“Hard work should be rewarded by good food.” – Ken Follett
Backpacking is hard work. After a day of trapesing up and down a mountainside carrying what seems like a mountain of gear, you’ll be thankful you planned some simple backpacking recipe ideas.
The last thing you need is to set up camp and sit down to a mediocre meal of funny-tasting protein bars and trail mix that’s just basically peanuts, raisins, and a single tiny piece of chocolate at the bottom of the bag.
Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy a nice warm “home-cooked” meal that’s ready in just a few minutes? Then keep reading and get everything you need to know to make it happen!
Before you get some super simple backpacking recipe ideas (that taste waaaaay better than your off-brand protein bars), you’ll get the basics of backpacking food and meal prep, plus a list of foods that are perfect to take hiking. That way, you’ll have everything you need to come up with your own backpacking recipes!
*And if you need help planning the rest of your backpacking trip, don’t forget to check out my 7 Tips for Conquering Your First Backpacking Trip.
Ok, let’s get started with the basics of backpacking food!
Backpacking Food 101
Good backpacking food should be…
- Calorie Dense
- Shelf Stable
- Easy to cook or not need to be cooked
Lightweight: The lighter it is, the easier it is to carry. ‘Nuff said…
Calorie Dense: I know you probably can’t live without your celery sticks and kale, but I hate to break it to ya… you’ll have to leave them at home. Sure they have vitamins, antioxidants, and all those phytosomethings that are good for you.
But when you’re on the trail, you want CALORIES!
Calories keep you going. Calories give you energy. Calories help you make it up the steep trail. So look for foods that have a high calorie to weight ratio. That usually means dense foods with a lot of good fats.
Still thinking of packing your kale? It takes 13 cups of kale to get the same amount of calories as one tablespoon of peanut butter.
Shelf Stable: Unless you’re hiking in cold weather, you need to make sure your food is non-perishable so it’ll survive for hours or days outside the refrigerator.
Easy to Cook: Longer cooking times = More fuel = More weight to carry. Not to mention how frustrating it is after a long day on the trail to have to wait an hour for your food to cook. Look for foods that cook fast.
Go with minute rice instead of regular rice. Get smaller pasta that’s ready in just 5 minutes. Bring instant oatmeal instead of regular oats. You get the idea.
It’s also best to look for foods that require little to no prep-work and cleanup. *More about that below.
Good backpacking recipes should…
- Have simple ingredients
- Be one-pot meals
- Require limited prep
- Require limited cleanup
Have simple ingredients: If you’re considering a backpacking recipe with 5 or more ingredients, either find a way to combine some of the ingredients at home or consider something else.
Choosing meals with just a handful of ingredients will make packing and cooking soooooo much easier.
*Breakfast hack: An easy backcountry breakfast is granola + powdered milk + water. Simple enough, right? Make it even easier by mixing the powdered milk and granola together at home and putting it in a ziplock bag. Then all you have to do is add some water to the ziploc bag, seal it, shake it for a few seconds, and then pour it into a bowl. (Or eat it right out of the ziploc bag!)
One-pot meals/Limited Prep/Easy Cleanup: These all go hand in hand. More cookware needed = More weight = More dishes = Less time enjoying the campfire.
Don’t try to get all fancy gourmet and make grilled spam with a glazed onion sauce, creamy cheddar risotto, and a side of parmesan potato stacks.
Look for backpacking recipes that let you cook everything together in one pot or pan. And do as much meal prep as possible at home.
- Pre-measure and package dry ingredients
- Combine ingredients if possible beforehand
- Add salt and spices to your prepackaged meals
*Backpacking meal prep hack: Maybe you’re going to make chicken noodle soup. Pre-measure and combine in a ziploc bag the dry noodles, freeze-dried vegetables, salt, and spices. Then all you have to do at camp is add this to your boiling water along with some chicken from a foil packet.
Dehydrated or freeze-dried backpacking meals are also a great option for making campsite meal prep a whole lot easier!
What about dehydrated or freeze-dried meals?
First, just to be clear… dehydrated meals and freeze-dried meals are similar, but not the same.
Freeze-dried meals are made using expensive equipment that removes almost all the moisture from the food. Freeze-dried food is usually better than dehydrated food since it removes a higher percentage of the food’s moisture. This helps it last longer (up to 20-30 years) while still retaining most of the nutritional value, taste, and texture.
Dehydrated meals can be bought or even made at home in a dehydrator. However, not as much of the moisture is removed, so they won’t last as long (1-5 years). And since the food is partially cooked during the dehydration process, it doesn’t retain as much of the nutrients and takes a lot longer to rehydrate.
You can make your own dehydrated meals and ingredients at home, but it is a messy and time-consuming process. That’s why most backpackers just end up using simple ingredients that don’t need to be dehydrated or buying a few freeze-dried ingredients to complement their normal trail meals.
How much food should I pack while backpacking?
The simple answer… between 2,500-4,000 calories a day for most people. This translates to about 1-2 pounds of food.
A lot depends on your weight, how many hours you’ll be hiking, and how strenuous the hiking is. If you’re on the “bulky” end of the spectrum, let’s say 190 pounds or more (I hope I didn’t offend anyone… don’t worry, I know it’s all muscle!), and you’re hiking 12 strenuous miles in a day, then you’ll need around 4,000 calories to avoid having too much of a caloric deficit.
A little caloric deficit is ok – especially if you don’t want to be considered “bulky” anymore – but a large caloric deficit for several days on end can leave you without energy for hiking and probably with a touch of irritability (hangriness).
If you love math, here’s a detailed article that’ll help you more accurately calculate your calories.
What if I can’t live without my kale? 390 cups of kale is about 3,000 calories. You better bring an extra backpack and a team of sherpas to carry your greens.
So now that you’ve got the basics down, let’s move on to some of the best backpacking foods that should earn a place in your pack.
*This is by no means an exhaustive list. These are some of the most common and easy to find ingredients you can use to make DIY backpacking meals for your hiking trip.
Best Breakfast Backpacking Foods
Simple, tasty, and easy to make. Plus it’s easy to spice up a little with some extra freeze-dried fruit or nuts.
Just add some powdered milk and water and you’ve got breakfast!
Yup, you read that right… Pop-Tarts. They’re calorie dense, easy to pack, and you can heat them up quickly in a pan if you’d prefer them warm.
Just add some water, mix, and then heat. For some gourmet eggs, mix in some milk, bacon bits, and freeze-dried veggies. Better yet, mix all the dry ingredients together at home to simplify your campsite meal prep even more!
Freeze Dried Breakfast Meals
Some of the best are…
- Mountain House Breakfast Skillet
- Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy
- Mountain House Southwest Style Skillet
Other foods to complement your backpacking breakfast recipes:
- Powdered milk
- Precooked bacon
- Freeze-dried fruits
- Granola bars
Best Ingredients for Backpacking Lunches
Since you usually don’t want to set up your entire camp kitchen at lunchtime, it’s best to plan ingredients that you don’t have to cook.
Granola or Protein Bars
Do a taste test at home before you pack bars for hiking, especially for protein bars since they can be kind of hit or miss with the flavors.
Nut butters are calorie-dense and easy to slather on crackers, tortillas, or your finger.
Nuts, fruit, and chocolate, or your favorite music mix you listen to while hiking.
Most hard cheeses and some prepackaged cheeses don’t need to be refrigerated.
Jerky and Meat Sticks
Get your protein in while hiking with dehydrated meats and other options like hard salami or summer sausage that don’t need refrigeration.
Prepackaged and Seasoned Chicken or Tuna
Best Foods for Backpacking Dinner Recipes
In addition to all the ingredients mentioned above, here are some more that will go really well with your simple backpacking recipe ideas.
Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals
Check out some of the top brands for freeze-dried and dehydrated backpacking meals.
Just boil water, add the couscous, and in 5 minutes it’s ready. Add extra spices, meat, or freeze-dried veggies for a gourmet backpacking meal.
Normal rice isn’t the best choice for backpackers since it can take 20-30 minutes or longer to fully cook. But some brands of instant rice cook in 10 minutes or less. Just like couscous, it makes a nice base for a simple backpacking recipe since it’s easy to add seasonings, meat, and veggies.
Past cooks up fast, but go for something like angel hair spaghetti or orzo since it’ll cook even faster and take up less space when packing.
Instant Mashed Potatoes
Just add hot water. Or try getting some flavored instant mashed potatoes and add some bacon bits and bits of cheese.
No camping food list would be complete without good ‘ole Ramen noodles.
Stove Top Stuffing
Add some chicken and instant mashed potatoes and you’ll feel like you’re at home enjoying turkey dinner with the family.
You’ve got tons of options you can choose from with meats that come in foil packets – like chicken, tuna, crab meat, and salmon. These are easy to pack and add to one-pot recipes.
Although cans are heavier than the foil packets, on shorter trips you can also pack things like spam, canned tuna, and other similar products.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you could even try this canned roasted eel. (I think I’ll stick to spam)
What About Seasonings for My Backpacking Recipes?
Like everything else with your backpacking recipes, keep it simple. Don’t pack your entire spice rack.
If you prepackage the dry ingredients for your backpacking recipes, add the spices along with them. You can also premix some of your favorite seasonings together in a small baggie. Or for those of us who are a little lazy, just by prepackaged seasoning packets.
Simple Backpacking Recipe Ideas
Notice that I don’t specify all the little details (cook time, amount of water, spices, etc.) Just follow the directions for the specific brand of food that you buy and use common sense. These just give you some inspiration for how you can combine simple ingredients to make tasty meals while on the trail.
*And the ridiculous recipe names are to put a smile on your face as you’re cooking! =D
Cousin Vinnie’s Pasta Carbonara
Cooking Cream – Bring a small carton of Panna.
Pinot Grigio – Single-serve wine carton.
-Add the cooking cream, bacon bits, and grated parmesan once the pasta’s done cooking. Drink the Pinot Grigio before, during, and after.
Weird Uncle Frank’s Chicken Noodle Soup
Noodles – Could be pasta or Ramen
Chicken – From the foil packets
Your favorite freeze-dried veggies
-Add everything together and cook until the pasta is al dente. Add plenty of noodles – remember you need to get those calories in!
My Little Neighbor Juanito’s Chicken and Rice
Chicken – From the foil packets
Your favorite seasoning packet
-Add everything to boiling water and cook until the rice is done.
Shaky J’s Beefed Up Ramen
Beef Flavored Ramen
Freeze Dried Veggies
Shredded Beef Jerky
-Add the shredded beef jerky to the water as you’re bringing it to a boil to give it more time to hydrate. Once the water’s boiling, add the noodles, veggies, and seasoning packets.
Big Billy Bob’s Backpacking Burritos
Packet of microwaveable beans and rice
Foil packet chicken
Chili or taco seasoning
-Slit the top of the chicken and rice and beans packets and place them in a pot with some boiling water. Once they’re heated, mix the rice, beans, chicken, and seasoning together and add them to your tortilla.
Leave out the chicken if you want a vegetarian backpacking meal.
Grumpy Gunther’s Cheesy Broccoli Macaroni
Box of mac and cheese
Freeze-dried broccoli florets
Add the freeze-dried broccoli pieces to the water as you’re cooking your macaroni. Don’t forget to add a little extra water to account for what the broccoli soaks up. Mix in the cubed summer sausage at the end.
Create Your Own Simple Backpacking Recipes
It’s really easy! Just…
- Choose your carb (pasta, instant mashed potatoes, etc.)
- Choose your protein (beans, chicken in foil packets, etc.)
- Add freeze-dried fruit or veggies (optional)
- Add your seasonings
A Few Final Tips for Your Backpacking Meals
Test out your recipes at home. Try your recipe first at home. The last thing you need on the trail is to realize that your Big Billy Bob’s Burritos are inedible because you used the XL seasoning pack that was for 10 pounds of meat.
Make a meal plan. Decide before you go what and how much of it you’re going to eat for each meal while you’re on the trail.
Get the right backpacking kitchen gear. A simple meal can end up being not so simple if you don’t have the right backpacking stove or cookware. Check out my Ultimate Backpacking Kitchen Guide for Gear, Food, and a FREE Checklist.
Make sure you have enough water. In addition to water for cooking and drinking, you’ll also need extra water for cleanup. Use my Complete Guide of How to Purify Water While Backpacking to make sure you always have enough.
*And if you’re working on planning your first backpacking trip, don’t forget to check out my 7 Tips for Conquering Your First Backpacking Trip.
Share Your Favorite Camp Recipes
Whether you’ve got an idea for something else to add to Shaky J’s Pimped Out Ramen or your own version of Uncle Frank’s Soup, I’d love to hear about it! Shoot me a message on Facebook or Instagram and let’s swap some backpacking recipe ideas!
And don’t forget to check out my other posts to help you make a success of your next overnight hiking trip.
HOW TO GO BACKPACKING WITH KIDS AND ACTUALLY ENJOY IT! – COMING SOON
HOW TO NOT GET LOST WHILE BACKPACKING – COMING SOON
BEST BACKPACKING GEAR GUIDE – COMING SOON
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