If you are heading into the backcountry for the first time, or if you just need some new recipe ideas, we have compiled this comprehensive backpacking food guide to service both the beginner and experienced backpacker.
We really do not want you to take too much stuff into the wilderness. It sucks when you get back to civilization with shoulders rubbed red-raw from the weight of your pack; and there is still 10 pounds of uneaten food left in there. If only you had not taken all that unnecessary nourishment!
We have looked at how many calories you will need and the types of foods to take, along with some valuable hints, tricks and tips in cooking and repacking your own food. We have even broken down the days into breakfast, lunch and dinner and provided some awesome trail recipes.
The newbie hiker should find everything in this article of some use, but even the grey-beards among you may like to freshen up your backpacking trips with some new recipe ideas.
How many calories will I need?
This is going to vary hugely from person to person. The number of calories you burn is affected by a person’s weight, size, pack weight, the speed you hike, the type of terrain you go over and even what the weather is like.
The people at caloriesburnedhq.com estimate that you burn about 300-600 calories per hour, depending on those things I just mentioned. This means you could be looking at a figure for the day of between 2000-6000 calories burnt. For people strolling gently over undulating or flat terrain in fine weather, you will be looking at a number closer to the 2000 mark.
For those hiking 20 miles over tricky terrain with full packs on their back; you guys will be closer to the 6000 mark, maybe even more on those epic days.
Don’t take too much food
You have probably heard the expressions curiosity killed the cat and too much weight killed the trekker. Actually, I just made that second one up, but it could be true.
It is awesome to head into the wild completely prepared. Your gear is tested and you have enough food. Now, I am all for preparedness, but when you start to ration for three extra days just in case, then this is where your problems will begin.
I am all for having an extra snack handy – or some kind of divine chocolate indulgence – just in case you have a difficult day, but please do not budget an extra 30% of food just in case. It is ludicrous carrying all that extra weight, which may end up being the cause of your just-in-case emergency in the first place.
The most effective way to achieve a good balance is through trial and error. Go for an exhausting day hike and carry all your food for the day, along with all your equipment for a multi-day hike.
Remember, this day is all about food. The added perks of exercise and being in nature are just a sideshow to you nailing your trail nourishment requirements.
Eat breakfast, and feel how full it makes you. Feel how long it lasts you. Do the same for all the meals. Even when you are home that night, prepare what you would be eating on the trail. Was it too much? Are you starving? Did you get it just right? If you are answering yes to any question there but the last one, then it is time for more trial and error.
Have another go next weekend with more or less food and see how you go.
You should then be able to back-calculate the calories you needed (by working out quantities and reading labels) to undertake the amount of hiking that you did.
This is the nerve center of your ultra-lightweight backpacking experience. A little bit later I am going to recommend having peanut butter wraps for lunch on the shorter backpacking trips. I am not recommending you go and buy two-pounds of the stuff in a lovely glass jar, and then put the whole thing in your backpack.
Work out how much peanut butter you will need for the days you will be away, remove that amount from the jar, and repackage it in a lighter, food grade plastic container.
Do this for anything that comes in bulky packaging, or if there is too much of something in a packet. A little later I will give you a breakfast recipe that includes ways to save time and space on the trail by combining ingredients in compartmentalized Ziploc bags before you head off on your adventure.
Avoid canned food – You have seen the old western movies of cowboys eating tinned beans by the fire and it seems like such a romantic notion, but I hate to break it to you: taking tins into the wilderness is a no no.
They are bulky and you need to pack all that rubbish back out with you (Leave No Trace People!), so you are going to end up with a big, annoying trash bag swinging from the outside of your pack while you get hounded by flies and interested insects.
Types of foods to look for
Quick to cook
You need to cut down on weight, so you do not want to be carrying a lot of unnecessary gas. Following this chain of thought, it means we need food that is going to cook quickly.
Enter the world of gourmet freeze-dried meals. When I first discovered there was a whole range of food specifically designed for people like me, who go tramping in the backcountry for days on end – as far as possible from human civilization – it literally changed my whole existence.
I will tell you all about the decent products on the market in the dinner recommendations I make later, but first let me tell you how amazing these freeze-dried delights can be, where you can find yourself devouring delicious Thai Green Curries or White Mushroom and Lamb Risottos.
The food is freeze-dried, so you re-hydrate it by adding boiling-hot water. The better brands have packaging that allows you to pour the boiling hot water straight in, before it doubles up as an eating bowl. All the flavor, vegetables and even meat are brought back to life in the form of a ready-to-eat meal, and it usually just takes a minute or two.
And another thing… Look for substitutes for things that you would normally eat that cook quickly. Couscous, for instance, cooks much faster than rice or lentils. Buckwheat pasta cooks in a couple of minutes compared with normal pasta.
Light and calorie dense
The lighter the better. There is very little weight to something like a packet of noodles. Add a couple of slices of fresh ginger, turmeric, garlic, a tablespoon each of olive oil and soy sauce, a sprinkling of dried, shredded coconut, a teaspoon of honey, a gentle squeeze of lemon or lime, a handful of peanuts, a pinch of dried chili flakes, a little salt, pepper and the optional addition of some freeze-dried chicken or pork.
What you have is an unbelievably delicious, aromatic, fresh, easy-to-make, light, calorie-and-nutrient dense meal, prepared in less than five minutes using a Jetboil. I will even include the recipe at the bottom because I am so very good to you.
Now, remember that repackaging we spoke about? It is possible to combine most of these cooking ingredients in lightweight containers, and then simply chuck them in when you need them, making life so much easier in your makeshift camp kitchen out on the trail.
It may sound a little indulgent, but you will be giving yourself hour-long pats on the back when you are starving – and eating – while everyone else is fiddling about chopping onions and boiling pasta. #smugface
Can I freeze-dry my own food?
Yes, indeed you can, but you will have to purchase you own machine and then get experimenting well ahead of your next backcountry expedition. It involves a certain amount of dedication to get that prepared for your trip, and with companies currently dangling delicious options done for me in front of my face, I tend to lean that way most of the time.
Other do-it-yourself options that are less extreme, are visiting sites like nuts.com, where you can purchase from a seemingly infinite range of dried food and nuts, so you are able to construct your own lightweight meals.
What about using a food dehydrator?
These are machines that use a heat source to remove water from foods. It is perfect for those that cannot go without their daily fruits, but cannot carry these on the trail due to weight, size and their low caloric density.
Fruits normally contain between 80-95% water, and so by removing most of this we can cut down on their weights considerably. Food dehydrators are useful for other foods as well, although they work particularly well with fruits and vegetables.
Next time you are at the supermarket, check out the ingredients of the dried fruit available on the shelves, and I can almost guarantee you it will be full of added sugar and preservatives. Do it yourself, cut down on weight, control exactly what you are putting into your body, and ultimately be a happier person because of it!
Backpacking Meal Plans & Recipes
This really is the mother of all nutritious breakfast dishes, and it is what I eat day after day on the trail. I measure and divide all these ingredients into different plastic food grade zip lock bags. If I am gone for 10 days, I will need to prepare 10 breakfasts and therefore I ready 10 zip lock bags. You can premix your ingredients in the bags, saving a lot of time on the trail.
I will include below what I would put into one of these meals, but bear in mind that different people have different caloric intake requirements, and I am a large man that needs a lot of food. Do a test run with these ingredients in the comfort of your own home and see how full it makes you one morning. Spend that morning as active as you can and feel how long the food sustains you for.
Of course, if this recipe makes more food than you can eat, just adjust it to suit your needs.
Recipe: Breakfast of Champions
- ½ cup of oats
- 1 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 tbsp walnuts
- 1 tbs cashew
- 1 tbs almonds
- 1 tsp chia seeds
- 1 tsp organic cacao powder
- 2 dates
- Handful of goji berries and/or cranberries
- Honey to taste
- At least one cup of boiling water
- Place all the ingredients (except honey and water!) in a zip lock bag.
- When ready to use, pour mix into bowl or cup.
- Add enough boiling water to cover.
- Let sit, covered, for two minutes.
- Add more boiling water if too dry
- Stir in milk, or milk powder substitute if that is your thing, and put a swirl of honey on top.
Benefits for trekking
Oats: Contain a whole load of vitamins and antioxidants, and are super-rich in magnesium, giving you about a third of your daily requirements per serve. Magnesium is essential for muscle recovery.
Nuts: High energy, a great source of protein and healthy fats keep your body strong and going all day, speeding up recovery times while keeping your skin glowing.
Chia Seeds: I do not head into the back country without them. They are choc-full of omega-3 fatty acids, something that your body cannot go without. It actively lowers the amount of fat in the blood, decreasing your chance of a heart attack or stroke, and works its way into your joints to provide some much-needed lubrication. It works as an anti-inflammatory as well, reducing joint pain and stiffness. Oh, and they are so light that if you left them open on the table, they would literally blow away.
Cacao: Too many health benefits to list (I mean, it has over 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries for crying out loud!), but the big one here in the through-the-roof magnesium content which does wonders for your muscles. I cannot remember ever having problems with muscles cramps after adding this to my diet. And it gives your breakfast a lovely little chocolate buzz.
Dates: Crazy nutritious – but mainly in there because they are delicious, and with their high sugar content, they give you a welcome kick up the bum in the morning.
Goji Berries: Any berry will do, but if you can, add dried goji berries to your morning meal (if you can’t find them in the local supermarket, head to China Town or try the Asian grocer) It is full of both vitamin A and C, which will give your immune system a tremendous boost. This is what will keep that cold at bay, which is the last thing you need when you are out in the wild.
I always have chocolate and nuts on hand when I am hiking. I usually have a pocket full of peanuts and almonds, some cashews if I am feeling naughty, mixed with some dark chocolate (I find a 70% cocoa blend is a good balance of sugar and goodness). And then of course I find it difficult to look beyond a good old Snickers Bar, my little prized pick-me-up, for when times get tough and I need a little bit of inspiration.
If you are going to be eating a lot of chocolate, remember, everything in moderation, and try to buy chocolate with nuts already in them, such as Snickers or Peanut M&M’s.
Recipe: Gordon’s (stolen from my friend Emily, and then adapted into this trekking masterpiece) Homemade Snack Bar
- 2 cups of good quality oats
- Handful of goji berries
- Handful of raisins
- Handful of mixed nuts
- 2 bananas
- 2 scoops of protein powder (I use a delicious form of organic European golden pea protein isolate from GoGood Australia)
- ½ cup of organic maple syrup (or 2 tbsp of Manuka Honey)
- Coconut oil
- 1 egg
- Mix everything together (really mash up those bananas)
- Separate into the desired size of bars. The banana and egg make it sticky and easy to form. If your protein powder is too absorptive you can add another egg or a little bit of water to give it a better consistency
- Cook on 350°F for 15-20 minutes (less if you make your bars thin).
You can save time at home when you are making these snacks by using a store-bought premixed muesli cereal of your choice or even a gluten free cereal would work as well. I am just a little picky and like to have complete control over my ingredients.
Lunch – six days or more
Protein Bars – I normally go big with breakfast and keep it simple for lunch. I do not like to carry too much extra weight in the form of wraps for sandwiches, particularly if I am going away for a longer period of time.
Hemp has often been described as the most nutritionally complete food source on Earth, and rightly so. It has bags of highly-soluble protein and is low in carbohydrates. It is high in unsaturated fats (the good stuff) and fiber, giving it health benefits as far ranging as good gut health to a perfectly-working brain.
The good fat and protein ratio to all the other stuff if about 80%, so it’s weight-to-goodness benefit is perfect as a backpacking food source. The Hemp Protein Bars from Evo Hemp are a good place to start. They are tasty, filling, and two of these keep me going for hours.
And with that in mind, I do honestly believe that global production of hemp could save the planet (I mean, they planted the stuff at Chernobyl to suck toxins out of the soil and groundwater, which it did very quickly). It requires no pesticides or herbicides as it is naturally resistant to most pests. It also improves soil quality, meaning crops can be planted year after year with no farrow period. Just saying…
Lunch – five days or less
Wraps – For the shorter trips I would add myself one wrap per lunch time, to be complemented with just one protein bar. My second protein bar I downgrade as a snack, meaning I will bring less chocolate with me. My thinking is normally that the trips are shorter and I can go harder for those few days on the trail, therefore I can afford a little extra pack weight and a few extra calories.
If I am backpacking in colder climates where temperatures rarely stray above fridge-temperatures, I will take things like ham and cheese with me in Ziploc bags, maybe even a small bag of spinach and coriander too. In warmer climes, where meat is likely to spoil quickly, I would be more inclined to load my wraps up with peanut butter and jelly/ honey. Yum!
It is quite a remarkable thing, to slog away all day, crossing mountain passes and traversing river valleys, before setting up the camp for the evening, boiling some water and sitting down to a nutritious Coq Au Vin, Beef Bourguignon or Mediterranean Lamb with Black Olives.
Now, these store-bought freeze-dried meals are not the most delicious things on the planet if enjoyed – say – on a Friday evening on the comfort of your lounge chair in front of the TV. After a 20-mile hike that brings a welcome end to a hard day and you sit trying to keep warm, I will tell you one thing; a meal has never, ever tasted so good.
Now it is even possible to find ready backcountry meals to suit:
- Vegetarians/ vegans
- Gluten/ dairy free
The meals come is many different forms, including:
- Soups (pumpkin and tomato, for example. There are many more.)
- Breakfasts (bacon, sausage and egg, or pancakes and maple syrup)
- Meal accompaniments (mashed potatoes)
- Desserts (apple pie)
- Pretty much any type of main course (curry, spaghetti Bolognese)
- Fruits and smoothies
- And many, many more!
If you find yourself in the southern hemisphere, do not look past The Outdoor Gourmet Company and their range of gourmet products from Backcountry Cuisine.
It is not cheap, but if you are like me and are of the thinking that delicious, hearty meals are a backcountry necessity, then try this range of food. I doubt you will be disappointed.
It even tastes pretty good in front of the TV on Friday evening.
Other great brands are Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, Good To-Go, MaryJanesFarm, Patagonia and AlpineAire Foods, all of which are available online at REI.
Recipe: Asian Noodles
- One packet of noodles (flavor sachet removed and left at home, preferably thrown in the bin. Just read the ingredients list!)
- One clove of garlic
- One thumb-sized piece of ginger
- One thumb-sized piece of turmeric (or ½ tsp powder)
- 2 Tbsp peanuts
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp shredded coconut
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp lime/ lemon juice
- ½ tsp chili flakes (optional)
- 1 kaffir lime leaf (optional)
- free-dried chicken or pork (optional)
- Organic coconut milk powder (optional)
- If using, add the kaffir lime leaf and make just enough coconut milk to cook the noodles in, or add just enough water and cook the noodles until almost complete
- Remove noodles from pot, leaving water inside
- Add the rest of the ingredients and boil for 2 minutes
- Add the noodles and cook until complete
- Remove kaffir lime leaf, if you used it.
- Eat straight out of your cooking pot!
Hot drink ideas
No need to patronize here, we all love our coffee and tea. I take both with me on my backcountry expeditions and we all have our favorites. The super, awesome, fantastic news is that you can take both with you. They do not weigh much and provide you with a little caffeine tickle that can get you moving on the trail first thing in the morning.
Tea and coffee are also loaded with anti-oxidants, which is what you need when you are out in the world. But do not limit this as the extent of your choice of hot drinks.
Take my advice and pack a chunk of fresh ginger, some fresh pieces of turmeric, one lemon and a little bit of honey. Cut off two small bits of both ginger and turmeric (no need to peel as long as you pre-washed them thoroughly at home), and then add boiling water.
After the liquid has cooled to a drinkable temperature, cut off a small piece of the lemon and throw into the cup (squeeze first then throw in, peel and all) and stir in your desired amount of honey.
It is important to add the lemon and honey after the drink has cooled otherwise the heat of the boiling water will upset the makeup of the vitamin C and other goodness, making it useless for your body. However, the amazing anti-inflammatory properties coming from the turmeric and ginger are not harmed by the hot water, and in fact it will infuse more amazing flavor and health benefits into your drink.
Consume one of these per day, and I doubt you will ever have a cold again!
Always head into the backcountry prepared. Know your body and how much food you are going to need, so you can start to take the exact amount of food that you require, meaning that you do not need to carry unnecessary weight.
Make sure your food is calorie-dense, so things like boiled eggs and nuts go a lot further on the trail than things like bread and fruit. If you want to take something that comes in a heavy container, that is fine, but repackage it and leave that glass jar at home.
You will be at the mercy of the weather and external forces, so prepare your body in the best way possible by consuming a sufficient number of antioxidants and important vitamins (such as A, B & especially C). The simple addition of lemon and ginger to a hot drink is almost enough to meet your daily requirements. It is easy to do; you just have to be smart about it.
As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.