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The 5,000-calories-per-day wilderness diet

McGrath, Alaska

My outdoor diet has been honed through years of experience and over 30,000+ miles. It might not work for everybody, but it works for me, at least right now.

Considerations in Food Items

It is difficult to find food items that are compatible with a long-term trip. Below are the most important factors I consider when I am food-shopping.

Caloric density (i.e. calories/ounce). One ounce of fat contains 240 calories; one ounce of carbohydrates or proteins contains just 100 calories. So, the fattier my diet, the less food-weight I need to carry in order to achieve a caloric target. In: olive oil and peanut butter. Out: fresh produce and tuna packets. Basically, I try consume as much fat as I can, so long as my diet remains palatable and practical.

Spatial efficiency (i.e. calories/volume). During this trip I will pack up to 2 weeks worth of food, and if my food is not dense (think energy bars versus bagels) that will be problematic—my pack won’t have enough space for it all.

Conduciveness to separating in snack-sized portions. I like to have “structured discipline” in my snacks so that I don’t eat more than I’m supposed to, which I almost certainly will if given the opportunity. Granola bars, candy bars, and energy bars already are snack-sized; and I re-bag all of my bulk snacks (e.g. sesame sticks and Peanut M&Ms) instead of keeping them in large bags. Foods that are difficult to repackage (e.g. jars of peanut butter, or 1-pound bags of beef jerky that will go bad shortly after being opened) present challenges.

Taste, and diversity of textures, flavors, and sources. Within tough limits, I try to keep my food interesting and exciting.

Nutritional value. There is a lot of evidence to support the argument that this doesn’t matter. For example, Brian Robinson, who was the first to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in a single calendar year, ate only one thing during the day (Snickers bars) and had only a 3-meal dinner rotation.

Shelf life. There are few nutritionally-rich foods that are shelf-stable for up to seven months. One trick: take over your mom’s downstairs freezer.

Pre-trip prep time. Before the Alaska-Yukon Expedition my family had a big “food party” to assemble a lot of my food, but we decided to stay away from really time-consuming work like making beef jerky or dehydrating dinners, which might be more practical for a shorter trip.

In-field prep time. I demand zero or minimal “assembly” time—I just want to grab and eat, usually while moving. You won’t see me making pita-cheese roll-ups, but you will see me pouring trail mix into my mouth out of a Zip-lok bag.

Expense. My food bill during this trip will be less than if I lived a conventional life during this trip (even accounting for the increase in caloric consumption), but I am cost-conscious when I go shopping.

How Much I Eat

For this trip I am packing about 4,750-5,000 calories a day, or about 2-2.25 pounds at 140 calories/ounce. This is not quite enough to avoid unhealthy weight loss, so I will make up some of the difference at town stops. On average, I will probably consume about 5,500 calories a day over the length of the trip.

While I need about 5,000 calories a day on a long-distance trip, I recommend much less to anybody doing a trip of less than 2 weeks. When I guide clients and groups, packing about 3,000 calories a day (or 1.5 pounds of food per day at about 125 calories/ounce) seems to work really well.

How I Eat

I start the day with an on-the-go breakfast–a mealbar and a granola bar. I snack every two to three hours thereafter, depending on trip intensity and trip length. On longer (i.e. two-plus weeks) and more intense trips (i.e. solo, long days, difficult terrain) I need to eat more often. On shorter and more casual trips, I can eat less often. I will have four to seven snacks a day.

I have a pre-dinner desert as soon as I roll into camp in order to hold me over until dinner, or use it as a final snack if necessary. Then I’ll quickly prepare a “boil-only” dinner. If the nights are long, I may plan a “midnight snack” between dinner and breakfast so I stay warmer throughout the night.

I prefer this “caloric drip” system of eating many small meals consistently over the day, rather than just a few large meals, for three reasons: my energy level stays more consistent; I don’t have post-meal food comas; and I’m never hungry for very long before it’s time for another snack.

Specific Food Items

Never have I wished that I took less chocolate on a backpacking trip. It simply cannot be done. It is the only thing that infinitely satisfies me.

I do need some diversity, however, as well as some different nutrients. So I alternate chocolate with beef jerky, salami, protein bars, fried chips (e.g. Fritos, Pringles) and other snacky foods.

While this menu may not sound appealing, you need to remember that “hunger is the best seasoning,” and since I am almost always hungry out here, I am almost always looking forward to my next meal.

Where I Shop

For shorter trips (i.e. one month or less) I can usually get everything I need by visiting a few local supermarkets, which in Colorado means King Soopers, Safeway, and Wal-Mart Supercenter. For longer trips, I can save money and improve food quality by shopping elsewhere.

I go to Sam’s Club or Costco for restaurant-portion basics like instant potatoes and rice, parmesan cheese, and spices; and bulk quantities of beef jerky, candy bars, and corn chips. At Trader Joe’s I was able to find “fun” snacks like chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies, honey-glazed sesame sticks, and toffee-covered cashews. I visit the bulk bins at Whole Foods (or a local grocery store) and get wasabi peas, trail mix, couscous, and trail mix. At a discount grocer like Ocean State Job Lot I can sometimes find great deals on foods that are normally expensive–like 16-oz jars of organic peanut butter for $2 or pre-spiced couscous for $3 a pound. And, if I’m buying retailer-sized quantities of a particular item, I will call up the company and see if I can get wholesale pricing. Before this expedition I did this with Mealpack and PROBAR and both companies offered me volume discounts.

36 Responses to The 5,000-calories-per-day wilderness diet

  1. Connie March 31, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    It seems to me that young man who ate only Snickers bars and a three meal rotation must have had all-you-can-eat meals in the towns, when he picked up his bounce box of resupplies.

    Either that, or he is young and strong and like any young athlete, he paid for it later.

    For me, the outdoors experiences are all about excellent health.

    • Scott June 13, 2013 at 11:04 am #

      Seems healthy to me. Chocolate is great for you. A 3 meal rotation for dinners can be plenty healthy. Would be nice to know what he had for breakfast. Just my opinion based on my experience. I’m 43 and certainly not an athlete per se, but I find myself felling much better coming off the trail than when I set out. 🙂

  2. john August 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    hi andrew, i’ve been planning a trip to thru hike the colorado trail and right now i am in the food planning stage and i was curious about what types of cheese you use with you food. and when the mail drops are sent to the P.O. how will they know to hold it until iget their. also I was wondering about how many calories you would recomend for me. I am 6 foot 160 lbs and 20 years old, i plan on doing about 20-25 miles a day. Thanks
    p.s. great book ive been using it extensively for planning my trip!

    • Andrew Skurka August 13, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Cheese blocks are much better than shredded cheese. Beyond that, the type of cheese I select is based on my meals and based on what’s on sale.

      Your dimensions are similar to mine, though you are a little leaner. If I was planning 20-25 miles per day, I would probably plan 3,500-4,000 calories per day. How should you settle on an amount? Go for a 3-day trip and figure out what you need. It’d be a good chance to dial in your CT kit too.

      There are excellent maildrop resources elsewhere on the web. Consult those.

    • Zach July 21, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

      Hey John,

      Here’s a guide to sending mail drops for a thru-hike: http://appalachiantrials.com/guide-mail-drops-appalachian-trail/

      The guide is written for an aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, but the principles will apply anywhere in the US.

      Obviously this way past the point of being useful for you, but just in case someone else stumbles upon this article and is curious!

  3. Richard October 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    I noticed textured vegetable protein in the bulk bin section of the grocery store.
    It’s lightweight and although not as high caloric content as your above diet it does
    contain high protein/weight.
    What are your thoughts?

    Your book has saved me $. Great book!

    • Andrew Skurka October 29, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      TVP is a very good source of protein. It goes well in soups, or other meals with flavorful broths. It’s more calorically dense per its weight than jerky and salami (though it doesn’t taste as good). And it’s relatively inexpensive. My only complaint is that I don’t feel like it packs the same recovery punch that meat does, but YMMV.

  4. drown December 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    TVP can also be harder to digest for some people. I’ve done extensive trip with it as the sole source of cooked protein. After a few days we all had terrible gaz from it and it was very stinky. It does soak up flavor well when cooked with sauce and has good texture, especiallythe arger chunks of it. Personally I now prefer to carry summer sausage instead. If you are a vegetarian or vegan it is a good option.

  5. Andrew December 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    Veggie protein doesn’t pack the same recovery punch as meats do because it lacks a complete amino acid profile. Supplementing with beans, nuts, and whole grains will take care of this problem. I’ve been vegetarian (and borderline vegan) for a long time and this system works well for me as an amateur endurance athlete.

    Also, meat has a psychological effect that can’t be overlooked. If you can’t stay positive on trail without a little meat on hand, then definitely bring it.

    • Amanda September 7, 2015 at 3:47 am #

      While most people didn’t know about a complete vegetable protein in 2012 (can’t recall if I did or not), most know that quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah if the packages are to be believed) is a complete vegetable-based protein available at most grocery stores today in a variety of forms and flavors. 🙂

  6. Richard January 2, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    I was going to report that my local Whole Paycheck Grocery
    has TVP in beef flavor but after reading the replys…. I’m thinking
    salami which tastes a lot better anyway.
    Thanks for the answers!

    • Andrew Skurka January 2, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      So true!

  7. Paul March 3, 2013 at 2:58 am #

    Agree with your assertion to pack lots of fat, as it’s calorically dense, but question your statement that nutrition holds little to no value.

    Have you personally experimented with this? Meaning: one trip pack mostly whatever you want, with little to no worries about nutritional value – and another trip, attempt to focus on nutrient-dense foods and see if it has any effect on energy levels/endurance/clarity of mind, etc. I’d also be curious to know if eating well has a substantial effect.

    Another food I’d throw in there, at least for the first few days, is hard-boiled eggs. Throw in a couple dozen to eat on the first few days – little to no prep time, and very easy to eat.

    • Andrew Skurka March 5, 2013 at 10:02 am #

      I would never say that the nutritional quality of food items has “no” value. However, I would say that the types and sub-types of nutrients in the food (e.g. not just fat v. protein v. carbs, but animal v. soy protein) seem to be a bigger factor in my performance.

      I haven’t done a quality test on this hypothesis; instead I’m basing it on how I feel at home versus how I feel when on the trail. At home I eat much better than I do on the trail — lots of fresh produce and “real” food (e.g. eggs and meat), and essentially no junk food. The swap doesn’t seem to make a difference. In fact, I’d say that my endurance and strength is much higher on the trail than at home, though this is mostly due to the absurd amount of exercise.

  8. Ken May 6, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I love chocolate too but wonder how/what kind I might carry on a summer sierra trip? or, more broadly, how high a temp have you been able to manage with chocolate? (BTW I have found your book incredibly useful as well as your practical yet well thought through advice…good work!).

    • Andrew Skurka May 7, 2013 at 7:00 am #

      The only time I’ve had issues with melting chocolate was in southern California in June on the Pacific Crest Trail. Daytime temps were at least in the 90’s, and sometimes and 100’s, and my pack was also blasted relentlessly by radiation from the sun. But I’ve never had a problem in the High Sierra. Just make sure that you don’t put chocolate on the very outside of your pack — leave it near the outside, but under an extra layer or two.

  9. gray man May 25, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    The Mountain Men, and Indians ate pemmican throughout the winter.
    Just prior to WWI, the US military seriously contemplated using pemmican as
    the official field rations.
    Pemmican is just rendered animal fat mixed with dried, shredded meat.
    Sometimes with a few berries added.
    Interestingly, some evidence indicated rendered fat in pemmican prevents scurvy.

  10. Eric November 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    I’ve found recently that mixing powdered indonesian sate sauce with any dry-frozen meal enhances that meal on all levels. It’s readily available here in the Netherlands cheaply just about anywhere, although not sure if its available anywhere abroad. For me it’s this stuff and chocolate that will always be in my bag. great stuff.

    Link is in dutch, but you might get the idea: http://www.ratuculinair.nl/producten.html

    • Kirk Visscher October 6, 2015 at 11:14 am #

      search on Amazon for Gado Gado, they have several varieties, some pastes, some apparently drier (hard to tell)

  11. Karen Najarian February 21, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    I’m all about Nutella and peanut butter.

  12. Parker March 13, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    I am writing a capstone project on how to avoid malnutrition in the wilderness. I am researching how to use the natural environment instead of store bought things. I was curious if you had any recommendations on the importance of some wild foods over others. Any help you can give would be great.

    • Andrew Skurka March 13, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

      “Living off the land” is really not my niche. Personally I prefer to pack a bunch of chocolate and start walking. There are others out there, however, who are totally into this kind of thing — you’ll just need to keep looking.

    • Alexandra September 13, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

      Check out Daniel Vitalis and his rewild yourself podcast! Legitimate dude on living off the land and going back to nature. The ancient homo-sapien style.

  13. Fiona January 23, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

    How do you get enough fibre in your diet on a long distance hike to keep you regular? I normally have a very high fibre intake as I eat between 10-12 servings of veggies and fruit a day, as well as kidney beans, black beans, or chickpeas every day. I’m not a vegetarian–I also eat eggs and chicken and turkey. For me, a bowl of oatmeal in the morning does not help regularity.

    • Andrew Skurka January 25, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

      It does not seem to be an issue for me, even without any intentional efforts to ingest high fiber foods. I think that being vertical and moving all day, drinking copious amounts of water, and consuming a lot of calories keeps things moving well.

  14. Jim February 8, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

    Do you have any concerns with salt levels in the foods you pack? Many of those boil up pack meals have ridiculous amounts of sodium not to mention salami, jerky and even some instant oatmeal packs

    • Andrew Skurka February 8, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

      In general, no. Our bodies need salt, and given how hard I’m working out there I’m doubtful that high salt intake has the same adverse health effects as it would for a more sedentary person.

      BTW, I make my own dinners. You are right, those freeze-dried meals are very high in sodium. But more important for me, they cost substantially more and they’re not better than what I can make on my own!

  15. Lilli May 27, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    Have u tried chia seeds? High plant protein and expand to a jelly like substance w water. Bland tasting, but a good source of protein and omega 3? What to mix it with to make the protein complete.
    Cheese cubes & salami: how long will they stay good after cut into?

  16. Hugh Loeffler March 16, 2016 at 7:17 pm #

    I haven’t read your book but will. Question. I hear what you are saying regarding fat for calorie density, but I also hear you saying you have significant amount of carbs in your dinners ( couscous, instant potatoes, etc…). What is your advice on carbohydrates regarding how much space they take up.

    • Andrew Skurka March 17, 2016 at 7:35 am #

      Aim for at least 125 calories/ounce. A meal with 4 oz of carbs and 1 oz of fat = 130 cal/oz.

  17. Ben July 19, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    Do you have a spreadsheet or list of a typical trip?

    I ask because I usually have to rebuild the list of my no-cook ultralight menus from scratch off amazon/etc. each time, and would love a one-click shopping list that gets most things.

  18. Taia April 26, 2017 at 11:48 pm #

    If you can find them, my suggestion is cocoa nibs. They won’t melt, taste like dark chocolate, are crunchy, have 168 calories per ounce and even a little kick of caffeine to keep you going! They mix well into a trail mix and are usually used for cooking, so feel free to toss them into oatmeal or a desert. No sticky fingers either!

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