5,000 Calorie Thru-Hiking Diet

Hiking 10-12 hours a day for weeks or months at a time requires a tremendous amount of calories. Trying to keep up with a raging trail-metabolism can be a losing battle…

But, with the right foods you can blast up the hills and still enjoy your meals (forget choking down trail mix, granola and energy bars day after day).

The best hiking foods are high-calorie, lightweight, low volume, non-perishable, taste good and pack easily (don’t crumble, squish, melt or spoil).

Here are some guidelines I follow when choosing foods for for a long-distance hike…

Hiking Food Tips

  • Select calorie-dense foods (foods that have a caloric density of 100+ calories per ounce)
  • Pack 1.5 to 3 lbs of food per day (depending on your body weight and trail appetite)
  • Eat 3,000 – 6,000 calories per day (this still isn’t enough, but close)
  • Buy foods that taste good (that you don’t mind eating over and over again)
  • Choose foods that are available everywhere (dehydrating and preparing mail drops is no fun)
  • Avoid foods that are high in fiber, protein or water (too heavy, not enough calories)
  • Embrace “junk food” (there is no better source of lightweight, great tasting calories)
  • Catch up on “healthy food” in towns (fresh fruit, meat, dairy, vegetables, etc.)
  • Supplement with multi-vitamins and minerals (to make up for nutritional deficiencies)

Here is an example of what I might eat in a typical day, on a long-distance hike:
(I am a 30 year old male, 6 feet tall and my pre-trail weight is about 200 lbs)

5,000 Calorie Thru Hiking Diet

Food Serving Grams Ounces Calories Cals/oz.
Breakfast
Oatmeal (Maple & Brown Sugar) 2 packs 90.0 3.2 320 100.8
Almonds 1 oz 28.0 1.0 170 172.1
Dried Blueberries 1 oz 28.0 1.0 85 86.1
Hostess Honey Bun 1bun 75.6 2.7 308 115.5
Carnation Instant Breakfast 1 packet 36.0 1.3 130 102.4
Subtotal (Avg. cals/oz):
257.6 9.1 1,013 (115.4)
Morning Snack
Nilla wafers 1/5 box 66.0 2.3 280 120.3
10″ White Tortilla 1 tortilla 71.0 2.5 210 83.9
Peanut Butter 4 tbsp 56 2.0 380 190.0
Subtotal (Avg. cals/oz):
193.0 6.8 870 (131.4)
Lunch
10″ White Tortilla 2 tortillas 142.0 5.0 420 83.9
String Cheese 2 sticks 56.0 2.0 160 81.0
Salami 8 slices 56.0 2.0 240 121.5
Skittles 1 pack 61.5 2.2 240 110.6
Koolaid Drink Mix 1 packet 17.0 0.6 60 100.1
Subtotal (Avg. cals/oz):
332.5 11.7 1,120 (99.4)
Afternoon Snack
Wheat Thins 1/5 box 56.0 2.0 250 126.6
Mike And Ike 2 ounces 56.0 2.0 220 110.0
Peanut Butter 4 tbsp 56 2.0 380 190.0
Subtotal (Avg. cals/oz):
168.0 6.0 850 (142.2)
Dinner
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese 1 box 212.6 7.5 780 104.0
Tuna 1 foil pack 73.7 2.6 80 30.8
Olive Oil 1 ounce 28.0 1.0 238 238.0
Hot Chocolate 2 packs 33.6 1.2 118 99.6
Subtotal (Avg. cals/oz):
347.9 12.3 1,216 (118.1)

Total:
2.8 lbs Per Day
5,069 (121.3)

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32 Responses to “5,000 Calorie Thru-Hiking Diet”

  1. I too embrace the calories per ounce approach to Trail Foods. It is an easy way to cut weight. Interesting – but better to bring a package of Pop Tarts vs. a Bagel on a Calories per Ounce basis. The best value for Calories per ounce? Macadamia Nuts at 200 Calories per Ounce.

  2. thinking bout trying the new catalina 37 mile trail to get ready next week..what do you think??

  3. Balancing the calorie/weight/healthiness formula is rather difficult. But I’ve found that Frito’s Corn Chips are the best trail food solution to this problem. At 160 Calories/oz and only 3 healthy ingredients (corn, oil, & salt… NO PRESERVATIVES) it’s this thru-hiker’s dream come true.
    –Hiking Bare

  4. Erik you say avoid high fiber foods but fiber helps make you feel full, & the High Fiber Oatmeal (Maple & Brown Sugar), has the same calories 160 per pack or 320 for your breakfast, should I buy the regular instead?

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. Scott, that new Catalina trail sounds like a good place for a shakedown hike. I’ll probably head out to the AT in March for a few days of hiking before the PCT. Cole, I’m not sure what the difference between the high fiber and regular Oatmeal is, but it’s probably minor. I’m sure either will work fine. I just try to avoid foods that are super high in fiber or water content (apples, rice cakes, shredded wheat) cuz they’re bulky and don’t provide many calories.

  6. If this diet works for you, great. It’s certainly alot easier than home dehydrating all those beans and brown rice cereal and making hundreds of cereal bars etc.

    Last year I overestimated my speed and had to supplement my homemade resupplies with typical buy as you go hikertrash food. There was never a storebought food product that I liked as much or that gave me as much energy as the food I prepared myself. Frankly it is demoralizing to think of trying to subsist on white flour, sugar, rice, and junkfood when I rarely touch it at home. I started my hike grossly underweight and gained 13 pounds while on the trail from Canadian border to Crater Lake (where I bailed for injury). Granted I’m a girl, but still very impressive.

    • I’d bet 50-75% of that was water retention though. I always retain water like crazy after backpacking for up to a week before dropping 1-2 lbs below my starting weight.

  7. Please forgive my trail ignorance but what the heck is Mike and Ike?

  8. Coconut Creme powder!! 180 calories per ounce! Nom!

  9. When I’ve kept track, I eat about 3,000-5,000 calories a day NORMALLY… what outrageous numbers will I be burning when I’m hiking 25 miles a day?

    I love food. I love pretty healthy food (did you say chard?) and avoid the highly processed food most people seem to rely upon along the trail out of disinterest rather than determination. My attempts at home dehydrating have been largely unpalatable though, and I much prefer the logistics of buying as I hike rather than the headaches of organizing mail drops.

  10. Mike & Ike + Hot Tamales = Trail Bliss. Whole Foods pop tarts powered me through a fair amount of the JMT last summer. Really helps when hitting the repetative inclines. I call it stoking the furnace. You just gotta keep that fire burning, or you will lose that all valuable steam.

  11. Erik, Thank you so much for taking the time to post this daily menu. It is very helpful to see how you’ve divided things up! One small note though–I believe you’ve calculated your overall average calories/ounce incorrectly. It looks like you just added the five meals together and divided by 5 to get 121.3 calories/ounce. This isn’t correct because the snacks are smaller (and since they have a higher calories/ounce that skews the result to appear higher than it really is).

    To calculate the weighted average correctly it should be total daily calories divided by total daily ounces (5069/45.9) which yields 110.4 calories/ounce.

    Thanks again for the helpful information.

  12. I would just like to point out that food dehydrators make it really easy to dry your own food. All you have to do is slice the food (which can be easily done with a food processor), place it onto drying trays, set into the dehydrator and wait until it is dry. Then package as you like for your hiking trip. That’s it! It’s a healthy, lightweight snack that doesn’t contain all of the sugar and additives that commercially processed food usually has. You can check out http://www.dehydrating-food.com for more detailed step by step information on dehydrating food.

  13. Boccalone Lardo is almost 220 cal./oz. Essentially like prosciutto but only the fatty portion. Very trail stable. Expensive. http://www.boccalone.com/Products/Cured-Meats. Dried hummus powder field-mixed with olive oil and water is more efficient than peanut butter if you mix it with enough oil (about 50-50 with the water). Homemade ghee (clarified butter) 240/oz. Rendered bacon fat (with or without the embedded bacon bits) 240/oz.

  14. I am a Celiac hiker – I can’t eat any wheat. Mail drops might be a pain, but with my allergy they’re essential! Pasta, tortillas, couscous, many granola bars.. all off limits.

    I have found dehydrating food to not only be fun (I like to cook) but also a great way to daydream about my thru-hike while also preparing for it. I used the book “Backpack Gourmet” by Linda Yaffe for most of my meals, and so far they’ve turned out delicious! I don’t eat many processed foods at home either, so preparing the food on my own gives me many more choices about the quality of food and allows for greater variety of meals. Food dehydrators are great, and you can even make fruit leather or your own jerky on them. Preparation is very time-intensive though, which is a downside.

    Thanks for your great work, Eric! Sure has been a help.

  15. Hello Abi — I’m also a celiac hiker and would love any input you might have for eating during a long distance hike. You can email me at rachel_dysart @ yahoo (dot) com

    Thanks! – RACHELK

  16. Hello From Austin, TX!

    Eric, what kind of bag are you using? The Big blue one.

  17. i like homemade high calorie stuff, here’s my staple recipee:
    1 jar virgin unrefined coconut oil
    1 cup carob powder
    1 cup fine shred coconut
    1 cup chia seed

    add all ingredients together, the coconut oil in a warm place will be just above room temperature and liquified.
    pack into a lightweight canister for the trail.

    i like to wash this down with 100% cranberry juice..

    i have to avoid sugar and white flour but i go out of my way to find fresh hot peppers, they make a great snack with chips,
    toasted almonds, etc which brings me to another staple:

    oven toasted almonds
    marinated with tamari, plum vinegar, and habaneros
    then i coat a sheet pan with olive oil and put them in my mom’s bakery convection oven at high heat for a few minutes then turn off the heat and slow cook for 2 hours.

    i go for junk food but carry a stash of fresh jalapenos to make the snack a memorable and fulfilling one.

    going for anything fermented (kraut, kefir, kombucha) while back in civilization.

  18. I switched over to Jorge Cruise’s “No Belly Fat Cure” diet about three months ago, essentially, very limited sugars-under 15 grms/day and limted carbs, about 120 grms/day. So I have been eating a lot of fatty foods like cheeze and meat.
    If I go on the PCT this April, I’m looking for a diet plan? Anyone suggestions, I am not a good cook, so I need appropriate food to carry and resupply at local stores. thx

    • @Dave: The right kind of diet for a long backpacking trip is the opposite of what is considered a healthy diet in normal life, because on a long hike you are burning more energy through exercise than you are able to consume from food. So the types of foods which we try to avoid normally because they are so high in calories, carbs and sugar are the perfect energy foods for backpacking.

      The most popular backpacking foods are pasta, rice, instant mashed potatoes, cereal grains, granola, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, cheese, summer sausages, pastries, cakes, cookies, bagels, nut butters, honey, olive oil, chips, crackers, energy bars, candy, chocolate, and anything that is high in calories, doesn’t require refrigeration, is lightweight and available in grocery stores and markets along the way.

      I usually try to eat foods that have a calorie to weight ratio of 100:1 or higher. An example of a food with a high calorie to weight ratio is peanut butter, which provides 167 calories per ounce. Peanut butter is an excellent backpacking food. An example of a food with a low calorie to weight ratio is an apple, which only provides about 16 calories per ounce. Apples are not a good backpacking food (except as an occasional treat).

  19. I will be doing a thru hike of the Colorado Trail by the end of summer next year. What do you think about taking supplements that wight lifters use? I found that BSN’s True Mass is 630 cal. per serving. Do you think this would be a good source of caloric needs through out the day? Iam doing my planning now and researching foods so I can figure out a good menu.

    • @Chris: I used to be a weight lifter so I used to take some of that stuff. Generally speaking the calories found in weight gain supplements and protein powders are pretty low quality compared to real food. Then again, a lot of the junkfood calories that I and other hikers eat on the trail are not of the highest quality either. I’ve never personally tried using weight gain powders for extra calories while hiking because the ones I’ve tried in the past taste kind of gross. But if you want to try it I would recommend using them more as a supplement than as a meal replacement. For example, maybe you can have a scoop mixed with powdered milk along with your meal a few times a day.

      Something else to consider (which I failed to mention when writing this article) is that on a long distance hike, the insane calorie deficiency doesn’t usually kick in until after you’ve hiked about 500 miles (depending on how much body fat you start out with). On a 500 mile trail like the Colorado Trail you might find that you are almost done before the real ravenous thru-hiker appetite starts to rear it’s ugly head.

      When I hiked the Colorado Trail last year I started out with quite a bit of extra body fat (about 20 pounds worth) and did not need to eat the 5,000 calories per a day that I ate on the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead I ate closer to 3,500 calories per day (and by the time I finished the trail I had lost about 15 of those extra pounds).

  20. The Mountain Men, and Indians ate pemmican throughout the winter.
    Just prior to WWI, the US military seriously contemplated using pemmican as
    the official field rations.
    Pemmican is just rendered animal fat mixed with dried, shredded meat.
    Sometimes with a few berries added.
    Interestingly, some evidence indicated rendered fat in pemmican prevents scurvy.

  21. I love string cheese and have only taken them on day hikes. How long will individually wrapped string cheese sticks last without refrigeration? Can they go a week without spoiling?

  22. Hey Id like to share something. Soy nuts. Didn’t notice it on the list. Super light.
    Per 1 cup it contains. -almost 500 calories.
    -24gs of fat.
    -33gs of protein
    -16gs fibre.

  23. Good info but I am curious about not seeing energy bars on any of your meal plans. Is it the weight? Didn’t see any snickers either????

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