Preparing food for backpacking is the ultimate balance between keeping your pack as light as possible and craving a decent meal after a hard day of hiking. You don’t want to be the guy who brings a can of Cheese Whiz and a sleeve of crackers for a three-day trip, nor the hiker who packs ten pounds of fresh steak and potatoes for a single meal.
Find out which factors to incorporate into your backpacking meal prep as well as a few quick and easy tips to ensure you have the easiest, breeziest hike that ends with a nutritious and satisfying meal.
Backpacking is an energy-intensive activity that burns a huge number of calories. Even if you’re hoping to have a calorie deficit for weight-loss, you will still need a considerable amount of food to replenish your energy stores to keep you feeling strong for the next day’s adventures.
How Much to Eat for Backpacking
Different sources vary, but on average, you can assume that an average adult (185 lbs), carrying a “heavy” pack for eight hours will burn between 4,600-6,300 calories in a day. If you weigh more, carry a heavier pack, or hike exclusively uphill, that number will increase. All this is to say, that you’re going to need to eat anywhere from double to triple the number of calories you usually eat to maintain your weight. Fun problem, right?
What to Eat for Backpacking
It’s a good rule of thumb to remember that your nutritional breakdown for backpacking food should be 60% carbohydrates, 30% proteins, and 10% fats. You’ll quickly notice that carbs make up the lion’s share of your food, and that is because carbs provide quick energy that you’ll need (ideally every hour) throughout your trip. Energy bars, trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, energy gels, and even candies are great for the small sugar rush that sweets and carbs bring in order to keep up your stamina during the day. In the evening while making dinner, feel free to add in some vegetables and quality protein, but don’t worry about balanced nutrition for snacks and lunch – mostly carbs at these meals will serve to keep your energy levels high.
Weight-Saving Tips for Backpacking Food
While you’re trying to compile the most nutritionally-complete meals for your trip, the ounces and grams can quickly add up. Many companies offer backpacking meal bags of freeze-dried or dehydrated entrees. These are an awesome option to have an easy, tasty, and light-weight meal, however the price tags on these will leave you dazed. If your bank account tells you that you need to make your own meals, here are a few meal-prep tips that will lighten your pack and keep you satiated.
Consider Nutritional Density
It might feel like a cop-out to not break out the old cook stove for dinner, but honestly, nowadays there are performance bars that contain the nutritional equivalent of a well-cooked meal. If a bar can offer the same benefits as a heavier collection of real food, weight-wise, this is an easy choice.
Similarly, if you are going to bring fresh ingredients, remember that for the weight of a fresh onion, you’ll only be getting a fraction of the carbs you could get from an ounce of grains. Do your research, and, if you’re going to bring something rather heavy, make sure that the nutritional benefits are worth lugging it around.
To get your veggies and proteins, there is no better way to enjoy lightweight meals than dehydrating your food at home. You can research online how to dehydrate in your oven by keeping things on a very low heat. However, the easier option is buying a home dehydrator. This is an investment, but for many who do several backpacking trips a year, it’s a huge money-saver over a couple seasons. You can dehydrate anything: cooked grains, fresh veggies, fresh fruit, and even cooked meats! Spend your winter casually dehydrating batches of onions, strawberries, or chicken, and keep them in bags in the freezer. When spring comes, you can mix-and-match your dried ingredients along with powdered veggie stocks and spices into calorie-rich soup mixes that weigh only a couple ounces and cook within a few minutes on the trail.
Dehydrators also make wonderful jerky and fruit leather. You’ll save all kinds of money and have fun cooking in a whole new way.
The longer a food takes to cook, the more fuel you’ll have to pack for it, so be sure to prep foods that cook quickly. Don’t make the mistake of bringing dried black beans or you’ll be sitting around your stove till dawn!
As always, keep in mind the nutritional density of food in comparison to its weight and cook time. A few contenders who do well in all these categories are couscous (1 oz = 20g carbs, 3.3g protein, 5-10 minutes), quinoa (1 oz = 18g carbs, 4g protein, 10-15 minutes), and TVP (or Textured Vegetable Protein or the popular Spanish name, carne de soya) (1 oz = 8g carbs, 14g protein, 5 minutes).
While canned chicken, tuna, and salmon are a useful way to get shelf-stable meat out onto the trail, the tin of the cans can weigh you down. Instead, purchase these options in bag format. Additionally, many sauces come in jars, so try to find them in bags or spice mix packets instead.
Note: It’s worth a reminder that delicate foods are a bad idea for backpacking. Bananas, fresh tomatoes, or raw eggs need to either be stored in a hard-sided container (this means more weight) or left at home. Otherwise, you can count on them smeared all over your pack after the inevitable smooshes your pack goes through on the trail.
Try out these hearty and lightweight trail meals that don’t sacrifice any flavor for their light weight.
Creamy Strawberry Banana Overnight Oats (2 Servings)
- 1 cup dry oats
- Handful of dehydrated strawberries
- Handful of dehydrated banana chips
- 2 tbsp powdered coconut milk
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 cups water
Before bed, mix all ingredients together and store safely away from animals. Enjoy in the morning, as is. Also, feel free to add some nuts to the mix before eating.
Mediterranean Couscous (2 Servings)
- 1 box roasted garlic and olive oil couscous
- 1 small jar of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
- 1 large avocado
Cook couscous, mix in jar of tomatoes with oil, then top with slices of avocado.
Spaghetti with TVP (2 Servings)
- About 4 cups dried whole wheat or vegetable noodles
- ½ cup TVP
- 1 13.5oz pasta sauce pouch
- (optional) Dehydrated vegetables
Boil noodles until just before tender. Turn off heat, add TVP, let sit covered for 5 minutes. Drain water. Mix sauce packet and any dried vegetables (if adding veggies, let sit for a couple minutes to get tender).
Mango-Apple Fruit Leather
- 1 cup fresh or frozen mango
- 1 cup tart apples
- (optional) Spoonful of honey
- ⅛ cup Water
Blend ingredients in food processor, adding water by the tablespoon until you have the consistency of pudding. Taste and add sweetener or more fruit, depending on flavor. Smooth onto dehydrator fruit leather tray. Turn on medium heat and run for about 8 hours. Store in sealed bags or in freezer until ready to eat. Use different fruit mixes for next batch.
Happy Tummies, Happy Backs
Your full tummy and un-aching back will thank you for taking the time to learn about how to most effectively prepare food for backpacking. Now that you have these basic principles, you can create your own combination of lightweight meals that will allow you to focus on the scenery (not your stomach) and the beauty (not your back) that surrounds you.