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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. They weigh almost nothing but won’t fill you up.

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.

Examples of calorie-dense foods include:

  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Dried milk powder
  • Dark chocolate
  • Roasted soy beans
  • Protein bars
  • Dehydrated beans
  • Tofu jerky
  • Dried fruit
  • Granola
  • Tortillas
  • Bagels

*Use this calculator to figure out how many calories you need per day backpacking.

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

 

2. Nutrient-Dense

You’ll also want to choose backpacking foods which are nutrient-dense. In other words, they also contain healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals in addition to calories.

To give you an idea, Fritos are incredibly calorie-dense.  They have 150 calories per ounce.  However, they lack virtually every nutrient you’d need to fuel your body on an intense backpacking trip.

Why is this important? Because 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!

On top of that, your body needs nutrients to help it recover.  If you are suffering from sore muscles and swelling, then you could probably use a nutrient boost in your backpacking food.

*Read this for in-depth info on backpacking nutrition.

*Here’s a list of nutrient-rich superfoods you can add to your backpacking meals.

 

3. Fast and Easy to Cooking

The longer your backpacking food takes to cook, the more fuel you will use – and the more fuel you’ll have to carry!The longer your backpacking food takes to cook, the more fuel you will use — and the more fuel you’ll have to carry! Fuel is expensive and bulky, so it’s really in your best interest to only choose backpacking foods that are quick-cooking.  That means no dry beans or whole grains.

Some examples of quick-cooking backpacking foods are: 

  • Couscous
  • Oatmeal
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Instant rice
  • Certain pastas (angel hair, for example)
  • Instant soups
  • Freeze-dried meals

 

I have switched to dehydrating my own meals for backpacking.  All I need to do is add water to rehydrate the meal.  Voila! I’ve got a gourmet meal in just a few minutes.  My eBook talks about how to dehydrate backpacking food, plus has over 50 ultralight, healthy recipes.  You can get my recipes eBook here.

Tips for Using Less Fuel: 

  • 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. 
  • Use a windscreen for your stove.  It can save you three times the fuel.  Here’s how to make a DIY ultralight windscreen for a canister stove.

 

4. Other Requirements of Backpacking Food

Keep in mind how many pots you will be bringing.  If you want to eat pasta with one of those packets of instant sauce, for example, you might need to bring a separate pot for making the sauce.

And remember that you’ll need to carry out whatever you brought in.  So (even if you don’t mind the weight), it’s not smart to bring canned goods.  Cans are even more difficult to carry once they’ve been opened because of the sharp edges!

*Check out my picks for the best backpacking cook pots.

 

 

Backpacking Meal Ideas

Below are some ideas for backpacking foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  I’ve also included tips on what kind of foods work best for these meals so you have a good trip.

 

Breakfast Backpacking 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 Backpacking Foods

vegan pea dip on bagel for backpacking lunch

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

A lot of backpackers don’t bother bringing a lunch. Instead, they just bring extra snack foods.  If you take this approach, remember to increase the variety of your snack foods. It gets boring eating GORP or protein bars all day long.

Just because you don’t want to cook a full meal for lunch while backpacking, it doesn’t mean you have to eat snacks. 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.

You actually don’t need that many calories for lunch.  Budget 15% of your daily calories (or 525 calories at 3,500 calories/day).

Recap: 

  • Approximately 15% of your daily calories
  • Decide whether you want to stop to cook lunch or not.
  • If skipping lunch, make sure you bring more variety of snack foods

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

 

Backpacking Dinner Meals

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 for 50% off.backpacking dehydrator recipes ebook

*Read this post for more backpacking meal ideas.

**If you are vegan, check out these vegan backpacking meal ideas.

***Get my eBook for 50% off here

 

Snacks

You should be constantly snacking 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.

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.

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 ounces in favor of healthy snacks like dried fruit and homemade crackers.

Recap: 

  • 35% of daily calories
  • If skipping lunch, then snacks should be 50% of your 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

 

Planning Backpacking Meals

When I first started backpacking, I would decide what I wanted to eat for each meal.  Then I’d eyeball how much food I thought I’d eat.

This method did not work well.  I always ended up packing too much food.  Save yourself the extra weight by making a backpacking meal plan.

 

Sample Backpacking Meal Plan

Here’s an example of what I might eat on a 4-day backpacking trip.  Start by figuring out what meals you want to eat on your trip and then enter them in a spreadsheet (more on that next).

Backpacking Breakfasts

  • Day 1: Oatmeal with dried fruit, nuts, and cinnamon
  • Day 2: Granola with powdered milk
  • Day 3: Oatmeal with different dried fruits and nuts
  • Day 4: Granola with powdered milk

*Here’s how to make coffee while backpacking

Backpacking Lunches

  • Day 1: Instant soup with crackers (I remove the soup from the package and add more noodles and dehydrated veggies to make them heartier)
  • Day 2: Dehydrated hummus with crackers
  • Day 3: Tortillas with “walnut meat”
  • Day 4: Bagels with dehydrated pate

Snacks

  • Trail mix
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Pretzels
  • Instant powdered drinks

Dinner

  • Day 1: Couscous with dehydrated veggies and lentils
  • Day 2: Instant mashed potatoes with dehydrated veggie sausages and kale
  • Day 3: Pasta with dehydrated nut-based sauce
  • Day 4: Ramen with dehydrated or freeze-dried veggies and tofu added in

 

How to Make a Backpacking Meal Spreadsheet: 

Instead of just guestimating how much food to bring backpacking, 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.

Here’s how to do it.

  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 Spreadsheet:

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

The meals were:

  • Days 1 and 3: Oatmeal with dried bananas, apricots, and nuts, couscous (breakfast), instant mashed potatoes with dried sausages (lunch), dehydrated mushroom-nut risotto
  • Days 2 and 4: Oatmeal with dried apples, cranberries, and walnuts (breakfast), ramen with dried tofu and veggies (lunch), pasta with dehydrated butternut squash sauce (dinner)

*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

 

Best Backpacking Foods

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

 

Option 1: Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals

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!).

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.

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

*See this list of the best freeze-dried backpacking meals.

**Vegans, see this list of vegan freeze-dried backpacking meals.

 

Option 2: Supermarket Backpacking 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.

*See this list of backpacking foods you can find in the supermarket.

 

Option 3: DIY Meals with the “Assembly” Method

backpacking DIY meals

Instant soup with tortillas and freeze-dried veggies added in

To make your own backpacking meals, you can use what I call the “assembly method”. It involves combining various dry foods together to make a complete meal.

To assemble a healthy meal, 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.

*Read how to use the assembly method to make your own backpacking meals here.

 

Option 4: Dehdyrated Backpacking Meals

dehydrated vegan backpacking meals

Dehydrated backpacking meals

I use my dehydrator to make my own backpacking meals (get my recipes ebook here for 50% off!).  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.

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

camping meals

dehydrator backpacking recipes

Get my ebook for 50% off here

 

What do you eat while backpacking? Let us know any tips or recipes you have in the comments section below.


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
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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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