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Grazing on Winter Hiking Food

Grazing on Winter Hiking FoodWinter hiking burns a lot more calories than hiking the rest of the year because your body has to work harder to stay warm in the cold; you have to wear more clothing layers and heavier insulated boots; you need to carry snowshoes and use crampons or microspikes for traction on icy trails, and you need to carry all of the water you need for the day since most water sources are frozen over and impossible to access. But when can you stop to eat a big lunch in freezing cold temperatures, high wind, or days with few hours of daylight?

What is grazing?

Many winter hikers carry food that they can eat without stopping to maintain their energy during the day. Called grazing, this involves eating highly caloric, bite-size foods like trail mix (gorp) that you can snack on continuously without having to stop for a food break. If it’s really cold outside, or you’re in an exposed location subject to high wind, you can become quite chilled if you stop to eat. You’ll stay warmer, move faster, and maximize the daylight available during short winter days if you eat on the move.

How many calories are required for winter hiking?

You can expect to burn an additional 2000 to 3000 calories more than the 2000 to 2500 calories you normally eat over the course of a day, so anywhere from 4000 to 5500 calories per day, and even more, if you camp out overnight. In other words, your daily food intake has to match or exceed that of an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.

However, your body can only digest 400 calories per hour no matter how much you can cram into your belly at once. So after a big breakfast, the best way to consume the calories you need to stay alert and energized on a winter hike is to snack frequently on food that’s easily accessible.

My staple winter hiking snacks - cracker sandwiches, soft granola bars that don’t freeze, home made gorp ingredients, and store-bought gorp.
My staple winter hiking snacks – cracker sandwiches, soft granola bars that don’t freeze, homemade gorp ingredients, and store-bought gorp.

Good Grazing Foods

Many of the candy bars or snack bars that you normally carry in warmer weather, freeze in winter temperature and become very difficult to eat or chew. While you can thaw them in pants pockets or chest pockets with body heat, you need to eat so much food during the day, that it’s usually easier to pack food items that don’t need any special handling.

Trail mix (gorp) with nuts, raisins, pieces of chocolate and dried fruit is the quintessential grazing food for winter hiking because it packs 150-190 calories per ounce and it, snack cracker sandwiches from Lance or Keebler, and Quaker Oat Chewy granola bars that don’t freeze, are my winter staples that can be eaten on the move. I buy all these snacks or gorp ingredients (walnuts, raisins, chocolate morsels) in bulk because I usually go on all-day winter hikes, two or three times each week.

Here are a few other grazing snack suggestions that my hiking partners enjoy:

  • Grilled cheese sandwiches cut up into small squares
  • Leftover pizza
  • Smashed potato chips
  • Cookies
  • Brownies
  • Beef jerky
  • Dried fruit
  • Granola

The key is to pace yourself so that you’re grazing frequently enough to keep your energy levels up. Otherwise, you’ll run out of gas and bonk, which is no fun.

Keep fatty snacks close at hand so you eat while you hike without stopping.
Keep fatty snacks close at hand so you eat while you hike without stopping.

Gorp Bottles

For example, it’s easy to carry gorp in a small plastic bottle attached to a backpack shoulder strap or in a front fanny pack so they can be accessed without having to stop. I carry a 16 oz wide-mouth Nalgene bottle attached to my shoulder strap that has trail mix in it and shake a bit into my mouth every once in a while. At 150-190 calories per ounce, gorp containing nuts, raisins, dried fruit, or chocolate chips is ideal because it combines slow-burning, high-calorie fatty foods with lower-calorie, sugary foods that can be digested more quickly. On an 8 or 9-hour winter hike, I’ll eat most of the gorp in the bottle.

Ken attaches a snack bottle to his shoulder strap and also carry a front fanny pack.
Ken attaches a snack bottle to his shoulder strap and also carries a front fanny pack for holding other snacks, extra gloves, tools, first-aid, etc.

Front Packs

I also connect a small pocket, called a wet rib, to my shoulder straps to hold more food, a spare hat, and gloves. I have friends who do something similar with fanny packs. Any old fanny pack will do. You just need some small carabiners to attach them to the shoulder straps or the webbing that connects the shoulder strap to your pack. This makes it easy to unbuckle one side to take off your backpack.

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  1. OK, you presented a number I’ve never heard before and its got me interested because it may modify the way I take in food all the time. Could you give me a citation for the 400 calories per hour max intake regardless of consumption? Thank you.

    • I just did a couple of google searches – given you can do those yourself I’m not going to bother linking – and there’s a lot of technical studies on the matter. Most of the details in those studies go way over my head but the conclusions were generally that, as with anything physiology based, there are differences from one person to the next. There are differences in where the calories come from and differences if they are consumed while being active or at rest. Phil’s citation of 400 was at the very high end of what I found and some studies suggested the real max is in the 150-300/hour (depending on the factors above).

      In any case of the actual number the advice is sound that if you consume your calories progressively throughout the day you’re going to be able to absorb more of them.

      • I think I got the 400 calorie number from a medical study about 10 years ago. I was very into Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism at the time. But if you do any googling you’ll quickly discover that it takes an amazingly long time to digest your food. It’s not like you get the benefit of it the moment you swallow it.

    • Holy wow is this estimate off. I have worked/ lived in the backcountry (both high elevation mountains and desert) for years doing manual labor and have counted calories at different times. They are highly overestimating how many calories you need. And the eating hourly is such bs.

  2. maybe one of those beer can hats with wider tubes to dispense nourishing pellet-based foods oooh i gotta write this down

  3. Great piece. Thank you.

  4. I like the gorp bottle because it’s easier to see how much you’re ingesting, and you can probably eat without removing your gloves. More sanitary for sharing, and you can keep any hiking partners from picking out all the chocolate

  5. Please back up these numbers. They look false to this physician.

    • Take my hike today. 11 hours in winter conditions. 15 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain. 30 pound backpack. I weigh 190. Wore crampons almost the entire day because we were on thick ice going up to the peak and coming down. If my baseline is 2000 calories at rest, I estimate I probably used an additional 300 additional calories per hour. That makes 5300 cals.

      • I hiked Carrigain on Thursday, the day after Phil did, same exact route (thanks for NETC report btw). I can confirm my resting daily calories are around 2250, and that day my Garmin watch clocked about 5200 cals for the day. On longer hiking days it’s not uncommon for me to burn 6000-7000 cals. Without eating frequently I would be toast.

  6. Sports nutritionist here. These numbers are pretty accurate barring individual differences. Given how slow rates of digestion are you really do benefit from very frequent snacking during such sustained periods of exertion.

  7. “the best way to consume the calories you need…is to snack frequently on food that’s easily accessible.”

    I always have this problem and my brain will choose to not eat rather than stop, unpack my food, and dig through to find my snacks. Then, I bonk.

    The GORP bottle is pretty ingenious way to keep a lot of calories on hand. I like it.

    Calorie intake was a big lesson learned for me during my 20/21 hiking season as I was not eating nearly enough (like 1,000s of calories not enough).

    Things changed once I estimated my basal metabolic rate (plenty of online calculators for this) and then ADDED the additional calories I estimated I would burn on a trip (a few online calculators for this as well that take into account pack weight, terrain, and hiking speed). Together, they gave me a much better idea as to how many calories I’d burn on a trip (YMMV). My food bag got much heavier but I was a much happier (and warmer!) hiker.

  8. Nice article. Fruit Cake is my go to when i need calories. Easy to pack, this demse ‘meal’ doesn’t freeze.

  9. I would like to see a write up with pictures for where you described Front Packs “You just need some small carabiners to attach them to the shoulder straps or the webbing that connects the shoulder strap to your pack.”

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