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, when you make your own dehydrated meals, they will typically weigh less than commercial meals (and take up much less space in your food bag).
Your approach to lunches will also have an impact on the weight of your food bag. If you are using cold soak lunch recipes, they will weigh much less than typical backpacker lunch fare, such as tuna packets and tortillas. And you may need fewer snacks (which tend to be heavy) if you have a trip menu with fulfilling meals that keep you satisfied.
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.
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.
Surprisingly, I don’t get tired of eating the same thing for breakfast every day. For backpacking, I love oatmeal. 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.
- recipe: almond berry oatmeal
Lunch is usually snacks to be eaten while hiking:
- Trail Butter (besides the great flavor, I love the easy to dispense and easy to close container)
- 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
- crackers (pita or bagel crackers tend to not get smashed as easily as others)
- 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, and mango slices.
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 I get to customize the flavor for exactly what I 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’ve been making 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. Some of the recipes are also listed on this website: backpacking recipes.
Dinner: pre-made meals
While I normally make my own meals, there are a few companies making good food for backpackers. There are all foods that I’ve tried and liked, and they are healthier than other meals available that have too much sodium, preservatives or additives.
- Food for the Sole: based in Bend, Oregon, Food for the Sole makes meals that are vegan and most are also gluten-free.
- 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
- Good to Go: recipes are created by a chef and are gluten-free and without preservatives.
It’s easy to dehydrate ingredients at home! My first dehydrator was a Nesco Snackmaster dehydrator with temperature control. I purchased additional fruit leather trays for every tray in the dehydrator so food doesn’t fall through the standard trays. I recently upgraded to an Excalibur dehydrator. It’s more expensive, but I think the overall quality of dried foods turn out better in the Excalibur. I also purchased silicone sheets for every tray and use them for smaller bits of food, fruit leather, or anything with a sauce.
It usually takes 6-8 hours to dehydrate chopped vegetables, longer for foods with more liquid or for meats. It’s even possible to dehydrate soup. Just make it a little thicker than usual and spread the cooked soup on a fruit leather tray.
It’s important to thoroughly dry everything until there’s no moisture left. To help food rehydrate faster, cut foods into small equal size pieces before dehydrating.
I regularly dehydrate green onions, mushrooms, pasta, and rice for use in my recipes. To dehydrate pasta or rice at home, cook as normal, then spread in thin layers on plastic dehydrator trays used for fruit roll-ups. Dehydrate for 8-10 hours until all moisture is removed. I usually turn the rice or pasta partway through the drying process. If it sticks together after it is dried, break it apart before storing. Store dehydrated ingredients in a glass jar or plastic bag in a cool and dry location.
Storing DIY 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.
- Gear Basics: Backpacking Kitchen Gear
- Sourcing Ingredients for Making Your Own Backpacking Meals
- Backpacking Meal Prep and Food Storage
- Cookbook: Memorable Backcountry Meals: 44 Recipes Worth Making
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