Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Meal Planning

You’ve done your research and got the best pack, the warmest bag, and the right shelter. Now you’re ready to take the plunge and venture off on your first multi-day backpacking adventure. All you have to do is grab your food and you’re ready to hit the trail. You open the fridge and then it hits you, you have absolutely no idea about what to pack.

Prepping the right food for a backpacking trip can be incredibly overwhelming. What food should you bring? How much food do you even need? Can you really live off nothing but energy bars for a few days?

Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at what you need to consider to determine what’s right for your trip.

Why Do You Need to Meal Plan?

You’ve been on hikes before. A bag of trail mix, some beef jerky, and you’re good to go. That may work just fine for a single day trip, but when you’re out in the backcountry it’s a whole new ballgame.

Think of it like a car. When you’re on a road trip you need to constantly monitor and refuel before you run out of gas. In this situation, your body is the vehicle. Proper fuel is necessary to ensure you maintain good physical and mental shape so you can continue the journey.

Remember, when you’re out in nature there’s no grocery store. What you take is what you get. Even if you plan on foraging, you’re not guaranteed a certain amount of food. So plan, plan, plan.

How Much Food Should You Take?

Forget what you were told about the average daily caloric needs, they don’t apply here.
When you’re heading out on a multi-day backpacking journey high-calories are your friend.

How much you need, however, is dependent upon several things. You need to factor in:

  • Trip length
  • Body weight
  • Intensity level
  • Season
  • Group size
  • Where you’re sleeping

Generally, a hiker needs anywhere from 3000 to 6000 calories per day. That’s about 1.5 to 2 pounds of food. Longer, colder, and more intense trips will require more calories. Also depending upon your weight, you’ll burn more or less.

Right now you’re probably scratching your head trying to figure out how on earth to do the math. To help you out, Backpacker offers this nifty calculator to determine how weight and intensity play in.

Whether you’re heading out on a three, five, or seven-day trip, you’ll have to count how many meals you’ll be eating and break up the calories accordingly.

To get a better perspective of what that looks like, Backpacker TV breaks down the meal plan for a five trip. Take a look:

Now that doesn’t look so intimidating, does it?

Keep in mind, if you’re hiking with a group this could vary. Having each person responsible for one backpacking meal is a nice way to break up dinner duty and help streamline the meal planning process. If you’re cooking for a party though, you’ll have to consider there might be some big eaters in the bunch.

Also, will you be staying in a hut with amenities or camping out under the stars? If you’re lucky enough to be ending the day somewhere with a cooking facility you’ll be able to lighten your load. If you’re the latter, pack all food necessary.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution and pack a little bit more. Not enough food and you may feel too sluggish to continue the journey. You also don’t want to overdo it. Extra food equals unnecessary weight.

What You Should Consider When Choosing Food

Trail mix, energy bars, pre-made meals, as long as I have a mix of nutritious stuff I’m good right? That’s what I thought too until I learned the answer is a lot more complicated. Packing for a backpacking trip is like solving a math equation. Come up with the wrong answer and life will be miserable.

Don’t worry, we won’t actually make you pass a math test to get out on the trail. What we will do is present the following to help guide you in making the right food decisions.

Calorie Dense Foods for Hikers

If there’s one piece of advice I recommend above the rest, it’s pack lightweight, nutrient-dense food that gives you more calories per weight. Like I said before, calories are your friend. You’re going to be burning them up so you will need lots of them.

Cleverhiker recommends about 120-130 calories per ounce of food. To figure out your calories per ounce you can look at the table of contents of your food and do the math – sorry about the math thing again. Some good examples of high calorie per weight foods are peanut butter, nuts, olive oil, and M&M’s.

If you’re thinking oh good I get to eat all the chocolate and candy I want, think again. While it may help to give you the boost you need, loading up on nothing but sugar will result in a serious crash and burn. You still need proper nutrition, so keep the junk food to a minimum and reserve it for when you need an extra boost.

Nutrition

You’re already worrying about calorie input and staying hydrated, but now you need to worry about nutrition? I know it’s rough, but it’s for your own good.

Proper nutritious food will help keep you at peak performance. I’ve known several backpackers who had to cut their trip short because their body wasn’t getting what they needed and they couldn’t continue.

So what does your body need? It needs a balance of nutrients. Backpacker does an excellent job of breaking down nutrition into five helpful categories to better understand this. They recommend your diet is made up of:

  1. Protein: 20 percent
  2. Complex Carbohydrates: 50 percent
  3. Unsaturated fats: 30-40 percent
  4. Sugars: minimal for short energy boosts
  5. Antioxidants (such as vitamin E and C)

Like daily life at home, your body needs a balance of protein for recovery, complex carbs for sustained energy, good fats for fuel, simple sugar for bursts of energy, and antioxidants to keep you healthy.

Proper nutrition can often be challenging since convenience tends to take first place. But think of your body as your vehicle and food as your fuel. Do your best to eat well and it will reward you.

Shelf-Life

I love eating fresh food. The problem with that on the trail is it doesn’t last. While it’s fine for day one, going out on a multi-day journey means you’ll need food with a longer shelf life.

In this case, keep perishables to a minimum and pack foods that will sustain the length of the trip. Dried goods, dehydrated foods, and freeze-dried or powdered foods such as mashed potatoes or soups are excellent in this situation.

You can also get away with some meats and cheeses. I know I said keep perishables to a minimum, but hard cheeses and dry-cured meats can keep without refrigeration. Think aged gouda and dry salami. Leave the soft brie and burger patties at home.

And please, whatever you do don’t pack canned goods! While they preserve well, they don’t pack well. Bulky packaging such as this adds unnecessary weight you have to carry around after the food is gone. And nobody wants to lug around unnecessary weight.

Pro Tip:

Growing your own sprouts is one simple way to get fresh produce on the trail.

Space and Weight Restrictions

When you’re on the trail your pack is your kitchen. This tends to result in one of the biggest mistakes beginners make, they pack too much food for fear of going hungry.

I once saw a PCT thru-hiker ditch a five-pound bag of walnuts into the hiker box. Five pounds! That’s not only a lot of walnuts, that’s a lot of space.

Each pack has a weight and space limit, which means you need to pack smart. Most experienced backpackers choose a variety of high caloric foods that are light and pack down small. Pay attention to food volume and weight when doing your shopping.

Pro Tip:

Ditch the packaging from store-bought food and repack everything in Ziploc bags. It saves space and lightens the load.

Cookware

Does your dinner require cooking? Are you dead to the world until you’ve had your morning cup of coffee? If you answered yes to either of these questions you’re going to need to pack some form of cookware. Forget it, and you’ll look at your meals like a kid in a candy store without a dime to spend.

This doesn’t mean you have to find some way to haul around your entire kitchen. All you need to get by is:

Water is by far the easiest factor to forget. Look at what you have in your food pile, does it require water for cooking? Coffee certainly does. How about that premade pasta primavera? You’ll need to factor in how much water you’ll need for cooking. This will either come from a source along the trail or you’ll have to haul it around with you.

If you’re cooking for a group, you may also want to consider taking a few extra cookware items. Take a look at how Backpacker Magazine sets up for group cooking:

A 5-liter pot with a frying pan lid, 3-liter pot, extra stove, bowl, serving utensil, and hand-sani will make dinner more efficient. As a plus, it comes in at under 4 pounds.

Of course, if at the end of the day you arrive at a hut with the luxury of a kitchen you won’t need to worry about these items so much. For the rest of you, you’ll have to pack it in.

Keeping It Simple

Do yourself a favor and keep it simple. Quick prep dinners, no-cook lunches, and fast breakfasts mean you can spend more time on the trail.

Like after a long work day, the last thing you want to do is prep a meal that takes more effort than boiling water.

Variety

I know some people who could eat the same thing for every meal and never get tired of it. I’m not one of those people. If you’re like me, you’ll appreciate variety as much as the extra foot of Leukotape you bought to wrap up your blisters.

The best way to incorporate variety is to pack different types of cuisine for dinner and a handful of various snacks. You’d be surprised how switching up one meal makes a world of difference.

Take What You Like

It may sound like a no-brainer, but don’t pack things you don’t like. If you didn’t like it before you hit the trail, you’re certainly not going to grow fond of it by day seven.

Food is your reward to yourself after putting in the miles. Bringing foods that elicit your happy dance will keep your morale up.

Leave the Diets at Home

Have you ever experienced the demeanor of someone who went on a new diet? They go stark raving mad. Okay, maybe not that crazy, but they do tend to get awfully hangry. For your own good, leave the new diet at home. Drastically changing your food routine could potentially ruin your time on the trail.

Backpacking Cooking Options

It might not seem like it, but when you’re out on the trail you have a couple cooking methods to choose from.

Let’s take a look at each so you can weigh your options.

Camp Cooking

Cooking a fresh meal over a campfire or cooking stove is one of my favorite parts about camping. It’s a rewarding experience after putting in miles on a long day. It also tends to be a luxury.

If you’re going out on a short overnight trip or ending the night at a place with amenities, this is a fun way to spend the evening. Without having to worry too much about pack weight, you can cram in more fresh food and prepare an awesome meal at the end of the day.

For those heading out on a longer trip, this typically means heating up some hot water on the stove or campfire and pouring in the contents of a premade meal.

I’ve found these to be a lifesaver. Whether their store-bought or homemade, these types of meals allow you to enjoy the comforts of home without having to lug around your whole kitchen on your back.

Pro Tip:

To sift through the hassle of finding a quality premade meal, check out our list of top freeze-dried meals worthy of your pack. Just add hot water and dinner is served.

No-Cook Foods

I’m a huge fan of no-cook meals. Why? Because sometimes I’m too tired even to boil water. I know that sounds ridiculous, but you too will have one of those days on the trail. No mess, no fuss, and barely any cleanup, no-cook meals lighten your load and let you spend more time enjoying the trail.

This is often the choice for many ultra-light backpackers. For this particular breed of hiker, ounces equal pounds and they try to shed as much as possible. No-cook meals mean they can eliminate the weight of a stove. If weight is a concern for you, consider no-cook meals and ditch the stove.

No-cook foods are not only good for reducing weight and making life easier for when you can barely crawl into your tent, they’re also good to have on hand for when bad weather strikes. Keep some on hand for the days when you really need it.

Pro Tip:

It’s worth pointing out dehydrated meals can also be made without a stove by letting cold water sit for 30-45 minutes. It won’t be piping hot, but it works.

Freezer Bag Meals

What’s a freezer bag meal? Exactly what it sounds like. Keeping cleanup minimal and making prep a breeze, to cook a freezer bag meal all you have to do is heat up water and pour it into a freezer bag.

Take a look at how easy it is:

Oatmeal, ramen, and foods of that nature are perfect for freezer bag cooking. As a bonus, it also cuts down on waste.

Just be sure it’s a freezer bag you’re using. Plastic sandwich bags and the like don’t have the same sturdiness as freezer bags, meaning you’ll wind up with a big mess.

Food Staples for Every Trip

Every hiker has staples in their backpacking food list they never hit the trail without. These vary slightly from pack to pack, but typically you’ll find:

  • Nut butter
  • Jerky
  • Dry salami
  • Bars – Greenbelly meal bars or Clif bars
  • Nuts: e.g. almonds, walnuts
  • Dried Fruit
  • Oatmeal or granola
  • Tortillas
  • Instant ramen
  • Instant soups
  • Instant potatoes
  • Tuna pouches
  • Olive oil packets
  • Snickers and M&M’s
  • Electrolyte powder

Take a look at what backpacker Adventure Alan puts into his pack. He breaks down the list by meals giving you a good perspective on staples.

After a few days, you’ll quickly discover your own staples you won’t want to leave home without.

Read more: Best Energy Bars for Hiking

Pro Tip:

Backpacker lists aisle by aisle what staples to look for in the grocery store. This can really help get down to the necessities.

Check out REI’s selection of backpacking food.

Are Store-Bought Meals Better or Homemade?

Your first time out you’ll probably treat the outfitter store as a one-stop shop where you get all your gear including your food. With premade meals like Thai chicken curry and salmon pesto pasta, you might be tempted to grab a packet per meal and call it a day. While there’s nothing wrong with that, they aren’t your only option.

Enter homemade meals.

When I say homemade I don’t mean stash all your ingredients for a fresh meal in your pack. That’s not only impractical, but the ingredients will likely perish before you use them. What I’m talking about is taking the very concept of those ‘“just add water” meals the outfitter is selling you and making your own.

To decipher which route is right for you, consider the following:

Taste

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream, that is, until I tried it. Premade backpacking meals are in many ways like that. They may sound good, but more often than not leave something to be desired.

While there are some companies out there changing the perception of terrible backpacking food, as seen in our best freeze dried food article, when it comes to flavor there’s nothing quite like homemade.

If taste is a concern, I recommend making your own meals instead. As a bonus, you have more control over the calorie count.

Pro Tip:

Check out these new small-batch companies for tasty backpacker food: Heather’s Choice, Packit Gourmet, Outdoor Herbivore, OMeals Maple Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal, Greenbelly meal bars and Paleo Meals to Go

Convenience

Anyone who has made instant ramen can tell you premade meals were invented for a reason, they’re convenient. If you’d rather spend all your trail prep time going over your gear and routing your course, consider buying your meals. Making your own meals, especially if you like variety, is going to take more time on your part. The question is, is it worth it to you?

Price

Like gear, premade meals are not known to be on the cheap side. The average store-bought meal will cost you around $8-$10 per meal. Homemade meals can be done at a fraction of the cost, about $2 per meal.

If you’re shopping on a budget, I would go the homemade route. Even if you’re only saving pennies, like ounces they add up.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s simply a matter of what works best for you.

Meal Planning Breakdown

Now that you know what to eat, when are you going to eat it? Are you going to be cooking three meals a day? Or are you going to be optimizing trail time by cutting down on cooking time? Figuring out a meal plan will not only keep you from scarfing down tomorrow night’s dinner, but it’ll keep you fueled properly for the journey ahead.

To plan it right, keep meals in-line with your mileage.

Did you happen to arrive late to camp? Skip the stove and opt for one of those no-cook meals. Having a relaxed morning? Prep some hot oatmeal. Rest day? Treat yourself right and splurge on food.

While everyone’s meal planning will look different, here’s an idea of what a typical day on the trail might look like.

Breakfast

A backpacking breakfast can either be quick and easy or eat at your leisure. What you choose will really depend on how many miles you’re looking to accomplish in a day.

Long Miles: Breakfast bar, peanut butter and tortilla, Pop-tarts

Short Miles: Instant Oatmeal and coffee, dehydrated egg breakfast burrito, pancakes, instant grits, dehydrated mashed potatoes

Lunch

Keep that stove in the bottom of your pack, you’re not going to need it here.

Lunch is by far the easiest meal of the day. Sometimes it involves grabbing a few handfuls of food and other times it requires very minimal prep.

Long Miles: Jerky, energy bars, nuts and dried fruit, peanut butter pack and crackers

Short Miles: Tuna packet with tortilla, salami and hard cheese with crackers

Dinner

After all that hard work, it’s time to reward yourself with a hot meal. With nothing else to do but get a good night’s sleep, you can really get creative here. However at this point, you may barely be able to muster up the energy to boil water.

One thing is for sure, whether you choose a no-cook meal or opt for something hot, it’s going to taste like the best thing you’ve ever had.

Long Miles: Soup, tuna wrap, Greenbelly Meal2Go bar, any no-cook meal, any dehydrated meal

Short Miles: Ramen noodles, couscous and dried fruit, chicken curry rice, mac and cheese, beans and rice with hot sauce, pasta and olive oil, any dehydrated meal

Snacks

Snack, snack, snack! One of the most important pieces of advice I received from an experienced Appalachian trail thru-hiker was to snack often. This will prevent you from zonking out before you even reach lunchtime.

A few trail favorites are:

  • Trail mix
  • Jerky
  • Granola or Clif bars
  • Candy (chocolate, yay!)
  • Pringles
  • Nuts: almonds, walnuts
  • Dried Fruit
  • No-bake oatmeal protein balls

It’s up to you when you snack on what, but take into consideration the sugar content. If you need a quick boost to charge up a short elevation gain, opt for candy or chocolate. If you’re looking to maintain a stable level of energy, nuts or trail mix are an excellent choice.

Pro Tip:

Trail Recipes recommends packing meals together by day and labeling to keep food organized.

Backpacking Cooking Tips

Whether you’re looking to enhance the flavor of your food or learn a few cooking hacks, there are some tricks of the trade that can make life better when there’s no pizza delivery service around.

Try a few of the following and you’ll feel like a pro come food time.

1. Spices and Condiments are Key

If you’re going out on a three-day trip, you’ll probably be fine eating the same thing. Anything longer and you’ll look at the same food like a kid looks at broccoli.

Unless you happen to really love broccoli, you’re going to want to spice things up a bit. Hot sauce, condiment packets, and small packets of spices are all easy ways to add new flavors. You’d be surprised how much a difference small items can really make.

2. Use Soup for Sauce

I love sauces as much as the next person, but I can’t bring them all with me. Enter soup. Soups can replace sauce in any meal tasting a bit lackluster. It also adds much-needed calories.

Think tomato soup with pasta and lentil soup with chicken pouches. Get creative with it and see what combinations you like.

3. Organize Before Cooking

Where did I put that spoon? Uh oh, now everything is burned.

This will definitely happen if you get a little too hungry and start cooking before you’ve dug out all your cookware. Before you heat up food on the stove, be sure you have everything you need right in front of you.

4. Windscreens are Your Friend

Like lighting a match in the wind, trying to cook on a stove without a windscreen can be just as irritating. Pack a windscreen or make one out of aluminum foil. This will not only make life easier, but you’ll save on fuel too.

Pro Tip:

If you don’t have a windscreen, large rocks and other natural barriers can be used to cut down air flow.

5. Don’t Cook in Your Tent

Besides the obvious hazards, animals are everywhere. No matter how big or small, they’ll be attracted to your food. To avoid any unwelcome hungry critters, cook 100 feet downwind from your camp.

Unless you like waking up in the middle of the night wondering what that tent scratching noise is, don’t cook in your tent.

Don’t Forget Proper Food Storage

Just because you’re not in bear country doesn’t mean there aren’t little critters around all vying for your food. Squirrels, mice, marmots, these have all been known to grab a bite or two when you aren’t looking – and some when you are. Many a backpacker has found themselves with a hole in their pack because these guys get a whiff of food.

To avoid hungry animals, it’s best to store food and smelly toiletries 100 feet downwind from camp in one of the following methods:

1. Bear Canister

Odds are you may already be hiking into bear territory which means you’ll be required to carry a bear canister. If not, you may still want to consider using one. Why? Bear canisters are the most secure method for storing food.

Before you snuggle in for the night, place all your food and anything scented (including trash) into the canister and stash it in a hidden spot. The National Park Service recommends hiding it either in brush or behind rocks. Also, avoid placing it near cliffs or water since a hungry bear could easily send it for a ride.

The one downside to this is bear canisters are bulky and add weight. They also have limited storage capacity which could become problematic if you’re heading out for more than five days without re-supply.

2. Bear Bag

Another method for protecting food is a bear bag. They’re essentially a big stuff sack that weighs less than a bear canister. The problem is, bear bags don’t lock and seal, which means, critters can get in.

To avoid this, you’ll need to use the counterbalancing method. This is a relatively simple process. Find a strong branch, secure a counterweight to a rope, toss it over, and hang your bag.

Read more on how to hang a bear bag.

Simple right? Keep in mind, small rodents still crawl up ropes and hungry bears are extremely clever. This may help keep some animals away, but it’s not foolproof.

3. Odorless Food Sack

When you’re not in bear country, I recommend using odorless food sacks. These are basically plastic bags designed to keep smells in and rodents out. They’re light in weight and easy to store. They also double nicely as trash bags.

The trouble you may find with some of these bags is the zip closures aren’t always the best. When they seal up properly though, you’d be amazed at how well they work.

Now Let’s Pack and Go!

Calorie counting? Freezer bag cooking? You’ve got this. You can now pack with ease knowing you’ve done your homework. As long as you have the right amount of fuel and a stellar meal plan, you’ll be ready to tackle the trail one step at a time.

Grab your snacks, your dehydrated meals, and gather your cookware because you’re in for the time of your life.

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