The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Food

by Ian Standard
Last Updated: October 25, 2021
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Everybody’s got to eat. Backpackers have a need to eat three, or four times as much as the normal person working in an office every day. If you’ve ever put dozens of miles under your boots in a day, you’ll understand the need for good, filling backpacking food while out on the trail.

So, yes, you need to eat. But the big question is always what backpacking food you eat while out on the trail. There are limited resources and restrictions on what kind of things you can carry along with you. Anything you eat, you have to carry, so there’s a lot that comes into play when deciding what backpacking food really is. 

Your backpacking trip relies on days, sometimes weeks, of thorough planning, and a lot of that energy will be put into finding the right food. Luckily, there are tons of options to still eat a delicious, calorie-rich meal while out in the woods. 

Types of Backpacking Food

Once you start looking into different backpacking meals, you’ll quickly realize there’s a variety of styles you can go with. Typically, most people will mix different types of backpacking food to make their perfect backpacking meals plan for the trail. This is really up to you, but there are pros and cons of each different style of food. 

Hot Water Meals

When I say hot water meals, these are the types of foods that all you need to make dinner is boiling water. For example, fully dehydrated meals (check out Backpacker’s Pantry Meals or Mountain House), freeze-dried foods, instant mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, Pasta Sides (the broke hiker’s favorite), instant oatmeal, etc. These are a favorite on many backpacking trips for a number of different reasons. However, that doesn’t mean they come without their own drawbacks.

Pros

These can be some of the easiest meals you bring out on the trail. The actual cooking will be straightforward and simple. Boil water, add to the pot, sit back and enjoy. Along with the ease of cooking comes a low number of gear necessities. You just need to bring along a stove, pot, and fuel to keep the water going. If you’re old school, you can boil water over the fire and bring that list down to a single item, the pot. 

Another big advantage of hot water meals is weight. Since you’re adding the water while on your backpacking trip, all of the water is taken out beforehand. Water is one of the heaviest things you carry on a trail and removing that from your food is a huge win. This style of food gives you the maximum bang for your buck when discussing weight.

One thing about hot water meals that a lot of people love is the ability to eat well and customize your food. If you are truly committed to eating like royalty, buy a food dehydrator and play around with different recipes at home before the trail.

When you do the prep work, you can find yourself eating five-star Fettuccine and Chicken Alfredo miles away from any civilization or expensive Italian joint. If you aren’t into the prep work, you can just buy prepackaged, freeze-dried meals that still rock your taste buds and fill your stomach. 

Cons

The biggest drawback to these hot water meals is the price. If you aren’t preparing your own dehydrated foods, you can rack up a huge bill pretty quickly buying these fancy meals on several backpacking trips. On the other hand, you can buy packets of pasta for less than a dollar and eat almost as well. It all comes down to personal preference. 

If you are preparing your own food, there’s a lot of time commitment before your trip even starts. You’ll need to come up with a backpacking meal plan, cook, and dehydrate your own meals. Some say it’s worth it, some like to stick to Kraft macaroni and cheese.

The last con of hot water meals is fully based on your route and situation. The thing is, you need water. If you’re in a water-scarce area then using your few liters to make dinner can be quite challenging and demoralizing. Desert hiking can be difficult with these meals, but deep into any temperate rainforest, you’ll never think twice about using water. 

Raw Foods

The raw food diet has been trending for a few years now, but backpackers have had it on their menu for a much longer time. Raw foods like trail mix, peanut butter, tortillas, fruits, and other quick bites, are a great option to bring along on the trail. If you aren’t one for going through a lengthy cooking process, this is a great addition to the menu. 

Pros

The most obvious advantage of eating raw foods on the trail is that there’s no need to get out the stove and use time and fuel cooking. It’s ready to go right when you land in camp and need something to fuel yourself.

No need to cook also means being able to bring less fuel along with you. There’s some weight saved there, but there’s also weight added with the raw food (which we will talk about later). 

Certain raw foods pack a huge punch when you’re talking about protein and dense caloric value. Peanut butter is a staple in any backpacker’s diet. The quick finger-dip into the peanut butter jar will give a huge amount of energy with a single bite.

Trail mix, or what you’ll often hear referred to as GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), is arguably the best trail food to keep you powered throughout the day. 

These quick-access raw foods will certainly be a part of your diet on your next backpacking trip. The caloric density doesn’t always sacrifice your desire for healthy food and you can bring a full list of healthy and delicious treats along. 

Cons

The biggest con with raw foods is their weight. A jar of peanut butter is delicious, but the ounces add up quickly. Most raw foods are dense and therefore have a lot of water weight or are just a lot of food. You can find dehydrated peanut butter, but it still isn’t the same thing. 

Raw foods also just don’t hit the spot as well as a hot meal at the end of a long day. Raw foods should be supplementary to your diet, not the main star. There’s a lot to be said about the comfort that warm food brings to you after booking it on the trail for so many miles. 

Prepackaged Bars

Another great on-the-go option for hiking trips is a bag full of prepackaged bars. Whatever it may be, Nature Valley, Clif Bar, Luna Bar, you name it, these bars are designed to bring a lot of energy in a small package. Plus, you’ll find a bar with every flavor under the sun in it, so you’ll always be able to please your taste buds. 

Pros

Like I said, these bars are made to be quick, filling, and full of the nutrition that you need to keep hiking. Clif Bars market specifically towards filling up highly active individuals, and they truly do the job. There are a lot of calories in a small wrapper, which is exactly what you should be looking for when choosing what to take on trail. 

The size of these bars makes it easy to keep a couple in your pack’s hip belt pockets so you don’t even need to stop to get food out. A lot of us backpackers can become stubborn and not want to stop when trying to make the miles of a long day. This way, you can eat on the run and never need to stop. 

Cons

To be honest, prepackaged bars should be in your pack. These are the simplest way to get quick calories and a lot of other nutrients that you need out there. They can, however, come at a price. If you’re packing for a short trip, a couple of these won’t feel like they’re breaking your wallet. If it’s a longer trip, you’ll need to fork over a fair amount of money to get enough. 

These prepackaged bars are also the main culprit of trail trash. The little corners that you rip off when feeling starved often end up on the ground and quickly forgotten about. Pick up your trash, open the bars without ripping pieces off, and this no longer becomes an issue.

Powdered Foods

Powdered foods are like dehydrated meals with a single ingredient to the extreme. Industrial dehydrators turn things like eggs, peanut butter, powdered milk, and protein shakes, into a fine powder that is virtually weightless.

They’re a great choice to cut ounces off your pack, but definitely have some disadvantages. You’ll find some hikers that love powdered foods, and some that won’t be caught carrying it. 

Pros

Powders like powdered milk are incredibly lightweight and can have a high nutritional value, which you may desperately need while out on the trail. Powdered eggs and peanut butter still retain a high protein level, just like a simple protein shake powder. 

Turning powder back into food or drink is often more simple than any hot water meals. If you just add cold water, you get a drink that will help fill you up quickly. Some foods, like powdered eggs, do better with heat, but it isn’t necessary.

Cons

The biggest con of powdered foods would be the taste. Foods tend to lose their flavor when they’re completely sucked dry of all water. Adding that water back in just doesn’t have the same effect. Powdered eggs end up being something that you need to force down rather than enjoy. 

If you’re focused only on weight, powdered foods may be a good choice. Personally, powdered foods rarely make it into my pack. If they do, it’s in the form of a chocolate protein powder that I can turn into a “kind-of” milkshake. 

Backpacking Meal Tips

Bring What You Like to Eat

Just because you’re on the trail doesn’t mean you can’t eat the way you like! This is a great opportunity to play around with different foods and create a meal plan that you are going to look forward to enjoying for taste, not just sustenance. 

Pack a Variety

If you’re out for a long time, you’ll thank past-you for packing different foods. The same granola bars, oatmeal, and pasta sides start to get old after just a few days. Mixing it up with an array of foods is the best way to keep you and your tummy happy out there. This is the kind of food prep that will change your life on the trail for the better.

Shelf-Stable

Good backpacking food is similar to apocalypse food. It lasts forever. When you pack food that isn’t going to go bad in a day or two, you don’t need to worry about eating fresh greens early on in the trip and saving the freeze-dried backpacking meals for later. Going with all shelf-stable foods will make your life worlds easier. 

Lightweight

No matter the length of your trip, every ounce counts. A lot of extreme lightweight backpackers will cut straps off their packs and rip pages from a book as they read it. While you don’t need to go to these extremes, food is one of the heaviest items you will carry on the trail. Choosing lightweight food will take pounds off of your back and make your days that much more enjoyable. 

Calorie Dense

Calorie dense foods are great for backpacking food because it helps you to save on space. Your backpack is only so big, meaning you need to fit as many calories into as small of a space as possible. A great example of a calorie-dense snack is a Snickers bar. They pack a huge punch and are a crowd favorite on the trail. Pay a lot of attention to the calories per ounce for each food you see. The more calories per ounce that you can get, the better.

A secret addition to backpacking food that ups the calorie count is olive oil. Olive oil is easy to bring along and has a ton of calories per tablespoon. Add a little bit of olive oil and summer sausage to some instant rice, dash it with some hot sauce, and you won't be disappointed. You'll sleep with a full stomach and have a high number of calories per bite.

Cooking Time

At the end of a long day, you need to get food into your system fast before you start getting “hangry”. Not only does the cooking time of your backpacking food matter for this, the less time you spend cooking, the less fuel you need to bring along. If you pay attention to how much fuel you need to cook every meal, you will save on fuel. This transfers into being a lighter pack, and a happier human.  

Some foods with low cooking time are instant mashed potatoes, instant coffee, or just any energy bars since their cook time is nothing. Your backpacking diet can be complicated, but the best backpacking meals won't require a large amount of fuel.

Packable

Imagine a loaf of bread being repeatedly shoved into a backpack day in and day out. That load of bread quickly turns into a piece of flatbread that isn’t nearly as nice. Certain foods just don’t pack well, or survive the rigors of a long backpacking trip. Your backpacking food shouldn’t be delicate, it should fold, squeeze, and cram into any small space you have free in your pack. 

Packing food can be difficult. Most backpackers try to pack food in any way to save weight. The natural ingredients, paleo meals, and gluten-free bread, no longer matter as much as meal planning for loads of calories.

Spices and Condiments

Backpacking food can end up being bland no matter how much meal planning you do. Just like bringing variety, adding spices and condiments to your backpacking food resources can be a total game-changer in the backcountry. Things like extra virgin olive oil add a ton of flavor and an even bigger amount of calories. Spices and condiments let you take hot meals that can often be rather bland, and give them a huge punch of flavor. Bring hot sauce along and all of a sudden, simple instant rice or instant potatoes turn into a magical creation.

Fresh Foods

Fresh food can be a lot more enjoyable to have than dried veggies or dried fruits. Fresh fruit unfortunately doesn’t do well in your backpack and doesn’t stand up to the calorie to weight ratio that all backpackers must consider. In the end, apples turn to applesauce, zucchini turns into baby food, and your backpack turns into a disaster. 

Try bringing dried fruit along rather than fresh foods. It can give you the illusion of being a "fresh" hiking food, but won't destroy the rest of your backpacking meal plan. Plus, freeze-dried fruits are possibly one of the best backpacking desserts.

DIY Dehydrated Meals

Dehydrated meals can be pricey unless you turn to your own kitchen. Dehydrators aren’t very expensive and if you have the time to cook and dehydrate your own backpacking meals, you’ll eat well out on the trail. There are available products like Outdoor Herbivore’s Meals, but these can also be made at home with ease. You can even make some phenomenal beef jerky with the right dehydrator. 

Flavored Drinks

If you struggle to stay hydrated while backpacking, bringing along flavored drink mixes can be a quick solution to your problem. Gatorade mixes, Nuun electrolyte tablets, or even Crystal Lite packets can go a long way after weeks of drinking plain water. Some of these different mixes also give you the extra electrolytes and sugars that you need after working hard all day. 

Hot Drinks

Depending on how much fuel you have with you, you can really up your game with hot drinks. Winding down at night can be made even more enjoyable with hot drinks like hot chocolate or tea. These help you get some amount of hydration as well as soothing your soul after pushing hard for miles.

Alcohol

You might look at alcohol and think it would be a good addition to a backpacking trip. Just a little for fun right? Well, alcohol is only going to do hard when you’re out in the backcountry. There are enough dangers that exist while backpacking and you don’t need to impair your judgment. Plus, alcohol dehydrates you and may just leave you not wanting to hike the next day. 

How Much Food Should You Pack For Backpacking?

One of the most difficult parts of packing your food is knowing how much to bring. In theory, your food supplies should equal, or be greater than, the number of calories you are going to burn while hiking.

Figuring out how many calories you may burn while hiking can be difficult. This changes depending on your weight, fitness level, metabolism, and so many other factors. A good go-to number for calories is 3,000. Bringing 3,000 calories a day will most likely cover what you burn in the daytime and with a bit extra for tomorrow. 

Count calories as you pack and make your meals around that. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but try to make it close. 

Meal Suggestions

Breakfast

Breakfast needs to be a light meal that gives you enough energy to start your day right without making you feel sluggish. You won’t be eating pancakes with bacon, but instant oatmeal is perfect for the job. There are a lot of different backpacking breakfast ideas out there, but meal replacement bars or other backpacking snacks will do the trick.

Protein bars and other energy bars are perfect for the morning time as well. They’re quick and easy, without any cooking first thing in the morning. That way, all of your fuel usages can go towards what’s truly important, morning instant coffee. 

Lunch 

Lunch is one of the trickier meals to get right while backpacking. It needs to be quick, and shouldn’t require any amount of cooking. One thing I typically go with is a tortilla with summer sausage or tuna and cheese. It’s either this, or a tortilla with peanut butter and granola mixed in. 

A lot of backpackers will also “skip” lunch by snacking throughout the entire day. Beef jerky, protein bars, and a bag of freeze-dried fruit are all great options to keep on hand to eat throughout the day. This doesn't mean you need to sacrifice nutritious backpacking food. Many of these quick snacks carry a high amount of healthy fats and make the perfect hiking food.

Dinner

Dinner is where you get to let your creativity truly flourish in the backcountry. Some hikers pull out all the stops on their trail food, and some just heat up ramen. We suggest utilizing dinner to get a lot of calories into your body to help recover overnight and be ready for the next day of hiking. 

Any meals that have a lot of calories, carbs, and protein are made for dinner. Pasta with tuna added, dehydrated rice and beans, or any of the Mountain House freeze-dried meals are great for this. If you’ve done the prep work, you can enjoy one of your homemade dehydrated meals just by boiling water and dumping it into your package. 

It can be tempting to bring along canned foods for dinner. Maybe your favorite backpacking food needs beans and canned corn. The problem is, this increases your food weight dramatically. The best backpacking dinners are simple, lightweight, and don't leave a lot of trash.

Snacks

Snacks are key to having a good hike. Snickers bars, chocolate bars, beef jerky, trail mix, and any pre-packaged bars need to be accessible at all times. You’ll find that hunger hits quickly and is unforgiving until satisfied. 

Where To Buy Backpacking Food

A lot of your backpacking food can be found at your local grocery store. The only time you’ll need to make a special trip is for freeze-dried meals. These you can often find at local outdoors shops like REI, or more often online at their websites. There are a lot of different brands, so you’ll need to try them out for yourself to see what best pleases your pallet. 

Critical Food Considerations

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace principles exist to help everyone continue to enjoy the backcountry for years to come. These principles apply even to the food you eat while out on the trail. The most relevant principles to backpacking food are disposing of waste properly, respecting wildlife, and planning ahead and preparing. 

If you plan accordingly, you shouldn’t be bringing any food that will leave trash behind that wildlife will later feed on. It can be incredibly dangerous to get wild animals used to eating human food. This best protects you and others in the future. 

Food Storage

Remember to store your food properly. If you are in bear country, bring a bear canister and enough rope to do a proper bear hang. You’ll also need to pack accordingly to fit all of your food into the canister without issue. 

Calorie Intake

This is one of the most important parts of planning your meals for the trail. Hiking for long distances takes a toll on your body and you need the calories to recover. Without the right number of calories, you’ll find yourself feeling drained and unable to keep going. 

Water Access

The amount of water you will have access to is going to drastically affect what kind of food you can bring along. If you are in the desert, you’ll need to plan for water-light meals. If you’re headed on a trip next to the river, plan to use a lot of water to prepare your dinners and morning coffee. 

Fuel and Stove

There are different types of backpacking stoves on the market, most of which are designed to just boil water. If you are wanting to do some other cooking, you will need to do some research into different stoves. 

Make sure you are bringing enough fuel for the meals that you have planned. If you are cooking often, bring more fuel.

Cost

Backpacking isn’t meant to break the bank. It’s meant to be an enjoyable experience, rather than stress you over finances. It’s easy to get backpacking food for a low price, but it can also be easy to overspend if you aren’t paying attention. 

Give yourself a budget for your trip and try to stick to that. If you have some money left over at the end of your shopping, just grab some extra desserts and throw them in your pack. 

FAQ

What food should I bring on a 3 day hike?

Three-day hikes are a great starting point for figuring out different types of backpacking food. You don’t need to carry too much food, so weight isn’t as big of an issue. I recommend trying different styles of food, starting with hot water meals and raw foods. 

How many days of food can you carry backpacking?

That’s up to you! Typically on longer hikes, I try to plan to carry around a week’s worth of food before needing to resupply. Carrying ten days' worth of food is about the maximum that I would like to carry unless it’s necessary to bring more. 

Ian Standard
I'm a part time wilderness guide, part time student, and full time nature lover. I find any ways possible to get outside and feel together with the world around me, and sometimes that means skiing, biking, hiking, or just sitting.
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