Extended time in the backcountry often equates to a dry diet. Learning how to cook well in the wilderness is an art that doesn't come quickly but can enhance your overall outdoor experience. We are here to offer decades of insight and experience with how and what to choose for your upcoming backpacking trip.
After a big year of backpacking, we've updated our top on-the-go grub ideas. Also, for more involved and gourmet cooking ideas, see our Camping Food Recommendations
Integrated canister cook systems, such as the Jetboil Flash or the MSR Reactor, are common in the backcountry and front country. With an integrated canister stove, most menu items require only hot water; the design does not offer much beyond boiling but maintains an overall lightweight approach to backpacking. They are compact, efficient, and light, but the versatility of a liquid fuel stove or small canister stove is unparalleled. With a liquid fuel stove, such as the MSR Dragonfly or a small canister stove, such as the Soto Windmaster OD-1RX, you can eat just as you would at home, so long as you don't mind carrying a kitchen worth of ingredients. From boiling water to baking to sautéing, a liquid fuel stove or small canister stove widens the world of backcountry food preparation. With either cook system, keeping your meals to a single pot or two will ease the preparation, cleaning, and overall enjoyment of nourishing your body and soul in the wilderness. See our side-by-side comparisons of the top backpacking stoves in The Best Backpacking Stove Review and also How to Choose the Best Backpacking Stove.
How much food should you pack?
We like to consider three things when meal planning for the backcountry: duration of our trip, the characteristics of our trip including location, and the time of year. These three considerations determine how much food is needed to pack, what types of food, and how we need to prep and store the food. During summer months, 1-1.5 pounds per person per day is a good guideline. In the winter, increase that by ½ to a full pound per person per day; high calorie and fatty foods such as cheese, potatoes, and bacon are good options for keeping warm and energized. These guidelines will vary by individual as well as preferences for variety and backpacking style. Be sure to pack enough food to satisfy your calorie-burning adventure but not too much that you become weighed down. Having a little bit of extra food is preferred over potentially running out of food which could lead to much more significant concerns.
Balancing your wilderness diet can help to maintain energy levels, maintain or improve morale, regulate your digestive system, and even keep you warm in cold weather. Balance consists of dry foods such as dehydrated soups and pasta, fresh vegetables and fruits (when possible), dried vegetables and fruits, cheese and meats such as jerky or sausage. Electrolyte tablets or packets, such as Nuun Active Hydration, are good for keeping yourself hydrated.
To save weight, add in as many energy-dense foods as possible. Some examples are oils, butter, nuts, and chocolate. This handy chart shows energy density in calories per 100 grams. A good shortcut: bring a bottle of olive oil and sprinkle it liberally on whatever foods will take it (soups, most dehydrated entrees, quesadillas, etc). Butter also works but is harder to transport and apply.
Our Favorite Backpacking Recipes and Ideas
Below are our favorite trail foods for any time of day. As backpackers, we consider our weight and are mindful of our food choices, but we do not personally follow strict lightweight guidelines. This is reflected in our decision to carry cheese and fresh produce when possible and not only to bring dehydrated, just-add-water meals. While we can't consider all the menu options to be lightweight, they are delicious and are foods that we enjoy on and off the trail. If you prefer dehydrated, pre-packaged meals, try Backpackers Pantry or Mountain House.Morning:
On the move, high mileage days: Granola bar, protein bar, energy bar, Nature's Bakery Fig Bars, Honey Stinger.
Best Cooking System: noneOatmeal, grits, Farina (Cream of Wheat), minute rice, or quinoa- Cook grains in boiling water. Add butter (condiment packets are great), dried fruit such as blueberries or strawberries, fresh apples, nut butters, and/or powdered milk. Adding cinnamon is delightful!
Best Cooking System: integrated canister stove, small canister stove, or liquid fuel stove
Tip: If you prefer oatmeal, skip buying the flavored packets and measure out a portion for each day into one Ziploc bag- this minimizes trash and allows you to add sugar, spices, and berries. Each morning, just pour out a single portion.
Rest Day or on days with short objectives: Potatoes with veggies, bacon, cheese, and optional dehydrated egg: The potatoes can be fresh, dehydrated, or even frozen hash browns; in the winter, you can get away with safely carrying frozen foods for a day or two. Add onions, green onion, zucchini squash, bell peppers, or frozen corn. Add cheese or egg once vegetables are cooked.
Best Cooking System: liquid fuel stove or small canister stove
Tip: when planning trips in cold climates and during winter months, pre-chop all vegetables before leaving home. Frozen onion can be very difficult to manage in the mountains. Bacon is also best when pre-cooked at home; The fat and salt content will preserve the bacon for a few days in the field.
Noon: On-trail snacks and meals should be stress-free so that you can put your energy into hiking and taking in the landscape. In the morning, pack your backpack accordingly so your on-trail foods are easily accessible. Our recommendations require no cooking so you can keep your stove packed away until dinner.Prepare at home (or no preparation necessary):
Bars, dried fruit, jerky: we recommend finding your favorites before heading out on the trail; It is best to experiment at home rather than in the backcountry.
Homemade trail mix: Also known as GORP (Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts), trail mix is one of the best on trail snacks and offers a lot of nutrition per handful. Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds are some of the highest calorie nuts and seeds. Add raisins, dried cranberries, or your favorite dried fruit. Chocolate is a fantastic addition to your trail mix; we like dark chocolate chips because they don't melt as quickly as milk chocolate pieces.Morning preparation or easy on trail preparation:
Our go to is cheese and salami on a calorie dense bread or bagel (use a little olive oil or butter for extra energy density). Tortillas are versatile. You can wrap your breakfast, smear them in nut butter, and serve alongside pasta at night. For enjoying during the day, we like to pre-make bean and cheese burritos or nut butter wraps. Cheddar cheese or string cheese are great options- cheddar is a fatty cheese and individually-wrapped mozzarella string cheeses are convenient. These two types of cheese may last 3+ days in your pack, unless you are traveling in mid-summer high heat temperatures. For nut butter wraps, add sliced apple or dried fruit.
Vegetables: Carrots and bell pepper are trail-worthy vegetables to enjoy on their own, wrapped in a tortilla, or tossed into soup. There is minimal potential for them to get crushed in your pack and they remain fresh for days.Night:
Long day: For high mileage days, simple dinners are great. We enjoy add-water soup with additional vegetables (fresh, dried, or dehydrated) and spices such as garlic powder, cayenne, or Italian herbs. Try Sierra Soups with vegan, gluten-free, all natural ingredients.
Best Cooking System: Integrated canister stove
Noodles: Remember in high school when your coach advised a pasta dinner before race day? For the same reasons, a noodle based dinner is great for adding calories to your tired body. Sauce them, spice them, melt cheese over them, or add peanut butter and vegetables with hot sauce for a Thai inspired dinner. The possibilities are endless.
Best Cooking System: small canister stove or liquid fuel stoveBackcountry extravagance: Pizza in the backcountry is quite a treat. Pack a bag of pre-measured flour; for the average sized backpacking pot, measure 1 cup of flour per pizza with a generous pinch of yeast stored in a separate container. At camp, mix flour and yeast with water until dough like. Grease the pan with olive oil or other preferable oil. Spread the dough into the bottom of the pan and top with sauce (foil packets of pasta sauce are convenient), vegetables, and cheese- string cheese or Parmesan are great options. Cover the pan with a lid.
Set up your stove with a large rock on the outside edge; the rock should create a level surface with the stove. Place the pizza pan on the stove with only a third of the pan receiving direct heat and the other portion of the pan balancing on the rock. Continuously rotate the pan- this is called the 'Around the clock' method. Depending on the dough thickness and amount of toppings, fresh 'baked' pizza takes anywhere from 15-45 minutes. By evenly distributing the heat with this method, you are able to mimic a baking oven.
Best Cooking System: liquid fuel stoveBrownies: Using a pre-packaged brownie mix or prepping dry brownie mix at home, combine with vegetable oil (in place of egg) or applesauce packets (doubles as a mid-day snack) and water. Use the 'Around the clock' method as instructed above.
Best Cooking System: liquid fuel stove
Tip: Add dried berries or caramels for decadence.
For more information on backpacking, check out The Best Backpacking Backpack Review for men or The Best Women's Backpacking Backpack Review, and the Dream Backpacking Gear List for the highest rated tents, water filtration systems, cooking pots, and more!
If you have more space in your pack or you're car camping, check out the Best Camping Food article for more tips and tricks!