Whether you’re planning an overnight or multi-day backpacking trip, it’s important to pack the right type of food when planning your meals. Unlike traditional camping food, backpacking food should be shelf stable, lightweight, calorie dense, and quick cooking. Sometimes this means buying specialty food items, but sometimes you can find good options right in your local grocery store. You just need to know what to look for.
What makes good backpacking food?
Shelf Stable – Unless you’re backpacking in the dead of winter, chances are you won’t be able to keep your food refrigerated. So it’s important to use ingredients that can be stored at room temperature. You’ll also want food that’s durable enough to withstand a couple of days of getting knocked around in a backpack.
Lightweight – Since you have to carry it every step of the way, backpacking food should be as lightweight as possible. This often means reducing water weight through dehydration (since food can be easily rehydrated out in the field). But you can also find food that is naturally lightweight.
Calorie Dense – In addition to being lightweight, backpacking food should also be calorie dense. Long distance hiking takes a lot of energy, so you need food that can properly refuel you. Ingredients like olive oil, jerky, nuts, quinoa, and fruit leathers can pack a lot of calories without adding a lot of weight.
Quick Cooking – In order to conserve fuel during your backpacking trip, your food should cook relatively quickly. Red lentils might be shelf stable, lightweight, and calorie dense, but they can take over 30 minutes to cook. Couscous, on the other hand, is ready in less than 5 minutes. So you will want to consider how long you want to be waiting for your meal.
Where to buy backpacking food?
If you know what you’re looking for you can find backpacking food all over the place! But here are few good places to start your search:
REI – Online and in-store, REI has lots of backpacking food as well as complete backpacking meals from top brands like Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, AlpineAire, Good To-Go, and more. 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.
Backcountry – Not only does this online retailer have tons great outdoor gear, including backpacking meals, but they also have extraordinary customer service team. Ask them anything.
Nuts.com – Want great deals 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 a lot of great backpacking foods throughout the store. Particularly great deals of dried fruits and nuts.
Target – We would never have thought it, but the grocery section in Target has a bunch of great backpacking food options. From snacks to meal building blocks, they’ve got it all.
BACKPACKING BREAKFAST IDEAS
Mountain House Breakfasts
While we prepare a lot of our backpacking meals from scratch, we still opt for boil-in-bag backpacking meals from time to time. The Breakfast Skillet was my favorite on the JMT (wrap it in a tortilla for a backcountry breakfast burrito!), and the Spicy Southwest Scramble Hash also sounds right up my alley. My JMT hiking partner enjoyed the Granola with Milk & Blueberries.
Lightweight and loaded with protein, powdered eggs are great for morning scrambles and omelets. Check out our recipe for a DIY Sun-Dried Pepper & Spinach Scramble.
OvaEasy Eggs – this product is the one we usually use. They have the same taste and texture as real eggs once you cook them up!
Aguason Farms Powdered Eggs – while we haven’t personally tried this brand yet, it’s highly reviewed on Amazon. Since it comes in a bulk sized container, it’s a lot cheaper than the other options and would be a good choice if you want to make a bunch of DIY scrambles.
VeganEgg – a vegan egg alternative. We tried this at a trade show and it was pretty dang good.
Dehydrated Hash Browns
With just a little bit of boiling water you can quickly rehydrate these Idahoan Hash Browns right in their own package. Then toss them in your pot/pan with a little bit of oil and fry them up. Perfect on their own or better yet – combined with some scrambled eggs.
Quick, easy, cheap, and totally customizable. Just add hot water. ProTip: Use the packet of the instant oatmeal as your bowl. Just tear off the top, pour the water in, and stir. The bag will get hot, but won’t leak. One less thing to clean! There are dozens of brands to choose from and you can pick them up basically anywhere.
Powdered Milk (for cereal or granola)
If you love cereal as much as we do, then powdered milk is a must. One of our favorite backpacking breakfasts is DIY Cereal-in-a-Bag. Mix cereal or granola and powdered milk in a ziplock baggie, add water, stir, and you’ve got a bowl of cereal wherever you are!
Powdered whole milk like Hoosier Hill or Nestle Nido will give you the best calorie to weight ratio. We like Milkman because it’s GMO free, but it admittedly does not have as many calories as whole milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, you could try Powdered Goat Milk or Powdered Coconut Milk (though you need to use hot water for coconut milk to mix properly).
Whether eaten dry or with (powdered) milk, granola is a nice morning snack to have on hand. Bear Naked lets you fully customize your granola, so you can mix and match to make your perfect granola. Another brand we’ve been eyeing is ELAN’s nut-based granolas – they are low sugar while still being high calorie, are vegan-friendly, and they have a paleo option, too.
Carnation Instant Breakfast
Just add water and voila: breakfast! This powder mix creates a delicious and nutrious mix that is loaded with calories. While we wouldn’t recommend Carnation Instant Breakfast as your primary morning meal, we frequently use them to supplement. Add the mix to your morning coffee and you’ve got a Mountain Top Mocha!
COFFEE & TEA
While it’s the simplest way to brew coffee in the wilderness, instant coffee doesn’t have a great reputation. Thankfully there are some new players on the scene making gourmet instant coffee. Here are our top picks. See our full review here.
Instant Iced Tea Mix
Doesn’t mountain spring water iced tea sound refreshing?! Pick up some of these instant iced tea packets, which will also give you a bit of a caffeine pick-me-up while cooling you down.
Cusa Instant Tea
It used to be that if you drank tea, you’d be stuck packing out your wet teabags. But Cusa Tea now offers an instant tea that fully dissolves into your hot water.
BACKPACKING LUNCHES & SNACKS
Chicken, Tuna & Salmon Pouches
Loaded with protein and easier to pack out than tin cans, pouches of chicken, tuna, and salmon are great for making trailside sandwiches and wraps. Some of our favorites are Sweet Sue Chicken Breast, StarKist Tuna (they also offer a varitey pack to keep things exciting), and Patagonia Provisions’ salmon.
The most durable “bread-like” medium for backpacking is definitely a flour tortilla. It’s durable, fairly elastic, and great for wraps of all kinds. It’s only weakness is their potential to mold. That is why we opt for the more processed Mission brand, which tends to last longer.
It’s never been easier to enjoy hummus on their trail. Just add water to this dehydrated hummus mix and stir to combine. Great for spreading on tortillas or making lunch time wraps.
Jerkies & Meat Bars
Jerkies are great when you need a snack with a little staying power. There are a variety of different kinds of jerky out there (even vegan jerky!), so try out a few and find one you like (or try making your own!). We’ve really been enjoying meat bars recently, which are a little softer and don’t leave you searching for a toothpick after you’re done snacking. Some of our current favorite brands: Epic Bar (bison + cranberry is my fave), and Wild Zora (especially the lamb flavor).
It’s said that John Muir would go into the wilderness for weeks with just a crust of bread and a wheel of cheese. Who knows if that’s true. But we do love cheese on our backpacking trips.
Babybell – a true classic! They come in a few different flavors if you look around (like gouda, white cheddar, and mozzarella) so you can keep things interesting.
Dried Cheese – brands like Moon Cheese and Trader Joe’s oven baked cheese bites will give you some crunchy, cheesy flavor while still being totally shelf stable.
Hard Cheeses like Gouda (They might sweat in the heat, so keep them in a ziplock baggie.)
Dried Fruits & Nuts
These two are the yin and yang of hiking snacks. Eat them separately, together, or mix them together into your own personalize trail mix. Nuts.com has some great deals on bulk orders. Trader Joe’s is our go-to for cheap dried fruits and nuts.
Since most hiking food tends to mushy-ish, we often find ourselves something with some structure. These snap pea crisps offer a salty taste with a crisp texture that can really hit the spot. Trader Joe’s also carries two versions of these – Inner Peas and Inner Bean.
Honey Stinger Chews Organic Energy Chews
On my first week-long backpacking trip, by some force of trail magic, a package of these Honey Stinger energy chews ended up in my bear barrel. I’d never even heard of them before, but boy was I happy to find them! I only wish half a dozen more materialized for the rest of the hike.
There are hundreds of different types of energy bars out there. Possibly even thousands. Our biggest piece of advice is to diversify! 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. Find a few you like, mix it up.
Lara (favs: Cashew Cookie, Coconut Cream Pie, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough)
RX (favs: Maple Sea Salt, Coconut Chocolate)
Kind Bars (favs: Caramel Almond Sea Salt, Maple Glazed Pecan)
GoMacro (favs: Protein Paradise)
Treehouse Drinking Chocolate
On a cold night after a long day’s hike, a cup of hot chocolate can be a much-welcomed treat. While there’s an abundance of motel lobby variety hot chocolates out there, if you want to really treat yourself, we recommend checking out Treehouse Drinking Chocolate.
BACKPACKING DINNER IDEAS
Odds are, dinner is what you’re thinking about all day on the trail. Whether you choose the no-fuss just add water freeze-dried meals, or cook your own meals, here are some of our favorite backpacking dinner ideas.
This ultra fast-cooking grain is a great building block for many DIY backpacking meals. While couscous can be found in every grocery stores, we’re partial to Bob’s Red Mill for plain couscous, or the Near East brand herbed chicken and wild mushrooms flavors. See couscous in action in our Backpacking Chicken Marbella recipe.
Lightweight, quick-cooking, and calorie dense, StoveTop Stuffing is a great meal building block for backpacking meals. You probably don’t want to make a habit of eating a ton of this at home, but when you’re on trail you’ll need all the calories you can get. So live it up!
Idahoan Mashed Potatoes
There’s nothing quite as filling as a big bowl of mashed potatoes. These instant mashed potatoes just need to be rehydrated with a little bit of boiling water, making them incredibly quick and easy to make at camp. Mix some mashed potatoes, stuffing, and chicken together and you’re half way to a Thanksgiving dinner!
Making a recipe but only need a little bit something? A little bit of mayo? Just a cup of vegetable stock? A teaspoon of hot sauce? Individual packets are the way to go. Here are some that we’ve used in the past:
Whether it’s for dessert or just whenever, a scoop full of Nutella can go a long way in the backcountry. Spread it on crackers, a tortilla, stroopwafels, or even mix it into some hot water. This chocolate hazlenut 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 super durable. Try spreading a little Nutella between two of them and make yourself a “ice cream” sandwich.
Need some DIY backpacking meal ideas? We are constantly developing new backpacking meals that you can make yourself. Check out our full index here.
Let us know what’s your favorite backpacking food in the comments below! We are always on the hunt for new products and new ideas!