How to Plan Food for a Backpacking Trip

By Michael Lanza

You’re planning food for a backpacking trip—maybe for yourself or perhaps for your family or a small group of friends—and you have questions about how to do it. How much food do you need? What food should you bring? How complicated or simple do you want to make it? How do your food choices affect how much fuel you will need—or do you even need a stove? Drawing on decades of backpacking experience, this article will lay out some general guidelines and detailed advice that will help you plan food for all your backpacking trips.

Over the course of more than three decades and thousands of miles of backpacking all over the United States and around the world, I have eaten thousands of meals in the backcountry—and greatly refined my food planning over time, drawing from my experience as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog.


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A backpacker at a camp in the Ten Lakes Basin, Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm eating dinner at a camp in the Ten Lakes Basin, Yosemite National Park.

I’ll offer this caveat in advance: I’m not someone who feels a great desire to eat “gourmet” style in the backcountry. I certainly want food that tastes good and is satisfying. If you’re not hiking far, it’s easier to carry a little more and spend time preparing special meals. I tend to hike all day, sometimes very long days, so I don’t want to spend much time in food preparation in camp.

That said, I do spend adequate time planning my food for a trip, but that’s mostly so that I’m packing the right amount of food that I like.

I’d love to read what you think of my tips or any tricks of your own that help you plan food for your backpacking trips. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click any photo to read about that trip.

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Watching the sunset from a campsite in the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Watching the sunset from a campsite in the North Fork Cascade Canyon on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.

1. Keep It Simple

This comes down to personal preference and mine places a high priority on efficiency and minimal time and effort. I prefer hiking, taking a dip, or simply lounging in camp with my companions over cooking.

My priorities when planning food for backpacking are:

1. Replace calories burned during the day, as much as possible, understanding that you can’t always accomplish that after hiking all day. But on a typical backpacking trip of a week or less, you’re not likely to run into a big energy or caloric deficit.
2. Keep it simple, not time consuming in the backcountry. Hot meals that require only boiling water—not any cooking time in the pot—have the advantage of eliminating a cleanup task and consuming less fuel, enabling you to reduce fuel weight.
3. Minimize pack weight, recognizing that food weight is a significant portion of my total pack weight but also that food weight drops every day. Eat your heaviest food and meals early in a trip and save the lightest for later in a trip because you will carry those meals farther.

 

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2. Plan Exactly What You’ll Eat

I know it’s heresy among many backpackers to caution against carrying too much food, and it’s fine to carry a little extra, especially on long, remote trips when there’s some uncertainty about when you’ll finish. But I always plan specifically what I’ll eat every day and weigh my food; otherwise, I’m guaranteed to carry much more than I’ll eat.

In over three decades of backpacking, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve run out of food before the end of a trip, and it has never been a disaster. Far more times, I’ve carried at least a couple pounds of food throughout a trip without ever touching it, and a few pounds of superfluous weight represent the equivalent of carrying two extra sleeping bags or three or four rain shells.

One backpacker's personal food organized for a four-day backpacking trip, weighing eight pounds.
My personal food organized for a four-day backpacking trip, weighing eight pounds.

In reality, on most backpacking trips, you’re rarely out longer than expected, and if you run low on food, you’re probably only going a little hungry for the last day because you can usually get to a road within a day. I generally end a backpacking trip with very little food left

3. Weigh Your Food

I always put my food for a trip on a scale when packing and adhere to a widely accepted guideline of two pounds of food per person per day when backpacking (even when I’m hiking 20 miles or more per day).

The food in this photo was for a four-day hike I took in Yosemite National Park, on good trails in summer-like, late-September weather, with a competent and experienced friend and high confidence that we would finish the hike on schedule.

For most trips of five days or less, I do not see my appetite increase. On longer and physically harder trips, where my appetite often increases, I carry a slight surplus over two pounds per day.

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Backpackers cooking in the backcountry of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.
Jeff and Jasmine Wilhelm ready for hot nourishment in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

4. What I Pack for Food

To keep it simple and give myself a high ratio of calories per ounce of food, I consistently eat:

1. A substantial breakfast of instant oatmeal (three packets because oatmeal has a high ratio of calories per ounce), dried fruit like raisins and mangoes, a tasty bar of some kind, and tea. I used to have a bagel instead of a bar with breakfast, but moved away from them because they’re bulky and get dry and stale too quickly.

2. A lunch of cheese, deli meat that will keep, sardines, or peanut butter on a pita or some similar balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

My daughter, Alex, tending the stove at Hell Roaring Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
My daughter, Alex, tending the stove at Hell Roaring Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

3. Snack during the day on energy bars, dried fruit, candy bars, GORP, nuts, chocolate-covered almonds, etc.

4. A hot dinner that’s simple but filling and gives me what my body usually craves, which is salt, fat, and fluids. I often begin with a cup or bowl of instant soup, which is surprisingly satisfying because it immediately puts fluid and sodium into my body. While I swore off freeze-dried or dehydrated meals for years, I’ve found they have improved in flavor in recent years and they’re certainly easy, with no cleanup involved; I increasingly pack one or two and plan them for the final dinners of a trip because they’re light to carry and easy. With my family, we often cook pasta (like thin spaghetti, which cooks fast to use less fuel), rice, or couscous, and add protein (chicken or fish that’s vacuum-packed or smoked salmon), or mac ‘n’ cheese.

5. I also like having a hot drink and chocolate or a big cookie for dessert, for the added calories and to rehydrate.

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A backpacker on the John Muir Trail above Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Todd Arndt backpacking the John Muir Trail above Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

5. Consider Backpacking Without a Stove

I occasionally backpack without a stove to save weight when I’m hiking farther, eating only dried fruit, nuts, cheese, peanut butter on a pita, and the like, and have consistently found that very satisfying. I plan no-cook meals and food primarily when trying to hike as light as possible in mild summer temperatures, as I did when thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.

Backpacking without a stove demands that you bring enough calories and incorporate variety into your meals, mixing it up between sweet and salty. It’s also easier to do in mild summer temperatures, whereas many backpackers feel a greater desire for hot food and drinks in cool to cold temps.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

Tell me what you think.

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8 thoughts on “How to Plan Food for a Backpacking Trip”

  1. Another helpful post, thank you! Another subject I’d love to see a post on sometime is how to deal with cleaning dishes in the backcountry. It’s not an issue if we bring a freeze-dried meal, but I’ve never really been able to dial how to clean a cooking pot or an oatmeal bowl (filtered water? How much? Soap?) while trying to Leave No Trace. You must have that really nailed down by now- would love to see your process! I’m really trying to do the best job I can at leaving no impact when I go out there.

    Reply
    • Good question, Liz, thanks. I’ll give at least a short answer here. Carry a small sponge and biodegradable soap if you’re preparing food that leaves a pot in need of cleaning. Boil water in the pot first, let it cool enough to not burn yourself, then clean the pot and scatter the brown water at least 100 feet from any water source and your camp. You can rinse it with unfiltered water and the next time you boil water you’ll sterilize the pot again. I also find it easier to just eat food that requires only boiling water, so that the pot never needs cleaning, only bowls or mugs need cleaning. Some foods, like rice and/or beans, are easy to clean from the pot afterward, and I’ll add a protein like smoked salmon to the rice in my bowl. I prefer simplicity with backcountry meals.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      Reply
  2. 2 lbs a day guideline is helpful. 2 of us did a 2-overnight in the High Uintas this July, and we selected some Indian-themed Freeze dried meals, sort of recommended (at least not discouraged) at the outdoors store in Moab. Turns out my friend could not stand the spiciness. Soooooo, next time we will either stick to the basics or test drive our freeze dried in advance.

    Reply