Many beginner backpackers find meal-planning and backcountry cooking to be just about the most confusing and challenging element of the whole routine. After all, food is the powerhouse fuel you need to keep churning out those miles and getting to those knockout views or back-of-beyond untrammeled spaces you’re after. But knowing what kinds of trail food to bring, and how much, and how to transport and store it out in the wilds, and how to prepare it, and how much stove fuel and water you’ll need - well, needless to say, the backpacking kitchen is enough to bewilder, even intimidate, newbies. And, hey: More than a few more experienced backpackers haven’t quite lit upon the most efficient system for feeding themselves out in the great outdoors.
In this article, we’ll share a slew of good backpacking meals and ingredients, plus we round up all sorts of useful tips and tricks with regard to planning your wilderness diet and choosing between all the culinary options on the table.
We’re going to start things off with the real “meat” (if you will) of this guide by motoring through a bunch of top-notch options for backpacking breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, sides, beverages, and more.
Breakfast is the most important feed of the day, so they say. Now, we’d argue dinner is also pretty darn crucial when it comes to backpacking meals, but no question you need a good morning jolt of energy to get those muscles moving. On days when you’re breaking camp and covering some miles, a quick breakfast - quite possibly uncooked - is often the way to go; if you’re base-camping it for a rest day or two, you can afford to whip up a more complicated, gourmet-style feed if you so choose (see our hack for eggs below!).
For base-campers with a little more room to spare for extra ingredients, consider this Breakfast Skillet hack!
Depending on your itinerary and personal preference, you may or may not be settling in for a sitdown, trailside lunch; sometimes it makes more sense to just snack it up more or less continuously (see the next section), particularly if you’ve got a lot of miles to cover or some particularly hard-going to tackle. But in other situations, a nice midday rest to break out some provisions and enjoy an actual meal may be just what the doctor ordered.
The prospect of dinner can be the only thing keeping you going those last tough foot-miles of the day. Some backpackers are more predisposed to gourmet dinners than others, but no matter what the evening meal should be something to look forward to - tasty and nourishing, and low on hassle and fuss. Generally speaking, a mix of instant/quick backpacking meals for long, demanding days and somewhat more elaborate dinners for when you’ve got more downtime at camp is best.
And if you love our Chili Mac & Beef you'll love this meal hack!
Some sweet treats and desserts are very much an important part of the backpacking meal plan: You want some straight-up gastronomic rewards after an exhausting stretch, after all, and furthermore, they can be good sources of energy and warmth. Given the physical exertion you’re engaged in on a backpacking trip, you can be a bit more indulgent in this department than back at home.
Sure, breakfast and dinner might be the most important meals of your backpacking trip, but well-chosen snacks may well be the single most essential of your on-the-go foodstuffs. A hearty intake of trail bites will often substitute for lunch and keep you going through the course of your day; if you don’t have the time or energy to cook or otherwise pull together a multipart meal, your snack stockpile can also take the place of breakfast or dinner. Here’s a rundown of some of the best trail food!
Savvily selected trail and camp beverages are the liquid linchpins of your adventure. Hydration is a numero-uno goal when backpacking, and gussying up plain old H2O is a smart way to ensure you’re throwing enough back. Drinks can also supply important energy in the forms of carbs, protein, and fats - they can even serve as their own meal if you’re strapped for time - and provide some much-appreciated warming and good cheer on a chilly morning or evening at camp.
It’s amazing how far a bit of spice or a tasty little side dish can go toward transforming a ho-hum backcountry meal into a knockout one. It’s true that the great outdoors themselves are the best seasoning, but including some condiments and other extras in your larder will help you (literally) spice things up at the cookstove.
Backpackers out for just a night or two, or heading into a base camp close to the trailhead, have the luxury of toting in just about anything, food-wise, that they’re willing to lug a short distance. But for longer, more extended trips, you need to be quite a bit more discerning about food weight, energy value, and daily caloric needs - not to mention perishability. In this section, we’ll break down some of the basics of choosing the best trail food.
Food that won’t quickly spoil or wilt is obviously best-suited for extended backpacking trips. That’s not to say you can’t bring fresh and less-perishable food: It just means you should eat those items earlier on the trek. For your first night out, you could bring prepared food from home, even a frozen stew you let thaw in your pack, to have for dinner. Freeze-dried or dehydrated meals, vacuum-sealed foods, powders, pasta, rice, carrot or celery sticks, potatoes, apples, tortillas, bread rolls, hard cheeses, cured or dried meats, and raw seeds and nuts are all examples of more shelf-stable foods ideal for backpacking.
It goes without saying that you want all or most of your food items to be lightweight and packable. You need to not only be keeping your packweight down to save your body and allow you to actually cover the ground you want to cover, but you also need to be able to efficiently load your pack and have enough room for all your essential items. From choosing dehydrated, freeze-dried, or vacuum-sealed items to repackaging ingredients to maximize space, there’s a lot you can do to avoid a heavy, bulky larder without skimping on an adequate and interesting menu out there.
Your caloric intake is going to go up while backpacking and meeting your energy needs while slamming out switchbacks, fording rivers, hopping talus, clambering through jungle-gym deadfall, and simply covering all those hardscrabble miles is paramount. Just how many daily calories you need depends somewhat on the nature of your hiking (on-trail vs. cross-country, steep vs. gentle terrain), the mileage you’re aiming to cover per day, and your own physical size and metabolism. Roughly speaking, you’re probably going to be taking in anywhere between 2,500 and 6,000 calories per day, maybe even more. Thus you want to favor foods with a high calorie-by-weight ratio, on the order of 100-plus calories per ounce; more intensive backpacking may warrant aiming for something like 150 calories per ounce. Because fat’s so energy-rich, simply adding some extra to a dish - say, by having powdered butter or vegetable oil on hand to touch up oatmeal, pasta, or rice - is a quick and easy way to boost its caloric value.
You want to pull your daily calories from all three of the major components of fodder: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Half or more of your daily intake should come from carbs: the easiest-to-process, primary food fuel, delivered via starches and sugars. The rest should be spread roughly equally between proteins - the daily demand for which is about the same for backpacking as everyday living - and fats, which as we’ve mentioned are significantly more calorie-packed than carbs or proteins and which release their energy in a slow-burn kind of way, which helps you feel satiated longer and provides a source of metabolic warmth. Back at home, you may be limiting how much fat you’re ingesting, but out on a multiday hike you generally want to be generous with intake. The same goes for sodium unless you’re on a special low-sodium diet; most prepackaged backpacking meals are high in sodium.
This is a biggie, too. All things considered, the backcountry’s not the ideal place for complicated, convoluted, time-consuming culinary preparations: More often than not, you’re trying to load up with energy in the morning, nab a quick rest-stop snack break on a trailside log, or tend to your bedraggled, worn-out self at day’s end with some palate-pleasing comfort food - maybe while dodging mosquitoes or rushing things ahead of the nighttime alpine chill. Of course, it’s not just that lengthy cooking times are often inconvenient in the context of backpacking: They also translate to high fuel demand, which in turn adds weight and bulk to your pack. Factor in altitude: Water boils at a lower temperature at higher elevations, and depending on the dish this can lengthen the cooking process.
Carefully consider cooking times for different meals - foods that require long simmers can be sneaky fuel-drainers - and make sure you’ve got some instant/just-add-water and raw foods for (a) days when you don’t feel like fussing and (b) emergency situations where you’ve run low on fuel. Also, think about cleanup: One-pot dishes save you a lot of scrubbing and washing.
Depending on where (and when) you’re exploring, water can be at a premium in the backcountry. You need to consider the water demands (if any) of the food you’re looking to prepare out there and plan accordingly in terms of where you camp and which particular days you might be cooking certain meals.
In this section, we’ll consider several basic categories of backpacking food and discuss the pros and cons of each. Keep in mind that many backpackers tote a mix of foods from all of these categories to suit different needs, situations, and appetites. As in so many areas of life, variety’s the way to go: both from the standpoint of meeting your nutritional needs and keeping things fun and interesting for your taste buds.
Dehydrated and freeze-dried meals are hard to beat for their convenience. These foods have been subjected to processes that greatly reduce their weight, bulk, and perishability, allowing you to enjoy virtually any sort of preparation in the backcountry without an unreasonably loaded pack or fiddly cooking directions.
Rice, noodle, or pasta dishes are backpacker staples. These range from “traditionally” cooked grains to instant-style preparations that come packaged precooked.
Packing raw foods gives you ultra-convenient dining options: the ability to chow down on nutritious fare, whether for a quick bite midway through a hike or when you’re stumbling into a campsite completely bone-tired and in no mood to cook.
For on-the-go sustenance, many backpackers reach for bars: super-portable, energy-packed, and (hopefully) tasty!
Many backpackers bring along powdered food - not least for breakfast, when powdered milk goes hand-in-hand with cereal or oatmeal, powdered eggs let you whip up a quick and easy scramble, and powdered shakes give you a quick, no-fuss, get-going energy boost while you load up.
Now that we’ve covered some of the nuts and bolts of backpacking food, it’s high time to herd together some more general tips on cooking in the backcountry. We’ll start off with a biggie: Spare some time and attention to focused pre-trip meal planning.
Some backpackers stick to exact prearranged daily menus, while others are less exacting - choosing meals that sound good the morning of. Either way, though, you should ensure you’ve got breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack options for each day of your trip. You don’t want to haul a bunch of extra food (though some emergency provisions are part of the Ten Essentials of the backcountry), and you certainly don’t want to find yourself running out of food partway through your trek. Both mistakes are easy to make if you don’t work up some kind of chart or spreadsheet spelling out what to bring to meet your daily caloric needs.
Leave No Trace (LNT) is the principle of traveling lightly on the landscape when engaging in outdoor recreation. That’s something every backpacker should strive for: You not only want to minimize your impacts on the natural environments you’re exploring and enjoying for ecological reasons, but also make sure you aren’t spoiling the wilderness experience for fellow adventurers. Unfortunately, food and cooking in the backcountry offer ample opportunities to be a less-than-exemplary LNT practitioner.
Packing out any and all trash and food waste you generate while backpacking is an LNT fundamental. Choosing ingredients that come in minimal packaging, repackaging and consolidating your foodstuffs ahead of your trip, and selecting packaging or containers you can convert to storing trash (Mountain House pouches, for example!) help out big-time in this regard.
Another LNT consideration when it comes to cooking and eating in the backcountry? Favoring stoves over cookfires, especially in heavily used recreation areas or landscapes with naturally limited dead and downed wood.
Doing everything you can to avoid attracting animals with your backpacking food and cooking odors overlaps with an LNT philosophy. Proper food storage in the backcountry is essential: Wildlife accustomed to scavenging at campsites may become dangerously habituated, which can negatively impact their long-term survival and also promote more aggressive behavior toward people. Hoisting up a “bear bag” or using bearproof canisters (which are increasingly required in many national parks) doesn’t only help keep your viddles out of the reach of grizzly and/or black bears: You also need to worry about smaller scroungers such as raccoons, skunks, jays, and rodents. If you’re cooking with a campfire, avoid burning food waste: The resulting aromas and charred scraps may draw in wildlife, which may cause problems for those camping after you. (Learn more about savvy food practices in bear country.)
Hopefully all of the above gives you a useful starting point for thinking about chowing down out there in the wilds. Remember, planning’s the most important step, as it’ll ensure you’ve got enough (but not too much) of the right kind of eats and drinks to keep your energy - and your spirits - up on an adventure.
The challenge of finding food that’s lightweight, packable, delicious, and nutritious enough for backpacking is made a whole lot easier by choosing Mountain House for some of your wilderness menu. Our just-add-hot-water freeze-dried dishes and sides boast the longest shelf life in the business, deliver well-rounded nutrition, and taste mighty good as well. Have a look at our broad selection of easy backpacking meals right here. Bon appetit!