How To Plan Meals for Backpacking

Stay fueled on the trail with these tips on packing the right food and planning the best meals.

Backpacking truism No. 17: Everything tastes better when you eat it outdoors. Backpacking truism No. 18: There’s no hunger quite like the hunger you work up after hiking all day. Put these two together, and you have the potential for some truly memorable meals out on the trail—you’ll just need to plan your menu appropriately. 

Figuring out what you’ll eat for a weekend (or a week) in the backcountry, far from a grocery store, can be a bit intimidating at first—but these guidelines will make sure you stay properly fueled from trailhead to trailhead.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What kinds of food to pack for a backpacking trip
  • Which key nutrients you’ll need
  • How to pack the right amount of food
  • How to pack your food for the trip

What should I eat?

Backpacking food needs to tick a few boxes. Lightweight, because you have to carry it all. Calorically dense, because you need to pack as much energy as possible into the least amount of food. Shelf stable, as you won’t have refrigeration. And generally, quick cooking, because you probably won’t want to spend the time and stove gas necessary to simmer something for 45 minutes. Here are some backpacking favorites that fit the bill.


instant oatmeal, grits, powdered milk, granola, instant coffee


tortillas, peanut butter, sausage, salami, hard cheese, tuna or salmon pouches, tomato paste, jerky


energy bars, trail mix, nuts, dried fruit


Try this time-honored formula: quick-cooking carbs (instant mashed potatoes, pasta, couscous) + protein (beans, sausage, tuna) + cheese + spices and dried veggies. Even easier: Make or buy dehydrated, one-pot meals. 


chocolate, cookies, whiskey from a flask


tea, hot chocolate, instant cider, instant soup


All this isn’t to say that you can’t pack any fresh produce—in fact, fresh fruits and veggies make excellent snacks and meal add-ins, as they add welcome variety to typical backpacking fare. Just choose hardy ones that won’t get squished in your pack (apples, carrots, oranges), and eat them early in the trip so they don’t go bad and you don’t have to carry them the whole time.

What about nutritional considerations?

Backpacking is hard work, so you’ll want your menu to deliver plenty of energy. Carbohydrates are an essential source of fuel, delivering both a quick boost (more refined carbs) and longer-lasting energy (whole grains). Make sure you also consume protein and fats, as both provide slower-burning energy and tend to be calorically dense (especially fats—aim for healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds). 

But don’t stress too much about the exact ratio of these nutrients. Unless you’re thru-hiking a long trail for months (in which case you should spend more time on your food plan), it’s more important to pack foods that you genuinely like that include carbs, fats, and proteins than to calculate percentages.  

One more tip

Pack a variety of tastes and textures. You don’t want everything you eat to be sweet and chewy, or savory and salty, or you’ll get bored with it quickly. 

How much food do I need?

Backpackers worry most about having enough food—and true, you definitely don’t want to run out of provisions with 15 miles to go. But nor do you want to overpack and carry extra weight for no reason. Getting the balance right takes a bit of practice. 

Generally, backpackers need 2,500 to 5,500 calories per day, or 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of food per day. But that amount varies a lot depending on your gender, body and pack weight, weather conditions, and the strenuousness of your trip. Men tend to need more calories than women, and people with heavier body weights need more fuel. Very difficult hikes in cold weather require more food than easier, milder trips. 

To dial in your menu, plan out each day’s meals and snacks. Your plan might look something like this:

Day 1

Breakfast: 2 packets of instant oatmeal, 1 Tbsp. powdered milk, 2 Tbsp. coffee (for French press)

Snack 1: 2 oz. dried mango, 3 oz. jerky

Snack 2: 1 energy bar

Lunch: 1 bagel, 1 tuna packet, 1 slice cheese, apple, cookie

Snack 3: 3 oz. trail mix

Snack 4: 2 oz. sesame sticks

Dinner: 1 packet of noodles, 2 oz. cheese, 4 oz. salami, ¼ cup dried peas

Dessert: ½ bar of dark chocolate

It helps to physically lay out your day’s planned food in front of you, portioning out things like trail mix: Does it look like enough to keep you going? Do you typically eat this much while hiking?

When you think you have just enough food, add a bit more, just in case of emergency. You might be delayed by weather, injury, or a really great view. And when you’re done, take stock of any leftover food. Did you overpack, or were you left hungry by the end of the trip? File this knowledge away for next time.

How do I pack my food?

You don’t want to carry extra food or packaging, so measure out portions and repack them in resealable plastic baggies. If you want to be extra organized, label a separate gallon-sized baggie for each day on the trail, and pack that day’s food inside. Place all your food in one dry-bag so you don’t have to go rooting around in your pack for that missing hunk of Parmesan. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.