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Carrying Too Much Food?

Backpacking Food

It’s well known that long distance hikers become eating machines and have to struggle to get enough calories to maintain their body weight on hikes that last for months.

But as a section hiker, I rarely have the opportunity to go backpacking for more than 3 or 4 days at a time. Why then, have I always based the amount of food that I bring along on the metabolism of a long distance hiker? Is it really necessary for me to pack 3,200-4,000 calories per day for 3 season backpacking? The truth is that I rarely eat all of the food I pack and usually end up bring home some extra.

In my experience, my metabolism only really starts to kick in after I’m been hiking for about 2 weeks. After that I’ll eat everything in sight. But before then, I can get buy just fine with 1.5 lbs of food a day or less, as long as I pig out when I get off trail.

Interestingly, Andrew Skurka, makes a similar point on his web site. He only carries about 4,000 calories a day, though he figures that he’s burning about 8,000. His strategy is to only bring enough food to keep from being hungry or energy-less, not to replace everything he’s burned during the day. Town and resupply stops are times to chow down and replace those calories.

What’s your perspective on this?


  1. This may be to some extent a "your mileage may vary" issue, but on a 3-week section hike of the AT last year my appetite kicked in in under a week. As you say, it's impractical to carry enough calories, and at night I thought I could feel my waistline shrinking. Even with belly busting feasts in a few towns I lost 8# (~5% for me) over the entire trip. Besides something substantial at the start and end of the day, I made sure to snack to keep my energy level–and mood–up while hiking. I was likely a more efficient hiking machine at the end of the trip, but there's still no way I could fill the Phelpsian calorie deficit. Lowering my pack weight has helped.

  2. I have this same issue with my 2-3 night trips.

    I want to have a small extra in case of emergency but since I am not bringing a lot lot anyways, the emergency food will be 25% of the total weight.

  3. My outings are short like yours and I have yet to complete a trip without bringing food back. I guess I subconsciously fret about being isolated without food while packing. Most of my trips are above 9000 feet and the altitude absolutely kills my appetite. So when I am up there, I look at my food bag and ask myself why all the food?!!

  4. I backpack about 10 trips a year for at least 4 to 8 days at a time. Mostly between 8k feet to 11K feet for camps, with day hikes for summiting and shooting photos. I never have an appetite or really feel good until the third day. I find that I do better sleeping in the truck the first night, having a solid restaurant type breakfast, and only hiking about 8-10 miles the first day without gaining more than a couple thousand feet.

    I always make jerky soaked in brown sugar and teriyaki marinade. I eat jerkey and trail mix with raisins, peanuts, cashews, almonds, m&m's, and sunflower seeds. Those I can always eat. Also I like a cheese and broccoli soup mix with some dehydrated potatoes and powdered milk. I sprinkle garlic salt on it and I always like it. I soak peta bread or flour tortillas in it. It takes 2 minutes to make in my jet boil and I am eating. In the morning I make dehydrated scrambled eggs with jerkey, then a hot chocolate to drink while I am breaking camp.

  5. I'm with you & Andrew – live on carbs and burn bodyfat – if you can train yourself to burn a 30:70 mix of the two, then for those 3-4 dayers you can get away with surprisingly little. 500g of carbs/protein and 100g fat per day usually sees me OK. Home made energy gel & olive oil. Breakfast of champions…

  6. It makes surprising sense. I'd be wary of doing it at high altitude, but you've not been wrong yet. I have to try making that home made gel you make sometime. I am dying for snow again. This heat wave is killing me.

  7. you can only "replace calories" if you have those calories stored somewhere. some of us are lucky and keep our "winter weight" through the whole year and can afford to have our body switch to that resource, some don't.

    which is why the long term folks have to eat those calories to burn them, they'd run out of their stores and the closer your body gets to its safe minimal fat % the more your body resists using it's stores.

    I'm with you on the eat less on the trail on the short hikes. But as I said, you have to balance how long you can do that with how much stores you have (also known as "how fat you are"). But I'm still figuring out where my line comes, and how much I really need for a short 2,3,4 day hike.

    the real question is, do you fore go taste for cal/oz?

  8. I often hike solo and always carry an extra two days provisions in case I fall down and can't get up, or get stuck somewhere. For short trips (2-4 days) I'm typically consuming 2,500 calories.

  9. I take the precaution of storing as much body fat as possible before the trip. It is a very efficient way to carry calories. I currently have enough for 300 mile trip without resupply. Now if I could just get out of this recliner

  10. Must be murder on your knees.

  11. I started my recent 2-week AT section hike with about 10 lbs of food for a planned five days, resupply and five more days. My 5 days lasted for 7 with some leftover to feed to a thru-hiker.

    I lost my appetite for the first 3 days and should have packed less. Didn't eat any of the Milky Ways and little of the entrees. What I needed I didn't pack… Propel! I had cramps from too much water, not enough salt & electrolytes. I heard from several thru-hikers that this is normal when starting a long hike.

    I like the suggestion to eat enough to avoid bonking and feast on your return home. That's pretty much what happened week two. After coming home, I ate like a madman as in that entire pizza is mine!

    BTW, my pack weighed 36 lbs at Harpers Ferry WV and just 23 lbs at Boiling Springs PA. Paring down food weight and some other misc. could get pack weight under 25 lbs for the next AT section of NJ/NY.

  12. It's pretty normal for your metabolism to spike after 2 weeks on the trail but not at first. Still carrying less food sounds like a plan, as long as you have some baby fat stored away and can make it up in towns. I have a big section coming up in the autumn and will also be doing some calorie testing.

  13. Most all of my trips now are three day weekends or less, with no more than 16 miles a day, and at times I felt like I was forcing myself to eat. On my last trip, I hiked the southern loop of the Black Forest Trail in Pa., and I started to think about the weight of the food I was carrying. I felt like I had been carrying the same two Cliff bars, and 1lbs. of trail mix for the last three trips, I just never get around to eating them. When I think about the threes of survival (three weeks without food), it makes me think I could go a long time without food. I’ve had a hard time getting down to 30lbs. and if I could take 2 lbs. off three days worth of food, it would get me real close to that goal.

  14. Interesting comments! I just got back from a (failed) Colorado Trail hike: main problem was food (bad selection). After nine days I was badly flagging and I think it was lack of protein and intake of about 1,000 calories a day (my cooking sucks!). I was thinking about miles instead of eating and several days was way too tired at the end of the day to want to cook. I did enjoy the Idahoan instant mashed potatoes and the Protein-Plus and fiber bars, but I carried lentils, rice, pasta, and barley which were 'zeroes' (though I forced myself to eat the pasta…). Advice to men: If you don't cook at home, DON'T try to 'pick it up' while hiking. I didn't realize how hungry I was for meat until (a) I had a young lady offer me some jerky and I ate a third of her bag (ooops) and when some trail angels at Kenosha Pass offered by a thick, meat-filled submarine sandwich (gone in a couple of minutes!). Oh, I DID lose nine pounds in nine days (tell that to the ladies!). Math: 4,500 calories a day expended; 1,000 calories a day ingested. Deficit: 3,500 calories a day. Fat: 3,500 calories per pound.

  15. I'm tagging along with scouts from T403 tomorrow on a short (14 miles) Buckeye Trail overnight backpack trip.

    I threw some raisins, peanuts, oat cereal and M&Ms into bags for snacks on the trail and quickly discovered I had over 2,000 calories per quart bag. At that rate, I'll likely gain weight.

    I'm really just looking to "snack to keep my energy level–and mood–up while hiking", not eat a full meal as a snack.

    Time to rethink my on-trail snacking.

  16. We hiked part of Penn-Maryland the first of April and my appetite did not kick in till the 6th day. Could not get enough for dinner that night. and did not bring anything home with us either. Great trip – mostly rain though.

  17. Our primitive ancestors probably only ate a few hundred calories per day on their hunting trips, then occasionally gorged themselves, letting their fat stores sustain them. You could probably get by fine with a 500 calories per day of lettuce as long as long as you took along some multivitamins, electrolights, all you can eat buffet intervals, and 20 lbs of fat stored on your belly.

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