Calories per Ounce: What’s in the Ounce?

My JMT backpacking menu only supplies 107 calories per ounce!

That’s 18 calories short of the ratio recommended by a plethora of backpacking advisers, including, for example, Adventure Alan who suggests that “a good target to balance calories and nutrition is 125 to 130 calories per ounce.” Super-backpacker Andrew Skurka carries 2 lbs of food at 4,000 calories, just hitting that 125 calories/ounce ratio. It’s worth noting that Skurka expects to lose weight on the trail and loads up during town-stops to compensate. Neither of these guys are radicals.

How’d Mr. Jack & I do on our radical food plan?

We lost weight* & yet we hiked strong, at an average of 12+ miles per day, went to sleep & woke up without being hungry, and had no food cravings at the end of 24 days on the trail.

Amazing that we felt so good & performed so well with such numbers, isn’t it?!

It worked for us because of the food we took. Admittedly, not all our food worked as well as hoped, so we’ll be tweaking the menu again: No more cheese, no matter how tasty it is. It didn’t provide the get-up-and-go we’re looking for in a lunch meal. And more beans in the lunches! We’ll be leaving most of the dried shrimp at home from now on, although it has worked for us well on shorter backpacks.

All calories are not created equal. And all foods are not equal for each backpacker. When a body receives food it can easily use, rather than food that is useless, or even detrimental, the number of calories needed may not be as high as assumed. Think of your calories as dollars. Are all dollars created equal? In your life, is the dollar deducted for taxes from your paycheck as valuable as the dollar you spend at the grocery store? Is the dollar you might owe on your 19% credit card really worth the same as the dollar you find on the sidewalk? What about that $20 you lent a friend last year that you haven’t seen since? Is that as valuable as the $20 you took out of the ATM last night?

Calories, too, have different value to different people. The number & kind of calories you need may be different from the calories & kinds I need.

So how many calories does a backpacker need & what kind of calories should they be? The only useful answer is that it depends—depends on the backpacker, her body and her willingness to think outside the “one-size-fits-all” of most food information.

No web-blog or backpacking expert can tell you what your body needs, what foods your body can use & what foods are useless to you or even detrimental. One backpacking guru, for example, dotes on corn pasta. We tried it last year and I dragged down the trail for most of the day in an absolute stupor until my body managed to expel it.

Next blog, I’ll lay out some considerations to take into account when accessing your personal backpacking food needs. Blood type, DNA testing, food sensitivities & hidden allergies, anyone?

*More on That: Yes, we lost weight on the John Muir Trail. Jack lost about 9% of his beginning body weight; I lost about 5%. Doing the math on the calculator at indicated that Jack had a calorie deficit of nearly 3,200 per day and mine was just over 800 per day. Mr. Jack had the weight to lose & has continued losing (at a more reasonable pace) since we returned home. I have gained back about half the weight & am holding steady. A personal fitness trainer told me once about a program designed to be used under a doctor’s supervision where in calories are cut drastically and exercise is increased exponentially. The goal is to lose fat while creating muscle without harm to the body. I think we found a personal version of this on the JMT.