Updated: Jan 4, 2021
So you're ready for a multi-day hiking adventure. Perhaps you've camped overnight previously and you're looking to take things to the next level by adding on a day or 2. Perhaps this is the very first time you're looking to tackle an overnight hike! Either way, this guide is for you.
We have tried to be as universal as possible with our selection of foods, however we understand that food availability can differ tremendously between regions around the world. Therefore we suggest looking for similar alternatives that can be subbed in for items that are not available where you are. Generally speaking, the world is more interconnected than ever before, so it's more than likely you'll be able to find similar options to those listed below.
We've also tried to be universal with weather and conditions. This is not necessarily aimed at those planning to cross Antarctica or the Sahara desert, as those require certain unique adaptions to a nutrition plan.
Factors to Consider
One of the first factors that you will need to consider when putting together a food plan for your hike is the weather. Is it going to be below zero for most of the trip, or are there days that will exceed 35 Celsius. This will absolutely play a role in determining what foods you can and can't take with you.
In colder climates, food will preserve better and hence, the option of taking fresher produce expands. Such food will quickly expire in hotter climates.
Length of Hike
Certainly one of the biggest factors in your food choices will be the length of your hike. You'll be able to get away with carrying a much more diverse range of foods for a single day or 2 day hike, than a 10 day wilderness experience.
Generally speaking, the shorter the hike, the more weight you can carry in food per day. You're also going to be able to carry fresher food choices as the risk of expiry in negligible. For longer hikes, weight is a crucial factor and nutrition options become much more limited, in order to keep your pack as light as possible. It's a terrible feeling getting sore shoulders and back just an hour or two in due to the weight of your pack. The main cause of overweighted packs is likely food.
Availability of Food
Are you going to be hiking in an area that passes small towns or shops? Are there service stations on the way or at least cafes? If so, your food options open up and you can get away with carrying less weight in your pack. With food likely being the heaviest item you'll be carrying, this can be a tremendous advantage.
Before kicking off a longer hike, it's a good idea to calculate your rough energy requirements for the journey. With a little experience, you'll have a more intutitive understanding of what your body needs. When starting out, it's a good idea to try and use a bit of science.
Outside Online have put together a decent resource to help you calculate calorie expenditure while hiking.
For someone who is 170 pounds (77kg), travelling at 3 miles an hour (4.8km/hr), with low gradient terrain, you'll probably burn around 560 calories an hour. If you've got 6 hour days, that's going to be 3,360 calories over baseline getting burnt each day. Ideally, to maintain performance and prevent low energy for the rest of your journey, you'll want to be replacing these calories daily. For a 3 day hike it's not so important. A 4 month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, it becomes absolutely crucial.
Your Personal Biology
In addition to your individual metabolism, your personal biology will dictate what foods will agree with you while hiking or otherwise. Digestability becomes a big factor when eating on the move, something that isn't always considered around the dinner table. Hiking for 4 hours on a bloated and gassy stomach is not a pleasant experience and one that should be avoided if possible.
Though there are genetic tests that determine your food tolerances, there's really no substitute for trial and error out in the field.
How to Plan Your Hiking Nutrition
How to Pack Your Food
Everyone has their personal preferences for this and the importance of organisation will vary depending on the conditions and length of your trip. For a 15 day trek through a remote part of the Himalaya, organising and rationing your food supplies takes on critical importance. The last thing you want to do is eat half your reserves in the first 3 days and be left low on energy for the remainder of the trip. Though less critical, it's an important attribute to maintain, even on smaller hikes.
Our personal strategy is as follows;
- Use 1 large ziplock bag for each day out on the trail.
- Use 3-4 smaller ziplock bags for each meal of each day. 1 each for breakfast, lunch and dinner and 1 for snacks.
That may sound like a lot of plastic, but each bag is reusable multiple times and it saves bringing a multitude of plastic wrappings with you that may end up all over the hiking trail.
By dividing up your food in this manner, you have a very clear understanding of exactly what you can eat and how much. if you ensure each meal is around 800 calories and snacks add upto 600 calories, you've got your 3,000 calories for the day rationed out. You won't be able to 'accidentally' overeat, as you would if you simply had all the food bundled into 1 bag.
Just a note, if you're going to have access to external food sources on your hike, such as shops or cafes, it's a good idea to underpack your food and buy extra along the way. It makes for a much more comfortable hike. If, on the other hand, you're going to be trekking through a remote region and for a longer duration (particularly if the duration is flexible), it's best to overpack your food and be left with extra. The last thing you want to do is run out when you're 2 days hike from civilisation. It's not a pleasant sensation. Yes, it will be heavier to cart around but it is well worth it and even perhaps a necessity.
Reduce, reduce, reduce. There is nothing worse than getting to a trail head raring to go, only to find your pack is going to allow you to travel at a snails pace. The biggest factor in this is generally always going to be food. By reducing weight, without reducing nutrition and calorie requirements, you're doing yourself a tremendous favour. The trip will be much more enjoyable.
The best way to do this is to use dehydrated produce where possible. Water is the key to reduced weight; lack of it. By adding water to your food as you go, you can reduce the weight issues drastically. This is of course, provided you have access to clean water and the ability to boil your food on your trip.
The quintessential hiking fare- freeze dried meals. Love them or hate them, they are often a necessity!
Secondly, any unnecessary food storage items- tins, plastics, cardboard, plastics.. get rid of them! It may not sound like much, but all that additional stuff not only adds weight, but takes up a lot of precious room in your pack. Use ziplock bags for your food as mentioned above and avoid taking any of the packaging with you.
Finally and perhaps most obviously, choose lightweight, calorie dense foods. Unfortunately, this generally means that fresher and often healthier foods are out. Fresh fruit and veg as well as meats and full of water weight and are heavy. By all means, take them along for the first day or so but make sure they're eaten quickly! It's a lot of additonal weight to be carrying. Instead, buy dehydrated vegetables and premade meals that are light and full of nutrients. Take snacks like nuts and trail mix which are full of quality calories that will keep you humming along the trail.
Oatmeal (add raisins)
Instant mash potato
Granola with powdered milk
Cereal with powdered milk
Bagel with peanut butter
Crackers with tuna or cheese (cheese early in trip)
Dehydrated pre-made meals
Tortillas with salami or packet tuna
Packet rice with packet salmon or chicken and sauce
Chocolate Bars (you've earned it)
Nuts (almonds, cashews and peanuts)
Energy Bars (such as Cliff Bars)