Meal planning is an essential part of the preparations for a backpacking trip. Since you will be carrying all your possessions on your back, you need to be smart in deciding the kind of backpacking food to bring. Your food choices will significantly depend on your taste preference, nutritional value, the caloric density of each meal, and how easy it is to cook.
With limited space and having to carry a backpack around, keeping the packed food weight down is critical. The aim is to get lightweight, calorically dense foods with high nutritional value that are very easy to prepare. While this is ideal, it is not readily achievable, and you may find out that you have to compromise on one factor. You need to evaluate what is important to you so you can make your decision on which backpacking food to bring.
We have handpicked the best backpacking foods currently on the market so that you can have an easier time shopping for your trip. Read on to see the bonus guide on how to choose the right food for your backpacking trip.
How To Choose A Backpacking Food – Buying Guide
When it comes to food, each of us has their preferences-it’s no different from backpacking food. But unlike the food we eat at home, where we have the luxury of access to fresh produce, space and cooking setups, the best backpacking food has to be lightweight, in a smaller compact package, and with the highest nutritional value possible.
Getting food that checks all these boxes is a challenge, and often you will have to compromise on one or the other. But after reading the following guide, you will be in a position to make a smart decision on which food to go for.
How you prepare a meal (often involves adding water to the mixture or cooking in a pot), and your access to a pot or stove will significantly determine which food to go for. There are 5 options to consider;
- Ready to eat meals – These meals require no cooking and can be eaten straight from the bag. These are perfect if you don’t have access to a stove or pot.
- Pre-cooked meals – These meals can either be fully cooked or only partially cooked. With the fully cooked meals, you can eat them straight out of the bag or add hot water if you prefer to have them warm while the partially cooked meals will only require a few minutes either in a pot or sitting in hot water. You will need a pot and a stove for boiling water to thoroughly cook the partially cooked meals.
- Pouch Meals – These only need to be mixed with water, without cooking. You add boiling water, stir it, and let it sit for 5-15 minutes. Be sure to follow the instructions and add the right amount of water to get the best backpacking food possible. You will need a stove and a stove to heat the water.
- MRE (Meal-ready-to-eat) – These are meals that the military eats while active in the fields. You don’t need a pot/stove for these meals as they usually come with a flameless ration heater that gets activated with water. Once the water heats up, you then insert the meal (still in its package) and wait a few minutes.
- Pot meals – These meals require that you add water and then simmer them in a pot for a while.
This varies from one food to the next, but none of the foods we’ve reviewed above requires more than 20 minutes to prepare. Convenience is essential, especially when you’re exhausted after a long day. As mentioned, pre-cooked meals can be eaten immediately. You don’t need to take the stove out of your backpack or wash any dishes afterward. Pouch and pot meals both require some time, but only a few minutes at most. However, if you’re cooking your meal in a pot, you will need a slightly longer time for the meal to be ready.
Calories Intake and Caloric Density
Backpackers burn a lot of calories on the trail or on the road. On average, hikers usually burn between 3000-4000 calories per day. It’s crucial to pack enough nutrients to give your body the energy it needs. This vital calculation will also depend on your size, weight, age, and activity level.
It’s also important to consider how calorically dense your food choices are to keep your pack weight down. High-fat foods like olive oil, nuts, peanut butter, and dark chocolate tend to have high calorie-per-ounce ratios. On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables tend to have a low calorie-per-ounce ratio, which means that you need to bring a larger amount to reach the calorie count you need. The ideal range is around 120-130 calories-per-ounce total.
Bringing too much food is one of the most common beginner backpacking mistakes. But carrying a bunch of unnecessary weight can quickly dampen spirits on backpacking trips, so a little experience and pre-trip calorie calculation will go a long way.
This is why you need to look for lightweight food with a small volume, which is still packed with enough nutrients and calories. Water is the main culprit for added weight, so dehydrated foods are an obvious choice here.
Many people save space in their lightweight backpack by repacking their meal into a sealable plastic bag. This way, you can compress it better, and you can re-seal the bag if you don’t want to use the whole meal all at once.
Shelf life conveys the amount of time that a meal retains its flavor, nutrition, and edibility. Meals have different shelf lives depending on their preservation method (dehydration, freeze-drying, or pre-cooking).
Unless you are going for a short, one or two day trip where you can afford to bring fresh food, you will need to get meals that have a long shelf life. Each manufacturer guarantees a specific shelf life for their foods, be sure to read the packing date to see how long the food has before it goes bad.
While many manufacturers try to find the right balance between proteins, carbohydrates, and fat in their food products, you must read the ingredients before you purchase them. A product may contain an allergen, which can provoke a reaction. Some lower-quality products contain many preservatives and food stabilizers, which aren’t exactly right for your health. To ensure the food you are bringing along for your trip is safe and healthy, be sure to read the label first.
Furthermore, some backpackers have a specific diet and need food that complies with it. There are many vegans, paleo, gluten-free, and organic options available on the market, and the ingredients in their labels will indicate if they fit your diet.
Most backpacking foods contain a lot of electrolytes too, especially sodium. The reason for this is that hikers and other active backpackers sweat a lot on a hike/trail, and need to replenish the supplies. However, high sodium content can be a problem for some people, and if you are in this category, you should opt for low-sodium alternatives, which many products have. You can find the amount of sodium a product contains on the label.
It makes sense that you bring something you actually like to eat. All the things we discussed so far are important, but you shouldn’t be forced to eat something you hate or something that tastes like cardboard. It doesn’t matter if something ticks all the other boxes (nutrition, caloric density, lightweight) if you can’t stand how they taste. All products in our reviews have been tried out, but it really comes down to you and your preferences.
Q: What Is The Difference Between Dehydrated vs. Freeze-Dried Food?
These represent two different processes of eliminating water from a product. In the dehydration process, a product is exposed to hot, dry air for a short period (usually a few hours). On the other hand, freeze-drying a product means that it's frozen, and then the ice is removed by sublimation, which is a process where solid water (ice) transfers directly into a gas (vapor), skipping the liquid phase in between. It basically leaves us with the same end result – food without water, but there are certain differences.
Freeze-dried food has less water content than dehydrated type, and for this reason, it often has a longer shelf life. However, freeze-dried food can sometimes lose texture in the process. On the other hand, dehydrated food is smaller in volume, and cheaper to make. Both rely on adding water when preparing them. As for taste, it usually depends on individual products.
Q: How Do I Store My Backpacking Food?
It really depends on what you’re bringing and where you’re heading. When hiking deep into the backcountry, you should store your food safely because there is a chance of both large and small animals catching the scent of your food and trying to reach for it. This is the main reason you should avoid sleeping with your meal next to you, because you may be unpleasantly surprised.
If you’re moving through an area populated with bears, you need to think about bear-proofing your food. You can buy a bear canister which they can’t open (these are even mandatory in some areas). An alternative option is getting an Ursack, which is made from a robust non-tear material, and a bear won't be able to open it. You can also hang your food on a tree, placing it in a position where bears can reach it. However, it can be complicated to find the ideal spot. Besides, bears are brilliant and resourceful animals so they can crack the puzzle and get to the content of the hanging bag. You can learn more about storing food backpacking or camping here.
Q: How Much Food Should I Bring?
How much food you bring will significantly be determined by how long your trip is and the activities you are going to be undertaking. A reasonable goal is 1.5 to 2.5 lbs. of food (or 2,500 to 4,500 calories) per person per day depending on your size, weight, and exertion level.
When pondering how much or little to carry, think about your calorie intake, and ration your meals accordingly – you need breakfast, lunch, dinner, and some snacks every day. It's perfectly fine to bring a bit more, but don't overdo it. Don't forget to bring water and other beverages – it's imperative to think about hydration when hiking too.
Q: If I Don’t Have Access To Water And Stove What Should I Do?
Not having access to water or stove limits you in terms of what you can take on your trip. However, you still have plenty of options if you're going to an area where water is scarce. You can pack pre-cooked meals we mentioned above, for example, one of the MREs we featured. There are also several great-tasting meal bars available. Even though you won't be using water for cooking, consider taking a water filter with you, it's more than useful.
Globo Surf Overview
Bringing the right type and amount of food is one of the most important things to think about when you plan a backpacking trip. As we’ve illustrated, many factors need to be considered when choosing the right food – the nutritional value, calories, diet, preparation, volume, and weight. We’ve selected some of the best backpacking food, in our opinion, which can give you the right balance, but still have a great taste you will appreciate. Be free to try it out; we’re sure you won’t be disappointed!
More Backpacking/Hiking Reviews:
- Hiking Pants
- Hiking Socks
- Mirrorless Camera
- Backpacking Sleeping Bag
- G Shock Watch
- Trekking Poles
- Tactical Boots
- Backpacking Stove
- Backpacking Sleeping Pad
Have you tried some of the foods that made it onto our list? Was it easy to pack and prepare? Was it tasty? Please share your experience with us in the comment section below.