Many people have trouble coming up with a relatively healthy meal plan that has adequate calories and protein for backpacking. This can be a real challenge for those with a high metabolism who have significant calorie needs.
Inga and Steve having a meal on the John Muir Trail
How to determine calorie needs is a complex topic. There are formulas but they are, at best, only a starting point. If you like formulas, use the online BMI Calculator to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Then apply another formula, called the Harris-Benedict equation, to find out how many calories you need during varying levels of activity. Some people do a rough estimate by weighing their food, aiming for 1.5-2.5 lbs of food per person per day using typical backpacking foods (predominantly dehydrated or freeze-dried. Time on the trail and experience is your best guide. For a more thorough discussion of this topic, see Chapter 3 in my book, The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning.
Here is a sample menu that provides over 4,000 calories and 140 grams of protein, just to show that it can be done. Most of the food is healthy, minimally processed with as few additives as possible. I only need about 2,500 calories, so this would be too much food for me. I would either reduce the portions or eliminate some items.
Menu For A Day
- Breakfast: 2 packages instant oatmeal, 1 tablespoon full-fat powdered milk, 1 tablespoon chopped hazelnuts, 1 tablespoon raisins, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1 teaspoon roasted flax seeds, 1 teaspoon chia seeds, 1 oz bacon jerky, 1 trail smoothie
- Morning snacks: 1.4 ounce (37) gourmet jelly beans, 1 20-gram protein energy bar, 1 ounce (28) Peanut M&M’s, 24 grams hydration powder mix
- Lunch: 1 tortilla, 1/2 cup dehydrated black bean flakes, 1/8 cup freeze-dried brown rice, 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds (unsalted), 1 string cheese, 1 serving of jerky
- Afternoon snacks: 1.4 ounce (37) gourmet jelly beans, 1/2 Nature Valley granola bar, 1 ounce (18) cashews
- Recovery drink such as Tailwind Recovery Drink
- Dinner: Homemade Italian Sausage and Orzo-1.5 serving (800 cal), 1 package hot chocolate mix, 1 tablespoon full-fat powdered milk, 2 ounces dark chocolate
NUTRIENTS: Calories 4008; Carbohydrate 560 g; Protein 140 g; Fat 208 g; Sodium 3683 mg
Nope, it doesn’t really look like this, but it’s similar (photo: Thalassino Youvetsi-CC)
Recipe: Italian Marinara, Sausage and Orzo Pasta
Here is the recipe for Italian Sausage and Orzo using freeze-dried ingredients. See the Food section of my Backpacking Resources page for food sources.
- ¼ cup tomato powder
- ½ cup orzo, cooked and dehydrated
- ¼ cup freeze-dried sausage
- 4 slices dried tomato
- 1 tablespoon freeze-dried cheddar cheese
- 1 teaspoon freeze-dried Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon Italian spice blend
- 1 teaspoon minced dried onion
- ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Salt (optional as freeze-dried sausage may contain salt)
- Black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Combine the rest of the dry ingredients into a bag.
- Add enough hot water to cover the dry ingredients. Start with ½-1 cup.
- Add olive oil.
- Stir well to moisten throughout.
- Add hot water to the bag.
- Rehydrate for 10-20 minutes until softened.
- Add more hot water to taste if desired.
Yield: 1 serving
Nutrition: Calories 851; Carbohydrate 106 g; Protein 37 g; Fat 34 g; Sodium 691 mg
The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning contains this and other recipes, links to data sheets with the nutrition breakdown and more information about meal planning.
Data Sheets (nutrition breakdown)
Google Drive spreadsheet