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Meal Planning: How to Plan and Prepare Food for Backpacking

Meal planning is an essential part of preparation for any backpacking trip. There are many ways you can plan and prepare your backcountry food. In this article, we’ll talk about how we approach meal planning. We’ve also included a sample meal plan for a 3-day backpacking trip.

Diet Apples

First of all, how much food do you need to bring?

You will burn, and therefore consume, more calories than you are used to when backpacking. The exact number of calories depends on a number of variables including the time of year and conditions of your trip, how strenuous your route may be, how far you plan to hike every day, the weight of your pack, and the individual person. For most people, somewhere between 2,500 and 4,500 calories per day will work. This amounts to somewhere around 2lbs of food per person, per day. Always bring more, rather than less food. Remember that one of the Ten Essentials is an extra day’s supply of food, so you should come back with some extra nutrition in your pack.

What types of food should you bring?

As with any item you bring backpacking, you will want to consider your food’s pack weight. A common way to do this is to understand the caloric density (calories-to-ounce ratio) of different types of foods. Obviously, refrigeration is out of the question so you must limit your food selection (with some exceptions) to nonperishable items.

Canned foods may have a high caloric density but are usually too heavy due to their metal containers and the need to bring a can opener. Also, remember you have to pack out whatever you pack in, and opened cans are messy. However, some backpackers choose to bring canned tuna and meats to add protein and flavor to other food items on short trips.

Fruit & Vegetable Market

Fresh fruits may be good for a treat on the first day or two of a hike, but they do not offer a high caloric density and therefore we usually avoid them. You also need to consider how you will prepare the food you bring. Most hot meals for backpackers include adding boiling water to dehydrated or dry foods.

Raspberry Granola Bar

Finally, you will need to bring foods that are easy to eat on the trail. Trail mix, candy bars, protein bars, and energy snacks are all great options to keep your energy up on the hike. Keep these items easily accessible in your pack.

How to plan your meals.

We usually organize our meals by day; Breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and evening snack. In addition, we’ll throw in a lot of candy bars to keep our energy levels high.


Sample Meal Plan

Day 1

Breakfast – Instant oatmeal (2 packs per person), coffee

Morning Snack – Trail mix and candy bars

Lunch – Freeze-dried meal from Backpacker Pantry

Afternoon Snack – Cliff bars, candy bars

Dinner – Pasta

Evening Snack – Candy bar

Day 2

Breakfast – Dehydrated eggs and tortillas, coffee

Morning Snack – Cliff bars, candy bars

Lunch – Ramen Noodles

Afternoon Snack – Jerky, trail mix

Dinner – Freeze-dried meal from Backpacker Pantry with tortillas

Evening snack – Candy bar

Day 3

Breakfast – Granola, coffee

Morning Snack – Candy bars, trail mix

Lunch – Jerky, dried fruit, fig bars (eat throughout day rather than stopping for lunch)

Afternoon Snack – Candy bars

Dinner – Freeze-dried meal from Backpacker Pantry

Evening Snack – Candy bars

Extra Day’s Supply of Food

1 Freeze-dried meal (per person)

2 Candy bars

2 Cliff bars

Meal Preparation

The most common way to prepare a hot meal while backpacking is to boil water and add it to freeze-dried or dehydrated foods. The same principle applies to instant oatmeal (Tip: For easier cleanup, pour the hot water into the instant oatmeal bags rather than the oatmeal into the water pot). We like to make coffee in the mornings too. This entails boiling water and pouring it through a backpacking coffee filter. However, sometimes you will not want to go through the process of unpacking, cooking, cleaning up, and repacking, especially at breakfast and lunch.

Facebook - Lunchtime in the Badlands with Katie Mummert

To boil water you will need a camp/backpacking stove and fuel. We use the MSR Microrocket and an all-season fuel blend. Some backpackers choose to carry a windbreaker for their stoves, which conserves fuel and allows you to heat water and other items more quickly. You will also need to bring a cook pot, utensils, and if you want, cups and bowls. See our Plan page for a complete list of gear items we bring for cooking and preparing meals on the trail.

Practice, Practice, Practice.

It will take you a few trips to get the hang of meal planning and preparation. Every backpacker is different, and you will have unique preferences and calorie requirements. Get to know yourself and how much food you really need and how you want to prepare it. After each trip, take a few minutes to make a list of food items you wish you had on the trail, as well as food items you brought but didn’t need. Our final tip: You can never have too much candy on the trail.

For more information about food planning, check out REI’s Meal Planning Tips for Backpacking.

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