The Best Backcountry Food

What I packed in (minus wine) for my eight day solo backpacking trip in Peru.

“What food should I take into the backcountry?” is a frequent question among novice backpackers. Us frequent backcountry travelers often get into a funk of the same foods that work for us, but still run into specific cases where we reconsider what we are optimizing for: weight, volume, tastiness, comfort, preparation time or price. In this post I’m going to crunch some data to better understand which foods are best for certain situations and offer my own advice from over 100 days in the backcountry.

What things should I optimize for?

My climbing partner soaking it in while we cook dinner on Shasta – Green Butte.

In general, we optimize for a variety of things. My own personal priorities (in order) are: preparation time, cost, tastiness and then weight. Some people, however, take one aspect to an extreme like stove-less backpackers. Another approach to answering this question is by activity. For example:

  • Mountaineering – Quick to make, high calories and can eat if feeling sick
  • Running – High calories and low volume
  • Long distance backpacking – Lowest weight
  • Dirt bagging it – whatever is cheapest
  • Casual backpacking – whatever tastes good

For most people I think the last case applies. You should optimize for personal preference or “whatever tastes good”. However, there is a limit to this rule which is “whatever you are willing to carry”. For this reason I think calculating caloric density of foods is one of the best metrics to help us all fine tune that line of what is tasty and reasonable to carry.

Caloric Density by the numbers

From now on we are going to talk about caloric density which I’ll define as calories over weight or kCal/oz. I’ll be presenting some generalized findings here, but you can dig into my data if you want. This is a summary of common backcountry food groups in order of caloric density:

  • 190 kCal/oz – Butters
  • 158 kCal/oz – Raw Nuts
  • 128 kCal/oz – Dehydrated Meal (add water)
  • 128 kCal/oz – Sugar (candy / cookies)
  • 122 kCal/oz – Grains (oatmeal, granola, crackers)
  • 120 kCal/oz – Dehydrated Vegetables (chickpeas, edamame )
  • 118 kCal/oz – Exercise Bar
  • 100 kCal/oz – Preserved Meat
  • 100 kCal/oz – Fruit (dried)
  • 90 kCal/oz – Rice (uncooked)
  • 82 kCal/oz – Bread
  • 37 kCal/oz – Hydrated Meals (meals that contain water like instant rice or foil chicken)
  • 20 kCal/oz – Fruit (raw)

When I first did this I realized I was doing a couple things wrong. I started bringing stuff that just needed to be warmed up (hydrated meals) which are very simple to cool but you see very inefficient by weight. Another thing I found super surprising is how awesome nuts are. They way out perform the other main protean source people think about: preserved meat.

Olive Oil is a Beast

Lastly some of the most surprising things I found was that Olive Oil beats anything in terms of caloric density and probably by volume as well at 251 kCal/oz! This is why people suggest bringing some extra oil and adding it to meals if you want to bump up calories.

So I think you can use this list to get a good idea of what is more or less efficient, but we shouldn’t only take foods at the top of the list. We all need balanced diets with slow and fast burning sugars, vitamins, etc. and to bring food that we think will taste good. Use this list to get an idea on what to pack on your next adventures.