Backpacking Snacks and Meals
By Stephanie Howe, PhD and sports nutritionist.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition related activity.
One of the most important aspects of backpacking is planning the food for your trip. You need foods that will energize and nourish you while also being convenient and easy to prepare in the backcountry. This is important whether you are out for one night or multiple days on the trail.
How to Plan Your Backpacking Meals
There are two options when it comes to planning your food: purchasing prepackaged dehydrated foods or making your own meals. I like to use a combo of both options to keep my food compact and light. Whichever you choose, here are a few things to consider as you plan for your trip.
Weight & Space
When backpacking, one of the biggest concerns is weight and space. A heavy or bulky pack can really affect your enjoyment and progress. It’s ideal to keep things as small and light as possible since everything must fit in your backpack. Thus, the caloric density of food is an important consideration. In general, foods like nuts, candy, dried fruit, and snack foods have a higher calorie per ounce while fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables have a higher water content and a much lower calorie per ounce.
Backpacking is not the time to bring along a lot of fresh foods because they are heavy, take up more space, and don’t provide as many calories per ounce compared to more calorie-dense foods. However, you still need to get some nutritious food while backpacking, so it’s all about trying to balance out foods with high nutritional value and quick, convenient, calorie-dense foods. When packing, also consider the space in your pack and where you will put your food. Have snacks easily accessible so you don’t have to dig to the very bottom of your pack every time you need some fuel. Also, consider the environment where you’ll be hiking — if you are in bear country, all your food needs to be stored in a bear canister.
Another big consideration when planning your food for a backpacking trip is preparation time. There will likely be some days where you want quick and portable meals. For these occasions, prepacked food is going to be a better option. An on-the-go breakfast might look like a toaster pastry rather than oatmeal or a PB&J sandwich, and lunch would be some trail mix. Think about your trip and the mileage you want to cover each day. If there are times when you need to be moving quickly on the trail for most of the day, you may want to plan to have grab-and-go foods.
How Much Food Do I Need on My Backpacking Trip?
How much food do you need? That’s a great question. And the answer is: It depends. Everyone is a little different in what they need, but in general, you need a lot of calories when hiking long miles with a pack for multiple hours each day. Depending on the terrain you’re covering, this could be ~500 kcals/hour or 4,000 kcals per day as an estimate. Of course, if you are hiking terrain with a lot of verticality or carrying a heavier pack, this number could be higher.
The easiest way to achieve this goal is to plan your calories for each day and pack the respective foods together in a ziplock bag labeled “Day 1” with 3,000 kcals. Start with your prepackaged meals and see what they add up to, then add in snacks to meet your total caloric needs for the day. For example, oatmeal with dehydrated milk for breakfast might be 500 kcals, and a prepackaged dinner of pad thai might be 800 kcals. That’s 1,300 kcals toward your goal, which means you need to add 1,700 kcals in lunch and snacks. Plan a PB&J for lunch each day, which adds 500 kcals (bread 220 kcals, PB 200 kcals, jam 80 kcals) plus snacks: CLIF BAR® Energy Bar (250 kcals) + trail mix (350 kcals) + hot chocolate (200 kcals) + jerky (400 kcals) equals 3,000 kcals for your day.
Backpacking Breakfast Ideas
This is an important meal as it prepares you for the day ahead. If you have high mileage days, opt for a grab-and-go breakfast so you can hit the trail early. If you are covering less ground and have time to make a meal, oatmeal or a freeze-dried breakfast can be a nice start to your day. Here are a few suggestions:
- Quick oats, dry milk powder, chia seeds, cinnamon (mix with water overnight and eat cold)
- Toaster pastry
- Granola + powdered milk mixed with water
- Freeze-dried breakfasts
- Instant oatmeal packs
Additions to make your breakfast more energy dense:
- Hot chocolate packs
- Nut butter packets
- Instant coffee with creamer
- Freeze-dried fruit
Backpacking Lunch Ideas
Lunch is usually eaten on the trail. Depending on how long you’ll be on the trail, it’s ideal to make a sandwich ahead of time, the night before, or in the morning before leaving camp. If I’m just out for a couple days, I’ll make the sandwiches the morning before I leave for the trip. Pair your sandwich with a couple of snacks for a quick, easy lunch without any prep. Below are a few suggestions:
- PB&J sandwich
- Flour tortilla roll-up with peanut butter and honey
- Bagel with peanut butter and chocolate hazelnut spread
- Sandwich with package of tuna fish (don’t pre-make)
Backpacking Dinner Ideas
This is a good time to prepare a hot, nutritious meal. Include freeze-dried vegetables and protein to fill up after a big day. Dinner is the meal that usually has the most time to sit and prepare. As you are setting up camp, get your stove ready to boil water and get dinner started. It will take some time for the food to be ready, so have a snack if you are starving. Here are a few suggestions for dinner:
- Couscous, dehydrated vegetables, tuna packet
- Instant rice & beans + flour tortillas
- Instant soup (ramen)
- Freeze-dried dinners
- Instant mashed potatoes + chicken packet
- Corn tortillas + packet beans/lentils + instant rice
Backpacking Dessert Ideas
Of course, sometimes you need a little extra after a long day. Before bed or while sitting around at camp is a great time to squeeze in a few extra nutritious calories or enjoy a little sweet treat. Here are a few ideas:
- Nuts + chocolate
- CLIF® Nut Butter Bar
- Hot chocolate
- Chocolate bar topped with a packet of peanut butter
The best way to plan your food is to write a list of the meals for each day you will be out on the trail. Plan for enough calories and maybe a few extra snacks in case you need them. Then, once you have prepared or purchased all your meals and snacks, lay them out and pack them in your backpack ahead of time. Make sure everything fits. If you need to readjust, it’s much easier to do days rather than minutes before you leave.
Second, plan your hydration based on the environment and access to water. Take a large 2-3 liter bladder and a reliable water filter so you can refill on the trail. Water will make your pack heavy, so if you have the ability to filter and fill up often, you can carry less at a time. Again, look at your route and plan ahead for what you will encounter on the trail.
Lastly, there are many things you can skimp or pack light on, but food isn’t one of them. You need enough energy while out on the trail, and planning ahead is the best way to think through how to take the lightest options while still getting enough nutrients to carry you to your destination. Remember to pack out everything that you carry in. Bring along a small bag to pack all your garbage so you can easily dispose of it when you get off the trail. Most of all, enjoy your time in nature!