Western Traveler


There are several important items that you’ll carry in your pack, whether for a day-hike, or for longer trips. None is important than the food you choose.

When selecting your cuisine you’ll need to factor in several things: length of trip, temperature range of your outing, pack weight and personal preferences.

For example, day hikes require much less thought than backpacking trips. You can carry more food, and not have to worry about the weight. It’s not uncommon for me to carry canned foods on day hikes. I’m also a big fan of MRE’s (military Meals Ready to Eat) and fresh fruit. Many times I’ll decide to do a day hike on short notice. I’ll raid the pantry and take whatever is handy.

Backpacking trips on the other hand are on the other end of the planning spectrum. Careful thought must be implemented before heading out. The longer the trip, the more you need to plan. On longer trips, weight and nutrition go hand in hand. You need to have enough calories with you to keep you going, but not be bogged down with “heavy” food.

Here are some ideas on foods that I use when backpacking. I basically break down my meal plan into four groups: breakfast, snack, lunch and dinner. Each group represents different philosophies.

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day”. In backpacking, nothing can be truer. You need to start your day off with a healthy and full meal to prepare you for the day’s activities. In my case, I’m a big fan of instant oatmeal and hot cereal. You can get these in individual packets, or in bulk. If my trip is only a day or two, I’ll keep the food in the original packaging. However, if the trip is going to be several days, I’ll combine the oatmeal/cereal into a single Ziploc bag. This reduces the bulk in your pack, and reduces the amount of trash you’ll be hauling back out. You can add dehydrated fruit to the mix to make it tastier as well. Add to that a cup of coffee, hot chocolate or fruit drink and you’re ready for the day. Some backpackers (ounce counters to the extreme) only carry in Instant Breakfast and add water and powdered milk. If the hike is to be very long, this may be an option you want to look at. WARNING: some people have digestive problems when consuming Instant Breakfast in large quantities. The trail is not the place to find out, test your tolerance for this BEFORE hitting the trail.

The next category is the fun one. . .snacks!! This is my favorite as it opens the door for every type of junk food that I like. When you’re backpacking, you’re burning way more calories than during normal, everyday activities. GORP (Good Old Raisins & Peanuts) is a mainstay for hikers. Most hikers customize their GORP by adding other things into it, such as favorite candies, sunflower seeds, dried fruits, etc. Power Bars® are also excellent as they combine high caloric energy with tons of flavor options. Recently there have been Power Gel® flavors introduced on the market. These combine lots of sugar with caffeine and can really give you a lift when you need it. Don’t forget your favorite candy bar either. All of these make for good “trail food”.

Lunch is a different beast. Most hikers and backpackers don’t really want to take time out to cook a meal during the midday. This is where such things as: cheese & crackers, peanut butter, potted meat, bagels, tortillas, Vienna sausages, etc. come into play. These are all fairly high in calories and are quick to prepare and eat. One good thing to add to you midday meal is some type of sports drink. It’s a guarantee that you’ll have reduced your body’s supply of salts and electrolytes during the hike. You can find these almost anywhere in a powder form. Make sure to have a special container with you to mix these up in, you don’t really want the drink mix in your water bottles or hydration system.

Dinner (supper to some) is the reward at the end of the day. This category allows you to indulge yourself for your hard work. The possibilities here are endless. You can take the time put together a complete meal, or limit yourself to a simple, filling meal. Whatever you decide, make sure to have something that will be tasty. I know backpackers who’ve carried in the sparsest of meals, only to regret it. There’s nothing more depressing at the end of a long hike than a bad meal. Many companies produce excellent, pre-packaged, dehydrated meals for backpacking. The quality on these will vary considerably, so make sure to try it at home first. The only real downside to these is that they are pretty expensive. Make sure your meal includes: an entree, some type of side-dish and a desert. It may sound a bit extreme, but after a hard day’s hiking, you deserve a great meal. A larger, more complex meal also gives you more time sit and socialize with you hiking partners to discuss the day’s adventure.

A note on food for car camping. . .anything goes! This is where there are no limits except your imagination. For example, when I go camping with my Utah friends, our meals are amazing. They cook over open fires, with portable stoves, charcoal grills and in Dutch ovens. I cannot begin to describe the meals we’ve had. It’s like eating at a five-star restaurant with these guys. When I go car camping, I take time to cook full breakfasts and dinners. My midday meals usually consist of soup, stew or chili with a sandwich or crackers and whatever.

Last modified on: March 15th 2012.
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