Ultralight Meal Preparation and Menu Planning

For those that have followed previous posts, you are aware that I set a goal of preparing homemade ultralight menus at 5000 kcal per two pounds of food for my upcoming PCT thru hike. I’m excited to share that I pulled it off!

After experimenting with more than one hundred recipes over the last year, forty-two of these will be going along with me on my trek. See my previous post for examples of recipes that made the final cut. An additional forty-one bars, snacks and treats are also included in the menus developed. A list of these and their nutrition content can be found in the files section of the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group. It is my hope that the variety will prevent boredom and I’ll enjoy the food included in the resupply boxes over the course of the trek.

Homemade recipe breakdown:

  • 12 Breakfasts
  • 19 Lunch and Dinners
  • 2 Snacks
  • 5 Desserts
  • 4 Beverages

Purchased bar, snack and treat options:

  • Variety of Honey Stinger products
  • Variety of Kind bar products
  • Clif nut butter bars
  • Pita chips, goldfish and cheese crisps
  • Variety of nuts
  • Homemade trail mix
  • Chocolate covered strawberries, yogurt covered almonds, homemade cookies and more…

Menu plan breakdown:

  • 10 completely different 5000 kcal menus that will be chosen from based on food cravings, water availability and fuel required
  • 4 menus to be used specifically in the Sierra Nevada when space is at a premium in my bear can
  • A total of 345 pounds equating to 795,389 calories of homemade and purchased foods will be consumed over the course of the trek

Average nutrition content of each menu:

  • Carbohydrate: 480 g (39% total calories)
  • Fiber: 50 g (exceeding daily recommended goal for adults)
  • Protein: 114 g or 1.7 g/kg (9% total calories, meeting the goal recommended for athletes)
  • Fat: 256 g (46% total calories)

For those familiar with daily recommended nutrition goals, you’ll notice that carbohydrate and fat content of menus are flip flopped. This is due to the high fat foods used in the development of ultralight recipes. Many have asked how I created such recipes. To be honest, I cannot take credit for the recipes used as they were obtained from a variety of trail cookbooks, online forums and online cooking webpages. The recipes were used as a base and adjusted accordingly to meet my ultralight goals.

Recipe adjustments to meet ultralight goals:

  • Replace non-fat milk with whole milk (NIDO) and coconut milk powders
  • Replace rice with protein rich chickpea pasta and quinoa
  • Add whole nuts, nut butters and nut powders to increase caloric density
  • Choose lower weight dehydrated fruits such as strawberries vs apricots
  • Include olive, coconut and sesame oils in recipes as much as possible (oil to be added on trail)
  • Use a variety of beans as an additional protein source (I’m vegetarian)

Key points to keep in mind when preparing meals for the long haul:

  • Use newly opened products whenever possible as the best by date will be longer than that of a product that was opened several months ago
  • Document best buy dates either in a notebook or on the food bag to ensure that the meal is consumed prior to the expiration date
  • Always sanitize counter tops with either a disinfectant spray/wipe or bleach water
  • Wash your hands frequently and wear gloves to ensure that bacteria exposure is limited as much as possible
  • Ensure that meals are completely dry when packaged to prevent mold. Desiccant packets are not necessary if the meal is completely dry.
  • Fully vacuum seal bags to prevent exposure to oxygen
  • Ziploc bags are not air tight. Therefore, oxygen absorbers are not useful
  • Become familiar with the shelf life of various foods as shelf life of meat is significantly shorter than fruit and vegetables
  • Avoid using ground nuts as they will go rancid much quicker than whole nuts
  • Recipes including oil will potentially go rancid if consumed several months after preparation
  • Freeze meals, if space allows, until just prior to consumption. If freezer space is not available, store meals in a cool, dark, dry location such as a Rubbermaid tote in a garage.

Additional food safety and dehydration resources can be found in the files section of the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook page.  The Dehydrating Divas and Dudes Facebook group is also an excellent resource.

Meal preparation and menu  planning recommendations for future thru hiker classes:

  • Experiment and fine tune recipes NOW as you would with gear. This will greatly reduce stress associated with meal planning prior to your trek.
  • As soon as you find recipes that you enjoy, prepare several additional servings and store for various time periods. Check for shelf stability at one, three and six months after preparation. By doing this you will feel confident in the recipes chosen.
  • Begin dehydrating fruit and vegetables months in advance. If properly dehydrated and stored, they will be shelf stable for your trip. This will also reduce stress prior to your trip when time spent preparing is at a premium.
  • Refrain from buying bars, chews and snacks on sale months in advance. Oftentimes the products will expire prior to the completion of your trek.
  • Begin tracking calorie intake during backpacking trips NOW so as to better estimate calorie a goal for your thru hike. This doesn’t have to be complex. A simple notebook with estimated intake will suffice.

So, there you have it. Ultralight meal preparation and menu planning can be accomplished with a little forethought and organization. It is my hope that the information shared will help others improve nutrition intake while thru hiking, reduce likelihood of excessive weight loss, retain strength and potentially increase the likelihood of completing the trek.

Until next time…

Check out my Instagram and/or Facebook feeds for daily interactions with other hikertash foodies as I thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail (update: soon to be Appalachian Trail starting 5/23/17).

Also 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 11

  • DEB : Mar 22nd

    Way to go Aaron! You have so got this!!!!

    • Aaron Owens : Mar 22nd


  • Trailtrekk : Mar 22nd

    Your UL meal prep is the best I have seen.

    • Aaron Owens : Mar 23rd

      Thanks! I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

  • Nicole Anderson : Mar 23rd

    These are fabulous tips for those of us who are keen hikers and trekkers and need to have food that will nourish and sustain us throughout our time away. Your knowledge as a dietitian is obviously a huge asset in applying this for the benefit of hikers.

  • Lauren : Mar 23rd

    We’ve just started experimenting with dehydrated food and so your advice is perfect. It’ll be so useful when we’re camping this year, can’t wait to try some new things out.

  • Dogwood : Apr 13th

    Have a very similar(almost identical) approach to trail food.

    Have you looked into growing trail sprouts/ these are great to get the added nutrition of “live” foods into the trail diet.

    What are the typical wts of your entrees? Visually they look to be 4-5.5 ozs.

    Do you think the bonking one day was only caused by lack of calories or could it be more complex of a situation? Could it have been attributed in part to hydration, sugar content of some snacks consumed in larger portions over a short duration, increased strenuous backpacking, detoxification to some extent, accustoming to LD trail life, sleep patterns, etc. Seems you’re meeting out the sugar with fiber though?

    I’m guessing you’re grazing snacks all day?

    • Aaron "Sling" Owens : May 19th

      Apologies for the late reply! I have not looked into growing sprouts but understand it’s quite easy to do. Entrees typically weigh 4-6 oz with beverages typically 3 oz. Bonking early on was likely due to a variety of reasons but inadequate calories definitely played a part. I’m known to bonk even on day hikes here at home when inadequate calories are consumed. My diet is pretty regimented while on trail. Three solid meals a day with snacks every 90 minutes in between meals. Do you happen to have a blog about your meal planning? I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

  • Blazer : Nov 24th

    So are you going to post your recipes now that you have tried them out?

    • Aaron "Sling" Owens : Nov 25th

      I’m actually in the process of writing a cookbook with a goal publication date May 2018. Check out my IG or Facebook feeds (The Backcountry Foodie) for publication updates. Will be posting my menus as soon as my new webpage is up.


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