Mom Goes Camping

Backpacking Foods: Complete Guide to Eating on the Trail

backpacking food

For me, eating a hot meal while I enjoy the view of a glacier lake or stunning vista is one of the best parts of backpacking.  But figuring out what backpacking food to bring can be confusing – and bringing the wrong backpacking food can mean you end up hungry or with a very heavy pack.

This backpacking food guide goes over everything you’ll need to plan food for your trip.

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*Guess what? I wrote an entire ebook on backpacking food.  It’s got over 50 recipes plus tons of advice on meal planning, nutrition, and which foods to choose.  Learn more here.

dehydrator backpacking recipes

 

Requirements of Backpacking Food

Here’s an overview of what you should look for when choosing backpacking foods.  While weight is arguably the most important, there are other things to consider too!

 

1. Lightweight (Calorie Density)

I actually don’t like the term “lightweight” for backpacking food.  Lots of foods are lightweight but are terrible for backpacking.  Think rice cakes or popcorn.

Really, you should be looking for foods which are calorie-dense.

A good baseline to shoot for is 120 calories per ounce.  That will give you 3,500 calories in 29oz (1.8lbs).

For longer backpacking trips where you’ll need more calories per day, aim for 130+ calories per ounce. If you get 150 calories per ounce, you’ll have 4,000 calories per day in in just 1.7lbs.

*Read this post to figure out how many calories you need per day backpacking.

*See a list of healthy calorie-dense foods here.

 

2. Nutrient-Dense

If there’s any time to eat junk food, it’s while energizing your body on a grueling hike.  However, that doesn’t mean you should subsist on just high-calorie junk.

The body uses calories differently.  Calories from sugar, for example, will be used up quickly.  You’ll have an energy spike and then crash, leaving you tired and hungry.   Ironically, the more junk calories you bring, the more food you’ll probably have to eat!

So, also focus on nutrient density instead of just calories.  I’d rather have 120 calories from whole grains and protein than the refined sugars in a Pop Tart.

*Read this for more on backpacking nutrition.

 

3. Fast and Easy to Cooking

cooking backpacking food over fire

A backpacking meal of fire-heated tortillas, salami, and melted cheese.  Just make sure nothing falls into the flames!

While it is possible to cook over a campfire, it’s a pain in the ass (and there might be a fire ban in place where you backpacking).  So, consider how much fuel it will take to cook your meal.

I love fast-cooking foods like couscous and instant mashed potatoes while backpacking.  I will also make pasta sometimes since my daughter likes it so much.

I’ve since switched to dehydrating my own meals for backpacking trips. Most of these can be rehydrated by just adding water, so no cooking is required.

Of course, food tastes better hot so I’ll still rehydrate it over the stove.  But most meals are done in just 2-5 minutes of cooking.   Or, I’ll just heat the water and add it to the dehydrated meal. Learn more about how to dehydrate your own backpacking food in my recipes eBook.

Tip: Let pasta presoak for a while before you turn on your stove. It will cook faster this way.  The same goes with instant rice, soups, and most other instant meals. 

 

Planning Backpacking Meals

When I first started backpacking, I would just eyeball how much food I thought I’d eat for each meal.   This method did not work well.  I always ended up packing too much food (which I guess is better than being hungry on the trail, but my pack was unnecessarily heavy!)

Instead of just guestimating how much food to bring, you’ll want to make a spreadsheet.   It’s admittedly a bit tedious the first few times you make a meal plan for backpacking.  But, after a couple trips, it gets easier.

How to make a meal spreadsheet: 

  1. Calculate how many calories you will need per day backpacking
  2. Figure out how many of those calories will be for each meal (20% breakfast, 15% lunch, 35% snacks, and 30% for dinner is a good guideline)
  3. Write down what you want to eat for each meal and snacks
  4. Calculate how many servings you’ll need to meet calorie requirements
  5. If you are serious about nutrition, you can also calculate protein and fat ratios (I personally never do this – I just make sure each meal has protein in it)

 

Sample Backpacking Meal Plan

Here’s a spreadsheet which shows 4 days of backpacking food.  It averages out to approximately 3,400 calories per day.

*Most of this food was dehydrated.  I didn’t pack fresh bananas, apples, carrots, etc. while backpacking!

**I usually calculate snacks separately because they just go in one or two big bags anyway.  Some people like to make snack baggies for each day so they don’t blow through their snacks too soon.

4 day backpacking food spreadsheet

And below shows what all that food looked like.  The total weight was 6.9lbs.  That breaks down to a caloric density of 124 calories/ounce.

vegan backpacking food for 3 days

 

Breakfast Foods

vegan backpacking breakfast

Oatmeal with dried apricots, coconut flakes, hazelnuts, and ginger to warm you up in the morning!

It gets cold on the mountains, so I like to have a hot breakfast in the morning.  However, some more hardcore thru-hikers are eager to get on the trail.  They’ll just eat something like handfuls of granola or a protein bar (or three!).

Regardless, you don’t want to eat too much for breakfast. You’ll end up feeling sluggish when hiking.  You also don’t want too much fat in your breakfast.  Fat takes a while to digest, so you could end up getting cramps.  Those calories won’t hit your bloodstream until later anyway, so simple carbs are better at getting you energized for your day of hiking.

Aim for around 20% of your calories for breakfast.  That means around 700 calories at 3,500 calories/day.

Recap: 

  • Breakfast should account for 20% of your daily calories.
  • Don’t eat too large of a breakfast.  You’ll feel sluggish while hiking.
  • Also don’t eat too much fat for breakfast.  You’ll get cramps while hiking

Backpacking Breakfast Ideas:

  • Freeze-dried scrambled eggs with tortillas
  • Granola
  • Muesli
  • Bagels
  • Oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit
  • Instant breakfast shakes
  • Pop Tarts

 

Lunch Foods

vegan pea dip on bagel for backpacking lunch

Bagel with bean dip (from dehydrated) for a quick, healthy lunch

I don’t do too much hiking on my backpacking trips (my backpacking partner is my 8-year old daughter and she’s pretty lazy).  So, we have time to make a cooked lunch.

If you have to cover a lot of miles, then you won’t want to stop to cook lunch.  That doesn’t mean you have to eat just GORP for lunch though.  There are exciting no-cook backpacking lunches you can bring along.

For example, I’ll dehydrate hummus.  It can be rehydrated by adding water.  Then I eat it on bagels or tortillas for lunch.

Since you are going to be snacking all day, you actually don’t need that many calories for lunch.  Budget 15% of your daily calories (or 525 calories at 3,500 calories/day).  If you aren’t packing a dedicated lunch, make sure you bring more snack foods.  Ideally, you bring more variety of snacks too.  Otherwise you’ll be bored eating GORP for lunch every day.

Recap: 

  • Approximately 15% of your daily calories
  • Decide whether you want to stop to cook lunch or not.
  • If skipping lunch, compensate by bringing more snacks.

Backpacking Lunch Ideas (No Cook)

  • Tortillas
  • Crackers
  • Bagels

(eaten with)

  • Peanut butter or other nut butter
  • Refried beans in a pouch
  • Dehydrated hummus (recipe here)
  • Hard cheese
  • Tuna or chicken in a pouch
  • Salami

 

Dinner Foods

backpacking jambalaya

Instant rice with salami and spices to make backpacking jambalaya

You’ll need a big meal at the end of the day.  This meal should have lots of carbohydrates (to restock your body’s glycogen stores so your muscles have energy for the next day of hiking).  The meal should also have lots of protein to help your muscles heal.

Aim for about 30% of your calories for dinner.  That means around 875 calories for dinner at 3,500 calories/day.  You’ll note that a lot of freeze-dried backpacking meals only have around 300-500 calories per pouch.  That means you’ll need to eat 2 to 3 pouches to get enough fuel. Yes, the expense adds up quickly – which is why I prefer to make my own backpacking meals.

Recap:

  • Dinner should be about 30% of your daily calories
  • Should include carbs and protein

Backpacking Dinner Ideas:

  • Freeze-dried meals
  • Mac n cheese
  • Noodle bowls
  • Instant soup with croutons
  • Dehydrated meals*

*I put entire meals on my dehydrator.  Then I just add water to rehydrate them.  Yes, backpacking food really can be that easy and delicious.  I talk about how to do it in my ebook, which you can get here.

backpacking dehydrator recipes ebook

 

Snacks

Snacks is where I used to screw up when planning backpacking food.  I would never bring enough of them.

You’d be surprised how much food your body needs while hiking with a pack on.  You might need anywhere from 120 to 240 calories per hour.   That’s why approximately 35% of your daily calories will need to be from snacks.  That’s 1,225 calories at 3,500 calories/day!  If you are skipping lunch, then 50% of your daily calories should be from snacks.

Try to constantly snack as you backpack. This will allow your blood sugar levels to remain high enough so you don’t deplete glycogen stores and start digesting muscle for energy.

Junk foods are great sources of calories.  However, don’t forget that your body also needs nutrients. Plus, your body blows through simple sugars much faster than it does complex carbs.  Hence why I’m happy to sacrifice a few calories in favor of healthy snacks like dried fruit and homemade crackers.

Recap: 

  • 35% of daily calories
  • Snack constantly while backpacking
  • Aim for complex carbs and not just sugary junk foods

Examples of Backpacking Snacks:

  • Snickers
  • Twix bars
  • Trail mix
  • Granola bars
  • Dried fruit
  • Candies
  • Chocolate
  • Jerky
  • Crackers
  • String cheese
  • Wasabi peanuts

 

Best Backpacking Foods

There are three different types of backpacking food. Each has its pros/cons.   You’ll probably be bringing along a combination of all types.

 

Option 1: Freeze-Dried Backpacking Food

freeze dried backpacking food

This is the easiest option.  The meals come in convenient pouches.  Just dump the contents into your pot and boil for a few minutes.  In some cases, you can even cook the meal inside the pouch by dumping hot water into it (though I’d much rather eat out of a proper bowl than a bag).

The problem is that freeze-dried meals get expensive quickly.  Most only have around 300-500 calories per pouch.  Even if you eat snacks for lunch, that means you’ll need around 6 pouches of food per day (which means upwards of $50 per day!).

To make sure you are getting your money’s worth, look for brands which actually include protein and lots of veggies.

Also, most backpacking meals are lacking in nutrients and have insane amounts of sodium.  This is probably ok for a few day hike, but not for long thru-hikes.

 

Option 2: Supermarket Foods

supermarket backpacking food

4 day’s of backpacking food, all from the supermarket

There are tons of “instant meals” and “ready meals” you can buy in the supermarket.  These include things like boxes of Mac n Cheese, couscous mixes, ramen, and instant soup.  You’ll also find foods like jerky, dried fruit, coconut flakes, and powdered milk in supermarkets.  These are great for backpacking.

Going with supermarket foods when backpacking means that you’ll save a lot of money.  However, most supermarket backpacking foods are really bland and/or unhealthy.  They mostly have just carbs and not much protein or healthy fat in them.

And then there’s the issue with sodium.  Foods like instant soups are so loaded with sodium that you might end up with issues like feet swelling while hiking.

Tips:

  • Remember to bring spices, herbs, and condiment packets. Otherwise your backpacking food will be very boring!
  • Repackage the foods before leaving. The foods will take up less space in your backpack and you’ll have less trash to pack out.

 

Option 3: DIY Backpacking Meals

dehydrated vegan backpacking meals

Dehydrated backpacking meals

I use my dehydrator to make my own backpacking meals (get my recipes ebook here!).  Sometimes that means dehydrating a few things to “boost” supermarket foods.  For example, I dehydrated cooked veggies and tofu.  Then I add these to ramen to get a more nutritious meal.

In other cases, I’ll dehydrate entire meals.  For example, I friggin’ love quinoa chili.  It dehydrates down to be very lightweight.  Then all I have to do on the trail is add hot water and wait 5 minutes.  Voila! I’ve got a healthy, protein-packed meal.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can still make your own backpacking meals.  Instead of dehydrating add-ins, you can buy dried foods (like jerky, dried fruits, or dried veggies) or freeze-dried foods.

There are also pouched foods that you can combine with other foods to make a complete meal, such as adding a pouch of tuna to a box of couscous.  Throw in some spices and you’ve got gourmet backpacking food!

In the section below, I’ll explain how to make your own backpacking meals with the “assembly” method.

 

DIY Backpacking Meals

backpacking DIY meals

Instant soup with tortillas and freeze-dried veggies added in

The “assembly” method of DIY backpacking meals involves combining various dry foods together to make a complete meal.

To meet nutritional requirements, you’ll want a carb, protein, micronutrients (fruits, veggies, superfoods) and fat.  Then you add some flavoring to spice things up.

Sometimes the food already contains two or more components.  For example, Mac n’ Cheese already contains a carb and fat.  You could just add some salami and freeze-dried veggies to get a complete meal.

Below are the instructions for DIY backpacking meals.

 

Step 1: Start with a Carb

Choose a quick-cooking (or no-cook) carbohydrate.  Some of the best options for backpacking include:

  • Tortillas
  • Bagels
  • Ramen
  • Pasta
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Crackers
  • Instant rice
  • Couscous

 

Step 2: Add Protein

Protein is important for fueling and repairing your muscles.  Meals also taste better when they are loaded with protein.

Good options include:

  • Freeze dried meats
  • Jerky
  • Tofu jerky
  • Salami
  • Dehydrated beans or lentils
  • Pouches of refried beans
  • Tuna pouches
  • Chicken pouches
  • Nut butters
  • Just-add-water hummus mix
  • TVP or TSP

 

Step 3: Add a Fat

Fats contain 9 calories per gram, compared to just 4 calories/gram with carbs and proteins.  So, adding fats to meals will greatly increase their calorie density.

For example, 250 calories of couscous weighs in at about 2.5oz.  Add just 1.5 ounces of olive oil (from a squirt bottle that you’ve brought along) and you’ve doubled the calories in your meal.  The resulting calorie density becomes 142 calories/oz.

Fat will also make your backpacking foods taste a lot better.  That’s why boxed Mac n’ Cheese tastes so damn good – it’s loaded with fat.

Some of the best fatty foods for backpacking are:

  • Milk powder (I like coconut milk powder)
  • Olive oil
  • Hard cheeses
  • Cheese sauces, freeze-dried
  • Freeze-dried yogurt
  • Nut butters
  • Nuts and seeds

 

Step 4: Add Fruits, Veggies, and Superfoods

A lot of backpackers skimp on these when planning their meals.  This may be the reason that so many backpackers experience problems like fatigue and muscle wasting, even though they are eating enough calories.  Read this to learn more about micronutrients for backpacking.

Here are some of the best backpacking foods for nutrients:

  • Freeze dried fruits and veggies
  • Dehydrated fruits and veggies
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax powder
  • Greens powder (I make my own in my dehydrator)
  • Cacao nibs
  • Herbs and spices

 

Step 5: Packaging

When you are assembling your own backpacking foods, you’ll need to repackage everything. Otherwise you’ll have a zillion little baggies in your pack.  Meal time will get too confusing!

Keep in mind cooking times when packaging your backpacking meals.  Some ingredients might cook faster than others.

For example: The baggie shown below contains dehydrated lentils and kale.  I’ll put these in the pot first and let them rehydrate for a minute or two.  Once the water is boiling, I add instant mashed potatoes (from a separate bag).  If I added all the ingredients at the same time, the lentils and greens wouldn’t have time to rehydrate.

With some meals, you may require two pots.  For example, I will cook pasta in one pot.  I’ll make the sauce in another pot.  Thus, the pasta is kept in one bag and the sauce ingredients in another bag.

 

Examples of DIY Backpacking Food

Here’s some badass backpacking meals you can make with the assembly method

  • Oatmeal with dried fruit, flax meal, and nuts
  • Oatmeal with cocao nibs and peanut butter
  • Couscous with freeze dried peas and parmesan shavings
  • Couscous with instant hummus mix, sun dried tomatoes, and olive oil
  • Pasta with instant sauce, freeze dried mushrooms, TVP, and pine nuts
  • Instant mashed potatoes made with powdered milk and greens powder and topped with salami
  • Mac n’ Cheese with pouched chicken and herb mix
  • Ramen with dehydrated broccoli, carrots, and tofu
  • Instant soup with dehydrated red lentils added in

*Need more backpacking meal ideas? Read this post.

 

Below is an image of what my backpacking food looks like (most of my dehydrated meals come in at around 140 calories/ounce).

Want to learn more about DIY backpacking food and get tasty trail recipes? Get my eBook. I’ll even give you 50% off because you read this entire post! 😀

camping meals

Get the eBook now for 50% off.  You’ll get recipes plus learn all about backpacking meal planning, nutrition, and more.

dehydrator backpacking recipes

Get my ebook for 50% off here


Image credits:
Jambalaya Night” (CC BY 2.0) by AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker
Camping” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by O.Taillon
Hiker Food for 4 days” (CC BY 2.0) by Gronkca
Places I’d rather be” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by In Memoriam: VernsPics
Dinner time” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Tarnie

About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast and couchsurfer. She loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 9-year old daughter and hunting beetles with her 1-year old. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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