Person stirring a pot in the backcountry, with a paddle and bear canisters nearby

Backpacking food and meal planning

It’s hard enough to decide what to eat when you’re staring into the fridge at home, let alone when you’re peering into a backpack full of hastily thrown together food. That’s why meal planning before heading into the outdoors can make life a little more enjoyable. Learn about:

  • Backpacking meal planning: Tips for planning, how much food to bring, and ways to keep the weight down.
  • Packing and storing food: Find out where store it in your backpack, along with animal safety and ways to reduce waste on the trail.
  • Backpacking food hacks: Ideas to take things up a notch on the trail.

Backpacking meal planning

As you plan your meals, think about how much time you’ll have to cook and to clean up each day based on your trip itinerary. Meals that require lots of prep and ingredients are more suited to trips where you spend hours lounging in camp, instead of on journeys with long, hard days hiking or paddling.

For big days when you’re on the move a lot, bring snacks you can eat on the go for sustained energy. On any trip (even if you’re only out for a few hours) carry some extra food in case of emergency.

Keeping things simple for breakfast gets your day started quickly. Photo: Joseph McKay on the French River, ON, partway through his Montreal to Banff paddling expedition (supported by MEC).

How much food do you need for backpacking?

The short answer: it depends. The intensity and amount of activity is the biggest factor to keep in mind. Another factor is age – an active, young person burns food faster than someone who’s older. The outside temperature will also influence food consumption as the body uses energy to keep warm. All these variables make it difficult to recommend precise quantities, but participating in outdoor activities can mean burning in the range of 3200–4500 calories per day.

To keep organized and make sure they’ll have enough calories for their trip, many people create a backpacking meal planning spreadsheet. Calories, servings and the weight of the food are some things to include on this type of tool.

Experiment with online backpacking calorie calculators and shorter day trips to see what works for you, and remember that packing way too much food just means you’re carrying excess weight.

Backpacking food and weight

On longer trips, the weight of each day’s food becomes critical since you’ll be carrying it with you. One thing to consider is the calories-for-weight that different foods offer. Freeze-dried or dehydrated foods have a low moisture content, are lightweight, and have a virtually indefinite shelf life. Because freeze-dried meals are odour-free until opened, they’re also less likely to attract insects and animals.

You can buy prepackaged freeze-dried camping meals at your local MEC store, and today’s options are huge. Try everything from Pad Thai and huevos rancheros, and find meals for vegan, gluten-free or soy-free preferences (along with others). Another option that can save you some bucks is to make your own dehydrated foods. Check out backpacking cookbooks for DIY meal ideas and advice.

Backpacking food storage

A few smaller bags are easier to pack and access than one gigantic sack. Heavy-duty freezer bags with zip closures packed inside lightweight dry bags or stuff sacks are useful for storing food. Before you pack up your food, remove any surplus packaging that’ll add unnecessary weight or be difficult to dispose of on the trail. But remember to keep any cooking directions you might need.

When you’re putting food in your backpack, pack it above and away from your stove fuel. Your stove fuel doesn’t have to actually leak for your food to be ruined. Fuel fumes alone can permeate everything in an enclosed space. For this reason, we recommend double-bagging your fuel (a combo of plastic bags and nylon stuff sacks works well), and storing it in an outside pocket or well away from any food.

Wild animals and food

At night, you need to store your food securely away from animals like bears, mice or chipmunks. Some tips:

  • Never eat food in your tent, even in the daytime. Crumbs and scents can attract animals later (waking up to a hole chewed in your tent is not fun).
  • A bear canister keeps food and other smelly toiletries secure. You can carry them in your backpack, and you don’t need to hang them at night.
  • A waterproof stuff sack makes a good food bag to hang away from bears in a tree or from a bear pole. Remember to bring enough rope and practice your bear hang technique before you go.
  • Some backcountry sites provide metal food lockers, but they can fill up so be prepared with another option.

Backpacking food hacks

When you’ve been hiking all day, plain ramen noodles can taste perfectly fine. However, if you’ve got a little more time and a bit more equipment, you can turn dehydrated food into mouth-watering meals.

Gear to get gourmet on the trail

You can cook most outdoor meals on a single-burner stove with one or two pots. But if you’re aiming for something a little more gourmet, you can get there with just few extra pieces of equipment.

Climber sitting next to a small tent and sipping a hot drink from a coffee mug

The Jetboil Flash boils water fast for your caffeination needs. Photo: Taylor Maavara on a climbing expedition in Pakistan (supported by MEC).

  • A stove that simmers: Some stoves are designed to crank. That’s excellent if you’re melting snow, but not great for making fluffy pancakes. Look for a stove that’s designed to burn at low output. Bear in mind that simmering generally extends cooking times, so make sure you pack enough fuel.
  • Backcountry ovens: You can make all kinds of great things in a portable oven, from apple crumble to fresh bread or crusty pizza.
  • A good knife: Pair it with a roll-up plastic cutting board to keep the dirt out of whatever you’re chopping.
  • Portable plastic spatula: True, a chunk of bark can work for flipping the pancakes. But a plastic spatula is pretty nice and some models double as pasta strainers.
  • A hand-powered blender: Maybe not if you’re lightweight backpacking, but if you’re on a short trip or paddling, it adds a whole new level of entertainment to meals.
  • Good coffee: Handheld espresso makers, French press, pour-over coffee makers… all are excellent options when you’re kilometres from your usual barista.

Spice things up

If you find freeze-dried or dehydrated meals a little bland, you can add heaps of flavour to your meals (and only a few hundred grams to your pack) with a backcountry spice rack that includes:

  • Salt and pepper
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Oregano and basil
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Olive oil, soy sauce, hot sauce, balsamic vinegar, and bouillon cubes
  • Garlic cloves or garlic powder
  • Dried mushrooms

Tasty trail mix ideas

Graduate beyond basic GORP. Add some flash to your backcountry snacks and try:

  • Dried wasabi peas instead of nuts
  • Dried papaya or mango instead of apricots
  • Smoked salmon instead of jerky
  • Chocolate-covered espresso beans instead of M&Ms

Base camp cooking possibilities

Fresh blueberries snazz up oatmeal on Ben Haggar’s bikepacking expedition in Greenland, supported by MEC. Photo: Ben Haggar.

If you’re taking a short trip, setting up a base camp or travelling by kayak or canoe, weight isn’t a critical consideration… which means you don’t need skimp on your meals:

  • Pre-cut your veggies and marinate them the night before you leave. Come dinnertime, simply open the container and dump them in the frying pan. Cook up some instant rice and you have a no-fuss veggie stir-fry.
  • Fresh fruit is a welcome treat, but it is heavy, bulky, and fragile, so make sure you bring something you really want. Pulling out a pineapple on a summit though, is pretty unforgettable.
  • Bring ingredients that give you options: eggs, milk, cheese or flour. If it’s impossible to cart the real deal, try milk powder, powdered eggs, powdered cheese or powdered butter.

Photo credit: François Leger-Savard, part of the Expedition Ikivuq canoe trip in northern Quebec (supported by MEC).

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