Backpacking Food Ideas

There will be trade-offs among the top 4 factors in backpacking food ideas:

  • weight,
  • flavor,
  • cost, and 
  • nutrition.

Here's the compromise I've reached: I carry dehydrated food for breakfast and dinner, and make lunches out of tasty, uncrushable trail foods.

In addition, I pack a multivitamin and other nutritional supplements, "just in case".

I go into a multi-day trip realizing that I will come out the other end with intense cravings for fresh salads, fruit, and hot home cooked meals.

I chalk up the cravings as the price of admission to the back country, a price I am more than willing to pay.

Plus, it feels so good to finally eat whatever I'm craving! In a perverse way, I almost look forward to the deprivation.

Want to calculate exactly how much food (calories and nutrients) you'll need? This was written just for you!

 Backpacking Food Ideas: Breakfast

When I shed my sleeping bag in the morning, I'm in a "let's-get-on-the-trail" frame of mind, so speed is of the essence.

Boiling water added to instant oatmeal, plus a mug of green tea, do the trick.

I also throw a handful of dried fruit & nuts into the oatmeal, which ups the nutritional value and keeps my taste buds from grumbling about bland old oatmeal.

Note that this combination balances the 3 major fuel sources:  carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

My favorite instant oatmeal: McCanns Irish oatmeal, maple and brown sugar variety. You can toss a bit of oil into it to up the fuel quotient, if you'd like.

McCANN'S Instant Irish Oatmeal, Maple & Brown Sugar, 10-Count Boxes (Pack of 6)

My cheapest instant oatmeal: from the bulk bin at my local food store. It doesn't come near to the creamy goodness of McCanns, but sometimes it's all I've got.

Bonus points for adding a tablespoon of chopped walnuts, ground flax seeds, or chia seeds!

Sometimes the little details in backpacking food ideas make a huge difference in taste and nutrition.

If you're going to use flax, go for the golden flakes! Gluten free and high in fiber, but remember to drink extra water.

One 1 lb Bob's Red Mill Organic Gluten-Free Whole Ground Golden Flaxseed Meal

Chia seeds are amazing powerhouses of nutrients, and weigh almost nothing. I highly recommend these as an addition to your micronutrient supply.

HealthWorks Pesticide and Chemical Free Chia Seeds 16oz/1lb

Backpacking Food Ideas: Lunch

By the time it's time to find a great sit-spot around mid-day, I'm famished.

I pull out the sandwich I made that morning, and munch away while enjoying the view.

That's only for the first few days, however. Bread doesn't ride well in a backpack.

So I turn to crackers and nut butters, or sometimes just nuts and jerky and dried fruits (no sulfur dioxide, so the fruit looks a bit wrinkled and darkened).

Be sure to guard the crackers from inadvertent "smush" events (like sitting on your backpack).

I follow the carbs & protein with some high protein cookies (think nut butters or nuts), a chunk of chocolate, or an energy sphere.

I realize that some hikers prefer the chunks of cheese/salami/crackers route, or just trail mix (nuts, raisins, chocolate) and granola bars as classic backpacking food ideas.

I used to do this in my long-ago 20's and 30's, but found that salty, processed, heavy foods did not agree with my digestion.

So now I keep it light and carb rich.

I've hiked with people who only munch on trail mix for lunch, and they seem to do just fine. That's a bit too light for me!

I've also unearthed lightweight tins of easy-open sardines or herring in very tasty tomato sauce or oil from the bowels of my backpack.

Paired with crackers, quite tasty! Be sure you have a spork to capture every last drop.

Just be careful to keep any fishy oil away from your clothing or pack in bear country.

Bela-Olhao Sardines Sardines In Tomato Sauce, 4.25 oz

And about that spork... I tend to lose them, so I buy a 4-pack at the beginning of the summer hiking season.

Light My Fire Original BPA-Free Tritan Spork Multi-Color 4-Pack - Element

Dinner Backpacking Food Ideas

Ah! First the boots come off, then the stove gets cranked up to boil water.

The boiling water is used to rehydrate some soup, which I sip as more water boils.

The salty soup takes the edge off my ravenous hunger, rehydrates me, and adds back some of the salt I lost during my hike.

This little backpacking food idea was passed along by my Girl Scout leaders 4 decades ago!

Thai Kitchen - Spring Onion Rice Noodle Bowl (Pack of 6)

After much experimentation, I use the Backpacker's Pantry line of dehydrated food.


Because they are lean on artificial additives but high on flavor and nutrients (some even have vitamins and minerals added).

Compare their ingredient lists to Mountain House, and you will see what I mean.

I go to this company for great backpacking food ideas - lots of entrees, vegetables, and desserts for you to scope out.

I think they're a viable backpacking food option at the end of a long trail day.

Backpacker's Pantry Kung Pao Chicken with Rice

Antioxidants can be hard to come by after a few days on the trail.

Usually you get these plant-derived protective molecules (a.k.a. "phytonutrients") in salads, cranberries, apples, red wine.

On the trail, turn to peanuts and dark chocolate to keep your cells protected from damaging free radicals (highly energetic little guys, looking to cause trouble on a molecular level).

A note about a hearty dinner: you want to eat enough food to keep up your core temperature throughout the night and to replace the water you sweated/peed out during the day.

Don't skimp on calories when you're backpacking. Consider it richly deserved fuel!

You might have to erase or block all of the marketing messages about thinness while you're on the trail. Eat up!

While you are in "rest and digest" mode, dominated by the parasympathetic nervous system, the nutrients from dinner are being used to rebuild glycogen reserves for the next day's hike.

Also, your body is repairing damage to muscles, tendons, and bones from lugging your pack up the trail. No inflammation for you!

As an additional benefit, you won't wake up at 2AM with hunger pangs if you take the time to prepare and ingest a hot dinner.

And cold nights won't bother you, because your internal furnace is well stoked.

Summing Up...

Bottom line for backpacking food ideas for your next trip?

Fall back on the mantra of the 3 major classes of fuel biomolecules: carbohydrates, proteins, fats.

Here's an idea to try in order to gauge how you are doing, nutrient wise: keep a daily food log on the trail.

Note which backpacking meals or foods were especially satisfying, which brands or flavors you loved, and any weird cravings you had.

This takes only a few seconds, but yields valuable insight when you look back over it months later as you prepare for another trip.

If you're prone to drama, you can also doodle the names of the things you hated and embellish them with exclamation marks (or worse), just for fun.

If you want feedback from body parts beyond your taste buds, be sure to compare pre-trip body weight with post-trip weight, plus keep track of your daily energy levels.

This info builds a complete picture of how your "fuel burning plan" (a.k.a. "backpacking food list") worked out.

Tweak until perfect!

Wow! What a great way to justify lots of trail time!

If you like to be creative and devote precious outdoor time to cooking & cleaning up (see my bias?), there are tons of great recipes for backpacking food ideas, from talented outdoor chefs, to try!

Chef Glenn is a personal favorite and go-to site.

For me right now, in an aging hiker's body, the bottom line is nutrition, rather than taste and fancy flourishes.

I found this entertaining way to decide whether you're a minimalist or a gourmet back country chef: choose your own eating adventures.

So I'm probably in the minority: a cooking minimalist. I humbly accept my outcast status, because to me, the entire point of going into the back country IS to explore the back country!

But ya gotta eat, right?

One last little tip: I always trust the wisdom of my body when I get home from a backpacking trip, especially if I'm a few pounds lighter.

If I crave pickles on toast with a side of bacon, that's what I eat until the craving disappears!

It's just my little "thank you" to the muscles and bones which got me up and down the trails, and back home safely.

So you have my permission to honor your cravings.

They might be little postcards from your digestive system to your brain, saying "Pick up a pound of pickles (or whatever) on your way home, honey."