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backpacking food guide

Backpacking Food – What to Bring on the Trip

When deciding what backpacking food to bring, there are many things to consider. The first thing to need to realize is that for the most part, eating on the trail will likely be nothing like your everyday eating habits. Forget dieting here: backpacking requires a huge caloric intake.

The National Outdoor Leadership School has estimated backpacker will burn between 2,500 and 4,500 calories a day. Really, you will be amazed by how much you will eat, and trust me, you will need all those calories.

This is a strenuous sustained activity; you will likely feel hungry your entire trip, so be forewarned. It’s better to pack along a little bit too much food rather than too little. This is not only because you want to stave off hunger, but it is also because it is a good idea to have extra in case of an emergency or an unexpected lengthening of the duration of your trip.

Try not to overdo it, though, as you don’t want to have to carry more weight than you really need to. Most inexperienced backpackers tend to bring way more food than necessary. Don’t sweat it; it’ll probably take a few trips to get an idea of how much food you really need.

Things You May Have To Consider When Choosing Backpacking Food

Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

One of the main things you need to consider when choosing a backpacking food is weight and bulk. This is one of the reasons dehydrated food is popular on the trail: with the excess water weight removed, the food item is much lighter and takes up less space. For instance, opt for dried fruit over fresh, and beef jerky over canned meats. In fact, I’d recommend leaving canned foods at home altogether, as well as anything in glass bottles. Remember that if you have to use a bear canister, all of your food is going to have to fit in the canister from the first night onwards. So if you just have to have some bread along with you, choose flatbread or tortillas rather than a loaf, unless you don’t mind eating squished bread.

Perishability is another consideration. This is the second reason why dehydrated food is so popular. Refrigeration is a luxury you do not have on the trail: anything that needs to be kept cold will spoil quickly.

You also need to consider ease of preparation. Remember, all you will probably have to work with is a small camp stove and maybe a pot or two. Avoid things that will require a lot of slicing or multiple pots to prepare. Keep it simple! It is less to carry and trust me, the last thing you are going to have the energy for after a tough day on the trail is cooking a gourmet meal.

Nutrition is a very important factor. As I said, you will not be dieting! However, living off candy bars or other sugary foods are not going to give you the sustained energy you need for the trail. Opt for meals and snacks that are loaded with complex carbohydrates and protein, and don’t bother worrying about the fat content.

Finally, you cannot forget about taste. Yes, you are roughing it, and nothing on the trail is going to compare to something you cook at home. By the end of a trip, all I can think about is my craving for a hamburger and fries. But you don’t need to torture yourself. Bringing along small amounts of spices in a plastic container can go a long way to improve a boring meal without costing you much in weight. We always bring along salt, pepper, olive oil, and Creole seasoning. (We put that stuff on everything at home.) What spices you decide to bring will depend on your personal taste, and the meals you are planning to make. Also, choose backpacking food that sounds appetizing to you. Your tastes are not going to magically change on the trail; if you are not a fan of lasagna, don’t bother buying freeze-dried lasagna.

Planning Your Backpacking Requirement

It is a good idea to have at least a rough meal plan ahead of time. When we are backpacking, we tend to eat large meals only breakfast and dinner.

This is for two main reasons.

The first is that you tend to get sleepy after a large meal; when we are at camp, we have some time to let the food settle before having to be up and out.

The second is that is a pain to have to dig out all your cookware and utensils mid-trail and in the middle of the day.

We have found that eating a few small meals throughout the day is not only easier but gives you better-sustained energy. Generally, we bring food for breakfasts and dinners for each day/night, and a ton of snack food to graze on throughout the day.

Prepackaged freeze-dried meals are popular. Your local camping store, if it is a decent one, should stock a decent supply of them.

These have improved over the years; many of them actually don’t taste too bad. They tend to be a bit on the bland side for my taste, but adding a bit of Creole seasoning and pepper can make them quite a palatable meal.

There is a wide array of meals to choose from: not only are there pasta and stews, but you can also find things like sweet and sour pork, cheese enchilada ranchero, and risotto with shrimp. There are also breakfast and deserts, from pancakes and breakfast scrambles to brownies and blueberry cheesecake. Be forewarned though: some of these are better than others. For instance, I personally don’t care for any of the breakfast meals with dehydrated egg. They just never seem to taste right. It will likely take experimenting to figure out which ones you like.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when you read the label for many of the meals, it says that each package holds two servings. Just ignore this. I’m not generally a heavy eater, but after a day on the trail I can scarf down an entire package and practically lick the lining. Count on one per person per meal package. This brings us to one more issue with these pre-packaged meals: the cost. They run anywhere from six to thirteen dollars each, and of course, the good ones are always the pricier ones. This is cheaper than eating at most restaurants, to be sure, but does seem to be a bit steep for itty bitty squiggly noodles, minuscule servings of meat, shriveled vegetables and a lot of powder—and with two per day per person, the expense can add up quickly. They are worth a try, though, and you can’t beat them for simple convenience: with most of them, all you have to do is add boiling water, and you can eat it right out of the package, which makes for very little cleanup afterward.

A cheaper alternative is the boxed food aisle at your local grocery store. A 99 cent box of macaroni and cheese can be just as satisfying as that eight dollar mushroom couscous. And come on, who doesn’t like mac and cheese? Packages of flavored rice or pasta, like Rice-A-Roni or Pasta-Roni, are also filling and inexpensive. So are powdered soup mixes. All of these can be spruced up with the addition of dehydrated meat and/or vegetables. If you have some dehydrated ground beef (I’ll get into making this yourself later), you can even grab some Hamburger Helper. Make a great meal!

Why Breakfast is the Most Important Meal for Backpackers?

On the trail, as in life in general, the most important meal is breakfast. If you’re feeling brave, you can try those dreaded powdered egg meals, but for me, trail breakfast usually means oatmeal. It’s hearty and full of complex carbohydrates for that energy on the trail.

I usually bring packets of different flavors, so I can at least pretend that I’m not having the same thing every morning. You can also make it more interesting by adding dried fruit and/or nuts. On the last trip we took, I made a concoction of dried bananas, brown sugar, and walnuts, which we then sprinkled overcooked oatmeal. It was surprisingly good. Adding powdered milk to the water you use to make the oatmeal adds some nutritional value and a bit of a creamier texture. I have not yet tried the packaged pancake mixes, so I can’t vouch for their taste. Back in the day when I was in Girl Scouts, my favorite breakfast meal was “Dough Boys.” To make these, we made a thick dough from Bisquick mix, wrapped it around a stick, and cooked it over an open campfire. You have to cook them slowly, though, or they will be burnt on the outside and gooey in the middle. I haven’t attempted them with backpacking, mostly because I’m not sure how exciting they would be without the butter and jam we put on them. But feel free and try it out if it sounds good to you. Drop me a line and let me know how they work out. Of course, if you don’t mind a meal that isn’t hot, granola or individually packaged muffins work as well. If you go for the latter, eat them early in the trip—they will probably become smashed and crumbly after being stuffed in the bear canister.

KIND Bars, Caramel Almond & Sea Salt, Gluten Free, Low Sugar
KIND Bars, Caramel Almond & Sea Salt, Gluten Free, Low Sugar

Even after a nice filling breakfast, don’t skimp on those snacks throughout the day. The most common staple is Power Bars. They make great trail food: they have plenty of sugar for that quick energy rush, plus protein and vitamins and other goodies for sustained energy. However, you have to do some taste-testing to see which one are palatable—while are surprisingly tasty, others taste just like crushed vitamins.

Bringing a variety of food will encourage you to eat the calories that you need. Dried fruit makes another great snack—my favorites are dried mangoes, I can eat them as if they were candy. Nuts are great too; even a small handful is very filling, packed with needed calories. There’s also the old favorites: granola, trail mix, and gorp (Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts). And don’t forget beef jerky. Whatever you bring—I just can’t stress this enough—make sure to bring enough to eat every two hours or so. Or every hour. If you’re feeling hungry, eat! Even if it’s just a bar or a handful of nuts. This is especially important if you start feeling overly fatigued or headachy: these can be signs that your body needs more calories.

Of course, don’t forget your liquids, either. You will be drinking mostly water, and a lot of it, but don’t limit yourself there. You will not believe how heavenly it is to add some powdered Gatorade mix or Crystal light when you’ve gone for a few days without juice or soda. You learn to appreciate these little luxuries! While at camp, hot drinks can be wonderful, too. Even on the trail, for me, the day cannot start without a cup of coffee. Instead of hauling around one of those heavy coffee-making contraptions, we’ve found that if you’re not too picky, the coffee that comes in teabags or self-sealed “pods” will do in a pinch. They’re easy to transport, and if you’re able to have a campfire, the used ones burn right up pretty nicely. I always must bring along sugar packets and powdered milk as well, as I’m a wimp and can’t handle my coffee black. If you’re not a coffee person, tea is just as easy to carry along: in fact, we love to bring bags of jasmine green tea as a nice warm after-dinner drink to enjoy before hitting the sleeping bags.

Backpacking Recipes

Recipes for Adventure: Healthy, Hearty and Homemade Backpacking Recipes
Recipes for Adventure: Healthy, Hearty and Homemade Backpacking Recipes

So far, for the most part, I’ve talked about meals you can buy to bring along. But why not make some yourself? Often this is cheaper and tastes better than the store-bought stuff. Plus it’s fun and helps get you in the “backpacking mode” before your trip even begins. Although there are many good store-bought granolas and trail mixes available, they are not terribly difficult to make yourself, and if you do that, you can put only the stuff you like in there, and not have to pick around the stuff you don’t or try to pawn it off on your trail mates. For instance, my husband absolutely hates raisins, which is a staple in gorp and many granolas, so I often get stuck way more raisins than a person ever wants to eat.

A food dehydrator comes in handy for making trail food. We were lucky enough to have a friend who had one sitting collecting dust in the corner of their garage that we kindly took of their hands. We’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with it, and have come up with some really good stuff—and a few flops, too, of course. So make sure to give yourself time to experiment. Jerky is pretty easy, and you can make more than one flavor to have a bit of variety. But make sure to marinate the meat for at least 24 hours before dehydrating for the best flavor. You can also dry your own fruit (though my success with this has not been as great) and “fruit roll-ups” from pureed fruit. You really need to get the special fruit roll-up trays for these, as we’ve discovered. I tried lining the regular trays with waxed paper, but the roll-ups tended to get hard and crunchy in the middle by the time the outside firmed. It can be done that way, though, if you don’t mind babysitting it and pulling outstrips a little at a time when they’re done. Doesn’t look the prettiest, but still tastes good, especially if you used nice sweet fresh fruit.

I’ve had pretty good luck with drying ground beef. I cook and season it well, drain it, and then dehydrate it on a wax paper-lined tray. I separate meal-sized quantities into plastic bags and re-hydrate it on the trail when ready to use. This can be done by simmering it in the water on your camp stove for twenty or thirty minutes, or you can throw it in a water bottle with cold water a couple of hours ahead of time and let it reconstitute while still hiking. The stuff is pretty versatile: I have already mentioned it is great to add to powdered soups or pasta mixes. My favorite is to make a shepherd’s pie by layering it with the Velveeta mashed potato mix, which comes with a yummy packet of squishy cheese you can spread over the top. Yes, I know the squishy cheese is heavier than the powdered cheese, but I just can’t resist. And this is usually enough to feed two!

I should note that while the meals I’ve described here may seem sparse compared to what you probably eat on a normal day, many advocates of ultralight backpacking would consider them rather lavish. Those attempting to hike with as little weight as possible will often forgo the stove altogether and bring along only meals which do not require cooking. For me, having a hot meal at the end of the day is worth the extra weight. But if you think you can get along just fine without them for a few days, then, by all means, go for it.

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