Food is necessary for our survival and in the backcountry it is one of the simple pleasures we can enjoy after a long day on the trail. There are many schools of thought when it comes to eating in the wilderness. Some people go all out baking breads using field ovens. These people usually aren’t there to cover a lot of ground and often spend multiple days at a single campsite.
Other backpackers are of a survival eating mentality. They eat mostly cold foods and possibly a dehydrated hot meal for dinner.
There are benefits to both ways but I find that most hikers fall somewhere in between these two extremes. And believe it or not, many of the dehydrated camping meals are really good so don’t discount them as a legitimate source of hot food on the trail.
As backpackers, we need three main types of nutrition on the trail: fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
Fats release energy slowly and can be used by the body when needed. They are not a quick source of energy so they are best saved for the evening meal. The energy from fat slowly releases during the night and helps keep you warm.
Protein repairs muscle and other body tissue. Eating protein throughout the day provides some energy but more importantly, it gives your body the fuel it needs to repair itself from the abuse of the trail.
Carbohydrates are immediately converted into energy and should be a staple of your diet. Simple carbs (i.e. sugars) give you a quick boost of energy and make for good trail snacks but the energy is spent quickly. Complex carbs (i.e. grains and vegetables) provide more energy over a longer period of time.
As a general rule while backpacking, your diet should consist of approximately 60-70% carbohydrates with the remaining amount spread out between protein and fats.
How much food to take
I could bore you with all the scientific data regarding how much of which types of food you should take backpacking, but it’s a waste of time. Most of us can’t remember that boring kind of information anyway.
So let’s make it simple: you should plan on bringing approximately 32 ounces of food for every day on the trail. For very short trips (1-2 nights) you could probably get by on half of this although you would be hungry most of the time. Longer trips demand proper nutrition and 32 ounces of food per day seems to be about right.
You may find that you need slightly more or less food to be comfortable while hiking and that’s fine. I assure you, however, that if you plan on 32 ounces of food per day you will not starve and you may even find that you can reduce this amount slightly based on your own body’s needs.
Keep in mind that this amount of food weight also includes condiments, powdered drinks, and other small food items; not just the main course.
What to eat
Remember that carbohydrates should constitute the majority of the trail diet. Everyone has their own preference when it comes to meal selection but we can make some generalized recommendations that definitely work well for most backpacking trips.
For some, breakfast can be as simple as some trail mix. It’s quick, easy and doesn’t require using the stove. Most people prefer something a little more substantial, however, and instant oatmeal is an excellent choice. It comes in a variety of flavors and is extremely lightweight. The hot water needed to make oatmeal can also be used to make a hot cup of tea, coffee or cocoa as well. There are also freeze- dried backpacker breakfasts including eggs and bacon that can be reconstituted with water and taste decent, but I try to keep freeze-dried meals to dinner if possible.
Lunch is usually just a snack. Depending on the terrain you may not even decide to stop. Having a selection of trail mix, granola bars and an occasional chocolate treat are a good lunch especially if you are focused on making good time throughout the day.
Some people choose to get a little more fancy for lunch and eat sliced salami and cheese or similar items. On short trips, fresh fruits are also a good lunch time selection.
This is the most important meal of the day and the one you will likely be looking forward to most during those last couple hours on the trail each day. Once camp is setup you can spend a little more time preparing this meal and some backpackers get very creative.
To keep things simple we will stick with freeze- dried hiking meals. There are plenty of meals to choose from so you can eat something different every night of the week. Since they are freeze-dried they take up very little weight or space and by adding boiling water they are ready to eat in a matter of minutes.
Other options are macaroni and cheese, instant mashed potatoes and Ramen noodle soup packets. All of these are light and provide a reasonable amount of trail nutrition although I find these items are usually best with other things added in for additional heartiness. Adding margarine, for instance, adds fat to the meal.
There are tons of other options available but these work for most people and with the exception of the freeze-dried meals are all inexpensive.
Plastic bags are your friend. They compress to take up almost no space when not in use and can store pretty7 much any food item you bring along. Using plastic bags allows you to ditch the packaging most food comes in; an important concept when it comes to packing out your trash. Once the food in a plastic bag has been used up, the empty bag can be stuffed pretty much anywhere in your pack until you exit the wilderness and can dispose of it properly.
Pretty much every mammal and bird encountered in the wild would love to help you eat your food. That’s why its so important to store your food properly while in camp.
Most of us immediately think of bears. Yes, bears are a problem in areas where they are present. They can destroy your gear, your tent or anything else between them and an easy meal with a single stroke of the paw. But even in areas where bears are not present, mice and raccoons are especially troublesome.
Avoiding problems from these animals is usually as simple as keeping your pack in the tent with you at night. If bears are in the area, however, do not do this! You can hang your food from a tree, but some bears and raccoons have become extremely good at getting to the food anyway.
It is for this reason that I always store food in a bear-proof canister. Although they can be bulky to pack, they are actually required in many popular hiking areas and even in places where they aren’t required I find that I would rather carry the canister then take a chance of losing my food to any critter.
Recently, a new product known as the Ursack (a bear-resistant stuff sack) came to market and it apparently works very well. I haven’t tried it personally and many areas still require an actual canister, but it’s certainly lighter and easier to pack than a canister. Especially if you are far from civilization, it’s important to protect your food or else risk cutting your trip short when it gets taken.
Also keep in mind that bears cannot distinguish between scented food and non-food items. This means toothpaste, sunscreen and insect repellent should all be stored in your bear canister as well.
Always know where water can be found
A lack of water will kill you well before a lack of food will. At over 8 pounds per gallon, we can only feasibly carry a small amount of water at any given time. This means we need to know where water resupply points can be found throughout the hike.
In many places, finding sources of fresh water isn’t difficult at all. There are rivers, lakes, streams and creeks all around. In arid climates, however, it could be miles and miles between water sources meaning you need to plan on carrying much more water than would normally be required.
What you thought you knew about purification
There are going to be a lot of people who disagree with me on this one, but in most cases, purifying water while backpacking in the United States isn’t absolutely necessary. Multiple studies have been done that prove this theory including one in the Sierra Nevada that basically said you would have to drink over 250 gallons of unpurified water to consume enough Giardia cysts to actually make you sick.
Purifying water with iodine is effective but takes time and makes the water taste horrible. Boiling water works well but it also takes time and uses up precious stove fuel.
There are also pump filters that do a reasonable job of filtering water but they take up a fair amount of pack space and can be extremely tiring to use.
If anything, I recommend earning one of the new UV purifiers. Yes, they run on batteries that can run out but they work well and the water still tastes great afterward. If water is cloudy, you can pour it through a cotton bandana or coffee filter to remove most sediment (a necessity if using a UV purifier).
While most backpackers purify all water prior to consumption, I only do it if I’m forced to collect water from a source close to a popular campground or residential area where contamination is much more likely. Call me old-fashion, but there is something about drinking directly from a fresh mountain stream that prevents me from purifying water unless I have to.
Cooking on the trail
Lots of people have a vision of cooking food over an open fire. While that’s great in some instances, it is illegal in many popular hiking destinations unless you are at a designated campground with purpose-built fire pits.
Campfires also go against the Leave No Trace policy followed by most backpackers.
You’re better off using a small camping stove for cooking. The risk of starting a wildfire is much lower and its easier to control the temperature of the food as well. There are many schools of thought when it comes to which stove is best. My recommendation would be to use an alcohol stove in mild weather. They are small, easy to use and work with denatured alcohol which can be found cheaply nearly anywhere.
For colder weather, a multi-fuel stove capable of running on gasoline is probably better. Gasoline is easy to find and these stoves burn much hotter than alcohol stoves (an important consideration when temperatures dip low).
You’re also going to need a cooking pot and some utensils. Notice I said a cooking pot (singular). It’s easy to walk into the store and buy one of these ready-made cookware kits. The reality is that you don’t need more than one pot in most cases. If you follow the meal recommendations made earlier, one pot is all you need and all you should carry with rare exception.
And as much as I have pounded the importance of saving weight, it’s not worth spending the extra money on a titanium cooking pot when you are first starting out. While it’s nice to shave the extra few ounces from your pack, aluminum pots work well and are also lightweight. In fact, the aluminum pot I currently cany was found at a thrift store and has put up with years of abuse without a problem.
Utensils are simple. A spoon is usually all that’s needed but if you think you need a fork and knife as well, there are good three piece sets available cheaply from a variety of outdoor companies.