Meal planning for your next backpacking trip? We’ve compiled our favorite backpacking food, ingredients, and meal ideas to help you get started. Find out what food is best for hiking, discover new ingredients, and get inspired by some delicious new backpacking meals.
Let’s clear the air here: There is no shame in relying on packaged food for your backpacking trips! We get it. Not everyone has time to make their own backpacking meals before setting off on a trip (if you do have time, we have a whole post about dehydrating food for backpacking!).
We’re speaking from experience here: In 2019, we hiked the JMT for our honeymoon. Organizing and dehydrating 18 days’ worth of food was the last thing we had time for while planning a wedding.
So, we did what many people do before a backpacking trip: raid the shelves of REI and our grocery store for anything and everything that looks tasty!
In this post, we share our favorite backpacking food ideas from hundreds of miles hiked over the past few years. We hope this article gives you some new delicious trail food ideas!
What makes for good backpacking food?
There are a few factors to keep in mind when determining whether a food is good for backpacking: shelf-stable, weight, calorie density, and cook speed.
Shelf-Stable: It’s important to use ingredients that can be stored at room temperature. You can get away with bringing some things like cheese or salami if you eat them in the first few days, but for the most part, you want to skip anything perishable.
Lightweight: Since you have to carry it every step of the way, backpacking food should be as lightweight as possible. Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods tend to be lightest, though there are plenty of grocery store options we’ll review as well.
Calorie Dense: Backpacking takes a lot of energy, so you need food that can properly refuel you. When we plan our backpacking food, we try to average 125+ calories per ounce to keep the weight down.
Cooking Time: Consider how much patience you have to cook your food and how much fuel you will be bringing. Quicker cooking foods tend to be preferred by most backpackers for fuel conservation.
How much food should you pack for backpacking?
wtbblue.com suggests that for most backpackers who plan on hiking all day with a heavier pack, you should aim for 25-30 calories per pound of body weight, per day. If you’re going to do a shorter day of hiking (less than 2 hours) or covering less strenuous terrain, you can scale it down to 21-25 calories per pound of body weight, per day.
Instead of eating just three meals per day like you might at home, aim to eat throughout the day and consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour (source) to keep your energy high and prevent hitting the wall.
These, of course, are just a starting point and you should adjust based on your own experience. If you’re going to do a longer backpacking trip like the JMT, do a few weekend shakedown trips to get a sense of what your appetite is like.
A good day on the trail starts with a solid breakfast. If you want to get through the morning without “bonking”, it’s best to start with some calories in the tank. Thankfully there’s a lot more on the menu than just instant oats. Here are some great backpacking breakfasts to check out.
Backpacking lunches, snacks, and bars
When backpacking, the goal is to consume a constant stream of calories throughout the day. This slow-drip offers your body a consistent and stable fuel source, preventing your blood sugar from taking a nosedive (i.e. bonking).
So we like to think of hiking as one long, moveable feast. Lots of little snacks here and there, a big snack in the middle of the day (otherwise called lunch) and then more snacking throughout the afternoon. The key to making this work is variety. Don’t get burnt out eating the same thing over and over.
After a long and exhausting day on the trail, we can’t help but develop great expectations for dinner. Which is why it’s so important to find a meal that will end your day on a happy and satisfying note.
While there are more backpacking dinner options to choose from than ever before, our suggestion is to pick meals that sound appetizing to you now. If you’re not an adventurous eater at home, then you’re likely not going to magically become one on the trail.
Grocery Store Favorites
Whether you’re making your own meals or looking for a way to stretch a freeze-dried meal, there are a bunch of store-bought ingredients you can pack along.
- Idahoan Potatoes: These are great to add to freeze-dried meals that are on the saucy side (like beef stroganoff).
- Stovetop Stuffing: Another favorite to have on hand as a “side” or in packaged meals. Combine it with instant potatoes for a Thanksgiving Bowl!
- Ramen: Does it get more basic than ramen? It’s cheap, lightweight, and calorie-dense. Toss the sodium packet and doctor it up – see our Revamped Ramen recipe for ideas.
- Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides: These are great (and cheap) building blocks for meals. Add chicken, tuna, or TVP for protein.
- Annie’s Mac and Cheese: Add chicken, tuna, or TVP for protein, and throw in some dried veggies (see below) to make a full meal.
Bulk Freeze-Dried / Dehydrated Ingredients
If you’re building your own backpacking meals from scratch, it can be nice to buy some individual freeze-dried and/or dehydrated ingredients in bulk. Here are some of the resources we personally use when developing our own backpacking recipes.
- Nuts.com: Yes, they carry nuts. But also so so much more! wtbblue.com is a cornucopia of specialty ingredients that are perfect for backpacking.
- Harmony House: With an unbelievable selection of freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients, Harmony House is another online bazaar filled with backpacking-friendly foodstuffs.
- Emergency Essentials: Emergency Essentials specializes in bulk freeze-dried ingredients. Fruits, veggies, eggs, and even hard to find stuff like butter and cheese. They’ve got it all! If you’re building your own backpacking meals from scratch, this can be a great way to get access to individual freeze-dried ingredients.
- Dried Vegetables: We tend to find a lot of backpacking meals light on the vegetables. If you don’t need the bulk sizes of Emergency Essentials, you can pick up dehydrated or freeze-dried vegetables from places like wtbblue.com and Karen’s Naturals to add to packaged or DIY meals for a nutrient boost.
The sky’s the limit if you’re up to making your own meals. While we’ve developed a lot of different backpacking recipes over there years, we’ll give you our personal favorites here (ssh, don’t tell the others!)
- Mushroom Risotto
- Red Lentil Chili
- Tortilla Soup
No Dehydrator Required:
- Thanksgiving Bowl
- Fried Rice
- Chicken Marbella
When developing your backpacking meal plan, desserts absolutely have a place! As a special treat to mark a notable day, a morale booster after a real doozy, or just a way to pad out your dinner’s calorie count, backpacking desserts are a great trick to have in your back pocket.
Condiments and extras
These are some of our favorite extras to add either calories or flavor to our meals.
- Butter powder
- Heavy cream powder
- Whole milk powder
- Coconut milk powder
- Cheese powder
- Olive oil packets
- Coconut oil packets
- Sriracha packets
- Chili garlic sauce packets
- Soy sauce packets
- Tamari packets (gluten-free)
- Various hot sauce packets
- Mayo Packets
- Chicken Broth Packets
- Honey Packets
- True Lemon & True Lime flavor packets
Where to buy backpacking food
If you know what you’re looking for you can find backpacking food all over the place! But here are a few good places to start your search:
↠ REI: REI has lots of backpacking food and snacks. Plus they offer 10% off your meals if you buy 8 or more meals at once!
↠ Amazon: They sell virtually everything. If you know what you’re looking for, there is a good chance Amazon has it.
↠ wtbblue.com: Want great prices on bulk freeze-dried ingredients? wtbblue.com is an incredible resource for those looking to build their own backpacking meals and snacks.
↠ Trader Joe’s: Everyone’s favorite pirate-themed grocery store actually has a lot of great backpacking foods throughout the store. We particularly love their reasonably priced selection of dried fruits and nuts.
↠ Walmart: Aside from the staples like instant oatmeal, snacks, and whatnot, many Walmart stores have a decent selection of freeze-dried ingredients! We’ve picked up everything from butter powder to freeze-dried fruits and vegetables there. They also often carry Mountain House and other freeze-dried meal pouches.
↠ Target: We would never have thought it, but the grocery section in Target has a bunch of great backpacking food options. They have great snacks, nut butter packets, tuna and chicken packets, and instant oatmeals.
↠ World Market: If you have a Cost Plus World Market nearby, check out their food section! We found loads of fun stuff like dried salami, individually packaged cheese, single-serving condiments, fancy ramen noodles, and tons of snacks.
Favorite backpacking cooking gear
We have a whole post dedicated to backpacking cooking gear, but here are some of the basics:
Looking for more backpacking food resources? Check out our guides to vegan backpacking food, gluten-free backpacking food, these lightweight backpacking recipes, and our ultimate guide to dehydrating food for backpacking!
This post was first published November 9, 2017 and was updated March 11, 2021. There are a ton of new great backpacking food products that we included!