There have been a lot of questions about my diet on my 40 mile/day fastpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. I choose to not cook, saving me the weight of cooking supplies, the headache of a less versatile food bag, and the time spent cooking. But there’s a huge misconception that the food I carry is somehow heavier than dehydrated meals. So I want to share my method of creating a food list for a trip, address some common misconceptions, and list some methods that can be used at quick resupplies along the way. The list is tailored to a fastpacking trip on the AT with ample opportunities for healthy meals but the method of analysis can be applied to any backpacking diet.
Update: Explanation for these food choices and the purpose they serve posted here: http://graysoncobb.com/2015/04/26/explaining-the-backpackers-diet/
I am in the process of compiling a google doc listing most potential foods for any given trip. I list cal/gram, then protein, fat, carbs, and sodium by fraction. Unfortunately this list does not include harder to calculate homemade items and dried fruits because of inaccurate nutrition data. What mostly creates a high caloric density food is fat content. With fat dishing out 9 cal/g and protein and carbs lagging behind at 4 cal/g, a high fat snack is going to be higher than a sugary one. With that said, surviving on swigs of oil simply isn’t practical or healthy so we need carbs and protein in our diet. The primary benefit of this spreadsheet then is to tease out the foods that have significant amounts of water or undigestible nutrients hidden in them. Anything that sits below 4 cal/g has something in it that isn’t providing energy and probably has a denser alternative.
This allows me to simply fill up Ziploc bags of different foods, slip them on my scale, type in the weight in grams in the spreadsheet and out comes how many calories, grams of protein, carbs, and fat, and mg of sodium in that plastic bag of that particular food.
I’ve run out of food on trips because of deceptively high volume, low-calorie foods. Additionally, through making this spreadsheet I have become aware of common backpacking foods that are surprisingly low caloric density. Another issue I’ve had is carrying majority low-sodium foods like candy and by the time I am finishing the trip I overwhelmingly crave salty foods. This strategy effectively eliminates all those concerns. If I want 3500 calories a day and 4000mg of sodium with 20% of calories from protein, 30% from fat, and 50% from carbohydrates, I’ll have it.
Diet is an extremely misunderstood part of backpacking and looking at it from a very basic numerical perspective can help clarify some of those misconceptions. Firstly, if done right, going no-cook is undeniably a lighter way to travel. Dehydrated meals are great for emotional support, but they simply aren’t lighter from any perspective. Not only are they only in the moderately caloric dense range (3.5-4.5 cal/gram), but the packaging that accompanies them, especially freeze-dried meals, completely offsets any sort of advantage. There’s no way around it. Even the staple of the backpacker diet, Ramen noodles, is a weak 4.5 calories/gram. By enjoying shortbread cookies in lieu of the noodles, you can drop half an ounce just from one meal.
Another discovery I made in searching for highest calorie density food was exactly how much the packaging was weighing me down. For a 16 ounce jar of peanut butter, I was carrying a 1.9 ounce plastic container. That takes the caloric density of standard peanut butter from 5.7 cal/g down to 5.1. I’ve considered putting it into a Ziploc bag but wanting to avoid the mess, have simply settled on maintaining the 5.7 cal/g density and eating whole peanuts. It’s simple things like this that add up. Most ultralight backpackers would flip out if they were carrying a useless 2 ounces in their pack but with diet all this seems to get overlooked.
Laying this all out really opened my eyes up to a lot of disappointingly low caloric density foods. A lot of former staples of my diet are simply not appropriate anymore, even things that are specifically marketed to backpackers. Among the category of energy bars, Clif bars register an unfortunate 3.5-3.7 cal/g density while the pecan pie Lara Bar hits a solid 4.9 cal/g and a similar Snickers bar hits 5.1. Practically all sugar candy, including my best buddies Swedish Fish, Sour Patch Kids, Twizzlers, Skittles, and Starburst all hover around a disappointing 3.5-4 cal/g. Chocolate candy is a much wiser choice for the sweet tooth with Reese’s at 5.1, M&Ms at 4.9, and Twix at 4.5. As far as cookies, Shortbread cookies almost always win with the Keebler brand at a whopping 5.5 cal/g. Reese’s Chips Ahoy cookies are 5.3 with regular Chips Ahoy a distant 4.7. With respect to salty snacks, the fat-laden Frito’s dominate the list at 5.7 cal/g.
Because of this strict analysis of these foods I’ve abandoned several foods for backpacking and adopted many more. I usually follow the rule that the last thing in my pack at the end of a trip gets ditched and never carried again. But some of the foods I actually enjoyed the most simply don’t taste good enough to compensate for their low caloric densities. Pop-tarts, which once practically defined my backpacking diet, are never to be seen again in my pack. Clif bars have been eliminated along with my childhood friend, Twizzlers. What I’ve learned most from this analysis is that foods within categories or even simply different flavors can weigh in at drastically different caloric densities. For example, the apple pie Lara Bar sits at a wimpy 4.2 cal/g while the pecan pie flavor rocks a heavy 4.9 cal/g.
I have to write out the disclaimer that adds the complexity to this strictly numerical analysis. To create a diet with no consideration other than these macronutrient numbers would be a mistake. Analysis of caloric density is only the first step. From there we have to look at personal preferences, energy balance, micronutrient content, fiber content, and other factors.
Because of these complexities and expense of resupplies, I’m going to try to implement more mail drops on my upcoming AT hike, but in the convenience stores along the way, I’m going to make sure to pull out my phone and do some simple calculations to make sure I carry the densest nutrition. There is some concern over my diet lacking micronutrient density but I’m going to attempt to compensate for that at resupplies. I’ll be mailing myself healthier food that I intend to eat as a meal at the resupply including delicious Ensure shakes. A backpackers diet serves a purpose but should in no way be representative of a normal healthy diet. It’s salty, sugary, fatty, empty calories, everything the doc tells you to avoid. There’s simply no way to get around it unless you want to lug around fresh fruits and vegetables.
I’ve linked my spreadsheet in progress here. If you have any foods that you love and recommend, let me know of them in the comments! I’m always looking for new foods to try out.
I also have released my entire AT resupply itinerary here: