Mom Goes Camping

Tips for Planning Backpacking Meals

tips for planning backpacking meals

Planning meals is one of the most difficult parts of going backpacking – especially if you are going backpacking with kids who are picky eaters. The last thing you want is your family to be starving (or complaining that they are starving) while in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, far from the nearest convenience store. Here are some tips for planning your backpacking meals that I’ve picked up along the way.

Make a Meal Plan – and test portion sizes!

When you cook or grill at home, it is okay if you cook extra because you can just eat the leftovers the next day. You can’t do this when backpacking. And you definitely don’t want to carry more food on your back than necessary.

To make sure you are bringing just enough food to last through your trip, you will need to make a meal plan for every day. Having a meal plan isn’t enough though. You’ve got to test out the portion sizes.

For example, I always bring couscous backpacking because it is lightweight and cooks in 2 minutes (plus my daughter loves it). Before we went on our first backpacking trip, I made sure to cook a batch of couscous and carefully measured exactly how much the both of us ate.

backpacking food ramen
My daughter eating ramen with dehydrated veggies – portions carefully calculated!

Pack One Extra Meal

Do NOT bring tons of extra backpacking food out of fear that you will starve on the trail. As I said above, you need to make a meal plan for each day and carefully measure out foods to ensure the portions are right. This way, you don’t end up bringing too much or too little food.   With that said, it is still smart to bring one extra meal in case you get really hungry or end up staying an extra day.

Put Each Meal into a Plastic Baggie

Even if you plan on eating spaghetti every single night of your trip, do NOT just bring the package of spaghetti with you. How are you going to seal it up later? How are you going to measure portions?

Instead, you should pre-pack each meal into its own ziplock plastic baggie. For example, I will load one plastic baggie up with couscous, dried hummus, and dried veggies. Then I will load another baggie up with instant mashed potatoes, TVP, and dehydrated sauce. When it is time to cook, I can just dump the contents into boiled water and that’s it!

dehydrated backpacking food
These baggies include dehydrated fruit + oatmeal, spaghetti with dehydrated sauce and mushrooms, TVP with dehydrated veggies, and dehydrated omelette

Don’t Forget Flavoring and Seasonings!

I always put seasonings into the plastic baggies with my meals. But I don’t always get the amount of seasoning right (and some people like their meals more flavorful than others). So, I make sure to bring along little bags of seasonings. These include:

  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Parsley, basil, oregano
  • Red pepper

Buy a Dehydrator

Buying a dehydrator was one of the best investments I made. Not only do I save a lot of money by dehydrating foods when they are cheap and in season so I can have them all year round, but it allows me to make my own “gourmet” backpacking meals instead of having to pay loads of money for those pre-made backpacking meals sold by the likes of REI.

You’d be surprised how many foods you can dehydrate. Then you just add water and, Voila! You’ve got tasty food. Some of the foods I dehydrate and bring backpacking include:

  • Hummus
  • Lentil pate
  • Pasta sauce
  • Eggplant
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Kale
  • Tofu (I’m a vegan, but you could also make meat jerky to bring)
Dehydrating hummus and tomatoes. The scallions are already done and in the baggie at the bottom left.
Dehydrating hummus and tomatoes. The scallions are already done and in the baggie at the bottom left.

Let Your Kids Pick Out their Own Trail Mix

One of my favorite memories from backpacking with my dad was going to pick out our trial mix before the trip. He’d take us to the bulk-bin area of the supermarket and let us choose all sorts of candies, nuts, and dried fruits. (If you have qualms about letting your kids eat tons of candy, remember that they need lots of calories while hiking). Be warned that chocolate will melt in your trail mix.  Opt for coated chocolates (like M&Ms) or pack your chocolate separately!

What tips do you have for planning your backpacking food?  Let us know in the comments or join the discussion on Facebook!

Title image credit: oskar karlin _MG_3175.jpg CC BY SA 2.0; found on Flickr

Need more advice on backpacking food?  Read:

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About the author /

Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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  1. bob huebner

    if going for a long trip, i always check cal/gram and fat content of food. the higher the number for each the better. Food that says lit of fat free do not make it into my pack

    • Diane

      Protein and fiber also matter though. If the calories are from pure sugar, for example, they will make your blood sugar spike and them come crashing down — meaning loss of energy. And, in Isabel’s case, a very cranky child!

  2. rosemary huebner

    That’s a great list of healthy, energy food while hiking! I admit to having a sweet tooth and have brought instant pudding mixed with dry milk to just add water and shake for a treat.

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