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.


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.

Posted in , on January 31, 2012


  1. Chris Chillingworth on 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. […] Apparently, I’m doing it right. It would no doubt be easier if my spreadsheet weren’t such a mess, but it’s nice to know I’ve done everything Skurka mentioned, and (surprisingly) nothing he didn’t. I won’t say how much time I spent on it, though! I’ll say only that I’m still very much in the “practice hike” stage….Speaking of which, there’s still no snow […]

  3. tony on February 1, 2012 at 9:41 am

    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

  4. Rob Lewis on 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.


    • Andrew Skurka on 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.

  5. How do you plan... | Facebook on February 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    […] ProfileNorth Country Trail Association via Andrew Skurka How do you plan your food for hikes?Food planning for multi-day hikes and thru-hikes // Andrew Skurka andrewskurka.comI plan for a trip in two stages: 1. The theory. On my computer, I develop, refine, […]

  6. Chris G on 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 on 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 on 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. on December 15, 2013 at 9:29 pm

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

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

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

      • Andrew Skurka on 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 on 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; is a brilliant website for good food.

  7. Josh on 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.

  8. Sarah on August 24, 2012 at 7:24 pm


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


    • Andrew Skurka on 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 on 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.

  9. Megan on 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.

  10. Food Planning Tips for Backpacking « CouchtoCDT on October 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    […] planning is going to be huge for this trip.  Some hikers, like Andrew Skurka, use spreadsheets to keep track of every meal, every bar that he carries.  He typically will do what he calls a ‘caloric drip’ to where he is eating 400-500 cal snacks […]

  11. […] planning is going to be huge for this trip.  Some hikers, like Andrew Skurka, use spreadsheets to keep track of every meal, every bar that he carries.  He typically will do what he calls a ‘caloric drip’ to where he is eating 400-500 cal snacks […]

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


    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 on 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.

  13. Kelly Jones on 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 on 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.

  14. Jeff Pape on 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).


  15. Natala on 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!

  16. […] a crazy wide spread, and hard to work with. Most of the “this worked for me” posts that get detailed about calories are written by men, which makes my research a bit harder. […]

  17. Bill on 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?

  18. Bill Doherty on 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).

  19. Luke on January 21, 2015 at 1:40 am

    The “typical rations” table is awesome for an example. I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this year and working on my meal planning now, using the same snack order (candy bars/chocolate before “lunch”, nuts/protein after “lunch”).

  20. AT Prep: Trail Foods | on January 21, 2015 at 1:46 am

    […] with me as I hike the Appalachian Trail this year. Although I’m not going to go as in-depth as this, I’ve had a rough idea of what I was going to take for some time now, but haven’t […]

  21. Joe Schichl on July 13, 2015 at 9:14 am

    Andrew, I considering doing the AT in a few years. Starting a bit early on my research. I’ve done alot of backpacking and canoeing on multiday trips, but not longer than 10 days and that was on a raft. Anyways, on long distance thru-hikes, do you plan target a specific amount of weight that you want to carry first and then figure out the resupply points or do you identify the resupply points and then figure out how many meals you’ll need to carry. Or maybe both? Thanks, Joe

    • Andrew Skurka on July 17, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      Your resupply strategy should be driven by your style of hike. Some thru-hikers really enjoy the town experience, so they will go out of their way to visit towns.

      I tend to look at it from an efficiency perspective: Will the resupply save or cost me time, versus carrying enough food to make it to the next one? Typically I only resupplied at on-trail locations, unless the only way to break up long stretches between on-trail locations was by hitching or walking into town. But define “long stretches.” I have grown accustomed to carrying 1.5-2 weeks of food at a time, but in my thru-hiking days I thought that a week was a heck of a long time.

  22. […] kind of eating is a little all over the place and when trying to use Andrew Skurka’s menu planning method to calculate the quantities it became one big mess of packing and rationing. Also my calorie intake […]

  23. Michael on February 22, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Bookmarked this on my homepage, very useful thank you!
    Im Planning a 7 Day hike now.

    Do you account for perishable foods?
    for example, do you take fresh vegetables and fruit to be consumed on the first few days after each resupply?
    I noticed in your examples, it is based off eating the same meal every day.

    Im at work so I will read through your posts more thoroughly

    • Andrew Skurka on February 23, 2016 at 8:54 am

      I will take perishable foods on short, casual trips. But if it’s a long or hard trip, I’m eating trail food from the start.

  24. Reverend Rusty on May 28, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Lots of good ideas here. I have also found a spreadsheet of various foods that tells me cals/# or #/3500 cals (or whatever the daily intake is) gives a good guide as to whether a particular food is worth the weight. (Other than perhaps spices in small amounts that may be worth it for other than calorie content.) The best one could do in theory is 100% fat, at 4000 calories/# but a balanced diet of 30% fat and 70% protein/carbs comes in around 2500 calories/#. And that’s assuming actually no filler or water weight. This at least gives an idea of what one is up against when it comes to packing food. I had heard 2#s per day and that is actually a pretty good first rule of thumb.

    So now I only consider a food suitable if it can deliver 1700 or more calories/#. (Variety requires this; the best “real food” I’ve found is peanut butter at 2666 cals/# but that can’t be the whole trip’s worth of meals.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 28, 2016 at 4:57 pm

      Most people will have leftover food if they pack 2 pounds per day per person. My experience with guiding 400+ clients is that the normal range is 2250 to 2750 calories per day per person, or 18 to 24 oz assuming caloric density of 125 calories/ounce (or 2000 calories per pound). Young, muscular, hard-charging men will be at the upper end of this range; the opposite, at the low end.

      • Scott on April 18, 2022 at 12:50 am

        Hey Andrew, I’m starting the PCT in a few weeks and think I might be closer to 4k calories a day, so wanted your thoughts for planning purposes.

        I’m not young anymore (mid 30s), but 195# and 6’2″ with a running background. Hiking with a weighted pack the last few days has me at ~350cals/hour (in relatively similar environmental conditions to PCT). With 10 hours of hiking and normal metabolic functions, it doesn’t seem like I’ll be a far cry from 4k calories burned per day. (FWIW, in my last half marathon I burned ~1000cals/hr).

        Do you find that even large hikers moving 25-35miles/day still don’t consume 4k calories? I’m not starting with huge days on the trail but expect to build up to them. I’ll adjust on the trail but curious of your thoughts given our somewhat similar backgrounds of running/backpacking. Thanks!

        • Andrew Skurka on April 19, 2022 at 12:30 pm

          For hard solo hikes I typically pack 5 oz for breakfast, 4 x 3.5-oz snacks (14 oz), and 7 oz for dinner = 28 oz. I’m 6′ and 160″, and my metabolism is pretty hot due to my running and low body fat.

          If you will be building up to longer days, I’d start with about 24 oz per day, then adjust based on appetite. Expect your appetite to kick in during the second week — you might be surprised at how little you eat during the first, as your body will be in shock and your energy reserves are still in good shape.

  25. Alex on May 5, 2021 at 3:43 am

    Being a big tall guy, at 110kg/240pounds I have to pack ALOT according to my body weight.

    I tried packing a bigass dinner at about 300g of dehydrated meal, I just couldn’t eat it, 200g is about the max I can eat.

    I have learned to spread out the calories a lot more over the day.
    I have a hard time eating breakfast, but force down some oatmeal in the morning (my body thanks me later in the day), and then I eat dense snack bars at 2 hour intervals the entire day, I can’t eat a big lunch normally, but I eat a bigger snack/meal bar if I take a longer break.

    With this, I still loose some kg’s on a week+ trip

  26. Bosse on September 15, 2021 at 9:41 am

    Hey Andrew, thanks for this still very informative post. I’d actually like to create some sort of tool around it (will be basic python stuff but with full functionality)- food planning is just an annoying thing for me and I’d really like to get it done easier. I’d be very happy to get some information from you which things are important to you based on your experience. It will be an open-source project – thus everybody will be able to enjoy it for free 🙂 reach out if you are interested!:)

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