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 of our delicious DIY backpacking meals.
Backpacking is a great way to unplug, immerse yourself in nature, and challenge yourself both physically and mentally. While there’s a lot of natural beauty to take in, experienced backpackers know that no matter how spectacular the scenery is, much of the day is spent thinking about the next meal!
But figuring out what food to pack can a be challenge all on its own! Since you’ll be carrying all of it on your back, backpacking food needs to strike the right balance between nutrition, weight, and ease of preparation.
In this post, we share our favorite backpacking food ideas from hundreds of miles hiked over the past few years. From freeze-dried options to homemade meals, you’ll find all kinds of filling and lightweight trail food to help keep your energy up and your taste buds satisfied.
A good day on the trail starts with a solid breakfast. If you want to get through the morning without running out of steam, it’s best to start with some calories in the tank.
Seasoned backpackers will be familiar with the tried-and-true instant oat pouches, but thankfully there are a lot more options to try out!
Here are some great backpacking breakfasts to check out.
When you need a substantial meal to start the day, it doesn’t get any easier than adding boiling water to a meal pouch. Here are some of our favorite freeze-dried and dehydrated breakfasts:
- Mountain House Breakfast Skillet
- Mountain House Biscuits & Gravy
- Backpacker’s Pantry Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal
- Peak Refuel Mountain Berry Granola
- Pinnacle Foods Jalapeño Cheddar Biscuits & Gravy
- Packit Gourmet Polenta with Pork Sausage
- Chilaquiles Verdes by Itacate
- Mountain House Veggie Chorizo Breakfast Scramble
Dehydrated Quinoa Porridge
Loaded with protein and packed with calories, our Quinoa Porridge dehydrator recipes are a great option if you have access to a food dehydrator. Start with one of these or customize it with your own favorite flavors!
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 anyone who wants to streamline their morning routine. It can also be nice for people who don’t wake up hungry and want to get a little hiking done before eating. We particularly like Bobo’s Oat Bars for breakfast, which pack 340+ calories into a 3oz bar.
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 canister, 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 wild-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 pack in 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 than we can keep track of, but here are some of the top brands that we’ve tried: Bobo, RX Bars, Munkpack Nut & Seeds, Kate’s Real Food bars, GoMacro, Lara Bar, Bearded Brothers, and Aloha.
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. Primal Spirit Food and Louisville Vegan Jerky Co are good vegan options to try.
Honey Stinger Waffles
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.
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 big fans of Oloves packable olives.
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.
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. Black Forest 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 day on the trail, one of the best things is taking off your pack, finding a comfortable stop to sit, and enjoying a hot dinner! This 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 stick to your pre-existing food preferences. If a meal sounds good to you now, you will likely love it after a long day of hiking. But if you’re not an adventurous eater at home, then you’re likely not going to magically become one on the trail.
Here’s a list of the best backpacking food brands along with a few of their top-rated entrees:
Backpacker’s Pantry is one of our favorite freeze-dried meal brands. Not only do they make one of our favorite freeze-dried backpacking meals of all time (Chicken Pad Thai), but their production line runs 100% on solar energy, which is pretty cool. Just add boiling water to the pouch, and dinner will be ready in just a few minutes! Here are a few favorites:
Newer to the freeze-dried backpacking meal scene, San Francisco-based Bushka’s Kitchen has some meal options that feature large, easily identifiable whole ingredients. Many of their meals are made with eclectic protein sources to keep things interesting. Meals to check out:
Producing dehydrated 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 good reviews online. They are gluten and dairy-free and have a diverse range of flavors. Meals to check out:
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:
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 Bedrock Beef Chili.
Save some cash! If you buy 8 or more backpacking meals at a time from REI, you’ll automatically get a 10% discount on all of them!
DIY Backpacking Meals
The sky’s the limit if you’re up to making your own homemade meals. While we’ve developed a lot of different backpacking recipes over there years, we’ll give you a shortlist of our some of our favorites meals (ssh, don’t tell the others!):
No Dehydrator Required:
More DIY Backcountry Meal Resources:
- One Pot Backpacking Meals (no dehydrator required!)
- DIY Lightweight Backpacking Meals
- Dehydrating Food Basics
- our full backpacking dinner recipe index
Grocery store backpacking food ideas
Whether you’re making your own custom 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 packaged 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 to make a full meal.
- Bulk nuts & dried fruit: Build your own trail mix using the bulk bins at your grocery store!
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 the bottom of your bear barrel.
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 an “ice cream” sandwich.
These are some of our favorite extras to add either calories or flavor to our meals.
- Heavy cream powder
- Whole milk powder
- Coconut milk powder
- Cheese powder
- Butter powder
- Ghee packets
- Olive oil packets
- Coconut oil packets
- Soy sauce packets
- Tamari packets (gluten-free)
- Various hot sauce packets
- Mayo Packets
- Honey Packets
- True Lemon & True Lime flavor packets
Backpacking Food Strategy
In this section, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about making a backpacking meal plan—what to look for when choosing meals, packing the right amount of food you need, tips for planning and packing, and a few gear suggestions.
There are a few factors to keep in mind to determine the types of food that are good for backpacking: shelf-stable, weight, calorie density, and cook speed.
Shelf-Stable: It’s important that the food 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 everyday grocery store items that fit the bill 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. We highly recommend quick-cooking meals that are easy to prepare
Backpacker magazine suggests that backpackers who plan to hike long days with a heavier pack should aim for 25-30 calories per pound of body weight, per day.
If you’re going to do shorter days (less than 2 hours of hiking) or will cover 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 as you might at home, aim to eat snacks throughout the day and consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour (source) to keep your energy high and prevent you from hitting the proverbial wall.
These, of course, are just a starting point and you should adjust based on your own experience.
How to plan food for backpacking trips
Meal planning for backpacking trips is one of our favorite things to do! It’s also super important.
Creating a detailed meal plan not only ensures you bring enough food for your trip but allows you to see how all your meals will work together. It’s a great opportunity to build in variety and double-check that you’ll be hitting your calorie count every day.
Here are the steps that go into our meal-planning strategy:
1.) Figure out how many days your trip will be and how many meals you will need on the trail.
2.) Determine how many calories per day you need to pack (see the previous section).
3.) Choose your breakfast and dinner for each day. Take note of how many calories are in each of these.
4.) Subtract the calories of your breakfast and dinner from your total calorie number. These are the remaining calories that you’ll need to pack in the way of snacks, lunch, drink mixes, or dessert. Plan for a variety of snacks, keeping in mind that to avoid losing steam during the day, you’ll want to eat 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour as you hike.
Best backpacking meal tips
Bring salt and hot sauce: While most backpacking food on the market is made with more than enough sodium, occasionally you’ll get a meal that tastes undersalted (or under-spiced). A few salt and hot sauce packets don’t add much weight, and can really save the day.
Bring food you know you like: Now is not the time to break out of your taste buds’ comfort zone. We understand the desire to want to eat healthy on the trail, but you will likely be burning more calories than you’ll be consuming while backpacking. So treat yourself.
Shop for calorie density: The food you chose should be calorically dense, yet still lightweight. We personally try to choose food that provides 125-135kcal per ounce.
Pack a variety of flavors AND textures: For longer hikes, make sure to plan in a little variety, especially for your snacks.
Bring extra food: Try to pack at least one extra meal for breakfast and dinner—just in case. Maybe you’re extra hungry, maybe something in the package spoiled, or maybe you just want the flexibility to rotate something out.
Packing & food storage tips
Proper food storage & critter protection: From field mice to grizzly bears, there are a lot of wild animals that are attracted to human food. How you need to properly store your food will depend on the area, but methods include storing food in a critter-proof bag, hanging your food from a tree, or using an approved bear canister. Be sure to check the local regulations before you head out. Read up on how to use a bear canister or do a proper tree hang.
Repackage food: Wherever possible, try to repackage food to make it lighter and more compact (either replace bulky packaging or squeeze the air out of it). It can also be a good idea to portion out snacks so they are quick and easy to grab.
Organize food by day: When packing your bear canister or food bag, add your food in ascending order—your last day’s food goes at the bottom, and then work your way forward so your first day’s food is at the top. This way you won’t have to empty your canister every time you need to find this afternoon’s snack. It can also be helpful to pack all of each day’s food into one large zip-lock bag to keep things organized.
Plan for trash: Remember that you’ll need to pack all of your trash out with you. Bring a large zip lock bag to stash it all in.
Multi-Use Setup: Soto Windmaster Stove and 1.2L Pot
We use a Soto Windmaster Stove with this Sea to Summit pot when we plan on doing a mix of commercial freeze-dried meals and DIY meals. This combo can boil water efficiently and provides good simmer control for cooking our own meals. It’s fairly light at a total weight of 9.7 oz.
Backpacking Mug: GSI Infinity Mug
This insulated mug is just 3.5 oz and is great for morning coffee.
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 on November 9, 2017, and was updated in 2023. There are a ton of new backpacking food products that we included!