Explaining the backpacker’s diet

I realized after my recent post on backpacking diet that I did a great job outlining some of my diet choices for my fastpacking trips and a poor job of explaining why I chose the foods I do. I wanted to do a write-up explaining the backpacker’s diet so people could better understand what purpose it serves and how a diet loaded with empty calories is not unhealthy granted the context.

Typical 2.5 day diet
Typical 2.5 day diet

My backpacking diet serves a very specific purpose and addresses the most immediate concern: starvation. It focuses on macronutrient intake and finds the densest foods to obtain the most calories. Anything beyond that is fluff. 

Several people have had genuine concerns for my health with lacking several micronutrients. To understand my diet you have to understand my take on nutrition which has evolved over four years of obtaining my Bachelor of Science degree in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, my athletic endeavors, and my first year in medical school. The reality is, for someone like myself (healthy, non-obese, non-diabetic, active, financially stable), fluctuations in my diet have minimal impact on my health. This obviously is contrary to what every health food store and naturopathic website will tell you. They’ll say superfoods can make you and processed foods can break you. And we know from decades of research, for the populations that these stores and alternative-health practices are targeting, we simply aren’t heavily effected by antioxidant profiles and micronutrients. The American population is effected primarily by macronutrient intake. The primary reason nutritionists emphasize fruits and vegetables is not because the population deficient in vitamins A and C but because these are high satiety, low-calorie foods and our population is overwhelmingly overweight and obese.

High consumption of these healthy foods helps prevents weight gain. And for someone hiking ~40 miles a day, weight loss is the concern. Instead I look to find the foods that promote weight gain, the deceptive calories, the things that are easy to eat and poorly satiating. That includes candy, fried foods, dressings, cookies, salty snacks, etc. As I said before, the primary goal is to keep from starving. The method of preventing that is to eat foods that in a normal population cause weight gain and obesity.

All my nutrition professors rightly emphasized that there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ food. They always stressed context for a diet which included goals, quantity, timing, health, etc. While my diet wouldn’t be appropriate in most other settings, for this particular adventure, it is quite possibly the only way to keep from becoming emaciated and deathly ill. Another issue my professors always emphasized is that someone burning 7000 calories a day can afford to eat more “empty” calories as a fraction of their diet than someone eating only 1500. What that is addressing is that micronutrient requirements only modestly increase with increasing energy needs.

The reality is, our diet, and the way we discuss nutrition is elitist and myopic. Different diets work for different people in different settings. To assume that the only diet is our own is ridiculous and arrogant. You don’t have to eat a textbook fruits and veggies, minimal empty calories diet every day. But if you’re morbidly obese, you honestly probably should. And I have to drop this in here because I’m so tired of seeing it: “natural” is a meaningless term, GMOs are not bad, “organic” is not any bit healthier, “superfoods” don’t exist, you’re more likely to die from excess than from deficiency, if you’re healthy you don’t need a multivitamin, preservatives are not inherently bad, and there’s no such thing as a universally healthy diet. I may have missed one or two but I think that covers most nutrition misconceptions.

To close, here is a quote from Brew Davis in his blog about his wife setting the Appalachian Trail thru-hike record in 46 days:

Jen and I practically took an oath to eat nothing but processed foods for the duration of the trip. I can picture Jen’s mom, and her Aunt Vee, and cousin Tori rolling their eyes right now. But the sad truth is, fruits and vegetables take too much time and energy to chew. They have a lot of sugar, but not enough calories so they’re kind of a waste of time on a hike like this. I’ve been trying to eat a banana or apple or something healthy every day. But the only fruit that Jen’s gotten is from fruit smoothies and the only vegetables she’s gotten are in potato chips.

14 thoughts on “Explaining the backpacker’s diet”

  1. Yay, now I don’t have to write this wonderful explanation on your last post! You summed up all the points as to why what you are doing is perfectly logical for the specific goal you have. H8ters still gonna h8.

  2. Very interesting….it’s the way I approach my day-of IRONMAN diet. One day I’ll share that with you.

    Stay well and keep blogging.

    Susan Ann

  3. Great post (and the earlier one too/love the spreadsheet).

    Have you done the math for the net weight savings of a no-cook vs. cook approach? If so, I’d love to see the numbers.

    For instance, Andrew Skurka has a post with a menu for 6 full days of food, including cooked dinners. 161 oz total (not including stove or fuel). 20,125 total calories/3354 calories per day. Let’s assume another 16 oz for stove, fuel, mug, and spoon for a total of 177 oz (5018 grams). If I’m doing the math right, he’s achieving 4g/calorie, including stove and fuel. http://andrewskurka.com/2014/week-of-backpacking-food-breakdown/

    Using typical meals, how much weight would you be packing for 6 full days (or 7 days with 5 full days/2 half days, which is how Skurka’s trip was planned)?

    I’m honestly trying to assess the tradeoffs for no hot coffee/no hot dinner and it would be awesome to work up a head to head comparison using specific menus and stove/fuel assumptions.



    1. I personally have not posted about a full analysis but I have looked into it before. I’ll work on analysing that for a future post! In the meantime, I will comment that going no-cook always has the potential to be lighter. How much so is up to personal taste and preference. One of the things that impacts the numbers heavily is that as days pass, food weight diminishes, and while fuel does too, the cookset of course maintains weight. So as a percentage of total food/cooking weight, the cook set rises over a hike, making the math a little more complicated. Andrew has less of a sweet tooth than me as well so his numbers are tough to compare to mine. It’s such a good question though and one that I don’t feel a comment is an adequate response. I’ll work on getting a post out and get back to you!

      1. Thanks Grayson. I’d love to see that analysis.

        Of course there’s a weight penalty for stove and fuel. Let’s assume it’s 16oz for that.

        The key question to me is: Is there an advantage on the food side for no-cook? If so, how much?

        It’s plausible that there is a strong advantage of no-cook if the food is more calorie dense per gram. Many of the foods with high cal/gram are not cookable, so that could be where the advantage lies.

        To me, I’d pay the 16oz penalty to have hot coffee and hot dinners. If, on the other hand, the penalty for a 5 day trip is 3+ pounds on top of that, it could be a different story.

        Thanks again for the great writing.

    1. It definitely couldn’t hurt! I used ensure shakes to balance out some micronutrient deficits but when it comes down to it, it probably wasn’t necessary. Just a little reassurance.

    2. Hi Grayson,

      Thank you! I hiked the AT SOBO last year and owe a great degree of success to this post. The focus on efficient calories left my pack light and stomach full. I only lost three pounds throughout the entire trail. That’s to say nothing for the time savings as well. I found after hiking, the only thing I wanted to do was eat and get to bed. Not having to fiddle with a jet boil, or wait for a cold soak saved so much time and energy that I could put towards stretching and relaxing instead. I’m fairly certain this diet was the keystone to staying injury-free the entire time and not breaking the bank either. I hope the knowledge of how much this helped someone brightens your day, and that you’re doing well in life.

  4. It seems likely to me, at 74, that the no cook approach you outlined has two major drawbacks:
    1. Far too much sodium (my goal is to outlive my cardiologist,) and
    2. Ineffective for maintaining core body heat for the late Fall/Winter/early Spring mountain bpacking I prefer.
    Apart from that, the thought of giving up coffee and oatmeal (with butter and brown sugar) while watching an early morning sunrise in the mountains eliminates one of the sheer anesthetic pleasures of hiking. I’ll take the ozs., thank you.
    Fascinating analysis, even if impractical for old geezers with different goals.
    Best of luck at EVMS.

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