10 Ultralight Backpacking Foods
The best ultralight backpacking foods are lightweight, nonperishable, high in calories and easy to prepare. Here are 10 backpacking foods you can find in stores everywhere that provide, on average, more than 100 calories per ounce of weight, making them ideal for ultralight backpacking.
130 calories per ounce
GORP (also called trail mix) stands for “Good Ole Raisons And Peanuts”. But the ingredients don’t always have to be that boring.
Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate, candies, crackers and cereals can be combined to make this staple backpacking snack that packs a whallop of carbohydrates and calories.
One cup of GORP (depending on ingredients) can provide as many as 700 calories.
My personal favorite GORP recipe consists of: Peanuts, almonds, raisons, M&Ms & cheddar Goldfish crackers.
105 calories per ounce (with olive oil & summer sausage)
Macaroni & Cheese is a staple food for poor college students and hikers alike. At just 99 cents (or less) per box you can’t beat it for a cheap, filling trail dinner.
The cooking instructions call for a lot of water, butter, milk and simmering. But that’s not necessary. All you need to cook trail mac is 2 cups of boiling water and a pot cozy.
By itself it’s kind of bland, but when you add olive oil, parmesan cheese, summer sausage, SPAM or tuna, plus hot sauce and seasoning, mac and cheese becomes a trail delicacy.
One box of macaroni and cheese, prepared with 1 ounce of olive oil and 2 ounces of summer sausage provides a whopping 1,100 calories, and weighs just 10.5 ounces.
120 calories per ounce
Breakfast Pastries are popular among ultralight backpackers because they can be eaten in your sleeping bag in the morning with no cooking or preparation. And they provide a sugar-filled blast of calories to help rocket you up the trail first thing in the morning.
Some popular choices include: Pop Tarts, Fruit Pies, Honey Buns and other snack cakes. My personal favorites are the large cinnamon rolls and danishes sold in gas stations and convenience stores. They are big enough for a hungry hiker and can pack upward of 600 calories, in just 5 ounces.
170 calories per ounce
Peanut Butter is a classic backpacking food staple and still one of the best. It has a high calorie to weight ratio and provides a good mix of carbs, protein and especially fat (which is hard to find in many trail foods).
1 tablespoon of peanut butter packs a whopping 190 calories. Peanut butter can be eaten by itself, on bagels, tortillas or crackers, or mixed in with foods like oatmeal and ramen noodles to give them extra flavor and nutrition.
If you plan to pack peanut butter in it’s own container, obviously you will want a brand that comes in a lightweight plastic jar and not glass.
140 calories per ounce
There are plenty of overpriced, overdesigned “energy bars” on the market. Most of them taste like cardboard and sawdust and do not provide much better nutrition than the good old fashioned Snickers Bar (a hiker favorite).
These bars of nuts, nougat and chocolate are so ubiquitous on long trails like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that you would think they were handing them out at the trailheads.
A single King Size Snickers weighs less than 4 ounces and packs 510 calories. In my experience they provide just as much energy as the pricey “healthfood bars”… if not more.
230 calories per ounce
Olive Oil is not a food by itself, but it is a popular food additive among hikers because of it’s high calories and rich taste.
On the long trails backpackers can be seen adding olive oil to everything but their drinking water, in an effort to get more precious calories and stem the weight loss which occurs from burning 6,000+ calories per day.
An ounce of olive oil contains 230 calories and works great as a butter substitute in hiking foods like: Mac & Cheese, Mashed Potatoes, Oatmeal, Rice and Pasta.
110 calories per ounce (with olive oil and tuna)
Liptons Sides are another inexpensive, easy-to-prepare meal that most long distance hikers wouldn’t do without. Originally intended as a side dish, Liptons rice and pasta sides make an excellent main course for a hungry hiker.
Ignore the instructions, which call for too much water, simmering and additional ingredients. All you really need to prepare Lipton’s sides is 1.5 cups of water, a stove and a pot cozy.
Liptons Sides come in a variety of flavors so they already taste great, but can be made more hearty by adding olive oil, tuna, sausage, etc.
30 calories per ounce
Unlike the other foods in this list, Tuna does not have a high caloric density. 3 ounces of tuna has only 90 calories. But it provides something else that is sometimes in short supply on the trail: Protein.
Protein is not as important as carbohydrates for energy, but it is important for cell rejuvenation and muscle maintenance (and it tastes good).
100 calories per ounce (w/ tuna, mayo, mustard, relish, olive oil)
Regular bread is not very good for backpacking because it is so easily squished. Bagels are a better option, but they take up a lot of volume in your pack. One bread product that is perfect for ultralight backpacking is the tortilla.
Tortillas are flat, lightweight and easy to pack. By themselves they don’t provide too many calories, but you can fill them with whatever you like (peanut butter, jelly, honey, tuna, cheese, sausage and more) to create a delicious wrap.
The sky is the limit to what you can put in a wrap. The weirdest wrap I’ve seen so far is mashed potatoes, potato chips and M&Ms
115 calories per ounce (with olive oil & SPAM)
Instant Mashed Potatoes are great because they are very easy to make. You don’t even have to cook them if you don’t want (just add water to rehydrate).
Some brands offer different flavors which include cheese, spices, sour cream and more. My favorite is Idahoan Loaded Baked Potatoes (shown at left).
A single package of Loaded Baked mashed potatoes prepared with 1 ounce olive oil and 3 ounces of SPAM provides 930 calories, and weighs just 8 ounces.
On a backpacking trip you have to drink a lot of water. But after a while the taste of water gets old. Flavored drink mixes solve that problem.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Tang provide much-needed electrolytes, salt and sugar. Sugar free drink mixes like Crystal Light provide no nutritional value, but they are a very lightweight way to flavor water (which comes in handy when drinking from natural water sources that are murky and gross tasting).
In the morning and evenings hot drinks such as hot chocolate, hot apple cider and coffee provide warmth and comfort to the weary hiker.
This list is far from comprehensive. These are just a few of the ultralight backpacking “staples” that always find their way into my food bag.
What high calorie ultralight backpacking foods do you recommend? Please post your comments below…