Meal planning for your next backpacking trip? We’ve compiled our favorite backpacking food, ingredients, and meal ideas to help you get started. Find out what food is best for hiking, discover new ingredients, and get inspired by some delicious new backpacking meals.
Let’s clear the air here: There is no shame in relying on packaged food for your backpacking trips! We get it. Not everyone has time to make their own backpacking meals before setting off on a trip (if you do have time, we have a whole post about dehydrating food for backpacking!).
We’re speaking from experience here: In 2019, we hiked the JMT for our honeymoon. Organizing and dehydrating 18 days’ worth of food was the last thing we had time for while planning a wedding, a thru-hike, and managing work.
So, we did what many people do before a backpacking trip: raid the shelves of REI and our grocery store for anything and everything that looks tasty!
In this post, we share our favorite backpacking food ideas from hundreds of miles hiked over the past few years. We hope this article gives you some new delicious trail food ideas!
↠ How much food should you pack?
↠ Lunches, Snacks & Bars
There are a few factors to keep in mind when determining whether a food is good for backpacking: shelf-stable, weight, calorie density, and cook speed.
Shelf-Stable: It’s important to use ingredients that can be stored at room temperature. You can get away with bringing some things like cheese or salami if you eat them in the first few days, but for the most part, you want to skip anything perishable.
Lightweight: Since you have to carry it every step of the way, backpacking food should be as lightweight as possible. Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods tend to be lightest, though there are plenty of grocery store options we’ll review as well.
Calorie Dense: Backpacking takes a lot of energy, so you need food that can properly refuel you. When we plan our backpacking food, we try to average 115-130 calories per ounce or more to keep the weight down.
Cooking Time: Consider how much patience you have to cook your food and how much fuel you will be bringing. Quicker cooking foods tend to be preferred by most backpackers for fuel conservation.
The prevailing wisdom for how much food you should pack is 1.5-2 pounds per person, per day. Of course, that can vary widely depending on your weight, height, and the length and intensity of your hike.
Backpacker.com suggests that for most backpackers who plan on hiking all day with a heavier pack, you should aim for 25-30 calories per pound of body weight, per day. If you’re going to do a shorter day of hiking (less than 2 hours) or covering less strenuous terrain, you can scale it down to 21-25 calories per pound of body weight, per day.
These, of course, are just a starting point and you should adjust based on your own experience. If you’re going to do a longer backpacking trip like the JMT, do a few weekend shakedown trips to get a sense of what your appetite is like.
Instant oatmeal is quick, easy, cheap, and totally customizable. Just add hot water. Pro Tip: Use the packet as your bowl. Just tear off the top, pour the water in, and stir. The bag will get hot, but won’t leak. Up the calories by adding coconut or whole milk powder, or stirring in a packet of nut butter.
Patagonia Provisions hot cereal
A step beyond oatmeal, Patagonia Provisions Hot Cereal combines toasted buckwheat kasha, cracked whole barley, rolled oats, and flax seeds and comes in flavors like creamy banana, raspberry, and tart apple. Just add hot water and enjoy.
Dried milk and granola
One of the easiest DIY breakfasts is to pack granola and milk powder and add warm or cold water for instant cereal (powdered milk usually mixes best with warm water). You could add all sorts of things to this: nuts, seeds, dried fruit.
Chicken, tuna, or SPAM packets
These might not be the most weight-efficient items in your bear barrel, but they do a great job of providing protein. Buy them plain and doctor them up with condiments, or buy some of the many flavor options. Our favorites were Buffalo Chicken, Chicken Salad, Deli Style Tuna Salad and Lemon Pepper Tuna.
These premium grade, line-caught tuna packets are packed in oil for extra calories.
If salmon is more your speed, Patagonia Provisions has some awesome options.
SPAM also comes in a foil packet and can be a nice change of pace from seafood. We were hesitant about this one, but it’s actually very tasty.
NB: Make sure you’re buying the foil packets, not cans!
Greenbelly meal bars
Greenbelly meal bars boast 650 calories per serving and come in a bunch of flavors. They are basically a full meal that requires zero cooking–perfect for lunch on the trail!
Jerky and meat bars
Jerky and meat bars tend to be a little low on calories, but high in protein – which is critical for muscle repair. We like Epic Provisions and Wild Zora. On longer multi-day hikes, these are good to eat towards the end of the day to help your body repair.
Hard cheese and cheeses that are individually packaged are great options. We also LOVE the Trader Joe’s Baked Cheese Bites as well as Parmesan or Cheddar Whisps (the latter are a bit less sturdy though).
These macaroons boast 170 calories per ounce, so they definitely pull their weight (pun intended) in your pack. They come in a few flavors including Amaretto, Blueberry Almond, and Sweet Coconut.
Trail mix, nuts, and dried fruit
Packing an assortment of trail mix, nuts, and dried fruits is a great way to have some calorie-boosts on hand to eat while hiking (there’s a reason GORP has been handed down through the generations!). Our favorite places for nuts and dried fruit in bulk are Nuts.com and Trader Joe’s. You can find some of our favorite trail mix recipes here.
The snack we didn’t pack for the JMT but we wish we did? Candy! We’re not candy people normally, but the calorie and mid-day sugar boost would have been awesome. Make sure you’re not packing anything that will be too melty if you’ll encounter warmer temperatures on your trip.
While these meals were a bit hit-or-miss for us, we did talk to other hikers who loved them. I will say that the Thai Curry was pretty good. This brand is dehydrated, not freeze-dried, so they take a bit longer to rehydrate.
Grocery Store Favorites
Whether you’re making your own meals or looking for a way to stretch a freeze-dried meal, there are a bunch of store-bought ingredients you can pack along.
↠ Idahoan Potatoes: These are great to add to freeze-dried meals that are on the saucy side (like beef stroganoff).
↠ Stovetop Stuffing: Another favorite to have on hand as a “side” or in packaged meals. Combine it with instant potatoes for a Thanksgiving Bowl!
↠ Ramen: Does it get more basic than ramen? It’s cheap, lightweight, and calorie-dense. Toss the sodium packet and doctor it up – see our Revamped Ramen recipe for ideas.
↠ Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides: These are great (and cheap) building blocks for meals. Add chicken, tuna, or TVP for protein.
↠ Dried Vegetables: We tend to find a lot of backpacking meals light on the vegetables. Pick up dehydrated or freeze-dried vegetables from places like Nuts.com to add to packaged or DIY meals for a nutrient boost.
The sky’s the limit if you’re up to making your own meals. Here are all of our backpacking dinner recipes.
Desserts can be a nice back-pocket treat for particularly notable (or difficult) days, or as a way to pad out your dinner’s calories.
This chocolate hazelnut spread is packed with calories that are derived mostly from fats, making it well worth the weight. A scoop here and there will give your body plenty of long-lasting fuel to burn. Plus, it’s freaking delicious!
A delicious Dutch treat, stroopwafels are soft, toasted waffles filled with caramel. They’re loaded with calories and pretty durable. Try spreading a little Nutella between two of them and make yourself a “ice cream” sandwich.
Staying hydrated doesn’t have to be a chore. There are tons of tablets and powders on the market that will give your water a boost of flavor while restoring vital minerals and electrolytes back to your system. Try Nuun Tablets, Skratch Labs, or Ultima Electrolyte Powder.
What better way to celebrate a gorgeous vista than with a cocktail? Pack along one of these pocket cocktail mixers and a little nip of liquor and offer a toast to your trail mates. Barcountry’s current offerings include a Cherry Infused Old Fashioned, Bloody Mary, Coconut Lime Margarita, and Elderflower Moscow Mule.
These are some of our favorite extras to add either calories or flavor to our meals.
If you know what you’re looking for you can find backpacking food all over the place! But here are a few good places to start your search:
↠ REI: REI has lots of backpacking food and snacks. Plus they offer 10% off your meals if you buy 8 or more meals at once!
↠ Amazon: They sell virtually everything. If you know what you’re looking for, there is a good chance Amazon has it.
↠ Nuts.com: Want great prices on bulk freeze-dried ingredients? Nuts.com is an incredible resource for those looking to build their own backpacking meals and snacks.
↠ Trader Joe’s: Everyone’s favorite pirate-themed grocery store actually has a lot of great backpacking foods throughout the store. We particularly love their reasonably priced selection of dried fruits and nuts.
↠ Walmart: Aside from the staples like instant oatmeal, snacks, and whatnot, many Walmart stores have a decent selection of freeze-dried ingredients! We’ve picked up everything from butter powder to freeze-dried fruits and vegetables there. They also often carry Mountain House and other freeze-dried meal pouches.
↠ Target: We would never have thought it, but the grocery section in Target has a bunch of great backpacking food options. They have great snacks, nut butter packets, tuna and chicken packets, and instant oatmeals.
↠ World Market: If you have a Cost Plus World Market nearby, check out their food section! We found tons of fun stuff like dried salami, individually packaged cheese, single-serving condiments, fancy ramen noodles, and tons of snacks.
We have a whole post dedicated to our backpacking cooking gear picks, but here are some of the basics:
Backpacking Mug: GSI Infinity Mug
This insulated mug is just 3.5 oz and is great for morning coffee.
Favorite utensil: Morsel
We love the spatula-inspired design of the Morsel spoon – perfect for scraping up every last bit of your delicious meal. (Psst, Fresh Off The Grid readers get 10% off their order using “FOTG10”)
Looking for more backpacking food resources? Check out our guides to vegan backpacking food, gluten-free backpacking food, index of all our backpacking recipes, and our ultimate guide to dehydrating food for backpacking!
This post was first published November 9, 2017 and was updated May 28, 2020. There are a ton of new great backpacking food products that we included!