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 stove 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—including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—I have eaten countless meals in the backcountry and greatly refined my food planning over time.


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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.

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

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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” 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 “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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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
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