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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 you reduce the weight of your 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 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 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 you 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 it’s very hot, and I know that I won’t have an appetite for 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 don’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 Garmin inReach Mini 2 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.

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  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 2 lbs. a day does sound like a lot to me. Do you have an estimate for number of calories?

    I average a bit over 100 calories / oz (Andrew Skurka gets 140!), which means 2 lbs. would be 3200 calories per day. Admittedly you hike longer distances than I do, but it still seems a lot.

    • It’s a rule of thumb. I can get it down to 1.75 pounds, but then I have to eat fritos exclusively. Andrew’s is willing to do that, but I’m not.

      How many calories do you burn an hour when hiking?
      How many hours do you walk per day.
      There’s you answer.

  10. Have you used this calculator? It says I need about 6000 kcal/day while backpacking! I think I shall just use up some extra body fat on my 7-day JMT-Whitney trip instead!

  11. When my skinny son did the Long Trail, I asked him to figure out his food based on calories because he has about 1% body fat. He did an analysis & spreadsheet with calories per ounce worked out all his food based on this. Surprise surprise, it still ended up being around 2 lbs a day, at least in the first week. After that he seemed to need a little more food so was 2 lbs plus some extra protein.

    • Wanda, most hikers differ in food requirements. Some people need close to 1500-2000C per day to maintain weight and nutrition. Nutrition seems to variable. Some people need a lot more of any item than others. Evaluating a 20 years old diet and comparing it to a 65 years old diet shows a difference it proteins, minerals, calories (even hiking the same miles) vitamins and water. At a guess, your diet will decrease by about 1% over the previous year for each year of your age after 20. Especially women, there is large differences in needs at certain ages and under some conditions (pregnancy and lactation for example.

      Right now, I am down to about 1.1 pounds per day to maintain my body under moderate hiking conditions. While I tend to eat a good supply of protein (like 10-15% of my foods) it is not wasted since proteins have a fairly high calorie output, on a par with carbohydrates. So, eating extra really doesn’t hurt you out hiking. An interesting fact is that Ethanol has a much higher calorie density than either, per ounce.

      Food Energy per gram
      Fat/oil 9
      Ethanol(drinking kind) 7
      Protein 4
      Carbohydrates 4
      Veggies 2 to 2.5
      Fiber 1.5-2

      Note that in most cases, vitamins, minerals, water are not considered as caloric foods. I usually bring a vitamin for each day I will be out.

  12. When you are calculating the weight of Glop meals like oatmeal and polenta, do you include the weight of the water that you will add or are you just measuring the weight of the dry ingredients?

    • Dry only. I cook them in camp, so there’s no need to carry any liquid.

      • Good to know, thanks.

        For some reason, I had expected polenta and oatmeal to make a bigger dent in the food I needed to bring, but a 1/2 cup dry polenta only comes out to 77g or .16 lb and is as much as I think I could expect to eat in one sitting.

        So, to get my dinner weight and calories up, it looks like I’ve got to plan to add in a healthy amount of olive oil, and also eat some other snacks as part of my dinner.

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