A guide to ultralight no-cook backpacking

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.

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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.

1.8 pounds of food for 4343.7 calories, with protein as 10% of calories, 50% fat, 40% carbs
Quick example of 1.8 pounds of food for 4343.7 calories, with protein as 10% of calories, 50% fat, 40% carbs

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.

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Example of a 2.5-day, 7000 calorie food supply for ~100 miles

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:

Appalachian Trail thru-hike resupply list

38 thoughts on “A guide to ultralight no-cook backpacking”

  1. Great article and love the research.

    The more that I hike each year the more that I find myself in agreement with this quote/statement:

    “To me, a good diet on the trail is very important. I focus a lot on organic or more natural food. Other people are able to do the PCT on Top Ramen and Snickers bars. I avoid sugar on the trail because sugar highs and crashes affect my hiking rhythms.” — Scott Williamson

    I would put forth the challenge to you to find a way to do away with all these high sugar products I see in your list.

    I would further go on to suggest you add a new column to your spreadsheet that is labeled “Sugar” – that would be a very interesting thing to be able to compare/see when looking down the list of “what should I, and what should I not, be buying/eating”.

    ps: shared this article on my facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HikeLighter/posts/286407028149794

    1. Thanks for the share John! My take on sugar is a complex one. Firstly, not all sugar is created equal. For example, fructose is slow to be absorbed and doesn’t stimulate an insulin response, lactose is extremely slow to be absorbed, and glucose spikes blood sugar rapidly. And yet all these are listed simply and confusingly as “sugar” on a nutrition label. Additionally, eating those foods steadily throughout a hike rather than in one meal prevents the blood sugar spike and crash. And a sugary snack accompanied with fat or fiber can also prevent the spike and crash. For me sugar is quick energy and is a blessing on longer/faster hikes. And looking at it from a strict numerical perspective simply doesn’t do it justice.

  2. I am doing a lot of what you are doing here, but that is what I’m eating between breakfast and dinner. Baggies of peanut butter are also a favorite of mine as well as aged cheese. Being of Italian descent I will not leave my stove at home and miss out on coffee in the morning or a fine dinner at night.

    HYOH, but don’t camp next to me or the smell of my lobster marinara with shrimp and ditalini might make you rethink things 🙂

    1. Oh man that sounds delicious. I’d be over at my tarp snacking on some reese’s or something! I make up for it by spending a fortune at trailside restaurants 🙂

  3. Peanut Butter Snickers! Not available in all areas, but they pack an astonishing 130 calories into a 1″ by 1″ square.

  4. Whoa, this is really…. interesting… to say the least… I’ve never seen an advocate of highly refined, ultra-processed foods quite like this. Yes, there are “ways to get around it”

    You’re increasing your markers for inflammatory responses like you would not believe, my friend.

    It would be simply too much to describe why this is not good, but rather than doing that, I propose a challenge for you:

    First, find a high quality loose leaf tea. Can be caffeinated if you like that on your hikes, otherwise, some peppermint will do just fine.

    Grab 2x 16oz glass bottles. Can be reused from whatever bottle of whatever you buy at whatever store for $0.99.

    Buy a bag of Chia seeds, and buy a little tiny blade grinder for $10-15 that is meant for coffee. You don’t want a burr grinder for this.

    Grind up 1 ounce of chia seeds until you get a meal – don’t overdo it though, because you’ll denature the unsaturated lipids.

    Pour said chia seed meal into one of those 16oz bottles, and fill with your tea. Shake vigorously and let sit for a few minutes while the bottle cools. Chia seeds have an enzyme that facilitates the absorption of water and conversion into a hydrophilic colloid, which make take a few min to form. So give it some time. 15 min total does just fine.

    It may not be appealing in taste, and the texture may be of boogers mixed with frog eggs, but go ahead and crunch your numbers and let me know what kind of nutritional density is in an ounce of chia seeds versus any of the heavily-refined, ultra-processed foods you currently have.

    Oh, on a side note, keep in mind what you write down on your table as far as nutritional value goes – is not the actual nutritional value. You are missing significant aspects of nutrition. For example, chia seeds contain unsaturated ALA which selectively converts into EPA in the brain, and this is literally more valuable than *** ANYTHING *** that you might find in a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Seriously. I could go on and on and on, but I shall not.

    Actually, one last thing about micronutrients: the human body depends on things it has minimal quantities of. Magnesium, for example, is involved in every single energy-producing reaction your body will undergo. There are thousands and thousands of magnesium-binding proteins that are quite literally essential for life. Your heart *** MUST *** have magnesium, otherwise you *** WILL *** die. You have no magnesium in your diet… how do you expect your body to bind ATP?

      1. 1 serving of peanut M&M’s will give you 36% of your magnesium for the day. I vote you up your peanut M&M allotment rather than add a mucoid chia seed slurry.

      2. I like your snarky comment, it is revealing. If only you knew how uninformed you are about nutrition, you might actually have enough humility to say “geez, maybe this person knows something I am missing…”

        is it possible that you don’t know everything there is to know in the universe? Holy shit. What a concept, huh?

        Clearly, though, the level of intellect required to have a conversation like that is significantly beyond your capacity.

        You are really not smart. At all. Why did you even write this article? It, in every way, perfectly summarizes the term “retarded” – to such an extreme level, that I wonder if you are the result of trailer park inbreeding experiments. Seriously.

        Oink on, piggy boy. Load up on them peanut butter M&M’s!!!

          1. Dude, this is by far the best thing I have read in weeks. I freaking love it lol sure, your diet on the trail isnt the healthiest. But I get the choice to leave the cook kit behind and for short periods of time use the most calorie dense foods you can carry. I dont normally eat snickers bars. But I wont go on a long hike without them. For me peanut butter is an item that bring a lot of weight with it, however its high calorie content justifies that added weight. Tortillas and peanut butter are a lunch staple for me 🙂

          2. Grayson, you’re way more tolerant of the cageless, cruelty-free, organic chia seed, “glass bottle (!?!)” crowd than I could be. Sure, you’re not a double-board-certified MD like my wife (yet), but I’m highly amused by anyone questioning your intellect or that of any med student.

            Although the Chia-nazis can’t be convinced, for anyone else:
            1) 30-, 40- and 50-mile days offset rather a lot of dietary sins.
            2) He’s talking the AT here. Not a 30-day Brooks Range resupply. At his hiking speed, he’s in another town every 2-4 days, scarfing salads and fresh fruits.
            3) Did he mention restaurants? Oh, yeah, he did. And I’m betting he orders whatever he craves the most in the moment, thereby compensating for minor deficiencies on the trail.

            I appreciate your thoughts about package weight and differences between brands and even flavors. While I always bring a stove on family trips, all my solo trips, certainly anything over 30 miles a day, I go no-cook because of time, weight, time, warmth, time, and volume. Also, when racking up miles, I need to play a lot of mind games. Bagging another 2 miles in the time others take to cook a meal is a mental win that helps a lot.

            Someone doing 5 to 15 miles a day just doesn’t grasp the need to save time and weight.

      3. Nice job cherry picking the magnesium example.

        WELP, THAT SALVES IT, PAENUT M&NS R GUD 4 U! HAH!!!! LYKE YA!!! TOTALY! #ULTRALITENOCOOKBACKPACK #TRAILMIX2.0 YAAAA!!!!!

  5. Great work, some really good info here. FWIW – there is good evidence that some nuts are not as calorically dense as previously thought (due to our inability to completely digest/absorb them). This is from research on pistachios and almonds but it has potential to apply to peanuts as well. I would guess that a nice creamy peanut butter would be more efficiently assimilated than peanuts, which could negate your weight savings on packaging. This is a bit of speculation, of course, but I think evidence-based. Doesn’t mean that peanut butter is better but it may help you (or others) give themselves ‘permission’ to carry it if it is what they prefer to eat.

    1. Hey thanks for your comment and for checking out my blog! That is very interesting, I had not heard any reports of nuts not being as calorically dense. I’ll have to look further into that. Let me know if you find any data regarding peanuts, I’d be interested to hear it!

      1. Great article. Maybe check out Soylent. I’ve been using it for 1-3 meals per day for a few months at home now to see how my system adapts to it. So far so good. It’s nutritionally packed, mixes easily with water on the trail, and can be flavored any way you want. It is filling and gives me a smooth energy curve throughout the day.
        Keep up the excellent articles.

        1. Hey Roger, thanks for your response! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I have considered Soylent, I’m gonna have to give it a shot on one of my next trips! Unfortunately it is on the low side of caloric density: ~4.35 kcal/g. and it might be kind of messy. But it might outweigh the costs by not having to chew and by being complete nutrition. I recently saw an interview with the winner of RAAM and he apparently lived off gatorade and Ensure shakes for his entire trip. Thanks for checking out my blog and for your recommendation!

  6. What about meat or fish? B12 is very important & I expect your hiking diet has very little. A deficiency can cause muscle weakness, tremors, weekness, lightheadedness, and you can pass out. Medical people refer to B12 as the “go” vitamin. Not things you want to have happen on a long hike. You could take a supplement, but a serving of most fish (sardines comes to mind) or a couple of servings of beef or poultry each day would take care it.
    You could do okay on short trips, but longer trips could leave you having issues related to deficiencies.

    1. Thank for your comment and I hope you enjoyed the post! I am nearly a lifetime vegetarian so I primarily get my B12 from fortified foods. I supplement in towns with Ensure shakes and other fortified foods. Take care and I hope you’ll check out some more of my posts!

  7. Great article!
    I thought I would give you another bar to try. Rox Bars are 266 cal. for 56.7g = 4.69 cal/g. Not the highest but really good and also gluten free, dairy free, soy free, high protein, low glycemic index and non-GMO.
    By using your spread sheet, how are you determining what foods you do take on the list?

    1. Hey thanks for checking out my blog and I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have a look at those bars! I mostly just use the spreadsheet as a starting point, just to get a framework of what is dense and what is not and then from there my preferences and cravings and nutrition guide the rest. Take care and I hope you’ll check out some of my other articles!

  8. Great post – I agree no-cook is the way to go. To me, your list looks like a lot of junk food that I would get tired of pretty quickly, although I can eat Fritos all day and I like some peanut m&m’s, especially right before bed to help boost uptake of tryptophan from my dinner. I’m trying to ween myself off store-bought trail bars – I make my own trail bars, but they’re basically just gorp in bar form with lots of dates – they’re not super-calorie dense though. And I still bring a good amount of fresh fruit and veg that keeps well that most ultralighters would scoff at. I’m going to start experimenting with coconut butter – fat-rich and I can eat that by the spoonful and add flavoring like cacoa and carob. I’ve also been researching suggestions from raw food diet fans – some are long-distance hiking on protein shakes, soaked nuts/seeds, sprouts, etc. with very little weight loss. That sounds pretty yummy to me and a diet I’m gonna experiment trying long-term at home. The more I can match my hiking diet to my home diet, the happier I’ll be on the trail. I have started to question if maximizing calories on a label is the end-all-be-all to powering through a long hike – good food with less calories (at least the number measured by a chemist) may still give your body all the energy it needs.

      1. Hi again Grayson,

        I looked at your excel and saw that you had listed a few whole foods – macadamia nuts, pecans, and walnuts are there, right at the top just below oil. Why aren’t these and other nuts on the top of your list as foods to include in your pack?

        Now I understand some research has shown that the calorie counts for nuts are not accurate as a lot of the plant cells travel undigested through our system, and nut butters or even powdered nuts may be better to maximize energy use.

        I haven’t been doing anything like the epic winter hikes you’ve been doing this year, but I’ve been experimenting with my food this mild winter and I’m finding I like best a bag of fritos, mixed party nuts, and mixed dried fruit (heavy on dates) all day. With plenty of water, I never get tired of it. I enjoy having a variety in one bag, picking out what I’m craving at that moment, eating on the move just the amount I want, as opposed to feeling like I have to finish a whole energy bar at one time or waiting til I’m really hungry to open it.

        No overnights for me yet this year, but when I get home after a lot of miles, I actually crave more of the same, so I think I’ll be happy without a more traditional dinner when on the trail for a few days at a time. And when you’re doing 30+ miles per day, you’re not very far from an off-trail cooked meal if you need one.

        1. Hey Ryan! Good questions man and thanks for your input. The answer to your first question is mostly one of simply preference- I’m not much of a whole nut guy and nut butters are too messy for my liking. Man do I love some fritos and dried fruit though. I find the more I go back and look at this post and reflect on it that the more I lean to the sugary foods over the salty ones. And as much as a bummer that the 4kcal/g weight of carbohydrate is, I definitely enjoy it a lot more on rigorous long days with lots of grueling climbs like on the AT.

          1. Some nutritionists say raisins and other small dried fruits are the best choices to eat during endurance sports – light on the stomach, easily digested and the fastest way to replace glycogen stores. Dates are my go-to – sweet, not tart, good size to eat one at a time, nice variation (some drier, some softer). I think it says something that some cultures eat dried dates as a staple.

  9. Approximately how much food in weight is your example? Also, Pringles and lays are a great choice with 160 cal/oz for the lays and 150 cal/oz for the Pringles. You could also try walnuts and macadamia nuts with almost 200 calories to the ounce. Pepperoni packs a decent amount of protein with around 140 cal/ on as well.

    1. Hey thanks for stopping by Cameron! Macadamia nuts looked like they’d break the bank but man do they pack the calories! Good question and I can’t believe I hadn’t written that on there-the 7000 calories example is three and a quarter pounds, super light! It ended up being a little more than I needed too believe it or not. I always like having something I don’t like in the pack just to make sure I make it last-that ended up being the KIND bars, not my favorite!

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