Just because you’re living in the woods for a week doesn’t mean you have to eat grubs and forage for dandelion greens (though if that is your speed, more power to you).
There are many strategies to eating in the backcountry and the best option depends on how long you’re going for, how you’re traveling, how much weight you’re willing to carry, and how much you’re willing to pay.
Of course, you can mix and match your strategies to save weight money and add variety.
How Much Food Should I Bring?
When you’re out in the backcountry—backpacking, canoeing, or bagging peaks—you’re going to burn more calories than at your desk. How many depends on how strenuous your activity is, how big you are, and how big your pack is. You should be consuming anywhere from 13.5 to 30 calories per pound of your body weight, depending on the level of your activity.
That means for an intensely strenuous day a 160 lb. person should consume 4,800 calories. For a more reasonable day on the trail though, a 160 lb. person should consume about 20 calories per pound, or 3,200 calories.
💡Backpacker has a great series of equations to approximate your needs.
It’s important to make sure you eat enough so that your body does not “bonk,” or rapidly run out of energy. The correct number of calories will help you power through the day, and feel restored in the morning. And don’t be sheepish, backpacking is a great time to go wild with your guilty pleasure foods as your body will need to restore proteins, fats, and salts after long days of strenuous activity.
After a trip, be aware of all the the uneaten food so next time you don’t need to carry that extra weight. Plan ahead, and adjust your meals for future trips to reflect your past caloric needs.
What Gear Do I Need?
Eating in the backcountry can be as simple as fistfuls granola bars, but if you want to eat better, the first thing you’ll need is a stove. Read our eating strategies below and decide if you need a stove for cooking food, like the Snow Peak Bipod, or just boiling water, like the JetBoil Flash, or if you’ll opt out of using a stove entirely.
If you opt for a standalone stove, rather than a system stove like the Jetboil, you’ll also need a pot and pan set. If you’re in a small group, we love the simplicity and durability of the MSR Trail Mini Duo, or if you’re cooking for larger groups, or making more elaborate meals, the Primus Campfire Cookset.
Of course, you’re also going to need things to eat out of. We love the collapsible Sea to Summit X Bowl. They work well as plates, expand up into bowls, and have a cutting board bottom for multiple uses in the backcountry. What’s better, the collapsible sides mean it’s easier to lick out your bowl to make cleaning even easier. For utensils, we love Light My Fire’s spork, one tool to rule them all. And if you are prone to burning things to the bottom of pots, or don’t like the idea of licking out a bowl, the GSI Compact Scraper is the perfect scrape out and cleaning tool.
While you eat in the backcountry, be careful to not spill on the ground as you do not want to inadvertently feed any nearby animals, making them attracted to human campsites. Be especially careful of crumbly foods like granola bars and breads.
What Should I Be Eating?
Freeze Dried Food
Some freeze dried foods advertise a shelf life of more than 30 years. This makes it not only great for your doomsday bunker, but for weeks long backpacking trips where you won’t have refrigeration. Manufacturers cook or semi-cook the food, freeze it, and then put it in a strong vacuum with low heat. This causes the water molecules to sublimate, or change directly from a solid to a gas, and move out of the food. Not only does this make foods like eggs, beef stroganoff, and chicken and dumplings shelf stable, it makes them incredibly light for the calories, and flavor.
Preparing these foods on your trip is easy, often requiring no more than adding boiling water. That means you can save weight by only bringing one pot for water, or a stove system optimized for boiling. Don’t be scared off by chalky astronaut ice cream, in 2019 freeze dried foods are packed with flavor, they rehydrate well, and they’ll leave you satisfied at the end of the day.
Buy them in pouches for individuals and pairs, or if you’re feeding a gang, consider buying larger tubs.
Canned and Pouched Food
If the price of freeze dried food has you thinking about skipping meals, consider raiding your pantry. Many of the foods that we keep in cans work as well in the backcountry as they do in the kitchen. Canned foods often weigh more, owing to their water content, but they travel well, have a low risk of opening in your bag, and can take the abuse of life on the move, regardless of temperature.
Even the higher sodium content is great for restoring salt from your sweat. For even greater ease, many of the foods you’re used to eating from cans, like tuna, are now available in flexible pouches, some of which come in flavors you can’t find in cans. And if you want to eat very well, higher end food has been making its way to pouches, like salmon from Patagonia provisions.
The weight of some foods, like soup, can make cans not the best option for longer trips, but if you’re only going out for a few days, or in a canoe where weight doesn’t matter as much, it’s a supremely easy and affordable way to eat in the backcountry.
For people really looking to cut weight, leave the stove and pots and pans at home. Eating only cold meals means no hot morning coffee or warm soup after a rainstorm, but your knees may thank you for the lightened load.
Look for calorically dense meal replacement bars, and snacks loaded with protein, fat, and vitamins to fuel your trip. Together, they can make for satisfying, if untraditional, meals out on the trail. Cookies, crackers, protein bars, candy bars, trail mix, and beef jerky all work.
You can also bring your stove for dinner and rely on cold meals for breakfast and lunch, saving time, and mixing and matching your diet.
Packing for the outdoors doesn’t have to be as complicated as you might think. Many of the foods we eat on a daily basis are already perfect for the backcountry. They’re durable, they need little temperature regulation, they’re easy to prepare, and they’re satisfying. Even fresh fruits and vegetables can be great for the backcountry.
Hard fruits like apples and oranges, and tough vegetables like carrots and broccoli can easily make their way far from trailheads. Dried products like rice, beans, quinoa, oatmeal, and corn work great. Dietary staples that don’t need much temperature like peanut butter, jelly, and hard cheddars will work well. And bagels and tortillas are a great carb heavy addition to meals.
Tips to Enjoy Your Meals
Bring condiments: Hot sauce goes a long way to making a meal more interesting. If you love mustard, bring mustard. The comfort and taste is worth the weight.
Spices: A combo spice shaker is a lightweight way to add a variety of flavors to your meals
Use the insulation you have: If there is anything you’re trying to keep warm, or cold, wrap your sleeping bag around it. The same material that insulates you from the ground will insulate your food from the air around you.