For many backpackers, the idea of shopping for, organizing, preparing, and packaging food for a long backpacking trip is a daunting task. The purpose of this guide is to help make meal planning for your backpacking trip a little easier and get you out on the trail with as little fuss as possible. So where do we even start with backpacking meal planning? Let’s first look at what I consider requirements for the food you choose.
Requirements for backpacking food
- Lightweight and compact- You will be carrying at least several days worth of food on your back. Choose dehydrated and freeze dried foods and look for calorie dense foods. Ultralight backpackers shoot for more than 100 calories/oz. Some foods with a high caloric density are almonds, peanut butter, olive oil, coconut oil, and macadamia nuts.
- Nutritious – There are plenty of people that will argue with me on this one and say you should take junk food but if a healthy lifestyle is important to you, go ahead and continue that on the trail. You might not eat the exact same healthy foods that you would at home but you can still consume clean fuel while hiking. Look for minimally processed foods that contain healthy fats, carbs, protein, fiber, and lots of calories.
- Taste – Take foods that you enjoy because often backpackers lose their appetites. There’s nothing worse than forcing down a meal or snack that you dislike just because you need the calories. Variety is key and I find that if I switch up my snacks each day I don’t get tired of the food I packed.
- Easy preparation and cleanup – I prefer to spend my time enjoying my surroundings while backpacking and not doing camp chores. No cook meals and freezer bag meals keep things simple and require little to no preparation or cleanup.
- No refrigeration necessary – The exception would be if you are winter backpacking or if you plan to eat the perishable food within the first few hours out on the trail.
Plan it out
For many backpackers meal planning is an enjoyable part of the process. I enjoy it because I can daydream about where and when I will be eating each meal and in a way it let’s me experience my trip before I have even left. So, how much food will you actually need each day? A safe estimate for most backpacker’s is 3000-5000 calories/day which is usually about 1.5 – 2.5 lbs of food/day. Individual nutritional needs will vary and be sure to take into account how many miles you will be hiking each day and what the elevation gain will be. Of course if you are thru hiking, you will probably need AT LEAST 5000 calories/day.
Step 1 – Create a menu. You can get really detailed on this and create a spreadsheet with nutritional information for each meal and snack so you can be sure you are getting enough calories. You can also note the weight of each food.
Step 2 – Figure out how many of each meal and snacks you will need and make a shopping list.
Step 3 – Purchase your foods. You can find some foods at your local grocery store. Many health food stores have a bulk section with lots of great options. I like to make a big order off of Amazon because its more convenient than hitting up several different stores and its often cheaper too.
Step 4 – Cook and dehydrate homemade foods. If you decide to make some homemade meals, gather your supplies. You will need your ingredients, a dehydrator (or oven), and cookbooks or recipes.
Step 5 – Repackage and assemble your food into meals. I have found the easiest way to do this is with Ziploc bags. It does create a lot of waste, which I don’t like, but I try not to use them in my day to day life so hopefully that makes up for it some. Anything that comes in a box or bulky bag/package you will want to repackage so it is less bulky and lighter weight. I like to use a separate baggie for each breakfast and dinner. Most of my lunch foods and snacks are usually packaged in a way I don’t need to Ziploc them. Breakfast can usually fit in a smaller size snack baggie and dinner in a quart size baggie. If you are going to be using near boiling water to rehydrate anything make sure you buy the freezer bags so that the water doesn’t melt your bag. After you have all your meals bagged, you can use a sharpie to write what it is and what day you plan to eat it.
Food Storage and Protection
Its important to keep your food away from animals for both their safety and yours. Some areas require a bear canister but these are heavy and bulky so if its not required, I do not recommend you use one. Instead, you can go with an Ursack or you can hang a food bag from a tree. See my page on food storage for backpacking for more information on bear canisters, Ursacks, and how to hang a food bag. Be sure to never leave food unattended and do not bring food or scented items into your tent. This is especially true in heavily trafficked areas. If you are really worried about bears, you could eat dinner before reaching your camp for the night. It is also thought that stealth camping, or camping far away from established sites, will reduce your chances of a bear encounter at night.
I usually keep all of my food either in my canister or Ursack and then each morning I will take out my breakfast, lunch, and snacks for that day. I put my lunch and snacks in an easy to access pocket of my backpack so they’re easy to grab when I need them.
Be sure to practice Leave No Trace and pack out all of your trash. Let me know if you have any questions or additions about backpacking meal planning.