Food list for a backpack hunt: Amounts, recipes, & planning tips

Four full days of food, less one dinner, plus a bag of extra food that I'll leave in the car in the event that we finish up later than planned.

Four full days of food, less one dinner, plus a bag of extra food that I’ll leave in the car in the event that we finish up later than planned.

Colorado’s third rifle season for elk and deer starts on Saturday morning, and so over the next few days I’ll be finishing my preparations for our backpack hunt. Tonight, the task at hand was food. I thought I would share some tips and a list of what I’m packing.

How much?

We are inclined to pack our fears. We don’t want to sleep cold at night, so we pack an unnecessarily warm sleeping bag. We are concerned about encountering a bear (even in non-bear habitat), so we pack bear spray or wear dreaded bear bells. And, yes, we are afraid of starving, so we pack an excessive amount of food.

My standard recommendation is to carry 2,250 to 2,750 calories per person per day. If you are a young, muscular, larger-bodied male on an ambitious trip, you should plan to be at the high-end of this range. If you’re the opposite, expect to be at the low end. These recommendations do not apply to multi-month thru-hikes.

It is impractical to sum the calories of all your food items, especially on a longer trip. The more efficient approach is to simply weigh your food. If you assume that your food has an average caloric density of 125 calories/ounce, you would need to carry 18 to 22 ounces of food per day.

Caloric density

When meal planning for a backpack hunt, caloric density is an important concept. It is the total number of calories in a meal or food item divided by its weight. Pure carbohydrates and proteins (e.g. instant mashed potatoes and beef jerky) contain 100 calories per ounce. Pure fats like olive oil contain 250 calories per ounce. Fritos, which is mashed corn fried in corn oil, have 150 calories per ounce.

Because your body needs a certain number of calories per day, you can carry less food weight by packing fattier foods. Your legs will thank you, and maybe it’ll make the difference of getting that elk or not. For example:

  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Fried snack foods like Pringles, potato chips, and sesame sticks
  • Chocolate candy like Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and M&M’s
  • Oils and butter

Water provides no calories. So food items that contain water — like tuna packets, tortilla shells, and some cheeses — will have a lower caloric density, often less than 100 calories/ounce.


Each food prep session involves overhead time: planning, shopping, setup, packaging, and clean-up. At the beginning of each backpacking season I prepare dozens of days worth of food and store them in plastic totes. This allows me to quickly get out the door on overnights and weekend trips without having to dedicate a few hours to the process. Read more time-saving tips.

Prepackaged food (e.g. energy bars, freeze-dried meals) is convenient, but most of mine is not. Instead, I buy it in bulk and bag it myself. I weigh each serving or meal with a postal scale. I do not measure it out in cups or spoons, which does not scale as well. It helps to have a half-dozen containers of the same size and weight so that you can prepare a number of servings before needing to bag them.

Meal prep, using a postal scale and identical tare containers.

Meal prep, using a postal scale and identical tare containers.

Backpack hunt food list

We are driving out on Friday night, and will either camp at the trailhead or in the field, depending on what time we arrive. The season starts on Saturday morning, and due to work obligations our last hunt will be on Tuesday morning. That amounts to three full days plus a breakfast on the fourth day.

But I’m prepared to put something down on Tuesday morning, in which case we would not reach the car with our first load of meat until Tuesday mid-day. I am also leaving some food in the car, in the event that we need to haul out meat through Tuesday night.

In general, I did not go crazy with my food prep for this trip. It’s a short outing, and my food stockpile was largely eaten up over the summer and fall.


My go-to breakfast on personal trips has become cereal with protein powder. It sticks to my ribs, and I can have it hot or cold. Read the recipe.


Throughout the day I will nibble on small snacks, each about 3 ounces. This keeps my energy level sustained, and no meal is so big that it puts me into a food coma. Items:

  • Candied pecans and honey roasted almonds
  • Protein bars
  • Chocolate bars, M&M’s, and chocolate-covered cashews
  • Honey mustard pretzels
  • Salami


We will be eating in the field for three nights. On two nights I will be having my favorite dinner recipe, Beans & Rice with Fritos & Cheese. On the other night, I’ve twisted a breakfast recipe, Cheesy Potatoes, to make a suitable dinner, by adding olive oil, salami, and green onions.

Elsewhere on my website I have posted more dinner recipe ideas.

Midnight snack

With the nights being so long now (and cold), I’m packing a small midnight snack so that my body has some calories to burn, once it’s exhausted dinner. Without a midnight snack, it’s more likely that I will get cold in the wee hours of the morning.

Hot drinks

So that I can endure brisk daytime temperatures and cold nights more easily, I will be making a hot drink at least twice a day, maybe three times, using my Fast & Light stove system.

Starbucks Via instant coffee is convenience, but expensive at $1 per packet (and $2 for a proper cup of coffee). I prefer to make cowboy coffee with real coffee grounds and then filter them out using a MSR MugMate.

E-book on recipes, rations, stove systems, and food storage

Earlier this year I released a 14,000-word e-book about backpacking food. The information is a mix of new and old. You can find the older content on this website, but some decide that the $5 cost is worth the convenience.

Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like Amazon or REI, at no cost to the reader. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Posted in on November 2, 2016


  1. Bill on November 3, 2016 at 6:19 am

    Very well thought out and presented. You’ve got the experience to back up your choices.

    Nature Valley has come out with some Dark Chocolate snack bars recently. I enjoy the Dark Chocolate Crunchy Oat bar and the Dark Chocolate and Cherry snack bar.

    The Peanut Butter singles are very convenient.

    I make a hot chocolate mix that I almost always mix with coffee. It’s mostly dry milk, malted milk, protein powder and cocoa. It’s more filling than coffee. Another pleasant hot drink is hot apple cider. The packets are pretty easy to find, but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen apples on the ingredient list.

  2. Doug K on November 22, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    the other breakfast I use on hunting trips is instant cream-of-wheat or instant grits, mixed with milk powder, slivered almonds, parmesan cheese, and precooked bacon bits. Hunting trips are usually cold so there are no worries about the bacon bits going rancid. Similarly will carry Snickers bars as well as protein bars, they don’t melt in the cold and are more appetizing than the average protein bar.

    We have quite a few freeze-dried meals left from Scout trips. On hunting trips we figure one ‘two-person’ meal per person.

    a small flask of Scotch, to be added to hot cocoa at night, is very comforting 😉

  3. Bill on November 22, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    While deer hunting last week, I took some Coffee Thins in my daypack. I wasn’t able to take hot coffee with me, so the Coffee Thins were my fallback and I was pretty happy with them. They look like thin chocolate wafers, but they are coffee and cocoa butter. They had disappeared from the shelves at Walmart, but had recently reappeared in the coffee section, although not every store. At around $0.88 for a package of three they are not horribly expensive.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 22, 2016 at 6:39 pm

      Does it specify the amount of caffeine? As is, “Equal to one cup of coffee!”

      • Bill on November 23, 2016 at 5:27 am

        They do not specifically say how much caffeine is in each wafer, unless it is on the package. They do say that there is caffeine in them. I don’t notice any effect after eating them, but I don’t notice any effect after drinking a cup of coffee.

  4. Bill on December 13, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Here is another coffee product that might be worth a look:

    I saw this on the shelf today and picked up a jar. I have yet to try it, so I can’t comment on the flavor. Even if I don’t care for the flavor as hot coffee, I could still use it in other things like hot chocolate or brownies.

  5. Blair on January 2, 2017 at 7:53 am


    No AAR of this year’s hunt? I have particularly enjoyed that post on years past.



    • Andrew Skurka on January 2, 2017 at 8:59 am

      I wrote up all the notes and will get around to it. But when I returned I opted to focus on core BP content through the end of the year.

  6. Terry on July 26, 2017 at 11:15 am

    I recently started making cowboy coffee and filtering the grounds out by pouring it through my mosquito head net (such as Coghlan’s #8941) placed over a mug. It filters just as well as the french press I use at home.

    I suppose you could probably use the netting on many tents, so long as you weren’t concerned about attracting bears to the residue. I use a tarp or hammock though, and I sleep with the net on at night when in buggy areas. I avoid using DEET near anything I’m going to sleep in so it doesn’t get all over my sleeping bag, but I suppose a person could carry a second net to filter with and consider it a spare for their head. They’re only about $2 and don’t even register a weight on my scale.

    They make a decent pre-filter for water also, but you’d need to sterilize it afterward to use again for coffee. I’ve used it after treatment with a SteriPen to get some of the floaties out though.

  7. Gowri on July 25, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Hi Andrew – I am a new reader of your blog; stumbled here while looking into decent dinner options while backpacking. It looks like you avoid a meal in the middle of the day – does this work well? I find that it tires me out not having a meal after 5-6 hours of hiking and struggle with what to do that doesn’t require an extra cooking cycle (but I also haven’t tried snacking regularly during the day in lieu of an actual meal). Any tips on how/ what to eat during the day to keep the energy levels up would be helpful. Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 27, 2018 at 8:30 am

      On nearly all trips I have a dedicated breakfast (usually cold, and usually granola with protein powder) and hot dinner (recipes here).

      During the day I snack. Normally I bring 3 to 5 snacks per day, each 300 to 450 calories. For example, 3 oz of peanut M&M’s, a Clif protein bar + a Nature Valley granola bar, 3 oz of dried fruit.

      For the first day or two of a hike, especially more casual ones, I like to bring along “real” food like a turkey sandwich or avocado (which I eat with Pringles, Fritos or some other salty chip).

  8. Gowri on July 27, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Thank you; I will try this. How many times during the day/ how frequently do you snack?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 27, 2018 at 3:33 pm

      Three to five, depending on the trip intensity. 5x on hard personal trips, 4x on guided trips (which are more leisurely), and 3x on camping-centric trips. Hunting season I’m usually 3x, with one midnight snack so I stay warm at night.

      I eat when I’m hungry, usually every 2-4 hours.

  9. Stephen R Marsh on October 25, 2019 at 7:28 pm

    We met a kid at an AMC outing that overlapped a shelter we were at. He repeated the wisdom of a blogger he worked for (without giving us the name) and it sounded a lot like you. Very impressed.

    BTW, we’ve been using freeze dried refried beans in recipes, as well as stuffing mix and freeze dried chicken (add in butter for flavor and calories). They use a lot less fuel and time to cook than other types of beans.

    That way we don’t have the weight of pre-cooked beans, or the time delay of uncooked beans.

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