If you’ve ever done a day hike that stretched your limits, you know that hiking really gets you in touch with your hunger. That’s especially true if you start backpacking, which often requires you to carry more than 20 pounds on your back while facing backcountry terrain. So what do you pack when you won’t have full access to your kitchen fridge that night?
Last summer I backpacked 1,000 miles and ate everything from ramen packets to Snickers bars to fresh ravioli. But even so, on my last weekend backpacking trip, I underestimated how much food I would need and ended up snacking on the extra chocolates my friends had brought along until we got back into town.
To help beginner backpackers avoid making the same mistake I did—and as a reminder to myself—I decided to compile my best advice, plus tips from a few pros, for properly packing food for your first backpacking trip.
1. Stock up on a few basic pieces of equipment you’ll need to cook.
1. A stove. Some people do choose to go stove-less, but if you’re new to the backcountry, you’ll probably find a hot, cooked meal comforting. I have a super-simple and lightweight stove that is similar to the MSR Pocket Rocket that screws directly onto the fuel canister. JetBoils are a popular option, too.
2. Stove fuel. Your local outdoors store (REI, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops) will have this. Just make sure you buy the right fuel for your stove or you can end up without a flame to cook with. I suggest asking a salesperson to guide you in the right direction.
3. A pot. For beginners, I’d recommend sticking with a tall, lightweight pot, which is multipurpose: It can be used to boil enough water for a dehydrated meal, or you can cook your own meal right inside it. I have an Olicamp XTS Pot. If you want to get fancy with cooking and are willing to carry the extra weight, there are lightweight cook sets like this three-piece one, which will allow you to work with several different ingredients at a time.
4. A utensil to eat with. I prefer a long-handled spork like this one from Valtcan. The long handle helps keep your hands from getting messy when you’re reaching into a pot or bag, but a spoon or fork from home also works just fine.
5. A lighter. To light your stove, of course. The Ten Essentials principle suggests carrying two ways to start a fire when you venture into the wild, in case one of them fails. I bring a lighter and a small flint. Waterproof matches (like these ones from Zippo) are another strong option.
6. Food! Naturally.
2. When choosing what actual food you’ll bring, consider the weight, first and foremost.
If you’re used to camping, your first thought when it comes to backcountry food might be cans of beans or a Tupperware full of potato salad. But tasty as they might be, most experienced backpackers wouldn’t recommend them. That’s because these foods tend to take up a lot of space and weigh a lot, and the more weight that’s on your back, the harder your hike will be. You’ll also have to carry the empties around until you get home.
Instead, most beginner backpackers gravitate toward ready-made backpacker meals like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry. These meals are typically dehydrated and simply require adding hot water and waiting for 10 to 20 minutes for your meal to rehydrate, which makes them simple and lightweight.
On the other hand, many dehydrated meal brands contain large amounts of salt and preservatives, and reviews are mixed on how good they taste. I’ve had some really tasty meals and others I’ve been disappointed to be stuck with at the end of a hard day, but I still tend to grab at least one for a multi-day trip just so I don’t have to think too hard about meals. Some companies have started creating organic and preservative-free options, like Mary Jane’s Farms and Good to Go. They tend to be a little more expensive, though.
And then, there are seasoned backpackers who steer clear of these packaged meals altogether. “I highly recommend not getting [pre-prepared backpacker meals],” says Brenda L. Braaten, Ph.D., R.D., whose website Pack Light, Eat Right focuses on nutrition information for hardcore hikers. She finds that they “taste like mud.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat dehydrated foods—she just says that there are cheaper, tastier alternatives, like boxes of Near East grains, instant brown rice, or dehydrated beans, all of which can be found at a grocery store.
Not stoked about dehydrated meals? If you’re only going out for a night—or if you’re willing to get creative—plenty of prepared food at home can make it a day or two on the trail. I’ve happily packed leftover pizza, fresh ravioli and pesto sauce, and fruits like grapes and oranges. Red peppers, meat sticks, snap peas, chocolate-covered nuts, freeze-dried berries, broccoli, cheese, and even deli sandwiches and pasta salads came up among the people I interviewed for this piece as easy, non-specialized tasty foods to bring on a short trip. If it’s a warm day, I wrap fresh foods like cheese and pasta salads in my puffy jacket to keep them insulated and have never had a problem. Just be sure to prepare them in advance, chopping and removing peels as necessary.
3. Bring a variety of foods that cover important nutrients and different flavors.
A balanced, satisfying meal while you’re backpacking isn’t much different nutrition-wise than a wholesome meal in your daily life—aim for a mix of carbs, protein, and fat for your meals. You’ll learn your own preferences in time, but when you’re starting out, it’s important to have several options so you don’t find yourself at the end of a hard hike disappointed in the food you’ve brought. Try to pack different flavor profiles, like salt, sweet, savory, and even sour.
One thing the professionals I spoke to agreed on is that you’re going to crave carbs. You’re going to be pushing yourself pretty hard, and carbs are our bodies’ preferred source of fuel. “That’s why I would recommend having something like Jolly Ranchers, something that’s real quick and easy to eat in-between meal times, just to boost the sugar levels a little,” she advises. Many hikers swear by sour gummy worms.
And here’s something that might surprise you: The things you like at home may not be what you like when you’re backpacking. Mayhew says that while she loves mixed nuts at home, she can’t stand them on the trail. I don’t touch packaged ramen in my daily life, but when I’m backpacking, it’s like the nectar of the gods.
In time, you’ll gain enough self-knowledge to pack exactly the right amount of food, but beginners should over-prepare, according to Jill Douglas, a mountaineer, ultrarunner, and instructor for REI’s outdoor event program for women, Outessa. “You want to have too much food than too little,” she says. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s say you sprain your ankle or an emergency comes up, and you have to be out there for an extra day or two. You want to have the extra resources.”
4. Take the the length and intensity of your trip into consideration.
My big mistake when I hiked with my friends was not doing enough research on the trail. My friend had described it as “a leisurely walk along the river,” which I’d prepared for. Instead, we ended up climbing 6 miles to a mountain pass, gaining 4,000 feet in elevation. Needless to say, I was ravenously hungry and short on food. Not ideal.
“Definitely pack according to the terrain and the extent of the trip,” says Aaron Owens Mayhew, M.S., R.D.N., a backcountry meal-planning specialist who shares her knowledge on her website, BackcountryFoodie.com. She recommends her clients keep track of how much they eat on an average day at home and then increase it by 25 to 50 percent depending on the trip. A short, relatively flat walk to a campsite where you’re going to lounge all day is going to require a different amount of food than the 4,000-foot climb I described. Both can be awesome trips—as long as you’ve got the food to fuel them.
5. Save weight and space by repackaging everything before you leave.
“Take all of your packaging off at home and repackage in Ziplock baggies,” Braaten recommends. Personally, I used them all the time on the trail last summer. What makes plastic bags so great is that they’re lightweight, resealable (so you can reuse them for other things, like trash, or even refill them with the same food next time you’re out if it’s something like dry noodles or oatmeal) and, if you get the freezer bags, you can actually pour boiling water in them and hydrate your meals in the bag, which can save you having to do any dishes later.
While you’re repackaging your food, take the time to organize it in a way that makes it easy to access, Braaten says. “Ideally you’ll have all of your lunches in one rather large Ziplock and all of your dinners in another, or you’ll do all of one day’s [food] in one Ziplock and keep it organized, so that when you get to camp it’s really easy: This is what’s for dinner tonight, boom, in the pot, and you’re ready in 10 minutes.”
However you pack your meals, make sure you follow Leave No Trace principles while you’re out there, like packing out any food you don’t eat, taking all of your garbage home, and not washing dishes in rivers and streams.
6. You can get a little fancy if you want—the key is finding recipes you can prep ahead of time.
When you’re just starting out, covering the basics is enough. But as you get more comfortable in the backcountry, don’t forget you can make some seriously tasty meals if you plan ahead. Kelly Kate, who cooks for trail crews and shares her wilderness recipes on her Instagram, @thebackcountrycook, suggests one of her favorite recipes to make on a weekend trip:
This meal requires some prep work, but if you’re a foodie who wants to take your passion for a good meal with you into the backcountry, Kate’s creations are proof that it can be done.
While all this information might seem overwhelming at first, the truth is you’ll develop your own system that keeps you happy and well-fed on the trail over time. That might mean delicious meals that you cook from scratch, or it could be a baguette and cheese. The most important part is that you get out there and get started. Happy eating! And hiking too, I suppose.