Figuring out what to eat while backpacking can be incredibly tricky. In my case, I also have to deal with the fact that my kid is a picky eater and I’m the one carrying all the gear. Trying to find backpacking food which we both want to eat and is also lightweight, easy to carry, and ideally healthy can be tough.
Even if you aren’t dealing with a picky eater, figuring out what to eat backpacking still requires careful planning. After a zillion trips, I feel like I’ve mastered the art of backpacking meal planning. Here’s what you need to know about choosing the right foods.
Requirements of Backpacking Food
While I have seen people bring things like bread, fresh fruit, and canned goods on short backpacking trips, these are not the types of foods you’ll want to haul in your pack. Instead, you should look for foods which are:
1. Lightweight/Calorie Dense
Obviously you don’t want to bring any food which is too heavy in your backpack. However, just because something is light it doesn’t mean it’s a good backpacking food.
Really, you should be looking for foods which are calorie dense. This means that they pack in a lot of calories per ounce. Ideally, shoot for at least 120 calories per ounce.
At 120 calories per ounce, you will be able to carry 3,500 calories in just 1.8lbs.
If you are going on a long thru-hike and will need even more calories per day, then aim for 150 calories per ounce. That will give you 4,000 calories per day at just 1.7lbs.
*Read this post to find out how many calories per day backpacking you need.
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
*See a list of calorie-dense backpacking foods here.
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.
As I talk about here, nutrition matters when backpacking. You need nutrients to help your body recover. Your body also doesn’t use all calories equally. So, you’ll find that you don’t need to eat as many calories when you’ve packed healthy foods (which means less food to carry).
*Here’s a list of nutrient-rich superfoods you can add to your backpacking meals.
While I love foods like whole-grain rice and beans, I won’t take them backpacking. They simply take too long to cook. I would use up all of my fuel cooking them. And who really wants to sit around stirring a pot of beans for an hour???
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 it here.
If you don’t want to dehydrate meals, here are some options for quick-cooking foods:
- Instant mashed potatoes
- Instant rice
- Certain pastas (angel hair, for example)
- Instant soups
- Freeze-dried meals
4. Other Requirements
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!
Backpacking Food Options
There are three main types of foods for backpacking that fit all of the requirements above. You’ll probably be bringing a combination of these. For example, I will dehydrate sauces to put over dry foods that I get at the supermarket.
Option 1: Dry Foods from the Supermarket
You will find lots of dry foods at your supermarket which are great for backpacking. Examples include pastas, instant soups, dry beans and lentils, cereal, dry milk, instant rice, instant mashed potatoes, couscous, tuna pouches, and spice and herb mixes.
- Readily available
- Can be heavy and bulky
- May require longer cooking times
- Not always the tastiest option!
Option 2: Buy Premade Backpacking Meals
There are a lot of brands which sell premade backpacking meals. They are usually made from freeze-dried foods, so are lightweight and cook quickly.
The downside is that they are very pricy. They are also usually loaded with sodium, which sucks if you already have problems with things like swollen feet while hiking. And good luck finding freeze dried backpacking meals which have enough protein and micronutrients!
It is possible to build your own meals using freeze-dried foods. For example, you can buy containers of freeze-dried veggies or meat and add them to dry supermarket foods. Read how to assemble your own freeze-dried meals here.
- Lots of options
- Easiest option
- Cook quickly
- Lots of sodium
- Often lacking protein and other nutrients
Option 3: Dehydrate Your Own Food
I dehydrate my own backpacking meals. You can even dehydrate entire cooked meals. Then you just add water to rehydrate. The picture above shows what meals look like when dehydrated.
Dehydrating means I have many more options for food that I can bring. I’ll often combine dehydrated foods with supermarket foods to make backpacking meals more interesting and healthy.
For example, I will dehydrate mushroom gravy to eat over instant mashed potatoes. Or I’ll dehydrate kale to add to couscous.
Not everything rehydrates well. For example, mushrooms always end up chewy – even if you cook them for a long time (blended mushroom sauces rehydrate just fine though). It also takes some planning to dehydrate meals. It’s not that much work once you get the hang of it though. My eBook talks about how to dehydrate your own meals. Get the recipe book here.
- Very cheap
- Lightweight and compact
- Just add water (great for rainy days!)
- Must have a dehydrator
- Requires planning
- Some foods don’t rehydrate well
Backpacking Meal Plan Examples
Below are examples of what food I bring when backpacking. Because I have to be so careful about weight, I measure portions precisely.
- 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
- 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
- Trail mix
- Instant powdered drinks
- 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
Want to learn more about backpacking food? Read this post about how to plan backpacking meals.
What do you eat while backpacking? Let us know in the comments!
And don’t forget to check out my eBook. It has over 50 recipes plus tons of advice on planning meals for backpacking trips. Get it here for 50% off!