There are few things more important than food when you’re out in the wilderness, and even more so when you plan on backpacking for several days. Hearty meals are essential for keeping your energy up, but when space and weight are a concern, how do you know what to bring?
As someone who’s had to wrestle with this question many times, I can tell you that overthinking things isn’t going to get you anywhere. That’s why, to give you a jumpstart on what you should bring and how much, I’ve laid out my top tricks for planning some healthy and delicious backpacking meals.
How Much Food Will You Need?
Backpacking takes a lot of energy. Not only will you be hiking a lot, possibly over rough and arduous terrain, but you’ll also be lugging several pounds of gear on your back as well. The combination of these factors means you’ll be burning through calories at a very high rate.
It’s widely accepted that you should try to eat 25 to 30 calories a day for every pound that you weigh. For example, if you’re 200 pounds, you should try to eat about 5,500 calories in a day. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s important to keep your energy stores full when you’re working out so intensively. However, the biggest problem associated with needing to eat so much is…where are you supposed to keep all this food? Especially on longer backpacking trips, it just doesn’t seem possible to carry enough to eat inside your pack with all your other gear.
I’ll touch on that in the next section where I mention the kind of food you should purchase.
What Kind of Food Should You Get?
Calorie dense meals are the best food items that you can bring with you. The more calories you can pack into a smaller amount of food, the less weight you’ll have to carry, and you’ll have more room in your pack for other things.
Bringing food that’s shelf stable is also necessary, otherwise you might have several days’ worth of food rotting in your backpack. Fresh fruits and veggies aren’t ideal because of how quickly they go bad, unless you plan on eating them within the first day or two.
Since you need to pack out all of your equipment, getting food that’s lightweight is incredibly important. One common method used for weight reduction is by bringing food that’s been dehydrated, since water is a fairly heavy substance. Also, avoid any heavy packaging when possible, like what you might find with a can of beans (the metal container, and all the liquid inside that won’t be eaten anyway).
You’ll be using a small cannister of fuel to prepare your meals, so picking foods that have a low cook time is essential for conserving fuel. Not to mention, you’ll likely be very hungry anyway, and who has the patience to wait half an hour for dinner to be prepared?
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a cooler and want to prevent any perishables from wasting away, there’s an easy solution. Stick your cheese and/or produce in an airtight bag, and put it under a rock in a nearby river or creek. The cold water will preserve the food overnight, acting as a natural refrigerator.
Where to Buy Food
I often buy most of my freeze dried and dehydrated meals at an outdoor retail store, like REI. However, you can still do most of your other shopping at a regular grocery store. Items like trail mix and granola bars are often cheaper at a grocery store anyway, and you’ll likely have access to bulk food as well. Being able to customize how much of something you can get in the bulk section is one of the biggest reasons I would recommend going this route.
Considering how many calories you’ll need to consume in a day, it’s pretty inefficient to try and fit those all into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Constantly eating throughout the day will help you stay full of energy, and it will be easier for your body to digest. Ingesting large quantities of food will make you feel sluggish and tired, as your body has to work harder to process everything you’ve consumed.
So when you’re packing for your trip, don’t forget to keep plenty of meal bars, trail mix, and other food items on hand that you can eat as you go. Taking in enough carbs each hour will help keep you from crashing before you’ve settled down for the night.
There are many different types of food that you can choose to bring with you while backpacking. I’ve eaten everything from rice and lentils, to curry, to boiled spinach, and much more, but it can be difficult to decide what to eat if you’re new to this world. While the tips listed above will give you a sense of how much you should eat and how often, here are a few helpful options that can narrow down your shopping list a little:
Bars are the quintessential backpacking snack, simply because they last for a long time, they’re lightweight, and are nutrient and calorie dense. Even if you forget to bring most of the food items listed out below, you should be pretty okay as long as you have a healthy stash of bars.
In warmer weather, I would suggest you don’t bring any bars that have chocolate in them, or any other ingredient prone to melting. When you unwrap these after several hours of steaming in your pack, they’ll be nothing more than gooey goodness, which is difficult to eat and even harder to clean up. Granola bars are my favorite, because they only soften in warm temperatures, instead of melting.
Though I’m a vegetarian (there’s your fun fact for the day), many of my friends love to bring beef jerky and other dried meats with them on camping trips. Since they don’t need to be refrigerated or cooked, you can take them with you anywhere to use as a quick source of protein. This is one of their biggest merits, in my opinion, since most other protein sources tend to be heavier and harder to come by in the amounts that you need.
Dried Fruit and Nuts
You can buy trail mix at just about any grocery store, but I like to buy my own nuts and fruit individually to create my own. That way, I can customize how much of something I want, and reduce the amount of sugar that I’m consuming. Though your body needs sugar to function properly, you get all that you need from the carbs in your food – any refined sugar will just spike your blood sugar, making you crash later on. Definitely not what you need to happen when you’re on the trail!
I like raisons, almonds, cashews, and pistachios, but you can toss in whatever you prefer. Just try to avoid chocolatey items or other types of food that are prone to melting, because they will get gooey and hard to eat.
Nut butters give you all of your macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbs. There’s almost nothing better that you could bring with you on a backpacking trip, but lugging around a heavy container of the stuff isn’t ideal. Thankfully, it’s possible to buy smaller packets of almond and peanut butter at the store, so you can keep excess weight to a minimum.
One of my favorite lunch options when I’m backpacking is to pull out some rice cakes and spread almond butter on top. It’s surprisingly filling, and provides all the nutrients I need to get through the day. It also makes a great breakfast option, especially if you pair it with some dried fruit and cheese.
Though you might not believe it right away, certain cheeses are actually very shelf stable. I’m talking about the individually wrapped variety, like string cheese, cream cheese packets, as well as other hard cheeses. While I certainly wouldn’t let them sit out in the heat for too long, they can certainly last for a few days without being refrigerated.
Like nut butters and dried meat, cheese is a great way to get your protein in for the day. They’re also pretty calorie dense, so I like to snack on a string cheese while I’m hiking to give me a boost of energy and fill my stomach until the next mealtime.
Lightweight and hardy, tortillas are one of the most versatile food items that you can pack for your trip. You can pair it with just about anything, and because of their size and shape, they can be slid into any compact corner of your backpack with ease.
Sandwiches are nice to have, but bread is bulky and will get squished beyond recognition if you put it in with the rest of your gear. Tortillas are great because they solve this problem, while still providing a tasty place to spread your cream cheese or nut butter. You can also place some of your dried meat and cheese inside as well, giving you all the nutrients you need to make it through the day.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of oatmeal. But at the same time, I can’t deny how good of a meal option it makes when you’re camping in the backcountry. Oats are incredibly lightweight, and one of the simplest meals to make on the trail, considering you just need to add water!
I like to bring Bob’s Red Mill oatmeal with me for breakfast, because it comes in small, lightweight containers. All you have to do is boil some water, pour it to the fill line, and wait a few minutes for the oats to cook. If you want to make it a little heartier, and more flavorful, adding some dried fruit and nuts is a great way to improve the meal even further.
Who wants to go an entire backpacking trip without indulging in something sweet and delicious? If you’re craving dessert, dark chocolate is one of the best choices to bring with you, because of its caffeine, antioxidants, and other health benefits. It’s also low in sugar, which is exactly what you want to look for when preparing your backpacking meals.
As I’ve mentioned before, just remember that chocolate does melt, so this might not be the most suitable option if you’re trekking through a warmer climate. At the very least, I would suggest eating it at the beginning of your trip, instead of waiting until the end to dig in.
“Just Add Water”
Dehydrated food will likely be what you eat for most of your larger meals throughout the day. They certainly aren’t as tasty as fresh, home cooked meals, but they’re hearty and lightweight, so you can bring multiple with you for dinner.
I’ve tried a lot of different brands, but the ones I prefer are Backpacker’s Pantry and Peak Refuel. Between the two of them, you’ll have plenty of options to pick from for whatever meals you want to cook. For example, Peak Refuel has a few granola options that you can bring for breakfast, as well as a chicken pesto pasta, three bean chili mac, and others for dinner. While I haven’t eaten the meat options, my friends all tell me that it tastes surprisingly good despite being dehydrated. Obviously it’s not going to be the same as fresh meat, but you can certainly do worse when it comes to backpacking meals.
You don’t need to make all of your meals on the trail, especially if you won’t be backpacking too far from home. I love making food in my kitchen and bringing it with me to eat, especially on the first day of trekking when it’s still going to be fresh. It’s often the meal that’s going to taste the best, and it saves quite a bit of hassle when I’m going to be tired from hiking anyway.
Even if you don’t feel like making the whole meal at home, you can prepare the ingredients and save them for later. Depending on what you’re going to make, this method may help to preserve the food until you’re ready to put it all together.
I’m a tea drinker, so I like to bring a couple of tea bags with me whenever I go camping. It’s a morning routine I’ve had ever since I first started camping many years ago, and the soothing liquid helps to relax me before I have to get on with the day.
Whatever your drink of choice might be, I’d highly recommend treating yourself to some tea, coffee, or flavored water throughout the course of your trip. The caffeine in some of those options will help you stay alert, but at the very least, wouldn’t it be nice to drink something that isn’t just plain, filtered water?
For coffee drinkers, the instant variety tends to be the most convenient, but I understand if you don’t want to drink it. It’s not exactly the tastiest thing you’ve ever swallowed, after all! There are several ways that you can make coffee to create a more flavorful and refined brew, including the use of a french press, a percolator, and plenty of others. Just keep in mind that these methods will require extra gear, which is rarely ideal when you’re living out of your backpack.