Prepping for an awesome backpacking or hiking trip gets my blood flowing like nothing else. I relish in the expectations of where I’ll be going and what I’ll be doing. To me, there’s nothing that can compare to watching an epic sunrise from atop an “alien-esque” landscape. These are the memories that are held onto for a lifetime.
Nature’s beauty doesn’t come cheap, however. It takes a bit of work to plan and prep for an exhilarating adventure, especially when it comes to fueling your body along the way. Selecting the best types of food can make or break your time out in the wilderness. Everything depends on it; your energy levels, performance, and overall enjoyment of the experience.
That’s where I come in. My goal is to present a reliable guide you can use if you are having trouble with backpacking food ideas. I’m here to help you create a new or different meal plan for your next hiking or backpacking expedition. I hope to give fresh ideas on what to bring and what to cook.
I’ll also include some basic cooking/heating methods you should be aware of, and effective choices tailored for different climate conditions.
So if you’ll be trekking through snowy mountains, traversing humid forests, or exploring hot desert dunes, I’ve got you covered! Remember to always be safe, and there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. See you out there!
How Much Food To Take Backpacking:
The first question you should ask yourself is how much food to bring along on your trip. There’s no exact answer to this because it depends on several factors, such as the intensity of your activity, your body weight, the number of calories you burn, and the duration of your activity and so on.
A good baseline to aim for is taking 1½ to 2½ pounds (.7 to 1.1 kg) of food, or 2,500 to 4,500 calories per day away. This is a generality of course. The amount of food you’ll need depends on how hard and far you’re pushing yourself.
For instance, a person who hikes 12 miles with a 3,000-foot climb will burn far more calories than somebody traveling half the distance over soft rolling hills.
So for this, and a few other reasons, I like to bring a little more food than I know I’ll need. What if I get lost and need an extra day to find my bearings? What if I want to eat more than I calculated for? What if there is food spoilage? etc. One of the better “mistakes” you can make is a supply of extra food.
You don’t want to overdo it though. You need to find a balance. It’s fairly common to see a newbie on the trails who packed way too much food and now the excess weight is bearing down on them, particularly on longer journeys. Time and experience are the best teachers for this so just be smart and you’ll be ok.
Consider these additional factors when deciding quantity:
- What time of the day are you leaving and arriving at the finish? – The last meal you’ll eat at the trailhead and the first meal you’ll eat once finished could alter your quantities.
- Are you traveling with a group? If so, how big? – If you’re going solo, the meals can be straightforward since you need to carry all of your cooking supplies with you. If you’re hiking with a significant other or friends, it might be easier to split the weight of food, fuel, and cookware, and share the meals as you go.
- How much cooking do you want to do? – Is one hot meal per day enough? Two? One every other day? Deciding on the frequency of actually cooking vs. ready-to-eat or pre-packaged meals makes all the difference in the world when it comes to weight and space in your bag.
- How hard of a day are you looking at? Are you going to be exhausted day after day from trekking over steep mountain ridges? If so, you may need extra snacks and plan for hassle-free dinners.
Types of Backpacking Food
There’s pretty much no limit to the type of foods you can bring on your backpacking journey. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. However, to better set yourself up for success, stick with lightweight and space-conscious foods that are painless to prepare.
Common prep/transportation options:
- Dehydrating your meals at home
- Purchasing freeze-dried meals that only require adding hot water
- Assembling your meals from a mixture of fresh and dry ingredients
- Pre-packaged foods and snacks
1. Dehydrate Your Meals:
Dehydrating your meals can be a cost-effective and efficient way to carry your food while hiking. It requires more time and preparation, but it can help you save money and reduce the weight and volume of your pack.
Additionally, you can bring your favorite homemade meals and have full control over the ingredients. For a detailed guide on how to do it yourself, check out REI’s article – How to Dehydrate Food.
2. Purchase Freeze Dried Meals:
Although these pre-cooked meals may be relatively expensive, they are extremely convenient, require no cleanup, and are a great addition to any backpacker’s supplies. Simply add hot water and wait for the food to rehydrate. For instance, Mountain House has a great variety designed for Hikers and Backpackers.
Over the years, the variety of nutritious and tasty options has expanded, providing above-average taste and sustenance for their weight. With many companies now offering backcountry food, you can find a lot of decent options to suit your taste, including gluten-free and vegan backpacking food.
3. Assemble Your Own Ingredients:
If you want to save money and or time, consider packing some fresh and dry foods that have a decent shelf life and are less likely to spoil quickly. They’re great for mixing up your taste buds and saving time or energy cooking after a tiresome day.
Depending on how long you’ll be away from resupply, aim to eat them toward the beginning of your journey. They can add some much-appreciated variety to your trip! Some quick ideas/options –
- Bell Peppers
- Snap Peas
- Summer Sausage
- Pita Wraps
Sturdy fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas can withstand the rigors of the trail without spoiling quickly. Vegetables such as carrots, bell peppers, and cucumbers also hold up well and provide essential vitamins and hydration.
Hard cheeses and cured meats like salami, offer protein and healthy fats while lasting longer without refrigeration. Be sure to store in a well-insulated cooler or utilize cold packs to preserve temperature-sensitive foods.
If you’re a carb lover like most of the known world, pack some fresh flatbreads, crackers, nuts, and seeds to go with any produce.
4. Buy Pre-packaged food
If convenience and/or cost is one of your main concerns, stock your backpack with food items that can be eaten straight out of the package or cooked with a basic camp stove or pot.
A simple box of mac and cheese or pouch of tuna is extremely common on the trails since they can be found pretty much anywhere in the world.
- Macaroni & Cheese
- Boxed Dinners
- Tuna or Salmon
- Nut Butters
- Protein Bars
- Candy Bars
- Beef Jerky
- Trail Mix
Shelf-stable grains are cheap and lightweight to stuff in your bag and made within minutes of boiling a pot of hot water. Bringing a few types as well as a variety of proteins and veggies will give you countless options for each night’s lunch or dinner.
Portable food pouches are perfect for an on-the-go bite or dumping into your pot once you get settled. They are compact and full of valuable nutrients that your body is going to be begging for after burning tons of calories.
Easily accessible snacks are vital in keeping your mood up and your hunger down. Sugary or salty treats will give you that added boost of energy when your body feels depleted and completely drained.
The food you bring will depend on the type of cooking you are planning on doing, and how many times you want to do it. For me, I usually have a protein bar and banana for breakfast, a pita wrap or sandwich for lunch, and a hot meal for dinner so a cooking canister, a small pot, and a fork are enough for me but to each their own right?
Some hikers on the other hand love to have lavish breakfast spreads with all the fixings, an intricate lunch, and a royal supper each and every day. If you fall under this group, you’re going to need to bring extra supplies and extra fuel. As long as you plan accordingly, you’ll have nothing to worry about.
Canister or liquid gas stoves are portable, efficient, and allow for cooking a variety of meals in most situations. They each have their advantages/disadvantages but are reliable and versatile.
Canister stoves for instance clean, fast, and easy to use, but might be hard to find overseas and don’t work well in extreme cold environments.
Liquid gas stoves are basically the inverse. They are more expensive, a bit harder to use but easier to find fuel for abroad, and are refillable.
Check out this article for a great breakdown of the differences between the two – Canister stoves vs. liquid fuel backpacking stoves
If you want to carry the lightest possible load then look into alternative fuel stoves that ultralight backpackers love. They are lightweight, compact, and ideal for solo hikers or minimalists who have low cooking needs.
There are a few different types that either burn wood, use fuel tablets, or light up alcohol on exceptionally small devices. They are also a cheaper alternative to a canister or liquid gas stove but don’t have any flame controls and suffer in wet or rainy conditions.
Jetboil or Similar Systems:
An all-in-one system designed to do one thing, and one thing only and that is boiling water fast. They’re great if all you plan to prepare are dehydrated packages or hot drinks. Some of them clock in at 1 Liter of water boiled in under 3 minutes, crazy fast!
A downside to these types of cooking systems is they aren’t meant to make complicated meals or burn for a long time, plus they can be on the expensive side. They also burn through fuel quickly, requiring extra tanks to be ported along with the rest of your gear.
Best Foods for Different Weather Conditions:
Sometimes the environment dictates which types of nourishment are best. Food preservation is probably the biggest factor, followed by your energy and hydration needs.
The hotter and wetter, the more likely food spoilage will become an issue. Colder environments act like life-size refrigerators, keeping fresh ingredients, well, fresh. Hot and humid environments are harsher on your fare.
Before you leave on your next outing, it’s wise to anticipate the weather conditions and prepare accordingly. Your peace of mind, and wallet, will thank you!
If you’ll be walking around in sub-freezing conditions, you’re going to want high-calorie, high-fat foods to sustain you through the frigid nights.
Aim for grub that’ll keep you warm, maintain your energy levels, and replenish essential nutrients you might have lost along the way.
- Cheese sticks or cheese slices
- Instant pasta meals (e.g., macaroni and cheese, pasta with marinara sauce)
- Instant coffee or tea bags
- Dehydrated eggs or egg powder
- Instant oatmeal cookies or energy cookies
- Instant soup cups (e.g., miso soup, ramen)
- Hot cocoa mix
- Freeze-dried fruits (e.g., strawberries, apples)
- Instant mashed potatoes
- Energy bars (e.g., granola bars, protein bars)
- Instant rice or quinoa packets
- Tortillas or wraps
- Oatmeal packets
- Instant soups (e.g., chicken noodle, minestrone)
- Dehydrated chili or stew
- Nut butter packets (e.g., peanut butter, almond butter)
- Trail mix with nuts, seeds, and dried fruits
- Beef jerky or dried sausage
If you’ll be wandering around in extremely hot and/or dry conditions, the sun will most likely be beating down on you the entire time. I guarantee all you’ll be thinking about will be those hydration levels!
Thirst comes quickly and you can only carry so much water with you. Focusing on lightweight, water-rich foods will do wonders in combating overheating and overexertion.
- Berries (e.g., blueberries, raspberries)
- Coconut water
- Canned fruits in juice (e.g., peaches, pears)
- Hydrating soups (e.g., broth-based soups with vegetables)
- Electrolyte drink mixes or sports drinks
- Quinoa salad with watermelon
- Chicken and vegetable stir-fry
- Tuna salad wraps with lettuce, tomato, and hummus
- Pasta salad
- Shrimp ceviche
- Couscous salad
- Rice paper spring rolls with shrimp, lettuce, and cucumber
- Greek salad with cucumber, tomatoes, olives, and feta cheese
- Veggie wrap with hummus
- Cold soba noodle salad
- Chickpea salad
Besides sweating more than a first-timer doing hot yoga, you’re going to need foods that replenish hydration AND avoid food spoilage due to the added moisture in the air.
The same foods in hot or dry climates won’t last as long in a tropical locale so pick items that have longer shelf lives and fight well against moisture.
- Bell peppers
- Freeze-dried yogurt bites
- Chia seed pudding mix
- Instant coconut milk powder for curries or soups
- Watermelon jerky
- Coconut water-electrolyte tablets
- Instant oatmeal with added coconut milk powder
- Dried pineapple rings
- Instant miso ramen noodles
- Chia seed energy gel packets
- Indian-inspired lentil curry
Nutritional Benefits of Backpacking Foods:
When you’re out backpacking, you need lots of carbs because they give you energy! Think of them as your body’s favorite fuel for all that walking and hiking. Carbs break down into glucose, which your muscles gobble up to keep you moving.
Plus, they’re stored in your body as glycogen for a quick energy boost when you need it most. So, munching on carb-rich foods before and during your hike keeps you feeling strong and ready to take on the trail!
Protein is your buddy when backpacking because it helps your muscles recover and stay strong. It’s like the building blocks that repair and build up your muscles after all that hiking.
Plus, it keeps you feeling full and satisfied, so you’re not hungry all the time on the trail. Think of protein as your hiking pal, keeping you strong and energized throughout your adventure!
Fats are essential for backpacking because they provide long-lasting energy and keep you feeling full. They’re like the slow-burning fuel that sustains you during your hike.
Plus, fats help your body absorb important vitamins and minerals, keeping you healthy and strong on the trail. So, don’t forget to pack some healthy fats like nuts, seeds, or nut butter for a tasty and satisfying snack while backpacking!
Vitamins and Minerals:
Vitamins and minerals are like your backpacking superheroes, keeping your body running smoothly and feeling great!
They’re the tiny helpers that support your immune system, keep your bones strong, and help you recover after a long day on the trail. Think of them as your secret weapons for staying healthy and energized during your backpacking adventure!
Selecting the right types of food for your backpacking or hiking trip is crucial for fueling your body, maintaining energy levels, and enhancing your overall outdoor experience. Whether you opt for dehydrated meals, energy bars, or fresh fruits, consider the pros and cons of each option, along with the cooking/heating methods available.
Tailor your food choices to the specific weather conditions you’ll encounter, and prioritize nutritional balance to ensure your body performs at its best throughout your adventure. With proper planning and a diverse selection of delicious options, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle any trail and savor every moment of your outdoor journey. Happy hiking and bon appétit!