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:
- Specify the composition of my daily rations;
- Determine the duration (in days) between the start and finish; and,
- 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:
- Specify the composition of my daily rations;
- Determine the duration (in days) between each resupply point;
- Multiply (1) x (2) to determine how much food I need sent to each resupply; and,
- 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.
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.
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.
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.