Last Updated on August 15, 2020
Past attempts at organizing my backpacking food and creating meal plans were always a bit reckless for me.
My old approach usually involved jamming a hodgepodge assemblage of hiking food into my over-stuffed bag and hoping for the best.
Ensuing days on the trail were spent hiking around dull and nutrition-less food, falling short on calories, and ending up hungry and exhausted. My internal fuel tank was running on fumes, and I suffered as a result.
If I was going to start getting the most out of my backpacking trips, I needed to overhaul my relationship with the food I was bringing along.
So, I reworked everything.
And nowadays, my hiking trips go much differently. I enjoy and savor each meal, my body gets all the nutrients it needs to thrive and recover, and I can pack enough food for a week of hiking. Putting together a solid backpacking meal plan was a game-changer for me, and it can make the same difference for you.
So, let me share all my best tips and ideas about putting together a lightweight, nutritious, and satisfying backpacking food plan. Life’s too short to be hungry on the trail.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Plan Your Calories
2. Focus on Convenience
3. Focus on Variety
4. Assemble a Cooking Kit
5. Plan Your Meals
6. Organize Your Food
7. Odor-Proof Your Food
8. Don’t Forget About Water
9. Leave No Trace
10. Final Thoughts: Find Your Strategy
11. More Backpacking Resources
Savvy backpacking food-management starts and ends with numbers. Calories, to be more specific.
The ultimate goal is to consume the perfect amount of food as you hike and camp at correctly timed moments throughout the day. You need to have the energy and focus on dealing with the common threats on the trail. Lightning. Rain. Mud. Injuries. Rockslides. Bears.
Here’s some basic backpacking food math:
The number of estimated calories your body will burn on a given day should be equal to the amount of calories you pack for that day.
So, how exactly can you predict the number of calories you’ll burn on a given day on the trail?
Many factors go into finding that number. Here are a few:
- How much you weigh
- How much your backpack weighs
- The distance you plan on hiking
- The amount of time you plan on hiking each day
- The incline/decline grade of the trail
Instead of giving you a complicated equation to figure out a number on your own, I’d rather point you towards this handy calories burned hiking calculator.
Plug in a few numbers, and you’ll have an accurate estimate of the calories you’ll need to replace while hiking. This is the first step in assembling a quality backpacking food plan.
What’s Your Magic Number?
I weigh about 175 pounds, carry a 20-pound backpack (on average), hike for about six hours, and cover 15 miles of mixed terrain during a typical day on the trail.
The calculator estimated that I should expect to burn around 3,000 calories per day. From experience, I know this to be a healthy and accurate amount of food. It hasn’t failed me yet.
3,000 calories. There’s my magic number.
Now, find your magic number and start building your best backpacking meal plan with it as your guide.
Getting sustenance on the trail shouldn’t be a chore. Keep it simple and choose food that requires little or no preparation. Exhausted hikers rarely get enthusiastic about preparing elaborate meals.
I ‘cook’ two meals a day, but all I really need to do is boil water, combine it with some ingredients, stir, and wait. The rest of my backpacking food — the energy bars, nuts, fruit, jerky, candy, etc. — requires zero prep whatsoever.
Some people choose to go with a no-cook setup for their backpacking trips to save time and weight. I haven’t tried this approach yet.
As I see it, you have three options when preparing food on the trail:
I avoid option three at all costs. To make a complicated recipe while backpacking means packing multiple ingredients, prepping those ingredients, paying close attention to the food while you cook, and using more fuel. For me, it’s just not worth the time, effort, or energy.
Keep it simple and stick with options #1 and #2.
You’ll have a better backpacking experience if you maintain a balanced diet along the way. Mix it up and make sure to bring lots of fruits, vegetables, and nuts for your trip. Your body will thank you for it.
I aim for one-third of all my calories to come from fruit, vegetables, and nuts.
Yes, that accounts for about 900 calories a day, which may seem like a lot, but I pack dehydrated fruits and vegetables. They are calorie-dense, nutritious, and lightweight – the perfect backpacking foods.
The rest of my hiking food consists of a mixture of energy bars, jerky, ramen, dehydrated backpacking meals, and candy (because I earned it).
I also choose to pack a wide variety of food to prevent myself from getting bored. I don’t enjoy eating the same old flavors over and over, for days on end.
As I just mentioned, the only real ‘cooking’ I’m doing while backpacking is boiling water. I heat up water once in the morning to cook ramen and once again in the evening to prepare a dehydrated meal.
Because of my simple needs, I carry a straightforward and lightweight setup. My entire cooking kit — my stove, pot, spork, lighter, and fuel cartridge — all weigh around 440 grams (about a pound).
Remember, you can always save even more weight and time by choosing not to cook while you backpack, but this method isn’t for me. Hot meals after a long day of backpacking are just too rewarding to give up.
Cooking Gear I Recommend:
Left to right: Etekcity camping stove (113 grams/4 oz), Toaks 750 ml titanium pot (103 grams/3.6 oz), Toaks spork (11 grams/.4 oz), Jetboil mini propane canister (200 grams/7 oz)
Once you’ve calculated how many daily calories you’ll need and you’ve put together a proper cooking setup, it’s time to plan a typical day’s food on the trail – from start to finish.
The goal for breakfast should be to eat a light, nutrient-rich meal that gives you the energy to get moving but doesn’t weigh you down before a full day of hiking. Try not to frontload too many of your calories during breakfast, as you’ll always have the option to snack as you go throughout the day.
Here’s my morning breakfast ritual:
I wake up, boil water, and cook ramen along with a handful of dehydrated vegetables. While I wait for the ramen to cool down, I take a multivitamin, eat an energy bar, and have a few pieces of dehydrated fruit. Then, it’s ramen time – some cheap backpacking comfort food to get the day going.
Often, I’ll fire up a cup of instant coffee if I didn’t sleep well the night before.
Backpacking Breakfast Food I Recommend:
Left to right: Koyo Asian Vegetable Ramen (210 calories), Mother Earth dried vegetable mix (100 per serving), Naturelo multivitamins, Cafe Bustelo instant espresso
Since you’ll be on your feet hiking for much of the day, it’s a good idea to consume copious amounts of calorie-rich backpacking food between breakfast and dinner. The more protein, the better.
I choose never to cook lunch and instead feast on a steady stream of snacks throughout the day whenever hunger hits. I recommend consuming your hiking calories as you burn them: gradually and consistently.
My daily snacks always consist of a mix of jerky, energy bars, nuts, and dehydrated fruit.
This spread isn’t overly exciting, but it gives my body the high-protein, calorie-dense fuel it needs. Snacks that are high in protein (jerky, nuts, bars) help muscles to recover and stay strong during the constant stress that hiking demands.
Hiking Snacks I Recommend:
Left to right: Ostrim beef and elk jerky (90 calories per stick), Oberto beef jerky (80 calories per serving), Wild Soil almonds (160 calories per serving), Dried mango (160 calories per serving), Luna Lemonzest bar (190 calories), CLIF Peanut Butter and Honey bar (260 calories), CLIF Chocolate Peanut Butter bar (230 calories), Honey Stinger organic waffle (150 calories)
For dinner, I recommend eating a filling and carb-heavy meal to supplement a hard day on the trail. Doing so is essential in helping your body heal and store energy for the following day of hiking. Eat to get full, eat to recover, and eat to prepare yourself for tomorrow.
I like a nice easy dinner when I’m exhausted, so I always prepare freeze-dried or dehydrated backpacking food for dinner. All I need to do is boil water, pour it into a pouch, stir in some hot sauce, and wait. Simple and delicious.
I’ll usually eat a handful or two of dehydrated fruit and nuts with my meal. If my muscles are especially achy, I’ll pop some Ibuprofen to help with the inflammation.
Camping Dinners I Recommend:
Left to right: Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy (620 calories), Good To-Go Thai Curry (760 calories), Mountain House Italian Style Pepper Steak With Rice (450 calories), Peak Refuel Beef Pasta Marinara (990 calories), Good To-Go Herbed Mushroom Risotto (820 calories), Wild Zora Mountain Beef Stew (370 calories), Mountain House Chicken Fajita Bowl (560 calories), Mountain House Assortment Bucket (29 or 58 servings).
No, sugary sweets aren’t a necessity of a backpacking diet, but the extra calories that they provide are. Dessert happens to be the delicious way I prefer to reach my magic number of calories for the day.
I’ll never feel guilty about eating some chocolate or a candy bar after a hard day of hiking. Everything in moderation. That’s what they say.
Backpacking Desserts I Love:
Left to right: Chocolove chocolate bar sampler (200 calories per bar), Snickers Minis (45 calories per mini bar), Haribo Happy Cola (130 calories per serving)
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over my years of backpacking is this:
Getting the right amount of food every day on the trail is essential.
Organizing your food will ensure that you don’t run out and get hungry in the middle of nowhere. Count out your calories for each day and put everything in its own Ziploc freezer bag. By doing this, you’re rationing your hiking food for each day on the trail and saving yourself from overeating (or undereating) on a given day.
If the hike you’re taking is far away from civilization, always pack an extra day’s worth of food in case of emergency.
Don’t give unwanted company any excuse to know your whereabouts during your hiking trips into the backcountry. You don’t need bears poking around your campsite, and you don’t need mice chewing through your tent in the middle of the night.
So, find a good way to mask the scent of your food. I use lightweight and effective odor-proof bags to store all my food while backpacking. Some trails require the use of heavy-duty bear canisters as a more airtight means of keeping wildlife at bay.
Below are a couple of great odor-proof food storage options for a multi-day hiking trip. I don’t own a bear canister, but the one I’ve listed below is highly-rated in the lightweight backpacking community.
Odor-Proof Backpacking Food Storage I Recommend:
Left to right: Ultralitesacks DCF Bear Bag (47 grams/1.6 oz per bag), BearVault BV500 food canister (1.16 kilograms/41 oz)
Struggling with dehydration is a common problem among backpackers, especially at higher elevations. Don’t just worry about the number of calories you need to eat, but also think about how much water your body needs.
Just like the magic number of calories you need to consume, your magic amount of water to drink will vary from hike to hike. Elevation, physical exertion, and weight are all factors to consider.
When you get thirsty, your body is telling you that you’re already dehydrated. Drink a lot of water early in your day and drink it often. Do your best not to let yourself get thirsty.
Here’s a great post on staying hydrated while you hike.
Water Filter System I Recommend:
Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter (85 grams/3 oz)
Most multi-day backpackers are great about packing out food-related trash, but all it takes are a careless few to cheapen the experience for everyone.
Store your wrappers and food waste in an odor-proof bag and dispose of them properly when you get the chance. Pack out what you pack in and don’t litter. Help keep trails untainted and clean for the rest of the world to enjoy.
For more information on ways to leave no trace, visit LNT.org.
Meal planning for your next backpacking trip is essential. Take it from me.
I’ve already tried haphazardly jamming random food into my backpack to prepare for a hike and, believe it or not, it didn’t work out so well. I was the hungry and helpless hiker who’d foolishly set himself up for failure in the middle of the wilderness. That’s no way to live.
The good news is that I’ve learned from my multitude of meal planning errors. And I’ve written this post to help you avoid making the same mistakes I did. The missteps I made are easily preventable if you give yourself the gift of a bullet-proof meal plan.
So, calculate the calories you’re going to burn, get your hands on some nutritious backpacking food, pack it safely in your bag, and start hiking.
The journey’s always smoother when your tank is full and your mind’s at ease.
What are your best food-centric ideas to put together a solid backpacking or camping meal plan? What are your favorite types of food to eat while backpacking? Let me know by leaving some feedback in the comments below!
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