Food, Nutrition, and Value when Thru-hiking

I’ve received a ton of questions as of late, about food.  What to eat? Where to buy? How much should it cost?  Nutrition is a big part of long-distance hiking – you need that energy to put down big miles.  Hiker Hunger is a real thing and it can be devastating to your emotional outlook.  Food becomes your sole thought some days.

When I do a long-distance trail, I shoot for about 2 pounds of food per day.  With a focus on weight, calories become more important than nutrition.  It becomes extremely hard when you’re unsupported to get the right balance of food nutritionally.  You’ll need upwards of 5000 calories a day just to match what you’ve expended.  What becomes important is calories / dollar / ounce.  Some staples include:  Cheez-Its, Wheat Thins, Pop-tarts, Knorr Rice Sides, Ramen, Idahoan Instant Potatoes, Slim Jims, and Sour Patch Kids.

The table below shows a comparison of some of the most common foods.  [Cal/$/oz] is strictly a derived number, calculated to determine a value for evaluating perspective food items.  It does not represent cost or nutritional content.  The higher the Cal/$/oz value, the better:  the most calories, at the lowest weight, for the cheapest price is all that matters for us.

Some examples are:

Item

Net Nutri

Price*

Weight

Cal/$/oz

Ramen Noodles 380 Cal $0.25 3.0 oz 506.67
Idahoan Instant Potatoes 445 Cal $0.88 4.0 oz 126.42
Knorr Rice Side Dish 578 Cal $1.00 5.5 oz 105.09
Oatmeal Creme Pie 2040 Cal $1.68 16.0 oz 75.89
Tastykake Iced Honeybun 680 Cal $1.65 6.0 oz 68.69
Oatmeal Variety Pack 1440 Cal $1.72 13.8 oz 60.84
Sour Patch Kids 847 Cal $1.78 8.0 oz 59.48
Land O Lakes Butter 3240 Cal $4.00 16.0 oz 50.63
Jif Natural Peanut Butter 2614 Cal $3.30 16.0 oz 49.51
Tuna Packet in oil 110 Cal $1.00 2.6 oz 42.31
Wheat Thins 1160 Cal $3.37 9.1 oz 37.83
Teddy Grahams 1226 Cal $3.85 10.0 oz 31.84
Cinnamon and Sugar Pop-tarts 3360 Cal $3.68 29.4 oz 31.11
Chocolate chip granola bar 1200 Cal $3.83 10.1 oz 31.02
Cashews 1518 Cal $6.00 8.3 oz 30.67
Velveeta Shells and Cheese 1080 Cal $3.28 12.0 oz 27.44
Mac and Cheese 4414 Cal $4.11 43.5 oz 24.69
Cheez-Its Original 1260 Cal $3.72 16.0 oz 21.17
Clif Bar 1500 Cal $7.00 14.4 oz 14.88
Breakfast Essentials 1000 Cal $5.87 12.7 oz 13.41
Kale Chips** 150 Cal $4.50 3.0 oz 11.11
Backpackers Pantry**/*** 740 Cal $9.00 14.2 oz 5.79
Broccoli Florets** 120 Cal $2.48 12.0 oz 4.03

*     All prices taken from Walmart.com for standardization of numbers
**   These items, although healthier for you, provide little to no caloric value for their weight/cost
***  At the same caloric value and 1/3 the cost, Knorr Side with a tuna packet is better

When I bought food, most times I planned on 3-4 days worth.  I would avoid buying large items because I wouldn’t finish them before my next resupply.  The biggest advantage of buying on trail is, as your tastes change, you can adapt.  Candy bars in the middle of summer turn to liquid and are super messy.  If you only just like oatmeal, it gets old very quickly.

Foods I avoided were items that had to have a recurring weight like olive oil.  Unless you buy packets, you have the weight of the jar over a long period of time.  I gave up on making sandwiches, as well. Pitas w/ meat and cheese, or with peanut butter, were heavier in comparison to dehydrated foods.

A common term is Ramen Bomb, which consists of cooking Ramen Noodles without the seasoning and adding Idahoan Instant Potatoes to give it texture = a huge carbohydrate bomb.  “Bars” are anything in bar form:  granola bar, Clif bar, candy bar, protein bar, breakfast bar, and so on.  Gummies are just that, anything that’s gummy: Sour Patch Kids, gummy bears, fruit snacks, etc.

A typical day for me includes:

Breakfast:
2-3 Pop-tarts and a bar, or 3-4 flavored oatmeal packets
2 Breakfast Essential packets

Snack:
Handful of cashews or Cheez-Its
1 bar or cake

Lunch:
Ramen Bomb or Knorr Rice Side w/ tuna packet

Snack:
Handful of cashews or Cheez-Its
1 bar or cake

Dinner:
Ramen Bomb or Knorr Rice Side w/ tuna packet

Dessert:
Any Pop-tart, cakes, gummies, cookies, or all of them some days

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