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Ultralight Backpacking Food Prep For Extreme Thru Hikes

Words by Mike St. Pierre

Prep Makes Perfect: Ultralight Backpacking Food Best Practices

I will soon be heading into the Grand Canyon for 16 days with Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Rich Rudow. Rich will be thru hiking about 700 miles down river and then back up the other side, all below the rim of the canyon and all off trail. Even though I’ll only be along for part of the trip, I’ll likely encounter some of the most extreme terrain I’ve ever faced. As a result, I’m putting extra thought into every aspect of my preparation. That goes double when it comes to figure out what I’m going to eat while I’m in the canyon, so I decided to revisit my standard ultralight backpacking food prep practices to see what I could improve.

Packing Light:

The route we’ll be following is roughly mapped out, but variable terrain will dictate the path. Some days we’ll be walking (or bushwhacking) along the river, others we’ll be scrambling 4th– and low 5th-class terrain through the seven layers of rock that make up the cliffs of the canyon, gaining 3000 to 4000 feet in elevation. I always travel light, but when it comes to backpacking that’s this extreme, standard ultralight food options may not cut it.

I’ll be carrying seven to nine days of food at a time, averaging 1.5.lbs. of food per day, and we’ll be restocking at caches that Rich and his team are setting up every eight days or so. I’ll need more food our second week because of the energy I’ll be expending making my way through some of the gnarliest terrain I’ve ever traversed.

To maintain my current body weight (I’m 5’8” and 145lbs.), I need roughly 2600 calories per day the first week and 3000-4000 the second week. I need light, compact food that is easy to carry, it must be “instant” (i.e. everything will be prepped such that all I need to do is add water), and it has to be rich in nutrients.

My goal: carry a pack that weighs less than 30 pounds when all is said and done—10.5lbs. of food, 15lbs. for gear and camera equipment and 6.6lbs. for three liters of water.

Table full of backcountry ultralight backpacking food
Cooking Methods & Cadence:

On most trips I don’t stop for lunch; I eat just two meals and then I graze throughout the day. But we’re doing things a little differently on this trip. Because we’ll be working so hard, we’re ensuring we get sufficient calories by stopping to eat three full meals per day and we’ll be grazing in between meals.

As well, four people are sharing a Jetboil stove, and we’ll boil water for three meals per day, though I do have a few meals that I don’t have to heat to rehydrate, (it’s not always easy to eat a hot meal in hot weather). Rich has figured out that he can get 25 10oz. boils of water out of a small fuel canister and 50 out of a large one. Knowing this, he was able to calculate the fuel consumption for all people on the trip.

Finally, we’ll be rehydrating all our foods in a Lipton Ziplock cup insulated with an Antigravity Gear Pot Cozy, which weighs 1.8oz. and traps the heat in so food continues to cook after you’ve poured in boiling water. We’ll cut our vacuum-sealed meals open, pour water in the bag, stick the whole thing in the cup and then keep hiking for a couple miles until the food is ready to eat. When we’re ready we’ll just open the cup and chow down. All we have to deal with is the plastic bag waste.

Food rehydration device
Kind of Food:

My food choices will mostly be dictated by two things: our cooking method/capacity and by the amount of calories I will need. I was shocked to discover that the average prepackaged backpacker meals typically have only 300 to 600 calories. On the high end, that’s only 900 to 1800 calories per day. So, in order to beef up both the nutritional value and calories of my meals, I bought a variety of dried vegetables, powdered whole fat milk and cheese and powdered butter, pine nuts and olive oil (which are calorie and fat rich). I’m shooting for foods that have at least 125 calories per ounce.

Good To-Go backcountry meals
Food Prep & Repackaging:

I planning carefully and strategically. I don’t want to go hungry, nor do I want to slow the team down because I’m not eating enough or have an overly heavy pack compared to the rest of the team. Step by step, here’s my approach to building out ultralight backpacking food for such an extreme trip:

  1. Assemble a spreadsheet with the numbers of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks that I’ll need.
  2. Order a bunch of dehydrated and freeze dried meals. I tried to get as healthy and as natural stuff as possible, where I recognized all the ingredients (Good-To-Go, PackIt Gourmet are great examples)
  3. Divide into piles (breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks).
  4. Assemble individual meals. At times I’ll repackage two meals into one in order to get enough calories. Others I’ll supplement with powdered butter, cheese, and foil packages of salmon (that weigh just 3 oz!).
  5. Write the meal description, the breakdown of fats, carbs, protein, calories and how much water will be needed for rehydration on the bags.
  6. Repackage as necessary in vacuum-sealed bags.
  7. Once all my meals are package, I mix and match each day’s worth of food based on my calorie needs and to give myself some variety.

Vacuum sealing machine

This system maximizes our travel time and is super efficient. There’s no actual cooking, and all the prep is done beforehand. Below are a couple of my favorite recipes.

Dehydrated backcountry meals
Wake The F Up Coffee & Cream (250 Calories, weighs .7oz)

  • 1 tbsp. powdered creamer or Dry whole milk powder (Nestle Nido, Great American Spice Company Whole Milk Powder, etc)
  • 1 tspn. Organic sugar
  • 2 pouches Starbucks Instant Vias

Sealed and dehydrated ultralight backpacking food
Mike’s Potato Salad (1100 calories, weighs 10.4oz)

  • 1 4- to 6-oz package of freeze dried potatoes
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2tsp chicken powder
  • 2tsp powdered butter
  • One relish packet
  • 4 mayonnaise packets
  • 1 packet mustard

Sealed and dehydrated ultralight backcountry backpacking food
Backcountry Salmon Ramen (340 calories, weighs 7.5oz)

  • 3oz packet salmon
  • 1 package Ramen Noodles
  • 1 tbsp. freeze dried green beans
  • 1 tbsp. freeze dried onions
  • 1 tbsp. cup freeze dried bell peppers
  • 1 package hot sauce
  • .25oz olive oil.


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