Backcountry Cuisine: The Best Food for Backpacking
Looking For The Best Ideas For Backpacking Meals and Snacks?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- Backpacking meal plans (tasty dinners, lunches, and breakfasts)
- Which types of backpacking foods you should pack
- How to reduce pack weight and bulk
- Tips on food preparation and proper food storage
- How to calculate how much food to carry on your backpacking adventures
Whether you’re heading on a two-day adventure or a multi-week epic, fueling your body with the right stuff is crucial to the success of any backpacking trip.
If you find yourself looking toward your upcoming trip with an element of aversion, assuming your daily menu will consist of uninspiring fare, then think again. With adequate planning, a little bit of know-how, and learning a few new skills, you can ensure you’ll have tasty, satisfying eats for the duration of your trip.
What kind of backpacking food should you be eating? And how much should you carry? How do you keep weight and bulk to a minimum without depriving yourself of much-needed calories? We’ll answer these questions, and a few more, below.
Table of Contents
- 1 Backcountry Cuisine: The Best Food for Backpacking
- 2 Key Takeaways
- 3 Backpacking Food Ideas: Pre-Trip Planning
- 4 How Much Food Should You Take Backpacking?
- 5 Best Food For Backpacking: Menus and Meal Planning
- 6 Thru-Hiking Food And Resupply
- 7 Cooking Options For The Trail
- 8 Backpacking Meal Plan, Ideas & Tips
- 9 Backpacking Meal Prep Tips: Sides and Add-Ons
- 10 Any Other Food Ideas for Backpacking?
- Plan ahead – estimate how many calories you’ll need per day and pack accordingly
- Ditch the jars and cans – save weight by removing packaging
- Strike a balance – between healthy fats, carbs, and proteins
- Snack for success – carry calorie-dense foods like chocolate spread or peanut butter
Backpacking Food Ideas: Pre-Trip Planning
The first step in this process, before you even pick the first item, is to consider a few factors that will impact what and how much food you need to take. Let’s take a look at these factors and see just how they impact what you will need.
If you are planning a multi-day backpacking trip, your first concern should be ensuring your body will have enough “gas” (read: calories) to get you over the finish line.
On a mellow hike, the average person will burn between 400 and 600 calories per hour. If you’re hiking with a heavy backpack, or at higher elevations, this number increases to around 600-800. If you’re putting in 10-hour days on the trails, that’s a lot of calories in need of replacing!
Using these figures, you can estimate how much grub you’ll need to carry. Simply note how many hours you’ll be hiking per day, multiply this by the calories burned per hour, then calculate how much food you’ll need to match the total. When doing so, remember to account for altitude, the weight of your pack, and how much ascent you’ll be doing.
If you’d like to dial in your meal planning a little more, check out our section on ‘How Much Food Should You Take Backpacking?’, below.
Weight And Space Consumption
Backpack space is a valuable commodity and prime real estate, especially on long trips where every inch is likely to be needed. For this reason, it’s wise to consider the caloric density of your trail food.
Caloric density refers to, essentially, how many calories any backcountry food packs per ounce of weight, and per cubic inch of volume. High-fat foods like nut butters, nuts, chocolate, olive oil, and trail mix usually have high calorie-per-ounce ratios, while fresh foods like fruit, veg, and bread have less favorable ratios.
To minimize bulk and reduce pack weight, we recommend repackaging all items and customizing your own backpacking meals or creating DIY dehydrated meals instead of relying on store-bought meals or items.
If making your own meals, resealable baggies are the way to go. Most grocery stores also sell proteins like ham, tuna, salmon, and chicken in vacuum-sealed pouches that will save you a lot of weight and bulk.
Freeze-Dried Or Dehydrated Backpacking Meals: Worth it?
Dehydrated or freeze-dried backpacking meals can be a huge help in reducing the bulk and weight of your backcountry food supplies. These meals are also typically easy to prepare, just simply open it up and add hot water.
To help keep things nutritious, you can also try adding freeze-dried vegetables or even dehydrated vegetables to your dinners or lunches.
The downside is that these types of products can be a little costly. We’ve done a little taste tasting for you in our review of the best freeze-dried food for backpacking. Who came out on top? Mountain House, Next Mile Meals, O-meals, Backpacker’s Pantry meals?
Powdered Beverage Mix
After drinking nothing but water for an extended period, powdered beverage mixes can make for a refreshing treat to help get you through the rest of your journey. These cost-effective additions to your supplies are also lightweight, take up very little space in your pack, and come in several tasty flavors.
When preparing your shopping list for the foods you want to take with you on your backpacking trip, a little foresight is required.
After putting in twenty miles on the trail, will you be happy to slave over your stove for 30, 40, or 60 minutes cooking up an elaborate feast? We didn’t think so. The name of the game here, then, is to plan easy backpacking meals that are simple to make but also deliver on the taste and sustenance front.
The fewer extra ingredients and utensils you need, the better. And the quicker it is to make, the sooner you’ll be able to replenish those lost calories, start recovery, and get your chill on for the evening.
Many (maybe most) backpackers tend to get too focused on the quantity of the trail food they carry and overlook the importance of quality. By quality, we mean the nutritional value of the fare in question.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying a candy bar once in a while, but the goal should be to fuel your body with the right ratio of protein, carbs, and fats with every snack and meal.
The ideal ratio? This should be roughly 35-50% of calories from carbs, 30-40% of calories from fats, and 15-25% of calories from proteins.
Why so many carbs? Well, if you don’t give your body enough carbohydrates, it will burn muscle protein and stored body fat. This may be helpful short-term if your only goal is to lose weight but not if you aspire to clock up serious miles on the trail day after day.
Trail snacks like dried fruits and nuts provide you with the proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates your body will need to delay fatigue. For meals, try to eat a main dish with chicken, fish, or red meat. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, then seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and lentils are all good options.
Depending on the length of your trip, scurvy shouldn’t be an issue, but this doesn’t mean it’s wise to overlook deliverers of key vitamins like fresh fruit and vegetables. Dried fruit and veg will help to a certain extent, but it’s better to get some fresh goodness in the system whenever the opportunity arises, i.e. when passing camp stores or towns.
Alternatively, pack a few effervescent vitamin tabs to throw in your water.
Just because your backpacking food has to meet so many criteria doesn’t mean you have to throw personal food preferences out the window. Doing so would largely undermine the purpose of your backpacking trips – i.e., having fun – so we recommend tailoring your meals to make them more enjoyable and throwing in a few of your favorite tasty treats.
Buying enough food to last the entirety of your trip can quickly add up, especially if you are posting to food drops on a thru-hike.
One way to get around this is to skip prepackaged meals and make your own adventure meals at home. You can customize your own meals and snacks using freeze-dried food, other dehydrated ingredients, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit for a few bucks less per meal.
Adequate Fuel Supply
Once you have gathered all of your backpacking food and nutritional supplies you plan on taking with you, you need to calculate how much fuel you will need to cook it all. Check the cooking time for each one and use the total to gauge how much fuel you will need. Just remember to factor in the fuel you’ll use for that morning coffee!
How Much Food Should You Take Backpacking?
Now that you have an idea of what type of foods you should consider bringing with you, it’s time to look at how much of them you should bring.
Hiking is, of course, a great way to get in shape. However, trail time is no time to be depriving yourself of calories to shed some pounds. Your body will require more caloric intake to ensure you have enough fuel to make it through the trip.
In fact, you will need roughly double the number of calories you would usually need to consume. This, however, will depend on certain factors, such as the elevation you will be hiking at, how far your hike will be, and how much ascent it involves.
Body fat fulfills an important role. As it is slowly burned, it supplies energy to our body. This fat, however, needs to be supplemented by food. If your body runs out of calories to burn from food, it consumes more fat. And once the fat supply is tapped out, your body will start burning muscle tissue for the fuel, which leads to fatigue and degradation of the muscles.
The bottom line? Calculating how many calories you need per day and ensuring you get them is vitally important.
To determine exactly how much food for backpacking you will need to take with you on any trip, you will first have to determine how many calories you will have to use. Ready for the math? Let’s do it!
- Weigh yourself.
- Determine the weight of all of the gear you will be taking with you, as close as possible.
- Add the two weights together.
- Multiply the total weight by 30 (30 is the number of calories you will need per pound for extremely active hiking).
- Take the total from step 4 and multiply that by the estimated number of days you will be hiking. This total is the total calories you will need to complete your planned trip.
- Add a buffer of 5% just in case you get delayed en route.
Now that you know how many calories you will need for your trip, the fun part begins. Now you can start making detailed meal plans to ensure your food intake will equal the number of calories needed.
To be on the safe side, we recommend packing a little extra just in case there’s an emergency, you lose some of your supply, or it takes you longer than expected to complete your trail. The above calculations, moreover, don’t factor in elevation gain. So, unless your hike is fairly flat, you’ll need more calories to replace the extra that has been burned on ascents.
Best Food For Backpacking: Menus and Meal Planning
To discuss the best types of backpacking food to take with you on your hiking adventure, we will need to break the foods up into groups; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This will enable you to see just how and why the particular food was selected. As you can imagine, we will start with breakfast.
If you have been on many hiking trips, you have probably seen breakfast meals that range from a simple toasted pastry and powdered milk to a full spread with freshly brewed coffee included.
While a hot breakfast does provide you with a full belly and an extra boost, it also is a real pain to clean up. A simple snack and some water are easier to clean up and let you get started on your day faster.
One long-time favorite of backpackers everywhere is oatmeal. The reasons for this are simple: It weighs next to nothing, it’s relatively nutritious, simple to make, and it can easily be spiced up by adding ingredients like raisins, cinnamon, or dried banana slices. Oatmeal also keeps you feeling full for a longer period of time than other cereals.
To keep things healthy, avoid instant oatmeal packets, which are often crammed full of unnecessary sugars, and go for steel-cut or rolled oats instead.
Best backpacking food items for breakfast: instant coffee or tea, powdered juice or milk, water, fruit, instant cereals (hot or cold), nuts and dried fruits, dry cereal or granola, breakfast or protein bars. If you want to be a bit lavish, you can add pancake mix and dehydrated eggs to this list.
Lengthy lunch break or quick pit stop?
While the answer to the above depends on personal preference, we advocate for the latter. The reasons for this are threefold.
If you stop for a long, dedicated lunch break, you allow your muscles to cool down, thereby increasing the risk of injury once you start moving again.
Secondly, between unpacking, preparing, cleaning up, and then repacking, you can lose lots of time.
Thirdly, ever notice how your legs feel heavier and more tired after a long break, even though they felt fine before stopping? The reason for this is lactic acid buildup, which can seriously hamper your progress post-pause.
The better option is to snack modestly throughout the day on snacks that provide you with sufficient energy while taking shorter breaks of 5-15 minutes. Ideally, you should try to walk at a slow steady pace for longer periods between breaks because shorter, more intense periods of walking will put more strain on your muscles.
Best backpacking lunch ideas: energy bars, jerky, nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, sealed meat packets (such as tuna or salmon), or anything else that can be consumed and digested quickly without too much messing around.
This is the time of day when you can kick back, relax, and enjoy a hot meal while thinking of the day’s trek and preparing for tomorrow’s.
Dinner foods can be just about anything you feel like preparing. While some hikers don’t mind taking the time to create a substantial meal, some are content with only adding some boiling water to a freeze-dried packet. The decision is on what you feel up to preparing and cleaning after.
Pasta and noodles are perhaps the most popular dinner-time eats for backpackers everywhere. Penne, spaghetti, elbow macaroni, or even rotini are our favorites. One serving can provide up to 20 grams of protein. Pasta is also lightweight and reasonably packable. Throw in some olive oil, and you’ll have an awesome calories-per-ounce ratio in your dinners.
If you have the space in your pack, consider bringing along some of your favorite spices, salt, and pepper at the least. Dinner is the one time of day when you can relax and enjoy your meal, so might as well make the most of it. To save bulk and weight, carry these in zip-lock baggies.
Best backpacking meals for dinner: Instant foods (instant soups, noodles, sauces, stuffing), tuna, tortillas, instant rice, couscous, instant potatoes, summer sausage (our favorite backpacking food!), dried vegetables, packaged freeze-dried meals.
Best Trail Snacks
When it comes to planning snacks for a day hike, many hikers are content with tossing a bottle of water and some granola bars into their pack and calling it “done.” However, depending on how strenuous the trail you plan on hiking, it maybe wouldn’t hurt to have a few extra goodies to provide you with additional energy.
Here are some of the best snacks to take with you on your day hike. Remember, the distance you plan on traveling will be a factor in determining how much you should take with you.
Nuts are the ideal snack for backpacking. Not only do they take up very little space in your pack, but they also provide you with plenty of nutrition and energy. Additionally, there are a wide variety of nuts available that will suit just about any food preferences you may have.
As with nuts, seeds are easy to pack and take up very little space. Along with their great nutritional value and taste, they are perfect for adding to other snacks, such as nuts and dried fruits, or even your evening meals.
For a lightweight snack that can help satisfy your sweet tooth and provide you with a tasty energy boost, you really can’t do much better than dried fruits. They’re less bulky than fresh fruit, have a longer shelf life, and are also great mixed with seeds and nuts as a trail mix.
These are great snacks that can provide plenty of nutrition, depending on which bars you buy. We’re big fans of Kate’s Real Food Bars and Luna Bars, both of which have no added sugars, and are all-natural and gluten-free.
If you want a healthier blast of sugar, dark chocolate is the way to go. Dark chocolate, while not the healthiest snack on this list, does provide you with a great boost of energy. An additional benefit about this snack is that it helps to generate body heat, great to have on hand in colder climates.
Cheese, Meats, Bread
Having a sandwich while you enjoy a quick lunch break can add to the enjoyment of a hike and give you something to look forward to in the long hours between breakfast and dinner.
While having a sandwich in a container does take up more space than the other snacks listed, it provides you with a hearty snack that can help to keep you going through the second half of your hike. To cut down on bulk, try packing your sandwiches in aluminum foil.
Beef jerky, in its many forms, is high in protein and sodium, both of which you will need on an extended hike. Jerky is also durable and can be enjoyed from day one and still be edible on your last day of the hike.
Energy gels are a quick and convenient carb-delivery system that can be consumed on the go. While these take up very little space and can be easily stashed in a pant or hipbelt pocket, however, they can be pricey and often weigh more than non-liquid snacks that provide similar nutritional benefits.
Thru-Hiking Food And Resupply
Unlike other trips where you’ll be carrying enough backpacking food to last the duration of your hike, thru-hiking requires detailed planning to ensure you have enough edible supplies for several weeks or even months on the trail. On such trips, moreover, getting the right nutrition, reducing weight, and minimizing hassle are all the more important.
While the other types of hiking have high nutritional demand, none are as demanding as thru-hiking. In addition to having the right foods with you, and at your resupply locations, adding in some multivitamins is a good practice.
If sending parcels to drop-off points along your route, or buying in grocery stores in trail towns, make sure you choose nourishing foods that will hold you in good stead for the coming days or weeks, not just those that will satisfy immediate cravings.
While planning your route, check for areas where it will bring you close to a town and find the nearest post office. Mail yourself a resupply package before hitting the trails and calculate how much backpacking food you will need to get to this point. Just make sure you send yourself enough backpacking food to get you from your first resupply location to the next.
Using this method for the duration of your hike will help to ensure you have enough backpacking food for the journey without having to carry the excess weight.
Thru-hiking means you will be covering a great distance and the less you have to carry, the better. For this reason, many hikers will skip hot meals, either partially or for the entire length of the hike to save carrying as much weight. Some foods that can be rehydrated with cold water include:
- Instant noodles, such as ramen noodles
- Instant mashed potatoes
- Instant rice, especially white rice, and beans
- Dehydrated meals you have prepared and cooked at home
If you decide to use the “no-cook” method for your thru-hike, you do not have to limit yourself to cold water hydration options. Snacks, wraps, and sandwiches of your own design are also great options to add to your supply.
Cooking Options For The Trail
When it comes to cooking on the trail, the market is flooded with different options for cooking and can seem a bit overwhelming. However, there are a few factors to consider that can help make your selection easier: stove features, type, and usage.
Stoves designed for backpacking are primarily categorized by the type of fuel they use. There are many shapes and sizes to choose from; some are even equipped with chargers for keeping your electronics, such as cell phones and GPS units charged while you prepare your meal. Here are the three main categories: canister stoves, alternative-fuel stoves, and liquid fuel stoves
As stated above, canister stoves are one of the easiest designs to use. They are lightweight and don’t take up much space in your pack. Canister stoves that are equipped with pressure regulators are ideal for high elevations and cold weather.
The downside is that canister stove fuels are more expensive compared to the other types available. An additional drawback is that the arms are often too small to support larger cooking pots.
Alternative-fuel stoves can burn anything from sticks found out on the trail to denatured alcohol. These alternative fuels can help save weight as they require small amounts of fuel. Solid-fuel tablet stoves, for example, are small enough when folded to place in your pocket. However, most wood-burning stoves are typically heavier than the other stove types you can find.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
Liquid Fuel Stoves: As their name indicates, liquid fuel stoves connect to a refillable fuel bottle and typically use white gas.
Liquid fuel stoves provide you with a cheaper alternative than canister stoves due to the lower cost of white gas. They work well in freezing, and below-freezing environments and some models can run on kerosene, diesel, or gasoline.
One of the drawbacks to liquid fuel stoves, however, is that they require maintenance and need to be primed before use. They also are heavier than most canister stoves which can play a huge factor if you are hiking for a long distance.
FURTHER READING: Check out our guide to the best backpacking stoves!
Backpacking Meal Plan, Ideas & Tips
Now that you have a thorough understanding of what eats you need for your backpacking adventures, and how to cook them, let’s take a look at some planning tips and ideas that can help you take care of pre-trip prep more efficiently.
The key to not only having enough food to make the trip but also to enjoy it is to plan your meals. Here are some tips on how you can prepare your meals so you have something to look forward to, sans stress, after a long day of hiking.
- Pre-package your meals. If your meals are not already packed in individual packages, divide them up and use a vacuum sealer to ensure the food won’t spoil. Once packaged, mark each bag with what is inside, the date you sealed it, and, if need be, instructions on how to prepare it.
You don’t need to vacuum seal your food if you are only going to be on the trail for 5 days or less, simply freezing them will suffice. However, you should consider a vacuum sealer if you plan on being on the trail for any longer.
- Keep each day’s worth of meals in separate bags. By packing your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks together for each day, you will reduce the risk of selling yourself short by mistakenly eating into a future day’s supplies. Refer to our calorie counting strategy above to help figure out what to pack for each day.
- Plan resupply points for extended hikes. This is common practice for long-distance thru-hikers but often overlooked by backpackers on shorter trips.
The reasoning is simple – it saves you having to lug so much weight on your back, allows you to stick to your meal plan, and saves you worrying about being able to find your favorite foods in stores en route.
Check the route you plan on using. Find areas where you will be in close proximity to a town and have a package shipped there before you leave for your hike. Just make sure you remember where you sent the packages!
- As an added deterrent, pack your bags of food in Opsacks or Ursacks. This will help to prevent mice, raccoons, or other rodents from finding their way into your food supply. It will also help to prevent bears from smelling your food and deciding to pay you a visit.
- Consider using prepackaged meals. While they can be expensive, they are an excellent way to ensure your food will not spoil and low-bulk options can be found.
Backpacking Meal Prep Tips: Sides and Add-Ons
- Individual packets of honey can be a real lifesaver when on the trail. Not only are they a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth, but also handy for adding some sweetness and flavor to other foods.
- Next time you’re at the diner, make sure and pocket some condiment packets for your next backpacking trip. These little packets of ketchup, salt, powdered milk, hot sauce, honey, or olive oil can help spice up your food and add some extra calories per ounce.
- If you simply cannot live without bread for the duration of the hiking trip, consider tortillas or pita bread. These two options are more durable than regular sandwich bread and can usually last longer. Bagels are also a good option, though they do take up a lot more space in your pack.
- Powdered meals provide you with a lot of needed nutrition without using a lot of space. Consider taking some as a replacement for breakfast or for a boost of energy when you want to push on. Not only is oatmeal a great food option for your hike, the individual packets mean you can leave the bulky canister at home.
- Instant noodles provide you with more carbs than pasta and are easier to prepare and clean after. Additionally, adding the seasoning packet to the noodles after they have been crushed up makes for a tasty snack while on the go.
- Peanut butter (or any nut butter) provides all of the additional nutrition you will need and is considered by many in the backpacking community as a “must-have.” You can also find peanut butter in individual packets, making them more compact than a large, bulky jar.
With some tips and ideas for making your meals varied, less bulky, and lighter in weight, here are some more hiking and backpacking food resources you can use for further reading and ideas.
Any Other Food Ideas for Backpacking?
In this guide, we have attempted to shed light on the types of food you should be carrying on backpacking trips, how much of them to carry, how to cook them, and how to plan and prepare your meals. If, however, you have any ‘beta’ we haven’t included, we’d love to hear from you. Use the comments box below and drop us a line!
Have any friends who are taking to the trail on a thru-hike? If so, feel free to share this post with them on social media to spread the love!