Trail-Tested Backpacking Food

There are basically two kinds of backpacking food. You could get freeze-dried backpacking meals, available in many delicious varieties but at relatively higher prices. Or, you can get food at your local grocery store, also with a wide variety of tasty choices, for less cost.

Planning menus for a weekend trip isn't difficult. You could get by with whatever you happen to have on hand that will keep unrefrigerated. You could even take some luxury items that normally would be too heavy or bulky.

But for trips much longer than a weekend, particularly if a week or longer, food becomes more important. The rest of this page discusses backpacking food considerations for such trips.

The Best Backpacking Foods

The best backpacking food is lightweight, tasty, calorie-packed and quick cooking. However, each meal type is different -- lunch is usually heavier, more bulky, high energy, and no-cook. Cooked dinners are typically dehydrated so they are lighter. I've found that good backpacking food for breakfasts consists of about half no-cook and half quick-cook. Don't forget to bring liquid flavorings (hot cocoa, etc).

A final critical characteristic of the "best" backpacking food is that you like it. On longer trips especially, food is important to your well-being psychologically. Tasty backpacking food helps keep the spirits up during physical stress, even improving the scenery!

Lightweight Backpacking Food

Food can easily account for 1/4 or more of the bulk and 1/4 or more of the weight of your pack. On trips of two or more weeks, half the load of your pack may be in food. A very good general estimate for food quantities is 1.5 to 2 pounds per person per day. At that rate, the longest trip most people would take without a resupply is 2 weeks.

To save weight, you have two options:
  • Freeze-dried food, such as the kind made by Mountain House. This the easiest option by far (even cleanup is a breeze) and you can eat relatively luxuriously, but it costs more.
  • Dehydrated food - grains, pastas, breads, dried potatoes, etc, are already dehydrated or naturally dehydrated. You can also buy dehydrated fruits and vegetables -- but you can also easily dehydrate them yourself. It takes time, but isn't difficult. If you are serious about backpacking, it's well worth a small investment to get a food dehydrator. You can find "pro" dehydrators or try Walmart for smaller cheap ones. Dried vegetables can really add much-needed variety to your dinners. Dried fruits are wonderful eaten alone or added to breakfast rice, for example. Here's a great book the subject: Trail Food: Drying and Cooking Food for Backpacking and Paddling.

Plan and Organize!

Food prepared for backpacking needs to be packaged and organized (rationed) out to balance weight against not having enough. Food and menus can easily become the most complicated and time-consuming part of trip planning!

Save yourself a lot of hassle in camp (and possibly running out of something), by measuring out and packaging individual meals in plastic bags. Get rid of the cardboard. Add labels with cooking instructions. Squeeze tubes or wide-mouth bottles of various sizes are good for portioning out exact amounts of syrup, peanut butter, and the like. It's wise to double-bag powdered foods, such as potato flakes or bulk hot cocoa.

A flexible meal organization system that I've settled on is to put all dinners into one bag, all breakfasts into one bag and all lunches into one bag. This way, you can match the meal to the situation; for example, deciding on-the-fly when to use no-cook versus cooked breakfasts, instead of rummaging through sacks labeled by "day".

Calories and Energy

Backpacking takes an amazing amount of energy (long trips are great weight-loss plan!). Backpacking food needs to supply your body with roughly 2,500 to 5,000 calories a day, the lower figure for easy summer hiking, the higher figure for cold-weather, intense mountaineering. The middle-ground, 3000 to 4000 calories, is right in line with the 1.5 to 2 pounds of food guideline.

Good backpacking food for quick, short-term energy are carbohydrates, starches, and sugars -- such as breads, cereals, pasta, crackers and the like. You also need long term energy, provided by proteins and fats, such as canned meat, cheeses, dried eggs, dried milk, cheddar cheese, chocolate and nuts.

Backpacking Food Ideas

Here's a list of foods I've used on past trips. Some are obviously too heavy to take in large quantities, and some are meant for shorter trips or for cold weather trips because they are refrigerated foods, etc.

Breakfast Backpacking Foods

· MaltOMeal (add raisins for more bulk)
· rice (add raisins and dried milk)
· granola (with dried milk)
· fruit cocktail (small cans)
· pancakes (need small pan,spatula, low-heat option on stove, lots of fuel, syrup in small container)

Lunch Backpacking Foods (many of these items are great for quick no-cook breakfasts)

· bagels (cream cheese)
· Pita bread
· Logan Bread
· granola bars
· candy bars
· dried fruit
· GORP (nuts, M&M's raisins, yogurt peanuts, crackers, dried fruit, etc)
· Pringles
· crackers (the dense kinds at health food stores)
· Wheat Thins
· Cheeses (string cheese, blocks of mozarella, etc)
· Tuna (sold in pouches now)
· lunch meat

Dinner Backpacking Foods

· Cup O Soup
· Cup Noodles/Ramen
· Lipton Rice or Noodles
· vegetable soup
· potatoes and gravy (3-5 minute gravy mix)
· potatoes and peas
· couscous with dried veggies
· ramen with dried veggies
· spaghetti with dried veggies(use 6oz
· can of tomato paste to make sauce)
· burritos(toritillas, refried beans, cheese, peppers, salsa, onions)
· canned soups, etc (if you don't mind the weight)


· hot cocoa (add marshmallows)
· apple cider
· teas
· powdered lemonade or Crystal Lite (masks bad-tasting and/or iodine-treated water)

Of course, what backpacking food items you end up adding to your grocery list depends on the recipes you use. Here's a great backpacking recipes book: Lipsmackin' Backpackin': Lightweight Trail-tested Recipes for Backcountry Trips

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