organic vegetarian meals for the trail

Quinoa as a Backpacking Food

We’ve talked about the merits of quinoa before. Not only is quinoa a complete protein, but it is also a valuable source of minerals, vitamins, phytohormones, and antioxidants, giving it an advantage over other plant foods. In comparison to the typical cereal grasses such as wheat or oats, quinoa contains a higher portion of both fat and protein. For all of these reasons, quinoa should be a daily staple. Here we take a closer look at why quinoa also makes an excellent backpacking food.

This cow grazes among a quinoa field. Most complete proteins come from animals – not quinoa.

Quinoa is a Realistic Source of Protein

Quinoa with its 15% protein composition contains the perfect ratio of protein.  Think of how much protein a large, muscular horse gets in their diet – about 10-15% of their diet is protein, all of which is from plants. A human’s protein needs are similar. The commonly held belief that humans need a higher amount of protein to maintain muscle is not a wise suggestion according to independent studies [1]. In fact, overeating protein causes calcium loss and harms the kidneys [2]. Strenuous activity requires more caloric energy by eating more food coming from complex carbohydrates. Over 70% of quinoa’s calories are from carbohydrates with the remaining amount of roughly equal amounts of protein and fat.

  • While it is true that protein is essential for muscle growth and to repair tissue, it is a myth that a high-protein diet promotes muscle growth. Exercise, such as hiking, is what builds muscle.
  • Active people who focus on eating extra protein often do not eat enough carbohydrates, which are the most important source of energy during exercise. Always aim for eating more calories by eating more carbohydrate-rich food.

Types of Quinoa


Quinoa is not a grain, rather it is a seed that cooks up like a grain. Quinoa seeds range in color. The most common are white, red, and black quinoa. 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. 

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Uncooked Quinoa, about 1/2 Cup

Characteristic Black Red White
Energy (kcal) 409 380 370
Fat (g) 8 7 5
Carbohydrates (g) 68 62 68
Protein (g) 16 15 14
Flavor Earthy & Sweet Nutty Nutty
Texture Chewy Chewy Soft to Mushy

Backpacking with Quinoa

Many backpackers refrain from packing quinoa for the trail because it requires a long simmer time – up to 15 minutes. With the popularity of quinoa, there are now more choices.

1. Instant Quinoa: Quickest Cooking

Using instant quinoa saves on backpacking stove fuel and preparation. If you find instant or quick-cook quinoa, verify that it is fully cooked and not parboiled or partially cooked. Otherwise, it will not reconstitute in hot water. Outdoor Herbivore produces a fully cooked and dried organic tricolor instant quinoa designed for backpackers – just boil water and soak the instant quinoa about 7 minutes in hot water.

  • Look for fully cooked instant quinoa for backpacking. If it’s not entirely cooked, it will require a simmer to reconstitute.

You can also make your own Instant Quinoa

Purchase standard quinoa, cook it at home and then dehydrate it. Because quinoa seeds are small, you will need to dry the cooked quinoa on lined sheets to prevent it from falling through the mesh dryer sheets. You can use parchment paper as the liner. Spread the cooked quinoa in a thin layer on each liner sheet and dry at 125 – 135 degrees for 12 hours. The quinoa will be crispy when dry.

2.  Sprouted Quinoa: Quicker Cooking 

If you don’t want to purchase or make instant quinoa, you can use regular uncooked quinoa from the store and sprout it. Since quinoa is a seed, it is well suited for sprouting and has one of the fastest sprout times of any seed. It requires about 6 hours to sprout. To sprout quinoa, soak organic seed in cold water overnight (or while you are hiking) and drain off the excess water. The shell will soften and break open once it has started sprouting. You can eat it at this stage, or continue to grow it further by following the normal sprout process for other seeds. Sprouting quinoa boosts the nutritional value even more. The other benefit is that sprouted quinoa will cook up much faster on the trail.

  • Although quinoa is a seed, it should not be eaten raw. Sprout it first. Be sure the shell is broken open before eating, or cook it lightly. Otherwise, the seed will simply pass through your body without being digested or providing you with any of its incredible nutritional benefits.
  • If you purchase pre-sprouted quinoa, you will have to soak it in boiling water before eating it.

Use quinoa as you would grains, such as rice or noodles by pairing with sauces and vegetables. The mild flavor of quinoa supplements nicely with soups and breakfast porridge. Adding a small amount boosts the nutritional content of almost any dish while adding a mildly nutty flavor.

The Health Benefits of Quinoa

Quinoa seeds have many favorable characteristics including their heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat content and nutrient-packed kernels. Here is a breakdown of their attributes –

  • Complete Protein – source of all eight essential amino acids (proteins) the body requires, including lysine, a protein typically only found in animal products. Essential amino acids refer to those that the body must get through diet because it cannot produce it by itself. The most common sources of complete proteins are meat, milk, and eggs. If you are looking for an alternative source of protein, quinoa is a strong contender. It is excellent for vegetarians.
  • High in Manganese – A trace mineral that helps reduce fatigue levels, prevent bone loss, reduce menstrual flow, and help speed up the recovery from strains & sprains by increasing restorative antioxidant enzymes (superoxide dismutase). [4]
  • Fatty Acid Content  – Most of the fat is in the form of oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Since quinoa has a significant amount of fat, it can be assumed that quinoa is more likely to oxidize quickly and damage the nutrients. But, studies show that quinoa, despite its fat content, does not oxidize as fast as expected. Therefore, quinoa can be stored longer than oily seeds and cooking does not jeopardize the nutrients within. [5]
  • Gluten Free – Quinoa is naturally gluten-free and does not grow near wheat crops. Most people also find that quinoa is easy to digest.
  • A Significant Source of Calories – 1/4 cup of uncooked tri-color quinoa (1.7 oz or 48g) contains 180 calories. Most plant foods are low in calories; however, quinoa, at 106 calories per ounce is a significant source.

Don’t Feel Guilty Eating Quinoa

Quinoa is native to northern South America and grows primarily in Bolivia and Peru. If you follow food news, you might remember hearing a few years back about how the U.S. demand for quinoa was driving up the pricing so high that the South American farmers who grew it could not afford to eat it themselves. According to NPR, quinoa farmers have adjusted to the expanded demand and are still eating quinoa while making more money by selling it globally.

As you can see, quinoa is a fascinating plant food that is worthy of its own category and blog post. It has remarkable nutritional properties, not only from its protein content (15%) but also its energy composition. Try it out on your next hike.

Article Co-Authored by Danny Eccles, Outdoor Herbivore Intern

Outdoor Herbivore’s Instant Organic Tri Color Quinoa is fully cooked and dried to provide you the fastest cooking quinoa on the market! Just add to boiled water and rest about 7 minutes.



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3 thoughts on “Quinoa as a Backpacking Food”

  • I grind quinoa in a spice grinder along with flax seed, and add it to regular porridge. Adding boiling water to the mix, in a pot with a good cozy, produces breakfast in 20 to 30 minutes. No simmering required.

  • Great! It’s really nice food for the far traveling! Especially when it requires a lot of strength and energy! For that, you should take a waterproof backpack!

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