How Much Food Should You Pack for a 3 Day Backpacking Trip?

Backpacking Food before Breakup

As a rule of thumb, you can figure on using 2 lbs of food per person per day on a 3 season backpacking trip. Depending on your body weight and exertion level, you may need more or less food, but that's a pretty reliable estimation to begin with.

When I pack food for a backpacking trip, I throw a bunch of meals together without weighing each item individually and weigh my entire food bag to see how close it is to 2 lbs per day. If it weighs more, I start substituting more caloric items for less caloric ones until I get it down to the what I'm willing to carry, which averages to about 1.75 lbs per day for a three season trip.

How can I reduce the weight of my daily food intake?

One way to reduce the weight of your food is to remove all of the excess packaging at home. I also rarely carry dehydrated backpacking meals from companies like Mountain House or Backpacker's Pantry which tend to weigh a lot. Instead I break up bulk items like peanuts, chocolates, wheat thins, dried fruits, etc. and bring very caloric foods along like waxed Gouda cheese or big chunks of salami.

I also some pack olive oil in a plastic squeeze bottle and add it to Ramen noodles or soups, but you also get it in little ketchup sized packs of a 1/2 oz each. It has 240 calories per ounce and is a great way to reduce the total weight of your food.

What about Freezer Bag Cooking?

Substituting dehydrated meals that you reconstitute with boiling water, called Freezer Bag Cooking, is an excellent way to reduce the weight of your food bag. It takes a little extra preparation at home to bag everything up in ziplocs at home, but it can be a fun way to enjoy a snazzy breakfast or dinner when you are likely to use your stove.

In all honesty, I rarely bother to package freezer bag meals for weekend trips anymore, although it's very good for longer trips where you have few opportunities for resupply, like Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness.

What if I get hungry?

If you don't pack enough food for a 3-day trip you won't starve to death. Your body should have enough excess fat and protein reserves to get by for a few days. I sometimes pack light in summer, when its very hot, and I know that I won't have an appetite at dinner. I just pig out when I get off the trail to catch up.

How can you avoid bringing extra food on a trip?

When you go on a backpacking trip, you should try to avoid bringing uneaten food home, simply because it's dead weight in your pack. From my perspective, it's better to give it away to another backpacker than to carry it unnecessarily. One thing I do when I'm packing my food bag, is to make sure that the food I bring is exciting and stuff that I know I will enjoy eating. I found out the hard way that I won''t eat boring food when I'm hot and tired, and I used to bring a lot of this extra food home after a trip. Jazz it up. Try bringing hot and spicy foods along, or a special treat: whatever will keep you interested and eating.

Should I bring one or two extra meals in case of an emergency?

I use to bring extra food along for this reason, but don't do it anymore. I never used it and it was a pain to carry the extra weight.  I figure in an emergency, I can get into my sleeping and drink hot tea to stay warm. I also have a few extra pounds on my love handles that I can burn off.

I should add that I hike with a SPOT satellite personal locator beacon which I could activate in an absolute emergency if I couldn't survive without assistance. It also lets me send a message saying I'm overdue but ok, which is good in cases where I'm running late on my route, but intact.

If you have any more questions on this topic, please leave a comment below and I'll be happy to answer them.

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22 Responses to How Much Food Should You Pack for a 3 Day Backpacking Trip?

  1. Blitzo May 12, 2011 at 2:35 am #

    I use the same 2 lb rule of thumb like you do in the same manner. I weight the bag afterwards and check to make sure it's not over 2 lb per day. Sometimes I carry special items that are a little heavier than usual, but never go over 2.2 lb/day.

    Mtn house too heavy? Bulky and expensive maybe, but I don't think they are too heavy. Especially when the lazagna is so yummy. Mmmmm.

    On a short hike of a specific number of days where I am not going to resupply or the last resupply of a longer hike when I know exactly when I am stopping, I can do a good job of bringning exactly the right amount of food. But on longer multi-resupply hikes where I really only know where I am going to resupply but not WHEN, I am always caught with more food than expected. I guess I always underestimate my pace and pack conservatively. Bad me. Showing up with 1 day of food is not too bad, but showing up with 2 is bad. Bad, bad, me.

  2. Earlylite May 12, 2011 at 3:38 am #

    Long distance hike resupply is another kettle of fish entirely. There it really does pay to have a little extra, since you never know how good the food will be when you stop in town.

    Mountain House…It is inconceivable for me to pay $7-9 dollars for a backpacking dinner. I guess I'm just cheap. Bulky too and people leave their MH trash all over the place.

  3. marco May 12, 2011 at 4:20 am #

    I agree with that. But rather than 2 pounds per day per person, I figure about 1.1-1.5 pounds per day. The first few days out, including a three day hike, I never seem to have much of an appetite. I can eat it if it is there (No Leftovers!) but, I do not need it.

    Generally, I can afford to loose about 5lb over the course of a 10 day hike. So, a couple oatmeal packets and cocoa, and a rice/macaroni dish for supper are staples. Cheese, pepperoni, salami, olive oil, parafied butter (ghee), dried beef, dried vegtables (including potatoes, of course),cheese, jerky, bisquik do it for me. I can usually pack ~3200 calories in pleasent tasting soups, stews and pot pies…2/3 of those at night. The extra cooking requires a good stove, though. But, a half pound a day goes a long way to making up the weight of a stove. As I hike, I have been known to pick up mustard greens, dandelions, green apples, burdock sprouts, cattail shoots, etc. A little fresh vegtable is nice when you are out.

    Fiber is a problem, most of the time. So, I almost have to have the oatmeal every day. Green apple bits tastes pretty good, offsetting the flavour. I am glad the parified butter and cocoa also have a fairly strong flavour. More for variety, than because I object to oatmeal.

    The Mountain House stuff is not all that calorie dense. Oils, the most calorie dense food, does not freeze dry well, soo, it is generally removed. Also, there is MSG in a lot of it, not that I object to it all that much. My wife has diahrea with it, though. I almost never carry it either.

  4. Brian Peterson May 12, 2011 at 4:25 am #

    I'm all about bringing bulk oatmeal and dehydrated black beans or dehydrated refried beans and a bag of fritos. I use the beans as a dip and scoop it up with the fritos. Fritos are oily so lots of calories and dehydrated beans and oatmeal are super light. I also own a dehydrator and do lots of experiments making dehydrated trail food such as energy bars, dehydrated taquitos, and dehydrated fruits and vegetables. I highly recommend getting a dehydrator, it's always a fun experiment dehydrating food.

  5. Earlylite May 12, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    Marco – I was thinking about writing a book called The SectionHiker Diet. All you need to do is walk for 2000 miles and you can lose 40 lbs.

    Brian – I need to bring more dehydrated fruit. Thanks for reminding me. I already get lots of fiber though. Bringing more might cause explosive decompression! Remind me to hike in front of you when we go on a trip. :-)

  6. Jeff May 12, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    For a three day trip I will often carry a couple pieces of fresh fruit along with me. This totally blows the 2 lbs per day but to me the weight is worth the enjoyment.

    Also, on my last few trips I have been making my own jerky and dehydrated meals. Most of the time I'm just dehydrating leftover portions of meals I’m eating at home. This makes it easy. Still working on the rehydrating part, I do not think I'm giving the meals enough time.

  7. RevLee May 12, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    Instead of emergency meals I now carry a couple of extra Snickers bars. They are great as trail magic. The smile I got when handing one out on our last trip was worth its weight in gold.

  8. Earlylite May 12, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    Fresh fruit is awesome. One of my biggest cravings on longer hikes are apples.

    Good idea about leftovers. I haven't tried making jerky but it sounds like it's worth a go. I often bring trader joes turkey jerky with me, but it's outrageously expensive.

  9. DripDry May 12, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    I am gluten-free, so the vast majority of commercial freeze-dried meals are out for me. They also generally have high MSG & sodium, so dehydrating my own makes me feel better about my food- besides I can flavor them to my tastes. Most of my meals are made up of individual ingredients I dry and then mix, but I also dehydrate things like chili when my wife makes a batch for dinner and we have some left over.

    I use a lot of dehydrated hamburger, brown rice, vegetables and black beans in my meals, and even after 2.5 months on the trail I never felt like I was missing nutrition (although even my skinny body lost almost 8-10 pounds). RevLee and I took small containers of Olive Oil and added it to meals to beef up the calories.

    There are a couple of things I take on every trip- Snickers, dehydrated apples (dried with cinnamon sugar) and "Moosegoo"- a combination of PB, honey, raisins and corn flower that I spread on a Cliff Bar most days for lunch. I supplement that with nuts, dehydrated fruit, Fritos, or whatever else feels right at the time. In general, my food weight seems to run around 1.5 lbs per day.

  10. samh May 12, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    By choosing foods that have an energy density of around 110 to 120 calories per ounce even a heavy eater will find that 1.5 lb/day will leave you with leftovers after a 3 day trip.

    I highly recommend reading Mike Clelland's treastise, "Food Planning Using Pounds Per Person Per Day" at Backpacking Light which has been researched thoroughly and is time and field tested.

    http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpacki

    Note: You need a paid subscription to BPL to read this article – pw

  11. David May 12, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    My food bag generally runs about 1.5 lb./day, although it's probably closer to 2 lb. when I count all the snack stuff I keep in my fanny pack (that's "bum bag" for you across-the-pond hikers). I'll fix up Ziploc bags of chocolate chips, dried fruit, and jerky and snack on them as I hike. I divide my snacks into separate bags for each day to keep me from eating them all the first day.

    I like Ramen noodles and my grandkids think they are one of the basic food groups so I can be pretty satisfied with reasonably priced food. I also break up jerky into the noodles and somtimes drop in jalapeños I dried with the dehydrator.

  12. Victor May 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    One of the things I've learned over the years, is that I don't need lunch. This doesn't necessarily mean I save any weight, but it changes what I carry. I tend to be a "walk till you drop" kind of hiker, meaning I don't stop to smell the roses very often. So, I like to carry high calorie, compact food for eating during the day.

    Breakfast is very important, and like most people I go for oatmeal. For dinners, I adore "mishmash" dinners made from supermarket improvisations. I do carry some kind of emergency ration in the form of granola bars or something. There's a cafe/bakery near where I live that makes vegan granola bars that are insane rocket fuel. I carry an extra one of those.

  13. Chris (i-cjw.com) May 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Olive oil in ramen, yes!!

    I'm a carb-gel junkie. I make my own as you know – a 300g pack per day is about 1200kcal.

  14. David May 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    When hiking, I usually eat instant oatmeal for breakfast, washed down with some coffee. I sometimes drop a package of hot chocolate into my coffee to turn it into Crappachino Mocha. I snack on jerky, chocolate, candy, dried fruit, etc. while walking and often don't stop for lunch. For dinner, it is usually ramen noodles with jerky or dried ham and perhaps some other dehydrated item such as potato soup. I'll also drink hot chocolate and hot cider in the evening. Before I retire, I have a sweet drink like Crystal Light. Since straight Crystal Light is too strong by itself, I cut it with some scotch. The diluted version is much better.

    • George Spencer January 12, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

      I love a coffee-hot chocolate shot in the arm before hitting the trail. I have never been a morning person so the sugar and caffeine surge helps me to get going.

  15. Earlylite May 12, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    Victor – I'm pretty much the same way. I get up early and go until I stop for the day. I have to force myself to stop periodically, even for a good view.

  16. Earlylite May 12, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    Hey Chris – I've been meaning to make some of your mountain gu (great pun) myself. Maybe next winter.

  17. Grant May 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Nice post….I always struggle with the "how much food is enough?" question. I usually get it wrong and carry a ton of cliff bars and trail mix that I don't eat. I have finally begun to trim this down to cut weight.

    You are a brave man for carrying spicy food backpacking.

  18. Grannyhiker May 12, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    I take only about a pound of food per day. Frankly, I just can't eat more than that. This summer I hope to spend about 5 weeks in Wyoming doing 4 backpacking trips. I strongly suspect that by the 4th trip I'll be hungrier, and will plan accordingly with more for dinner.

    Breakfast–either meusli (Bob's Red Mill) or Grapenuts with freeze-dried berries, chopped walnuts or sliced almonds and dried milk. The freeze-dried berries are, of course, omitted when the wild huckleberries are in season! I dislike hot cereal so don't bother cranking up the stove for breakfast.

    Lunch/snacks (more of an all-day lunch): Dried fruit (freeze-dried for 1-week or longer trips to save weight), nuts, a Kashi cereal bar, an Odwalla bar.

    Dinner–this is where I really have little appetite. Until last year, when I finally came to my senses, I inevitably took too much and packed home garbage (consisting of rehydrated uneaten dinner) that weighed more than the food I took out! A relatively small freezer bag dinner (dehydrated at home) and a cup of herbal tea are sufficient. I use whole-grain rice or pasta (often cous-cous) as the carbohydrate portion of the dinner. This is also where I get my veggies, normally freeze-dried from "Just Tomatoes."

    What with the whole grains (breakfast, dinner and the Kashi bar), the dried fruit and the nuts, there is no problem with lack of fiber! The diet is fairly well balanced except for vitamin C, which is destroyed by dehydrating or freeze-drying.

    I do miss fresh fruits and veggies! One trip, I went out a day early (arriving at the trailhead about dark), because an apple I'd left in my ice chest started calling me before I reached my planned camping spot the next-to-last night. The apple was rather warm after a week in the car, but it tasted wonderful!

    I must be a weird sort of backpacker because I can't stand Snickers bars! If I take any candy (which I probably will on that 4th Wyoming trip), it will be rewrapped squares of my favorite chocolate, Green & Black's Maya Gold.

  19. Grannyhiker May 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Oh, and that Section Hiker Diet–at high altitude, you can lose the 40 lbs. in a lot less than 2,000 miles!

  20. Earlylite May 13, 2011 at 3:25 am #

    I've lost interest in snickers bars too. I pack Nature valley granola bars instead, but they're so crushed by the time I get to them that I might as well pack (more ginger granola)

    I have to try Bobs Red Mill. A lot of long distance hikers eat it.

  21. eddie s March 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    I just finished taste testing the MRE White Bread and am so impressed I ordered two 25 packet boxes of it…It will replace the MRE Crackers I have been toting about for years but I will still keep a couple Cracker packs in the pack..

    I find for a short three day trip I really do not need to change my diet that much and keep to the standard Freeze Dried or Dehyrdated breakfast lunch and dinner..Meaning 3 varieties of Oatmeal, P&J or MRE Crackers, now switching to MRE White Bread, Meat and Cheese for Lunch and a Main Entree for Dinner which could be an MRE Entree.

    Snacks continue to be a mix of Almonds, Walnuts, Apricots and M&M Peanuts and our own Snack Cookie or Bread whose receipe you will find on this website….For that emergency feed, I still find after 40 years that Snickers bars are probably just as good as the so called “Health or Nature” Bars when you start comparing the amount of fats, carbs and sugars in them and my Cardiologist agrees..I drink Gook-in-Ade because it has less salt and my body at least, responds very well to it’s ability to stop those evening leg and shoulder cramps whereas not so much with the other brands out there. I think they have changed the name of it to something else cause someone found offense to the word Gook but since I bought two cases of it when I left California I have about another year left of it…

    And snake bite medicine.. I switched from Scotch to Bourbon to Irish Mist and now Capt.Morgans Spiced Rum is more to my taste as well as my Lady acquaintances….

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