Simplifying Food on a Backpacking Trip

So, you’re planning a backpacking trip. You’ve checked your gear, you’ve packed your backpack, and now… you have to buy food. This mission can feel daunting. How do you plan your meals? What if you don’t bring enough food? How much do you need to eat on the trail? There are a lot of challenging questions to figure out.

There are a lot of factors that will determine what you pack: your intentions for the trip you’re taking, how long you’ll be out on the trail, how much weight you want to carry, what climate you’ll be in, etc. To help simplify the process of determining what to bring, here are some general guidelines and tips:

Make a Schedule & Menu

Write out a schedule listing the distance/hours you plan to hike each day, along with ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I don’t actually stick to this schedule on the trail, but after I’ve written it out, I tally up the totals of what I’ll need to buy for the entire trip (ie 5 packs of ramen, 5 Clif Bars, 1 block of cheddar, etc). Super simple.

Determine Your Nutritional Requirements

Know the recommended nutritional intake for someone your age & BMI at a high activity level. Take note of what you eat on a daily basis. Plan on increasing your fat and protein intake on the trail. Keep in mind that if you are maintaining a high level of activity in cold weather, you may need a much higher caloric intake than you’ve anticipated. Look over your menu plan to make sure you’ll be meeting your daily energy needs.

Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods

Fats, sugars, and proteins! Target foods that provide at least 125 calories/ounce (peanut butter: 165, GORP: 130, dark chocolate: 153, etc). Snack on dried meats, cheeses, chocolate or candy bars, nuts, peanut butter, and energy bars to keep your body fueled throughout the day. 

Hiking in Cold Vs. Hiking in Heat

In the cold, you want to pack in a lot of fat and sugar to give your body the energy it needs to stay warm. If someone begins to become extremely cold, one of the most important things is to replenish their body’s fuel as quickly as possible. Hot cocoa is good for this, and don’t be afraid to throw butter in it. Seriously. I carry Snickers bars and cocoa in my cold-weather emergency kit.

In the heat, you want to make sure you’re getting the right nutrition to replenish your body’s electrolytes. Your body looses sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium through sweat. These nutrients are essential to bodily function, so it’s important to replenish them after working up a sweat. What foods will do the trick? Peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, cheese, tomatoes, and more!

Hiking in the cold? Be prepared to consume more calories than you might expect.
Hiking in the cold? Be prepared to consume more calories than you might expect.

Bring More Than You Think You Need

No, you don’t want to carry unnecessary weight, but if you are completely new to backpacking, err on the side of bringing too much food. It’s better than finding yourself hungry. You may be surprised by how much you need to eat, plus it’s good to be prepared for the chance that you may need to spend an extra day or two on the trail–  reasons could include bad weather, exhaustion, or injury.

Be prepared to get creative. Food options can be pretty limited. Pictured is the small supermarket in the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams, Chile.
Be prepared to get creative: food options can be pretty limited. Pictured is the small supermarket in the southernmost town in the world: Puerto Williams, Chile.

Make Your Own Energy Bars

I like to make my own energy bars for the trail. If you’re backpacking abroad, you may not be able to find energy bars. Making your own can save money, plus you control the quality of the ingredients. I’ve used a variety of ingredients, depending on what I find in local supermarkets. You’ll need:

  • Something to make it all stick together, like peanut butter, dulce de leche, or honey.
  • A base, such as quick oats, coconut flour, or protein powder.
  • High-calorie, energy-dense additions, like almonds, walnuts, peanuts, chocolate chips, and dates. Dried fruits, seeds, or shredded coconut are also tasty.
  • Mix everything together until you have a pretty solid consistency. Press the mixture into a pan. If the mix is wet, bake it on low heat until it sets. If it’s pretty solid and you’ll be hiking in chillier temps, refrigeration will be sufficient to set the mixture. Cut them into bars and wrap em up! Alternatively, roll the mixture into balls and make energy bites.
  • Just have fun with it! I’ve made some pretty tasty creations in the past. Want more inspiration and instruction? Check out these Energy Bars over on No Meat Athlete.
Fueled by ramen!
Fueled by ramen!

Instant Foods Are Your Friends

You can find a lot of fancy camping meal recipes on the internet, but they’re not always practical. Sometimes it’s fun to have eggs and pancakes for breakfast on the trail, but it’s OK to keep it simple. I don’t get very fancy on the trail– I eat a lot of Ramen. To mix things up, bring different spice options; you can make Ramen with parmesan and garlic powder or tomato basil sauce. Instant potatoes and polenta cook quickly and fill you up fast. Basically, this is an appropriate time in life to consume anything that says “just add water.”

What you ultimately decide to eat will also depend on how much time you want to spend preparing ahead of time vs. on the trail; what time of day you need a big meal; and how much weight/space you’ve allocated for food. The most important thing is to make sure you have adequate calories and nutrients available to maintain the energy you need to have a healthy, happy hike!

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2 thoughts on “Simplifying Food on a Backpacking Trip

  1. Funny that you should post this just now, Sarah. I’m in the middle of packing all of my food for 15 resupplies on the PCT! About 75 days worth of food all at once!

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