*Related: 41 Backpacking Food Ideas
Backpackers are known to burn an enormous amount of energy while hiking so replenishing their energy reserves is extremely important. This high energy consumption is why calories and, specifically caloric density, become such a priority in lightweight backpacking food selection.
Calories are often considered the best unit to quantify how much energy a particular food source can provide. Know calories are a measurement of the energy supplied by food and are NOT an actual nutrient.
Where do these calories come from then? Calories will only be made up of one or a combination of three fundamental nutrient components
1. Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories (pastas, sugars)
2. Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories (meat, eggs)
3. Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories (nuts, seeds, oils, dairy)
Carbohydrates and proteins provide four calories per gram, while fat delivers a whopping nine calories per gram. All food contains one or more of these components, and their exact amounts contribute to the final calorie count of the food that you eat.
Carbohydrates + Protein + Fat = Calories
For example: a Greenbelly Meal contains about 650 calories. Of these calories, about 400 are from carbohydrates (100g x 4), 65 are from protein (17g x 4), and 190 are from fat (21g x 9).
You can see that foods high in fat will inherently have a high caloric density. Carbohydrates and protein providing a substantial amount of caloric density as well. This should help clarify, nothing else contributes to calorie count than these three components.
This should also make it a lot easier to categorize foods high in calories. Think of fatty foods, foods high in protein and foods high in carbs, sugar and starches.
Ideally, you should try to get a combination of all three for a more balanced backpacking meal plan.
There is no official measurement of what is considered high-calorie backpacking food, but we recommend aiming for foods that provide at least 100 calories per ounce (or above four calories per gram). While many hikers turn to junk food for their high calories needs, there are plenty of natural alternatives that provide all the good stuff without any of the artificial junk.
Calories: 165 calories per oz (or 580 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 72 percent calories from fat, 15 percent carbohydrates and 12 percent proteins.
Almond, like most nuts, are high in healthy fats and travel well since they don't crush, melt or freeze quickly. They taste great alone or mix well with dried fruits, other nuts, and chocolate
Calories: 166 calories per oz (or 587 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 70 percent calories from fat, 14 percent carbohydrates and 14 percent proteins.
Peanut butter has been a staple of a hiker's diet for decades. Take one step back and try some peanuts. Not only do they have healthy fat, but salted versions also help replace the sodium that you sweat out while hiking.
Calories: 185 calories per oz (or 654 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 83 percent calories from fat, 8 percent carbohydrates and 8 percent proteins.
Walnuts are a powerhouse hiking fuel with a whopping 620 calories per 100 grams and high amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Some people find walnuts to have a bitter taste.
Calories: 166 calories per oz (or 584 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 83 percent calories from fat, 13 percent carbohydrates and 12 percent proteins.
Sunflower seeds are a great source of mostly unsaturated fats, fiber and vitamins, and minerals. They are inexpensive and readily available at most grocery stores. You can eat them by the handful or drop them into a meal for an added crunch.
Calories: 250 calories per oz (or 884 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 100 percent calories from fat.
Olive oil is an excellent source of calories that can be added easily to a meal. It's biggest drawback is that it can be messy if it leaks in your pack. Many people purchase their olive oil in small, single-use packets.
Calories: 110 calories per oz (or 389 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 70 percent calories from carbohydrates, 15 percent and 14 percent proteins.
Oats may not be the most calorie dense food on our list, but it is an excellent staple for building great energy bars and breakfast meals. Just add some nuts and dried fruits to boost its caloric content. Its stick-to-your-ribs consistency means it will stay with you for a while. It's also very easy to find at most resupply spots.
Calories: 127 calories per oz (or 449 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 40 percent calories from fat with an almost equal mix of proteins (33 percent) and carbohydrates (26 percent).
Soybeans are an all around good food providing a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Soybeans are versatile, too. You can buy them as a roasted snack, as a component in a dehydrated meal or even turned into a vegan jerky.
Calories: 98 calories per oz (or 347 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 74 percent calories from carbohydrates with some proteins (21 percent) and a trace of fat (3 percent).
Like most beans, Pinto beans go great in a backpacking meal providing a nice mix of carbohydrates and protein. They are challenging to prepare though. Dried beans can't be rehydrated on the trail, and canned versions are too heavy to tote in your pack. You'll need to either cook and dehydrate them yourself or purchase them dehydrated.
Calories: 115 calories per oz (or 404 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 72 percent calories from fat with some proteins (24 percent) and a trace of carbs (2 percent).
Cheese is a tasty way to add some fat and protein to your meals. It goes great with some crackers or bread and a slice of summer sausage. Cheese also lasts for at least several days without refrigeration. Though it sometimes gets oily in hot weather.
Calories: 165 calories per oz (or 499 calories per 100 grams.
Composition: 49 percent calories from fat with carbohydrates (30 percent) and protein (22 percent).
Like milk, but can't carry it on the trail? No worries, you can easily pack some milk powder and pre-mix it to add some creaminess to your breakfast muesli or hot cocoa.
Calories: 107 calories per oz (or 376 calories per 100 grams.
Composition: 95 percent calories from proteins with a trace (4 percent) of carbs.
Eggs are a comfort food that don't pack very well. If you want to bring this excellent source of protein along for the trip, you'll have to experiment with Egg powder. Its texture and taste can be hit or miss so make sure you try out different brands of powders and a variety of recipes until you find one that you like.
Calories: 86 calories per oz (or 304 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 99 percent calories from carbohydrates with a trace (<1 percent) of protein (7 percent) and fats (3 percent).
A pure form of carbohydrates, honey adds flavor to your meals as well as providing you with a quick hit of energy when you need it most. Similar to olive oil, honey can be messy if it spills inside your pack. Look for individual packets or use the natural syrup in a recipe for trail bars or the meals. Don't want to cook? Then grab an energy bar like honey stinger that uses honey as a primary ingredient.
Calories: 88 calories per oz (or 310 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 99 percent calories from carbohydrates with a scant trace (1 percent) of protein.
Agave, like honey, is a potent sugar that you can eat right from a spoon or add to a snack or meal. Pack it spill-proof containers or use it as a sugar replacement in your favorite on-trail snack.
Calories: 147 calories per oz (or 520 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 55 percent calories from fat and 45 percent from carbs with a trace (1 percent) of protein.
Dried Banana Chips make a great snack for hiking. Not only are they extremely lightweight, they also are packed full of potassium, a much-needed electrolyte
Calories: 85 calories per oz (or 299 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 95 percent calories from carbohydrates with a trace protein (3 percent) and fat (1 percent).
Raisins are easy to find in almost any grocery or convenience store. They pack small and pack a double punch of sweetness and iron.
Calories: 169 calories per oz (or 598 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 63 percent calories from fat with some carbohydrates (30 percent) and some fat (5 percent).
Dark chocolate is among the top energy-dense foods on our list, and it tastes great to boot. It also has an outstanding shelf life. Just be careful in the summer heat which could cause your precious bar to melt.
Calories: 125 calories per oz (or 441 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 70 percent calories from fat with some fat (24 percent) and some protein (4 percent).
Brownie or cookie mix powder adds some quick energy carbs to your diet. It tastes best when you add it to your oatmeal for breakfast.
Calories: 120 calories per oz (or 425 calories per 100 grams).
Composition: 42 percent calories from fat with some proteins (24 percent) and some carbohydrates (12 percent).
Meal powders are formulated to be nutrient and calorie dense making them ideal for a long distance trip. You can turn them into a shake or sprinkle them in your meal for some extra nutrients. Because they are powdered, meal powders are lightweight and take up hardly any space in your pack.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.