On the West Coast Trail, I heard a story from another hiker around a fire one night about a man who did the entire week long hike with only a big jar of peanut butter and a spoon for his meals. While that certainly is one way to build a meal plan for a trip, there are plenty of other options to make sure that you still have food you like to eat for as many days as you need.
Each hiker is different, some people prefer to pack granola bars for lunch everyday day, while others need that delicious hot meal to get them to the next campsite. No matter your hiking and eating style, there is a food preparation method for you. Here are the different ways you can pack your meals next time you head out on an adventure.
1. Fresh Food
Best suited for a day hike or overnight trip.
For a day trip there no need to go out of your way to prepare hiker specific, nutrient dense meals. Usually I’ll just throw an apple, a granola bar, and a sandwich in my bag and head out the door. I don’t worry about carrying weight as much if its a day pack because there likely isn’t enough room in my smaller pack to fill it over weight anyways. For a quick adventure, I like to try and eat nutritious meals the day before, but I don’t have to focus so much on getting enough calories while I’m hiking like I would have to for a multi day trip.
This is also my favorite time to bring something special, or plan a picnic. The best adventure snack I have made was preparing brie grilled cheese sandwiches on french bread beforehand and wrapping them in tin foil. Then when we sat down for lunch, we cooked them over a campfire. Bring a packet of jam for dipping!
Other meal ideas I’ve seen on the trail are bento boxes, hiker charcuterie boards, or thermoses of soup and chili. One determined couple even filled a spare water bladder with red wine for an overnight trip.
PROS: Fresh, delicious, less prep beforehand, familiar foods, you can carry the good stuff like cheese, meats, and fruit if you want to.
CONS: Fresh food tends to weigh more and have some extra bulk, there is also the possibility of it spoiling if you are out for a long day in hot weather, or freezing if its a winter day (frozen Cliff bars are like rocks).
2. Non Perishable/No Heat Required
A great option if you want quick meals that will not go bad on overnights or multi-day trips.
Sometimes, you don’t want the fuss or weight of fresh food, but you also don’t want to bother packing a camp stove. For some overnights, especially on warmer summer days when we knew we wouldn’t want tea or hot chocolate, we would pack non perishable snacks and meals. This can include crackers, beef jerky, trail mix, and dried fruit. I am a ‘treat yo self’ kind of hiker, and usually like to include chocolate bars for good measure.
Some perishable items can be brought along for a few days without worry. Common foods that I’ve seen multi-day hikers pack are tortillas, peanut butter, hard cheeses, and cured meats. You can also buy electrolyte tables and powdered drink packets for an energy boost.
The best perk to meals that don’t have to be heated is that you can eat on the go. You don’t have to take the time to set up your stove and boil water, you could even snack while you’re hiking. Keep trail mix in an accessible pocket so you can snack when you stop. I passed a woman on the West Coast Trail who insisted that her favorite way to enjoy her morning coffee was while hiking.
PROS: Easy to prepare, no heating required, you can eat on the go, will stay good for multiple days.
CONS: Could be heavy depending on what you pack (ex, canned tuna), you don’t get the satisfaction of a hot meal, and there are more limited options for fruit and veggies.
3. Heated With Camp Stove/Over a Fire
A good option for an overnight or multi-day trip.
Something about cooking food over a campfire makes it taste so much better. If you know you’ll be going somewhere where fires are permitted, you could consider packing some campfire friendly meals, much like the brie grilled cheese I mentioned earlier. I like to make food ahead that doesn’t necessarily need to be heated, like sandwiches, and wrap them in tin foil so that if I have the opportunity to toast them over a fire I can.
While delicious, campfires can also be a little less reliable depending on restrictions or weather, so many hikers opt to bring a camp stove along. This opens up your food options greatly. Easy meals cook with a camp stove are macaroni and cheese, rice or quinoa, and oatmeal. There are even frying pan attachments that I think would be perfect for those dehydrated hash browns you can buy at Costco.
Keep in mind that cooking directly in your pot will take some extra work while you are out on the trail. You can buy biodegradable camp soap at most outdoor stores that will make cleaning up much easier. And you should take in to account that if anything needs to simmer to cook you may need to bring extra fuel for your stove. Lastly, you’ll need to hang your stove with the rest of your food items far away from your tent if there are no bear lockers at your camp. Check with your local parks or outdoor enthusiasts for the proper methods or regulations in your area.
PROS: Delicious hot meals, easy to plan and pack, often non-perishable items
CONS: Extra cleaning required, may use up more fuel if your food items need to simmer, smell of cooking food could be more of a bear attractant, you will have to hang your stove, not all camp sites allow fires and fire bans may be in effect.
4. Freezer Bag/Dehydrated Pre-Made
Great option for multi-day trips and thru hiking.
This is my preferred food preparation method for hiking. You can buy pre-made dehydrated backpacking meals, or choose to do the dehydrating part yourself. If you are pressed for time, the pre-made meals might be a good option for you. The only downside is that they can be pricey, but I definitely recommend trying a few out to see what you like. Some thru-hikers choose to buy these meals in bulk to save some money and some preparation time.
To prepare, all you need to do is boil water, then pour it into your freezer bag and let it sit for 10-15 minutes until the water is reabsorbed into your meal. I put my bag in an insulated mug with a lid on it to hold in the heat.
My dehydrator cost about $65 and I have found it to work perfectly with the few recipes I have tried so far. My sister and I dehydrated chilli, quinoa burrito bowls, and pasta for our last multi day trip. This is also a great method for cooking oatmeal in the morning. There are hundreds of wonderful recipes you can find online to make meals that you will enjoy.
PROS: Lightweight, can be more cost effective per meal if you make them yourself, minimizes fuel usage.
CONS: Requires planning and prep beforehand, you must own or borrow a dehydrator, store bought meals can be expensive, you may end up carrying more garbage out.
5. Cold Soaking
Good option for multi-day trips and thru hiking.
Cold soaking is a method commonly used by ultra light backpackers or thru-hikers who don’t want to worry about carrying a camp stove, or don’t want to sit and wait for water to boil. Water is added to a meal, typically a few hours before it is intended to be eaten, so that it can reabsorb in time for the next meal. This works well for food that reabsorbs relatively easily such as oatmeal, instant mashed potatoes, or stovetop stuffing mix, but you can find many other recipes online.
This method is not for everyone. Something that I have realized on overnight adventures is how important the temperature of water is for it to feel satisfying to me. In the mountains where we filtered from glacier fed streams, getting cold water was no problem, and it was refreshing. In the middle of Saskatchewan in the summer, however, you filter warm water from a warm lake and drink it as you hike on a sunny day. I think that this is why my first stop after finishing a trail is often to the nearest gas station for a Slurpee. I would be disappointed to have a cold meal after a chilly day of hiking.
PROS: No camp stove or fuel canisters required, minimal food prep on trail, a time saver.
CONS: No satisfaction of a hot meal, limited to foods that rehydrate well.
What is your go-to hiking meal?