Packing food for a backpacking trip is always a challenge! Every trip is different: different people with different styles hiking in a different place (et cetera, et cetera), and each of these things plays a role in what you’re going to want to eat. There are a huge number of factors that are worth considering before you head to the store but, for the sake of this article, we’re going to say there are 5 basic things you’ll want to think about:
- How Long?
- How Much?
- How Heavy?
- How Tasty?
- How Nutritious?
Considering the food you pack in these five categories will help you make sure you stay well-fed and happy on your trip. We’re going to break down the packing process to cover considerations like the differing number of calories you may need in different climates, or ways to cut down on the weight of what you’re packing, as well as giving some tried-and-true suggestions for meals and snacks that hold up in the backcountry, but “the 5 Hows” is a great way to jog your memory before you hit the trail!
This category is arguably the simplest: how long are you going to be gone for? Obviously, packing food for an overnight is going to be quite different than packing for a 60-day expedition.
For one thing, the food you can take for a night in the woods probably includes most things in your kitchen, while a multi-day trip is going to require more thought about what will and won’t go bad. What you bring is going to depend on your own comfort level eating food that’s been unrefrigerated, but personally, I trust most meat and dairy to hold up at least 24 hours (except in very hot conditions), and have never had an issue. This means that if you want to chef up a something fancy on an overnight trip, you can cook pretty much anything you are willing to hike in. (Backcountry steak night, anyone?)
6-day-old chicken, on the other hand, isn’t super appetizing and – more importantly – is likely to not make you feel so good. Considering this, menus for longer trips should lean on dried foods (like grains, fruit, and jerky), canned or sealed food (like tuna) or things like grains and breads, which will hold up well without refrigeration.
If you’re planning a longer trip (anything over about a week), you may want to consider doing a re-supply.
A re-supply can happen in a few different ways: either you can hike in to a point on your route that’s easily accessible and stash food down the trail before you start your trip (which you’ll then pick up as you hike past it); or you can enlist a friend, a family member, or a paid guide to hike food in to you at a time and place you’ve agreed on before you leave.
The benefit of the first option is independence, but you’ll have to make sure that there’s nothing perishable, as it will be there for quite a while. Also make that the container you leave your stash in won’t be ravaged by bears, rodents, or other wild creatures (or other hikers!).
The benefit of the second option is significantly less driving, less hiking, and often a friend to hang out with for a bit in the middle of you trip. If you do enlist a friend, I recommend packing the food you want yourself, before you go, as this will make your pal’s job a lot easier (they’re already doing you a favor, after all).
In my experience, the simplest way to calculate how much to bring is to start by figuring out the number of meals you’re going to bring with you. For example, if you’re leaving on a Friday morning and getting back Monday night, you’ll probably want food for 3 breakfasts, 4 lunches, and 3 dinners (considering that you’ll probably eat breakfast on Friday and dinner on Monday at home).
Breaking your trip down in this way means that if you’re repeating meals, you can calculate the total amounts rather than calculating by individual meal. For example, I’d probably just bring enough instant oatmeal to last me three breakfasts (personally, that’s about 2 cups) rather than making something new and fancy every morning. The same goes for lunch – a bag of pita bread and 4 packets of tuna would probably keep me pretty well fed – and dinner (pasta 3 nights in a row, anyone?). I like to keep it simple, but while you should feel free to switch it up with every meal, breaking your trip down by meal like this will generally make it pretty easy to calculate how much you will eat. If you calculate in this way, I recommend bringing a bit more than you think you’ll eat, as the amount will average across meals.
When estimating how much you’ll want per meal, make sure you’re taking into account all the calories you’ll burn walking miles of uneven terrain. It’s easy to underestimate when you’re in your house, but on the trail, you’ll probably be pretty hungry. Most people need to consume roughly 2,000 calories a day, and on top of that, I generally expect to burn another 1,000-2,000 walking. Things like distance, terrain, and the weight of your pack will affect how much you burn, but simply being outside moving all day means a lot of energy expenditure, and it’s important to take this into account when packing.
Because of this, consider bringing extra of some things: I always pack more oatmeal and pasta than I think I’ll need, just in case I get stuck somewhere, or really miscalculate how much I need to eat. Packing some extra carbs and extra snacks will give you a margin for error that will make your trip safer and more fun.
When you’re carrying everything on your back, you’re going to feel this question. Beginner backpackers often make the mistake of overestimating how weight adds up, but ounces turn into pounds pretty quickly: if you can shave off even a little bit of weight, you’re going to be a much happier camper.
The most basic two rules of reducing weight are first, to pack foods that are as calorically dense as possible, and second, minimize how much liquid is in those foods.
Some examples of great calorie-dense foods are nut butters, protein bars, and dried fruits. These foods are also, conveniently, all fairly dry, making them great backpacking staples.
Things like grains and freeze-dried beans are also great, less because they’re calorie-dense than because they’re quite light when dry. I highly recommend buying freeze-dried beans rather than hauling a can into the backcountry (there’s no need to carry bean water 10 miles), and finding instant rice/quinoa/etc., which will save you a significant amount of fuel when you cook them.
It’s often challenging to eat as healthily on a backpacking trip as you would in daily life. Fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t ideal pack foods for a bunch of reasons: they tend to get squished, go bad, and be heavy. But it is absolutely possible – and super important! – to make sure you’re eating in a balanced way while you’re on the trail.
The classic image of the food pyramid is a great way of organizing your foods: having a carb or grain base to every meal that you can add proteins (either meat or vegetarian proteins) and dried fruits or veggies is a great way to make sure you’re keeping your body strong for your hike. For example for breakfast, oatmeal or granola are great go-to’s. On their own, though, they’re not going to give you as much long-lasting energy as a bowl of oatmeal topped off with peanut butter, dried fruit, and maybe a few chocolate chips. Likewise, while I recommend sandwiches for lunch, consider spicing them up with a bell pepper or some cucumber (both of which pack well and I think are worth their water weight). I often bring either pita bread or tortillas as my base, because they pack well (ie. they’re compact and don’t get squished) and don’t get stale as quickly as most bread — and a pita bread, cheese, salami and bell pepper sandwich hits the spot! And for dinner, consider ditching pasta for freeze-dried beans and instant rice, which cook quickly and together make a whole protein.’
This is really the most important one, isn’t it? How tasty are your meals going to be?
A friend of mine told me about a trip she took recently where she and her partner took only instant oatmeal and peanut butter, out of some sort of masochistic impulse to go as light as humanly possible: they ran out of fuel part of the way through their trip and ended up just putting their oats into cold water. And honestly, I respect it. They survived, are none the worse for the wear, and have a good story to tell. But I don’t think it was good planning, and I don’t really think it was worth it for them.
Instead, I recommend thinking about what your goals for your trip are. Are you attempting something so physically challenging that you’re going to want the lightest, most calorie-dense foods available? Or are you going to a beautiful place to hang out with some friends? In the first case, maybe you will compromise taste for weight, calorie, and packing considerations, but be aware that it may cost your morale.
Personally, this is the bargaining question for me, the place where I start throwing in extra treats that maybe aren’t the most weight-efficient or long-lasting, but that I know I’ll be happy to have. My compromises often include sun-dried tomatoes (which I drain most of the oil from), bell peppers or cucumber (as I mentioned), apples for the first day, and lots and lots (and lots) of chocolate and sour gummies. I’ll admit that I tend to bring more food than some of my friends, but I’ve found that almost every trip I’ve been on has a “Gummy Bear Moment” when I’m beaten down and frustrated and exhausted, and just a couple of gummy bears saves me.
In conclusion …
This is just meant to be a starting point for your planning, and some things to keep in mind as you go. Below is my typical backcountry menu, which I repeat on most trips I take these days. It’s what works for me — mess around and see what works for you! If you hate oatmeal, try granola and powdered milk. If you have a nut butter allergy, bring a couple of extra protein bars. It’s all about what you like, and what you’re willing to carry. And ultimately, the best way to figure out what you like to eat backpacking is to take a few trips and find out!
My typical menu for a 5-day backcountry trip:
- 2.5 cups Instant Oatmeal
- ~2 cups Peanut Butter
- 1 bag Dried Mango
- 6-10 pieces Pita Bread (this will vary by how strenuous the trip is)
- 6 oz. Cheddar Cheese
- 1 package Salami
- 2 Bell Peppers
- 3 oz. Sun-dried tomatoes drained and repackaged
- 3 cups instant Refried Beans
- 3 cups instant Rice
- 4 oz. Whole Wheat Pasta
- 1 lb. Trail Mix with an added family-sized bag of M&Ms
- 5 Protein Bars (1 per day)