How Do Backpacking Meals Work? | Hikers University

Backpacking meals doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to energy drinks and protein bars. So, how do backpacking meals work, really? Let’s find out!

Do backpacking meals have to be ultra-light? Of course, such convenience has a place in many packs, but with a little planning and preparation, you can also pack delicious, nutritious foods that are light, heavy in calories, and simple to cook.

Backpacking meals work by providing the hiker with all of the nutrients they need in a lightweight and easy-to-eat package. Backpacking meals allow hikers to feel fresh and stay hydrated. Backpacking meals should include healthy and nutritious food to ensure optimum health while hiking.

One of the most crucial aspects of a backpacking trip is the food. It nourishes your body and allows you to continue hiking day after day. The correct backpacking food, in the right amount, can make all the difference between a fantastic, fun-filled hike and wishing you had never started in the first place.

After speaking with various experienced backpackers, we have put together this guide to help you learn everything you need to know about preparing backpacking meals.

Table of contents


How Do Backpacking Meals Work?

Whether you are an experienced backpacker or a long-distance hiker concerned about your weight, we assure you that backpacking meals are more than just protein bars and energy drinks. Most backpacking meals are dehydrated which makes them lighter to carry, and also helps them to stay fresh for a longer time. The meals typically require some hot water to be added in order to reconstitute them, after which they can be eaten as is or mixed with other ingredients to create a more complete dish that you can enjoy on a hike

How Much Food Should I Bring on a Backpacking Trip?

Many backpackers aim for 112 to 2 pounds of food (or 2,500 to 4,500 calories) per person every day, depending on a variety of parameters such as their exertion level, exercise intensity, weight, size, and the number of days they'll be out. Everyone's dietary requirements may vary, and determining the appropriate amount to bring will take time and practice. For example, if you walk 15 to 20 miles each day, you'll burn a lot more calories than if you only walk 5 to 10 kilometers.

What Food Should I Bring on a Backpacking Trip?

Pack Calorie-Dense Foods

To reduce your food load while still getting the calories and nutrition you need to stay fueled on the trail, choose nutritious foods that are high in calories per weight and volume. Choose foods with at least 110 calories per ounce, preferably 120 calories or more per ounce. The idea is to make every small amount of food in your backpack count while balancing your carbohydrate, protein, and fat requirements.

This is especially crucial for thru or long-distance hikers who can't manage to consume enough calories to compensate for the 4,000 or more calories they burn every day while traveling lengthy distances. If it means getting over the next hill or propelling you to the next camp, it's OK to have a chocolate bar, but try to eat healthful things wherever feasible.

Foods that are high in calories include:

  • Nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts, and peanuts) and nut butters (hazelnut butter and peanut butter)
  • Dried fruit such as bananas, cherries, apples, and mangos
  • Chips seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower
  • Energy bars with dry salami, jerky, and hard cheeses
  • Meals with protein powder, powdered milk, powdered butter coconut oil, or olive oil

Dehydrated Meals

Dehydrated meals that only need water are easier to make, simple to clean, and are a staple in many backpacks. However, bringing pre-made backpacking meals for multi-day treks can be costly (not to mention cumbersome). You can choose which components to include and save money by dehydrating your own food. Separate items, such as cooked meat, cooked pasta, and vegetables can be dehydrated and combined into meals. You could also cook a large quantity of soup or chili and dehydrate it all at once.

Some minimalists are hesitant to bring fresh fruits or vegetables on a trip since they are cumbersome to transport. Others include fresh food in their packs as a break from eating dry food all day. On your first day out or on short journeys, include one or two durable fresh items, including kale, peppers, and apples. Taking a little more weight for food isn't a big concern when you're ultra light camping because the rest of your kit is already light.

Extra Meal Suggestions

Bring something you're sure you'll eat

Don’t bring items you don't like or haven't eaten before, because eating them on your backpacking journey won't make a difference. For example, if you can't eat oatmeal or peanut butter at home, no amount of breathtaking landscapes and sceneries will help.

Mix it up

Some people can eat the same thing for days and not get sick of it. If you're not a creature of habit, switch things around to keep it interesting. Include a range of textures and flavors, which is especially crucial if you're going to be out for a long time.

Plan to raid the convenience store

Long-distance thru-hikers rapidly learn how to scan small town grocery stores to produce a satisfying meal with foods that can be combined with other components, are ready-to-eat, shelf-stable, and light.

How to Make Your Own Dehydrated Backpacking Food

Dehydration is a method of preserving foods by removing moisture and preventing deterioration. This makes the meal lighter, lasts longer on the trek, and saves fuel at camp for cooking. A standard oven can be used to dry some foods, but it takes much longer and uses much more energy than a food dehydrator. Dehydrated vegetables and fruits can be consumed as snacks or mixed into a meal to add flavor. Meals can also include ground beef or dehydrated chicken.

Think about what you enjoy eating at home and how you can adapt it to a backpacking meal. Rice meals, risotto, soups, pasta, stews, and chili can all be dehydrated and mixed up into something terrific and appetizing.

Preparing dried food

There are two popular ways to create a backpacking meal once you've decided what you want to make. Individual foods can be dehydrated and combined into a meal at camp (sometimes with store-bought goods). Alternatively, you can prepare a full meal at home, such as vegetarian lentil chili or stew, then dehydrate and rehydrate it at camp.


To dehydrate fruits, start by slicing ripe, fresh fruits or making a purée. Dried fruit such as peaches, pears, and apples are delicious as a snack or added to instant oatmeal or granola.


Make sure that you select high-quality, ripe vegetables. Drying green beans, beets, mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, maize, and peas is an excellent idea. Cucumbers and other high-water-content vegetables do not fare well.


Choose lean cuts of meat to avoid food spoilage caused by rancid fats and oils. Dry all varieties of meat at 145°F until it is firm and dry.

Beans, Pasta, Quinoa, and Rice

These items may all be dried ahead of time and utilized in dishes like a hiking burrito bowl.

Cooking Options for Ultralight Backpacking

Cold-Soaking or No-Cook Methods

A stove and fuel are not required when using no-cook or cold-soaking methods. You can completely avoid hot meals if you really want to travel quickly and light. One strategy is to carry only non-cook foods such as snacks, nuts, cheese, jerky, sausage, and energy bars. Cold-soaking food is another technique to avoid using the stove: you simply add cold water to a dehydrated meal or dry ingredients, let it rehydrate for a while, and then eat it cold. This method works nicely with dishes like hummus, couscous, rice, beans, and ramen noodles. If at all possible, try cold-soaking various products at home to see what works and whether you enjoy the taste.

One-pot cooking

Bring one small pot to a boil with hot water for freeze-dried or dehydrated meals, or rehydrate meals and heat them in the pot to conserve fuel and weight. The pot can also serve as a cup.

Cooking in a plastic bag

Fill a freezer bag with dried or quick-cooking food with boiling water, place it in an insulated place or bag, and let it sit for 20–30 minutes, massaging the bag frequently to ensure the meal rehydrates evenly. You can eat directly from the bag, and the best part is that the cleanup process is simple.

Freeze Dried Meals

Freeze-dried meals are light, filling, and perfect for outdoor adventures, but what are they exactly? In the freeze-dry process, the meal is instantly frozen before being placed in a powerful vacuum. Sublimation occurs when water in food changes from ice to vapor. Food that has been frozen dried can be rehydrated with water.

Difference between Dehydrating and Freeze Drying Food

The two processes are fundamentally different, contrary to popular belief. Dehydrating has been practiced for several years and is a far simpler procedure than freeze drying. Hot dry air is circulated across the meal when dehydrating food with a machine, eliminating the majority of the water. These two foods have distinct flavors, textures, and weights. Freeze-drying food preserves the flavor of the things you're eating, and the meals are surprisingly good and filling.

How Long Can Dried Food Be Kept In the Freezer?

Freeze-dried foods are quite popular when it comes to emergency situations, and for good reason. When prepared and packaged properly, these foods can last up to 25 years because the moisture content has been almost totally removed.

Most of the meal pouches have a 7-year shelf life, while cans have a 25-year shelf life. That means you may buy meals for camping and trekking without having to worry about eating them the same weekend or every season.

Freeze drying may appear to be a modern method of food processing, yet actually dates back to the 15th century! Aymara, who lived in Bolivia, discovered a way to freeze-dry potatoes without using a freezer, pipes, or pumps. For ages, they have been able to freeze-dry potatoes by utilizing the frigid mountain temperatures and intense sun.

Meat Dehydration Techniques

It doesn't have to be difficult to learn how to dry your own meat. Lean meats that have been properly vacuum-sealed, dehydrated, and cooked can last for months. By replacing considerably heavier "packets" of chicken, salmon, and tuna with dehydrated meats, you can significantly cut the expense of purchasing freeze-dried protein to add to your trekking meals.

The Secrets to Successful Meat Drying

  • Utilize lean meats (excess oil and fat causes meat to go bad)
  • To help ground meat absorb water later, add breadcrumbs while browning
  • Use precooked or canned chicken (an Instant-Pot speeds the process)
  • Cooked meats should be thinly sliced (lunch meats work great)
  • For optimal results, dehydrate meats separately from other ingredients (meat needs higher temperatures)

How Much to Make

It is preferable to cook and dehydrate full packs of meat or whole fruits and vegetables, then utilize them to make a variety of meals because it's easier (or several servings of the same meal).

Backpacking and Meal Planning

Weight, convenience, nutritional content, and calorie density are all factors to consider while choosing backpacking food. To meet some of these requirements, many hikers will turn to light, extensively processed, calorie-dense foods that are tasteless and nutritionally deficient. Freeze-dried hiking meals, quick potato mash, prefabricated pasta meals, and ramen are all common examples.

Homemade dehydrated camping meals, on the other hand, are a far more enticing option, as they are still light and calorie dense, but also nutritional and tasty.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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