Backpacking is a calorie-intensive activity. Eating enough and eating the right foods is essential to having enough energy to enjoy your trip. Commercially freeze-dried backpacking foods can be convenient, but DIY backpacking meals can often taste better and will save you money.
Good food has has magical powers for fixing hardship and bad moods on the trail.
Being hungry can make the mental focus of backpacking more on physical hardship rather than the adventure at hand.
I always pack a few extra chocolate bars for addressing low stamina and exercise-induced mental stress on the trail. Brains run on sugar and fat, and when exercising all day, it’s okay to eat higher-calorie foods that you’d avoid at home. That being said, good chocolate remains one of my most reliable approaches to improving the moods of myself and those around me on tough days.
Most people use between 400 to 600 calories an hour while backpacking.
That means even an average sized hiker hiking for 10 hours a day could use as many as 6000 calories a day (don’t forget, camp chores and even sleeping requires energy!). If you’re just getting into backpacking, I advise measuring how much energy you actually need on a typical day rather than making a guess before a long backpacking trip.
If you need to know how much you tend to eat daily on a long backpacking trip, you can take a shorter trip and pay attention to how much you need. For a large adult on a challenging backpacking trip, up to 6000 calories per day is a good target to start with as it will likely be more than you need, and it only hurts a little to have extra food on a short trip. You’ll likely find your caloric needs will be somewhat lower. Smaller people may pack much less — around 3500 calories per person per day works well for me and my hiking partner (plus a little extra in case of an emergency).
The ideal daily caloric intake is one where you don’t gain or lose any weight over the course of your backpacking trip.
So how much food do you need on a backpacking trip?
In order to determine how much food you need for a long trip, go on a three or four day trip with more food than you imagine needing. Eat as much as you as you feel inclined, and then make a list of how much you eat — particularly after the second day. On the first few days of the hike, your body is more likely to be burning stores of glycogen in the liver and muscles, your body’s “backup batteries,” which may decrease your perceived level of hunger.
By the third day of a hiking trip, your appetite and metabolism have had time to use up excess glycogen stores and adjust to the efforts of backpacking, and more accurately reflect the number of calories your body is using on the trail than during the first two days.
The amount of food you need daily AFTER several days on the trail should be a good ballpark estimate of the amount of food you’ll want on an average day backpacking on a longer trip.
Best foods for backpacking
Nutritionally dense, non-perishable foods like nuts, granola, powdered milk, oatmeal, dehydrated fruits, vegetables and beans, beef jerky, crackers, salami, dehydrated soups and sauces, pasta, instant rice and chocolate are all excellent trail foods because they are lightweight, simple to prepare, and won’t spoil on your trip.
Beverages like coffee, tea, powdered drink mixes and hot chocolate are lightweight luxuries that are great to have along.
Treats like Pop Tarts, and Fig Newtons in your food caches keep things interesting and add calories (a good thing!).
If you plan to do much backpacking and enjoy having hot dinners, a food dehydrator is well worth the investment.
Freeze-dried meals at camping stores are expensive and for folks with culinary inclinations, they can be downright abusive to the palate. I make delicious meals for a fraction of the cost using ingredients prepped in a food dehydrator.
Some dried foods like apples, raisins and onion flakes can be bought cheaply at the grocery store. Others, like apricots and cranberries taste better store-bought, but many, like pineapples and carrots are easily and inexpensively dehydrated at home. In addition to milk chocolate, home-dried pineapple is my favorite trail food —it is sweet and chewy and makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
Backpacking meal ideas
Hiking in the mountains is often chilly in the morning, but once you start hiking you warm up quickly. Many seasoned hikers prefer a fast breakfast that doesn’t require a lot of cooking, clean up, and time spent shivering around the camp.
Fast backpacking breakfasts
- Granola with powdered milk
- Peanut butter, almond butter or Nutella on Crackers
- Pop Tarts
- Hot Chocolate
Breakfasts for slower mornings
- Oatmeal with powdered milk, cinnamon, and raisins.
- Veggie Scramble (see recipe below)
Instead of eating lunch proper, we keep our energy up by snacking throughout the day on high energy foods. If you bring a variety of nuts and fruits you can pick out a few to eat each day – that way you won’t get bored eating the same trail mix every day.
Favorite items for snacking on the trail
- Dried fruit
- Chocolate Bars
- Granola Bars
- Beef Jerky
Favorite foods for sit-down lunches
- Packaged fish and crackers (salmon and tuna both come in lightweight packets)
- Salami and Crackers
- Peanut butter or almond butter on crackers
These dehydrated cooked meals are well worth the effort:
- Pesto Pasta with Spinach (see recipe below)
- Couscous Curry (see recipe below)
- Vegetarian Chili (see recipe below)
If you don’t want to cook, the sit-down lunch foods above make fine dinners.
- Granola Bars
- Nutella on crackers
- Hot Chocolate
Dehydrating backpacking food at home
You can save money and eat higher-quality foods by dehydrating fruits, vegetables, and proteins at home. In addition, if you suffer from sulfite sensitives (the preservatives used in most commercially dried foods), dehydrating food yourself may be your only option in avoiding sulfites.
Foods worth dehydrating
Foods that are sometimes worth dehydrating yourself:
- pineapple — can sometimes be had very cheaply from fruit markets
- mushrooms — expensive dried, but you can sometimes find good deals, especially in Asian markets on Shitake mushrooms
- berries can be cheaper to dehydrate yourself
Foods usually always worth dehydrating yourself:
- artichoke hearts
- beans of all kinds (make sure they are fully cooked!)
- bell peppers
- hot peppers
- kale, other greens
- potatoes – diced or cubed only (can be bought frozen), dried flakes, slices, and shredded is readily available pre-dried
- squash (Summer and winter)
- sugar snap peas
- sweet potatoes and yams
- tomato sauce, tomato paste (make fruit leather)
Fruits to dehydrate:
- honey-dew melons (hit and miss)
- peaches (puree and make a fruit leather)
- pears (puree and make a fruit leather)
Meats and proteins that dehydrate well:
- ground beef
- ground sausage
- sliced lunch meat
- Canadian bacon
Choosing a food dehydrator
Food dehydrators come in a few common designs. The inexpensive countertop models usually have a top-mounted heating unit that blows air down through a stack of trays. There are also fanless convection dehydrators (avoid these), and cabinet-style models that have a heater and fan mounted to the back.
In general, look for a model that has fans and motors mounted to the top or side. If any elements are below the unit, they will burn out eventually from drippings. Also don’t bother with dehydrators that don’t have fans, as they tend to be too slow to stop some foods from spoiling before they dry.
Inexpensive food dehydrators usually have fixed heat settings and no timers. You can plug these into an appliance electrical timer to solve that problem, but you may find yourself wanting a model with a thermostat if you dehydrate a variety of foods.
Here’s a list of good food dehydrators that I recommend.
Nesco American Harvest FD-28JX
|This is an inexpensive, no-frills model that is fitting for light, occasional use. It doesn’t have a thermostat or a timer, but it will do the job.|
Nesco Snackmaster Pro FD-75A
|This is a good choice if you need to dehydrate fruits and veggies for 1 to 2 people for backpacking over the summer. It’s a 4-tray model that’s 650 Watts with an adjustable thermostat. It can be expanded to hold 2 additional trays and has good, inexpensive accessories like fruit roll sheets. Add an appliance electrical timer and you have a capable, high-value food dehydrator.|
Excalibur 2900ECB 9-Tray
|If you’re serious about dehydrating, this enthusiast-level model that will do the job for years and is a smart buy. For the additional cost over the previous model, you get 15 square feet of drying space on nine trays, and higher-quality construction. It has a thermostat, and polyscreen tray inserts for easy cleaning. For people with gardens or a large family, this is a popular choice. Again, add an appliance electrical timer for convenience.|
TSM Products 5-Shelf Stainless Steel
|If you’re dehydrating a fair amount of food on an ongoing basis, you’ll appreciate a commercial-grade unit that can do the job well for years to come. This small commercial-grade unit is probably as much as any avid gardener or large family would need. It has stainless steel construction, an adjustable thermostat and a timer.|
A few backpacking recipes:
Here are a few of my go-to backpacking recipes. I advise trying recipes out at home first – that way you can make sure you can prepare them easily and that you like the way they taste before you’re on the trail and committed to eating them.