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Best Backpacking Food Ideas

Backpacking food ideas need to include 4 factors:

OK, let's be honest, there's a "stealth" factor built in:

convenience

That's where freeze dried lightweight hiking food enters your backpacking plans.

Want to cut to the chase and calculate your backpacking food requirements? Use that handy link for more info.

Otherwise, let's have a look at each of these factors in turn.

Because you want the best hiking food for your backpacking trip, right?


Backpacking food: Weight

This might seem like a strange choice to put first in the line up of factors - unless you've backpacked before. (If you're a beginner, read this first.)

Weight is a really important variable in the enjoyment and success of a multiday hiking trip.

In my mind, it's the most important consideration!

I'm willing to pay more for lightweight food options, and if they're nutritious and flavorful, so much the better.

But if my pack is too heavy, I'm not going to have a great trip (at least not the first few days). Heavy pack = stressed leg joints = frustration or injury.

So I take a really close look at the weight of every possible food item as I plan a realistic backpacking menu.

And here's another consideration: If water is scarce along your hiking route, add that into the weight of the dehydrated or lightweight food you're carrying.

  • Every ounce of water is heavy, and when you lift a filled liter bottle of water, you are seeing the force of gravity up close and personal.
  • And it can get ugly in a hurry, hiking through hot dry areas.
  • Skimp on anything else except your water intake!

When I first learned to backpack, lightweight food options were whatever you could find on a grocery store shelf: chicken bouillon cubes, "minute" rice, crackers.

And I fondly recall "astronaut ice cream" back when the USA space program was in its heyday.

In today's world, the options are staggering.

How are you going to choose?

You can go the easiest route: purchasing dehydrated entrees in pouches, all ready to receive hot or cold water for rehydration. You're going to have to carry a stove and fuel, so indirectly that adds to the weight (and cost) of the food.

Note that "easy" comes with a higher price tag than the other options I'll mention in a moment.

The dehydrated brands I've tried include Backpacker's Pantry, Mountain House, and Natural High.

Do I have a favorite?

Yes, for these reasons: compared with the others, this brand:

  • uses fewer preservatives & additives,
  • adds nutrients for a hard working body (reduces the need to carry nutritional supplements),
  • is easy to rehydrate in the provided pouch because it ziplocks shut (minimizes burned fingers or spillage),
  • my taste buds were kept decently entertained.

And the winner is...

Backpackers Pantry!

Warning: Don't buy their entrées one at a time; 

go for a bulk purchase like this

to save money and to sample their meals until you build up a "Favorites" list.

Also, take the recommended rehydration time with a grain of salt, especially if you're at higher altitudes. I usually double it (while chewing on my thumbnail with impatience).

Second easiest route

The second easiest route is to cobble together your own meals, using easy to find ingredients in the bulk bins of your favorite grocery store.

Dried beans, rice, grains are easy to rehydrate on the trail, especially if you carry an extra water bottle and soak them during the day's hike (uses less fuel, and guarantees they'll rehydrate, thus sparing you digestive distress).

Putting together your own "spice kit" can jazz things up. And note that some spices are digestive aids - ginger, tumeric and basil, for instance.

I don't know about you, but my gut really knows the difference between "at home" food and trail food! Anything I can do to help my digestion, I will do.

My tent mates appreciate it, too.

If you need some backpacking food ideas for combining common ingredients into great backcountry fare, I'd recommend this site: Backpacking Chef.

He not only gives you recipes, he walks you through how to dehydrate your own food! Definitely great reading if you're planning a trip on a budget.

Have a lot of time?

The most time and labor intensive route is to plan all of your backpacking food ideas around "from scratch" recipes.

To me, this defeats the purpose for hitting the trail. I want to leave pots and pans, clean up chores, and recipes behind in the kitchen, and focus my efforts on the scenery.

But if you're a back country gourmet, have at it!

And here's just the company to get your creative juices flowing (in a weight saving, dehydrated sort of way):

Harmony HouseBackpacking Kit.

Safety first

Here's a general safety note, regardless of how you put together your backpacking menu:

Be careful about the water you use for rehydration: filter or boil or treat it so you don't get "extra" protein in the form of nasty critters in your food.

Also, be sure the packet of dehydrated backpacking food is standing upright and propped up by rocks or whatever is handy, so when you pour in the boiling water, you won't get splashed.

And a bandanna or extra sock makes a great hot pad!

Read these tips if you need to go gluten free.

Or these tips to go paleo.

And don't forget that mood and food are related. For more hiking food tips, click this infographic:

Stay safe on your hike by paying attention to your mood and eating the right food to refuel. Lots more hiking food tips for day hiking and backpacking at Hiking For Her!


Backpacking food: Flavor

Lest you think I'm completely oblivious to the taste of trail food, let's cover the importance of flavorful food during a backpacking trip.

You're going to be pushing your body harder than usual.

You'll have to pay close attention to hydration (water in should exceed water out). Be sure you're playing the "what color is my pee" game -  and the winning answer is pale yellow or clear.

Food will begin to preoccupy your mind as you hike.

  • When's the next snack break?
  • How much trail mix do I have left?
  • What's for dinner tonight?

It's important to choose trail food with a flavorful punch because you don't get to eat unlimited amounts of food (unless you have a team of yaks or llamas, or a helicopter resupply crew - in which case you probably have a personal backpacking chef, too).

So what you eat, you've got to taste and enjoy big time!

It's important to know which tastes and flavors you really like, and which you have aversions to, as you choose food for your trip. Read the ingredient list carefully.

If you're preparing your own entrees, estimate the quantities of spices and flavorings you'll need, and then put in a bit more in case of spillage, mold, contamination, or cravings.

Some backpackers pick a theme: Italian food all week.

Other people like to mix it up every day.

And some, like me, are monotonous eaters: more focused on nutrient density ratios and not really needing strongly flavored foods to be satisfied.

Yes, I like to feel full after a meal. No, I don't need to burp up oregano for hours to feel like I've had a great dinner.

If you're looking for anti-inflammatory spices to help damper the daily accumulations of joint and muscle soreness, try curry (turmeric is your friend!) dishes.

Here's my absolute favorite backpacking dinner entree, which I devour with gusto:

Backpacker's Pantry Katmandu Curry Dried Food


Just a cautionary note: Don't overdo the spices and salts and flavorings if you're not used to them in your daily diet.

Indigestion is not fun during a backpacking trip because it robs you of sleep (after dinner), trail energy (after breakfast), and peace of mind any time.

Do you really have to the extra energy to play a little game called What's going on in my gut??


Backpacking food:
Cost & convenience

As already mentioned, weight and cost are linked to some extent, along with convenience, when discussing backpacking food ideas.

If you have all the time in the world to dehydrate your own carefully sourced food, you're in a position of strength in terms of mastering the major factors in backpacking food ideas.

Realistically, most of us have to trade one factor for another.

I've already disclosed that I'd prefer to pay a bit more for the convenience of lightweight, prepackaged, designed by someone else, meals.

Back in my student days, it went the other way - less money, more time, more incentive to cobble together my own backpacking meals.

To whatever extent you can, please give your hard working body the nutrients it requires to perform well on the trail.

While carbohydrates are fairly inexpensive (grain based items such as bread and crackers), protein and fat have heftier price tags.

A small plastic container of high quality olive oil will make your cell membranes happier than a cheap lower quality oil such as corn oil. If you can afford it, use the best source of fats that you can.

Ditto for protein.

But here's the thing: if you're filled up with high quality protein, you're not as hungry, not as prone to injury, can recover faster from muscle strains, and your body isn't sending you "I'm so deprived" signals.

So does it really "cost" more to eat well on the trail?

Here's what I bring along on every trip: Vacuum sealed packs of fish.

Salmon is a great "oily" choice which cuts down on the need to carry additional oils, and it's so very tasty.

But high quality protein sources are going to cost money.

The question is: Are your muscles (including your cardiac muscle a.k.a heart) worth it?

Living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I've gotten addicted to salmon as a trail food: salmon jerky, pouches of salmon, strips of smoked salmon...

None of these salmon sources are cheap, but all of them are worth the price because my muscles (and taste buds, to be fair) really crave protein after a few days on the trail.

My favorite brand is SeaBear, located in beautiful Anacortes, WA. Check out the price/protein ratio here (and rest assured, it's tasty stuff!):

SeaBear Ready-to-Eat Sockeye Salmon.


More good fats and proteins

Here's another source of good fats and protein that rides along in my food bag on every hike, regardless of length: nut butters.

I'm partial to almond butter, but my taste buds are no strangers to peanut, cashew, and hazelnut butters.

  • Sometimes you can add in maple syrup and cocoa powder to jazz things up!

My currently favorite brand is Justin's, in small squeeze packs that count as one of my ten essentials: extra food.

Why?

Because they're small and lightweight, and have a long shelf life so I can stash some in my survival kit and rest assured that I'll have reliable nutrients in an emergency.

Buy these in bulk to save some money while you acquire convenient high quality trail protein:

Justin's Nut Butter.

Confession: I eat these as snacks on non-hiking days, too, with celery and carrot sticks.

Dee-lish! So don't be shy about enjoying your best hiking foods every day of the year.



Backpacking food: Nutrition

If the whole idea of hiking nutrition is a snooze for you, skip the rest of this page!

If it's not, but you're pressed for time, check out my hiking nutrition tips here.

Or read up on specific advice for cooking on the trail here.

If you're still reading this page, here's the punchline of my spin on backpacking foods idea:

Garbage in, garbage out.

Example: Candy bar in, crash and burn within an hour on the trail which leads to needing more food, reduced mileage, or a headache.

Another example: Cheap dehydrated backpacking food filled with preservatives and chemical flavorings day after day fool your taste buds but not your hardworking liver, pancreas, heart and skeletal muscles.


So choose your trail foods not just for weight, flavor, convenience and cost, but for the real reason you eat them: good sources of fuel for the cellular machine you call your hiker's body!

Organic backpacking food might be the best hiking food for your trip.

Remember, it costs fuel to do work.

If the work you're doing takes you to gorgeous places like Mount Rainier, use high octane fuel!! You won't regret it.

Time to refuel with backpacking food while gazing at Mt. Rainier, Washington State, USA

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