Meal Planning for Backpacking
The key to meal planning for backpacking is to bring food that is calorie dense and lightweight. Backpacking is hard work, so it’s important to provide your body with enough to sustain you without weighing down your pack.
Your food also needs to be appealing to eat, because it’s not uncommon to experience a loss of appetite when you’re tired from exertion.
How much food is needed for a backpacking trip?
You may have heard the general recommendation on how much food to bring, which is about 2 pounds of food per day. However, instead of relying on the weight of your food bag to ensure you have the correct amount, pay attention to the nutrition info, especially calories. Adjust the amount of food needed based on trip exertion and duration: for shorter trips, take smaller, less caloric meals; for extended or strenuous trips, plan for larger high calorie meals.
Your approach to lunches will also have an impact on the weight of your food bag. Snacks and typical backpacker lunch fare, such as tuna packets and tortillas tend to weigh more than pre-packaged meals. To save weight and balance nutrition, consider cold soak lunch recipes, such as pasta salads.
Creating a Meal Plan
To get started, make a list of how many breakfasts, lunches and dinners will be needed. Consider the trip timeframe when planning a menu – depending on when your trip starts and ends, you likely won’t need to take breakfast for the first day, or dinner for the last.
Also keep in mind what each day of a trip entails, for example, on days with strenuous hikes, you’ll want meals that are simple to prepare. And on easier days, you’re likely to have more energy for meals that take bit more time to prepare. Or maybe add in a dessert for an after dinner treat when you have more time to enjoy it.
Once you know how many and what types of meals that you need, write a menu plan for each day of the trip. List what you’ll take for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snacks, beverages, and condiments.
Visualizing a trip menu is another good method for determining how much food you need. To do this, lay out all of the meals on a table or countertop in rows for each day. This way, you can see how much food you have for each meal – and will help to make sure you bring enough but not too much. To determine the amount of snacks you’ll need, package all of your snacks into individual bags – one for each day of a trip.
Planning for Emergencies
It’s always a good idea to add in a few extra trail bars or an additional meal for just in case. Sometimes trips are extended for reasons out of our control such as accidents or weather, and having food in these times can make a difference in our abilities to think clearly and keep energy levels up when needed.
Oatmeal is standard backpacking breakfast food. By itself, though, it’s not enough to sustain me for long so I add sliced almonds, hemp seeds (or chia seeds), whole milk powder, and freeze-dried berries. I also love hash browns or biscuits and gravy for breakfast.
Lunch is usually snacks to be eaten while hiking:
- Trail Butter or peanut butter in individual packets
- dried fruit: my favorites are mango slices, coconut strips, figs, and dried apples
- my own mix of nuts and seeds: pistachios, peanuts, cashews, almonds, pepitas and sunflower seeds
- individually packaged chips that are baked instead of fried, such as Stacy’s Pita Thins or PopCorners
- cheese sticks
- trail bars (I make my own)
- I also buy snack foods at Trader Joe’s. They have a wide variety of options so you don’t get tired of the same thing. I especially like their rice crackers, yogurt covered pretzels, Inca corn snacks, roasted and salted nuts.
I also use cold soak recipes for making lightweight and healthy lunches. Not every meal needs to be cooked in order to be full of flavor. Recipes using dehydrated vegetables, beans, and rice or pasta work well for cold soak lunches. Just add cold water and let them soak while you hike.
DYI Trail Bars
While they take time to make, making your own trail bars cost much less than purchasing from the store. Plus you can customize the flavor for exactly what you like. My favorite so far is a recipe I modified by adding candied ginger, ground ginger, and cardamom to a rice crispy-style bar. Mmmm. I also make a sesame oat bar and a white chocolate chip peanut butter protein bar. These bars aren’t too sweet and they stay soft, which is a nice change from crunchy bars.
Dinner: make your own meals
I’m not used to eating food with preservatives or additives, so I usually make all of my own food for backpacking dinners. When I first started, I made curries, ramen, and other spicy Asian dishes. But my stomach doesn’t like anything even slightly spicy when I’m backpacking, and my taste buds crave something simple and home style. Especially starchy foods like rice, pasta, and potatoes.
After making my own meals for the first five years of backpacking, I teamed with a good friend to create a cookbook with recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts.
Dinner: pre-made meals
While I normally make my own meals, there are a few companies making good food for backpackers. I’ve recently found a couple of companies making very good freeze-dried meals. There are the commercial meals that I’ve tried and liked, all of which are healthier than other meals available that have too much sodium, preservatives or additives.
- Pinnacle Foods meals are the tastiest that I’ve tried so far and well worth the higher cost. My favorites are Creamy Tuscan Chicken with Penne Pasta, Jalapeno Cheddar Biscuits and Herbed Sausage Gravy, and Herb Roasted Chicken with White Cheddar Biscuit Dumplings. I look forward to these meals every time I take them on trips.
- Peak Refuel has several meals that I really like, including their Beef Stroganoff, Homestyle Chicken and Rice, and Strawberry Granola.
- Bushka’s Kitchen makes freeze-dried meals with clean ingredients that look and taste like real (tasty) food. See my review of two of their meals
I find that it’s easier to prep a lot of meals at a time, so I usually have quite a few ready before backpacking season starts. To help them keep until I’m ready to use them, I vacuum seal individual meals and store them in the freezer. I use the FoodSaver V3240 Vacuum Sealer. When I’m out on a backpacking trip, I like knowing that my vacuum sealed food is airtight, which makes it less susceptible to bacteria, and the bags used are much more odor-proof than traditional plastic bags.
- Cookbook: Memorable Backcountry Meals: 44 Recipes Worth Making
- Dehydrating Ingredients for Making Your Own Backpacking Meals
- Sourcing Ingredients for Making Your Own Backpacking Meals
- Gear Basics: Backpacking Kitchen Gear
- Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage
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