How Much Food to Pack for Kayaking and Backpacking Trips?

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This article is meant for those planning a (long) backpacking or kayaking trip, but have no idea regarding how much and what kind of food to bring along the trip.

Here, we’ll go over the daily calorie intake that you’ll need followed by how to define nutritious food. Lastly, we also showcase our recommended kayaking and backpacking food and explain how often you should be eating during your trip.

How many calories does backpacking/kayaking burn?

So, you are curious to know how many calories you actually burn during a backpacking/kayaking trip, but is that really what brought you here? Perhaps the bigger picture here is to ask yourself:

How many calories do I need to consume per day when ALSO backpacking and/or kayaking?”

To answer this question, we’ll first look at the daily calorie intake needed without taking into account any physical activity like backpacking or kayaking. Then, we’ll have a look at the average calories burned during a backpacking and kayaking trip.

Finally, taking the sum of these values will give you an indication of how many calories you need throughout the day during backpacking and/or kayaking trip.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the daily calorie intake ranges between 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for adult men. Knowing your exact daily calorie intake depends on a number of factors, including your age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity. 

Luckily, here is a useful tool you can use to calculate your daily calorie intake:


Next is calculating the average calories burned during a kayaking and backpacking trip.

Kayaking: The amount of calories burned during kayaking depends on the distance and speed you kayak, the total weight you hauling, and the difficulty of the terrain. Obviously, kayaking in whitewater rapids will burn more calories than compared to kayaking on calm water such as a lake.

As a matter of fact, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACDC) has calculated that kayaking on calm water or at a speed rate of lesser than or equal to 4 mph, burns around 210 to 420 calories an hour. On the other hand, kayaking in whitewater rapids or at a speed rate greater than 4 mph, burns more than 420 calories an hour.

For an accurate estimation of the burned calories during kayaking, have a look at the following kayaking calories burned calculator

Backpacking: Similar to kayaking, the amount of calories burned during backpacking depends on a set of factors such as your weight, the weight of the backpack, the pace, and the covered distance. Also take into account the type of terrain you plan on backpacking such as cross country, uphill, or downhill.

For an accurate estimation of the total amount of burned calories on a backpacking trip, have a look at the following backpacking calories burned calculator

In summary, using the daily calorie intake calculator along with the appropriate calories burned calculator will give you an accurate estimation of the amount of calories you daily need to consume during a backpacking or kayaking trip.

This will be your maintenance level calories, which is the amount of calorie intake you need in order to not lose or gain weight. If your goal of backpacking and/or kayaking is to lose some weight, then you need to drop your calorie intake amount to below your maintenance level to create your deficit. Based on decades of research on sustainable and healthy rates of fat loss along with a trustworthy source, a deficit between 15% and 30% below maintenance is ideal.

  • 15-20% below maintenance calories = conservative deficit
  • 20-25% below maintenance calories = moderate deficit
  • 25-30% below maintenance calories = aggressive deficit

How to define nutritious food for backpacking and kayaking

When thinking about good food for kayaking and backpacking, the first thing that pops to mind is probably: ”lightweight and nutritious food”. This is certainly true since “lightweight” is one of several factors that determine whether a certain food is suitable for backpacking or kayaking.

However, while “lightweight food” can easily be checked by means of a scale, the same cannot be said with “nutritious food”. Some people may or may not know how to define a certain food as nutritious so let’s address this topic so that everyone is on the same page.

The type of food we as human beings consume is composed of macronutrients, which are the nutrients that provide us with the energy to function throughout the day. These macronutrients can be divided into three main parts: Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

Illustration of the three main macronutrients in food


Carbohydrates, also known as carbs, are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. They are the primary and preferred source of fuel for the central nervous system and energy for the working muscles.

They can also be classified into simple or complex carbohydrates. The difference between the two forms is the chemical structure and how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested.

Simple carbohydrates, also known as fast carbs, are digested and absorbed more quickly, which can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs.

Complex carbohydrates, also known as slow carbs, take longer to digest and absorb, which results in a stable release of energy during the day. Since space is a scarce commodity when backpacking or kayaking, you need to aim for food that releases energy slowly into the body making their impact longer lasting.

Therefore, complex or slow carbs such as oatmeal and brown rice are the ideal food for backpacking or kayaking.  

Protein is a macronutrient that is essential to building muscle mass. It is commonly found in animal products, though it is also present in other sources, such as nuts and legumes. Given that you’ll mostly need carbs as a primary source of fuel when backpacking or kayaking, it’s best to focus on foods that are composed of slow carbs and protein such as quinoa.

This will reduce the amount of food you carry without losing muscle tissue. However, if you are still keen on taking high protein foods such as fish or poultry, then consider vacuum sealing or dehydrating them beforehand. This will substantially reduce their weight while extending their shelf life. 

Fats provide by far the highest amount of energy in the smallest possible amount of food substance. One might wonder whether carrying a bag full of peanuts on the next adventure is ideal since it contains high content of energy in a small amount of space. In all likelihood, this wouldn’t be a good idea for two main reasons.

The first being that not everyone is capable of handling a low carb, high fat diet also known as a keto diet. As mentioned earlier, our body is accustomed to using carbs as the primary source of energy for our working muscles. Hence, the digestion system of some people will have a hard time dealing with this new type of energy source for the working muscles.

Second, fats can be divided into saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats -which are found in meat, dairy products, and peanuts- are more likely to increase your cholesterol level, which is very bad for your health. Unsaturated fats come from plant sources such as avocado and provide the body with many health benefits. Unfortunately, these fats are generally liquid and have a short shelf life, so not suitable for backpacking or kayaking. 

In summary, we can conclude that nutritious food should contain slow carbs, healthy fats and protein. Albeit, the food we consume may or may not contain all these macronutrients and definitely not in the same amount. Therefore, you need to have a decent kayaking or backpacking meal plan to ensure that you have consumed all of these macronutrients at the end of the day. Thus, the question arises: 

“How do you guarantee that your body is getting enough carbs, fats and protein throughout the day? “

Fortunately, the Institute of Medicine(IOM) has calculated a healthy macronutrient distribution range for carbohydrate (45%-65% of energy), protein (10%-35% of energy) and fat (20%-35%). In case you are following a specific diet, here is how your macronutrient distribution would look like:

Keto diet

Paleo diet

Vegetarian diet

In the previous section, we highlighted how to calculate the daily calorie intake needed when backpacking or kayaking. Therefore, by now you should know the total amount of calories you need to carry for your next backpacking or kayaking adventure.

The following calculator will translate your daily calorie intake into the recommended macronutrient ratio for your specific diet. By doing this you’ll have a better understanding of how to make a meal plan for backpacking or kayaking that is nutritious and healthy.

How to set up a nutritious kayaking and backpacking meal plan

It’s important to know that most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging. This nutrition information is usually provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

For example, the image above shows that a certain type of food contains 62g of carbs (of which 38g are fast carbs), 5g of protein, and 25g of fats (of which 16g are unhealthy fats) per serving of 100g.

In the previous section, you managed to calculate your daily macro intake in grams. Therefore, using this information along with the nutrition information of any food, you are now capable of setting up a kayaking or backpacking meal plan that meets your daily macro intake. Meeting your daily macros is important if you want to make smart, healthy food choices or reach a certain goal. 

Since you are planning a kayaking or backpacking trip, here are a few considerations to take into account when deciding which types of food to bring along: 

  • Weight: Aim for foods that contain a lot of nutritional values per 100g. This way, you are able to meet your daily macro intake while keeping the weight to a minimum. 
  • Shelf life: Aim for foods that have a long lasting shelf life in case you are planning a long kayaking or backpacking trip. You can also extend the shelf life of foods by vacuum sealing or dehydrating them.  
  • Preparation time: Aim for foods that are easy and fast to prepare. This will make life much easier once you’ve reached your destination after a long dreadful day.

A useful tip here is to avoid carrying food that contains liquid in them. This will not only increase your weight, but also the likelihood of them leaking and spilling all over your other foods and gear.

With that being said, here are our recommendations for the best kayaking and backpacking food. Based on what we discussed earlier, the type of foods selected here qualify as nutritious, meaning slow carbs, healthy fats, and contain protein.

CarbohydratesProteinFats
All types of vegetables
Apples
Brown rice
Chickpeas
Crackers 
Dried fruit
Granola 
Grapefruit
Muesli
Noodles
Oats
Pasta
Peaches
Pears
Powdered milk
Quinoa
Fish (Dehydrated/ vacuum sealed)
Beef jerky
Chicken (Dehydrated/ vacuum sealed)
Protein powder
Protein bar










Chia seeds
Dark chocolate
Parmesan cheese
Walnuts
Peanuts










With this information, you can now set up a kayaking or backpacking meal plan that is tailored to your liking and that meets your daily macro intake.

In order to save time when going through the nutrition information of your preferable food, it is okay to just count the macronutrient with the highest value. This being that most food will only contain a high quantity per 100 gram for one type of macro such as oats. This is also how the list shown above is structured. From here, setting up your kayaking or backpacking meal plan should be quite easy. 

Perhaps the biggest advantage of doing all this is that once you’re done, you’ll know how much food to bring backpacking or kayaking. The longer your kayaking or backpacking trip, the more importance you should pay to this matter. The last thing you want is to start rationing because you miscalculated how much food you actually needed.

How often should you eat when backpacking or kayaking?

The way you consume calories during a backpacking or kayaking trip should differ from your everyday lifestyle. Most likely you are in the habit of having three big meals throughout the day as is the case for most people around the world. By spreading your calorie intake across your day, you avoid being hungry between meals. However, this strategy of consuming calories is less advantageous when backpacking or kayaking. 

Basically, it’s an unpleasant feeling to perform any physical activity when your stomach is still full at least for some people. Chances are that you don’t go to the gym for a workout session on an empty or full stomach, but rather somewhere in between. This is also the same approach you need to take when backpacking or kayaking.

The approach here is to eat every one to two hours small amounts of your estimated calorie intake. This way, you aren’t weighed down with a full stomach, your muscles won’t be as stiff because your breaks aren’t as long and it’s better for your digestive system. Also, it makes it much easier to maintain a steady energy level without succumbing to hunger or fatigue.

Thus, the moral of the story here is to eat small portions but more often when backpacking or kayaking.

Conclusion

As you might have noticed, there aren’t a lot of foods that meet the criteria of suitable kayaking or backpacking food. As a result, chances are high that you’ll end up eating the same meal day in and day out. For some, this might become boring if you crave variety. To combat this issue, consider packing spices such as garlic powder and salt as to flavor and depth to meals while providing powerful nutrition benefits. Lastly, take a trash bag with you for your trash!

Ally Mash
Ally Mash
Ally is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent most of his free time backpacking through South America, Iceland, Vietnam, and Europe. He loves sharing his experience through blogging. His mission is to get more people in the mindset of protecting our planet by sharing its beauty.

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