Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage

Tips for setting up a camp kitchen, how to store food in the backcountry, and a step-by-step guide to hanging food using the PCT method

Camp kitchens

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

a small camp kitchen next to a campfire ring

For meal preparation while backpacking, a separate kitchen location should be selected when possible. Kitchens serve the purpose of keeping food smells confined to a single area, and help to prevent animals, big and small, from being attracted to your sleeping location. This is especially important in bear country.

Many established campsites already have a place set up for cooking, with a fire ring and rocks or logs placed for sitting. If you need to create a camp kitchen area, an ideal location is on a durable surface such as bare ground or on rocks that is at least 200 feet from water sources.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

use existing camp kitchen areas when possible

Food storage

If you don’t store your food properly, you may attract wildlife to your campsite. Keeping food in a tent or on the ground near the tent is not recommended. Most people think of protecting food from bears, but small critters can be especially troublesome and will gnaw through backpacks and tents to get to food. Store food at least 100 feet from your camp area.

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Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

bear canisters and bear bags in an area with a lot of mice

Hanging food: Most places will require food to be hung. In bear country, the hang will need to be 15 feet off the ground and 8 feet away from the base of the tree. In areas where bears aren’t an issue it is still necessary to do a critter hang. This will keep smaller animals like mice, raccoons and coyotes from eating your dinner. 

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

food sacks hung “PCT style” from trees

Bear protection: In some backcountry locations, such as national parks, bear canisters may be required for storage of food, trash, and scented items. Ranger stations often loan or rent bear canisters in areas where they are required.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

an ultralight carbon fiber bear canister, the Bearikade Scout

While bears may be able to retrieve and move a bear canister, they will not be able to get inside. Don’t keep the canister in your tent. Instead, store it at least 100 feet away from your campsite. You can leave it on the ground, but be careful about leaving it in a place where it could roll off a cliff or into a stream if knocked around by curious wildlife or clumsy campers.

Specialty bear sacks are made from a high-density material that bears can’t tear apart and are much less bulky and lighter weight than bear canisters. However, not all areas allow bear sacks to be used for bear-proof food storage.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

the Ursack bear sack – tied securely around a tree trunk

Some backcountry campsites have bear poles or wire pulley systems for hanging food, or metal food lockers for communal food storage. These are more common in heavy-use areas where bears are accustomed to looking for food.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

bear wires for storing food in the Olympic National Park

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

bear boxes and a designated camp kitchen in the North Cascades National Park

Food preparation

While heating your backcountry cuisine, be sure to place your stove on a level surface. Flat rocks work best when available. Many backcountry injuries result from a pot of boiling water falling off an unstable stove and burning the user. Follow the stove manufacturer’s instructions to avoid accidental fires, fuel spillage, and other potential issues. And don’t cook in your tent – using a stove in an enclosed area can put you in danger of both a fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Clean up

All camp kitchen trash should be packed out. To cut down on the amount of packaging and food waste on trips, prepare at home by bringing properly sized meal portions, eliminating excess packaging materials, and repackaging foods sold in bulky bags or boxes. Leftover or excess food should not be burned or buried due to potential impacts on area wildlife and the natural environment.

Washing dishes: Dish cleaning should be done 200 feet away from any water source. If you choose to use soap for cleaning, use biodegradable soap. While it is a common belief that biodegradable soap can safely be used in streams, lakes, and other water sources, that is not true. Even biodegradable soap can increase nitrogen levels and negatively impact aquatic life.

After cleaning your dishes, strain out any food scraps (natural materials like sticks, leaves, or moss can be helpful in this process). The remaining waste water should be spread out over a wide area at least 200 feet from camp and away from water sources. Food scraps should be packed out.

How to hang a food bag using the PCT method

Food hanging kit: 25 feet of cording/rope, a stick (or tent pole repair part), carabiner, small rock sack.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

Place rocks in the small stuff sack and attach to the carabiner. Choose a branch at least 10 feet off the ground and sturdy enough to hold your food bag. Throw the rock sack over the branch. Take the remaining section of rop and pull through the middle of the carbiner.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

Remove the rock sack from the carabiner. Clip your food bag and/or stove to the carabiner and raise by pulling the end of rope until the food bag is up against the branch.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

Reach up as high as you can and tie the stick or pole repair part to the line using a clove hitch knot.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

Raise the stick, which lowers the food bag at the same time until the stick acts as a stopper, preventing the food bag from coming down any farther. Leave the remaining cording hanging freely. There’s no need to tie it off with this method.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips

To access your food bag, pull on the hanging cord to bring the stick down. Remove the stick and then let the line bring the food bag down low enough to retrieve.

Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage Tips


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