Our favorite backpacking food tips and hacks that make eating on the trail easier and healthier.
Updated: October 16th, 2020
© Rebecca (@becca.ventures)
1. Nutrition: Get a Lot of It
In one day, you might burn 2,500 calories with a leisure 5 mile stroll or up to 5,500 calories on an intense 20 mile backpacking trip.
Consuming proper levels of Calories, Sodium, Fat, Fiber, Sugar, Carbohydrates and Protein is crucial to staying healthy, energized and avoiding injuries... especially if you're on the trail for more than a day or two.
The FDA recommends the following amounts for a 2,000 calorie diet:
Assuming you don't have any specific dietary needs, we recommend consuming at least these levels on the trail. At times, much more.
2. Eat the Heavy Foods First
Plan to eat the heaviest food first on the trail. Lay out your meals at home beforehand, then sort them by weight. If you bring luxury foods (fresh fruit, meats, etc), it is best to get them in your stomach and off your back asap. Prioritizing what and when you eat can shave pounds off your pack by the end of a trip.
3. Packable = Compact and Durable
Keep in mind that you will toss around, unload and repack all of your food... a lot. This is where puffy bread, brittle crackers and squishy fruits become impractical. Keep it compact and durable.
4. Hang the "Delicates"
If you can't do away with the brittle crackers, there's a simple hack to prevent them from turning to powder in your pack. Bring a bandana (can double up as a dish rag) and hang your delicate food off the back of your pack. Note that squishy fruits, fluffy bread, soft greens need some extra TLC as well.
5. Taste AND Texture, Please!
Of course taste matters. Be sure to consider texture variety as well though. Yes, I know it sounds odd. But, you won't want dense mealiness and mushiness for days. Crispy and crunchy things (pork rinds, chips, etc) seem to be highly valued mid-hike. Everyone is different.
I tend to prioritize flavor and variety more than most though. Tuna just ain't gonna cut it for every meal for me. I crave sugar and salt on the trail. Makes sense, considering the high level of physical exertion. Be sure to give yourself at least one thing you will look forward to everyday.
6. Favor Calorie-Dense Foods
To a certain degree, density is the ultimate goal (ie high calorie-to-oz ratio). I typically only carry food that is at least 100 calories per oz. Your back and knees will appreciate every extra ounce you can shave off. Water is heavy, so you want to include as many "waterless" backpacking food options in your diet as possible.
7. Make Your Own Trail Mix
When it comes to ultralight backpacking food, trail mix ticks all the boxes. It is extremely nutritious, packs easily and tastes great. While you could choose to go for the good ole' raisins and peanuts, I like to spice it up a bit and mix in other dry ingredients, like mango and pretzels.
8. Try Our Famous "Concoction"
On the trail more than anywhere else, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I've developed something I call the concoction as a way to get a concentrated dose of nutrients and energy before I hit the trail, and so without the hassle of cooking or cleaning. The current iteration (it's constantly evolving) involves a combination of oats, seeds, protein powder, oil and cookie mix. I sometimes like to add a serving of instant coffee powder in there for an extra boost. Find this recipe, along with other stoveless food ideas in our Non-Cook Backpacking Guide.
9. Don't Forget Your Veggies
Especially on long hikes where you can be out there for weeks and months. at minimum, its nice to mentally know you are getting your greens. ideas: a) pack powders, b) pack things like seaweed, c) there are also stable non-cook veggies like arugula and broccoli.
10. No Cooking (Ideally) and No Cleanup
You want to be able to drop your bag, unzip a pocket and eat. Two questions:
Cooking is a pain. Setting up the pots and stove... and then cleaning up (no one likes to do dishes in the woods). Takes up valuable time and energy. Many ultra-light distance hikers opt to leave the stove behind entirely and go for a "non-cook meal plan" or cold-soak their meals.
11. Only Cook Your Dinner
If you do plan on carrying a stove, I recommend only cooking one meal a day - dinner. It's the end of the day so you have time to chill out and it can be a savory reward after a long day. You want to crush miles and enjoy the scenery in the day... not stop and fiddle with your stove. Keep your day food quick, easy and cook-free. The time to relax is at the end of the day. This is also when you will really want that hot meal. Sprawl out at camp and cook dinner at your own pace.
12. Attn Foodies: Prep Ahead of Time
If you really want a hot gourmet meal on the trail, great. just don't do it on trail. prep ahead of time. things like freezer bag recipes. ways to prep, measure, portion, spices ahead of time. Fancy cheesy bacon grits or Mexican beans and rice on the trail? Check out these simple freezer-bag recipes you can prep ahead of time.
13. Pack the Right Amount
Running out of food is an issue, but over-packing is just as bad because that means you'll be carrying unnecessary weight throughout your hike. As a rule of thumb, plan on carrying about 2 lbs of food per day of hiking. So if you plan on spending 5 days on the trail, your food should not exceed 10 pounds.
14. Cut the Trash and Consolidate
Most foods come in layers of packaging. You want to leave as much of this at home for two reasons: less weight and bulk to carry, but more importantly you don't have to pack it out. Throw away the box cases and bags. Consolidate as much food as you can into one bag.
15. Keep It All to One Cup and One Utensil
Forget the multi-pot cook kits. They are heavy, bulky and unnecessary. All of your meals should be able to be cooked in one cup with water. ie - heat water and then add noodles, rice, potatoes, etc. 750 ml with a lid and wide base is ideal. Drink from your collapsible water bladder. Otherwise, you can enjoy a hot drink after you finish eating.
16. Get a Spork with a Straight Edge.
When you don't have soap and don't want to wipe that dirty cup out with your one clean rag, use your spork. Some sporks come with a firm straight handle that is perfect for scraping the walls of a cup clean.
17. Windscreens Increase Fuel Efficiency
I backpacked for nearly a decade before realizing how helpful these can be. Particularly important during winter. Your fuel itself flows much slower in cold weather. Not to mention that your stove is already fighting an uphill battle against the colder elements. The combination can drain your fuel while your water slooowly heats up. A folded piece of aluminum foil will act as a windscreen - effectively blocking the wind and channeling the flame to heat your pot much more efficiently.
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 to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
Affiliate disclosure: We aim to provide honest information to our readers. We do not do sponsored or paid posts. In exchange for referring sales, we may receive a small commission through affiliate links. This post may contain affiliate links. This comes at no extra cost to you.