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The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning for a Backpacking Trip

Somone cooking at their campsite using their hiking cookware, stove and a fuel tank.
Anusorn Thongpasan/ Shutterstock.com

Hiking in the backcountry takes a lot of planning and loads of self-discipline when it comes to packing. Though every packing component of your trip takes careful consideration, preparing nourishing meals is one thing you’ll want to get right.

If you are someone who loves hiking but would like to lengthen your journey and camp out at night, then you’ll love getting into the sport of backpacking. There’s a lot to know before embarking on a long multi-day hike, though, and being prepared is vital.

Running out of food is a scary thought, but having an overload of extra weight isn’t exactly fun either. Here’s how to plan meals for your multi-day hike, a list of gear needed to cook outdoors, and some of our favorite meal ideas to get you started.

How Much Food Should I Pack for My Backpacking Trip?

A hiker sitting down taking a break while enjoying a granola bar.
Maridav/ Shutterstock.com

The amount of food you’ll need varies and is dependent on several things. Each of the factors below will give you a little more insight before planning.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself before considering how much food to take in on the trail:

  • What is the total length (in miles) of my hike?: An 18-mile hike with one night of camping won’t require nearly as much planning and packing as a 70-mile backpacking trip over five or six days.
  • How many miles are you planning to hike each day? Some days are shorter than others, depending on where you plan to camp out. Make sure to pack extra food for those longer days.
  • What is the intensity level of your hike? An eight-mile day with various inclines and maybe a peak or two is different from a twelve-mile day on flat terrain. More challenging days take more energy and will require extra calories for optimal strength.
  • What season are you hiking? Overwhelmingly hot days and frigid days take extra energy, so seasonality makes a difference, too.

Some hikers use formulas that help determine how many calories they’ll need throughout their trip based on length, intensity level, and all other factors we’ve listed.

Once you’ve determined calories per day, you’ll want to start thinking about meal and snack ideas. If you have no idea where to start, we have plenty of recommendations below.

What Types of Food Should I Take Hiking?

Two images from seperate backpacking trips, cooking with out GSI cookware, and MSR stove and fuel canisters and enjoying lunch along the trail.
Emilee Unterkoefler

When considering which foods to take in, many factors need special attention. High-calorie foods with optimal nutrition are essential, but you also want foods that don’t weigh a lot or take up much space.

We’ve gone on multi-day hikes where we had an overabundance of food (aka unnecessary weight) and backpacking trips where we didn’t have quite enough. Both situations aren’t ideal, but I’d rather have extra weight than not enough food.

You’ll pack foods that require cooking and some that don’t. We’ve found that having quick on-the-go breakfasts and lunches is favorable to save on time, but additional meals that need cooking are good to have as a backup.

Having one big cooked meal is excellent at night to refuel while enjoying your time under the stars.

And while it’s fair to say anything tastes good while you are out in the wilderness, trust me when I say variety makes all the difference.

An Example of One Day’s Worth of Food

A hiker getting ready to enjoy a hot freeze dried meal while on a backpacking trip.
Ga_Na/ Shutterstock.com

Below is an example of one day’s worth of food I’d take on an 8-10 mile hike. For perspective, I’m a 150ish-pound female.

Keep in mind that my weight, need for calories per day, and other factors are likely different from what you’d be working with.

Here are examples of actual meals I’ve brought in the past:

Breakfast

I’ll typically take in a protein bar or two oatmeal packets with a packet of peanut butter for breakfast. Anything quick is excellent, especially when you have a big day ahead of you.

Morning Snack

You’ll want a solid morning snack that you can whip out and eat while you hike or something to munch on if you plan to sit for a bit of break.

Lunch

We usually sit and break for at least 30 minutes mid-day to take in lunch and rest our legs for a bit. Bagel thins are nice because they don’t take up much room, but they are filling, especially when stuffed with a quick tuna salad.

Afternoon Snack

Having one or two mid-day snacks means extra calories, which is essential. Granola bars and protein bars are excellent options. Trail mix and jerky are also popular options.

Dinner

We always have a hot meal planned for dinner. Pasta sides are our favorite because they weigh less than rice, are loaded with flavor, and have many options to choose from. Add in a packet of tuna, salmon, or spam, and you have a gourmet trail meal ahead of you. Don’t forget to pack a sweet dessert, too

The example above is about 2,480 calories for the day, and typically more than enough for me, especially if I am pounding water all day.

A Few Meal Planning Tips

Various gear laid out on the bed before a seven day backpacking trip on the Appalachian trail.
Emilee Unterkoefler

Now you know more about how many calories to take in per day you’ll need to get to work.

Check out our meal planning tips:

  • Plan your hike: Before setting out on the trail, you must look at your map and plan your trip out by day. That way, you know what terrain you have ahead of you and how many miles you plan to hike each day. This will also help plan your meals accordingly.
  • Make a chart: Take out a sheet of paper and sketch out a rough plan with food ideas, then make a list and go shopping.
  • Portion your snacks: Buy your snacks in bulk and re-bag them into snack-size portions: It’s cheaper, saves on space, and you can account for calories that way.
  • Lay all of your food out: Once you’ve purchased your food, be sure to lay it out over your bed or on the floor. Take a look at everything and begin organizing by day and meal.
  • Leave no trace: Take out what you brought in. Leave no trace means picking up trash and throwing it out at the end of your trip, so bring large Ziplock bags for waste.

Cooking Gear You’ll Need

Two side by side image displaying the MSR ultralight camping stove and a hiker igniting it and cooking with it.
MSR

Aside from all the other backpacking gear needed, we’ve provided a list of cooking gear necessary for the trail too.

  • Camping Stove: A camping stove is a tool that attaches to a fuel canister and uses three (sometimes four) compactable prongs to hold up a small cooking pot. The MSR ultralight stove will last you years and offers a built-in igniter, convenient when you can’t find a lighter or match.
  • Fuel tanks: If you plan to purchase the MSR stove, this compatible fuel tank is necessary, too. This 8oz canister will last you a few days, especially if you only cook one meal per day, but we always err on the side of caution and bring extra fuel. Grab a 4oz canister as backup is always a solid option.
  • Cook Set: We’ve been using this set for almost ten years, and while we’ve lost a few pieces along the way, the pot and bowls are still going strong. It’s a fantastic set, weighs just over a pound, works efficiently, and packs away nicely. We often remove the bowls, eat out of the pot and store our stove and fuel tank inside to save space.
  • Mug: Coffee is an important one, and you’ll appreciate having a simple, lightweight cup to sip on in the morning. The Coleman coffee mug is inexpensive, durable, and get’s the job done.
  • Biodegradable soap: Taking in camping soap is a must, too, so that you can wash your gear, hands, and body. It’s an all-purpose biodegradable soap, so you know it’s safe on just about everything, even the Earth.

There is no point in buying all of this gear if you don’t know how to use it, so be sure to try out the equipment before your big hike. Try a few meal ideas out, too, to make sure you know you’ll enjoy it outdoors.

Some of Our Favorite Foods to Pack

A hiker sitting down at a table opening up a mountain house meal while his water heats up in his cookware.
Mountain House

Let’s move on to the actual foods we like to pack on a multi-day hike. We’ll even give you some tasty combos we enjoy.

  • Mountain House meals: Mountain House meals are freeze-dried camping meals with a shelf life of 30 years. They are surprisingly delicious as far as freeze-dried food standards go. Not to mention they are loaded with calories which is great when you are burning so many. While the container offers two servings, a hungry adult hiker can easily devour the entire packet.
  • Judee’s powdered eggs: Powdered eggs are also surprisingly delicious to take on the trail when you want a hot breakfast. Toast a bagel over the flame of your stove, then add cooked eggs and call it a breakfast sandwich. Judee’s powdered eggs are popular amongst hikers as they are tasty, lightweight, and additive-free.
  • Pasta sides: Knorr’s pasta sides are our typical go-to meal in the evening and sometimes during lunch when we are in the mood to cook mid-day. Some require milk but adding the same amount in water works just fine. Add tuna, salmon, or spam to any of these for a quick protein addition.
  • Idahoan Mashed Potatoes: If you’ve made instant mashed potatoes before, then you know how easy it is.  For additional flavor, we love adding powdered gravy mix with extra water. Add the powder to hot water, and voila.  From there, add some cooked dried veggies and a protein of choice.
  • Frontier Dried Veggies: Dried veggies taste amazing in boiled water with a few bouillon cubes and noodles, over mashed potatoes, or mixed with your pasta side of choice. Add a handful to every meal and get your veggies in for the day.
  • Tuna and Salmon Packets: Starkist offers various packages of salmon and tuna creations with multiple flavor options. We typically select plain, but for additional flavor, these could jazz up with your meals on the trail.
  • Spam Singles: I have zero shame in saying that I love spam while out on the trail. The mega sodium and savory flavor taste that much better in front of a campfire. The singles make it, so you don’t have to lug heavy cans of mystery meat in your pack.
  • CLIF Bars: Not everyone likes these, but you have to admit, for one single bar, they offer a lot of calories with an optimal blend of carbs, protein, and fat. These are all significant factors in selecting foods fit for the trial.
  • Kind Bars: Kind bars are delicious grain-packed bars using super grains like oats, amaranth, quinoa, and more. The flavor is pretty spot-on, and they offer a nice mid-day boost of energy.
  • Peanut Butter Packets: Eat this right on its own, on day one with a banana or apple, in oatmeal, or over a toasted bagel. They are high in calories and make a fantastic trail snack.
  • Hot Sauce and Other Condiments: Taking in small prepacked condiments always helps. We typically take in butter pats, hot sauce, mayo, and ketchup. However, salt and pepper packets are nice to take in as well.
  • Propel Electrolytes Water Flavorings: These are great for flavoring your water and providing a nice dose of electrolytes to help avoid dehydration while out on the trail. Keep in mind you won’t be able to pack enough water to last you, which is why purifying your water is so important, and having a LifeStraw for backup is crucial, too!
  • Chocolate Bars: Yes, these will melt in the heat, but by the end of the day, they harden up again in preparation for you to devour them as a delicious dessert. Pick your favorite bar and take one as a reward for a hard day’s work.

Remember, hiking for a few hours then going home is very different from spending multiple days (and nights) in the backcountry. Be prepared and if possible, bring a buddy.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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