Not everyone makes the transition from hiking to backpacking. Those of us who venture into that realm, however, know all too well the challenges of finding great backpacking food that works for our diets, tastes, and preferences. Further still, some backpackers eventually start to question how to optimize their backpacking food for perfect performance.
In today’s article, I’m going to help you learn how and why to calculate the caloric density of your food. This little trick will help you optimize food for each trip! We’ll also talk about other strategies to further optimize your backpacking meals such as freezer bag cooking, snacks, and cooking gear.
I’ve spent years guiding backpacking trips across the US and I’m hoping that I can help you enjoy your next trip with these tips and tricks!
How (and Why) to Calculate Caloric Density
Why Calculate Caloric Density
Let’s start by understanding why caloric density matters, then we’ll go into how to do it!
Essentially the denser a food is the more calories it contains per ounce of weight. Just like other backpacking gear, we want to minimize the weight we carry while still maintaining the function we need.
Many hikers spend hours analyzing their tent, sleeping pad, bag, etc. Spending a few minutes optimizing your food can shave pounds off your pack over the long haul.
If we really boil it down the concept is to carry the number of calories you need for a day of hiking in as little weight as possible.
For example, to get 1,000 calories of energy from just eating Honey you’d need 10.9 ounces of honey (I’m not suggesting you do so). On the other hand, if you were to eat 1,000 calories of Macadamia Nuts you’d need just 4.9 ounces of them!
Of course it’s more complex than it sounds on the surface since you need to have a well-rounded diet (we can’t just eat olive oil) but hopefully, you can see that paying attention to and optimizing caloric density can quickly help reduce your food weight.
Pro Tip: Remember that caloric density only corresponds to energy per ounce of food. This does not take into account nutrients or vitamins.
How to Calculate Caloric Density
Caloric density is simple and can be calculated with the following formula:
Caloric density = calories / ounces
So, for instance, a peanut (according to the Wiki nutrition) has 828 calories per cup and a cup of peanuts weighs 146g. Therefore 828 calories / 5.15 ounces = 160.8 calories per ounce.
Perhaps the best way to calculate caloric density is to just go to the store and do the math. Sometimes it’s hard though because you may have to convert several numbers since often the package lists calories per serving.
To calculate caloric density when this happens you first need to find out how much each serving of a given food weighs. Check the nutrition label to see how many servings are in the package, then find the weight of the package. Package weight/servings = weight per serving.
What are the Best Foods to Bring Backpacking
Okay, so you say you can see why it’s important to carry calorie dense foods. You can carry less weight and achieve the same amount of energy from that food each day. Great.
So, what foods have the best caloric density?
When I first started doing this the only info on caloric density was for low-density foods. There is a ton of info out there about finding food that has very few calories for dieting. Not many people actually set out to find foods with tons of calories.
I had to just get out there and do the math – literally walking around the grocery store and doing the math.
Fortunately, you can now find good resources to figure this stuff out.
In this article, you can see a reverse caloric density list (they were looking for low-density foods). In that instance, items that are green would be bad for taking on the trail as far as caloric density. Red items on this list would be good for maximizing caloric density.
Maybe the most complete list I’ve ever seen was shared in a Reddit thread where someone compiled a list of almost 1,000 foods!
We can’t rely solely on caloric dense foods so remember to pack some dried fruits and maybe use some dehydrated veggies in your meals to add in a little bit of nutrition variety.
Pro Tip: Adding half an ounce of olive oil to your dinners can really spike up the average caloric density of your dinner!
Best Meal Cooking Style for Custom Meals
Okay so now you’re armed with the how and why of it. Buying premade meals doesn’t leave you any room for choosing your own ingredients, though. So how can you make your own meals with the ingredients you want in order to maximize your caloric density?
I’ve found that the best way you can dial in your own custom meals is by using freezer bag cooking.
With FBC all you do is use a sturdy Ziploc bag and add in the amount and types of ingredients you want to use. It’s easy! In the field, all you need to do is add hot water to the bag and let it hydrate.
Of course, it can take a while to figure things out but you’ll go a long way by combining variations of these foods:
- Minute rice
- Dehydrated refried beans
- Instant potatoes
If you can find something in the grocery store that can be cooked or rehydrated with just hot water, you’re all good!
I like the FBC beans and rice meal which I use:
- Minute rice
- Taco seasoning
- Dehydrated refried beans
- Fritos (in a separate bag)
To make that meal you just pour boiling water into the bag with the rice, beans, and taco seasoning. Once hydrated, add hot sauce and Fritos for crunch and enjoy! Add a shot of olive oil to spike up the caloric density for oober-energy!
FBC meals are really only limited by your imagination and what you can find at the grocery store around you.
Lighten Up Your Cooking Gear
Okay, so let’s assume you took my advice and did all your homework on FBC cooking. Great!
Now that you’ve moved on to FBC cooking you can ditch a lot of that heavy cooking gear. No more giant pots and pans. No fancier (and heavy) modular stove systems. Oh, no.
All you really need for FBC is some hot water.
Fortunately, you can get hot water on the trail with very little (and very lightweight) equipment.
Maybe the most minimalist way to do so would be to use an open campfire and a lightweight pot to heat up your water.
If you can’t always have a campfire going (or don’t want to) then you can try the following to heat up your FBC water while still staying lightweight:
- Alcohol Stove
- Esbit stove
- Wood burning stove
- Lightweight canister stove
I personally prefer the esbit stove because the fuel is easy to use and the stoves can be quite lightweight! However, many people prefer a lightweight canister stove which is still reasonable and can be used easily for a cuppa joe in the morning if you prefer a little taste of home on the trail.
If you’re okay with being ultralight minimalist then go with an alcohol or esbit stove. Don’t worry though, if that’s a little too much hassle we won’t blame you if you decide to take an easy-to-use canister stove they’re just so convenient!
By paying attention to the foods you’re carrying you can lighten your load in ways many hikers never consider. That can open up the door to new ways of cooking and new, lighter gear that can make your pack featherlight!
Let me say that I’m not a nutritionist. I don’t know anything about your diet or health. This article simply outlines the concepts needed to bring down your food and cooking gear weight. Please be sensible and take a reasonable approach to lighten your load – make sure you get the nutrition you need on the trail to stay safe and happy.
I’ve guided many backpacking trips for groups and private clients around the US. I know that ultralight isn’t for everyone, but every backpacker can learn something by considering the impact of caloric density on their meals. Take what advice appeals to you and leave the rest!
Enjoy the trail your own way and remember that we don’t all have to be the fastest, lightest hiker on the trail. Cheers!