Preparing meals is an important step in planning a backpacking trip. You want to make sure you pack out foods that can withstand the conditions of outdoor travel, require minimal preparation, provide you with adequate nutrition, and taste good. You also don’t want to forget crucial items, such as your morning coffee. You also don’t want to pack too little or too much. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when planning your backpacking food.
Finding Backpacking Foods
1. Purchase easy to find staples from grocery stores
Some prepackaged foods that make ideal camping foods, such as cereal, trail mix, instant milk powder, snack bars, tortilla, couscous, pasta/noodles, and instant rice can be purchased directly from grocery stores.
- Harder to find items such as dehydrated vegetables and beans, powdered eggs, vegetable and fruit powders, instant quinoa (pre-cooked & dried), instant lentils, and healthy, high-calorie meals made with whole food and organic ingredients, such as instant brown rice, and non-dairy milk powder can be found online, at specialty health food stores, and international markets.
2. Read the Cooking Instructions in Advance
Check for any additional ingredients that are required to prepare the dish before you purchase it. Substitutions can be made for many common ingredients, such as olive oil for butter (look for single serve olive oil packets) and dried vegetables for fresh.
3. Read the Nutrition Label
Look at the nutritional panel for each product in advance to determine if it will contain enough calories. Calorie needs depend on the terrain and individual needs. A good rule is to look for meals containing at least 100 calories per ounce.
4. Look for Fast Cook Foods
Stay away from packaged foods that take longer than 10 minutes to simmer. Look for cook times of 10 minutes or less, especially for longer trips when you’ll need to ration fuel. Fast cooking/instant does not mean you have to buy the highly processed, empty nutrition foods found in many packaged foods. Most wholesome foods – with the exception of unhulled grains, uncooked beans, uncooked or partially cooked (parboiled) rice, and thick extruded pasta – can be cooked using the boil and soak method.
Packing Foods for Backpacking
1. Repackage Store bought Ingredients or Meals into Ziploc sandwich Bags
Repackaging food into flat (sandwich size) square ziploc bags will minimize space and weight. Package 1 – 2 meal servings in each bag. Use the pint sized freezer bags if you want something a little more durable than the thinner plastic sandwich bags.
The gusseted (stand up) packaging sold by many commercial backpacking food manufacturers take up too much space. If you purchase these meals, open each package, take the food out, and repackage the ingredients in flat zipper bags. You can also flatten the gusseted bags (if you think you will use them) and pack those. If not, cut off the cook instructions and include it with the meal ingredients.
Do not buy a vacuum sealer to package ingredients unless you are interested in storing foods long-term (1+ years). Vacuum sealing food is unnecessary (overkill) and often problematic for the trail. Sealing out the air can cause some ingredients, such as pasta, to pierce open the bags. Plus, the sealed bags need to be cut open on the trail and contribute to extra trail trash. On the other hand, ziploc bags can be re-used while on the trail to organize necessities, trash, or to keep items dry and clean.
2. Label each Ziploc bag
Write down the date, meal name, and amount of water to add, simmer time, or any other specific cooking instructions — either write it on the bag, or on a small slip of paper that you can insert into the bag.
3. Group Products by Meal Type
Arrange meals by type and place in gallon size (or larger) ziplock freezer bags or odor-proof barrier bags. Grouping by meal versus day gives you greater flexibility to decide what to eat based on your appetite.
- Group meals type put all breakfast meals in the first bag, snacks into a 2nd, lunches in a 3rd, and dinners in a 4th bag. Group commonly used ingredients such as sugar, spices, medication/vitamins, dried vegetables, coffee, and condiment packets into separate bags.
- We recommend double bagging coffee or separating it from food sources; the scent of the ground beans permeates to other items, which will impact flavor. This includes the freeze-dried instant single-serve coffee sold in foil packs.
- Be careful not to over-pack on meals! Rather than pack extra meals, pack extra snacks. This way if you run out of fuel or are too tired to fire up the stove, you can still eat. And remember, we can survive 2 weeks without food (or longer depending on our fat reserve), but drinking water is critical. If you run out of water, do not eat! Your body requires extra water to digest food. A general guide is to plan 1.5 – 2 lbs of total food (including snacks) per person per day.
Other Food Packing Tips
- Taste your food before you pack it out! Nothing is worse than sitting down to a bad meal after all that effort to haul it out.
- Think about your daily routine. What crucial items do you need to take? Morning tea/coffee, medication, multi-vitamin, etc.
- For long trips, it is important to have variety. Take foods that have varied textures and flavors. While vegetables don’t contain many calories, they contribute a great deal to nutrition, texture, and flavor. Food variety keeps it interesting and helps you fulfill your daily nutritional needs.
- The drying process does remove some of the nutrients found in fresh food. Since you will be relying predominately on dried foods, we recommend supplementing your diet by taking a daily multi-vitamin. This is more of a concern for long-term hiking or those that do not keep a good diet while on the trail. Read more about nutrient loss in dried food.
- Keep a supply of dried meals on hand, so you are prepared to take a last-minute outdoor adventure. Dried foods have a long shelf life making them ideal to purchase in advance.
- Don’t forget to pack out! Everything you take out must be packed in. This includes all used trash, meal bags, uneaten foods.
Cooking Backpacking Foods
1. Backpacking Stove
Get a lightweight cook set, backpacking stove, fuel, and cooking utensils. Look for reusable lightweight plastics, such as lexan sporks, or utensils that fold down.
- Plain aluminum is the lightest and cheapest cooking material, but food particles will stick to it. Titanium will boil water fast, but food will also stick to it. We recommend a non-stick set that allows you to rehydrate your meal in the cooking pot without leaving a mess.
- If you don’t have a non-stick set, you can help prevent food from sticking by adding extra water to meals and drinking the broth. You can also add 1 TB of olive oil when you boil your water. A small amount of oil adds calories to the meal plus makes it easier to clean up. This works great for us when we use our non-coated aluminum scout kit.
2. Cooking Method
The quickest method of re-hydrating dried foods involves soaking the food in boiling water. To reconstitute, pour the boiling water directly over the ingredients, stir, cover, and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. For longer cook items, such as pasta, add the dry ingredients with enough water to cover the food (a ratio of 1 part dry to 1-1.5 of water usually works fine) and bring it to a quick boil together. Then, shut off the heat and allow the food to soak in hot water.
- Always keep your cooking pot covered with a lid
- After you serve the dish, keep it hot while you are eating it by insulating your mug/dish with a cozy.
3. Washing Dishes
Try cleaning your cook pot with just water and a small scrub sponge. Dried meals are already pre-cooked and should not leave much residue since you are only reheating them.
- Make a one-third or smaller sized sponge at home by dividing and cutting a household scouring sponge into equal squares. If you do need to use soap, always use the smallest amount (1 drop) of biodegradable soap. Add a splash of water and air dry.
- Don’t dump dish washing residue in a single spot on the ground. Instead, scatter any residue and water by tossing it around.
Enjoy the trails!