How to Pack a Lot of Backpacking Food into a Small Space

7 Days of Backpacking Food

7 Days of Backpacking Food

When packing food for a multi-day backpacking trip, I try to keep the space it takes up as small as possible so I can bring a smaller, lighter weight backpack. While bringing highly caloric foods helps (over 100 calories per ounce), it’s taken me several years of trial and error to figure out how to pack them all as efficiently as possible and get them into one OPSack odor-proof bag (above) or bear canister.

In the past, I used to break out my means into sub-packages containing all of my breakfasts, snacks (lunch), and dinners or break them out by day in order to keep track of the calories I consumed in any 24 hours period. This approach works on weekend trips, but after a few days, the contents of my food bag have  a tendency to move toward entropy despite these efforts to stay organized.

For longer trips, I now pack my food bag based on the “granularity” of an item and its ability to mold or wrap around adjacent items. For example, I pack my grains, nuts, and re-bagged energy drink powder at the bottom of my food bag where they will fill up all of the space available. The next layer are cliff bars, which pack very efficiently and then bulkier items like cookies and banana chips. I shim those items with dehydrated soup packs and a bottle of olive oil, and then pile the most bulky items on top of them, including dried tortellini and ramen noodles.

Packing like this lets me fit 2 more days of food into the same space than the older, more organized methods I used previously and makes my pack a lot less crowded at the beginning of a trip.

Highly “Packable” Foods and Caloric Values

The caloric and nutritional density of the food I pack also helps keep the volume of the food I need to bring by weight fairly low – at about 1.75 pounds per day. I try to eat foods that offer at least 100 calories of nutrition per ounce, but I augment this by adding olive oil to them to, particularly at dinner.  At 240 calories an ounce, olive oil is one of the most calorically dense foods available because it’s pure fat.

  • Olive oil – 240 calories/ounce
  • Roasted Sunflower seeds with salt – 166 calories/ounce
  • Roasted Peanuts with salt – 166 calories/ounce
  • Roasted Cashew pieces with salt 163 - calories/ounce
  • Banana Chips – 160 calories/ounce
  • Logan Bread – 126 calories/ounce 
  • Granulated White Sugar – 110 calories/ounce
  • Pound Cake – 109 calories/ounce
  • Dried cheese tortellini- 105 calories/ounce
  • Uncooked Quinoa – 104 calories
  • Cliff bars – 96 calories/ounce

Many of these foods, once repackaged in portion-sized sandwich or snack bags, are easy to pack because they conform to the available space in my food bag. If necessary, I also break up foods like Ramen Noodles in order to make them more granular for packing. I still keep them in their original package to prevent the absorption of moisture and spoiling.

Commercially Prepared Backpacking Meals

Although I’ve tried many prepackaged backpacking meals from companies like Mountain House or Packit Gourmet, I rarely eat them anymore on backpacking trips. Beside the expense, the amount of extra packaging and weight you end up carrying offsets the taste or nutritional value they provide.

My preference is to eat the same foods that normal people eat and that can be easily resupplied at any supermarket given that I can eat as much as I feel like carrying without gaining weight! This simplifies my backpacking trip  prep time substantially, especially for Appalachian Trail section hikes, where I can count on passing through a town every few days.

How about you? How do you pack your food bag? and How do you select foods to bring with you on trips?

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21 Responses to How to Pack a Lot of Backpacking Food into a Small Space

  1. Jay July 31, 2012 at 4:23 am #

    I select foods for caloric density, but still try to go for things that aren’t absurdly unhealthy. It would be easy to take huge amounts of calories, but come home feeling empty and malnourished. I still love to cook on the trail (couscous, tortellini, dried beans, etc, all with generous amounts of olive oil added), but I have been slowly moving towards minimal cooking, and high efficiency. AS for packing the stuff up, I also tried the “breaking things into daily portions” approach and found the same entropic tendencies you mentioned above. A day or two of eating leads to complete food bag disorganization. I now jam everything as efficiently as possible into a 12″ by 20″ opsak, or several smaller opsaks, or a combination of big and small. My menu seems to be simplifying towards:

    -cheddar cheese
    -peanut butter in Coghlan’s squeeze tubes (squeeze directly into mouth…yum)
    -logan bread (thanks to this website. awesome stuff. a hiking buddy said “wow, that sticks to the ribs”
    -Bear Valley Bars (the best thing out there I think..400 plus calories PER bar!)
    -dried apples
    -peanut m&ms
    -couscous, beans or dried tortellini with olive oil

    I still need to have caffeine with me. Starbucks instant is outrageously expensive, so I take Mount Hagen packets (way cheaper than the VIA). Just yesterday I found some Trader Joe’s instant packets that have the creamer powder already mixed in. Not bad taste either. To be trail tested soon

  2. Geoff July 31, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    I use the same sandwich bag/odor proof bag/ bear canister for my two week backpacks in Alaska, without the benefit of supermarket resupply. For main meals I buy in 3lb bulk quantity from Mary Jane Farms and repackage into ~500 calorie 4.5 oz portions using quart sandwich bags. The food is organic, vegetarian, rehydrates well with minimum boiling water, saving weight on fuel while providing a hot balanced protein/carb meal each day. The rest is much as you describe – about 2800 calories per day, with a weight of 1.6lbs per day. At the start of a trip I bring cheese or a couple of packs of tuna in water, just for variety and bonus calories Why skimp on food? That way I can bring a DSLR camera, tripod and wide angle lens for those awesome sunrise/sunset photographs. I Trail tested Trader Joes and Nescafé instant coffee, much cheaper, but no substitute for via ( buy at half the price on line in packs of 50). I put almond butter and strawberry jelly in food tubes and spread on an 8″ flour tortilla (150 calories each) which keep for 7-10 days and fit nicely in a Bear Vault BV500 container. At the start of the trip I carry excess food ( low value value – meaning not a disaster if ” lost”) that will not fit in the BV500 in an odor proof bag inside an Ursasac. Although not as good or acceptable in many National Parks, it has stood up to one grizzly bear investigation. I have to say that in most places I go in Alaska, bears have never even seen a human. I would not use an Ursasac in the lower 48. We cook 100 yards from the sleeping tents (Six Moons Luna Duo – 48 oz for two person palace) and stash food in two locations 100 yards further away from both the cooking and tent area.

    • Earlylite July 31, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      Cooking away from where you sleep just makes sense.

  3. romney July 31, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    I’m going out for a short camping trip tomorrow. Food will be freely available, but I’m taking:

    cooked chicken
    quinoa
    seasonings (paprika, celery salt, etc)
    dehydrated veg (onion, mushrooms)
    dried apples
    roasted nuts
    biltong
    M&Ms

    Just searching for a suitable container for olive oil now…

  4. Earlylite July 31, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    For short trips I like this 4 ounce bottle from REI. They also sell an 8 ounce version which is good for more volume or for carrying denatured alcohol.
    http://www.rei.com/product/402026/flat-oval-bottle-4-fl-oz
    If you don’t live near an REI, go to the drug store and see if they have travel size bottles of shampoo or purell and use those plastic bottles. I also double bag olive oil in sandwich bags, just in case.

    • marciaprice August 1, 2012 at 12:02 am #

      find a friend addicted to those several hour energy drinks. Those tiny bottles are tough, light, the right size for soy sauce and oil, and then recycle rather than wash.

  5. JJ Mathes July 31, 2012 at 8:47 am #

    All of my dinner meals are made at home and packaged in Ziploc freezer bags and repackage as much as possible of other foods.

    Food selection has to be gluten free, I choose high calorie snacks, lots of nuts, chicken or fish, dehydrated veggies and fruits, lots of refried black beans, most dinners include rice or rice pasta. I carry a lot of Fritos, it doesn’t matter if they get crushed, they add fats, calories, salt and I like they added texture and flavor. I carry tortillas in a large ziplock inside the pack and next to my back so they don’t get crushed, my body heat heats them during the day and are very tasty when warm with black beans and crushed Fritos with a little hot sauce.

    When packing for a longer trip I prefer an oversized food bag, oversized allows me to move the food around once inside the pack so I can fill the inside pack space utilizing as much dead space as possible. “For me” this works better than a hard food bag. I don’t use the OpSak until I’m ready to hang my food bag at night, (I’m not in grizzly country.)

    Mountain House and other brands can be repackaged to save space.

  6. Earlylite July 31, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Love that tip on keeping your tortillas warm – awesome!

  7. JJ Mathes July 31, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    I don’t know how well it works with an internal frame pack, but placing them between the back padding and my back works great.

  8. Stuart July 31, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Up till this year I’ve relied heavily on Backpacker Pantry and Alpine Aire pre-packaged foods. For a short (3-4 day) trip, the extra packaging hasn’t been an issue. I’m now looking for healthier options to ensure that my 25lb weight loss since April isn’t short-lived. Most of the prepackaged meals are really 1.5 portions, so too much for me even on a high exertion day. Your tips in this article are very helpful in steering me to better alternatives.

    I was recently out on a trip with a buddy who had a Packit Gourmet sampler kit. Yes, the flavour was better, but the meals were really fiddly to prepare and the amount of excess packaging was ridiculous. He’s taken to eliminating many of the condiments and repackaging those meals ahead of trips since that one.

    • Earlylite July 31, 2012 at 11:06 am #

      Ironically – their side spices and flavorings are what make the flavor so good. For example, I hate ranch dressing, but it’s the main ingredient in their awesome dehydrated chicken salad.

      You’ve reminded me to mention that Packit Gourmet has a very good grocery section in their store that sells other foods that are quite good on trips including many types of salami, stable cheese, Japanese delicacies, and single serving packets of Olive oil! Check it out.

  9. Jolly Green Giant July 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    I’m certain I learn something each time I visit your site. Congrats and thanks for all the effort you put into it.

  10. Grant July 31, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    I like your brick and mortar approach to packing food. I have never thought to try that yet I have constantly struggled with fitting a bunch of food into a small space.

    I have recently discovered Pro Bars which pack in 370 calories per bar. They somehow made a bar that tastes amazingly like a PBJ sandwich. So on my backpacking trips I will take a Pro Bar for lunch instead of a sandwich and that saves a bunch of room.

  11. Jim C August 1, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    I also use an oversized food bag for the same reason as JJ Mathes.

    Concerning calorie dense foods … consider Girl Scout cookies as a dessert … most of them are over 135 cal per ounce. Too bad I can’t get them in bulk! Here’s the nutritional info: http://bit.ly/wCsfPW

  12. ATKory August 1, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    This is great! I need to really learn to get more efficient with my food packing and selection. I ALWAYS over pack food. I have heard of backpackers going to some pretty wild extents to increase the fat or calorie count in a meal. I haven’t been able to find it since but I remember someone talking about what was essentially a fat/oil-loaf. It sounded basically like Crisco or something similar that was packaged and somehow resisted the “sweating” that cheese does. Cut of a piece and throw it in the pot and bam! fatty goodness. Any guesses?

  13. DripDry August 1, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    Like JJ I pack all my own meals because I am GF. In fact the dehydrator is busy running downstairs for a trip in Sept! I use OP Saks in a home-made Ursasac and that has worked well for me, although I still tend to seperate dinners from snacks etc. by using a gallon bag for each inside the Ursasac just to help stay organized on a long trip. Also, I tend to stage things in the morning before I leave- snacks in the hip belt pocket and “lunch” on an outside pocket- I don’t like to open my pack during the day if I can help it. I also put the dinner bag on top after I eat in the morning- I am usually starving at the end of the day and that cuts precious seconds off the prep time!

    For lunch- I usually eat moosegoo (http://www.ultralightbackpacker.com/moosegoo.html) on a Clif bar. RevLee and his wife came up with a great method that works for lots of “gooey” things like PB. Mix up a batch in a 9″ pan or equivalent, and put in the freezer until firm but not frozen. Cut like brownies and put each section in a pint bag. To use I bite the end off the bag and squeeze onto a Cliff Bar. The nice thing is when I make a batch I put all the pint bags back into the freezer and they are ready for a “grab and go” trip if I need them (I do SAR as well).

  14. Grandpa August 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    The more backpacking food I pack into the small space (my stomach) the larger the outside container seems to get, requiring more backpacking, requiring more backpacking food, requiring…

  15. Susan "Backpack45" Alcorn August 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Our backpacking trips on the PCT ranged range from 2-5 weeks, so for longer trips we had to mail boxes ahead for our resupply.
    Our dinners are freeze-dried ones, which we repackage in ziplock bags either at home or at the resupply points. One dinner serves the two of us.
    Our lunches are an assortment of jerky, bars, crackers, etc. Breakfasts some kind of oatmeal. I can only stand instant oatmeal–with nuts and M & M’s–for so long, so sometimes, when we have lots of space, I carry Cheerios.
    Depending on the territory, we have carried the Bear Vault or just the Ursack. Even when there are no bears around (like when we hiked in Patagonia), the Ursack is a light way to carry food and keeps mice, etc. away. (We used to carry the BearCache, but don’t anymore because of its weight.)

  16. silver August 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    While Ursacks prevent black bears from reaching your food, there have been reports of smaller animals getting into them. I’ve never had a problem with this myself, and I suspect it’s because I usually tie my Ursack to a stout tree branch at head height, off the ground. But I’ve also hung an Ursack in plenty of shelters along the Appalachian Trail and The Long Trail and never had any issues with mice or other small mammals.

  17. John Muller :-) August 15, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I love your photo of the “7 days of backpacking food”, Phillip. Would it be too much trouble for you to give us an inventory of what’s in the bag? I’m planning to do six weeks on the northern end of the AT next summer (Manchester Center to Katahdin). I like the idea of packing food that I can easily resupply at the small towns. An inventory of your seven day supply would be a big help.

    Many, many thanks for your wonderful blog, Phillip! :-)

    • Earlylite August 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      John – it was pretty much what was on my list of high cal foods: logan bread, quinoa with raisins and sugar, ramen noodles, olive oil, cashews, cliff bars (for taste) tea, coffee, Cytomax energy drink, sunflower seeds, banana chips, peanuts, cookies, dehydrated tortelllini, that’s about it.

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