Any time you spend more than a weekend in the backcountry, carrying enough food is an important consideration. You can always supplement your packed meals by catching native fish or picking wild berries, but you definitely shouldn’t count on these sources of food to survive. What should you pack for a week-long or longer trek? Below, we will go over the basics of planning your backcountry meals for an extended stay backpacking trip.
The Building Blocks Of Life
Food and water are essential for human survival. Most humans can’t live longer than three days without water. Hiking rough terrain with a heavy backpack requires constant water consumption. Depending on activity and body mass, humans can live as long as two weeks without food. But surviving more than a day or two without food limits your ability to find more or get to safety. Since you won’t be able to carry a weeks worth of water on your back, you will need to purify water along the way. This is easy enough to do with a filter (MSR Sweetwater, Katadyn Vario) or by boiling the water, as long as you are hiking near a water source.
Food is a different story. Unless you are Bear Grylls, foraging for food on the trail won’t be an option. You will need to plan on bringing all the food you will need along, and that means packing it all in your bag.
What You Need
The typical caloric intake for an average adult per day is 2000. This will more or less result in no net gain or loss of weight, under regular day to day activity. Backpacking on even flat terrain can be a strenuous physical exercise, let alone on rugged mountain terrain. You should plan on consuming somewhere between 2500 and 3000 calories per day or more, including at least 30-50 grams of protein. This will sustain your frame during the trip and will keep you fueled for the oncoming miles.
Portability Vs Palatability
The argument of portability versus palatability has raged on for decades among the backpacking community. A hot meal after a long hike can seem very refreshing for many hikers, yet a hot meal means you will probably need to pack a camp stove, pot, and hot meal ingredients, which will add extra ounces to your pack. Ultralight minimalist backpackers go to the other extreme of eating trail mix for three meals a day. A healthy balance is necessary here, because some hikers lose their appetite during hot days or at higher altitudes. A hot meal might not seem appealing on those days, and a more light meal might suffice. On the other hand, a hot meal on a cold or wet day might be the morale boost that you need, where cheese and crackers might come up short.
A food item might also be super portable and palatable, yet it just doesn’t work on the trail. For example, peanut butter is a high protein, high energy food that is light and easy to transport. But try to find a good way to get the peanut butter out of whatever you have transported it in. It just makes a mess. If you’re a peanut butter lover, it might be worth the hassle. If not, the dispensability is a nightmare.
Hot Meal Options
Most of us are familiar with MREs. These military rations are packed with calories, and can be supplemented with small snacks throughout the day. Most MREs can be coupled with a one-time-use MRE heater, so you won’t need a stove or other cooking supplies. There are many different entre options available, and plenty of sides to go along. A full MRE meal can have as much as 1500 calories by itself. These are easy to prepare, and loaded with nutrients to keep you going.
MREs are bulky and heavy. You don’t need any water to cook them, which is a plus. However, that means you are carrying extra water weight within these packs. If you have tried an MRE, you might not have been impressed with the flavor. A lot of hikers are particular about what they eat, and MREs usually don’t make the cut based on flavor alone. But if you are looking for an easy hot meal, these are great options.
Mountain House used to own the freeze dried meal market. Now there are a lot of companies offering these type of backpacking rations. Freeze dried meals come in sealed mylar pouches (for a decent shelf life), and there is probably a wider variety of meal options than MREs. The nice thing about these hot meals is that they are dried – meaning there is no extra water weight inside the pouch. They are easy to prepare, and taste much better than MREs.
You will need to boil water to add to the pouch (so what you gain in not having to carry the water weight, you lose in the extra weight of a stove, fuel, and a pot), and the food takes time to reconstitute. These are also great options for hot meals on the trail.
Other Hot Meal Options
MREs and freeze dried meals might be the most convenient hot meals available, but can be a little pricey. If you get creative, you can easily create your own trail meals out of ingredients from your pantry. Here are a couple of ideas:
- Cup of Noodles
- Pasta And meat Sauce
- Instant Oatmeal
- Instant Soups
- Instant mashed potatoes
- Tuna Helper
- Spam, Tuna, Salami, Salmon
These meal ideas are easy to prepare, and you can create your own portions with ziplock bags.
Cold Meal Options
A lot of backpackers will plan at least one hot meal per day, and this is usually dinner (extra prep time). Breakfast could also easily incorporate a small hot meal (oatmeal with hot chocolate or coffee/tea), but is a good time to go with a quick and easy cold meal. This is where some creativity comes in.
- Cliff bars
- Granola bars
- Trail mix (home made or store bought)
- Cheese and Crackers
- Dried Fruit
- Crackers (animal crackers, Ritz, Triscuit, etc)
The key here is to have a variety of snacks to eat. If you only plan on having one hot meal per day, the rest of the day will be cold foods. The better the variety, the more likely you will keep up with your caloric needs. Taste fatigue can occur if all you eat throughout the day is trail mix. Candy bars are a nice break, but melt easily.
Many backpackers get tired of the taste of water on long trips. Having some flavoring powder to liven up your water will do wonders for your morale. GatorAide and PowerAid both make electrolyte replenishing, water flavoring powders. Crystal Light pouches are a sugar free option. The small single serving packets are very light, and easy to add to bottles and hydration bladders.
Pack some instant hot chocolate, cider, tea or coffee for morning/evening sipping pleasure. These packets weigh next to nothing as well, and will help warm you up when it’s cold outside.
Packing It All Up
Because your food will take up a good portion of your backpack’s internal space on an extended backpacking trip, it is important to save as much space as possible. Remove unnecessary packaging from foods. For example, take crackers out of their boxes and pack them in single serving Ziploc bags. Remove MREs from their bulky packaging.
Organize your large meals together inside their own Ziploc bag. Label them accordingly. If you are planning group meals, besides organizing your pack, this will also make it easy to pull all the necessary ingredients together for the meal.
Remember to keep snacks within reaching distance. You don’t want to have to take your pack off to dig out some trail mix. Most backpacks have waste belt pockets, which work out perfectly for holding hiking snacks. Another reminder: if you are hiking in bear country, follow all the essential bear country food packing and hanging tips. This will prevent a potentially dangerous encounter. Below, you can click on the image to purchase the Backpacker’s Cache.
Just In Case
Preparing backpacking meals can be one of the most time-consuming planning steps of trip planning. Make sure that you go over the daily menu to see that you are getting enough calories and nutrients to keep you going. It is also a good idea to pack a few days extra meals or food, just in case you get stuck in the backcountry longer than expected. Here are some menu ideas, calorie counts, and pictures to help you get started. Happy camping!