How To Choose The Perfect Food For Backpacking

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Backpacking food has never been the most glamorous. Mountain House meals are great, but they’re not particularly cost-effective. Potato flakes and GORP (Good Ol’ Raisins And Peanuts) are cost-effective, but painfully boring.

What follows below will help you decide what to pack, and hopefully provide a few suggestions for breaking up the monotony that is backpacking food. 

Before we get into the food itself though, let’s start with meal planning basics for your time in the backcountry.

camping food thermos

Backpacking Food Planning

When we talk about backpacking food, our focus is typically more on calories than it is on food quality or variety.

Regardless of what you choose to bring, you’ll be hiking for hours on end, multiple days in a row. Walking takes energy, and energy means calories. 

The total amount of calories you need depends on how many miles a day you plan on hiking, as well as the type of terrain you’ll cover (more elevation change requires more energy), but 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day is a good starting point for most backpackers.   

The need for so many calories is what will ultimately drive your food choices. That, and keeping the weight to a minimum in your pack for more important items. Speaking of which… 

Know Your Calorie To Weight Ratio 

I know what you’re thinking: “Kurt, why go through all this planning when I could just bring one large Thanksgiving turkey and have three days’ worth of calories?” 

First of all, seek professional help. No one wants to eat turkey three times a day for three days. You should be committed for even entertaining the thought. Second, there’s a reason you don’t see many (Read: Literally zero) hikers walking around with fifteen-pound turkeys in their packs: You can get the same amount of calories from about six pounds of instant mashed potatoes. 

Of course, eating six pounds of mashed potatoes over a three-day period is something you should only consider doing for a large sum of money (or because someone dared you to), which brings us to our main course… What kind of backpacking food should you pack? 

Popular Backpacking Foods For Every Meal Of The Day 

Assuming we’ve successfully unpacked the turkey dilemma and can all agree that filling a backpack with mashed potatoes should only be done while standing in line at a Golden Corral, let’s dig into the popular alternatives to those two scenarios.

Below we’ll recommend some common backpacking foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as the all-important trail snacks. As an added bonus, if you stick around to the end, I’ll even treat you to a little dessert.

backpacking hike mountain adventure
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay/riyan_hidayart)

Backpacking Food For Breakfast 

What you pack for breakfast ultimately comes down to a single question: Do you want to cook? “Cooking” is a relative term on the trail. Yes, you could pack a small pan, but typically cooking consists of: (a) heating water and (b) adding it to dry food. 

Still, if a hot meal is essential to your morning routine, these quick meals won’t weigh down your pack. 

Oatmeal Packets 

Oatmeal packets are one of the most common breakfast foods you’ll see on the trail, and for good reason. They come in a ton of flavors, are simple to prepare, and typically pack between 120 to 190 calories per serving. 

Powdered Eggs

No, they won’t compare to anything you make at home on the stove, but dehydrated eggs pack a ton of calories. They’re also protein-rich, and only require a little hot water and patience to make. Throw in some bacon bits and the hash browns below and voila! You’ve got a breakfast scramble.

Instant Hash Browns  

Instant (dehydrated) hash browns are another easy breakfast out on the trail with tons of potential. Just add hot water, wait five minutes, and you’ve got real potatoes to enjoy. Sprinkle in a little salt and pepper, cajun seasoning, and olive oil, and you’ve got a flavorful meal with a few bonus calories added to the mix.

Coffee

If you can’t live without the ritual of morning coffee, have no fear, you’re not alone.

For some backpackers, bringing coffee grinds and brewing a real cup is worth the weight and extra space. Most folks just stick to instant coffee though, either in bulk or single-serving packets. If you’re feeling brave, instant Folgers and Nescafe have been “getting the job done” for years.

If you’re like me and can’t quiet your inner coffee snob, however, Starbucks “Via Instant” packets are worth the money.

coffee backpacking camping
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay/SSidde)

Cold Breakfast Backpacking Food

Some mornings you just want to wake up and get back to hiking, and that’s where cold/no-cook breakfast foods come into play.

Breakfast bars of every description are welcome here. Clif bars, granola bars, fig bars, you name it. Just make sure they’ve got plenty of calories.

Pop-Tarts are another essential trail food, and with around 400 calories per serving, they’re perfect for a quick breakfast or mid-day snack.

Powdered milk is also great to have on hand. Add a glass to your breakfast for extra calories, or work it into other dehydrated foods for added flavor. Protein powders are a popular alternative to powdered milk as well, and come in a variety of flavors. 

READ MORE: How To Choose the Perfect Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Snacks

Hiking all day requires snacking all day. Win-win, right?

While you’ll want some degree of nutritional balance during your trip, just about anything goes for snacking on the trail. 

Prefer to keep your calories clean? Energy bars, dehydrated fruit, beef jerky, and all the nuts you can stand are all fair game.

Couldn’t care less? Snack cakes, potato chips, and every candy known to man are all about as calorie-rich as it gets.

Really the only way to do trail snacks wrong is to pack low-calorie foods or foods that won’t keep longer than a few hours. Outside of that, go nuts.

Backpacking Food For Lunch And Dinner

Truth be told, all three (or four) major meals of the day can start looking awfully similar when you’re out in the backcountry. One of the major challenges for many backpackers is simply trying to break up the monotony of trail mix and dehydrated meals.

Below are some stapes of the backpacking pantry. Keep these in mind and try getting creative with the limited number of ingredients you’ll carry in your pack.

Tortillas

Probably the most common sight on the trail (along with Snickers bars, more on that later), tortillas are indispensable for their long shelf life, versatility, low weight, low volume, and high-calorie content.

Burritos, PB&J sandwiches, chicken wraps, tuna wraps, hummus wraps. The sky is the limit here. If you can imagine it, you can cram it inside a tortilla and enjoy it.  

Bagels

Bagels are a popular tortilla alternative (you can always bring both) for their similar calorie content and shelf life. They take up a little more space than tortillas, but if you’ve got room in your pack the variety may be worth the sacrifice.  

Vacuum-Sealed Meats

This one is just too easy to pass up. Take a look at all the varieties and flavors of pre-made chicken salad or tuna salad the next time you’re at the grocery store. They’ve got everything from ranch to spicy buffalo now in shelf-stable single servings, and the price is right! 

Peanut Butter And… 

With around 200 calories per serving, peanut butter is a welcome addition to just about any meal on the trail. It pairs well with honey and/or jam added to either of the bread alternatives above. It can be added to oatmeal for extra calories and thickness. Or you can just eat it straight from the jar for a mid-day boost.

spoon of peanut butter
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay/deborahmiller56)

Hard Meats And Cheeses

It’s tough to beat hard meats and cheeses for their shelf life and protein content. Throw them on a bagel for a tasty trail sandwich or just eat them with crackers as a quick snack.

Instant Sides

Mashed potatoes aren’t the only instant side that belongs in your pack. 

Flavored rice dishes, quick-cook pasta, couscous, dry soups (including ramen noodles), and the ever-popular Easy-Mac are all backpack friendly. Instant refried beans are another one I’ve discovered recently. They’re the perfect consistency and can be eaten as a side or rolled into a tortilla with a little melted cheese for an easy burrito.

Pro-Tip: Stockpile Single Serving Condiments

If you’re not already saving up your single-serving sauces, oils, and spices from take-out orders or fast food restaurants, now is the time to start.

From the humble Tapatio hot sauce packet to the highly sought-after sandwich shop olive oil pack (calories!), a sandwich bag full of as many flavors as you can find is a trail essential.

Trail food can get a little monotonous, especially on extended trips. Mixing up bold new concoctions from single-serve condiments is a culinary prescription for sanity when you just can’t stomach the thought of eating another peanut butter and jam tortilla.

Dessert: Because You Earned It

Congratulations. That just about wraps the basics of backpacking food — tortilla pun fully intended. 

I saved dessert for last because knowing you’ve got something sweet waiting for you at the end of a long day (or long article) can be that extra little motivation we all need from time to time to push through to the end.  

Candy

It might seem lazy, but few treats boost morale like a Nerds Rope after a long day on your feet. Same goes for a bag of Skittles.

The aforementioned Snickers bar is probably the most common candy out on the trail. 250 calories per bar plus a handful of peanuts in the mix to cut down on your sugar guilt. Believe the hype.

snickers candy bar
(Photo courtesy of WikimediaImages)

Powdered Drink Mixes 

Powdered drink mixes are another easy fix for a sweet tooth. These can be as simple as Gatorade powder, Kool-Aid, or Crystal Light packets. If you’re willing to heat up some extra water, hot chocolate mix always hits the spot, and packs plenty of calories as well.

READ NEXT: How To Choose The Best Hiking Socks For Your Feet

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