Keep it simple, nutritious and save weight: I take inexpensive trail foods which are both tasty and nutritious. Specifically, foods that give you calories, protein, good fats, vitamins and other micro nutrients. This keeps you healthy and cruising along the trail with a spring in your step. Just as important are foods (and meals) that can be quickly prepared. My outdoor time is precious and I prefer to spend it hiking and enjoying my natural surroundings rather than food prep. What I show below incorporates all of these qualities and therefore is “the best backpacking food.”
Quick Links to Best Backpacking Food Resources on this Site
What types of food should I take?
- I minimize freeze-dried backpacking food (but do use some like this). Be sure to read the labels carefully. Compared to homemade, many freeze dried foods while easy, are expensive, low on nutrition, & have tons of sodium.
- Instead, I prefer healthy, natural foods: dried fruit & vegetables, nuts, whole grains like these tasty crackers, soybean jerky (veggie protein), vegetable oils, nut butters, whole-fat powdered milk, etc.
- Therefore, while it takes a bit more upfront time, I mostly make my own uncomplicated & delicious meals out of the same heathy ingredients. Meal Recipe are here.
- Finally, I do take some “healthier” energy bars like PROBARs.
How much food should I take?
It is actually quite straight forward. Here is primer on: “How to calculate your pounds of food per day.” You can probably save more weight on food than almost anything if you follow the primer!
- My nutritious food weighs about 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food. This could save me 5 pounds or more of food on a trip (my 11 lbs of food for a 7-day trip vs. a typical backpacker’s 16 lbs).
- How many pounds of food per day?
- Although it may vary, the short answer is around 1.5 lb/day for 2-5 day shorter mileage trips. The majority of the clients I guide for trips up to 5 days get by fine on around 1.5 lb/day.
- The slightly longer answer is 1.4 to 1.7 lb/day for backpackers covering 10+ miles a day or for trips up to a week long.
- A good target to balance calories and nutrition is 120 to 125 calories per ounce of food. In comparison, most backpackers don’t average above 100 cal/oz for their food.
- Maintain nutrition: Try to get the most calories per weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balance of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins & other nutrients.
Some quick ways to reduce food weight – but still eat healthy!
- Take calorie dense but nutritious food. As noted, food at 125 calories per ounce will weigh 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food for the same calories and probably has better nutrition.
- Don’t carry extra food: The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is not as set in stone as others profess. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. (I’ve had to do this before and feel comfortable with my choice.) This is not a recommendation for others to do the same. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe bring just a bit less extra food on your next trip.
- How to “Skip” one day of food: I eat a huge breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a huge meal when I get out. By boosting my off trail calories on the first and last day I eliminate carrying a whole day’s worth of food in my pack. So for a weekend trip (three days and two nights) I might carry 3 to 4 pounds of food. That’s about 1/2 the weight of the standard recommendation of 2 lb per day + an extra day’s food = 8 pounds.
Getting protein is always a challenge on the trail. A creative strategy of cheese, powdered milk, powdered soy protein, nuts, whole grains, dried beans and the healthier high-protein trail/energy bars (and dried meats if you aren’t veggie) will get you most of the way there.
- Veggie Protein – A creative strategy of:
- Almond butter in backpacking convenient pouches, or in plastic jars from Costco or Trader Joe’s. Or other nut butters.
- cheese, powdered milk, powdered soy protein, soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall)
- freeze dried beans and rice (or rice and bean meals),
- high protein energy bars (Cliff, ProBar and others)
- and whole grains should get you most of the way to balanced protein for your trip.
- Vegan Protein – Pretty much the same as veggie above, less the cheese and powdered milk while checking other food ingredients to make sure animal products haven’t been slipped in.
- Omnivore Protein – I don’t consume a lot of meat at home (but do not wish to proselytize my choice to others). But on the trail, for food variety and to get some extra protein I have succumbed to taking some
The protein in these meats along with cheese will complement the proteins in grains (rice, grape nuts, crackers, grains in energy bars, etc.) and other vegetable protein sources like soy and dried beans. Many dried meats like the hard-dry salami are also high in fat, increasing your calories per ounce.
What types of food should I take for each meal?
- GORP: In the past, my basic food was the old standby GORP. Today, I custom mix my own, getting most of my ingredients from Trader Joe’s (TJ’s) and the bulk bins of my local food coop. When hiking with others I mix to their specifications. Feel free to get creative with your GORP!
- Un-mixed GORP fixings: Now, more often than not, I take my GORP unmixed. Some favorites are whole raw almonds and walnuts, organic Thompson seedless raisins (TJs) unsweetened dried mango, apricots, papaya (all unsweetened & unsulfured) dried apricots, sweetened and unsweetened nuts, and honey sesame sticks (all from TJ’s, also found in natural food stores and food coops).
- Honey sesame sticks: are 150 calories per ounce and a staple of my backpacking food (reliably from Whole Foods and online). I sometimes mix 50/50 with candied nuts (many nut options from TJ’s) for variety.
- Peanut M&M’s (or even better almonds) are still great. Cheap, melt proof, and available almost everywhere (even on the GR20 in Corsica!) they are tasty, high in calories, easy to pack and eat. The advent of the dark chocolate version of the plain M&M’s into my GORP has changed the way I think about GORP.
- Energy Bars: The best energy bars are compact and have reasonable caloric density and nutrition. They are easy to procure, no effort to pack, and easily unwrapped and eaten on the trail (even while hiking). They are expensive though. I like many varieties of Pro Bars, Kind Bars and Lara Bars. These have healthy, natural ingredients, less sugars and good nutrition. The Pro Bars and Kind Bars are close to 125 calories per ounce.
- Protein Bars: Recently to increase my trail protein, I have been taking some higher protein versions of energy bars like ProBar’s Base Protein Bars or Cliff Builder’s Protein Bars (usually enhanced with soy protein). There are other manufacturers making good protein bars.
- Nut Butters (peanut or almond butter–a personal favorite, from TJs or Costco) significantly boost caloric density. They are cheap and easy to pack. They are also a healthy fat, especially the almond butter. Get them in the healthier, un-hydrogenated variety. If you get them in a plastic jar you can take them on a plane or put them directly in your pack without having to repackage. They can also be added to hot meals, making a lovely Asian style sauce.
- *Soy jerky: soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall) 1) Stonewall’s Jerquee (the overs and unders for a discount) and 2) a the moister Primal Strips Vegan Jerky. Soy jerky is not the highest in calories but it is veggie, tasty, and adds protein. Meat eaters may choose hard salami or meat jerky.
- Dried Meats: For those that are not veggie, dried meats are another option for protein and food variety. I take meat jerky (my favorites are Bison Jerky and Turkey Jerky online or from TJs) and/or hard, dry salami (I take locally made salami without nitrates). Pacific Gold brand Beef and Turkey jerky that Costco sells doesn’t have a bunch of additives. Much cheaper than alternate sources.
- Tuna in olive oil: Get the tuna in the plastic packages that is packed in olive oil . The olive oil adds calories and healthy fat. If you can’t find it, there is a more common canola oil version.
- Freeze dried meats and soy”meats”: The following protein sources can easily be added to most meals (your preference) (Soy) Textured Vegetable Protein – chicken flavor, and (Real meat) – freeze dried chicken or turkey (1 oz per serving).
- Vegetable Oils: Packets or small bottles of extra virgin olive oil (my favorite) or canola oil add healthy calories to my dinners. I usually add an ounce or two to most meals.
- Cheese: is a treat and adds calories, some protein and calcium. Note that cheese doesn’t keep as well as some other foods, we always eat the cheese first. Cheddar cheese is around 115 cal/oz and keeps better than other types. Parmesan is around 130 cal/oz and keeps very well. However, these are not healthy fats.
- Crackers or Dense Breads add whole grains. They are good vehicles for eating the nut butters and cheese for dried meats. Some crackers can be quite high in vegetable fat (good) and approach 130 calories per ounce. Dr. Kracker crackers online or at Whole Foods are high in fat and almost indestructible on trail. In France, I rediscovered Petit Beurre crackers that are delicious and high in calories. They go wonderfully with a strong cheese. Breads (and tortillas) have lower caloric density (higher water content and little fat), rarely getting over 85 calories per ounce. Use them sparingly for variety. When carrying a bear canister, tortillas are a favorite hiking substitute as they are more compact.
- Dried Fruits, e.g. Dried mango, un-sweetened/unsulfured add important fiber, variety, minerals and vitamins. I use them with some discretion since they are lower in calories per ounce (around 80 calories per ounce). I try to get ones that are un-sulfured and unsweetened, and preferably organic. If you are on a budget, Costco has huge bags of inexpensive, high quality mixed fruit. Unsweetened mango slices from TJs and unsweetened papaya from WF and food coops are favorites.
- Chocolate (as needed), to add fat and calories. I prefer small pieces of very dark chocolate (70% or higher–with nibs even better) for dessert. Chocolate lovers will understand.
- You can add Cocoa Nibs with your chocolate for a delicious crunch and a lot of phytonutrients.
- Whole Fat Powdered Milk: *Nestle Nido is a staple in my backpacking diet. This whole-fat powdered milk is 140 calories per ounce and tastes great. It can usually be found at Hispanic markets or online. I also use it to mix my own hot chocolate, as well as add it to breakfast cereals. Powdered milk is an animal protein that will complement vegetable proteins like soybeans and grains. And, it’s wonderful in coffee. In addition to the Nido, I add a scoop or two of Plain Soy Protein Powder (cheaper when you buy it at TJs!) for additional protein (vegan) in my breakfasts.
- Whole Grain Cereals: I usually alternate between two breakfast cereals mixed with Nestle Nido whole-fat powdered milk and soy protein powder.
- Grape Nuts or the similar Kashi Seven Nuggets in the morning with freeze dried strawberries or other dried or freeze dried fruits.
- Whole grain muesli (the high quality organic sort like Bob’s Red Mill Muesli) mixed with dried cherries, dates, strawberries and raspberries (dried or freeze-dried), dried blueberries, walnuts and almonds, etc.
Caffeine is important! Nothing can get folks grumpier and harder to get along with than not getting their caffeine the way they like it.
- Coffee: Those that prefer coffee may choose to use Starbucks VIA packets (which have pretty much taken over backcountry coffee). Downside to the VIA is that it is expensive, but can be as little as $0.72 per cup at Amazon! Via packets can also be found slightly discounted at *Costco in bulk packages.
- For better and less expensive coffee, although heavier and more fuss, use a *MSR MugMateTM Coffee/Tea Filter in a 16 oz mug (MLD 475 ml mug is my favorite). Pre-grind your coffee before the trip and package it into individual servings in ZipLok snack bags
- The brewing technique suspends the gold filter in the mug. From there, add the coffee then slowly pour boiling water in allowing it to drain through the filter with each pouring. At the end you will have water almost to the brim of the mug and the filter mostly submerged in the water. After 3-4 minutes slowly pull the filter out of the mug allowing it to fully drain. You may wish to top the cup up with more hot water after removing the filter. This will be a full rich cup of coffee similar to a french press.
- Tea: I make loose leaf tea, connoisseur style. See the Tea Section. Real tea doesn’t need to be ground, keeps longer, and is easier to cleanup (with the exception of SB Via). Tea bags are a less complicated alternative if they are in individually sealed envelopes, and are reasonably fresh.
- No Stove Caffeine: The no-stove alternative is chocolate-covered-coffee-beans. Yumm!
- For most meals try to make your own simple dinners based on ingredients like instant rice, freeze dried beans, whole wheat couscous (my favorite and from TJ’s), or instant mashed potatoes
- Freeze dried dinners can be tasty, but most are bulky, expensive, extremely high in sodium and low in caloric density. It is probably best to minimize their use on a trip unless
- 1) you really like them
- 2) want hot dinners, and/or
- 3) are very limited on time and inclination for pre-trip food prep
- If you need to take freeze dried meals, try to use the simpler meals that are lower in sodium and higher in fat (e.g. Backpackers Pantry Mac and Cheese). If I bring them, I will usually add freeze dried veggies from JustTomatoes.com to spice up meals and then add olive oil to boost the calories.
- If you are limited in pack volume (e.g. using a bear canister, or just a very full pack) freeze dried meals may not be a good choice. Taking them out of their Mylar packaging and putting them in quart, heavy duty, freezer baggies will help reduce volume. (Once you do this tho they will not keep for years like the mylar sealed ones.)
- Most of my dinners get a liberal dose of hot pepper flakes, or ground cayenne pepper. I also use Dave’s Insanity Sauce (Please be careful it is the only sauce ever banned from the National Fiery Food Show. The NYT calls it the hottest culinary experience known to man.)
- I rehydrate many of my meals by pouring hot water directly into a quart baggie that contains the dinner. I wait for 10-20 minutes and share the meal with my partner using long handled spoons. When you are done eating, zip up the baggie and KP is complete!
- If you are doing the rehydrate in the bag, you may consider a Anti Gravity Gear Cozy.
- Hot Chocolate: I make my own with Ghirardelli Double Chocolate mix and Nestle Nido. High in calories and delicious! [4 Tbsp cocoa mix + ~¼ cup Nido]
- I do not bring vitamin supplements. I believe that well selected foods should provide ample nutrition.
- Fresh food, although attractive, is not a good choice. It weighs a ton, and doesn’t keep well. I don’t take it, even for the first day.
- Canned foods. A disaster! Why carry a metal can around with you? Ultra low caloric density, and you have to carry the empty can back out. Ouch! The exception is tuna in foil packets but only if it is packed in oil.
Cooking and Stoves
- See: Best Backpacking Stove Systems for pro’s and cons of the best canister and best alcohol stove systems.
- For green reasons, I am not fond of non-refillable, non-recyclable canister stoves. When I solo on short trips, I may skip the stove, eat cold food and take caffeine pills for my morning buzz (or make a cold powdered milk and instant coffee shake). Not cooking limits my food choices but makes for speedy meals on the trail and simplifies pre-trip preparation.
- *Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove System: Since the introduction of greener, easy to use, extremely efficient, and very light alcohol stoves, I have warmed to stoves and usually take one—even when I solo.
- One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended while I perform camp chores.
How to make Backcountry Tea (loose leaf, connoisseur style)