If you are going on a last minute overnight backpacking trip, you may be wondering what you can quickly grab from the store to assemble a decent meal. Of course, there is always the option of going without a stove and eating candy and trail bars. But, if you want to treat yourself to a hot meal after a long day of exertion, you’d be surprised to know how many choices you have at your local grocery store. While these items are not marketed as “backpacking” foods, they serve well on the trail.
Common Grocery Items that can be used for Backpacking
The general rule is to look for instant items with cook times of 10 minutes or less. Non-instant items will deplete your stove fuel quickly.
Rice: Instant rice is fully cooked whereas parboiled rice is partially cooked. This distinction makes a big difference when it comes to your fuel consumption. Parboiled rice requires a long simmer, and thus too much fuel. Instant rice requires no simmering and will reconstitute in boiling water. We recommend Instant Brown Rice instead of White Rice. Brown rice contains the most nutrients and fiber. Pair it with instant beans and roll into a burrito.
- No Stove Cooking: Soak instant rice in cold water, keep covered, and place in direct sunlight for about 20 minutes.
Pasta: Refers to American and European varieties, which are typically made from hard, durum wheat and take a long time to cook. Thinner and smaller shapes will cook the fastest. For spaghetti, look for angel hair and break the pieces into thirds for quick cooking.
Get non-enriched pasta made with durum flour for the greatest nutrient and calorie content per ounce. Semolina whole wheat cooks faster than durum whole wheat. Keep in mind, whole grain pasta is not limited to whole wheat. You can find pasta made from quinoa, corn, amaranth, chickpeas, and lentils. You can cook most pasta on the trail by adding to boiling water, shutting off the stove, covering and soaking ten minutes.
Noodles: Refers to pasta that originates from Asian countries where they use a soft wheat which enables fast cooking. Some noodles may contain egg in addition to wheat. Other varieties have no wheat at all, such as vermicelli rice noodles and starch noodles. Almost all noodles are ideal for backpacking because they are fast cooking. Look for these in the Asian section of your supermarket, or go to an Asian Grocery store.
- Somen noodles are a thin Japanese noodle made from wheat and are quick cooking and lightweight.
- Buckwheat noodles are a Japanese noodle made from a blend of wheat and buckwheat and the thin style cooks fast.
- Vermicelli noodles are made from rice and are nearly instant.
- Ramen noodles are instant because they are cooked and fried before drying; however, the amount of processing depletes the nutrients. Ramen also contains a lot of added sodium.
- Starch Noodles are dried noodles made from pure starch, translucent to glossy in color, usually from mung bean, rice, and sweet potato. These are ideal for backpacking because they are lightweight, nearly instant, and offer a different texture.
You can cook noodles on the trail by covering with boiling water and soaking about 5 minutes. You can also cook noodles without a stove.
- No Stove Cooking: Soak in cold water, keep covered, and place in direct sunlight for about 20 minutes.
Couscous: Is a type of pasta made from crushed durum wheat. Most packaged couscous found in the U.S. is the North African variety, which looks like yellow cornmeal, and has been pre-steamed and dried to allow for quick cooking. The couscous will cook in 5 minutes when covered with boiled water.
- No Stove Cooking: Allow to soak in cold water with a cover and place in direct sunlight for about 20 minutes.
Quinoa: Is a nutritional powerhouse and is a favorite staple for vegetarians and those avoiding gluten. Look for fully cooked (instant) quinoa for the trail. Quinoa seeds come in different colors. White quinoa has the mildest flavor while the red and black contain slightly more calories and nutrients. Tri-color quinoa combines the benefits of all three. Flaked white quinoa is instant and resembles instant oats in texture. Flaked quinoa makes a good hot breakfast cereal.
Corn Grits: Grits are made with corn and are a popular breakfast porridge in the American South. For faster cooking on the trail, look for instant or quick grits, cornmeal, or masa. Cornmeal is ground finer than grits and will cook faster. Masa is a Mexican style cornmeal that has been nixtamalized (typically lime water) so we can absorb niacin. Grits complement nicely with sweet and savory toppings. For breakfast, try adding cinnamon, sugar, and nuts. As an entree, make a delicious polenta-type meal by adding dried cheese, Italian spices, garlic, and sundried tomato. Crank up the calories with olive oil, if needed. Look for non-GMO corn or organic corn. Most brands use GMO corn for instant products (in the US, the corn is GMO if the package does not specify).
Potato Flakes: Potato adds flavor and makes an excellent thickener for soups. Look for organic instant flaked potato. The standard potato has more pesticides by weight than any other food. Avoid seasoned potato flakes – they contain artificial flavors, coloring agents, and GMO ingredients. You are better off purchasing the plain flakes and adding your own seasonings, such as garlic, salt, rosemary, nutritional yeast/dried cheese.
Tortillas. A dense carb that is versatile and keeps well in your pack. You can add almost any food inside and fold into a wrap. We use tortillas as a wrap for our tofu scramble breakfast, as bread to spread nut butter and hummus mix, and as a soft taco shell for burrito stuffing.
Rolled Oats (Regular): You don’t need instant oats, regular cut works fine. All varieties of rolled oats are pre-steamed and dried during the rolling process. The only difference is the thickness of the flake. Instant, Regular, and Thick can all be reconstituted in boiling water. You can eat oats raw as a cold cereal (muesli) or heat it up for oatmeal. You can also add oatmeal to thicken and supplement calories in lighter meals such as soups. We do not recommend purchasing “instant” oats because they often contain unhealthy additives.
Dried Vegetables and Herbs: If you like flavor and texture in your food, pick up dried vegetables from the spice aisle. Our favorites are onion flakes, tomato flakes, bell pepper flakes, chili pepper, garlic, basil, cumin, turmeric, powdered mustard, lemon peel powder, and ginger. Spices add flavor, aroma and many contain healing properties. You will be amazed how seasoning transforms a meal!
Soup Mixes (Dried): These are generally easy to find in stores, but make sure they are pre-cooked/instant. You don’t want the dry bean soup mixes meant for a slow cooker. Soup mixes can also be used as a sauce for noodles, rice, and potatoes.
Nuts and Seeds: Look in the bulk bins for the best prices. Add handfuls of various nuts and seeds to add calories, texture, and flavor. Also look for powdered peanut butter (not diet), almond and cashew butter packets.
Powdered Drink Mixes: Besides keep you hydrated, hot and cold beverage mixes help keep things interesting and add calories. Some choices include citrus mix, herbal tea, soy milk powder, hot chocolate, apple cider, horchata, and mocha coffee.
Fresh foods: While most fresh foods don’t keep more than two days in your pack, there are a few that will last much longer. Apples, carrots, and avocados will keep in your pack for a week, or between resupply. You can also grow sprouts on your backpack for multi-day trips.
Snacks: Energy bars are the obvious snack choice because they are easy to eat. Some can seem healthy, but they should not consist of your entire trail diet. Many are high in added sugar, have processed protein additives (soy isolate/soy lecithin), and fillers that can contribute to digestive distress and heartburn. Nothing can compare nutritionally to eating real whole food. Purchase dates, nuts, and other dried fruits to make your own trail bars made from real foods.
Other snacks include dark chocolate, fruit leather, freeze-dried mixed vegetables, mixed nuts, and granola.