How Backpacking Works

Backpacking Meals

Appalachian Trail hikers prepare and eat dinner in the Great Smokey Mountains.
Appalachian Trail hikers prepare and eat dinner in the Great Smokey Mountains.
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Having enough food and water in your pack could mean the difference between a pleasant trip and an early return home. So, how much is enough? This is where a meticulously planned route can be helpful. If your journey takes you to several water sources each day, and you have a water filter to treat the water, 2 quarts (1.8 liters) of water should be plenty. If, however, you're hiking in a dry area and covering rugged terrain, you should drink as much water as possible, at least 2 quarts, before leaving camp in the morning, and carry up to 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of water with you for the day's hike.


If you're carrying less than one gallon (3.7 liters) of water on the trail, you may find that various sized water bottles placed in your backpack are easiest to carry. But if you're carrying more than one gallon, you may want to invest in a bladder carrying system. This water system allows you to carry water on your back with a straw that runs over your shoulder so that you can easily drink while you hike. Because water is heavy, at 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) a gallon, carrying it on your back is an energy saver. Some backpacks include a water bladder within the pack. If yours doesn't, you can pack the bladder in your backpack.

Choosing the right food for your backpacking trip is a matter of weighing your calorie needs against the weight you want to carry. It's a good idea to select energy-rich and calorie-dense foods for the majority of your meals -- for example, dried fruits, nuts and peanut butter, whole grain crackers, jerky, energy bars and granola. If you'll be out for more than a few days, add some variety to your diet with foil packed tuna, salmon or chicken, and rice or potatoes that can be prepared with boiling water. Bring along powdered milk, tea bags and electrolyte powder to add to your drinking water.

Lightweight cooking stoves are inexpensive and a better choice than cooking over a campfire because they're easier to use and don't impact the environment. You'll also need cooking fuel and a pot. Some people carry separate dishes, but you can carry less if you use your pot as your serving dish. And remember -- a spoon is more versatile than a fork. For the lightest weight cookware, choose titanium (although you'll spend more for it). Otherwise, stainless steel is also a good option.

A general rule of thumb is to pack 1.5 to 2 pounds (0.7 to 0.9 kilograms) of food per day. So if you plan on hiking for five days, you need to pack between 7.5 and 10 pounds (3.4 and 4.5 kilograms) of food. The food should be calorie-dense with a variety of carbohydrates, fats and protein.

On a zero day or light day, you'll require less food. A challenging trail or cold weather will increase your appetite. Also, if you're generally a big eater, that probably won't change on the trail. To lighten your hiking load somewhat, eat a large breakfast. If you start out with a large meal, you may not need to eat again until you stop for the night. On your last day, plan on eating light and refueling at the end of the trail. Some people choose to eat a larger, hot meal each evening and snacks throughout the day. No matter how you break up your meals, be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.