BACKPACKING FOOD IDEAS
(AKA, HOW TO PLAN YOUR MEALS SO YOU’RE NOT HANGRY!)
So, you’ve decided you want to tackle your first backpacking adventure. You’ve got your tent, clothes, navigation gear, and trusty propane stove. You’re excited to see the views, get a healthy dose of soreness in your legs, sleep in the crisp air and enjoy the silence. Only problem is, no matter how short and simple your first trip is, you need some backpacking food ideas.
Like Paul Theroux said, “hunger ruins travelling real fast.” No one wants to starve in the wilderness like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That’s why this post covers essential backpacking food ideas.
But when you Google backpacking food ideas you get fantastic information and weird words like “dehydrated meals” and “backpacking food bags.” As usual, it can be overwhelming with products, tips, and jargon.
Since the intention of this site is to be straightforward for new backpackers, I’ve compiled the most necessary and budget-friendly backpacking food ideas and tips you should know. Of course, if you choose to get more advanced in your backpacking adventures, you will eventually want to check out other sites. But for starts, this list will get you going just fine for your first low-key adventure!
THE GOLDEN RULE FOR BACKPACKING FOOD: PLAN AHEAD FOR CALORIE INTAKE
I sucked at biology in high school and college, so I’ll keep the details simple. Trust me, this IS important.
“Calories” are units of energy we use to do stuff. Like, literally anything. They’re just like gallons of gas we put in our cars. The more work your body does, the more calories you burn. When you hike with a huge backpack, you obviously use more calories than when you sit at home binge-watching Netflix.
You need to pack lots of calories for each day, typically 3000-4000 per day. For a short, low-exertion one-night hike this works for all body types.
IMPLEMENTING THE GOLDEN RULE: FIND FOOD THAT MAKES CALORIES LAST
When you choose food, don’t just pick things will big calorie numbers. Junk food may have lots of calories, but it has no nutrition and your body will use up the calories in no time. Imagine your car burning through $40 of gas in twenty minutes . . . pretty useless, right?
What should you look for instead?
Foods with lots of protein, unprocessed fat, and grains. Plus chocolate bars. Yes, I said that.
PROTIENS keep your muscles healthy, like bricks in an old farmhouse. Don’t be a crumbling barnyard. Make protiens 20%ish of your food.
FAT provides the raw energy to move. Certain fats are healthy and necessary because not only do they provide your fuel, they also burn it at a slower rate. The result? Longer-lasting energy, like Keith Richards rocking for fifty years with the Rolling Stones. Make fat 30%ish of your food.
GRAINS keep your blood healthy. Blood is like your beloved Amazon drivers, getting things places. Make grains 50%ish of your diet.
Sometimes you need a quick burst of energy to get through a rough part of your hike, and you actually DO want the quick energy of junk food. Small CHOCOLATE BARS like Snickers are good because they give you that boost without slogging you down.
OTHER BACPACKING FOOD IDEAS: THE WATERY STUFF
Water is obviously important, but when it comes to backpacking things get a bit tricky. The average person should drink 2 liters a day, but that’s just during daily life. When you’re on a trail you’ll need more. But considering 2 liters can weigh 2 pounds, this amounts to an extra 10+ pounds in your pack! There are two things to consider.
First, try to carry at least 1-2 liters on your body at any time. Second, figure out where you can get natural water during your hike, like from streams or ponds. If a riverbed is dry, follow it to its source or try and reach higher ground to survey the surrounding area.
Lastly, a portable filter is an absolute must! Sawyer filters are the standard, being relatively cheap and usable for years. Simply scoop up water in the provided bag, screw the filter on, and squeeze it into your water bottle. The filter magically cleans out debris and viruses! Each filter lasts for 1000 liters, so it’ll go a long way.
ALL TOGETHER NOW, LET’S REVIEW THE ESSENTIALS!
Calorie intake of 3000-4000 a day is ideal
Make proteins 20% of diet so you don’t crumble
Include fats as 30% of your diet so you have fuel
Grains should be 50% of your diet so your body works like a well-oiled machine
A few Snickers help you when you feelin’ blue!
A Sawyer filter and 1-2 liters of water
OTHER BACKPACKING FOOD IDEAS TO CONSIDER:
Whatever you pack, you’re gonna haul it everywhere. Even the trash will stay with you. Because of this, it’s crucial that you pick small, light options.
Many companies make “dehydrated meals” specifically for backpacking. These meals already contain the necessary nutrients you’ll need, and all you have to do is add boiled water. Great, and worth getting! The only factor to consider is the water. If you’re near a water source, no problem (especially with the Sawyer filter mentioned earlier)! But if you’re in an arid environment, you might want other meals requiring less water.
What other meals are available? There are no-cook meals you can pre-make or buy, which don’t require water at all. Maybe not as fancy, but hey, it’s food and you’re in the boonies!
HOW TO HAVE A GREAT BACKPACKING BREAKFAST
Aim to consume around 600 calories for breakfast. You also want a quick energy boost to get ready, since you’ll need to pack everything up before you get on the trail.
Coffee: the secret force behind every great accomplishment
Coffee is a crowd favorite, and should we even be surprised? It warms you up, gets your caffeine boost, and just makes you feel all cozy. You have options too. But always bring it PRE-GROUND, and you’ll want to put the grounds in your trash bag instead of the ground.
First is “cowboy coffee.” It’s gross, messy, but simple. If you want to feel like a legit pioneer, you can do this. You’ll need two containers. Simply boil some grounds in water, but leave some cold water on the side. After boiling for your preferred time, take it off the stove, pour some cold water on it and let it sit for a few minutes. The cold helps the grounds sink to the bottom. Then carefully pour the coffee into another cup, making sure the grounds stay behind.
Second is a portable pour-over. They can be a bit bulky, but are cleaner. Again, you’ll need two containers: one to pour the water from and the one to hold the coffee.
Third, you can get single-serve paper packets. These are the easiest to clean up. Essentially, they are wide-mouthed tea bags that hold and infuse grounds in water. I’ve seen bloggers and professional hikers use them all over!
On to breakfast food. Breakfast is simple to plan because it’s a lot like being at home. Cereal, granola, instant oatmeal, and grits are all great ideas. You can buy pre-made packs, or just toss some in zip-loc bags from home. They get you your GRAINS for the day. You can even get powdered eggs! Backpackers tend to stay away from canned foods, but small cans of evaporated milk are great for breakfast. It has a strong taste, so you don’t have to use a lot. Mix it with water for more volume. Also, you’ll want to pack it in a small sandwich bag to keep from spilling.
Lastly, GreenBelly bars are a great energy booster for the start of the day. They provide three times the nutrients than other energy bars, so their “fuel” will keep you going for a long time
HOW TO NOT HAVE LUNCH DURING THE DAY BUT STAY HEALTHY
Most hikers don’t sit down and have an actual “lunch” during their hikes. They certainly eat, but they do it with snacks throughout the day as needed. Sit down and rest when you need, have a snack, and don’t worry about setting up cookware.
You will want the majority of your calorie intake to be your snacks, at 1200-2000 calories.
Focus on PROTIENS and FATS throughout your day. You will be surprised how many perishable items in your fridge can be dehydrated to carry in a normal backpack. You can invest in dehydrating equipment to do it yourself, but as a beginner you’re better off buying pre-made packs that fit your budget.
Need meat for PROTEIN? Get cured meats like jerky. You know those small cans and packs with dried tuna, chicken, and fish? Pack thin tortillas and condiment packs from fast food restaurants, and you can have meat-and-mayo sandwiches.
Need FATS? Get trail mix and nuts. You can also pack hard cheeses like Parmesan Pomerrigio to eat alone or on sandwiches.
Need a quick energy boost? Get those Snickers bars!
Just need to get the edge off your hunger? Dried fruits and crackers work great.
You will want to overpack your calories in case of emergencies, but also don’t pack so much that your backpack is a pain to carry. Everything in moderation – a backpack that’s too heavy will just cancel out the extra calories you’re bringing.
DINING IN HIGH FASHION!
You just found a beautiful primitive campsite and got all set up. You’re exhausted, but content. Let’s make some comfort food!
Dinner should be around 700 calories. A little more than breakfast, but not as much as snacks. Treat it as “R&R” for your body. Let your body use the calories to fix up muscles and replenish energy overnight.
You can splurge a bit for dinner. You can buy dehydrated meals for hikers, but any general “just add water” item from a grocery store will work for cheaper.
A favorite among hikers is various pastas: ramen, shells, mac n cheese, anything. Why? Because it stuffs you full of both GRAINS and FATS. It’s comfort food at its finest, but all that “comfort” will be put to use the next day. Marathon runners do it, so why not?
SO WE GOT THE BACKPACKING FOOD IDEAS … BUT HOW DO WE PACK IT ALL?
Feel free to unpack everything as much as possible and squeeze it in zip-loc bags. I like to bring extra bags as well just in case. Get creative and cram things into ALL those small spaces.
In addition to the food, you will need a trash bag, which hikers refer to as a “pack-out bag.” I use a sturdy gallon-sized zip-loc bag, sometimes two stuffed in each other. This is NON-NEGOTIABLE. Put it in your pack’s “brain” so you can easily access it.
Another item to research is a backpacking food bag, specifically “bear bags.” Unlike the pack-out bag, the bear bag is what you use to store your food before eating it. Bear bags seal the food’s scent in the bag to keep bears from finding it. Some trails require it, so please do your research!
Another thing worth considering is small 1oz containers for condiments and dish soap.
HOW ABOUT THE COOKING SYSTEM?
I recommend the Rlrueyel mess kit, which I talk about on my Introduction Page. It includes a small portable stove, silverware, and two boiling containers. You could get plates and a JetBoil later on, which are great investments, but I would start with this pack and see what you actually use. You will be surprised at how little dishes you actually need. Remember, less is more!
I also bring a small container of dish soap and a rag (environment safe, of course) just to lightly wash things if needed. Not necessary, but it works so you don’t have to lug dirty stuff around.
Then, of course you’ll need a propane tank. They are cheap and can be found at any general store. I always pack mine at the top of my bag. I don’t use it often during the day, but feel more comfortable than having it crammed under other things.
There you have it! Hopefully this guide helped give you some good ideas for your first trip. Unlike other backpacking topics, food can be a pretty broad topic. When planning your first trip, I would spend a significant portion of the time on food.
Thank you, as always, for reading! 🙂
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