Getting out into the wilderness for everything from a weekend trip to a full week of backpacking can be incredibly refreshing. But when it comes to planing and packing meals for a trip, completely dehydrated meals meant for the outdoors can get expensive quickly.
Here is a short guide to cheap backpacking food tips. Within these tips, we’ll also go over some of the best foods for saving money while backpacking. To do so, we’re always conscious of things like weight of the food, calorie count that is needed for energy while on the trail and its price in the checkout line.
Backpacking is so fun. You should never have to break the bank or your back to get out there for a week to enjoy everything the great outdoors has to offer. Without further ado, here is our guide to cheap backpacking food.
Plan your cheap backpacking food with these 15 ideas:
1. Dehydrated Everything
When it comes to backpacking on a budget, dehydrated foods are going to be your best friend. And I’m not talking about the expensive dehydrated meals from places like REI or The Army Navy Surplus Store. There are many different kinds of dehydrated foods that are both cheap and great for backpacking because they will fill you up and give you a complete meal that is lightweight in one package.
Everything from dehydrated mashed potatoes to simple alfredo pasta packs are perfect for a meal after a long day of hiking. There are plenty of different flavors of both of these in your local grocery store for a dollar each. You can also get dehydrated beans, eggs, lentil soup, vegetables and milk which are all great options that wont break the bank, or over-weigh your pack.
You will want to bring some kind of cooking oil and hot sauce to spice some of these dishes up. Don’t forget to plan each meal ahead so that you can use the same oil or spices in another meal further down the trail.
Typically dehydrated foods only need water to become re-hydrated so make sure you will have enough water both for drinking as well as for making your meals if you want to bring dehydrated foods and make them a staple of your diet while on the trail.
2. Go Fishing (Where Applicable)
If you are planing on going backpacking somewhere with a nice body of water or a river, bringing a fishing pole, flies or tackle, and a long piece of wire to cook your fish over an open fire could be an ideal way to complete a meal. Fish are extremely nutritious, full of protein, and could be perfect for adding that extra something to an already planned meal while out on the trail.
Plus, grabbing a few fresh fish to cook is a cheap way to get some extra food at no cost to you besides the time needed to catch them.
Do not rely on fishing of any kind as your only food source for any one particular meal. Fishing and any type of game hunting is a hit or miss sport. You might catch a multitude of fish or you might not catch any at all. If you do end up catching a fish, you can then push one of your other meals back a day or maneuver meals in a way to incorporate the fresh fish for that night of food.
Be sure to check on the fishing regulations in the area where you are going backpacking. You will most certainly need a license if you are located in the USA. Also, sometimes you can only take a certain amount of fish per license or the fish have to be a certain size before they can be cleaned and eaten. Know the rules completely before you do any kind of game hunting.
3. Forage For Greens
Foraging for greens while out on the trail is fun, nutritious, keeps meals interesting and fresh, and helps your pack stay lighter and keeps your belly fuller. Things like mushrooms (be very careful identifying these), dandelions, wild garlic, seaweed, berries, and nuts are all readily accessible throughout various seasons and are great for adding to dishes you might already be making.
You can also just eat these edible plants as a treat while out in the woods.
I do not recommend foraging for greens if you do not know what you are doing or are not completely comfortable at identifying edible plants. It is very easy to misidentify edible plants and leave yourself sick. That could lead to a scary situation if you are far away from trained medical personnel or everyone in your party become ill from the same misidentified plant.
4. Condiment Packs From The Grocery Store
One thing that I love to do before I go out on a backpacking trip is stock up on condiment packs from my local grocery store deli or fast food restaurant. Condiment packets are great because they are typically free with the meals you get, will not go bad while buried in your backpack, and are a great way to spice up meals while on the trail.
You can get things like ketchup, mustard, mayo, hot sauce, barbecue sauce, and salad dressing all for free from the deli at a grocery store or from the restaurant of your choosing. KFC even has butter condiment packs which can be great to use for various meals while out on the trail.
One downside to using single serving condiment packs is the extra trash you will have to hike around with after their use so plan accordingly and only bring exactly as many as you need for your planned meals.
I even use this tip to stock up on condiments outside of backpacking for my everyday use. It is a great way to to save a little extra money and have various condiments at my disposal that I might not otherwise keep in the refrigerator or use often.
5. Ramen Noodles
Ramen noodles are one of the cheapest items at any grocery store and are great for having on the backpacking trail. They are delicious to eat and are super lightweight. You can even add some dehydrated vegetables, foraged greens, or cut up jerky to your ramen to spice it up a little bit. Furthermore, they have a high calorie count which will keep your body energized and rejuvenated after long days on the trail.
Tortillas can generally go with anything you want to make while backpacking. They are great because they are also loaded with nearly 140 calories each. Bring them to eat with peanut butter and honey in a sandwich or for dehydrated eggs, bacon bits, and hot sauce in the morning before you head out for the day.
You can even eat them straight like a bread to keep yourself full and energized. I love to bring a pack of tortillas on the trail with me both for specific meals and for snacking.
7. Oatmeal and Instant Packs
Single serving oatmeal packs are perfect for a morning breakfast that is full of vital nutrients needed for a long day on the trail. Oatmeal will also keep your full and energized throughout a tough day of hiking while not weighing you down too much. If I’m going hiking for three nights, I’ll probably plan on eating an oatmeal pack for at least two of those mornings.
Bring a cliff bar and apples along as well to round out a great breakfast on the trail.
With regard to instant packs, everything from gravy packs for dehydrated potatoes to instant coffee to get you up and ready for the day are great for cheap backpacking options. I always check around my grocery store for interesting instant packs that I might be able to bring while planning for a backpacking trip.
8. Couscous, Rice, and Bouillon
Couscous and rice might be a little bit on the heavier side when it comes to backpacking. However, they make a great meal while out on the trail. Bouillon is one of the best ways to add a lot of extra flavor to these dishes and is great for many other dishes besides. Adding something like rice and dehydrated vegetables next to fresh fish might even make you forget you’re in the great outdoors.
And don’t forget, couscous and rice are both packed with calories to keep you full and energized.
There are plenty of dehydrated pasta packs out there for use but you can also just bring a box of regular pasta or spaghetti. There is even dehydrated spaghetti sauce packages you can use. Pasta is great for energy because it is both easy to digest and high in carbs. This makes it an ideal food for consumption before the hardest part of your hike.
That way, you’ll have plenty of energy the morning of and throughout any rigorous activity.
10. Single Serving Tuna Packs
Single serving tuna is great not only because it is loaded with protein, but it can also be eaten straight for lunch, or added to a buttery pasta dish or other dinners. They are cheap, filling, and lightweight making tuna one of the premier meals to have while out on a backpacking trip.
Make sure you don’t get any tuna that comes in a can. You don’t want the extra weight associated with this type of packaging and you certainly don’t want to have to hike out with a smelly can.
11. Summer Sausage and Jerky
Summer sausage and jerky of any kind should be staples of a backpacking diet. Both of these foods will be on the more pricey end of this list however they certainly make up for it in both the protein they give and the fact that they will not go bad while out in the woods. Eat them for either breakfast or lunch and they both can be added to a variety of meals.
12. Pancake Mix For Breakfast
An easy breakfast that you can use over and over again is simple instant pancake mix. All you need is one that is add water only and a hot pan. Make sure to bring some olive oil or a fat of some kind to grease you pan. If you want something sweet to go with it, honey is very versatile for this and other meals.
You can also find syrup condiment packages at certain fast food chains if you really need it for your hot cakes. This is a great breakfast that you can have multiple times on the same trip and it will not grow old on your. The best part about it is that it feeds as many people as you have and will not weigh down your pack too much.
Read our other article about backpacking cheese here. There you will find a complete guide to bringing cheese backpacking for up to a couple of weeks. But in short, cheese is an amazing food for backpacking that is loaded with protein, will not go bad (depending on the cheese you bring), and can be added to many other meals while out on the trail.
I love to bring a few different kinds of cheeses while I’m backpacking and keep them all in a container together. They taste great and keep meals interesting especially when I’m craving something different on the trail.
14. A Peanut Butter Jar
You might not want to bring an entire peanut butter jar depending on where you are going on your backpacking trip but even just having some in a bag or small container could be ideal. A full jar could be a great option for bigger groups where weight is evenly distributed among team members.
Peanut butter is great because it is not only high in protein which you will need to keep you energized while backpacking up it is versatile and can be used for breakfast, lunch, and as a dessert with some honey or on a banana.
15. Keep It Simple
This final main tip I have for cheap backpacking food and ways to save money while out in the wilderness is to keep your meals simple. Bring ingredients that can be used for multiple meals you have planned and don’t try to overdo it with the food. A pasta dish two nights in a row with different sauces on a short backpacking trip isn’t the end of the world, is very cheap, and will not weigh you down too much.
Nor is having oatmeal a couple of times especially if you get different instant pack flavors. Keep your meals simple so that you can enjoy the experience you have in the woods and not worry as much about spending too much money to be there.
And as always, don’t forget to bring some hot sauce to spice things up a little bit!
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Cameron is a freelance writer with a focus on hiking, fishing and photography. He studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder and now calls Chicago, Illinois home.