Eating on the trail, in the backcountry, or around a campfire doesn’t have to be boring or unhealthy.
While there’s nothing wrong with circling around a fire with sticks of hot dogs or munching on a cold-soaked bowl of plain oatmeal, in this complete guide to eating on the trail, I am going to share with you some ideas that will spice up your trail food routine and cause you to look forward to your meals after a long day of hiking.
I have been inspired to write this trail food guide for a while now. A substantial amount of research and testing went into this guide. It contains everything that I wanted to know when I first began to research trail diet.
In this loaded guide to eating on the trail, you’ll find the following topics discussed:
- How much food and water to consume on the trail
- Trail food and drink packing tips
- Shelf-stable foods that can survive in a backpack
- An extensive list of trail breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and dessert ideas
- Best trail beverages – besides water
- Trail food hacks
- Tips for dehydrating your own food
Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking, hopefully, you’ll find this complete guide to eating on the trail beneficial!
A Complete Guide to Eating on the Trail
How Much Food and Water to Consume on the Trail
How much food and water should you consume on the trail? It’s such a common question with a rather complex answer.
Factors like your size and weight, the physical intensity of your hike, how many hours or days you’ll be on the trail, and how many calories you typically burn will help you find your answer.
As a general rule of thumb, 2500-4500 calories per person per day is a good place to start.
If you are thru-hiking or backpacking for 10-20 miles per day up a strenuous mountain, you will need to consume more calories than someone who is hiking a level two miles before arriving at their campsite.
Though I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice, my solution is to see what works best for you. Tweak your diet with trial and error. Set out on a backpacking trip and bring a little more than the amount of food that you think you’ll need. Once you start hiking and backpacking more often in different terrains and climates, you’ll figure out what your body needs.
As you begin the process of trial and error, ask yourself these questions and reassess your food decisions based on your answers:
- Is my energy level decreasing or increasing at all throughout the hike?
- Do I feel tired besides normal physical fatigue?
- Am I experiencing any mood swings or irritability?
If any of these things are happening to you, it may be a sign that you’re not getting enough food or enough of the right foods. Consult a dietian if you need help customizing the right hiking meal plan for you!
Drink about 0.5 liters of water per hour of moderate activity.
If you’re day hiking and not gaining a lot of elevation or traveling a ton of miles, you can potentially get away with drinking less.
If you’re climbing steadily up a mountain, gaining quite a bit of elevation, and hiking from sunrise to sunset, you’ll likely need to consume more.
Trail Food and Drink Packing Tips
Pack Extra Food
If you are backpacking, pack enough food for an extra day. You never know if you’ll get stranded or lost, and you’ll want fuel to keep you going!
If you are day hiking, bring an extra snack or meal.
Bring a Filter to Lessen Your Pack Weight
Carry 0.5 liters of water per hour you plan on hiking.
Bring a water filter and map out where the water sources are on your route so that you can fill up along the way.
By not carrying all of the water you need for your entire hike, you will lessen your pack weight significantly.
Get the Most Calories Per Ounce
Make the most of your pack weight by getting the most calories per ounce.
Try to pack food that is at least 100 calories per ounce.
Some popular options for this ratio are olive oil, nuts, banana chips, cheese tortellini, and Cliff bars.
Organize Your Food in Your Pack
Try to pack all of your food into a bear canister in order of when you’ll eat them so that once you’re at camp, you don’t need to try to unpack and repack everything into the can.
Make the most of the space inside your canister by arranging the food so that no air space is wasted.
Repackage All of Your Food
Repackage all of your food. Get rid of existing packaging and put the food in your own reusable, resealable bags.
This will save you a ton of weight and space and eliminate unnecessary clutter.
Have Access to a Hip Belt Snack
Keep a snack handy in your hip belt to eliminate the need to dig through your bag while you’re hiking.
If you don’t have a hip belt in your pack, keep a snack in your pocket or other accessible spot in your pack.
Place Your Bear Canister Against the Core of Your Back
Your bear canister filled with food should be resting against the core of your back.
Never put the canister at the bottom of your bag or the top because you will strain your back or neck.
Common Myths About Backpacking Food
Myth #1: No Product Stored in a Fridge Can Survive Inside a Backpack.
While many foods live in the refrigerator for a reason, some products can actually survive outside those frigid shelves and in the dark confines of your pack.
Myth #2: No Decent Shelf-Stable Backpacking Foods Are Sold at Regular Grocery Stores.
While you can dehydrate your own food and purchase those gourmet products online, many chains and local grocery stores sell products that you can take with you on your trip, allowing you to spend less on food and more on adventures and travel!
Shelf-Stable Foods That Will Survive in a Backpack
Here are some shelf-stable foods (that you can find basically anywhere) that will survive in a backpack!
- Packaged chicken, tuna, and salmon
- Summer sausage
The vegetables that I’m going to list can last anywhere from a day or two to a week without refrigeration.
Of course, weather and storage could alter how long your vegetables last, so take this list with a grain of salt.
I particularly enjoy bringing fresh vegetables when I’m day hiking or just backpacking overnight; that amount of time is the sweet spot for many of these veggies.
If you can, bring dehydrated or dried versions of these! Those are also sold in many stores.
- Sweet potatoes
- Bell peppers
- Snap peas
- Hard cheeses. Cheddar, parmesan, and gouda are great options.
- Powdered milk
- Powdered eggs
- Single-serve pads of butter. These can usually be found at some diners, gas stations, or fast-food restaurants.
- Single-serve creamer. These can typically be found at gas stations or diners.
Extensive Trail Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, and Dessert Ideas
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day…or hike.
While everyone has his own approach and opinion to the first meal of the day, it’s a proven fact that hikers need sustenance and energy to begin their hike. Food fuels us and keeps us going throughout the day which is why it’s important to give our body the nutrition it needs.
Here are some ideas for trail breakfast, ranging from sugary and caloric to carb-conscious and low-sugar.
- Breakfast or protein bars
- Instant oatmeal with dried fruit or nuts
- Cereal with powdered milk
- Bagel with cream cheese or butter
- Granola with freeze-dried strawberries and powdered milk
- Scrambled eggs in a tortilla
- Instant hash browns
- Instant grits with bacon bits and cheese
In my opinion, trail lunches are best when they’re simple and quick.
Most hikers are still on the trail at this time of day and they crave an easy meal that doesn’t take a lot of time, preparation, and clean-up.
Only one of these lunch ideas on this list requires a stove; all the others are quick and easy.
- Pizza wraps (tomato sauce packet, hard cheese, and protein inside a tortilla)
- Macaroni and cheese with dehydrated broccoli and bacon bits
- Wraps with tuna, chicken, or salmon
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Pita with hummus and peppers
- Sandwich thins with tuna or salmon
- Salami, cheese, and baguette or crackers
- Summer sausage, cheese, and baguette or crackers
Dinner is the meal all hikers look forward to! Okay, I can’t speak for all hikers, but this common mindset seems to permeate throughout the community.
Dinner is when many hikers will set up their camp chairs, pull out their stoves, and simmer something delicious while they sit back, relax, and relish the remainder of the evening.
Here are some delicious trail dinner options!
Place on a skillet until toasted.
Boil noodles like tortellini or penne.
Add a chunk of a baguette with a pad of butter for a tasty side!
Spicy Chicken Tacos
Fill tortillas with chicken that’s been browned on a skillet with taco seasoning, hard shredded cheese, spicy Spanish rice pouch, instant beans, and hot sauce packets from a fast food restaurant or mini bottles from the grocery store.
Bear Creek has a great variety of dry soups, both full bags and singles, that just need to be simmered.
Add a protein like chicken or, if desired, extra dehydrated vegetables, to the pot.
Dehydrated or Freeze-Dried Meal
Chicken, Green Beans, and Potatoes
Toss some pre-boiled potatoes, rehydrated green beans, and cooked chicken into a skillet.
Season and add rice if desired.
DIY Mix & Match Meal
To shake up your meal routine, assemble a starch like pasta, rice, or couscous, a protein like tuna, salmon, or chicken, and dehydrated or fresh vegetables and spices.
Hikers and backpackers always look forward to snacks on the trail! They’re one of the things that keep us going, keep us energized, and keep us excited until the end of the trail.
- Apple with peanut butter
- Trail mix
- Protein bars
- Nuts like almonds, peanuts, or cashews
- Dried fruit or vegetables
- Hard cheese like parmesan, cheddar, or gouda
- Sesame sticks
- Gummy bears or hard candy
- Dark chocolate
- Peanut butter pretzels
- Rice cakes with peanut butter
- Fresh vegetables like carrots, celery, peppers, and radishes
Desserts might be a luxury to some but they’re a trail essential to me.
Here are some great trail desserts!
- Bar of dark chocolate
- Instant pudding
- Freeze-dried ice cream sandwich
- Pre-packaged trail treats. Try Backpacker’s Pantry’s Dark Chocolate Cheesecake, AlpineAire’s Chocolate Mudslide, or ReadyWise Cookie Dough Snacks for ready-to-go trail treats!
Best Drinks to Take on the Trail
Every hiker and backpacker should prioritize water above all other drinks. If space or weight is an issue, make sure you have room for water first.
Make sure you are drinking the correct amount of water on your hike!
If you have extra room in your pack and you want to splurge on a delicious beverage at camp or on the trail, here are some trail drinks!
- Electrolyte powder to add to water
- Flavored drink packets to add to water
- Splurges like pop or beer
How to Dehydrate Your Own Food
Dehydrating your own backpacking food is a fantastic way to save space and money and control the ingredients that you’re filtering into your body, but it can be difficult to learn.
I’m going to link a couple of great articles about dehydrating your own food, but here are some basic tips!
Select a Good Dehydrator
Choose a dehydrator that meets your needs.
If you want to dehydrate a large amount of food at once, consider purchasing a dehydrator with more surface area.
If you don’t need to dehydrate many things at once, or you’re just wanting to experiment before committing to a major purchase, a small snack-sized dehydrator should suffice.
Only Dehydrate Foods That Do It Well
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, low-fat meats and seafood, herbs, and dairy-free sauces dehydrate well.
Be Aware That Food Shrinks in a Dehydrator
Food shrinks as it loses moisture.
For example, one pound of fresh apples only yields about a cup of dehydrated apple slices.
Cut the Pieces Correctly
Pieces should be thin for even cooking but cutting pieces too small could cause them to shrink to little or nothing.
Trial and error is the best way to achieve this.
Vegetables that you can eat raw don’t need to be cooked before being dehydrated.
If you plan to simply add boiling water to the food instead of boiling your meal for at least a minute, steaming vegetables before drying makes them rehydrate better.
Frozen veggies dehydrate better than canned veggies.
Purchase dried onions instead of dehydrating them. They are inexpensive and dehydrating them will cause your entire house to smell.
Only Dehydrate Lean Meats
Dehydrating a fatter cut can result in a tough or stringy result.
Rehydrate Foods For the Right Amount of Time
Dehydrated meals generally require equal parts water to food and about 15–25 minutes to reconstitute.
Some foods could require one part food and two parts water.
Soaking, simmering, and/or boiling in a bag are common options for rehydrating.
Practice Makes Perfect
It takes a lot of practice to become a pro at dehydrating your own food for backpacking. I am definitely not there yet; I have failed many times on even the most basic fruits and vegetables.
Do your research, practice often, and soon you will be saving a ton of money on backpacking food, freeing precious weight and space in your backpack, and gaining full control over the nutritional content in your food.
Trail Food Hacks
Use Reusable Bags
Ditch the store packaging and bring your own reusable bags.
There will be less weight, less clutter, and less mess.
You can also use these bags for leftovers.
Store Spices in Creative Ways
Store spices in empty Tic-Tac containers or travel-sized shampoo bottles.
Add Crunch to Mushy Foods
Mushy foods can get old really fast on the trail. Make them more exciting and well, edible, by adding a nice crunch.
For example, throw in nuts, seeds, crackers, or jerky to freeze-dried meals, oatmeal, beans, or rice.
Bring Indulgences on Your Hike
It’s so important to bring indulgences on your hike. Bring foods you’ll actually look forward to and eat!
Even if they have a decent amount of weight to them, those foods or drinks might get you through a tough hike. It’s nice to have something to look forward to.
Examples of my favorite indulgences to splurge on are a bag of gummy bears and a can of Diet Coke.
Yours can be anything you enjoy and don’t mind carrying! You’ll be so glad you have it at the end of a long day of hiking.
Don’t Eat the Same Thing Every Day
Don’t eat the same thing every day. Shake up your meal plan with a nice amount of variety.
You’ll get tired of eating the same thing on the trail, and as a result, you might either not eat as much as you should and/or lose your energy to hike and complete the trail.
Water Bottle Side Pocket Hack
The mesh water bottle pockets on the side of your bag make great spots to put a baguette loaf. It won’t get smashed like it would inside your pack!
This blog post was intended to extricate some of the nervousness you might be feeling about backpacking food, so I hope I succeeded.
As with most things, planning and packing for a backpacking trip takes time and research, and as you plan these trips more often, the process will become easier, including all of the food preparation. Soon, the act will be no more difficult than assembling a grocery list.
Once you’re out on the trail, all of your food and gear strapped to your pack, your stress will vaporize. Minimistically exploring the outdoors means living with less clutter taking up precious real estate in your brain, which ultimately leads to less anxiety and the ability to live in the moment. You might forget to pack something or realize that you don’t need a certain piece of gear or meal, but those minor mistakes will shape your next trail experience for the better.