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.
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 125+ calories per ounce 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.
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.
Instead of eating just three meals per day like you might at home, aim to eat throughout the day and consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour (source) to keep your energy high and prevent hitting the wall.
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.
A good day on the trail starts with a solid breakfast. If you want to get through the morning without “bonking”, it’s best to start with some calories in the tank. Thankfully there’s a lot more on the menu than just instant oats. Here are some great backpacking breakfasts to check out.
Expanding their commitment to ethical sourcing and accountability to food, Patagonia Provisions is raising the bar in the backpacking meal market. 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.
Offering healthy backpacking meals for a range of diets, Wild Zora has quite a few breakfast options. Their signature grain-free instant breakfast cereal is available in Apple Pie, Blueberry Muffin, Banana Bread, Carrot Cake, Tropical Tart. They also have a limited line of AIP (auto-immune protocol) breakfasts as well!
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.
A no-cook “breakfast” bar is a great grab-and-go option for any who want to streamline their morning routine. It can also be nice for people who don’t wake up hungry and like to wait a little bit before eating. ProBar offers a large variety of flavors that would work well for breakfast.
There has been a huge improvement in the QUALITY of instant coffee in recent years. Our top go-to favorites are Mt. Hagen and Alpine Start. But if you’re seeking an exceptional cup of instant coffee, look no further than Voila. They’re hands down the Rolls Royce of instant coffee. You can’t even tell it’s instant.
Laird InstantFuel Coffee + Creamer
If you are going to make yourself a cup of coffee in the morning, then you might as well add some calories to the mix with Laird Instant Coffee & Creamer. This blend of instant coffee and plant-based creamer is a great way to enjoy a couple of calories with your caffeine.
When backpacking, the goal is to consume a constant stream of calories throughout the day. This slow-drip offers your body a consistent and stable fuel source, preventing your blood sugar from taking a nosedive (i.e. bonking).
So we like to think of hiking as one long, moveable feast. Lots of little snacks here and there, a big snack in the middle of the day (otherwise called lunch) and then more snacking throughout the afternoon. The key to making this work is variety. Don’t get burnt out eating the same thing over and over.
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!
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.
Our best advice when packing bars is to go for VARIETY. Don’t just load up on your favorite bar for a multi-day hike. Because after your trip, it won’t be your favorite anymore. There are more energy bar companies out there then we can keep track of, but here are some of our favorite brands: Bobo, RX Bars, Patagonia Provisions, GoMacro, Lara Bar, Dang, Bearded Brothers, Aloha, and 88 Acres Seed Bars.
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.
A quick hit of energy, Honey Stingers Waffles are a great little maintenance snack. Perfect for when you’re feeling a little low-energy and need a little extra zip to get you up the next hill. They have a variety of flavors to choose from, and some even have a bit of caffeine for an extra little boost.
The solid, chewy form of a gel, there are a variety of energy gummies like Honey Stinger Chews, Clif Shot Bloks, GU Energy Chews, and Scratch Lab Chews These are great to have on hand if you ever start to feel yourself bonking. We think of these as a “Break Glass If In Need of Calories” type of emergency snack.
Just mix cold water, some powdered hummus, drizzle with olive oil, and you’ve got delicious hummus spread for lunch! Enjoy with sturdy crackers, pretzel sticks, or veggie sticks.
Speaking of something crunchy, Love Corn is a line of crunchy corn (remember Corn Nuts?). Some of their flavors include sea salt, smoked BBQ, salt & vinegar, and habanero chili. Obviously, these are great by the handful, but they can also be added to any freeze-dried or dehydrated meal to give them a little crispy, crunchy texture.
We absolutely love olives when backpacking. Not only are they loaded with calories, but they offer a momentary burst of savory refinement that is hard to compare. Instant morale booster. We are therefore big fans of Oloves packable olives. Enjoy them on their own, or with the above-mentioned hummus and chips spread.
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).
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.
We’ve all had dehydrated banana chips before that feel like you’re biting into a poker chip. These are not those. Soft and chewy like a marshmallow, these Banana Bites by Nomad Nutrition offer a much-welcomed change in texture. Add them to your morning oatmeal or enjoy them on their own.
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. Haribo Gummy Bears, Swedish Fish, or Jelly Belly’s “Sports Beans” are all good picks. Whatever you pick, make sure it won’t be too melty.
After a long and exhausting day on the trail, we can’t help but develop great expectations for dinner. Which is why it’s so important to find a meal that will end your day on a happy and satisfying note.
While there are more backpacking dinner options to choose from than ever before, our suggestion is to pick meals that sound appetizing to you now. If you’re not an adventurous eater at home, then you’re likely not going to magically become one on the trail.
Backpacker’s Pantry is one of our favorite freeze-dried meal brands. Over the past few years, they have really dialed in most of their recipes and now they’re absolutely crushing it. One of the BEST backpacking meals we’ve had is their Pad Thai. It’s just awesome. Other dinners we really enjoyed were the Three Cheese Mac & Cheese and the Fettuccini Alfredo.
New to the freeze-dried backpacking meal scene, San Francisco-based Bushka’s Kitchen has some incredible meal options that feature large, easily identifiable whole ingredients. They also offer some eclectic protein sources to keep things interesting. Meals to check out:
Fernweh Food Company
Producing dehydrated backpacking meals with low-impact packaging and seasonal local produce, Fernweh Food Company is another recent addition to the backpacking meal market. Their product is fairly small right now, offering Mushroom Pot Pie and Southwest Stew, but we’ve got high hopes for them.
A new freeze-dried meal producer from rural England, Firepot’s bright yellow packaging immediately grabbed our eye the last time we were in REI. They provide full-spectrum nutrition with locally sourced ingredients that are all cooked together before freeze-drying. This “slow-cooking” technique produces a depth of flavor that can’t be replicated when ingredients are freeze-dried separately and then combined into a “meal”. Meals to check out:
Started by a mom and son team in Bend, Oregon, Food For The Sole are hometown heroes for us. They specialized in wholesome dehydrated meals that can be ordered as “full” or “lunch” sizes. Meals to check out:
Producing dehydrated backpacking meals from quality ingredients, Good To-Go has really expanded its lineup in the past few years. We’ll be honest, in our personal experience, we’ve had some winner and loser meals from them. Nothing was bad, we just found a few meals to be tragically undersalted. Meals to check out:
Based in Anchorage, Alaska, Heather’s Choice uses high-quality, whole foods ingredients to create packable, dehydrated provisions. We have not personally tried these meals yet, BUT they get great reviews online. They are gluten and dairy-free and have a diverse range of flavors like African Peanut Stew, Dark Chocolate Bison Chili, and Chicken Mole with Rice.
Next Mile Meals
Next Mile Meals is a newer company based in Oregon that focuses on keto-friendly backpacking meals. These meals are high in fats and proteins, and low in carbs and sugars. Even if you’re not following a Keto diet, their meals sound like a fresh approach compared to other carb-heavy brands. They have a small product line but with meals like Italian Meatball and Chicken & Broccoli Casserole, they sound promising!
Based in British Columbia, Canada, Nomad Nutrition offers an entirely plant-based line of dehydrated backpacking meals. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or just looking to scale down your meat consumption on the trail, this is a great company to look into. Meals to check out:
Even though they are relatively new to the space, Peak ReFuel feels like it’s been around for a while. That might be because their founder spent nearly a decade in the freeze-dried world before branching out to launch Peak ReFuel. They offer a lot of comfort-food classics that are sure to hit the spot. Meals to check out:
Considering every aspect of a product life cycle (including responsible sourcing, processing, packaging) Patagonia Provisions is seeking to revolutionize the backpacking food market. For those looking for a well-considered backpacking meal, Patagonia is setting the gold standard. Meals to check out:
Based in Colorado, Wild Zora specializes in low sugar, high-protein, gluten-free, and Paleo backpacking meals. They also offer a line of AIP (autoimmune protocol) meals. If you have any dietary restrictions, this is a great company to check out. We’ve heard great things about the Chili and Chicken Curry and the Bedrock Beef Chili.
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.
- Annie’s Mac and Cheese: Add chicken, tuna, or TVP for protein, and throw in some dried veggies (see below) to make a full meal.
Bulk Freeze-Dried / Dehydrated Ingredients
If you’re building your own backpacking meals from scratch, it can be nice to buy some individual freeze-dried and/or dehydrated ingredients in bulk. Here are some of the resources we personally use when developing our own backpacking recipes.
- Nuts.com: Yes, they carry nuts. But also so so much more! Nuts.com is a cornucopia of specialty ingredients that are perfect for backpacking.
- Harmony House: With an unbelievable selection of freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients, Harmony House is another online bazaar filled with backpacking-friendly foodstuffs.
- Emergency Essentials: Emergency Essentials specializes in bulk freeze-dried ingredients. Fruits, veggies, eggs, and even hard to find stuff like butter and cheese. They’ve got it all! If you’re building your own backpacking meals from scratch, this can be a great way to get access to individual freeze-dried ingredients.
- Dried Vegetables: We tend to find a lot of backpacking meals light on the vegetables. If you don’t need the bulk sizes of Emergency Essentials, you can pick up dehydrated or freeze-dried vegetables from places like Nuts.com and Karen’s Naturals 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. While we’ve developed a lot of different backpacking recipes over there years, we’ll give you our personal favorites here (ssh, don’t tell the others!)
No Dehydrator Required:
When developing your backpacking meal plan, desserts absolutely have a place! As a special treat to mark a notable day, a morale booster after a real doozy, or just a way to pad out your dinner’s calorie count, backpacking desserts are a great trick to have in your back pocket.
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.
These are some of our favorite extras to add either calories or flavor to our meals.
- Butter powder
- Heavy cream powder
- Whole milk powder
- Coconut milk powder
- Cheese powder
- Olive oil packets
- Coconut oil packets
- Sriracha packets
- Chili garlic sauce packets
- Soy sauce packets
- Tamari packets (gluten-free)
- Various hot sauce packets
- Mayo Packets
- Chicken Broth Packets
- Honey Packets
- True Lemon & True Lime flavor packets
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 loads 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 backpacking cooking gear, 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, these lightweight backpacking recipes, and our ultimate guide to dehydrating food for backpacking!
This post was first published November 9, 2017 and was updated March 11, 2021. There are a ton of new great backpacking food products that we included!