What is Ultralight Hiking Food?

When it comes to how much your camping food weighs, there are generally two groups of people:

  1. People who don’t care—Often car campers, day hikers, casual backpackers, or people staying at campsites with amenities such as trash disposal.
  2. People who really care—This group largely consist of thru hikers who tackle treks where you’re carrying everything on your back (hike-in, hike-out).

While those are the primary groups, we’ve also noticed a newer, growing segment of people: outdoor enthusiasts—both novices and experts—who want to reduce the weights of their packs so they can go further, take on tougher challenges, and have more fun.

So whether you’re a casual day hiker or a die-hard thru hiker (especially those who count every ounce), the experts here at OutdoorFoodLab have distilled our wisdom into a few practical tips that anyone can use.

Ultralight Hiking Food Is All About Calories & Ounces

We now live in a world filled with incredible ultra-light weight camping gear. Innovation over the past few decades has been astounding. Heavy cotton canvas tents have been replaced with nylon fabric and carbon fiber poles. For backpacks, external frames, backboards, and tumplines have been replaced with internal-frames and streamlined composite materials, easily shaving more than half of the original weight.

Today, nearly everything related to hiking, climbing, and camping has been modernized for ultralight perfection. But where does that leave food, the oldest outdoor necessity of all?

1. Ultralight food doesn’t mean it’s actually light

Don’t be mistaken: lightweight food can be very heavy. But that’s ok, because it’s the nutritional content that counts. When we talk about ultralight food, we’re actually referring to how many calories are in a specific weight. A popular shorthand ratio is the number of calories per ounce of food.

Take rice cakes, for example. Sure, they weigh nothing, but they also have a very low caloric value. Suzie’s Thin Puffed Rice Cakes have a ratio of 108 calories per ounce (108/1).  At OutdoorFoodLab, we would give that a 1-star rating (more on that later).

2. Be cautious when devising your meal plan strategy

While lightweight backpacking food is a common term with hikers, there’s some confusion as to what actually qualifies as “ultralight.”

Some veteran hikers consider anything over 100 calories per ounce to be lightweight, while many die-hard thru hikers only consider 160 to 175 calories per ounce to be truly lightweight. Regardless, there is a huge difference and disparity calorically between those numbers, 100-175.

Put simply: the prevailing wisdom about what constitutes a lightweight hiking meal plan can leave you confused, or worse yet, unprepared for the adventure ahead.

hiking-gear-history

Hiking gear has advanced heavily in recent decades. Make sure your outdoor food keeps up.

We’ve Made It Easy to Optimize Your Hiking Food Weight

At Outdoor Food Lab, we’ve taken the guesswork out of planning your outdoor meals. We field-test everything we review, ranking meals based on taste, ease of preparation, and weight. Here’s how we approach that final (but often most important) metric.

With decades of combined experience in climbing, kayaking, thru-hiking, and more, we’ve found anything over 150 calories per ounce to be the gold standard in ultra-light weight food, which warrants a 5-star rating.

But we take things a step further to ensure exact accuracy. We include the weight of the packaging into our ratios, meaning you get a “true” weight ranking for each outdoor meal. For example, the plastic packaging for summer sausage is considerably lighter than the empty jar your peanut butter used to be in.  You have to carry-in and carry-out that packaging, so that weight matters. And trust us—that trash weight can really add up.

We’ve already done the math for you in all of our reviews, but here’s how you can find out where your food ranks in the scheme of things:

  1. Find out the total calories in your packaged food (the entire contents, forget the serving size)
  2. Determine the weight of the food inside its packaging in ounces (strip it down to essential packaging if possible)
  3. Divide the calories by the total ounces, and you have your true calorie/ounce ratio.

Note that this manual process is incredibly important, given the weight listed on the packaging is only for the food, and is not inclusive of the packaging weight.

Here’s the breakdown for OutdoorFoodLab’s weight rankings:

  • 150+ calories/ounce: 5 out of 5 stars / ultra-light rating
  • 131-149 calories/ounce: 4 out of 5 stars
  • 111-130 calories/ounce: 3 out of 5 stars
  • 90-110 calories/ounce: 2 out of 5 stars
  • Less than 90 calories/ounce: 1 out of 5 stars

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