Backpackers should check-in with their food bags on 3 occasions - no more and no less. A well-organized food bag will save you time, eliminate unnecessary stress, save space and, ultimately, enable you to crush more miles.
Whether preparing for your upcoming outing or resupplying in town before getting back on the trail, you need to be consistent with organizing your food bag. This step is the longest amount of time you should spend with your food bag open. Do all of your stressing off-trail and you’ll find that on-trail life will be a LOT easier, thanks to your well organized prep work.
Select Your Food Storage
A food bag can be as simple as the nylon bag that carries your tent, preferably durable and waterproof to handle the trail. Food bags should be lightweight and flexible for whatever you decide to stash in them. If your bag does rip though, there could be some spillage. Make sure all of your food is in zip lock bags for reinforcement. See ZPack's stuff sacks.
A bear canister is becoming increasingly mandatory in certain areas where bears are becoming a problem to humans. Check to make sure before your trip if you're heading into one of those areas. Canisters do take up a bit of space in your pack. But, most of them will hold at least 3 days of food. Plus, there’s absolutely no way any creature, other than you, is getting to your food.
Go Grocery Shopping
The average 160 pound male can burn 500 calories and hour. For a 4 hour hiking day - that is 2,000 calories. Plus 2,000 calories the body needs to simply keep you alive (known as BMR). But, of course, you’ll need to assess YOUR needs. Based on this, if this individual had 6 meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, 3 snacks), he's looking at 667 calories per meal. You should have a good idea of how many days you will be on the trail or until your next resupply. Backpacking staples tend to be high in calories, lightweight, and easy with minimal cleanup. Aim to get nutritional value in your diet as well. Check out our 31 Backpacking Food Ideas.
Pack Your Food Bag
Make sure to toss out clunky cardboard box food packaging and use non-leaky, non-glass travel bottles for sauces and spices. Plastic zip lock sandwich/freezer bags are a cheap, lightweight, waterproof way to keep meals separate and organized. If you like to keep tabs on how many calories you’re consuming per meal, write the amount of calories on the bag itself.
Consider the Extras
It’s always a safe-bet to bring one full extra-day’s worth of meals. Besides food, make sure you have room to store all your cooking equipment and other aromatic items. The reason for this is hanging your bear bag at night. Food or not, bears will come sniffing around at any scent. Make sure to have rope, a carabiner, and knowledge of How to Hang a Bear Bag. Lastly, make sure you’ve got a food waste/trash bag for empty wrappers and such. Pack it in, pack it out, my friends.
Take Down Bear Bag
Wake up and pull your food bag down from your bear bag hang the night before.
Eat your carefully organized breakfast that you set at the top of your food bag the night before for easy access. Pack your trash from breakfast.
Prep Lunch and Snacks
Prepare your meals for the day. Lunch/snacks and other finger foods should be in accessible, convenient places. Hip-belt pouches or side pockets outside the main body of the pack are perfect storage.
Pack your food bag near the top of your backpack or somewhere you can access it easily throughout the day, just in case. The only competing foods at the top of your food bag should be brittle and fluffy foods, like crackers and breads.
Arrive in camp and pull out your food bag. Get cooking that carefully organized 667-calorie dinner. Treat yourself to dessert.
Take into account what food you have left and reflect on how you felt throughout the day. Thoughts like “Could I have used another snack for an energy boost?" and "Do I have extra food?”
Get Ready for Bed
Wash your dishes, brush your teeth, and take care of personal hygiene BEFORE you hang your bear bag. Again, those strong odor items need to be hung.
Fill up on water and plan for tomorrow’s breakfast to be on the top of your food bag to get a head start in the morning. Make sure no wrappers or crumbs were left in your backpack. Then hang that bear bag to prevent any unwanted evening guests.
These procedures will become instinctual overtime. The more you practice, the more efficient you’ll become and more enjoyable your on-trail experience will be. Happy trails!
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
*Affiliate Disclosure: Some links on this page may be affiliate links. This means we may receive a small portion of any potentially referred sales. This comes at no extra cost to you. We just want to be completely transparent.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.