Just like when you’re eating in the frontcountry, there are a wide variety of tastes, opinions and preferences when it comes to backcountry meal planning.

When you’re thinking about meals for your next backpacking trip, you should start by thinking about the foods that you already enjoy.

Come up with a list of some of your favorites dishes and items for each main food categories:

  • breakfast
  • lunch
  • trail snacks
  • drinks
  • dinners

Then, think about each item in terms of the following constraints and guidelines for meal planning in the backcountry.

Constraints in the Backcountry

Before planning out your backpacking meals, it’s important to consider the types of restrictions and constraints that you’ll face in the backcountry.

Since everything you eat must be carried on your back, you won’t want to bring food that requires heavy cans. You’ll also need to consider the weight of any cookware required to prepare an item, since you won’t want to lug around heavy skillets or cast iron pots.

Ideally, you’d want to remove any water weight from your food as well. To stay properly hydrated, you’re probably already camping near areas where collecting water is easy. Since water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, carrying food that’s dehydrated – and then re-hydrating it in camp while cooking it – is a great way to save weight in your pack.

You also want your food to be calorically and nutritionally dense for its weight. This usually means that things like vegetables and junk food don’t make the cut, since they don’t replenish much of the nutrients that you’ll need on the trip.

Food that requires refrigeration requires a constant ambient temperature of around 40°F. While you may be able to dunk your food in a cold river to cool it down occasionally, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to hold this temperature consistently over the course of your backpacking trip.

This means that things that require refrigeration must be eaten relatively early on in the trip. You can look into alternatives that won’t spoil as easily – like powdered, dehydrated milk – if you really need your dairy fix.

Two classic backpacking staples are to bring a wedge of hard cheese and some kind of salted, dried or smoked meats. These tend to last for weeks if kept sealed and stored out of direct sunlight, and can bring a much needed dose of the flavors you might already be eating at home.

The other thing you have to worry about with regards to temperature is that your food may melt. That bag of chocolate chips that you were planning on brining might melt into a solid block of chocolate inside a hot pack on a sunny day.

Containers & Bruising
As you’re hiking down the trail, the contents of your pack will be bouncing around with every step. Anything that’s delicate or can be crushed easily won’t last long in your food bag.

For some types of food, you might be able to find good hard-sided cases for them, like specialty egg cartons or a simple tupperware for sticks of butter.

Another alternative is to embrace that things well get crunched. You can pre-scramble your eggs at home and carry the yolks in a ziploc bag. You could also chop up fruits into smaller bits so you won’t notice any big bruises or blemishes.

Some foods are just really tough. I’ve found that chips, pretzels and graham crackers will basically turn to dust unless you keep them in their own pocket near the top of your backpack.

Once you’re done eating something, you’re not really going to want to keep carrying its empty wrapper or container. Ideally, all of your food containers are easy to burn or otherwise dispose of properly.

I usually repackage things into ziplocs bags at home before I set out. This not only helps to eliminate weight and waste, it’s also helpful for portioning things out into rations, so that you don’t accidentally eat all of your peanuts on the first day of your trip.

Preparation Simplicity
In the backcountry, you don’t have a full kitchen of appliances and tools at your disposal. Very often, all you’ll have is a pot, stove and spork.

This makes it hard to prepare foods that require complex preparation. It can be fairly difficult to clean, chop, dice, sautee, fry or use many other common kitchen techniques.

Some things you’ll be able to prep at home and bring in a ready-to-go package or mix that only needs a bit of boiling water or stirring in with something else. Anything more complex than that and you maybe out of luck, unless you’re a true backcountry chef.

Guidelines & Tips

Here are a few more things to keep in mind as you’re preparing your backpacking meal plan.

Food Weight Per Person, Per Day
You generally want to carry 1.5-2lbs of food per person, per day. This amount fluctuates based on a person’s size, age and metabolism, as well as how strenuous of a trip you’re going on.

Don’t Wing It
You should really sit down and plan out what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch, trail snacks and dinner each day. The #1 food mistake that backpackers make is bringing too much food and lugging around the extra, unnecessary weight. You also want to make sure that you have enough nutritious food that you won’t go hungry.

Planning your food out also allows you to divide things up into portion sizes, labeled for each day. This limits your freedom to snack on whatever you want – metaphorically hunting through the kitchen cabinets – but it helps ensure you don’t accidentally eat all of your granola bars on the first day.

Indulge Yourself
While it’s true that everything tastes better in the backcountry, don’t be shy about throwing in some food that you really just enjoy. Eating nothing but oatmeal, ramen and trail mix gets old very quickly.

I still remember how exciting it was when someone handed me a piece of sharp cheddar cheese on the trail after I’d had nothing but salty snacks for 3 days. It was the best cheese stick I’ve ever had.

You’ll really appreciate having a mix of new textures and flavors in your food bag. Think of things that are rich or savory like chocolate or cheese. For dinners, a spice kit with some salt, olive oil, honey, garlic powder and hot sauce will also let you kick things up a notch, depending on your mood.

Learn From Your Stomach
You should debrief your food situation after every trip. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What did you like or not like?
  • What food ended up coming back as leftovers?
  • Did you pack too much or just not enjoy it?
  • Were there any foods you wished you brought?
  • Was there enough variety?

Making little mental notes after each trip is a great way to improve your backpacking meal planning and preparation skills over time.

Your preferences may change overtime, but a lot of these principles will always hold true.