A lot of planning and preparation goes into any backpacking trip, and plenty of thought should be put into your food beyond the gear and location logistics. Food is fuel on the trail, and you can only carry so much! That’s why a well-thought-out plan consisting of nutrient-dense, lightweight, and non-perishable foods is a must.
If you’re not used to planning out your meals for days at a time, like anything, you’ll get better with a bit of practice. Read on for field-tested tips to help guide the way.
Meal planning and preparation
Before you choose the foods you’re packing, ask yourself a few essential questions:
- What is the intensity of my trip?
- How many people are going?
- How long will I be gone?
How much time do I have available to spend prepping food for my trip?
Identifying these specifics helps you start the meal planning process. Once you know the length of your trip, how many people are going, the intensity level, and how much time you have to spare, then you can start planning out the rest.
Although I often backpack alone, if I do go with a partner, we create a plan together. I find it easier to plan meals together to cut down on the number of things we need to carry and to save fuel when cooking.
Before the trip, we often schedule a phone call to discuss food options, likes and dislikes, and when we will do physical prep. Then, we add our ideas into a sharable document like Google Docs or a shared note.
Here is an actual meal planning document I’ve used for a trip as an example:
|Meal||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3|
|Breakfast||Oatmeal + coffee||Oatmeal + coffee|
|Lunch||Pita with hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.||Tuna wrap||Tuna wrap|
|Snacks||Dried mangoes, peanut butter/banana wrap||Trail Mix, Date Balls, granola bar+peanut butter||Trail Mix, granola bar, dried mangoes|
|Dinner||Burrito Bowls/tacos||Tomato Basil Couscous|
|Other||Hot Chocolate/Tea||Hot Chocolate/Tea|
On this trip, I went with another person, and we planned to eat many of the same things along the way. Underneath this chart on our shared document, we listed what we would need to buy for each meal or snack. That way, our shopping list is also made.
I always plan an extra day before and after the trek itself. The day before is vital to help you gather your gear and get all of your meals together and packed.
What type of food to bring
When planning a trip, no matter the length or number of people involved, simplicity is key. It can be tempting to want to plan for variety, but this can mean you’re buying more and carrying more. For most hikers, the easiest areas to repeat are breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Since supper is often the most calorie-dense and largest meal of the day, it’s the easiest place to add variety.
The type of food you choose to bring should first and foremost be foods you’ll eat! Don’t choose a snack or a meal option because you think you should eat it while backpacking. For instance, if you don’t like Clif bars, don’t pack Clif bars! Choose foods you enjoy to ensure you will reach your nutritional needs.
After that, consider these other factors:
- Portability: Opt for dehydrated, freeze-dried, or powdered foods. Backpacking food can consist of perishables (like in my example above). However, those are eaten on the first day. The rest of the food should have a long shelf life to ensure it will not spoil as you hike.
- Weight: keep in mind you are carrying everything you need! Avoid foods that have heavy packaging (i.e., cans) or contain a high water level. Gathering food from bulk bins, using pre-made meals, and repackaging some items can help you have more control over the weight.
- Nutritional value: the main things you’re looking for in backpacking meals are calories (unsaturated fats), carbohydrates/sugars, protein, and antioxidants. Among those focus areas, unsaturated fats and carbohydrates tend to be what your body craves most. Protein is important for recovery, but complex carbs and good fats are needed for sustained energy. Then, sugars help with bursts of energy, while antioxidants boost your immune system function.
- Cook time/method: many pre-packaged meals are designed so that all you have to do is add hot water, let it sit, and eat. If you are gathering and prepping meals on your own, then the cooking time may differ and include simmering food on the stove. Try to find foods that only use boiling water, and if it has to be cooked longer, keep it under 20 minutes. Longer than that, and you’ll find yourself carrying a lot of extra fuel.
Where to get backpacking food:
- Prepacked meals from online shops or outdoor retailers
- Bulk food sections in grocery stores
- Small packaged foods in grocery stores (i.e., power bars, tuna packets, etc.)
Bulk food sections are my favorite place to make backpacking meals. You can often get the exact amount of certain foods like dehydrated refried beans, dehydrated hummus, and they have tons of seeds, nuts, and dried fruits to create your trail mix.
How much food to bring
Before getting into the number of calories to bring and how much to eat, breaking it down into sections will help you determine the exact amount of each to carry.
Knowing your body and your needs will also help beyond simple calorie calculations. As you go on more trips, you’ll know your eating habits and how much you need to be eating to fuel the adventure.
The amount of food you should be eating will also be influenced by your body size, weight, level of intensity of daily activity, your metabolism, and the weather. Since most folks like to have numbers to reference, a good rule of thumb is 1.5-2.5 lbs. of food or 2500-4500 calories per person per day.
Now, those ranges are broad because so many factors impact your individual dietary needs. For instance, someone hiking four miles on flat terrain may not need to eat as much as someone hiking 12 miles through mountain passes.
How to pack it
Pre-made meals, power bars, and other items will come in an easy-to-carry package. Other foods will need to be repackaged, especially when buying from grocery stores or bulk food sections.
To cut back on packaging, try to utilize the packaging the food comes in, but if that is not an option, repackage items in reusable bags or reusable food wrap. When that is not an option, or it is adding too much weight, you can also use resealable plastic bags.
For organizational purposes, I prefer to have one large food bag in my pack and one snack bag that is easily accessible. I use individual cloth or mesh bags to organize meals within my larger food bag. In some areas, a bear bag or canister is needed, so store all food in that.
Keep in mind, what you pack in, you must pack out. So, pack a garbage bag to carry for the duration of your trip and follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
Camp kitchen checklist
Need a backpacking camp kitchen or are not sure what to pack?
Here are our recommended essentials:
- Stove with Fuel
- Camp Cookware
- Biodegradable Soap
- Dish Cloth
- Water Purification or Filter
- Water Bladder + Bottles
- Organizational Bags or Stuff Sacks
- Location Dependent: Bear Bag or Canister