Food planning for multi-day backpacking trips and thru-hikes

I plan for a trip in two stages:

1. The theory. On my computer, I develop, refine, and perfect every aspect of the trip, notably my gear, supplies, route, and logistics. To do so, I rely heavily on applications like Excel, Word, National Geographic TOPO!, and Google Maps.

2. The tangible. I obtain everything that is a prerequisite to start. For example, I order my gear, bottle my stove fuel, print my maps, and reserve my air flights. This stage can be intimidating because I am now committing my financial resources, not just my time.

In the remainder of this post, I want to explain how I theoretically plan my food for multi-day backpacking trips and thru-hikes.

The tangible planning stage is less interesting so I will not discuss it here. I simply need to go shopping (using the shopping list I developed in Excel), package the food (hopefully with the help of family and friends), box it up, and ship it to my planned resupply points.

Multi-day backpacking trips versus thru-hikes

For a multi-day hike, there are three steps in determining how much food I need:

  1. Specify the composition of my daily rations;
  2. Determine the duration (in days) between the start and finish; and,
  3. Multiply (1) x (2).

For example, if my daily rations consisted of just five Snickers, and my trip was 4 days long, then I would bring 20 Snickers. This is a very simple example, but it makes the point.

A thru-hike is really just a series of consecutive multi-day trips. On my 208-day Great Western Loop, for example, I resupplied about 50 times, or on average about every 140 miles, or 4 days. To determine how much food I need for an entire thru-hike, then, I modify the steps just slightly:

  1. Specify the composition of my daily rations;
  2. Determine the duration (in days) between each resupply point;
  3. Multiply (1) x (2) to determine how much food I need sent to each resupply; and,
  4. Sum all food needs from (3) to determine how much food I need to buy for the entire trip.

For example, if my daily rations consisted again of just five Snickers, and if my thru-hike had four resupply points that were 4, 6, 7, and 10 days apart (27 days total), then I would need 135 Snickers.

Daily Rations

Of course, my daily rations are not as simple as just five Snickers. Rather, they consist of a breakfast, four to six mid-day snacks, desert and dinner. I prefer these small, distinct meals because they keep my energy level sustained. But they also make planning easier because they can be broken apart in orderly rows.

Below is an example of what my typical rations looks like:

My experience is that most backpackers only need about 3,000 calories per day, so in most cases I do not recommend that you replicate exactly the food plan above. Instead, use 3,000 calories/day as a starting point and adjust up or down as you see fit.

If a pile of food worth 3,000 calories seems like it’s way too much or way too little, adjust the amount before you even start your trip. If the 3,000-calorie pile looks reasonable, then make adjustments before your next trip based on the results from your first.

Predicting duration

Even if I determine correctly the amount of calories I need per day, I may not necessarily leave the trailhead with the correct amount of food for the entire trip because this calculation depends on whether I determined correctly how many days it would take to reach the next resupply point, which itself is a function of the distance I cover each day, i.e. my pace, noted as MPD, or miles per day, since

Distance = Rate x Time, or
Distance between resupply = MPD x Days

If I underestimate how much time it will take by overestimating my MPD, I will have to ration my food so I do not run out, as happens in the example below. If I overestimate how much time it will take by underestimating my MPD, I will be free to eat more each day than I originally planned. During a thru-hike, I never arrive in town with food leftover.

My ability to accurately predict MPD has improved with experience. I’ve learned how my pace is affected by:

  • Travel mode, e.g. hiking, skiing
  • Daylight, e.g. long summer days, long winter nights
  • Terrain, e.g. flat, mountainous
  • Elevation, e.g. oxygen-deprived Colorado, oxygen-rich Appalachians
  • Ground cover, e.g. good trail, game trails, tussocks, deep powder, Spring corn
  • Pack weight, e.g. heavy, light
  • Physical fitness of myself and others in my group, e.g. peak form, off-the-couch
  • Group size, which affects group efficiency
  • Trip objective, e.g. speed record, casual

If you are new to backpacking, you need data points before you can start predicting your pace on a multi-day hike or a thru-hike. The best thing to do is go on “practice hikes” to better understand your abilities and comfort level. Also, if you have a friend who is an experienced backpacker and who understands your capabilities and comfort level from other athletic pursuits, then consult them.

Complexities

So far, I’ve stuck to simple examples: one person, one meal, one ingredient. But, more realistically, the situation is more complicated:

  • 2+ people
  • 2+ meals
  • Intentional duplication of a single meal, e.g. two “chocolate” snacks per day
  • Meals with multiple ingredients
  • Meals with multiple ingredients, some of which are also used in other meals (e.g. butter)

These complexities can be easily accounted for in Excel, as I’ve had to do. I’d like to share my solutions but I do not have a planning file that is currently ready to be made publicly available. I hope to offer one eventually.

Some of these complexities can be addressed by using “COUNTIF” or “SUMIF” formulas or by adding a “group size” variable into the formulas. In the case of meals with multiple ingredients, I break down the meal by ingredient and determine the weight of each ingredient per meal, similar to how I break down my daily rations into individual meals. These three tactics are all used in the tables below.

29 Responses to Food planning for multi-day backpacking trips and thru-hikes

  1. Chris Chillingworth January 31, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Hey Andrew. Found this rather fascinating. Have bookmarked it for future use as it’ll come in really handy. I’m a trainee accountant / hiker who has a bit of a love for stats and figures so it’s right up my street pal. Nice one. Twitter: @cchillingworth

  2. tony February 1, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Andrew,
    Thanks for the info.i am new to hiking. Planning my first trip. For July a 60 mile 5 day hike. And any and all info is helpful

  3. Rob Lewis February 3, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    Andrew, this is great! My biggest weakness for trip planning is my meal planning. I currently just go on 3 day trips, but Im planning a section hike of the AT with a friend and meals are a big issue right now. Is there a chance you could post a downloadable spreadsheet template in .xls to assist in planning.

    -Rob

    • Andrew Skurka February 3, 2012 at 11:02 am #

      The spreadsheet I used to make the tables in the article is really basic. Nothing more than some multiplication, COUNTIF, and SUMIF formulas. Not worth me posting that. At some point in the future, though, I’ll come out with something more powerful and functional. Maybe as a downloadable product, we’ll see.

  4. Chris G April 12, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    How do you cook pasta on a Cat stove? I can’t boil water long enough to make anything other than hot water for dehydrated meals.

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      You don’t really want to “cook” on a cat food can stove. It’s mostly just good for boiling water, so make sure to use food that reconstitutes quickly — angel hair pasta, couscous, ramen, instant rice, instant potatoes, instant beans, etc.

      • Chris G April 12, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

        Actually I meant you personally–your meals described above list pasta, potatoes, and other ingredients that you wouldn’t be “cooked” in the amount of time that a Cat can maintain a boil. So I meant: how are you cooking potatoes and pasta on a Cat stove? Or are you starting off with Mountain House or the like and adding to it?

        • Ed M. December 15, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

          The best “pasta” to use is ramen noodles. Just discard the sodium filled flavor pack.

          • Andrew Skurka December 15, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

            Agreed. 150 calories/ounce, and nearly “cooks” with lukewarm water.

      • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

        You don’t need to “cook” instant rice, instant beans, angel hair pasta, etc. Boil water, add the ingredients, let is sit for a few minutes to absorb the water, stir as needed.

    • Jonathan June 9, 2012 at 4:55 am #

      I cook a 14 oz box of penne pasta at home. After it is cooked, I throw it in a blender with 48oz of plain marinara. Blend it to mashed potato-like consistency. Spread it out on dehydrator sheets. Dehydrate on 135 for 8 hours, flip it, then dehydrate another 4 hours. Break apart the crunchy end product and put in a blender and pulse a few times. Put a heaping cup of the pasta nuggets per freezer bag. Add dehydrated veggies, parmesean, ect. Rehydrate on the trail on a 1:1 dry to water ratio; backpackingchef.com is a brilliant website for good food.

  5. Josh April 18, 2012 at 2:12 am #

    Well… all i have to say is now I know why you are The Man! thats is some strategy, I would have never of thought to break it down that far, for me and my buddies on a weekend canoe trip we just throw stuff in the dry bag and eat when were hungry! I want to tackle the AT somtime this year, I will be using your statistics tables, thanks, Looking forward to maybe coming to a seminar ,if you come near the south! While on a week long hunting camping trip with minimal food (due to lack of preparation) me and my buddy found out 3 squirrels a day per person with some granola bars will keep you sustained for a while until the deer start movin.

  6. Sarah August 24, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Andrew,

    Where do you find powdered WHOLE milk? I can’t find it anywhere and I live near lots of natural food stores.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka August 26, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      I’ve heard you can find it at Mexican grocery stores. It’s sold by Nestle, if I recall.

    • Jim Milstein December 4, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

      The Nestle dried whole milk product is called Nido. I live in New Uraniborg, a place near nowhere else, so I buy it on line.

  7. Megan September 14, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I see that you are not supposed to cook on the cat food can stove. I was teaching my husband how to make one today. I used a larger cat food can. I just used a little bit more alcohol and it cooked egg noodles just fine. Took maybe 10 minutes.

  8. Cory Kiser April 12, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Andrew,

    You seem to have a meal plan for all your hikes, but have you had to forage while on the trail? If so, what kind of guide or suggestions do you have?

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      I’ve never “had to” forage for food while on a trip. It’s faster to carry a bunch of food; it’s also cleaner than catching game and fish, and safer than collecting nuts and berries (if you, like me, are not informed about what’s edible or not). I would also add that you’d be surprised how long you can starve and still perform. It’s miserable, but people have gone a pretty long time on insufficient calories.

  9. Kelly Jones May 30, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Hello Andrew,

    I really like your way of planning food based on calories.

    I’m planning a section hike of the PCT with my son. I’m trying to figure out how many calories per day I should carry. I’m 45 and about 175 lbs. My son is 12 and is about 85 lbs. We are going to be hiking 74 miles in 7 days with about 20,000 ft. gained and lost during the whole hike. It will be in August.

    My problem is that we go on weekend hikes and if we have a little extra food or not enough food, it all works out ok. But for a week trip, I want to do a better job in planning. I want to make sure we aren’t carrying too much or worse yet, starving ourselves. It our first time going to long and covering this many miles.

    Any guidance would be welcome. Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka May 30, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      For your age and height, I think 2,500-3,000 calories per day would work well. Perhaps start at 2,500 per day and ramp up to 3,000 per day later in the trip. I can’t offer a recommendation for your son — I’m not as familiar with youth metabolisms. Perhaps consider what he eats relative to you, then plan a proportional amount for him.

  10. Jeff Pape July 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Love the spreadsheet idea. If you list each item you need to bring along, you can use a pivot table to sum everything up and create your shopping list for you…still working on the spreadsheet but it should making plan for the next trip easier.

    I’d love to see more recipes (specifically what food you use).

    -Jeff

  11. Natala December 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    This is super useful. I thought i was the only person who used a spreadsheet to estimate food needs. I’m hiking the W at Torres Del Paine and trying to figure out how much food to bring… I had been estimating 2000 calories per day (assuming that I eat dinner at the Refugios), but after seeing your calculations, I think I may need a little more (~2500 per day) given how much activity we will be doing. Very interesting stuff!

  12. Bill May 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Nice article! Now if you can just list all the meals you typically pack, I won’t have to do any work :) One thing, you obviously like chocolate and plan it in your snacks. I find chocolate melts at pretty low temperatures. Unless your on an arctic adventure, don’t you just wind up with a big glob of liquid chocolate when you go for that snack?

  13. Bill Doherty August 16, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    Great ideas, will have try the Italian blender penne pasta, need to try dehydrating 1st as I haven’t done it before, would get some weight out of the pesto & Sun dried tomatoes I carry, also noted there are no cookies in your food (another weight saver). The spread sheet would be excellent for longer hikes (week or more).

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