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10 Ultralight Backpacking Foods

The best ultralight backpacking foods are high in calories, compact, and fast to prepare. In order to keep your food load as lightweight as possible, you want to carry foods that have 100 calories per ounce or more. One ounce is 28.3 grams, a fact that will help you compare food labels, measure out portions, and calculate the caloric value of your backpacking food bag

Trader Joe's Almonds are a great backpacking food
Trader Joe’s Almonds

Almonds – 160 Calories per ounce

At 160 calories per ounce ,almonds are a superfood because you can easily eat them while you hike or sliver them and add them to your morning cereal or dinners to boost their caloric value and add some crunch to your meals. While 75% of the energy value of almonds is in the form of fat, they also provide 6 grams of protein per one ounce serving, which can be difficult to eat enough of on a long hike. When I buy almonds I like to get them in bulk at Trader Joes (also now available on Amazon Prime.) While you can repackage them into one ounce servings in advance, if you remember that 24 almonds equal one ounce of nuts, you can take them straight from the bag and dispense with any extra packaging.

If you don’t like almonds or you want more variety, many other nuts and seeds provide excellent caloric and nutritional value, eaten separately or combined into all nut gorp combinations. Eating salted varieties of nuts can also help replace the sodium that you sweat out on long hikes.

Here are a few of my other favorites:

Jif
Jif Peanut Butter

Peanut Butter – 165 Calories per ounce

Peanut butter is a hiker staple because it’s high in protein (7 grams/ounce) and is relatively low in saturated fat (2.5  grams/ounce.) It’s also universally found in food stores, even the crummy ones you find at gas stations. When you buy peanut butter you want to get it in a plastic jar because it’s lighter weight than glass, and because you can use the jar to rehydrate other dried foods, no cook style ,while you hike. I like Creamy Jif Peanut Butter the best, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

Flour Tortillas
Flour Tortillas

Flour Tortillas – 87 Calories per ounce

The problem with bringing bread on the trail is that it’s bulky and goes stale very quickly. Crackers are another option, but it’s almost impossible to keep them from crumbling. Flour tortillas are great food bag item if you crave bread and need something to eat with spreads like peanut butter. Tortillas are high in calories and shelf stable so you can carry them in your food bag until you’re ready to eat them. The smaller 7″ or 8″ size is easier to eat with and less prone to spillage.

Bob's Red Mill Muesli
Bob’s Red Mill Muesli

Muesli – 98 Calories per ounce

Muesli is a mixture of rolled oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit that can be eaten hot or cold, with or without milk. Bob’s Red Mill Muesli, also available Gluten Free, has about 98 calories per one ounce serving, including 21 grams of carbohydrates. I typically eat 4 servings (1 cup) for breakfast mixed with dehydrated milk and extra raisins to further increase its caloric content. Muesli will fill you up and get you going in the morning but can be eaten at any time during the day.

Nido Dehydrated Whole Milk
Nido Dehydrated Whole Milk

Nido – Dehydrated Whole Milk – 150 Calories per ounce

Nido is dehydrated whole milk that has a whopping 150 calories of nutritional value per ounce (8 ounces of milk prepared). On backpacking trips, I often pre-mix it with a cup of muesli in a Ziploc, add water, and eat it for breakfast. If you like milk, a couple of servings of Nido per day will keep the fat on your bones. It also has 7 grams of protein per serving.

Probars
Probars

Probars – 125 Calories per ounce

Probars are not like any other energy bar made. At 370-380 calories each (125 per ounce)  they’re rich in raw foods and available in an assortment of flavors which keep them from getting boring on longer trips. I’ve been eating Probars since 2008 and they’re a staple in my backpacking food bag.

Nutella Chocolate Hazelnut Spread
Nutella Chocolate Hazelnut Spread

Nutella – 150 Calories per ounce

Nutella is a chocolate hazelnut spread that you can smear on tortillas or eat right out of the jar. It’s a great backpacking food because once you start eating it, it’s difficult to make yourself stop. If you experience loss of appetite on hiking trips, Nutella might be a good antidote. The plastic jars it comes in also make good containers to rehydrate no-cook foods in while you hike.

Olive Oil
Olive Oil

Olive Oil – 240 calories per ounce

At 240 calories per ounce Olive Oil is 100 percent fat, making it one of the most calorically dense foods you can eat on the trail. It’s a great addition to many soups or pasta dishes and can quickly augment their caloric content, although you need to be a little careful how much you consume in a single serving because it really loosens up your gut (2 ounces is a safe daily limit). When carrying Olive Oil in your backpack, you want to store it in a plastic bottle that doesn’t leak. Alternatively, you can buy it in 1/2 ounce packages from Minimus.biz and store them in double Ziploc  bags.

Peanut M&M Chocolate Candies
Peanut M&M Chocolate Candies

Peanut M&M’s – 140 Calories per ounce

Peanut M&M’s may be one of the best foods every invented for backpacking. Available in bulk or in individually wrapped packages they are easy to find in most convenience and grocery stores. Combining peanuts and chocolate, they provide a mixture of quick energy and longer burning fats.

Angel Hair Pasta
Angel Hair Pasta

Angel Hair Pasta – 100 Calories per ounce

If you like to eat hot meals on the trail, Angel Hair Pasta is one of the easiest and fastest forms of spaghetti to cook, taking just 4-5 minutes to boil, or slightly less than the time it takes to cook Ramen Noodles. My favorite way to eat Angel Hair Pasta is to mix it with Olive Oil and a few ounces of shaky Parmesan Cheese (also over 100 calories per ounce) in the cook pot, making a tasty and calorie rich meal.

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95 comments

  1. OK, coming late to this. Between your original post and the comments, a lot of good stuff is already noted. A few standouts of mine…

    Peanut M&Ms. Less sugar than regular M&Ms, more palatable than straight peanuts. Just little balls o’ energy.

    Dried figs. I really start to miss fruit, and figs seem a good compromise between reduced weight from drying and sufficient moisture to still enjoy.

    A big chunk of parmesan cheese. high-calorie and lots of salt to replace what I’ve sweated out.

    Beef jerky. We’ve made our own from decent steak or roast cuts, or our local food co-op has pretty decent quality jerky. Turkey jerky also works well.

    Ramen noodles. Fast-cooking, go with lots of stuff.

    For winter I’ll take chunks of high-quality sausage because it’s easier to eat than jerky, and the lipid content resists freezing. Also chunks of pepper cheese.

    Chocolate. Like the Peanut M&Ms, a source for quick-combusting sugar and long-energy fats. Mmmm… If it’s good enough for Skurka it’s good enough for me.

    We’re barbarians about coffee. We use either the Medaglia d’ Oro instant espresso or the Via instants from Starbucks. Gave up the stovetop moki and the French press mug a while ago. Too much fussing around. As I said, a coffee barbarian. On the trail. At home, it’s a different story…

  2. I Just discovered PB2. Most hikers I’ve encountered love peanut butter but it is HEAVY. PB2 is peanut butter in powdered form!!!! Mix 2 TBSP of PB2 with 1 TBSP of water and you have instant peanut butter. I am going to try doing the “mixing” in a small baggy. PB2 is very light and best of all – the result tastes like peanut butter! A variation of the PB2 product comes with chocolate added to the mix. Not sure I liked it when I tried it in my kitchen at home but out on the trail it might taste a lot better!!!
    Lastly, I have always carried deluxe mixed nuts on my hikes but they go bad after a few days. I am now trying out Frito Lay’s 2.75 oz bags of Premium Mixed nuts. You can buy 8 packages for $18 at taldepot.com. Also available in other places. Since they are sealed and come in small servings I can plan on one bag a day. My next hike is across NJ on the AT this May – a 9 day trip (I only go 7 or so miles a day) so the 8 day nut packages will work great! Happy trails. Gordon Ripley, Rindge, NH

    • Most powdered peanut butter is defatted so it will have significantly less calories per ounce.

      • Thanks. I was not aware of that and was simply looking for something light to put on my bagel for a lunch. On a 9 day trip like I take I am not doing 20 miles per day so am not so interested in intake for the long haul but rather trying to keep the weight down. At 76 years old I can no longer carry he heavy loads I used to carry back in the 70’s – 80’s. Thanks foir the heads up though.
        Gordon

  3. Sorry, forgot to mention a lunch suggestion! I often carry either Tuna or Salmon in a pouch. Weight is only 2.5 oz and really gives me back some energy at lunchtime. Also, Chicken of the Sea has a package of 2 “Tuna To Go Cups” at a weight of 2.8 oz. I can vouch that these options are really good. You can add the tuna to a dinner meal or eat at lunch time. When in bear country I eat them at lunch time because tuna has a VERY strong odor detectable by animals so I avoid eating them where I am going to camp at night. The tuna and salmon options are often available at your local food market.
    Gordon Ripley, Rindge, NH

  4. A very good and interesting list of ultralight backpacking foods. I really like the Muesli idea because it is gluten free and has many calories. I appreciate the article and the comments where are many more ideas!

    You may check out my website where I have another ideas for ultralight backpacking foods.

  5. For three days I tend to carry:
    -400g of trial mix
    -300g (1 jar) of peanut butter
    -3 100g sachet of muesli with milk powder inside them
    -3 muesli bars

  6. Nido milk is also great for people who like cream in there coffee it adds nutritional value to that hot cup of joe in the morning.

    • Nido whole-milk powder is great. Add to oatmeal, cream of wheat, cream of rice, cocoa powder, pastas, mac n cheese. Comes in very handy indeed.

    • If you want to add an energy jolt to your coffee that is guaranteed to have your hopping and eager to get on the trail in the morning, try adding a tablespoon of Coconut Oil and a tablespoon of real Butter. Holy spinning dervishes, it not only tastes great but it will have you zooming down the trail with your pack not fully on both shoulders and you singing, “..Zippy doo dah, Zippity yea, My oh My what a wonderful day…” Yeah, its that energizing.

  7. anybody know the best way to have a bit of “relaxation juice” at the end of the day that doesnt involve hiking out a bunch of airline bottles or flasks?
    -Thanks

    • it might be a little bit trashy, but a small plastic soda bottle makes a decent light-weight flask option. good for carrying a bit of extra liquid fuel as well.

    • A few staples that I typically carry on my overnight hikes are:

      Couscous: In a zip-top bag, I’ll pre-portion some instant soup mix (the just add water kind). Tomato and/or Red Pepper is arguably the best for this. In goes at least half a cup of couscous. Tomato and/or Red Pepper is arguably the best for this. And lastly, toss in a beef bullion cube for seasoning and whatever other herbs and spices you like. [basil, chilli, etc.]

      Cardamom Hot Chocolate: Seriously tasty! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry–it’ll change your life. Crack open a few cardamom pods and drop the black seeds into cold water as you bring it to boil. Then add cocoa powder and enjoy.

      Miso Soup Sachets: Makes a good hot drink when you’re craving something that isn’t sweet. Also adds a lot of flavour to instant mashed potatoes.

      Freeze-dried Peas: Adds flavour and texture to otherwise boring foods. Cooks super-fast, and can be eaten as-is for a dried snack. [just be sure they’re freeze-dried and not the regular ‘dried split peas’.

      Lastly are the GU Energy Gels. They’re a little bit pricy for how small they are, but whoa MAN do these things pack a punch?! With lots of flavour options and varying amounts of caffeine it’s hard to go wrong. I highly recommend having an extra zip-top bag to put the rubbish in from these. the wrappers can be a bit sticky even after going full Dracula on them–which you will.

      I’d love to hear your opinions of these if you try them for the first time.
      -Cheers!

  8. -Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars. Eat ’em on the trail or break ’em up and mix ’em with Nido powdered milk for cereal! Multi use food.

    -Target has micro mini flour tortillas which are great. They don’t fall apart after a couple of days like bigger tortillas.

    -I like to mix peanut butter and jam in a squeeze tube and have that for a quick trail sandwich with the tiny tortillas

    -If i’m going to be going fast and light and have ground to cover I’ll get up and out in the morning with merely a Gu espresso gel or other similar energy gel for breakfast. Eat more solid food down the way an hour or so.

    -My new idea is to bring the Tenkara rod and count on catching fish! trout wrapped in foil with water or olive oil over the fire with my 180 flame stove is the plan. Maybe some lemon pepper seasoning if I’m feeling really crazy. Or poached in the coffee can pot with a bit of water.

    -instant miso soup (with ramen noodles or alone) is an easy staple too

    -I’m going to try powdered coconut milk mixed with couscous (or instant potatoes or dehydrated rice), dehydrated vegetables and thai spice mix in a ziplock the next time out though. Sounds awesome, especially if I can catch some trout to throw in there too.

  9. I may have missed it but I am surprised that no one has mentioned taking International Delights non-dairy liquid creamers with them for their coffee and tea drinks. Unlike other brands, ID’s singles require NO refrigeration of any kind (huge plus) and make about any trail-coffee taste great! These are the single serve size (box of 24 singles) and the Almond Joy/Coconut is favorite for sure. Pack them in an empty Peanut or Mayo jar. Always a great take-along and they weigh almost nothing in your pack!

    • If you like the Almond Joy/Coconut flavor, might I suggest you try a tablespoon of Coconut Oil and a similar amount of Real Butter in your morning coffee? It will get you going with a trifecta of caffeine, butter fats, and coconut oil for long lasting and great tasting energy. Wouldn’t suggest it as your evening camp cup though!

  10. I take a plastic contained heavy whipping cream! The heavy cream keeps for over five days and is the best for coffee, oatmeal, granola. It upgrades anything! I try to set in snow or cold stream at night. Usually gets “whipped” by day 2-3 just by the all day motion. Great fat content. You won’t be sorry!

  11. Can anyone tell me why my appetite goes out the window when I am on a trail for a day or two? I used to be able to eat anything of any amount – now I just want to drink water and eat nuts and beef jerky – coffee and oatmeal in the am and I go. And I LOVE to eat. Is this another “joy” of turning fifty?

  12. Thanks to all for some useful suggestions! A matter close to my heart this, so here are a couple of things which I’ve found work for me:

    ‘Relaxation Juice’ (aka Scotch) – I buy mine at cask strength (55-60%) for the trail, so that I can dilute it to normal drinking strength when required, which strictly speaking is a weight-saving tip rather than a culinary one.

    Coffee – Individual foil wrapped coffee bags (look like a large tea bag) which contain ‘fresh’ ground coffee do taste far closer to the real thing than the hideous instant. Use two per full-sized mug. Here in the UK they’re made by Lyons.

    I share the concerns of the earlier post about being middle-aged and not having much appetite for food by day two of a hike, whilst eating like a pig in daily life. I can only put it down to being more knackered and dehydrated after the unfamiliar exertion than you realise, or possibly (in my case) the unfit/overweight body desperately trying to shed a few pounds to avoid a heart attack. My solution: marzipan!

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