I love packing for a backpacking trip. It’s fun to get the gear out, organize it, and get it squared away in the backpack. The one part I almost always hate, though, is getting my food planned.
Meals and snacks in the backcountry aren’t as straightforward as on a short day hike. Often, you’ll have to plan food for several days, which brings up a few complications. You’re trying to estimate how much fuel you’ll need for the whole trip (which itself is hard to do, since you’ll likely be way hungrier than you are on a normal day), while also trying to keep the weight down as much as possible and still give yourself enough variety to maintain interest in meals.
Over the years, however, it has gotten easier to plan. At first, I’d repeat the same foods for nearly every meal, as I only had a few on hand. Now, I have a much more extensive list to choose from, which makes mealtime much more enjoyable.
What’s in a backpacking food?
So what exactly makes a food good for backpacking? There are a couple things to keep an eye out for, although the specifics will vary by trip.
Some things to look for when choosing your own backcountry foods:
High-calorie – A backcountry trip usually consumes way more energy than day-to-day life, so it’s beneficial to have food that gives a big bang for the buck in terms of calorie density. Foods that you might normally shy away from due to caloric content are great for backpacking.
Stable – The last thing you want in the woods is rotten or moldy food. This is one of several reasons many fresh foods don’t make the cut. Look for foods that don’t need to be refrigerated. Our pantry is the first place we go when planning a backcountry trip. That said, I do usually pack a few fresh foods like carrots, oranges, or other produce that I eat early in the trip as a nice treat.
Light – Once again, this is something that isn’t as important on very short backpacking trips, but if you’ll be gone longer than a day or two, weight matters a lot. Sure, canned soup is very shelf-stable, but it’ll add more weight than it’s worth to your pack. Look for foods that don’t need much packaging. Food itself can also be lightweight. Dehydrated or freeze-dried meals can be rehydrated later and weigh very little.
Easy – If you’re really into gourmet backcountry cooking, by all means, take as long as you want to prepare your meals. But, most people would rather not spend much of their backpacking time sitting by a stove. Look for quick and easy foods that can be prepared with minimal effort and time. For example, many hot breakfasts like oatmeal have instant and non-instant forms, and it’s worth opting for the quicker option.
Tasty – This probably goes without saying. Of course you should like your food, but it matters even more in the backcountry. You’ll be burning a ton of calories if you’re backpacking, and you want to want your food at the end of the day. Bringing 10 of the same thing seems easy while packing, but if you’re so sick of that food by day three that you don’t want to eat it, you won’t be gaining back all the energy you need. Bring a variety of foods, and ones you know you like. Don’t be hopeful that you’ll suddenly love tuna in the woods if you don’t love tuna at home.
Considerations for backcountry eating
Planning food for a backcountry trip involves more than just choosing tasty items from a list. Not all backpacking meals are appropriate on every trip, as every trip is different.
Here are a few considerations:
Water – In addition to providing needed drinking water, being close to a water source is crucial for certain backcountry foods. Not all foods require it, but knowing whether you’ll have access to water is a necessary part of planning. Dehydrated and freeze-dried meals require a decent amount of water, so unless you have access to a steady source (either what you can carry or what you can filter), you’ll need to make other food plans.
Length of trip – The length of trip determines a lot when it comes to food. If you’ll only be gone a night or two, it’s probably fine to bring nearly anything you want to eat, regardless of weight or shelf-stability. Additionally, it probably isn’t necessary to add a ton of variety into your meals, as you probably won’t have enough time to get sick of anything. On longer trips, lightweight, shelf-stable foods with enough variety will be vital.
Conditions – If you’ll be backpacking in cold weather (including a drop in temperature at high altitude), you may want to pack some foods that don’t require cooking. Although modern fuel canisters are much better than they were in the past, they can still occasionally fail to light in low temperatures. Many people never have an issue with their stoves in cold weather, but you don’t want your stove to fail and be left with nothing to eat. Packing a few non-cookables is never a bad idea.
If you’re a breakfast person, there are plenty of options for the backcountry. Whether you want something to eat on the trail, or something to cook with your buddies while enjoying a cup of coffee, you’ll be able to find something that fits the bill.
1. Oatmeal – Oatmeal checks nearly all the boxes of a good backcountry food. It’s lightweight, healthy, stable, and easy to make.
2. Grits – Grits are pretty much on par with oatmeal. Use grits if you want something more savory.
3. Dehydrated breakfast – Dehydrated breakfast options abound, from eggs to biscuits and gravy.
4. Bagels – If you have the room for bagels, they can make a great, filling breakfast.
5. Powdered eggs – Powdered eggs are a light and stable way to bring your typical everyday breakfast on the trail.
6. Powdered milk – Another powdered food that can bring a lot to a backcountry breakfast is powdered milk. Milk opens up quite a few meal options, and in powdered form, it does not need to be refrigerated.
7. Granola – If you bring powdered milk, why not have some granola as a backcountry breakfast cereal?
8. Pop-tarts – Pop-tarts are extremely quick and easy, and can be eaten on-the-go if you want to wake up early and hit the trail without cooking.
9. Pancakes – On the other hand, if you want to hang around camp for a bit and do some cooking, have some pancakes! While some foods sacrifice a bit in the backcountry due to being dehydrated or not at the best temperature, pancakes can be just as good as at home. All you reallt need is pancake mix and water, and bringing syrup and butter is totally doable, too.
10. Coffee – Coffee can be as simple or involved as you want. Enjoy an instant coffee with no additions, or bring along a small French press and add milk and sugar.
11. Tea – Along the same lines as coffee, tea is a quick and easy breakfast drink to get you warmed up on a chilly morning.
I’m combining lunch and snacks here, because they often overlap. You’re most likely to eat snacks midday while out doing an activity, not after dinner or before breakfast. Snacks and lunch often become one and the same, so mix and match these items into whatever snack-lunch combo sounds good.
12. Chicken/tuna/salmon packets – The keyword here is “packets.” It doesn’t really matter which meat you choose to bring, as long as it’s in a packet and not a can. Chicken, tuna, and salmon are all tasty options, and are great on everything from crackers to dehydrated mac-and-cheese.
13. Dehydrated hummus – Another dehydrated food that adds a lot to a backcountry trip, hummus can be added to wraps, crackers, or backpacking vegetables like carrots.
14. Tortillas – Perhaps the lunch version of bagels, tortillas are even lighter and are great for making wraps.
15. Dried fruit – There are plenty of options for dried fruit, which you can add to oatmeal or just eat as a snack. Plus, it’s lightweight and stable.
16. Fruit leather – Similar to dried fruit but in a different form, fruit leather is pureed fruit that has been dried to the apparent consistency of leather. You can buy it or make your own to eat as a sweet treat on the trail.
17. Stable fruits – Some fresh fruits, like bananas, don’t do well in backpacks. But others, like oranges and apples, can handle a few days in the backcountry and make a great fresh treat.
18. Jerky/meat sticks – A staple in most backpacks, jerky and other meat sticks check all the boxes and are delicious as a midday snack.
19. Hard meats – Many people don’t look for meat beyond foil packs and jerky, but there are actually some “fresh” meats that can last a backpacking trip. Hard meats, like certain salamis, can last a long time without refrigeration and are a welcome change to the typical dried meats. Check the label and look for hard meats that don’t mention requiring refrigeration.
20. Trail mix/nuts – Trail mix and mixed nuts are great for constant snacking and continuous energy. Get a storebought mix or combine your own ingredients to suit your taste.
21. Seaweed – Dried seaweed is a super healthy snack that weighs almost nothing. Eat it as-is or crumble it up into other meals to add some flavor.
22. Honey – Honey is a nice, sweet treat if you’re craving some sugars. You can eat a spoonful as a pick-me-up or incorporate it into tea.
23. Granola/energy bars – Bars are great to snack on while you’re hiking, and the options are nearly endless. There are tons of brands, which each offer tons of flavors, so try a bunch and bring a variety!
24. Peanut butter – Peanut butter is one of the most basic energy-delivering foods you can bring into the backcountry. You can add it to bagels or crackers, or just eat a heaping spoonful. There are also plenty of other nut butters to substitute, like almond butter or sunflower seed butter.
25. Cheese – Along with hard meats, fresh cheese is often overlooked by backpackers because it’s typically refrigerated. However, hard cheeses, especially wrapped in wax, can last quite a while at room temperature. Cheese is super versatile and can improve most dehydrated meals.
26. Candy – Backpacking is one of the few times that eating candy is totally encouraged. My favorites, like Snickers, include chocolate and nuts and give me a nice, quick energy boost.
27. Crackers – Crackers are great by themselves or decorated with cheese, hummus, or tuna. Just make sure you package them well enough to keep them from crumbling.
As opposed to the snacky nature of backcountry lunches, dinners are often more involved and are meant to be eaten around camp to refuel after a long day. Unless you want to just repeat the lunch options, water is important for most dinners.
28. Pasta – All you really need to make pasta is water, but it’s not hard to bring along cheese, oil, meat, and veggies to toss on top.
29. Couscous – Couscous is lightweight and easy to make. It’s sort of the dinner equivalent of grits or oatmeal. Add other foods to it as you see fit.
30. Soup – Avoid canned soup, but there are plenty of options for soup packets that make a warm, comforting dinner.
31. Mac-and-cheese – Yes, this is technically pasta, but you’ll probably buy this as a ready-to-make cup that’s easy and lightweight.
32. Ramen – Similarly, you can find ramen packs ready-to-make at the store. They’re extremely cheap and can handle whatever meats or veggies you want to add.
33. Dehydrated dinner – Dehydrated full meals are probably most-commonly eaten as dinner. They range from lasagna to pad Thai and everything in between. Just add hot water, and top with any extras you want to bring.
34. Rice – There are a couple forms of rice that are great for the backcountry, like Minute Rice or pre-cooked rice pouches. While the normal rice you might eat at home can take a long time to cook, these “instant” varieties are filling, lightweight, and a great carrier for any meats or veggies you like.
35. Potatoes – If rice isn’t your thing but you’re looking for something similar in terms of its qualities, dehydrated potato flakes will do the trick. Rehydrate them back into mashed potatoes and eat as-is or add whichever extras suit your taste.
Bring meat/veggie add-ons for dehydrated meals – I mentioned this in a few of the suggestions above, but one of the quickest and easiest ways to liven up dehydrated meals is to add meat or veggies. Something as simple as mashed potatoes can become a filling and delicious backcountry meal with the help of a little tuna or dehydrated vegetables.
Bring condiments – A lot of people plan their calorie intake very well, but forget to add some flavor to what they’re eating. Though it seems daunting at first, it’s not hard to bring a variety of spices and sauces with you. These small additions are game-changers when you need a little pick-me-up at the end of the day.
Provide your own food – A great way to have some fresh food in the backcountry is to provide it yourself while you’re out. While it’s never a good idea to plan to provide all your food, catching some fresh fish, gathering berries, or shooting a few squirrels can make a camping meal just as good as home-cooked.