When you’re hiking through the beautiful back-country, you need to know what are the best backpacking meals to take with you. Backpacking food should be simple and light, with little preparation and inexpensive ingredients from your local grocer. At the same time, each snack, side, or main dish must nourish and revitalize to help you stay strong and steady on the trail.
The Best Backpacking Meals: How much should you bring?
The most common mistake when loading up for backpacking is to bring too many supplies, especially when it comes to packing food items. You should plan for enough to maintain your energy, morale, and digestion without weighing down your pack. Focus on balancing weight and calories while keeping in mind the amount of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, healthy fats, and other nutrients that you need each day.
Even then, you will need to pack differently depending upon the hike length, season, and overall geography, as well as the availability of water. According to the REI Menu Planning Guide, you should pack 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per person per day, but other experts recommend less for short summer hikes and more for longer, winter ones. Realistically, the amount will differ by person, food type, preparation method, and backpacking style.
In general, dried fruits, vegetables, meats, and other dry goods are best because they contain a good amount of energy to power your muscles but weigh little and are relatively less expensive than freeze-dried options. They also involve minimal preparation, which is essential while hiking during the day or should your stove malfunction. However, stick as close to your normal diet and preferred foods as possible to avoid digestive issues on the trail.
The Best Backpacking Meals: How to plan?
The first step of planning your backpacking meals is to leave the fresh foods at home; they weigh more than they are worth and won’t last very long in most conditions. Although freeze-dried foods sound delicious, preparing them can also be tricky, and their nutrition is not always reliable – not to mention their higher cost. Instead, bring a range of dry-good-based meals that you can easily repackage into labeled, re-sealable plastic bags for portability.
Mountain Safety Research recommends that you focus on complex carbohydrates and proteins to sustain your energy over the entire trip. Start by choosing your preferred carbs, such as the trail staple of potato flakes, easy-to-cook instant rice, textured rice noodles, basic pasta like macaroni, or couscous, which can cook in the sun. While carbohydrates carry over 100 calories per ounce, healthy fats bring over 160, so pack your favorite nuts, jerks, nut butter, oils, powdered milk, or even dehydrated beans.
Whatever you choose, keep the ingredient list uncomplicated but versatile enough for various meals. Be sure to bring your favorite spices to help titillate your taste buds, including basics like pepper, salt, garlic, ginger, basil, cumin, cinnamon, and any personal favorites. Lastly, liven up your backpacking menu with unique flavors like powdered coconut milk, curry paste, sundried tomatoes, dried kale, or other options to keep your cuisine interesting.
The Best Backpacking Meals: What makes for a good breakfast?
The first meal of the day is an important one when living in the backcountry, as it sets the pace for the entire day. Energy bars are the go-to breakfast for getting a quick and efficient start, but a lavish spread of eggs, pancakes, and coffee can put a spring in your step. From dehydrated eggs to hot cereals and much more besides, the potential options can be a bit overwhelming, so plan your menu with care.
The Outdoor Gear Lab suggests that you start high mileage days with an energy bar or a fast meal of oatmeal, grits, Cream of Wheat, or other fast-cooking grains with fruit, protein, and cinnamon. More restful days can then be a time for extravagant breakfasts of pre-prepared vegetables, dehydrated meats, cheeses, and eggs. In either case, whole-fat powdered milk provides a delicious complement to other proteins and a good source of calcium that is lightweight and portable.
For caffeine junkies, heading out from the trailhead is not the time to give up your favorite beverage. Avoid being the trail grump by bringing convenient, individual servings of pre-ground coffee with you. There are also many innovative brewing options that can easily fit in your backpack, although chocolate-covered coffee beans may be the smallest and most delicious coffee substitute.
The Best Backpacking Meals: What to pack for lunch and dinner?
While breakfast and dinner should overlap in terms of ingredients, a backpacker’s lunch is really more of a series of small, energy-boosting snacks. Popular choices include homemade snack mixes, dried fruits, fig bars, energy bars, and various meat and vegetarian jerkies. Grazing on a series of on-trail, pre-made snacks ensures that your energy never wanes while you take in the natural world around you.
At the end of a hard day on the trail, though, you’ll want to add calories quickly to nourish your tired muscles and recover for the next day. A hearty meal is in order, so pack simple dishes that can be prepared with minimal preparation, such as instant soups and sauces. You can also use the spices and other toppings that you brought to make otherwise tiresome trail cuisine back to life.
For example, Mountain Safety Research’s Spicy Fried Rice infuses instant rice, dehydrated vegetables, and oil with zesty fried rice spice mix, dried Thai basil, bacon bits, and dehydrated eggs. You might also try the true extravagance of trail pizza, which is cooked by simulating an oven with a continuously-rotated grease pan on top of a stove. Either option will add some much-needed variety to your backpacking trip and make for a real treat at the end of a long day on the trail.
When you have decided upon the particular ingredients that you plan to take, it’s time to write up your final list and head to the grocery store. Backpacker.com provides a guide for how to navigate the potentially frustrating experience by laying out where each trail essential should be in a standard grocery store. With the right balance of energy, nutrition, portability, and cost, you’ll be able to make the very most of your journey into the great outdoors.