Best Calorie Dense Foods for Backpacking
A great way to keep your pack weight down is to look at the foods you are carrying with you. You want to pack foods that are high in caloric density, or foods that have the highest amount of calories for the smallest serving size. Foods with a high caloric density will be high in fat. One ounce of fat has 240 calories while one ounce of carbohydrates or protein contains only 100 calories.
Everyone’s caloric requirements will vary and you might need to do a few short trips to make a good estimate of how many calories you will need per day. Typically if you are doing a shorter trip under a couple weeks, you can probably get by eating around 3000 calories/day. If you are going on an extended trip you might need upwards of 5000 calories per day or more. Don’t forget to factor in daily mileage and terrain. So what kind of foods should you take to keep pack weight down but maintain necessary energy levels?
Olive oil – 250 cal/oz
Coconut oil – 245 cal/oz
Ghee – 248 cal/oz
Sesame oil – 250 cal/oz
Avocado oil – 250 cal/oz
Oils will give you the most energy for the least amount of weight. I always take a little bottle of olive oil and add some to whatever I’m eating for dinner. You can also add coconut oil to appropriate dinners or to nut butters. Adding fat to your meals can enhance the flavor and help keep you feeling full longer. Many oils contain antioxidants and are anti inflammatory.
Nuts and Seeds
Macadamia nuts – 204 cal/oz
Pecans – 196 cal/oz
Pine nuts – 191 cal/oz
Walnuts – 185 cal/oz
Hazelnuts – 178 cal/oz
Almonds – 164 cal/oz
Nuts and seeds are power packed with protein, heart healthy fat, fiber, omega 3s, vitamins, and minerals. There’s a reason why trail mix is a popular hiking food. Look for raw, sprouted nuts and seeds to get the most nutritional value. You can add these to oatmeal, cereals, granola, or make your own energy bars.
Royal Hawaiian Orchards Macadamia nuts
Nut and Seed Butters
Macadamia nut butter – 230 cal/oz
Pecan nut butter – 200 cal/oz
Almond butter – 187 cal/oz
Peanut butter – 190 cal/oz
Sunflower seed butter – 180 cal/oz
I like nut butters while hiking because they take less effort to chew and are easier to digest than whole nuts. Make sure you get a high quality nut butter without added sugars, preservatives, or hydrogenated oil.
Parmesan – 110 cal/oz
Extra sharp cheddar – 110 cal/oz
Gruyere – 117 cal/oz
Swiss – 92 cal/oz
While backpacking, I will occasionally take some hard cheese for protein, B12, calcium, probiotics, and healthy fat. Hard cheeses such as Parmesan, Gruyere, and Swiss will keep the best unrefrigerated. Remove the original wrapping and wrap in a cheesecloth or bandana and then store it in a Ziploc bag. Cheese will keep this way for several days if you keep it towards the inside of your pack. I like to keep mine by my water reservoir and if I camp near a cold stream I will put the Ziploc in the water for a bit.
Pemmican – 133 cal/oz
Summer sausage – 120 cal/oz
Beef Jerky – 116 cal/oz
Hard salami – 109 cal/oz
Some hard-core backpackers take something called pemmican out on the trail. Pemmican was first made by the Native people of North America as a way to preserve their meat. Its lean dried meat mixed with rendered fat and sometimes has berries or fruit added and its very calorie dense. Since I don’t eat meat, I’ve never tried it but I hear its an acquired taste. If you’re not up for pemmican, summer sausage is another calorie dense meat that keeps pretty well on the trail. Definitely look around for a brand that does not contain preservatives and artificial junk though. Beef jerky is another great option and you can make your own if you have an electric food dehydrator. You can not only dehydrate your own jerky but you can dehydrate fruits, veggies, and even entire backpacking meals.
Cacao and Dark Chocolate
Cacao Nibs – 180 cal/oz
Dark chocolate – 167 cal/oz
Dark chocolate covered cacao nibs – 180 cal/oz
Cacao nibs are the raw form of chocolate and comes from the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree. Raw, organic cacao is considered a superfood and contains lots of phytonutrients, minerals, fiber, and protein. They are a bit bitter but you can mix them into other foods or buy them coated in dark chocolate. Many people hesitate to bring chocolate backpacking in the summer but as long as it is not near the outside of your pack it and temps aren’t above 90°F or so it should be okay. If you are worried, keep your chocolate in a Ziploc bag near your water reservoir.
Powdered coconut milk – 161 cal/oz
Shredded unsweetened coconut – 185 cal/oz
Raw coconut butter – 158 cal/oz
Coconut oil – 245 cal/oz
Coconut is a great food for backpacking because it packs a lot of fat and calories. The meat contains a lot of minerals potassium, manganese, and copper. Powdered coconut milk is really lightweight and I add it to oatmeal, coffee, and protein powders. If you decide to take coconut flakes, make sure you get unsweetened from a health food store and not the sweetened kind you would find in the baking isle at a regular grocery store. Coconut butter and oil can be added to rice, quinoa, couscous, or soup.
What are some of your favorite calorie dense foods to take backpacking? Feel free to comment below and let me know if you have any questions.