There is a saying that an army runs on it’s stomach. The same could be said for most backpackers and outdoor adventurers. For most, food is not only fuel for the journey, but also a source of enjoyment, comfort, and motivation.
There is a wide range of approaches taken by people. Some people have strong philosophical beliefs which guide food selection like people who only bring “raw foods”, vegetarians, etc. Some people prepare full gourmet meals including wine. Some people are completely utilitarian when it comes to food. They select food based on ease of preparation, caloric density, and maybe cost / calories. Some people bring nothing but power bars, snickers, and energy jel so they can eat “on the go” and don’t have to stop to prepare food.
You should know what sort of person you are, and select food that will help you succeed on your journey. Most people want tasty food, and often bring special snacks to celebrate accomplishments and reward themselves for hard work. Special food can take many forms. For some, it’s a special dessert for the end of the day, a bit of fruit fruits or vegetables, or maybe sardines or salmon roe on a cracker. I encourage people to take food that with enhance their journey.
Most people end up cooking food. This makes sense because often the highest calorie density will be dried food that is rehydrated and cooked. I have other posts which discuss stoves and cookware that are appropriate when backpacking. In many locations, care must be taken when it comes to food storage.
The food people bring is extremely varied as is how the food is packaged. I know some people who just bring ready to eat food, others who bring canned food, some who carry MREs, and still others who only bring pre-packaged freeze dried food targeted at backpackers. [Many people repacking the pre-packaged freeze dried meals before starting their trip.] My suggestion is bring enough food to eat healthy (balanced meals) and try to minimize weight. The backpacker oriented freeze dried meals are easy and light, but you can make meals which are just as light (and cheaper) from your local grocery store.
While I am not a fanatic about it, I tend to think there is some merit behind eating a low carb diet. One variant of this is Barry Sear’s Zone Diet 40% of your calories from carbohydrates (ideally complex like veggies and beans, not sugar or simple starches), 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. People who are keto adapted can get away with carrying less food weight because fat has more calories / gram, and they are more able to harvest enough from body fat without impacting muscle.
The amount of food people require is typically based body weight and activity level. You can calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate which is how many calories you burn doing nothing. Add to that how many calories you will burn due to your backpacking activity. Most people can metabolize around 20 calories for every 1lb of body fat / day without impacting muscles. I am somewhat keto adapted and seem to do better than that. People on keto diets and are fully adapted can fuel themselves from their body fat for extended periods of time. On days that I burn around 4000 calories, I have found 2200kcal enough food. Typically my daily food weighs 18-22oz / day
I don’t vary what I take a lot. Sure, I like gourmet meals at home, but when I am on the trail I am willing to eat more or less the same thing multiple days if the food is light and presents little hassle to make and cleanup. My typical three season meals are:
- Breakfast: South Beach, Zone Perfect or Quest Nutrition Bars. In colder weather instant oatmeal cooked in the paper packet, maybe with some protein powder added.
- Snacks/Lunch: Low Fat Salami, Tuna, or smoked salmon, Tortilla, Mustard, with some hard cheese. Crystal Light Lemonade. Shorter trips carrots or other raw veggie.
- Dinner: Couscous or ramen noodles, dehydrated meat or foil sealed meat, olive oil, crystal light lemonade and some dark chocolate or Ferrero Rocher for desert and mint tea. With others often hummus appetizer with veggies.
- Snacks: Trail mix of edamame, goji berries, almonds, dried cherries, dark or fudge m&ms
As it gets colder I end up carrying more food (you burn food faster to stay warm). On cooler trips I take 2500-3000Kcal, and even more in the dead of winter.
When the weather gets hot, I often find my appetite will often drop off. I often bring no cook foods because I know I won’t be motivated to cook or eat. I will typically shoot for less “heavy” (e.g. hard to digest food), so the ratio of fat and protein to carbs goes down, increase the amount of fresh fruit I take, make sure I have ginger and lemon flavors things (seems to help restore my appetite). I sometimes bring powdered shakes or a lemon flavored sports drink powder. Sometimes I will bring couscous which I rehydrate without cooking (needs more time than when cooking).
Note: folks who do the long trails (like the PCT) will find that after a few weeks or maybe a month will have burned off all their excess fat. Once that has happened, most hikers find themselves eating significantly more than they expect.
My preference is to eliminate food preparation so I can get the day started quickly with minimal hassle and don’t have to unpack cooking gear. No mess breakfasts include:
- 2 Zone Perfect Nutrition Bar 3.6oz [4 balance blocks, ~420 calories] Note: say away from the bars which have yogurt or chocolate coating because these will melt.
- 2 Nutra-grain bars – [2fat, 6crb, .5protein, 280 calories]
- 2 Pop-tarts – [4fat, 8carb, 1protein, 420 calories]
- 3 South Bar Cinnamon Raisin Bars, [5fat, 4 protein, 5 carb, 140 calories, ~420 calories]
Many people like a hot breakfast to get them going in the morning. The single serving packets of oatmeal are actually big enough that you can add water to the packet, avoiding getting a cup or bowl dirty.
- 2 Oatmeal + Soy Protein Powder, 3oz, [2fat, 4carb, 4protein 302 calories]
- 2 Oatmeal, 2oz [1fat, 4carb, 1protein, 200 calories]. Add nuts and fruit for extra flavor
- 2 Flavored Oatmeal, 3.8oz [1fat, 8carb, 1protein, 380 calories]
- Powdered Whey protein based sports shakers
- Granola / Familia / Grapenuts + powdered milk (add cold or boiling water) 4oz [0fat, 8carb 2protein]
- Freeze dried breakfasts
- Add Hot Chocolate to any of the above meals 1.1oz [1fat, 3carb, 120 calories]
- Add Tang / Cool-aid to any of the above meals [carb] or Crystal Light [no cal]
Of course if you are at a trailhead and have a cooler you can do all sorts of things such as:
- French Toast
- Add sausage or bacon to above
Snacks / Lunch
In general I don’t do a big lunch… but eat smaller snacks through out the day’s hiking. In order of my likelihood of using:
- “Dry” or smoked meats like salami
- Sealed ready to eat meats: tuna, salmon, spam, etc
- Jerky (typically beef)
- PB&* (jelly, honey, nutela in separate dispensers).. or combined in moose goo… the corn flour provides good mouth feel
- Hard cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano (parmesan), Grana Padano, Swiss Gruyere, Cheddar, Gouda, Monterey Jack, can be kept for weeks. Normally I put the cheese in a zipper lock bag, but for longer trips I have sometimes covered day size pieces of cheese in wax to protect it. Some people will wrap the cheese in a cheese cloth lightly soaked in vinegar: the cloth will soak up oils that might come out of the cheese and the vinegar will keep mold at bay.
- Individual serving sealed soft cheese: triangles (2oz, 70kcal, 7g fat, 2gm carb, 6gm protein), wine cheese (2oz, 160gram, 14gm fat, 2gm carb, 8gram protein) sold at better grocery stores and stores like Cost Plus.
- Pita bread, Bagels, or Tortilla for making “sandwiches” with cheese, dried meat, or moose goo.
- Cliff Bars, Quest Bars, Zone Perfect Nutrition Bars, Power Bars, Tanka Bar, custom designed Element Bars, etc. Caution: the yogurt and chocolate coated melt in heat, and most freeze really solid in cold.
- Dehydrated fruit (I particularly like dates, papaya, mango, pineapple, apricots & pineapple)
- Fresh fruit (apples and oranges are pretty durable)
- Trail mix / GORP (most are too high fat for my taste ). Joel likes macadamia nuts, peanuts, cashews, blueberries, cranberries, banana chips, dark m&ms, dates.
- Good Dark Chocolate (>=66% cocoa) – much more resistant to melting that cheap milk chocolate, and I think tastes a lot better
- Just the Cheese Rounds
- Pringles (in single serving containers), Fritos
- Sunflower seeds
- Wasabi Peas
- Dry Roasted Edamame
- Lipton cup of soap
- Ensure Powdered Drink/Shake Mix or other powdered Sport Protein Shakes
- Hummus to Go – 2.4oz, 70kcal, 4gm fat, 8gram carb, 4gm protein
- Salmon Roe (less expensive than you would think)
When I first started backpacking I love Kendal Mint Cakes and Space Food Sticks but haven’t taken them on trips in years.
- Udon noodles – Similar to Ramen but noodles a bit wider and healthier, 3oz [1fat, 6carb, 1.5protein, 275 calories]
- Ramen noodles 3oz [4fat, 6carb, 1protein, 360 calories]. Lots of ways to supplement to make tasty (ramen recipes)
- Macaroni &Cheese… Kraft EasyMac works well, 2.1oz [1fat, 4car, 1protein 230 cal]
- Hummus mix – 3oz mix [6fat, 5carb, 2.5protein, 450 calories]
- Couscous – 2.8oz [2fat, 7carb, 1protein, 330 calories]
- Osem Precooked Minute Pasta – 3oz [0fat, 7carb, 1protein, 307 calories]
- Instant Mash Potatoes (Excel potato pearls and Idahoan brand seem well liked)
- Tortillas + black beans
- Add foil sealed chicken, tuna, salmon, spam, etc to above items for additional protein
- Add bacon bits to above for additional flavor
- Add olive oil to above for extra calories
- MREs 13oz [7fat, 16carb, 3protein, 1250 calories]
- Tastybite (boil a bag meals which are tasty but somewhat heavy)… for example Chicken Moglai 9oz [10fat, 4carb, 8protein, 640 calories]
- Hot breakfast foods like oatmeal
- Catch some fish, harvest mussels or crabs, etc (Some places this is reliable)
- First day… let frozen meat thaw as you hike: steak or kabobs over a wood fire
- Broccoli, Carrots, other durable veggies
- Various fantasticfoods and tasteadventure products
- Nutri System meals
- Freeze Dried dinner from Mountain House, AlpineAire Foods, etc
Lots of data in the Long Distance Hiking Food Resupply Tool spreadsheet and GearSkeptic’s Food spreadsheet
For more ideas take a look at articles Freezer Bag Cooking, wilderness Cooking, the book Backcountry Cooking From Pack to Plate in 10 Minutes by Dorcas Miller. Also be sure to check out Pack Light, Eat Right. If you are tired or raiding your local fast food joints for single serving condiments and other meal enhancers, check out Packit Gourment, minimus.biz or alltravelsizes.com. People who are trying to minimize weights often carry fat or protein filled foods and/or suppliment normal food with additives like olive oil, dried milk, and protein powder. You might also what to try some of the ideas in Vegetarian Cooking for backpacking.
I try to minimize how much cleanup I do. On longer trips and trips where the meal isn’t that messy (say ramon noodles) I will cook and eat out of my pot. When cooking messy meals, I sometimes boil water in the pot, and then “cook” in a freezer bag which is inside a bag cozy. I eat out of the bag and then pack it out.
On group trips I use a bowl which is open enough that I can “lick mostly clean”. Otherwise, I will typically using a small nylon scrapper to get an food chunks out of the pot. A bit of sand can work if you are very careful. Often times there still be a oily film on the items scrapped. Some people use hot water and soap, but I try to avoid that because if you don’t rinse well enough you can get diarrhea from ingesting the soap and because I don’t like adding soap, even biodegradable, to the water system. Once I have all the particular matter removed I boil a pot of water and make tea. The boiling sterilizes, the tea has tannic acid which helps cut the grease. You can use the tea-bag itself as a fragile sponge.