Food for Backpacking

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 believes 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 it’s ease of preparation, caloric density, and maybe cost / calories. Many of these 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. I encourage people to take food that with enhance their journey.

Most people end up cooking food. 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.

Food Selection

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. 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 Barry Sear’s Zone Diet and related diets. There was a nice article in the NYT about the scientific evidence that a low carb diet is healthy. A simple summary of the Zone diet is that you should take 40% of your calories from carbohydrates (ideally complex like veggies and beans, not sugar or simple starches), 30% from protein, and 30% from fat.

The amount of food people require is typically based weight and activity level. I have some body fat which can help fuel my days. So while I might burn around 4000 calories in a day (20+ miles with 5000ft climbing), I find 2200kcal enough food for me to feel full. Typically my daily food weights  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 of Quest Nutrition Bars. In colder weather instant oatmeal cooked in the paper packet
  • Snacks/Lunch: Low Fat Salami, Tortilla, Mustard, with some hard cheese
  • Dinner: 2-3 oz Couscous or ramen noodles, 2-4oz dehydrated meat or foil sealed meat, olive oil, crystal light lemonade and some dark chocolate or Ferrero Rocher for desert and mint tea.

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 typically 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 cous cous 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 is happens, most hikers find themselves eating significantly more than they expect (more like 4500-5500Kcal).

Breakfast

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]
  • Malt-o-Meal 
  • 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:

  • Omelets
  • Pancakes
  • 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
  • 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. 
  • Pemmican
  • 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 ).  Helen 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, Cheese Puffs
  • Sunflower seeds 
  • Wasabi Peas 
  • 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

When I first started backpacking I love Kendal Mint Cakes and Space Food Sticks but haven’t taken them on trips in years.

Dinners

  • 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]
  • 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 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)… 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
  • Various fantasticfoods  and tasteadventure products
  • Nutri System meals
  • Freeze Dried dinner from Mountain HouseAlpineAire Foods, etc

For more ideas take a look at articles Freezer Bag Cookingwilderness 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 Gourmentminimus.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.

Cleanup

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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *