Calories, calories, calories, right? Well, sort of.
Many backpackers will tell you it's good to find the most calorie dense foods in order to save weight and pack space. Therefore, many diets on trail include items such as peanut butter, coconut oil, olive oil, etc. Yes, fats are great for the weight to calorie ratio, however after a few days on trail, you will notice these foods become very hard to get down, especially, if you try to eat on the go. These types of things must be eaten in moderation, depending on how much you can handle. Over the years, I have noticed that a more balanced diet is optimal.
Trick number 1: snacks.
You may think about only bringing bars or healthy foods, but some of the easiest and tastiest things out there are just the salty and unhealthy snacks. I have a tendency to eat Cheezits, Goldfish crackers, Pringles, nuts, candy, jerky occasionally, etc.
Trick number 2: drinkable calories.
This one will depend on every hiker, but I always have 50% of my calories in drinkable form. You may be thinking right now about nasty, thick protein shakes, but there is a secret that is just the opposite, and it's called Maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is pure, fast burning carbohydrates in powdered form, and its not going to get all thick like protein does. It's mainly a starch derived from corn usually, with less than 20% sugar. Also, when you add it to Gatorade or lemonade you'll be surprised by how unnoticeable the stuff actually is. In the end, Malto is just performance formula. It's a complex carbohydrate. If you look at the label on any GU or performance drink, you will see that Malto or another form of carb is on there. This is just much, much cheaper. After much testing, I have come to the conclusion that 2 cups of Malto per liter of water is a pretty spot on ratio. Do this 4 times a day and you'll have more than 2,000 drinkable calories. Thus, you can pound down some real calories without having to chew and digest solid food. (Malto is 4 calories per gram, making 2 cups just over 400 calories)
Remember that you can mix anything in with the Malto for flavoring. Be creative. Some ideas are Carnation Instant Breakfast, lemonade, Gatorade, etc. I mix a protein meal replacement from a company called Unicity in the morning and evening, and sweet electrolytes during the day.
So it looks a little like this: in the morning before leaving camp, you mix a baggie of 2 cups Malto and flavoring (I prefer chocolate or vanilla flavor in the morning) with 1 liter water, then at some point during the day, mix the other two baggies with flavoring (I prefer a sweet flavor in the daytime) two during breaks during the day, then sometime before camp or at camp you mix and drink your last baggie of 2 cups Malto and flavoring to one liter of water. Use a funnel to pour the Malto into your water bottle, cutting off the top of another water bottle serves as an excellent funnel. And always have your other bottle full of just water in case you want something without flavoring.
If you search Maltodextrin online, you can get 50 pound bags for about 75 bucks shipped. If you aren’t going to use that much, you can buy it in tubs and add your own supplements. In the long run, this Malto will save you money and time on the trail. Time that would be spent taking long breaks to digest solid foods can instead be used to hike another mile or two. Trust me on this one: it’s magic. You can buy some here.
Trick number 3: bars.
Everyday I consume about 2 to 3 bars. This usually comes in the form of a breakfast bar, lunch bar, and/or dinner bar. Breakfast can be a Nutrigrain, PopTarts or even a caloric cinnamon roll from a gas station. The lunch bar is usually something like a ProBar or Kind Bar. Take your pick among the myriad of bars out there. And lastly, the dinner bar is just a good tasting candy bar. Costco offers assorted boxes for a lot cheaper than individual bars bought at the store.
Trick number 4: dehydrate your own meals.
Those store bought freeze dried meals can really add up. Something I have done lately, with the help of a super mom, is to dehydrate my favorite meals . You'd be surprised by what you can end up dehydrating. I usually end up doing things like rice, lentils, beans and meat to eat with tortillas and hot sauce. My own little Mexican dinner on trail. Whether you cook with a stove or are using a no cook system, a full meal can be a great boost in morale and a nice break towards the end of the day when the sun starts to dip over the mountains.
Dehydrators can be cheap, if you shop around, or you could even make your own for less than 50 bucks, here is a tutorial for that.
Trick number 5: portion it all out.
It can be easy to eat too much or too little if you do not have correct portions laid out. You can also waste lots of time by having to pull out different snacks in large bags throughout the day. So the trick here is dividing the days’ portion into small 300-500 calorie baggies. This may take a little longer while getting the resupply boxes ready, but it will save a lot of time on the trail, and make each day a little more convenient. In the morning, I wake up, slide out the number of snacks I will be eating that day—my bars, my Malto—and then pack up the rest of my food. By doing this, I have it all ready to go and I just need to worry about eating everything in my fanny pack or hip belt pockets before the end of the day.
So let's say you are hiking 30 miles a day on the PCT, or 10 miles a day on the JMT, then you would calculate the amount of calories you would consume in one day and multiply that by however many days it will take you to get to the next resupply.
For example, on the PCT I consumed about 4,200 per day, so here is what one day of trail food would look like:
2 bags Malto (400 calories each) plus vanilla/chocolate packets (150 calories each)= 1100 cal
2 bags Malto (400 calories each) with electrolyte servings (40 calories each)= 880 cal
Nutri Grain breakfast= 120 cal
Pro Bar= 360 cal
Candy bar≈ 120 cal
4 bags of 300 calorie snack servings= 1200 cal
Dehydrated dinner≈ 500 cal
So this comes out to be a total of about 4,280 calories—an appropriate diet for 30 miles a day with a light pack. And if my resupply was 150 miles away, I'd pack 5 days worth of the list above.
Your calorie per day ratio can increase or decrease depending on exertion and miles walked per day, but anywhere from 3,000 to 4,500 should be sufficient for a pace of 10 miles to 35 miles per day.
Those are the tricks I have learned over the years, they will keep you optimal, and keep you going all day. Feel free to comment below for questions and clarifications. Enjoy.