After one epic adventure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 5 months and cycle-touring New Zealand for 3 months, I've eaten A LOT of trail food. Here is a list of the best backpacking food ideas organized by suggested meal and a few guidelines to keep in mind.
A) Lightweight. Ideally containing little or no water (dehydrated). Water is the number contributor to heavy food. Packaging being the second. Prioritize "dry" food and feel free to repackage it if the cardboard boxes and bagging is excessive. It all adds up to a heavy pack which can lead to a miserable hiking trip.
B) Ready-to-eat or require minimal preparation (and cleanup). You will be hiking in the daytime and will not want to setup the stove to cook... and dishes to clean. Make sure your meals and snacks are extremely simple so you can keep moving. Even for dinner at camp, most backpackers only cook "one-pot-meals". See a few ideas: 17 Simple Backpacking Recipes.
C) High levels of nutrition. Hikers have been known to burn up to 6,000 calories a day. In short, you need to consume a lot of macro nutrients to balance out the high burn-rate. High-levels of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fats, fiber and electrolytes (mainly sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium) is a must.
*Tip 1: If you really want to nerd out, keep nutritional density in mind. In other words, if you are going to carry 2 pounds of food per day, you would rather it provide 3,000 calories versus 1,500 calories. This is where the term "calorie-to-ounce ratio" comes from. Try to prioritize food that provides at least 100 calories per oz.
*Tip 2: Get a variety of textures and flavors. I find crunchy crunchy things like crackers and pork rinds a nice refresher after eating dense and mealy textures for several days. Give yourself a "treat" at the end of everyday. Just something to look forward to - a candy bar, cup of tea, etc.
1. Oatmeal Packets. A backpacking food staple. The best thing about these packets is that they serve as a bowl. Just add hot water to heat the oats inside. Get the variety pack.
2. Grits. You don't have to be Southern to love grits. As easy as oatmeal and can be a nice addition to mix up your meal plan.
3. Dried Fruits. Fresh fruit is generally too heavy and delicate. Dried fruit provides dense sugar which can be a healthier alternative to candy.
4. Nuts and Seeds. Calories! Salted, roasted, whatever. Nuts are a tasty way to pack in dense calories, protein and healthy fats and oils. There are countless varieties of nuts as well - peanuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and pumpkin seeds to name a few.
5. Powder Meals. There are a ton of 'powder' options out there. From complete meal replacements to weight lifting supplements. Aim to keep it minimally processed, provide nutrition and taste good.
6. Powdered Eggs. For flavor and texture reasons, I'm not a huge fan. Powdered eggs are extremely popular on the trail though. Easy, lightweight and cheap protein that can the closest thing to a Waffle House in the backcountry.
7. Powdered Milk. Milk without the weight. Great protein, potassium, fat and calorie boost. Try mixing it up with some granola and dried fruit for breakfast. Or make your oatmeal a little creamier.
8. Beef Jerky and Dried Meat. Beef jerky, salami and tuna are my favorite non-cook meats for the trail. None of them need refrigeration. All of them are tasty and high in protein and sodium. Great for a quick lunch. See Best Beef Jerky.
9. Tuna and Salmon. Tuna is probably the most popular meat of choice for thru-hikers. Conveniently packaged, available everywhere and inexpensive. Get it in olive oil for additional calories. Salmon is gaining popularity as well.
10. Cheese. Cheese can be a heavy food for some ultralight backpackers. However, it can provide a lot of calories and fat. Not to mention, it can really enhance the meat flavor. Aim for 'harder' cheeses - they are more shelf stable.
11. Tortillas. Bread can be too bulky and fluffy for backpacking. Tortillas are compact and can take a beating. Great for wraps - Peanut Butter and M&Ms, Meat and Cheese, Hummus and Peppers. Mmmmmm.
12. Greenbelly Meals. We love 'em. Ready-to-eat, ultralight and loaded with a balanced 33% of your DV of Calories, Protein, Fats, Fiber, Carbs and Sodium. All natural ingredients. See Greenbelly Meals (use code FOODIDEAS for 10% off).
13. Bagels. If tortillas are too flat, bagels can help provide that nice 'fluff' texture of bread. They are a more pack-able and less delicate option.
14. Crackers. High in carbohydrates and sodium. Hang them on the outside of your pack with a bandanna if you think they'll get smashed inside.
15. Instant Noodles. Get noodles instead of pasta. Seasoned noodles generally don't need a lot of cleanup compared to creamy pastas which can leave your bowl or cup a sticky mess. They also have a lot of carbohydrates.
16. Instant Rice. A great base for a backpacking dinner meal. There are also countless rice varieties with different seasonings and veggie fixin's at the store.
17. Couscous. Cooks in 5 minutes - much faster than rice or noodles. The light texture can be a nice dinner relief. High in fiber. A little less filling in my opinion though.
18. Instant Potatoes. Another backpacking staple and great meal base. Ultralight backpacking food with carbs and sodium. Add meat, oil or spices to liven it up.
19. Dried Veggies. It is hard to eat healthy food on the trail. Dried vegetables are an exception. You can add them to any of the items listed above (noodles, rice, couscous, potatoes) and have a nice backcountry meal.
20. Lentils. I had not ever eaten this until the Appalachian Trail. In the legume family (with peanuts and peas), Lentils are an ancient superfood rich in calories, protein, fiber and Iron. Takes a few extra minutes to cook.
21. Freeze Dried Meals. Add hot water, stir, seal and then wait a few minutes. Plenty of options of flavors, recipes and brands to chose from for dinner.
22. Energy Chews. Chews usually have a gummy bear-like consistency. Some are caffeinated, loaded with electrolytes, whatever you fancy.
23. Energy Gels. Similar to chews, the options for gels and goos are endless. Super convenient energy boost for quick calories.
24. Fruit Leather. A good source of natural sugar and tastes like candy. Called "leather" because it can be thick and chewy like leather.
25. Pork Rinds. The best thing about pork rinds is the texture. So much backpacking food is mealy and dense. Pork rinds are ultra crisp and crunchy. Their "puffy" volume can take up more space. But, they are loaded with protein.
26. Seaweed. Ready-to-eat dark greens? Practically unheard of. I don't know of a lighter or easier green to eat while backpacking. Seaweed is the ultimate trail superfood. Try it out.
27. Peanut (or Almond) Butter. The king of backpacking food. Crammed with calories, fat, sodium and protein. Ready-to-eat and can eat with almost anything. See Peanut Butter and Co.
28. Honey. Let peanut butter be the food of choice for the savory loving backpacking community. But, give the sweet award to honey. Sweeten up your tea or crackers or eat it straight.
29. Granola Bar. Too many options to name. There are protein bars, energy bars, snack bars, nutrition bars, food bars - you name it. Ready-to-eat and usually high in nutrition. Keep it natural and minimally processed.
30. Hummus. A lesser known backpacking superfood. Like peanut butter, it can be lathered on almost anything. On top of the yummy taste, hummus is dense calories, carbs, protein and fiber.
31. Tabs. Great source for electrolytes and enhances hydration. Tastes great. Drop a tab in your water and watch it fizz away (like Alka-Seltzer). See Nuun.
32. Powder Mixes. Similar benefits as the tabs - electrolytes and enhances hydration. Usually with a lot more flavor options and some have vitamin and mineral enhancements. See Ultima Replenisher.
33. Tea. As much caffeine as coffee, but less mess. Chamomile tea before bed is a nice way to end the day after some strenuous hiking.
34. Instant Coffee. For all of you connoisseurs, I know instant coffee is blasphemous. But, that french press is heavy. Instant options have improved over the years as well. Jiva and Starbucks are my favorites.
35. Dark Chocolate. Dark chocolate has a high concentration of cocoa and is a powerful anti-oxidant. It can be extremely satisfying on the trail as a healthier option for those with a sweet tooth.
36. Multivitamin. Get those vitamins and minerals without the bulky food. Particularly good to get your Vitamin C and Calcium which are less easy to come by in shelf stable trail food.
37. Fruit Powders. Another hidden backpacking food gem. Pour fruit powder into an ounce of water and take a healthy fruit drink shot. Great way to get some fruit nutrition without the weight.
38. Olive Oil. Super dense calories and fat. It can add some much needed moisture to a dry noodle or rice dish... crackers and tuna as well. A little 5 oz bottle will do. Pack in an isolated bag in case it busts.
39. Spices. Keep your carb dinners (noodle, rice, cous cous, potatoes) plain and spice it up to your liking with a DIY seasoning kit (salt, pepper, garlic, chili). Portion it into smaller zip loc bags to save weight. Also see Spice Kit.
40. Brownie or Cookie Mix. Probably only an option for ultralight hikers pushing big miles. Brownie and cookie mixes are loaded with sugar, can be mixed in with cold water and are super lightweight.
41. Beer. Yup! Brew it on the trail. I actually toasted to my hiking partner at the end of the Appalachian Trail with some of this. Surprisingly tasty beverage. See Pat's Backcountry Beverages.
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.
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