THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BACKPACKING FOOD
Very few activities are as physically and emotionally rewarding as being in the great outdoors and surrounded by nature. For some of us, it’s a way to leave our hectic worlds behind, unwind, and to take a break from everyday stresses. For others, it’s simply a great way to exercise and to explore our surroundings that we do not get to see on a daily basis. Regardless of why you enjoy camping, hiking, and backpacking, there is one factor that is important no matter how you conduct your outdoor adventures, getting the correct amount of the right nutrition. Join us as we break down the best backpacking food to take with you on the trail.
You might be thinking that ensuring you have the right nutrition for your excursion into the wilds only entails packing enough food to last the length of your trip and that you enjoy eating. However, there is more to it, much more. In this guide, we are going to cover all aspects of nutrition for various activities and scenarios, from simple one-day hikes, to weeks or months long thru-hikes. We will cover everything from how to determine how much food you will need to options for cooking your meals. We will also provide you with some additional resources to ensure you are properly prepared before you hit the trails or buy the first power bar. So, if you are ready, let's get started with this ultimate guide.
The first step in this process, before you even pick the first item, is to consider a few factors that will impact what and how much food you need to take. Let’s take a look at these factors and see just how they impact what you will need.
If you are planning on taking a hiking trip that lasts for several days or longer, do not decide to start a diet at the same time. To ensure that your body will have enough energy to get your through your trip, you will need plenty of calories, as well as water. There will be plenty of time for that new diet after your trip.
The amount of space you have in your pack is a valuable commodity, especially on long trips. With that being said, try to stick with lightweight foods that are in packaging designed specifically for backpacking. For food products that are not purchased in such packages, consider repacking them in resealable baggies. This will help to reduce the amount of space your food supply will consume in your pack. Just make sure you don’t forget to pack the cooking directions with the repackaged food.
Foods that are dehydrated or freeze-dried can be a huge help in reducing the amount of space used in your pack as well as reducing the weight. The downside is that these types of products can be a little costly.
After drinking nothing but water for an extended period, powdered beverage mixes can make for a refreshing treat to help get you through the rest of your journey. These cost effective additions to your supplies are also lightweight and use very little space in your pack.
When preparing your shopping list for the foods you want to take with you on your hike or camping trip, keep in mind that you are not going to be cooking your meals in a well-stocked kitchen. Therefore, you will want to look for foods and food products that are simple to prepare with minimal equipment needs. Additionally, make sure you have foods on hand that does not require cooking before you eat it. Accidents and malfunctions do happen, and you will want to ensure you have proper nutrition if cooking is out of the question.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying a candy bar while on your hiking or camping trip. However, you cannot rely on such food items as your primary nutritional source. Dried fruits and nuts provide you with proteins and complex carbohydrates your body will need for the extended physical activity that comes with hiking and camping.
Even though you need to ensure the food you bring on your trip has plenty of nutritional value, you will also want to ensure that you enjoy the food you bring. Trying to make yourself eat nutritious food that you do not particularly like can take some of the joy from your outdoor experience. Stick with what you like.
Buying enough food to last for the entirety of your trip can quickly add up, especially if you are taking an extended hiking or camping trip. While energy foods and freeze-dried foods tend to cost more than foods packaged with other methods, don’t underestimate the value they can afford you. After spending all day hiking through the woods or up the side of steep hills and mountains, do you really think you will have the energy to prepare a meal that consists of more than simply boiling some water?
Once you have gathered all of the food and nutritional supplies you plan on taking with you, you need to calculate how much fuel you will need to prepare it all. Check the cooking time for each one. Use that total time it would take to prepare all of the meals as your benchmark on how much fuel you will need.
Now that you have an idea of what type of foods you should consider bringing with you, it’s now time to look at how much. Yes, hiking is a great way to get in shape and will help you to shed some pounds. However, when you are hiking, your body will require more caloric intake to ensure your body has enough fuel to make it through the entirety of the trip. In fact, you will need roughly double the number of calories you would usually need to consume. This, however, will depend on certain factors, such as the elevation you will be hiking at, how far your hike will be, and what the temperatures will be.
The fat that we all have inside of our bodies fulfills an important role. As it is slowly burned, it supplies a ton of energy to our body. This fat that is used cannot do it on its own and will need to be supplemented by food. If your body runs out of food, it consumes more fat. Once the fat supply is tapped out, your body will start burning muscle tissue for the fuel it needs. This, if you haven’t guessed it, is not a good situation and leads to fatigue and degradation of your body. This is why ensuring that you bring plenty of the right foods is important.
To determine exactly how much food you will need to take with you, you will first have to determine how many calories you will have to use. Relax, yes it is math, but it is actually pretty simple to do.
Now that you know how many calories you will need for your hiking trip take a look at the food items you plan on taking with you. Do the calories they provide equal or are greater than the total you came up with in the final step above? If not, you will need to add some more nutrition to your pack. Even if what you already have planned meets this caloric demand, it is good practice to take extra with you in the event of an emergency.
Another reason for taking some extra calories is for the elevation gain. Unless your route takes you on an absolutely flat surface for the entire trek, there will be hills, valleys, and other obstacles that you will have to climb or circumvent. These tasks will require more calories to be burned and consumed. So, take extra, just in case.
To discuss the best types of food to take with you on your hiking adventure, we will need to break the foods up into groups; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This will enable you to see just how and why the particular food was selected. As you can imagine, we will start with breakfast.
If you have been on many hiking trips, you have probably seen breakfast meals that range from a simple toaster pastry and powdered milk to a full spread with freshly brewed coffee included. While a hot breakfast does provide you with a full belly and an extra boost, it also is a real pain to clean up. A simple snack and some water are easier to clean up and lets you get started on your day faster.
Best food items for breakfast: instant coffee or tea, powdered juice or milk, water, fruit, instant cereals (hot or cold), nuts and dried fruits, dry cereal or granola, breakfast or protein bars.
If you want to be a bit lavish, you can add pancake mix and dehydrated eggs to this list.
Taking the time to stop and eat a lunch can hamper the daily progress of your hike. Between unpacking, preparing, cleaning up, and then repacking, you can lose lots of time. The better option is snack modestly throughout the day on snacks that provide you with much-needed energy.
Best foods for lunch: energy bars, jerky, nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, sealed meat packets (such as tuna or salmon).
This is the time of day where you can kick back, relax, and enjoy a hot meal while thinking of the day's trek and preparing for tomorrow's. Dinner foods can be just about anything you feel like preparing. While some hikers don’t mind taking the time to create a substantial meal, some are content with only adding some boiling water to a freeze-dried packet. The decision is on what you feel up to preparing and cleaning after.
Best foods for Dinner: Instant foods (soups, noodles, sauces, stuffing), tuna, tortillas, rice, couscous, instant potatoes, dried vegetables, packaged freeze-dried meals.
If you have the space in your pack, consider bringing along some of your favorite spices, salt, and pepper at the least. Dinner is the one time of day where you can relax and enjoy your meal, might as well make the most of it.
When it comes to planning snacks for a day hike, many hikers are content with tossing a bottle of water and some granola bars into their pack and calling it “done.” However, depending on how strenuous the trail you plan on hiking maybe, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few extra goodies to provide you with additional energy. Here are some of the best snacks to take with you on your day hike. Remember, the distance you plan on traveling will be a factor in determining how much you should take with you.
Nuts are an ideal snack for day hikes. Not only do they take up very little space in your pack, but they also provide you with plenty of nutrition and energy. Additionally, there are a wide variety of nuts available that will suit just about any preference you may have.
Just as with nuts, seeds also are easy to pack and take up very little space. Along with their great nutritional value and taste, they are perfect for adding to other snacks, such as nuts and dried fruits.
For a lightweight snack that can help satisfy your sweet tooth and provide you with a tasty energy boost, you really can’t do much better than dried fruits. Less bulky than fresh fruit and a longer shelf life, dried fruits are also great mixed with seeds and nuts as a trail mix.
These are a great snack that can provide plenty of nutrition for your day hike. However, there are many available on the market that is loaded with sugar. While a blast of sugar isn’t always a bad thing, check out the next snack on this list, you don’t want to be taking in too much. Check the labels carefully before you buy.
Remember what we said about a blast of sugar? Well, here it is. Chocolate, while not the healthiest snack on this list, does provide you with a great boost of energy. An additional benefit about this snack is that it helps to generate body heat, great to have on hand in colder climates.
Having a sandwich while you enjoy a 20-minute lunch break can add to the enjoyment of a day hike. While having a sandwich in a container does take up more space than the other snacks listed, it provides you with a hearty snack that can help to keep you going through the second-half of your hike.
As you can imagine, the types of nutrition you will need for extended hiking or camping trips that can last for days will have some slight variances. However, you will notice that some of the best foods for trekking can also be found on the list above for the best foods for day hikes. This is because, due to their minimal space requirements and nutritional value, you will find it to be a challenge to find a replacement food that possesses these same beneficial attributes.
These foods that we have listed above are also great options for extended hiking trips that can last several days: granola bars, chocolate, and seeds. They provide plenty of energy and take up very minimal space that will be needed for extra gear.
Yes, you did see nuts listed on the day hike list. However, they deserve to be listed individually, again, due to the nutritional benefits they provide you. Loaded with healthy fats, protein to feed your muscles, and plenty of calories, nuts are a must-have item for your extended hike.
Again, this is another item from the above list that deserves repeating. Dried fruits, especially dried plums, are loaded with nutrients and natural sugars to help give you that extra boost when facing a challenging portion of your hike. Dried plums also help your immune system, a great benefit when you consider you are in the middle of nowhere.
Jerky, in its many forms, is high in protein and sodium, both of which you will need on an extended hike. This food item is also durable and can be enjoyed from day one and still be edible on your last day of the hike.
Penne, spaghetti, elbow macaroni, or even rotini are great additions to your trekking food supply. One serving of either of these can provide you with 20 grams of protein. Along with an excellent nutritional gain, pasta is also lightweight, uses very little space, and is durable.
Oatmeal can provide you with many benefits. Along with its health advantages of reducing cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar, oatmeal also keeps your feeling full for a longer period. However, avoid the instant oatmeal packets that are crammed full of unnecessary sugars. Steel-cut or rolled oats are easy to prepare while out on the trail and are ideal for adding your nuts or other food items for flavoring.
Unlike other types of hiking where you take enough food to last the duration of your trip, thru-hiking requires detailed planning to ensure you have enough nourishment to make it to the end of your journey. Packing enough food to last for a hike that is weeks, or even months, in duration is just impossible. Therefore, you need to take some premeditated actions for you even take the first step of your hike.
While the other types of hiking have high nutritional demand, none are as demanding as thru-hiking. In addition to having the right foods with you, and at your resupply locations, adding in some multivitamins is a good practice.
While planning your route, check for areas where it will bring you close to a town and find the nearest post office. Mail yourself a resupply package before hitting the trails and calculate how much food you will need to get to this point. Just make sure you send yourself enough food to get you from your first resupply location to the next. Using this method for the duration of your hike will help to ensure you have enough food for the journey without having to carry the excess weight.
Thru-hiking means you will be covering a great distance and the less you have to carry, the better. For this reason, many hikers will skip hot meals, either partially or for the entire length of the hike so as to save from having to carry as much weight. Some foods that can be rehydrated with cold water include:
If you decide to use the “no-cook” method for your thru-hike, you do not have to limit yourself to cold water hydration options. Snacks, wraps, and sandwiches of your own design are also great options to add to your supply.
When it comes to cooking on the trail, the market is flooded with different options for cooking and can seem a bit overwhelming. However, there are a few factors to consider that can help make your selection easier: stove features, type, and usage.
Stoves designed for backpacking are primarily categorized by the type and storage method of its fuel. There are many shapes and sizes to chose from; some are even equipped with chargers for keeping your electronics, such as cell phones and GPS units charged while you prepare your meal. Here are the three main categories:
Liquid Fuel Stoves: As their name indicates, liquid fuel stoves connect to a refillable fuel bottle and typically use white gas. However, there are other fuel options available and is one of the
Alternative-Fuel Stoves: Just as many homes are heated by alternative methods, such as wood pellets, many camping, and hiking stoves are appearing on the market that also uses alternative fuels.
Canister Stoves: Canister stoves are probably one of the easiest stoves to use. Once the top is screwed onto the pre-pressurized canister, you are ready to prepare a hot meal. These stoves can use propane or isobutane as a fuel source.
As stated above, canister stoves are one of the easiest designs to use. They are lightweight and due to their small size, do not require a lot of space in your pack. Canister stoves that are equipped with pressure regulators are ideal for high elevations and cold weather. However, canister stoves use fuels that are more expensive when compared to the other types available. An additional drawback for canister stoves are the arms which are usually too small to support larger cooking pots in a safe manner.
Alternative-fuel stoves can burn anything from sticks found while out on the trail to denatured alcohol. These alternative fuels can save you some weight as they require small amounts of fuel. Solid-fuel tablet stoves, for example, are small enough when folded to place in your pocket. However, most wood burning stoves are typically heavier than the other stove types you can find.
Liquid fuel stoves provide you with a cheaper alternative than canister stoves due to the lower cost of white gas. They work well in freezing, and below-freezing environments and some models can run on kerosene, diesel or gasoline. One of the drawbacks to liquid fuel stoves, however, is that they require maintenance and need to be primed before use. They also are heavier than most canister stoves which can play a huge factor if you are hiking for a long distance.
Now that you have a thorough understanding of what is involved with ensuring you have enough nutrition for your hiking adventure let’s take a look at some planning tips and ideas that can help you achieve your preparation tasks easier and more efficiently.
The key to not only having enough food to make the trip but also to enjoy it is to plan your meals. Here are some tips on how you can prepare your meals so that it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience after a long day of hiking.
Pre-package your meals. If your meals are not already packed in individual packages, divide them up and use a vacuum sealer to ensure the food will not spoil. Once packaged, mark each bag with what is inside, the date you sealed it, and, if need be, instruction on how to prepare it. You do not need to vacuum seal your food if you are only going to be on the trail for six days or less, simply freezing them will suffice. However, you should consider a vacuum sealer if your trip is expected to be longer.
Keep a day's worth of meals in separate bags. By packing your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks together for each day, you will help to eliminate the situation of having nothing left to eat except snacks.
Plan resupply points for extended hikes. We have stated this earlier, but resupplying yourself will help to not only ensure you have food for the entirety of your trip but also prevent you from having to lug enough food for six or more days. Check the route you plan on using. Find areas where you will be in close proximity to a town and have a package shipped there before you leave for your hike. Just make sure you remember where you sent the packages.
As an added deterrent, pack your bags of food in Opsacks or Ursacks. This will help to prevent mice, raccoons, or other rodents from finding their way into your food supply. This will also help to prevent bears from smelling your food and deciding to pay you a visit.
Consider using prepackaged meals for your hike. While they can be expensive, they are an excellent way to ensure your food will not spoil and will have plenty of food to make the length of the trip.
Individual packets of honey can be a real lifesaver when on the trail. Not only is it a great tasting way to satisfy your sweet tooth, but it is also a great additive to add some sweetness to other foods.
If you simply cannot live without bread for the duration of the hiking trip, consider tortillas or pita bread. These two options are more durable than regular sandwich bread and can usually last longer. Bagels are also a strong alternative. However, it takes up a lot of valuable space in your pack.
Powdered meals provide you with a lot of needed nutrition without using a lot of space. Consider taking some as a replacement for breakfast or for a boost of energy when you want to push on.
Not only is oatmeal a great food option for your hike, the individual packets mean you can leave the bulky canister at home and out of your pack.
Instant noodles provide you with more carbs than pasta and are easier to prepare and clean after. Additionally, adding the seasoning packet to the noodles after they have been crushed up makes for a tasty snack while on the go.
Peanut butter provides all of the additional nutrition you will need and is considered by many in the backpacking community as a “must have.” You can also find peanut butter in individual packets making them more compactable than a large, bulky jar.
With some tips and ideas for making your meals varied, less bulky, and lighter in weight, here are some more resources you can use for further reading and ideas.
For more information on how to plan your meals, packaging methods, food ideas, and other related issues, please check out these other great sources.
Greenbelly = An excellent article that provides you with even more food and meal ideas for your hiking adventure.
HikingDude = Hiking Dude provides great information on cooking options, meal ideas for hikes of various lengths, and other nutritional information and resources.
REI = This website by REI provides you with excellent information on all things hiking.
In this guide, we have attempted to cover every aspect regarding nourishment while on the trail. From the types of foods to take for enjoyable meals to ideas for less weight in your pack, you now have a better understanding of how to plan your meals and food supplies.
We hope you have found this information useful and has provided you with plenty of ideas on how you can make your next, or even very first, hiking adventure more enjoyable. With proper planning, understanding what your body will need for the next few days, weeks, or even months, you can enjoy the sights as you are hiking without having to worry about your next meal. Good luck and happy hiking.
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In an age when everyone seems to be locked to their small blue screens, I am vehemently passionate about getting more people outside to enjoy the wonder of nature. I grew up with the outdoors on my doorstep, and when I headed off to university I picked a degree in geology that allowed me to spend a lot of time outside on field trips! Over the last 30 years, I have camped or hiked through the wilderness on 5 continents. I hope my posts are informative for both the grizzled veteran and the complete novice alike.
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