Backpacking Meal Planning Basics
Fueling For Multi-Day Trips
If you are new to backpacking, figuring out how much food to bring and what type can be overwhelming. Whether you are doing a quick one-nighter or a multi-day trip, you want food that is not only going to nourish you but will taste good too. Find out what food is best for backpacking, get inspired with some not-so-boring snack ideas, and learn how to avoid some common mistakes in the story below.
Have you ever been hiking through the backcountry with a heavy pack on your back when out of nowhere you seem to hit a wall? Maybe you get a headache or dizziness or otherwise feel like you are out of juice. What’s happening here is called “the bonk” or “bonking”, it’s what happens when you experience sudden fatigue and loss of energy that is caused by drops in glycogen.
To avoid losing steam, we have to make sure that we’re not only staying hydrated but that we’re also fueling appropriately for long days moving outside. The best foods for backpacking are going to be nutrient-dense foods that provide lasting fuel for our bodies. While shorter efforts, like that weekend long run, can be fueled mostly with quick hits of sugar, you’ll need a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and protein-heavy fuel for a weekend on the move. When shopping for meals, keep calories in mind: higher calorie meals are essential for long days in the backcountry.
What Types Of Food To Pack
Backpacking food doesn’t all have to be processed or packaged. Pre-chopping things like red pepper, carrots, celery, apples, or sugar snap peas will add some fresh nutrients to your meals and won’t add too much weight. Other good snacks to consider are:
- Trail Mix
- Dried Fruits
- Nut butters
- Tuna or salmon packets
- Protein Bars
- Peanut Butter Pretzels
- Yogurt Covered Pretzels
Things like cured meats (think salami) and hard cheeses are rich in protein and calories and will keep well for a couple of days. Dry foods like instant rice or noodles, freeze-dried potatoes, and soup mixes are some of the best lightweight hiking foods and take up very little space in your pack. Adding some olive oil to any of your dry goods will add fat and calories, and a little help from your spice kit or some dried veggies will go a long way.
There are a few small additions that can help you feel your best. Particularly in warm weather, adding an electrolyte mix to your water helps replace the minerals you sweat out while hiking. If you’re looking to add protein to your breakfasts, a bag of your preferred protein powder can be easily mixed in with oatmeal.
Dehydrated or freeze-dried packaged meals simplify the planning process but can run a bit higher in price. I like to cook my own meal the first night, adding a fresh veggie or two that I brought along and then switch to dehydrated meals for the following nights. Check out our whole selection of backpacking meals here.
How Much Food To Pack
It’s common to fear running out of food while backpacking. And while running low is never ideal, over-packing can also make it hard to enjoy your time on the trail. The answer to how much food to bring isn’t always simple. It can depend on things like the length and difficulty of your trip, the weather and your own fitness and baseline hunger. Typically speaking, most people need around 2,500 to 3,500 calories per day while backpacking. You can also estimate food quantities by weight like long-distance hiker Andrew Skurka recommends: aiming for 18 to 22 ounces of food per person per day.
When planning out how much food you should bring, consider things like how many days you will be gone, the weather, how many miles you’ll be hiking each day, and the elevation gain. All of these components can impact how hungry you’ll be: your body needs more calories to stay warm and active in cold weather than hot weather, for example.
Perfecting Your Cook Kit
If you are building your backpacking kitchen from scratch, there are a multitude of options for everything from pots to sporks. It’s easy to get overwhelmed – in this case sometimes less is oftenmore. Check out our article Go Light, Cook Right which breaks down stove and fuel options as well as some compact cookware.
Adding a few spices to your meals can make them much more enjoyable. Having some basics in your spice kit such as salt, pepper, and garlic powder are simple ways to enhance flavor. I also like to add packets of mustard, mayo, or sriracha to mix with my tuna packets.
When planning your meals, be aware of how much water you’ll need to prepare each dish. Review your route and determine where the nearest water source is where you can pump water with a filter or purify with purification tablets. In addition to water, consider how much fuel you will need to cook your meals and heat water for coffee and/or tea in the morning. Generally speaking, for a weekend backpacking trip where you will be cooking for yourself, a small 100g canister of stove fuel will do, depending on weather and elevation.
Lastly, depending on where you are, local regulations may require you store food in a bear canister. While a bear canister can be tricky to pack, the requirements are there for a reason, so be sure to check prior to your trip.
Alexandra (Ali) Lev is a freelance writer and content developer on subjects ranging from the outdoors to mental health, the environment, and social justice issues. Originally from Salt Lake City, Ali now lives in Portland, OR, and spends her free time in the backcountry with her husband and their two Siberian huskies. Follow her on luckyalexandra.com or at @luckyalexandra.