While many people might think that eating outside is all about freeze-dried food, cans of beans, and PB&Js, there’s no reason to suffer when it comes to your trailside culinary experience. Cooking up a nice, hot meal at the end of a long day on trail can be a sure-fire way to boost morale, relax, and unwind before you curl up in your sleeping bag at night.
Plus, a high-quality, nutritious breakfast is probably exactly what you need to maintain your energy on those long up-hill climbs.
But what about lunch?
All too often, we neglect our lunchtime caloric requirements while adventuring, opting for a granola bar or two instead of making sure we’re adequately fueled for the hike back to the trailhead or to that night’s camp. Although granola bars might be a quick and convenient way to refuel on trail, they’re definitely not the nutritious, delicious lunch you deserve.
To help you keep hunger at bay while in the backcountry, we’ve compiled this list of the 10 best backpacking lunch ideas, so you can spend less time meal planning and more time frolicking in the mountains. Here’s what you’ll be eating for lunch on your next trip:
1. Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts
Trail mix is a time-honored stalwart of any good backpacking lunch. Since GORP usually contains a variety of dried fruits and nuts, it’s packed full of the carbs you need for short-term energy, as well as the fats and proteins that will see you through those long up-hill climbs.
That being said, not all trail mix is created equal. Although you can go out and buy pre-made trail mix, it’s often much more expensive and sugar-filled then you might actually want it to be, especially on longer trips. Instead, we recommend buying your ingredients in bulk and making your own trail mix, so you can customize the flavors that best meet your needs.
Usually, you’ll want to start off with a solid base of nuts (peanuts, almonds, and cashews are our preferred options) and dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, and even chocolate-covered blueberries are good options). Then, you can consider adding sweet ingredients (M&Ms, yogurt-covered raisins, mini-malt balls) or savory ingredients (Chex Mix Snack Mix is a personal favorite).
Try to find a nice balance between your sweet and savory ingredients or make two different trail mixes – one when you want a little sugar boost and one for when you’re craving some salt. Sometimes, it’s even nice to add in a few nut/fruit energy chunks (these are a favorite) to get you through those last few miles.
2. Cheesy Fried Bagels
Okay, this might sound a little weird, but cheesy fried bagels can be one of the best backcountry lunches, especially if you don’t want to spend too much time prepping your lunches each day. Cheesy fried bagels are easy enough to make – just grease a pan with oil or butter, fry your bagel and cheese and – voila!
You have a cheesy fried bagel. If you add a dash of water to your pan and cover it quickly, you can even make the cheese melt straight onto the bagel with minimal effort!
Cheesy fried bagels can be made on-the-go for people who like to stop and have a proper lunch break during their hiking days, but most people prefer to cook them up in the morning right after they finish up with breakfast. Just fry up a bagel or two, place it in your bowl (a bowl with a lid is helpful here!) and get ready for some cheesy goodness on the trail.
3. PB&J Tortillas
Tortillas are a great option for backpackers because they’re calorie-dense, relatively sturdy, and delicious with just about anything. For extended backcountry trips, a PB&J tortilla can even be a nice change of pace from trail mix for your lunchtime eating enjoyment.
Simply grab a tortilla or two, add your nut butter of choice, jelly or jam (a small squeezy container is useful) and you’ve got a ready-to-eat lunch. If you’re more adventurous, you can even add some nuts, dried fruit (especially banana chips!), or even cheese into your tortilla.
Trust us, it all tastes amazing in the mountains.
4. Hashbrowns To-Go
If you’ve got extra time in the morning, why not whip up a scrumptious batch of hashbrowns to eat on the trail? Hashbrowns are a lightweight, hunger-squashing way to eat lunch during a backpacking trip that’s easily customizable to suit your specific tastes.
To make hashbrowns, you’ll want to start off with a batch of dehydrated shredded potatoes (like the ones you can find here). Before you start cooking your breakfast, rehydrate them in the bag and let them sit until you’re ready to start cooking. You can also choose to add in some dehydrated veggies for extra nutrition during this step, too, or spice things up with salt, garlic, pepper, and chili powder.
Once everything is re-hydrated, and you’re ready to start cooking, place your spuds in a pan with ample butter or oil and fry to crispy perfection. Bacon bits, cheese, and chopped up summer sausage go well in this dish if you’re looking for more protein and fat in your diet. Place your hashbrowns in your bowl and get ready for a hearty trail meal in just a few hours’ time!
5. Fancy Cheese Platter
Sure, you might not bring camembert with you into the backcountry, but you can still enjoy a delicious cheese platter lunch. Simply pack a couple of different types of cheeses, nuts (almonds and walnuts are a good idea), dried fruit (apricots, figs, and cranberries work well), crackers, salami, and even some jam into your bowl and you’ll be ready for an on-the-go cheese-based extravaganza.
A note on cheeses in the backcountry: Generally speaking, harder cheeses fare better over longer periods of time (I’ve personally kept a mild cheddar for 12 days in the backcountry in the summer with no ill effect) because their lower moisture content makes them more shelf-stable.
So, leave the brie at home and opt for a jalapeño jack or a sharp cheddar for your mountain adventures.
6. Chicken & Fish Pouches
If you’re an omnivorous eater, chicken and fish pouches can be a quick and simple way to add calories, fat, and protein to your outdoor diet without adding much weight to your pack. Chicken pouches and fish packets (salmon and tuna) come in a variety of different flavors these days and taste great when eaten on their own or on a tortilla.
They’re also great to have, in general, because they’re a great way to add meat to your meals in the backcountry.
Jerky is probably the best way to eat meat in the backcountry because it comes in a convenient package, requires no cooking, and is usually fantastic on its own. The downside? It’s relatively expensive and all of those single-use packages produce a lot of plastic trash.
But, if you buy your jerky in bulk or plan ahead, you can avoid having to deal with all of that plastic and you can probably save some dough along the way. Plus, you can even get vegan jerky if you’re of the herbivorous persuasion.
8. Nutrition Bars
If you’re on a shorter trip, you can probably get away with eating mostly nutrition bars since you’ll likely be back in the land of endless choice and grocery stores before you start to regret your lunch decision. There are plenty of nutrition bars out there, each with varying levels of nutritional value.
Generally speaking, bars that avoid added sugars and all of those ingredients with names you can’t pronounce are going to be better for you and provide you with more lasting energy throughout the day.
Lärabars, Rx Bars, Primal Pantry and other similar bars minimize their use of food additives and chemicals, especially when compared with some of the more popular bars out there. That being said, sometimes it’s nice to enjoy a Snickers or a candy bar every once and a while – especially when you’re burning through calories on the trail!
The main drawback to nutrition bars is that they’re pretty expensive and that they come with a whole lot of plastic packaging. But, if you’re only going out into the mountains for a few days, a nutrition bar’s ease just might be worth it.
9. Burrito Bowl To-Go
Everyone loves leftovers, right? One of our personal favorite trail lunches comes when we make too much dinner the night before.
Cook up some rice, refried beans, and dehydrated veggies, with some spices (garlic, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes work well) and place in your bowl with plenty of cheese and hot sauce for a meal on the go the next day!
10. Cinnamon Rolls
Who said backcountry cuisine has to be boring? If you bring along the right equipment (a liquid fuel stove, like the MSR Whisperlite, and a quality pan – we prefer the one and only FryBake), then you can make quite literally anything in the backcountry, including cinnamon rolls.
The best recipe for backcountry cinnamon rolls can be found in the NOLS Cookery (full edition or field edition), so check it out if you’re interested in fresh baked goods in the mountains. If you have time the night before, you can make a yeast bread (just be sure to store the dough in your bear-proof container or bear hang overnight) and have it ready in the morning.
Or, you can make a quick bread using baking powder and get right to work in the morning.
A thick layer of buttery, sugary, cinnamon-flavored goodness and 15-20 getting crispy brown in your pan results in the best darn lunch you’ll ever have in the backcountry. So, if you’re feeling creative, don’t be afraid to cook up a storm on your next trip!
Tips and Tricks for Backcountry Cuisine
Eating well in the backcountry doesn’t have to be difficult, but it can be challenging to find a food system that works well for your needs. For many of us, the prospect of taking out the stove for a midday hot lunch is just not going happen, so we need to plan ahead when we’re on the trail and make our food ahead of time or pack cold foods that require little preparation.
If you’re a lightweight backpacker, you’ll probably also want to make sure that you plan your meals accordingly. There’s no point in getting to a base weight of 7 pounds if your 3 days’ worth of food tips the scales at over 30 pounds. Thus, if you’re looking for weight savings, consider these ultralight backcountry food strategies:
- Opt for dried foods. Dehydrated veggies, beans, and the like are fantastic for ultralight backpackers because they save weight and make your food more shelf-stable. You can even get dehydrated drink powders (milk, lemonade, tang, hot chocolate) to add calories to your diet while you hydrate. Dehydrated nut butters, hummus, and pasta sauces are also great additions to your pantry.
- Look for quick-cook or instant foods. Brown rice is great and all, but it takes 20-30 minutes to cook on a backpacking stove. All of that fuel you’re burning weighs something, so you’ll save weight and the environment by getting instant rice and other such foods for your outdoor kitchen.
- Choose calorie-dense foods. We eat to consume calories, so if you want to save weight in your pack, you can choose foods that provide the largest number of calories in the lightest possible package. Nuts and seeds provide a high 140-170 calories per ounce while Snickers bars give you a cool 138 calories per ounce for those light and fast adventures. Fritos (when crushed up) can also add 160 calories per ounce, as well as some texture, to nearly every meal, especially rice and beans.
- Bring veggies. There’s no reason to skimp on your vegetables when you’re outside. There are so many great options for dehydrated vegetables that you can be sure to eat you five a day with minimal effort. Simply pack some of your favorite vegetables with you on your trip and add them to every meal you cook. You’ll instantly add color, flavor, and nutrition to all of your dishes!
- Choose lightweight packaging. Cans are heavy, bulky, and an absolute pain to open outside. Leave the canned food at home and cook yourself a quality meal. Pretty much anything you can get in a can be found lighter and tastier in dehydrated form.
- Repackage your food. There’s no reason to carry around cardboard boxes and excess plastic bags when you’re outside. You should pack out all of your trash, so simplify your life by repackaging your food or removing those pesky plastic seals on peanut butter jars before you leave home. That way, you’ll lighten your pack and reduce your likelihood of accidentally leaving trash behind outside!
- Bring a lightweight spice kit. A spice kit (or, as we like to call it – “the food repair kit”) can make a huge difference to your culinary experience. Choose some of your favorite spices (salt, pepper, and garlic are must-haves) and consider adding some hot sauce or soy sauce to your kit. Pack it all into tiny reusable Nalgene containers and you can look forward to food that tastes good!
- Use a bowl, with a lid. Although those super light titanium bowls might tempt you, we highly recommend that you get a bowl with a lid. Bowls, like this one, that have a lid allow you to easily pack leftover food for dinner, or keep your lunch from getting smashed into your pack. Plus, the lid doubles as a plate!
At the end of the day, cooking and eating outside should be a joyous experience. On your next backpacking trip, try out some of our favorite lunches to keep you energized on-the-go. Bon appétit!
David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.