Calorie Density

Long distance hikers are all over the board when it comes to food.  On one end there’s the “food as fuel” camp–the lugs who lug around that football-sized bag of mac and cheese and proclaim eating to be something that should be taken care of as quickly as possible so that more hiking can be done.  Ever see that sorry fella sitting on the trail with a look of utter disembodiment while he finally scrapes the bottom of his 64-ounce vat of chunky peanut butter?  He’s with them.

And if these guys are the Republicans, then the Tea Party is the Cold Food Crowd.  No stove.  No hot meals in the wilderness.  Straight buzzkill.  That’s ultimate misery as far as Distancehiking is concerned.  Maybe it’s in the name of being ultralight and ultrafast or maybe it’s just what makes a particularly ultrasadist breed of hikers tick, but just adding stream water, rehydrating, and eating at ambient temp..well that just sounds ultrabad to me.  But we all come out here for something…Maybe Lint can make some sense of it.

The folks on the other end of the food spectrum can get downright fussy.  Don’t be surprised to see a baby bottle of chablis and mini-crostinis pop out of a pack at the end of a 30-mile day.   Or how about the home freeze-driers who pour a little hot water and get filet mignon and sauce bourdelaise with pomme dauphinoise .  I mean…damn.

What is calorie density?

Whatever your foodie ilk, something to keep in mind when you’re doing your meal planning is the calorie density.  All long distance hikers need to think about whether the food they carry is providing sufficient calories without contributing excessively to pack weight.   When talking about food, calorie density simply means the number of calories contained per weight of food.  Calorie density is typically expressed in calories per ounce or calories per gram.  It’s a very useful measure for long distance hikers.

Here’s an example:  If a hiker out for five full days of hiking needs to consume 5,000 calories per day and her food has an average calorie density of 60 calories per ounce, she will need to pack 83 ounces of food each day to meet caloric requirements.  For five days, that’s 415 ounces of food, or nearly 26 pounds!

If the same hiker chooses food with an average calorie density of 100 calories per ounce, she will only need to carry 15.6 pounds.  That’s a weight savings of over 10 pounds!

How do I calculate calorie density?

Calculating calorie density is simple for food that is packaged.  Three numbers are needed:

  • The “net weight” figure usually found in the front of the packaging.
  • The “calories per serving” figure on the back of the packaging.
  • The “number of servings” figure on the back of the packaging.

Calorie density = (calories per serving x number of servings) ÷ net weight.

Net Weight
The net weight is 3oz (85g)
Calories per serving is 190. Number of servings is 2. Total calories in package is 380.

Let’s calculate the calorie density of thus package of Ramen noodles.

Net weight = 3oz

Calories per serving = 190

Number of servings = 2.

(190 x 2) ÷ 3 = 127.

These Ramen noodles have a calorie density of 126. For backpacking, that’s quite good.

What’s the optimum calorie density?

People have different opinions about what an ideal calorie density should be for long distance hiking, but I like 100 calories per ounce.  It’s high enough to limit choices to being lightweight with high caloric content, but not so high that all the food just ends up tasting terrible and giving me heart disease.  But the jury is still out.  Have a look at Andy Skurka’s sample “menu” from his 6 months of Alaska and Yukon travel.  His average calorie density was 139 calories per ounce.  Impressive! But candy bars, nutrition bars, sesame sticks, trail mix, peanut butter smear, and..ick.  I like throwing in a can of High Life now and then, even if it drops my whole average calorie density down under 100 for a day or two.  There’s no point in being ultralight if you’re gonna always hate your food.

So whether you’re a filthy, stinky version of Joël Robuchon or a poster child for Clif bars and groats, make sure you pay attention to calorie density.  You’ll definitely save a chunk of pack pounds.

Want to learn more about meal planning and hiker nutrition?  Check out Long Distance Hiking by Dan Feldman.

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