So you’re wondering what are the best backpacking foods?
Roasting s’mores over a campfire, drinking coffee from a tin cup while the sun rises over the lake, digging roasted potatoes out of the coals — many of our favorite camping memories involve food.
But there’s no faster way to ruin a camping trip than running short on groceries or staring at cans of chili when the nearest can opener is an hour away. And when you’re getting ready for a 10-day backpacking adventure or a few months on the Appalachian Trail, carefully planning your meals is a matter of survival.
How much food to pack
The first question is how much food to pack. This varies significantly depending on your weight, the physical demands of the trip, and the climate (you’ll need more calories in colder weather), but you should shoot for around 2,500 to 4,500 calories per adult per day. Err on the side of bringing more than you think you’ll need but don’t go overboard. If you’re packing all your food in, 1.5 to 2.5 lbs of food per person per day is a good target, and it’s generally worth packing enough food for one extra day. While you’ll almost certainly be bringing a camp stove or cooking over a campfire, it’s a good idea to bring plenty of foods that can be eaten cold, just to cover your bases.
If you drink coffee, this will be your first priority, and you can go a few different ways here. Instant coffee is a lightweight option and can be mixed with cocoa to enhance the flavor. When it comes to pre-ground coffee, there are a couple of options for backpacking and camping. The most low-tech method is a drip-filter, which is inexpensive and easy to pack, but the brew may not be as strong as you’re used to. If strong is what you’re after, you can boil coffee grounds for a minute or two (cowboy style), but remember that your coffee will get bitter quickly, and you’ll still need to strain the coffee through a filter. If you are a coffee purist, a French press is a good way to go, as is a stovetop percolator, which works great on a standard camping stove or even over a good campfire. Outdoor gear places like REI have a good selection — be prepared to spend anywhere from $10-$60 (more for a deluxe kit).
Tea bags are another good way to start the morning, with the advantage of being low-tech, light, and easy to transport. It’s easy enough to pack sugar or other sweeteners, along with powdered milk, powdered creamer, or tubes of sweetened condensed milk.
If you have kids with you, they will undoubtedly look forward to cocoa in the morning. You’ll want to bring your favorite hot cocoa packets — there are plenty of just-add-water mixes out there. Bonus points for the little marshmallows, and make sure to bring enough hot chocolate for mom and dad.
The importance of drinking enough water cannot be overstated. Bring big jugs of bottled water to basecamp, and remember to drink throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Portable water bottles or pouches will ensure that everyone has water available at all times, but it’s also a good idea to start your morning with a big glass of water and get in the habit of drinking water at each meal. Backcountry backpackers will need to bring water purification tablets and find a high-quality purification system. These can be expensive but will keep you from getting sick, so it’s worth doing your research and making the investment, especially if you’ll be traveling to another country.
To encourage yourself to drink enough water, consider bringing powdered add-ins, from fruit flavors to ice tea mixes. And water alone may not be enough to keep you hydrated in hot weather or on taxing days — in which case, a great option is electrolyte tablets or packets, like Nuun Active Hydration or GU Brew tablets. You can also mix up electrolyte packets yourself at home to save money.
Now that you’ve got your cup of coffee in hand, it’s time for the first meal of the day. Unless you’re in a big hurry to hit the trail, a hot meal takes the edge off the cooler morning hours, and it doesn’t have to involve complicated preparation or extensive cleanup. The go-to is hot oatmeal (cream of wheat or rice porridge make for a nice change of pace), and you can customize this basic as you wish. You can’t beat instant oatmeal packets for convenience, and there are plenty of brands to choose from and even more flavor combinations. (Strawberries and cream, anyone?) These can be loaded with sugar, though, so a healthier option might be to start with plain oatmeal (packet or stove top) and jazz it up with dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, coconut), nuts, honey, and even a little cinnamon and sweetened condensed milk if you have it. Don’t forget the salt.
If you’re ready to branch out beyond oatmeal, pancakes and biscuits can be whipped up from prepackaged mixes, and are an extra special treat on crisp mornings. A just-add-water mix will turn out fluffy pancakes, and dried fruit or chocolate chips can take the meal to a new level. Syrup packets are a nice touch. Granola also travels well, and can be mixed with instant milk and topped with freeze-dried strawberries.
Scrambled eggs are another great way to go. On the trail, you’ll have to improvise with freeze-dried eggs and instant milk, but you can mix in instant potatoes, parmesan packets, and bacon bits for a savory treat. Mix your scramble in a plastic ziplock bag and cook it in a skillet with a little cooking oil (wrapped carefully so it doesn’t leak in your pack). There are also plenty of dehydrated breakfast scrambles available, including tofu-based options, along with such delicacies as biscuits with gravy.
Back at the trailhead, sausages fry up beautifully, bacon can be crisped on skewers over the flames, and coal-roasted potatoes from the night before make for outstanding homefries. Breakfast burritos require minimal fuss and can be customized with eggs, sausages, cheese, and grilled vegetables.
For backpackers, lunch is a much-needed opportunity to rest and refuel, but often with awareness that there are more miles to cover before dark. If time is of the essence, doubling up on snacks can give you fuel without the hassle of setting up and breaking down a kitchen. Jerky, protein bars, and trail mix can give you plenty of calories for the afternoon.
Back at basecamp, your midday meal should be determined by your activities for the day. Do you expect to work up a huge appetite before lunch? Will you want to grab a quick bite and head back out? This might be a good time to let everyone fend for themselves, giving the cook a well-deserved break to enjoy the scenery.
Options here include cold sandwiches — classics like peanut butter and jelly or lunch meats with cheese, tomato, and mustard. But don’t forget about avocado, sprouts, and hummus; almond butter, nutella, and banana; or smoked salmon with tomato and cream cheese. Why not substitute a pita pocket or flatbread or heat up a corn tortilla and make it a wrap? If you have any biscuits left over from breakfast, those would be delicious with just about anything.
Prepared cold pasta salads are another great option and can include things like olives, tuna or ham, tomatoes, and pesto. There are also plenty of no-fuss hot meals you can whip up if the weather gets chilly: You can’t go wrong with grilled cheese and a bowl of soup.
Trail mix is one of the great staples of the trail. You have endless options to choose from — just five minutes at a store like Trader Joe’s and you’ll be torn between tropical mixes (dried pineapple and papaya…mmmm), chocolatey mixes (always a favorite), healthy mixes featuring seeds and raisins, and so many more. Even better, find a bulk fruit and nuts section and mix up your own.
Then there are energy bars, which come in a staggering array of flavors and can be found in grocery stores, sporting goods stores, at online retailers like Amazon, even in gas stations. From standbys like Clif bars and PowerBars to Larabars and Bear Valley Pemmican, these can stand in as meal replacements, protein boosters, or simply give you a quick burst of energy. It’s worth ordering them by the case to save a little money, and don’t worry, you can never really have too many. Beyond taste, considerations include carbohydrates, calorie count, and price tag.
Jerky is another big item, with beef, turkey, and salmon jerky competing for your attention. You can choose spicy, bbq, or natural flavors, or test them to rule out the tough and stringy candidates. Jerky can be expensive, but it’s a great way to include meat if you don’t have access to refrigeration. In fact, that’s why it was invented. It can be salty, though, so drink plenty of water.
While fresh fruit is great for car camping, especially durable fruits like oranges, apples, and bananas, backpackers are better off with dried or dehydrated fruit (think fruit leather and fruit rollups).
Chews and gels are another great source of energy, and are easy to pack in a side pocket. Packets of almond or peanut butter are delicious with crackers; throw a few fig bars into the mix, and you’ll feel like you can go all day.
After a long day of physical activity, nothing is more satisfying than relaxing around a campfire. Dinner is the time to pull out all the stops, and it offers a chance for some memorable meals.
Of course, if you’re backpacking, weight and perishability outweigh most other considerations. Still, there are plenty of tasty and nutritious options out there, and pristine views and fresh air will more than make up for the limited menu. On shorter trips, backpackers tend to gravitate toward brands like Mountainhouse, Packit-Gourmet, and Mary Janes Farm (organic). Other popular choices include AlpenAire, Backpackers’ Pantry, Natural High, and Outdoor Herbivore. Favorites include beef stroganoff, spaghetti and meatballs, vegetarian or beef chili, mac and cheese, and an assortment of curries.
Backpackers also rely on noodle and soup packets, which can be a simple and satisfying way to end a long day. The current crop of pre-packaged meals are not only surprisingly good, they require the absolute minimum in terms of preparation and cleaning, and the weight and nutrition information will help you plan your trip down to the last calorie.
Of course, if you have the good fortune to catch a fish on your trip, you’re in for a special treat. Clean the fish, season it with a little salt and pepper (and any other spices you may have packed for this very purpose) and fry it up in a pan. Or wrap it in foil and roast it over the coals. Fish that fresh needs very little to shine.
For those with a campsite and cooler at their disposal, dinner is the time to get creative. Nachos are a crowd-pleaser and can be made in a skillet with chips, beans or chili, grated cheese, and a dash of hot sauce. Avocados, onions, and tomatoes can transform the dish into a meal. Mac and cheese is easy and kid-friendly, and even better with the addition of diced ham and caramelized tomatoes. Foil packets are perfect for roasting everything from potatoes (try sweet potatoes) to cornbread (diced peppers liven up a simple mix). Foil-wrapped foods can be placed on the grill or set directly onto the coals — just remember to turn them periodically. If you have access to a grill, burgers, hotdogs, and corn on the cob are easy to eat, and grilled onions, bell peppers, and eggplant add great flavor. Don’t forget to toast the bun.
Spices can add flair to your basic ingredients — toss Italian seasoning on your vegetable skewers and throw in a little curry to transform a simple rice dish. Speaking of rice, there are lots of grains to try, from couscous to quinoa. Consider getting quick-cooking versions and adding diced vegetables and meat for a satisfying one-pot meal. While vegetables can be perishable, you’ll be glad to enjoy the variety while you have it. Consider making a big salad on your first night — go Greek with cucumbers, olives, tomatoes, and feta or try Tex Mex with chicken, corn, and bell peppers hot off the grill. The options for car camping are limited only by the ingredients you have on hand. Check out some camping recipes for inspiration before you shop. And if you have kids with you there are plenty of recipes sure to please even the fussiest palates.
Remember, even with access to a cooler and plenty of ice, perishable items will only last a day or two. Be especially careful with raw chicken, fish, and pork. If you’re craving steak or a turkey burger, try to buy ingredients in the town closest to your campsite and cook them up as quickly as possible. Cured meats (like salamis and cooked sausages) will keep better, and hard cheeses last longer than softer cheeses. Milk tends to spoil pretty quickly — if powdered milk doesn’t appeal to you, consider almond or rice milk.
A post on the best backpacking foods wouldn’t be complete without dessert. The campfire classic is, of course, s’mores. You can pack graham crackers, marshmallows, and a few bars of chocolate and find a nice long stick at your campsite. If you’re seeking more variety, there are plenty of backpack-friendly recipes, like No-bake Oreo Cheesecake and Trail Tiramisu. You can also find a good selection of freeze-dried treats, like Apple Crisp Pouch and Neapolitan Ice Cream.
Back at basecamp, you can indulge in fancier versions of the same dishes, cutting up fresh apples for a homemade Campfire Cobbler and transforming s’mores into Banana Boats by splitting a banana lengthwise, topping it with chocolate or butterscotch chips and marshmallows, closing the skin, wrapping it in foil, and roasting it over the coals. You can even grill pineapples and peaches on skewers (add a couple to your s’mores for a grown-up treat).
Either way, hot cocoa tastes awfully good under the stars, and the moments sitting around the fire at the end of the day are pretty sweet all on their own.
Other considerations for the best backpacking foods
You’ll want to aim for easy preparation and easy cleanup — the fewer pots and pans you’ll need, the better. Consider cooking times carefully, especially when you’re in the wilderness, and make sure you’re bringing enough fuel to heat all the meals you’ve packed. Always plan for contingencies in case something goes wrong with your stove.
It’s definitely worth testing a few meals before you commit to a trip’s worth, especially if you’re trying a new brand. With so many options on the market, here’s no need to suffer through meals, and you’re sure to find something that appeals to you with just a little legwork. If you have dietary restrictions to consider, there are now gluten-free and vegetarian options on the market, along with paleo and primal meals. You can also invest in a dehydrator and get serious about preparing your own.
Packaging is always a factor, and you will need to hike out any trash you bring in. Cans are only suitable for car camping, though items like tuna can often be found in foil packages if you look. Backpackers are better off replacing any bulky or heavy packaging with resealable plastic bags (remember to label everything and include any cooking instructions).
Price is another factor, and you can save quite a bit of money by preparing meals yourself. That said, food is not a place where you should cut corners, and it’s important to pack high-quality, lightweight, reasonably convenient meals that will keep you in top form. Variety, while not absolutely essential, is better for your body and will keep your spirits up. Consider bringing a multivitamin if you’ll be gone for an extended period of time.
If you’re camping in bear country, be sure to obey all posted signs and keep food secured as directed. Respect the trails and your fellow hikers, which means using biodegradable cleaning products, packing out everything you pack in, and being courteous to those you meet along the way. Happy trails!