When choosing what to eat while backpacking, hiking, and camping, there is a definite learning curve. The internet is full of meal plans for maximizing calories while reducing weight, as well as extravagant recipes for fire-roasted glamping meals. Whether you’re prioritizing taste or nutrition, the food you eat in the wilderness can enhance (or detract from) your experience outdoors.
Though every camper has different tastes and preferences for eating in the backcountry, a few things are universal: your food should fuel your activity, be able to be transported without hassle, and be enjoyable to eat. Whether you’re packing for an overnight, a weekend away, or a whole week of wilderness living, this guide will help you prioritize what’s important to you, so you can figure out how to pack the best food for backpacking.
Food and water are the building blocks of our energy and health. No matter the duration of your backpacking excursion, you want to make sure that you are packing enough to enjoy your trip and meet the physical demands of your excursion.
That said, you also don’t want to overpack, or overeat. Extra weight from unnecessary calories (in your pack or in your stomach) is the last thing you need while backpacking, especially if you are in for the long haul. That’s why planning your meals ahead of time can be so valuable. Everyone likes to throw together an impromptu dinner once in a while, but a backpacking trip isn’t the place for that.
Plan. Prepare. Pack.
Make a list of the meals you’ll expect to eat on your trip - how many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners will you need? On top of those, plan for a few trail snacks, and add-in a little extra food for those times when you’re hungrier than you expected to be - a protein bar or two is usually plenty. Depending on your physical size and the intensity of your trip, you should expect to consume 2,500-4,500 calories per day.
Once you have your meals listed out, consider the equipment you’ll be bringing, and the tradeoffs of different meal plans. More variety in your meals means more to look forward to at each meal, but less variety means fewer ingredients and equipment to carry. Going ultralight typically means simpler dehydrated food, but carrying non-dehydrated food can mean less reliance on finding water sources for cooking. Hot foods are comforting, but usually require extra cleanup, while cold foods are less exciting but much easier to prepare.
Not every outing is the same - on certain trips you might be able to carry a broader variety of fresh foods, while on others you might be simply trying to pack in as many calories as possible. Choose what’s most important to you for this trip - variety, taste, nutritional value, weight, etc. - and use that as a base for building your meal plan.
Once you’ve decided what recipes, dehydrated meals, or other food you’ll be carrying, give your plan a literal taste test before heading out.
Cook your camping meals at home before you try making them in the woods. See if you like the taste, and note how long they take to make and how big the portions need to be to satisfy you. This is especially important for new recipes or instant foods you’ve never tried before. If it turns out one of your planned meals is a no-go, swap it out for something better before you hit the trail.
Put all of your food into meal or snack sized portions, and pack each meal into its own container (like a zip-lock bag). Label them certain meals are difficult to tell apart, or you want to be sure you have a certain amount of food for each day, and then pack them last-first into your pack (i.e. the food that you’re going to eat on the last day will go into the bottom, and the food that you eat first should be on the top).
Water is obviously necessary to have on hand at all times during your backpacking trip, but you don’t always need to start with all the water you’re going to use. By carrying a water filter or other purification system and camping near water in the evening, you can use fresh water for cooking and drinking in the evening.
Coffee, tea, cocoa, or other drink mixes can spice up an evening and make purified water more palatable. In addition, carrying some powdered electrolyte mixes (like Gatorade powder) can help replenish much needed electrolytes and make time at camp more restorative.
Cookware & Utensils
Most backpackers carry a small stove and a single pot, and there are a ton of great one-pot backpacking recipes out there. Depending on your trip, your meal plan, and the number of people in your group, you may want an extra pot or two, a skillet, or a backpacking grill.
Besides cookware, consider bringing a lightweight cutting board, both for meal prep and to keep your food off the ground, as well as whatever knives, forks, spoons, and other utensils you’ll need for the food you brought.
Meal Planning for An Overnight Backpacking Trip
When you’re out in the woods for just one night, you can basically eat whatever you want. You don't need to worry too much about overall weight or food spoilage, so use these trips as an opportunity to eat fancy in the forest and show more cautious campers that backcountry food can be luxurious. Here are some special foods for overnights.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Heavy with water-weight and likely to spoil or bruise on longer hikes, fresh fruits and vegetables are a great treat for shorter trips. Do yourself a favor and choose plants that are in-season, and get them from a farmer’s market if you can - the sweet taste of ripe fruit in the backcountry is a luxurious feeling that no s’more can top. Apples, oranges and pears can usually withstand being packed in a bag, but if there’s space, my favorite option is a bag of cherries.
John Muir would famously venture into the wilderness with little more than a loaf of bread and a box of tea. We’re not recommending that, but it is one way to enjoy the outdoors. You can bring bread to a weekend trip, but if you want it to stay fresh, it’s best to kept to an overnight. Gnawing on a hunk of bread while walking is a pleasant, Hobbit-like experience that takes you out of time and place, and once at the campsite, bread is great for soaking up an evening stew.
Beer and Wine (where permitted)
Beer and wine are heavy and bulky, but there’s nothing better than cracking open a cold one next to a warm fire, or drinking your cabernet from an enamel mug. Limit your consumption both to keep the weight down and reduce the chance of getting wilderness hangover - both beer and wine can be dehydrating, especially if you’ve been struggling to drink enough water on the traill. Choose something you can savor, and - seriously - pack out your empties the next day.
What to Eat on a Weekend Camping Trip
Heading out for longer doesn’t mean you have to live off of granola bars. On a weekend trip, you can strike a balance between weight reduction and freshness. Try carrying calorie-dense dehydrated meals for dinner, supplemented with other foods like hard cheese, nuts, jerky, and chocolate, and limit fresh food to day one. Here are a few options to consider:
Hard cheese can last a couple of days without refrigeration, especially if you are off to cooler climates. Whatever your cheese preferences, these are a good source of nutrition and a nice variation of flavor and texture for your time on the trail.
Calorie-dense and eminently packable, dried fruit is a great option when searching for something sweet to carry with you. Raisins, apricots, and especially dried figs are all excellent choices, and can pair well with the hard cheese you might be carrying as well.
Spirits (where permitted)
In areas where alcohol consumption is allowed and appropriate, a small flask of whiskey or dark rum can help create camaraderie and provide for a relaxing experience at the end of a long day. Same rules as above - drink responsibly, not too much, and pack it out when you’re done.
Meals for a Weeklong Backpacking Trip
An entire week of camping is hardcore and rewarding, and your food should support that. While fresh food and cheeses can be good for your first few days, they won’t last you the entire week. For a weeklong trip, focus on getting your necessary calories while reducing weight, especially if you'll be carrying the entire week's worth of food from day one.
A well-planned schedule of meals and snacks, divided by day, is essential to ensuring you carry enough food. The internet is full of resources and guides for this - here are a few to help you start planning your own trip:
Options for backpacking food are various and sundry, and there’s no shortage of instant meals and recipes out there for you to try. Ultimately, use this as a chance to experiment - if it won’t go bad in your backpack, give it a try and see if you like it.
Learn and Improve
No matter what you end up taking on your trip, make some notes when you get home. Were there any meals you really enjoyed? Did you forget any key ingredients or utensils? Was there too much food, or not enough?
Write down what worked and what didn’t and refer to it when you’re making your next meal plan. Over time, you’ll discover your “signature dishes” that taste great, give you the energy you need, and are easy to carry deep into the wilderness.
Have a favorite meal or other backcountry concoction? Email us and we’ll include it in an upcoming article.