There are many things to consider when prepping for a wilderness backpacking adventure, not the least of which is how you plan on staying healthy and energized on the trail. What food to bring backpacking depends on many variables, and every trip will be different.
Taste preference, dietary restrictions, pack weight, days out, distance to travel, and anticipated calorie output and complimentary calorie input are all important to take into consideration.
While this may seem overwhelming, we have a few useful tips to get you started. Using this guide as a foundation, you will quickly discover your own personal needs and preferences and be able to adjust accordingly for all future backpacking trips.
How Much Food to Bring Backpacking
Let’s start with the basics. When it comes to making a food plan, it is easiest to use a simple three-meal/day structure to make sure all of your bases are covered.
Say you are going to be out backpacking for 3 nights, leaving the trailhead at 10 am on a Friday with a plan to return to the parking lot by noon on Monday. You can have breakfast at your car on Friday and will be eating all other meals on the trail until lunch back at your car on Monday.
Using 3 meals/day as a guide, you will need to pack a minimum of 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, and 3 dinners for the trail.
This simple system is a great way to wrap your mind around food intake. However, you should not rely entirely on meals, but instead pack plenty of snacks as well. A backpacking trip will generally require more energy than your day-to-day life, so you will need to consume more calories on the trail than you normally would otherwise.
Quick snacks that you can eat on the go, like trail mix or bars, are great to keep you energized between campsites. The most successful backpackers strike a balance between calorie output and input and have found the most enjoyable and efficient foods that allow them to do so. This, of course, will differ for everyone.
It is always good practice to err on the side of packing too much food. If something were to happen miles and miles into the backcountry, having a bit extra nourishment is a good thing. A slightly heavier pack will always be preferable to going hungry in the backcountry. Ultimately how much food to bring backpacking will depend on you, and it is one small piece in the learning curve!
What types of food are best for backpacking?
You have virtually unlimited options when it comes to choosing food to bring on your backpacking trip, but some are better than others. When selecting snacks and building meal plans, priority should be placed on lightweight and high-calorie foods that are easy to pack and won’t go bad out on the trail.
There are many companies that make prepackaged, just-add-water backcountry meals, and those can be great options as well. For the purpose of this article, however, we will focus on home prepped alternatives.
Nuts and seeds are a stalwart of most backpacking trips as they are a quick and easy source of many vitamins and minerals as well as good fat and protein. Mixing nuts with dried fruit will further boost your vitamin and mineral intake while adding some additional fiber and carbs to the mix.
Many backpackers will also carry dehydrated meat like jerky or preserved meat like pepperoni or salami with them. While not the healthiest, both provide tasty ways to get protein and sodium into your system and do not need to be refrigerated. Hard cheeses can pair well with this meat and are shelf-stable. They are a good source of healthy fats and protein, calcium, and B vitamins and a great flavoring for many meals.
Oatmeal is perhaps the most common breakfast item in the backcountry and for good reason. It is light, easy to pack, and full of great vitamins and minerals. By adding nuts, seeds, and dried fruit to your morning bowl you can enjoy an easy and complete meal to start your day off right.
If you want to bring fruits and veggies into the backcountry some serious thought is required. Options that do not require refrigeration and won’t get beat-up and bruised in your pack are essential. Carrots are a great option that can last up to a week. Broccoli, cauliflower, and bell peppers are also fine options if you eat them within a few days of being out on the trail.
Onions, while heavy, are hearty and will provide great flavoring to any meal. Apples and oranges are also heavy to carry but provide a welcome treat on the trail. It can be especially enjoyable to bite into a juicy orange and soak up a hard-to-come-by dose of Vitamin C.
Finally, a solid spice kit can go a long way in the backcountry. Pull some of your favorite or most used spices out of the cupboard and portion them out into old Tic-Tac containers or film canisters to build a spice kit for the trail. While it adds a bit of unnecessary weight, it will all be worth it when you’re enjoying kitchen quality meals around the campfire.
How to dehydrate food for backpacking?
In recent years, more and more backpackers are trying to be self-sufficient while on the trail. If this sounds intriguing and you, too, would like to learn how to dehydrate food for backpacking we have some good news. It’s not that hard! Once you’ve purchased a food dehydrator the rest is pretty simple.
You can dehydrate many types of food and, as the name may suggest, the goal is to eliminate water from the food items without cooking them.
Moisture is what allows yeast, mold, and bacteria to grow on food so by taking that away from the equation you can enjoy meals on the trail that may have otherwise spoiled weeks, months, or even up to a year earlier.
Food dehydrating enthusiasts generally follow one of two systems. They will either dehydrate individual ingredients and assemble them together in the field or cook and dehydrate whole meals at home. Each style has its own benefits and setbacks, and you will soon discover what works best for you.
You can find many sample recipes and meals online and even buy dehydrated meal cookbooks to better wrap your mind around the process.
When it comes to the actual dehydration process, drying time and temperature are the biggest variables. Fruits and veggies best dehydrate between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, with fruits turning leathery and vegetables turning more brittle.
The fresher the produce the better the final dried product. By blanching vegetables (with the exception of tomatoes and mushrooms) before drying them you will capture more of the original flavor and texture.
Meats are a very popular food item to dehydrate, and this is best done above 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooked meat can be preserved or you can make your own jerky. When dehydrated, meats will become tough and dry. You can dehydrate everything from poultry and fish to red meat, and the process will prevent spoilage and make for a delicious addition to many meals on the trail.
To extend shelf life, you should store all of your dehydrated food in a cool, dark, and dry place in airtight containers. Jerky will last for a couple of months, dried meat upwards of two weeks, and fruits and vegetables for nearly a year! Freezing or refrigerating your dehydrated food will lengthen their life even more.
Vacuum sealing is the go-to method for storing dehydrated food and complete meals. This keeps them compact and seals in any odors.
Further, vacuum-sealed bags are durable enough to pack in a backpack, and you can actually cook in the bag itself by adding boiling water. After you’ve played around with a dehydrator and decide that it’s your preferred method for backcountry cooking, consider going one step further by adding a vacuum sealer to your tool kit.
How to Pack Food for Backpacking
After learning what food to bring backpacking, learning how to pack food for backpacking is the next essential skill. The goals here are simple. You want to reduce waste, travel light, and protect your food from spilling all over your pack.
Consolidating meals or ingredients into single, airtight containers is a great way to accomplish all three goals. Vacuum sealing as outlined above can be another excellent option.
If you choose reusable containers, you will quickly find that they can serve multiple purposes. Perhaps that bag that was holding your jerky can be washed and used as a bin to hold your micro trash.
Maybe your headphones, chargers, and portable battery banks can be stored in the newly emptied pasta Tupperware. Successful backpacking trips are all about having good systems, and packing food efficiently is one of the most important.
When storing food in your pack, keep it separate from items that absolutely cannot get wet/messy. Spilling tomato sauce all over your sleeping bag or tent is a great way to invite critters into camp. Pack food items in a separate pouch if possible, and stack in a way that makes sense to you.
Many campers will create a meal plan and be able to pull out bags for Day 1/2/3 without having to mess with the rest. You should also always remember to keep snacks handy in the hip pockets, front, or brain of your backpack for easy munching on the trail.
If you are traveling with a group, split the food weight up proportionally and reevaluate every morning before packing your bags. While you will be accumulating trash, you will also be losing pack weight overall and should aim for a fair balance between hiking partners. Finally, be sure to bring a separate stuff sack or bag to store all of your food overnight to keep animals away. We’ll cover more of that in a bit!
Sample Backpacking Meals
Backpacking meals will vary from one camper to the next and even between trips. Some folks pride themselves on a backcountry gourmet kitchen while others are more motivated to travel light and just get the nutrients and calories necessary to push forward.
Ultimately these decisions are up to you and the style of backpacking trip you will be enjoying.
For those traveling light, the prepackaged commercial food items are a good option. You can achieve a similar goal by precooking and dehydrating your favorite meals at home. Pasta dishes, soups, and chilis are great options for this type of wilderness travel.
This type of meal planning may not meet the needs of the more food motivated gourmet backcountry chefs. These folks can justify carrying a bit more weight in order to have fresh produce at meals (and fresh meat on the first days of a trip) and cook complete breakfasts, lunches, and dinners while on the trail.
If this is your style, the world is your oyster. Virtually anything you cook in your kitchen at home can be recreated in the wilderness. Pancakes and eggs, pizza and pasta, quesadillas and burritos, Asian soups and fried rice – nothing is off the table. If you are willing to put in the effort, you can enjoy an excellent culinary experience while putting in miles on the trail!
Once you have identified your desired meal experience, it can be very helpful to make a meal plan chart and fill in the blanks with what you plan on eating. Across the top, label your chart with the days you will be on the trail (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc.). Down the side, create a row for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least one row for snacks.
Keeping in mind that the start and finish of your trip will likely be at a trailhead, start filling in the blanks with meals and their associated ingredients.
Shop and dehydrate accordingly. When packing, it can be helpful to organize meals into separate bags for each day, if possible, and remember to split the weight between backpackers accordingly!
Oatmeal With Dehydrated Fruit & Nut Mix
Nutella & Dehydrated Banana Wrap
Ham/ Salami & Cheese Bagel
Pizza Wrap (Salami, Cheese, Tomato & Tortilla Wrap)
Ham & Cheese Crackers
Ramen With Dehydrated Meat/ Vegetables & Sugar Snap Peas
Pasta, Pesto & Dehydrated Vegetables
Example Backpacking Meal Plan
Breakfast @ trailhead
Oatmeal with dehydrated fruit & nuts
Nutella wrap with dehydrated banana
Salami & cheese bagel
Pizza wrap (Cheese, salami, tomato & wraps)
Cheese, jerky/ salami & crackers
Dehydrated chilli con carne
Ramen with dehydrated meat
Trail mix, banana & granola bar
Dried fruit, trail mix & protein bar
Chocolate, trail mix & granola bar
Bear (and Critter) Proofing Your Food
One of the most critical pieces of the backcountry dining puzzle is preventing bears and other critters from getting into your food. Depending on where your hiking boots are taking you, there are a variety of options available for critter proofing your food and campsite.
Bear canisters and bear bags are great ways to store and conceal food and smelly items, but they may not be the right choice for some situations.
Many parks and places where grizzly bears are common recommend that you cook 100 feet from where you sleep, and store your food 100 feet from where you cook – creating something of a triangle – to disperse smells and incentives.
Hanging food from trees can be another good option when available to you. If this is the route you choose, bring a long (25 to 75 ft.) rope and a stuff sack to hold all of your food and smelly items (yes, that includes toothpaste and deodorant!).
Find a strong tree a good distance away from your camp and kitchen, put weight on the end of the rope, and toss it over a branch. When hanging, your bear bang should be at least 12 feet off of the ground and 10 feet from the trunk of the tree suspended in the air.
If you devote the appropriate amount of care into protecting your food, you will have no problems with bears or other critters wrecking your backpacking experience.
A Quick Note on Leave No Trace Ethics
Leave No Trace is a system of guidelines to help people experience the wilderness without leaving a negative impact on it. These guidelines cover it all – from soundscapes to proper “bathroom” etiquette – and help ensure that everyone can enjoy and project a pristine natural environment.
It is worth studying up on all of the tips provided in the LNT handbook but, as you can imagine, food packaging and consumption can be huge contributors to dirtying the wilderness around you.
Pay extra close attention to your wrappers in the wilderness, especially the little corners that come off when you open up a granola bar. Everything that you pack into the backcountry needs to come out with you.
Use biodegradable soap when cleaning your dishware in a nearby creek and broadcast dirty water so as not to concentrate it in one spot on the ground. Even if something is biodegradable, such as an apple core, you need to bring it with you. Apples, for example, are likely not native to where you will be traveling, and to truly protect the wilderness we need to do our part to keep it pristine.
There are many tips and tricks to minimize a negative impact and, together, we can all do our part to ensure the backcountry remains wild and untrammeled for future generations.
Wondering what food to bring backpacking is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to enjoying meals in inspiring wilderness locations. At the end of the day, cooking on the trail shouldn’t be a chore but rather a unique and enjoyable task to share with those around you.
Everyone has their own approach to backcountry meals, and every trip will dictate something different. With a little bit of practice, you will soon discover your preferred wilderness dining experience and develop personalized tricks of the trade to make meals in a backcountry kitchen as delicious as those back home.