I have read varying figures about how many calories you burn backpacking the JMT – anywhere between 2,500 and 6,000 per day. Another popular rule of thumb is to have 1.5-2 lb of food per day, per person. This general guidance is useful in terms of imagining what your final pack weight might be, or as a starting point. But I think that the only sure-fire way to know what your body actually needs is to practice on some shorter trips. This will also help you to decide what you actually like to eat and will make sure that you are familiar with how to pack, prepare and cook your food.
The difference in what I can eat on a day hike, to what I start to crave come day three or four of a trip with my backpack is pretty phenomenal. On my first solo multi-day backpacking trip, I didn’t take quite enough food and was pretty hungry by day three. Luckily I wasn’t in a very remote area and passed by a farmhouse with a cafe. I treated myself to a cream tea and a Snickers bar and bought a few more chocolate bars to take with me. I like to think that the lady behind was counter was impressed!
My typical day of food
I ate about 3,000 – 3,500 calories a day on the John Muir Trail. In addition to feeling full (obviously), I was keen to have food that was as close to ‘normal’ as possible and something similar to what I could imagine eating at home. I almost certainly gained some pack weight because of this, but it was a compromise that I was happy with. I was also happy with pretty simple meals, especially in the evening, and the repetitive nature of my dinners became a source of amusement for my companions.
This is only intended as an example, and I do really encourage you to test it out for yourself over the course of a few days backpacking. I’m only 5’2’ and female, so science suggests that if you are a 6’ dude you’re likely to need a lot more. And even if you aren’t a 6’ dude, everybody is different, and you may need more, or want different things.
- I went for instant coffee with full fat powdered milk. I tried ground coffee for a while on previous trips, but it makes and mess and you have to carry the grains out (#leavenotrace).
- I loved my oatmeal and had it with hot water, plenty of re-hydrated fruit and full fat powdered milk. Some people get really sick of oatmeal, but somehow I didn’t.
Morning snack 1
- I had a variety of nuts and dried fruit – mango, apricots and roasted and salted cashews were my favourites. These are heavier than some processed snacks per calorie, but I just loved the flavour and ‘realness’ of them.
- Some people that I met stopped mid-morning for a snack and hot drink, having missed out coffee in camp. I really loved this idea in theory, but I needed my coffee first thing!
Morning snack 2
- Towards the second half I needed a extra snack in the morning – usually a chocolate bar or Stroop waffle.
- I liked to stop for a proper rest and a protein based snack at lunch. This would be something savoury like cheese, jerky or salami. I prefer BabyBel as it’s a bit nostalgic for me, although you are left with a lot of wrapping to carry out. Hard cheese or cheese strings last just as well.
- Word to the wise; don’t go overboard – I realised I’d carried nearly a pound of salami in my first week. Who carries a pound of sausage 60 miles?!
- Having said that, I think it’s a good idea to have plenty of savoury snacks. I met a lot of people who were getting sick of the sweetness of their energy bars and gels.
- I had a chocolate bar or Pro Bar most afternoons. I began to really love Pro Bars, which was great as everyone else really started to hate them and I got a lot of freebies!
- My evening meal was flavoured couscous with re-hydrated vegetables and either a packet of tuna or salmon. I also took a few small packets of hot sauce and olive oil.
- I added a starter of ramen for the last few evenings (when my metabolism went off the scale).
- I realise this might make me sound like a bit of a crazy person, but I actually loved having almost the same thing every night and didn’t get bored. This was probably helped by having a couple of dinners off trail.
If you are – understandably – appalled at my lack of inventiveness, there are some amazing back-country cooking websites out there that you can check out.
- I liked to have a sweet snack in the evening – generally whatever was left from the day.
- I also really loved to have a hot drink. I took a lot of tea (yes, I’m English) and hot chocolate, along with some individual packets of honey.
- I sneaked in a little bit of red wine and whiskey too. It was worth the weight to me.
My John Muir Trail food prep
I decanted pretty much everything from the shop bought packaging into Ziploc bags. It’s surprising how much weight and bulk you can lose by doing this, which is key to squeezing everything into your bear can.
I portioned out the ingredients for my dinners and breakfasts in separate ziplocks to save a bit of time and faff on the trail. It also made preparing the meals a lot easier as I could just add boiling water to the bag, zip it up, and let it re-hydrate whilst I got on with something else. As a little bonus it also works really nicely as a hand warmer and you can eat straight from the bag (no need for washing up or a bowl!)
I kept all the snacks together in big Ziplocks, but made up little snack bags the night before for the next day. If you’re packing and sending out all of your resupplies, you could do this at home, although I found I wanted more or less some days.
Remember to have a large Ziploc bag in each resupply for all of your rubbish – pack it in, pack it out.
To stove or not to stove?
I tried going stove-less for a couple of days on a trip in Scotland. It may have been the rain, but I really missed having a hot coffee in the morning and the warming effect of a hot meal. The only good thing was that I did get moving a lot quicker in the morning. But I personally quite like taking my time with coffee and breakfast and missed that part of my routine.
I suppose it comes down to comfort levels and personal preference and I’m sure that with practice, you could save a lot of time and pack weight by going stove-less.