Imagine this, you’ve organised a 5 day hike on one of your local trails. All of your gear is now gathered, and the only thing left to pack is your food for the trip. But wait a second! How much do you food do you have to take backpacking per day?
If you want to make your trip as pleasant as possible, you will benefit from making your pack as light as possible. And yes, that counts even if you’re not an ultra-lightweight hiker. Here’s all you need to know.
To make the calculation and food planning as straightforward as possible, consider the options.
- Do an exact (as far as possible) daily calculation based on tested formulas, taking into consideration the terrain, your gender, weight, pack weight etc. Bring all the food you need with you.
- Calculate how much you need for breakfast, snacks and lunch. Buy dinner near the campsite/lunch en route to save on weight.
- Take a little and buy food as needed as you walk if you are in a well-populated area.
I’m going to go through each option in turn with the aim that by the end of this article you will be informed enough to make the choice that is best for you and whomever you will be hiking with.
Option 1: Calculating how many daily calories you need
Obviously, we are concerned about the weight of the food that we bring with us in the end. But to measure the food we want to bring, first, we need to consider the number of calories we need. Later, in another blog post, I will discuss how to choose the food that will weigh the least and cover your needs.
We have to take into consideration that no matter how exact we try to be calculating the number of calories we will need, there is always a margin for error. We are trying to get as close as we possibly can though, and if it’s a little bit too much or too little, hopefully, the margin will be close enough that our bodies can cope with the difference and delve into body fat reserves if we need more than we have brought. Alternatively, we will be carrying the extra weight of the food that we didn’t need to eat.
These are some of the various factors that can influence the calorie numbers:
- Distance walked each day.
- Backpack weight.
- Terrain – hilly/mountainous/flat?
- Time of year. Cold/warm weather?
- Metabolism -high or low?
- Fitness level
- Walking speed.
- How much excess body fat do you have?/Do you want to lose weight?
Here is a link to a Hiking Calculator that will give you a good indication of your calorie needs per day: Calories Burned Hiking Calculator.
If you have a plan of how many miles you will be walking each day you can do a seperate calculation for each day. Or just make an average daily mileage, which should be plenty accurate enough to allow you to make a good meal plan.
With regards to pack weight, mine tends to be around 15 kg including water, food, stove, tent, sleep system, clothes and personal hygiene. This weight will obviously change as you progress through your trip and become lighter as you eat more of the food you brought, but you can still use it to calculate an average that will work fine.
As an example, when I plugged my numbers in, choosing 6 hours of cross country walking at 2.5 mph = 15 miles distance, this is what I got out:
|Your Weight||63 kg|
|Backpack Weight||15 kg|
2054 x 5 = 10,270 calories needed for a 5 day trip.
If you have a play with the numbers, you will see that as soon as you start to do any climbing, this number will increase quite a lot.
I recommend spending a few minutes doing this and changing the different variables in the calculator, going up and down with the pack weight and the terrain to see how it affects the calories.
Add your base rate calories
The number of calories from the hiking calculator refers to ONLY the amount you are likely to need for your walk.
You will therefore need to add your base rate calories to this number. To find this out you can use this calculator below. Choose the sedentary option and then add it to the calories needed for your hike, that you discovered above. These figures combined will give you a good idea of how many calories to bring with you on your backpacking trip.
When I plug my numbers in to both calculators, I get the following information:
Considerations for adjustments
I know that although the terrain is relatively flat here in Norfolk, there are still hills to consider. I also know that I have quite a high metabolism and when the weather is cooler I need to eat more. So I will make sure that I bring a little bit extra with me in the way of snacks. I know that if I’m passing through villages that have cafés I like to stop for tea and cake at times, so I’m not too worried if what I bring just covers the basic calorie need. I know that I will top it up with extras on the way.
Just in case, I will make a note of where I can buy extra food on the route in case I start feeling too hungry and feel that I don’t have enough.
Now we have a figure to work with, we can start to plan what we will take with us, and how we will divide these calories up into the day. (See upcoming blogs.)
Percentage Food For Each Meal
Here is a good breakdown to use when planning how much food to take backpacking for each meal. (This is based on calorie content and not weight of food.)
It is likely with this option that one of two things will happen, either
- a) you will bring too much food, or
- b) you will bring too little food.
However, this still may seem like a good option if you are passing by several shops/food outlets as part of your trip and you decide to carry the bare minimum and snacks that you can top up as you walk.
You may base your trip food on what you usually do at home or for day hikes.
At home you eat three decent meals a day, with one or two snacks in between.
You can decide to keep the same structure when you hike but are aware that you will likely need more food because of the extra calories used while hiking. So you bring more snacks with you and plan to eat dinner out every day, perhaps bringing your breakfast and lunch with you to help keep the costs down.
This approach can work well when walking in well-populated areas, such as the Norfolk Coast Path in summer. There are many choices available to buy food close to the trail and near campsites: supermarkets, small shops, fish and chip shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes en route. Of course, one of the downsides is that you may have to walk a little further to find your dinner or a shop. It will also likely take more time out of your day to find somewhere adequate to eat.
- It will likely be more expensive.
- You may not get very healthy food.
- Unless you plan where you are going to eat in advance, you may not be near a place to eat at mealtime, or when you need to be.
- You have to make more effort to get your dinner organised on arrival, and may not feel like it if you’re too tired.
- There are few options for backups, in case something happens that prevents you from getting to the shop/restaurant.
- Lighter pack.
- Chance to mix with local people more and find out more about the local area.
- Little to no preparation time before leaving home.
For shorter trips in well-populated areas, deciding to carry only part of your caloric needs may be a good plan. However, if you care about eating healthy meals and are not planning on camping near towns or restaurants, you may find that it’s better to calculate your calorie needs and bring what you need with you.
In general, your food weight could be between 600g and 1 kg per day. This will vary depending on your height, build, metabolism, terrain and general fitness levels.
To get a reasonably accurate reading of your average hiking day, plug your stats into the Hiking Calculator. Then add the number to your basal metabolic rate to give you number of calories per day.