So you’ve made the decision, and now it’s time to step up and take your first multi-day hike in the backcountry! But then reality hits: What are you going to eat? Backpacking meal planning might not be the first thing on your mind when arranging a hike, but it’s one of the first things you’ll regret if you get it wrong.
Planning your meals might sound easy but when you start digging into the details, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that there is more to it than slapping together a few slices of meat and cheese on rye. How much food should you take? How will you keep your taste buds excited after weeks on the trail? What about foraging for food?
So many questions, and we’ve got answers for them all in this backpacking meal planning FAQ!
1. WHAT IS BACKPACKING MEAL PLANNING AND IS IT IMPORTANT?
We all need food, right? Whether it’s a day hike or a multi-day trek, keeping your energy levels up is vitally important.
For short hikes, you may only need a few energy bars but as the length of the hike increases, it becomes more important to plan your meals to ensure you stay in peak physical and mental condition.
2. WHAT TYPES OF MEALS ARE GOOD FOR BACKPACKING?
When planning your meals for a hike, you need to remember that every ounce will be sitting on your own back. Lightweight foods that pack down nicely are perfect, at the same time trying to ensure they are as jam-packed full of energy as possible.
Foods with a low glycemic index (GI) are also great as they don’t cause your sugar levels to spike instead of releasing their energy slowly over time.
Don’t forget that on the trail, you’re going to be preparing your food with limited equipment and possibly in poor conditions. At the end of a long day, you’ll thank yourself for packing food that is super quick to prepare (less than 10 minutes is a good guide).
Lastly, don’t bring food you don’t like. If you don’t like it on Day 1, just imagine how it’s going to look on Day 21!
3. WHAT ARE THE BEST FOODS TO TAKE WHEN BACKPACKING?
Fresh food is great for short hikes, but shouldn’t be taken if you’re backpacking longer than two nights as it will start to spoil.
Dry, freeze dried or dehydrated food, such as noodles, soups and instant rice are perfect, as they pack down small and only need hot water to be brought back to life and flavor.
Spices are a lifesaver on long hikes. You don’t need to take much but when it’s your 15th bowl of pasta in a row, it’s the little things like this that make all the difference to keeping your spirits high!
Canned foods are only recommended for day hikes as they not only weigh a lot, but also create a lot of waste.
Most importantly, don’t underestimate how much water you’ll need for drinking AND cooking. Research your trail to make sure you know where you can top up your water bottles.
You may think that with limited pack space, it might be difficult to design a meal plan that is both tasty and nutritious.
Think again! Here are some great ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For specific recipes, have a read of our article on the Best 10 Camping Meals.
4. WHAT IS A GOOD IDEA FOR BREAKFAST?
A hot breakfast is always a welcome start to the day, especially in winter. Instant porridge or pancakes are delicious.
Muesli with powdered milk and dried fruit is a delicious cold option. If you prefer not to have to clean up so early in the day, bring some breakfast bars!
5. WHAT IS A GOOD IDEA FOR LUNCH?
A baguette with sliced meats, chutney and cheese is the perfect lunch on a short hike when backpack space is not so critical.
On longer hikes, you’ll find yourself snacking throughout the day rather than stopping for one large meal at midday so consider energy bars or biscuits, scroggin (an energy packed mixture of dried fruit, nuts and seeds), jerky, salami and/or Lebanese bread (pita).
6. WHAT IS A GOOD IDEA FOR DINNER?
It’s always a great feeling to finish the day on a high, so you’ll be wanting something hot and filling. Packet pasta is a favourite with many hikers, as are ramen noodles. Side dishes can include dehydrated mashed potatoes or instant rice.
If you don’t mind paying a little bit more, then there are also many options for delicious dehydrated packaged meals. Just remember that they can take up a lot of space and you’ll need to store your waste.
7. I WOULD LOVE SODA, GLASS OF WINE OR A PIECE OF CHOCOLATE… BUT IS IT PRACTICAL?
Chocolate is always welcome on a hike, no matter how short or long. It should even be considered essential for longer hikes in case of emergency.
We’ll never categorically say no, but soda, wine and other alcoholic beverages are an absolute luxury and are only practical for day hikes or some overnight hikes. So, bring these as long as you can afford the extra weight and have room in your pack.
8. DO I NEED TO CONSIDER THE SEASONS IN MY BACKPACKING MEAL PLANNING?
On multi-day hikes during very cold weather or winter, you will need to consider taking more food or more energy dense food to account for your extra energy requirements in keeping warm. If subzero temperatures are expected, then give thought to keeping essential food in pockets close to your body while hiking to ensure it doesn’t freeze.
Hydration in summer is critical. This may mean carrying more water than in winter or perhaps taking packets of electrolytes to keep your energy and salt levels at an optimum. Keep in mind that during summer, there is always the risk of fires and laws may prohibit you from using a fuel stove for food preparation.
9. IS A MULTI-DAY HIKE A GOOD TIME TO START A NEW DIET?
Please consult your doctor. But in our opinion, this isn’t a good idea. On long hikes, you need your energy and deliberately creating a calorie deficit could be dangerous.
10. CAN I MAKE MY OWN MEALS FOR BACKPACKING?
Yes, you can! It’s a great way to save money as well. Buying ingredients in bulk and without packaging is always cheaper in the long run.
If you’re interested in dehydrating your own food, there are plenty of online communities to provide pieces of advice on both recipes and techniques.
11. CAN I BUY MEALS FOR BACKPACKING?
Pre-made meals for hikers are made by many companies, so check online to see if there are any in your local area. Here at The Adventure Junkies, we’ve put together this great review of the Top 10 Freeze Dried Food Packages to get you started!
Alternatively, camping stores always stock a comprehensive range and can provide excellent advice as well. Do remember that these meals can be expensive and the discarded packaging will take up considerable space in your pack.
12. WILL I NEED TO TAKE MY OWN WATER?
Yes. Research your trail for water sources beforehand to determine exactly how much water and how many containers you will need to carry.
When calculating your water requirements, don’t forget that in addition to drinking water, you will also need water for cooking and cleaning.
It may also be necessary to take a water purifier with you. There are different ways of purifying your water, and we’ve put together these guides to make that decision a little bit easier for you:
13. I LOVE A HOT MEAL BUT IS THIS POSSIBLE WHEN BACKPACKING?
Yes, and for longer hikes, it will be essential. Starting or finishing the day with a hot meal is always great for both your belly and your morale.
14. HOW MUCH FOOD WILL I NEED?
This is a really difficult question to answer because it will vary depending on your height, weight, sex, fitness and muscle mass.
But a good rule of thumb is to allow 1.5-2lbs per person each day. This is a really important aspect of a long multi-day trek, so we recommend using shorter hikes to get a feel of your dietary requirements first.
15. IS FORAGING FOR FOOD A GOOD IDEA?
Foraging for food can be a great way of keeping your meals interesting from day to day. It can also give you something to do while hiking, keeping an eye out for wild berries, fruits, mushrooms or other food along the trail. It’s unlikely you will be able to survive wholly off foraged food, but it’s a nice supplement.
One very big word of caution though! Make sure you know exactly what you’re picking as some plants are hazardous to your health.
16. HOW SHOULD I STORE MY FOOD?
To keep your pack as light as possible, transfer dry foods into labelled, zip-locked bags if possible. Double bag if you think it necessary.
Think about what food you will want to keep handy while hiking,or at different times of the day, so that you pack your bag in a way that keeps these items easily accessible.
17. HOW CAN I CUT DOWN ON THE WEIGHT OF MY FOOD?
There are plenty of little tricks you can employ to keep your pack weight down. Transferring food from bulky and heavy packets into zip-locked bags is easy and effective.
Similarly, you could transfer liquids from a heavy glass or can into a designated plastic water bottle or other water-tight containers. Freeze dried and dehydrated foods are also extremely light as they’ve had all their moisture removed.
18. WILL WILD ANIMALS BE ATTRACTED TO MY FOOD?
Yes, particularly rats and bears depending on which part of the world you live.
Rats are notorious for chewing through cloth and lightweight plastics, so you will need a hard, plastic cylinder with a screw top seal to keep them away from your food overnight.
For bears, invest in a bear can that is specifically designed to keep the smells in and bears out! Don’t forget to store it away from your tent as well. For more tips, read our guide on How to Keep Bears Away.
19. WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT BACKPACKING MEAL PLANNING?
There is a real art in constructing an effective backpacking meal plan, particularly for very long hikes. There are so many others that have already faced these challenges and learned the hard way that there is no reason you should have to experience hunger or frustration with your own meal plan out in the wild.
There is plenty of information online on backpacking forums and through camping e-magazines. Alternatively, if you prefer a more personal approach, look up your local hiking club or camping store and have a chat.
You’ll be amazed at all the tricks and nuggets of information they have at their disposal and that they are passionate in sharing!