fuel your body greatly impacts how your body will respond to the demands of thru hiking. Now’s the time to put your new food label reading skills to use. Having a better understanding of what’s in your pack will help dictate your fueling strategy.

Protein

Protein plays an important role in a thru hiker’s diet as it is responsible for repairing and strengthening muscle tissue. For an average adult, 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.8 g/kg) or 0.36 grams of protein  per pound (0.36 g/lb) body weight is recommended. Athletes oftentimes require more than twice that amount. Consuming adequate protein while thru hiking can be quite challenging for many thru hikers for a variety of reasons including limited shelf life, weight of protein-rich foods and dietary restrictions.

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrate inake plays an important role in a thru hiker’s diet because without adequate carbohydrate intake muscle protein is used to produce energy. This presents a problem when taking in adequate protein is already a challenge for thru hikers. The type of carbohydrate, simple versus complex, adds on another layer of complexity. Many of the commonly available trail friendly foods are high in simple sugars (i.e. honey buns, pop-tarts, candy) which provide quick boosts of energy. Thru hiker diets benefit from complex carbohydrates (i.e. fruit, vegetables and grains) over the long haul as they are often rich in fiber and provide sustainable energy.

Fiber

Fiber intake seems to be completely avoided in all of the blogs and forums that I’ve read. Ok, are you ready for it? As a dietitian, I talk about constipation with my patients on a daily basis. No need to be embarrassed about talking about it here either. The fact is, thru hiker diets are typically void of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains which are the primary sources of fiber in ones diet. Hikers, however, likely consume a fair amount of beans which are an excellent source of fiber but there’s  the other known consequence of beans. Just say’in! Therefore, when meal planning it’s important to also be aware of the fiber content of foods.

Fat

Fat is an excellent source of energy for thru hikers as it is over twice as calorically dense at 9 kcal/g when compared to carbohydrates and protein at 4 kcal/g. This translates into higher calorie foods for less food weight. Fat also takes significantly longer to digest resulting in sustained versus quick boosts of energy. Meals containing fat, however, are typically not shelf stable for extended periods of time which presents a problem for thru hikers.

Closing words…

A 2016 PCT thru hiker posted the following statements to my Instagram feed and couldn’t have said it better…

“Carrying things based on a formula or primarily nutrition can be detrimental psychologically. Managing your brain, your health, your emotions is a balancing act.” – Digger

All of this talk about calculations, weight, calories and nutrition is of no use if you’re not willing to consume whatever is in your pack. If pop-tarts, tortillas and Skittles make you happy, then by all means pack those items. Food plays a huge part in daily life on and off the trail. If you like the idea of giving ultralight meal planning a try, stay tuned for the upcoming blog topic, Trail Food Gadgets and Meal Preparation Hacks, including everything I wish I would have known from the start.

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.

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Comments 13

  • Niki : Feb 10th

    I’ve been freaking out about the food part of planning for our through hike of the AT in about a year. This is the single best article I have found to help straighten out the tangled WTF that’s been occupying my brain about how to manage our food for the trail!!! Thank you! I’m finally at the age where I put (mostly) careful thought into what I put into my body now and I seriously don’t want to (and can’t even imagine having to) live for 5 or 6 months on Pop Tarts and Ramen. Not that I don’t like an occasional unfrosted Blueberry PT, but I knew there had to be a better way! You made total sense out of how better to go about this whole aspect of planning. Than you for sharing your expertise!

    Reply
    • Aaron Owens : Feb 11th

      Glad you found the article helpful. Four more posts to go before I leave for my trek and you should have the information you need to meal prep for your 2018 trek. Thanks for following!

      Reply
  • Arlene / EverReady : Feb 10th

    I am very interested in what recipes you have put together for lightweight, but packed with calories and nutrition, meals. The vacuum sealed packs in the picture above (example of a meal plan), are these your creations? I am especially intrigued by the Cherry Lime Quinoa Salad. I can figure out the recipe but how do you pack the salad dressing for it?

    Reply
    • Aaron Owens : Feb 11th

      Yes, I’m making and vacuum sealing all of my own food for my upcoming PCT trek. A total of sixty-three different recipes will be trail tested over the course of the trip. Will plan to share recipes upon my return after confirming they are shelf stable for the long haul (>6 months). A few posts from now will talk about how to alter recipes in a way to meet ultralight criteria. Thanks for following.

      Reply
  • George : Feb 10th

    This was one of the most helpful blog post in history! Want more!!!!

    Reply
    • Corina : Feb 10th

      Iv been giving ideas to my boyfriend on what to pack for an up coming 5 day hike@ JMT he is going in 4 months.
      I did say? Can Ox mashed potatoes anything that’s in bags that you just add water is what I would do and tortillas.

      Reply
    • Corina : Feb 10th

      I agree helpful.

      Reply
    • Aaron Owens : Feb 11th

      Great to hear! Four more posts full of tips before leaving for my trek. After that, you should have all of the information you need to do this on your own. Thanks for following.

      Reply
  • Carissa Murillo : Feb 15th

    A very helpful post 🙂 I look forward to the next blog!

    Reply
  • Chris : Mar 5th

    I sm

    Reply
  • Chris : Mar 5th

    I found your article VERY informative. I was searching for backpacking info similar to this online, your was the only one I found with constructive do/don’t about it! TY!

    However, the cal intake, waste size, are not my only factors for choosing this stuff. Not even close. The carb ratio is one, a backpacking trip needs carbs! (hiked 30,000+ miles in 25yrs, including thru hike of AT, and PCT. So carbs is one other factor, another is the fact that I do not NEED to heat them for me to like. The lack of needing fuel or a stove also vastly determines weight and pack space.

    Reply
    • Aaron Owens : Mar 17th

      Glad that you found the article helpful. I, too, have taken into consideration the macronutrient (carbs, protein and fat) content of meals. Haven’t written about that for fear that the information would be too overwhelming for some. Maybe I’ll talk about it more in future posts. Have successfully designed vegetarian menus to provide 1.2 gm/kg protein which is significant when it comes to typical trail food. I’ve not cold soaked in the past but plan to give it a try on the trail as going stoveless sounds appealing. Agree that not stopping to heat lunch can make a huge difference as my body temp tends to drop rapidly after stopping. Thanks for the comments!

      Reply
  • Chris : Mar 5th

    Meant to add that another thing I like about not cooking them is that I can get up and start hiking IMMEDIATELY and eat them while walking.

    Lastly, please do not take my comments as negative, I am only saying there are more considerations. Your article was top notch!

    Reply

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