A Simple Food Plan for First Time Backpacking
Whether going backpacking for the very first time or you just want to see somebody else's take on food and food related gear, here's our quick, easy, and delicious recommendation. We still use it even after years of hiking in the backcountry.
In this article:
- Our go-to choice for breakfast, lunch/snack, and dinner;
- The gear we use to prepare and enjoy it;
- How we keep everything to the quickest, most efficient, and least time-consuming way;
- No cooking involved.
Make it your own
It goes without saying that you will agree with us on some but not on all of our choices. Feel free to customize the plan based on your preferences and make it your own. It's also a good idea to purchase the products well in advance and try them at home before you step out into the backcountry. It really sucks to find out that you don't like a spice in one or more of your freeze-dried dinners, for instance.
Without further ado, here's what we do about food "out there":
Most times in the morning, Timea and I want to prepare food quickly, without too much fuss. We sometimes need to hit the trail early or maybe it's just cold or raining. We tried a lot of choices for breakfast before we settled on these:
▸ Bagel with Cream-Cheese and Jam
We wrap the desired amount of cream cheese in aluminum foil, then put it along side the bagel in a zip-lock bag, which we later repurpose as a trash bag. It's tasty, filling, and works great with coffee. We usually have it on the very first morning since it's easily perishable.
▸ Granola with Blueberries
I could eat this brand of granola with blueberries every morning for an entire week. In fact, we did just that on our John Muir Trail hike. If you feel the same love for this product after you try it, you can order it in cans of 20 servings. We purchase those cans and divide them ourselves before the trip. A vacuum sealer makes them even more packable.
It's quick to prepare, works with either hot or cold water (we like it warm), packs small, and strikes a wonderful balance with coffee. Know that 1 serving is not enough especially if your usual breakfast is a big meal. Opt for 2 servings/person.
▸ Starbucks Instant Coffee
It weighs virtually nothing and you can brew it while your granola absorbs water and prepares itself.
Lunch on the trail is never at the same time every day. We usually take more or less time zipping through the less exciting sections of the day's trail and take a longer break in a place that feels right, either because it's shady on a hot summer day, because you can see out for miles, or because there's a lake or a stream nearby. We call those longer breaks lunch and that's when the salami and the cheese come out of the pack.
Here's our preferred lunch food:
▸ Wasa Bread or Crackers
We usually go to a store and find the bread that has the most calories for the weight. The denser the better because it takes less space in your pack. Wasa bread or crackers usually fit the bill. They go very well with cheese and salami.
▸ Dried Salami
We can never find the same salami we had the year before. We always try a new one, as dry as possible and a little spicy. The one below is what we had on our long John Muir Trail backpacking trip and was every bit as tasty till the last day. Another favorite salami is Artisan Salame Secchi by Columbus. They sell it locally at Trader Joe's and, of course, at Amazon. Any other dry salami works, as long as you try it at home before packing so you don't get any surprises on the trail.
▸ Semi-hard cheese
Beecher's Handmade Flagship Cheese is a favorite. If the cheese is not sealed, we always vacuum seal it to make it last longer and to prevent the extra scent. If possible, get one that is already sealed.
Tillamook Sharp White Cheddar Cheese is also a favorite.
▸ Note About Spoiling
You may think that salami and cheese will go bad if you pack them for a longer trip. We also wondered about that when packing for our 18-day John Muir Trail backpacking trip. We purchased a sample of the same salami and cheese we planned to take with us on the trail and kept them in our living room at temperatures between 60 and 85 degrees for a whole month. We vacuum sealed them in advance. At the end of the test, a small part of the salami's fat liquefied, but otherwise everything survived and was quite delicious.
One other choice we usually take for lunch is tortillas. It goes very well with peanut butter and the left over jam from breakfast, or with tuna fish (see below).
▸ Tuna Fish
This Starkist Tuna Creations is prepared with a variety of spices. Choose the one you like the most. You can prepare two tortillas using one package of tuna. Timea likes to add a few pieces of cheese in the mix.
▸ Peanut Butter
This product is great because you can use as much as you want and re-seal it for freshness. They sell a variety of nutty butter. Mix in a few pieces of cheese and some jam for added calories and flavor.
Snacks and Desert
I like to indulge myself with a dessert every day while I'm backpacking. Maybe it's a piece of chocolate or some Gatorade after a long uphill. I also like to snack every now and then.
It's important to maintain a balance between sweet and salty. Sometimes I crave salt so much that I can't even see chocolate (which I love by the way).
So here's what we prefer for a snack:
▸ Probar Wholeberry Blast
Probar is my favorite first snack. I carry one in my pocket after breakfast and eat it a couple of hours after leaving camp. They have multiple varieties. Timea likes the coconut one, I'm a berry kind of guy.
▸ Salted Peanuts and/or Chips
When I crave something salty (happens every day) I find peanuts very satisfying. We always carry plain roasted peanuts with us. Timea also likes hazelnuts and almonds, so she prepares a separate zip-lock back with a mix of those kinds.
▸ Dried Fruit: Cherries, Mango, Raisins, Plums
I love raisins, dry plums, dry mango, but by absolute favorites are dry cherries. I always take 10 pieces/day with me.
Timea always hides a whole apple in my bear box before we leave home. When she brings it out on the trail everybody wishes they brought one, too. The only question is: will you share?
▸ Electrolytes and Flavor
A small bag of Gatorade is great not only for situations when you need to replenish your electrolytes, but also to treat yourself with a flavorful drink.
Dinner is special but you don't have to spend a lot of time to get a delicious meal.
▸ Good To-go Meals
We really like the new Good To-go meals, made by a company in Maine. They've got a decent variety across the taste pallet. Check them out before you hit the trail, as always. All you need is to pour hot water and wait for 20 minutes while you prepare your drinks (which drinks?... see below).
A soup is always welcomed before dinner. If we get to camp early, or maybe if we're super hungry, we might fire up the stove and heat water for a cup of soup. It's delicious. Koyo soups come in a good variety. We found, though, that we needed to supplement it with a little extra salt and pepper.
▸ The John Cooke Backpacking Cocktail
No dinner is complete without a classic hot apple cider with rum or, for a variation, try replacing the rum with your favorite bourbon. Yum! We call this the John Cooke cocktail from our friend John who introduced us to it on a backpacking trip in the Olympic National Park.
Tip: carry more than you think you need, it's virtually weightless and tastes so good.
▸ Hot Chocolate
If dinner was too early, you're getting cold, or simply you don't feel like getting into your sleeping bag, why not try a hot chocolate? However, if you usually have problems falling asleep after drinking cocoa, save this for next morning.
Trash and Dishes
As I mentioned earlier, we use a gallon zip-lock bag for trash, the tough freezer-kind. We remove as much of the wrapping on all products as we can at home. Whatever stays on the products themselves, after use, we fold neatly into the zip-lock for compactness.
Even though we've done this so many times, it's always a little surprising to see how little trash we bring back. There are exceptions, such as the Shi Shi beach backpacking trip where we found we needed to do our part and bring home a whole garbage bag of somebody else's trash they left behind.
We don't carry dishwashing soap with us anymore. We always eat the entire portion, making sure we finish every little crumb left, as well as we can. We then rinse the plate and utensils with cold water well away from camp (recommended distance is 100 yd). If the meal was greasy, heating a little bit of water to keep your plate clean makes sense. We have a second zip-lock for storing a greasy unfolded bowl (we actually bring 2 or 3 extra zip-locks just in case).
▸ Leave No Trace
One of the principles of backpackers is to leave the place cleaner than you found it. Take just a few minutes to browse Leave No Trace.
Water Heating, Utensils, and Dinnerware
So, what gear and dinnerware do you need to prepare all of the above? Not much, as it turns out. Here's what we take along on our trips:
We still have our REI titanium sporks from back when we started backpacking. They're great! Snow Peak makes a similar one:
▸ Small Knife
We carry and share a small knife for opening packages, spreading cheese, cutting the bagel, etc. Benchmade makes great knives. This is the model we have and love.
Can't recommend this Fozzils Bowlz Pack enough. Its great advantage is that you can unfold it (fully or partially). Because of that you can use it as a cutting board, easily clean it, and better store it in your pack or bear canister.
▸ Cup - for Heating Water and Drinking
We've been using the Snow Peak Trek 700 for a long time. It's the best size for 2 people (even for one). You can heat water for a 2 person meal, then heat again for coffee or use the cup to drink. You may need an additional smaller (lighter) cup for your partner if you're not up to sharing one.
Soto makes the best backpacking stoves in my opinion. They just work and they're the smallest and lightest I have ever seen. Worked on the JMT, worked at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier, worked on the Pacific Coast. You don't need a match to light it and yes, the igniter still works after years and years of use (do carry backup matches, you never know). They make 2 models (we have both). I recommend the Soto Wind Master.
If this is your first time backpacking, your question will be: how much fuel do I need? I still pause to think before every trip. The answer is more complicated and it's based on how much you're going to use the stove.
For a weekend trip for two, you will be fine with one 110g can. For a longer trip, up to 5 days, get the 220g can. Whenever we're not sure, we take an extra 110g can for backup and emergencies, especially in cold weather.
▸ Backup matches
You should already have some sort of fire-making kit in your 10 essentials. We carry these matches, although never needed to use them.
It's super important to store your food (and any and all scented items) into a safe place where animals can't reach. It should be safe off-the-ground or in a bear can. More so in bear country where you want them stored well away from your tent.
Never take a snack with you in your tent or forget to put your toothpaste back in the bear can, or you risk getting a visit in the middle of the night. You got my point, now let's see your options.
▸ Food bag
We don't use food bags. We always carry our bear canister(s) - see below why. Our friend Nate, however, uses a bag when it's convenient to hang. Nate is a minimalist when it comes to backpacking. I believe he chooses this option because it's lighter weight than a bear canister. He chose a kayaking bag because it's more abrasion resistant than other backpacking bags. It worked great for him on Wonderland Trail on Mount Rainier, where camps have hanging poles. You have to be careful and make sure you have a place to hang it around your camp. For that reason, we just don't bother and always carry our bear canister instead.
▸ Bear Canister
We started backpacking with the trusty Bear Vault BV500, the most common of the bear canisters out there. Then, when we did the John Muir Trail last summer, we needed extra storage and we ordered a couple of Bearikades. While the Bear Vault is lightweight at 700 cubic inches, a custom Bearikade can be made in 1000 cubic inches volume while staying lighter than a BV500. But it's also 5 times more expensive. So, my advice is: if money makes no difference and you think you will do a lot of backpacking, get a Bearikade. The Bear Vault BV500 is a great option to start with, without breaking the bank. Besides, it has some advantages: it's transparent and you don't need a coin to open it, just twist the lid.
Almost forgot, the most important ingredient. Water!
▸ Water Filter
Don't forget your water filter and backup cartridge. There are many options for filtering water ranging from nothing at all, to gravity filters, to ultraviolet lights, to iodine pills. We decided to use a light-weight filter, the MSR HyperFlow Microfilter. We filter all water we drink and also all water that we use for food, because we don't always bring it to a boiling point, especially for coffee.
Be aware that this filter, while very good and light-weight, is very sensitive to dirty water. Always consider very carefully the quality of water you pass through and back-flush regularly according to the manual - I'm serious, it's very easy to get it stuck and, when it gets stuck, it takes a strong arm and a lot of energy to pump even the smallest amount of water. For that purpose, we always carry a pre-filter such as the MSR Sweetwater Siltstopper, which helps.
▸ Backup Water Treatment
We always carry iodine pills as backup in case the filter fails. They weight virtually nothing and fit neatly in our first-aid kit. We just don't want to risk coming home with an extra passenger (such a Giardia, etc).
▸ Stomach medication
You never know, altitude or maybe the food you had can mess with your stomach. So don't forget to pack some stomach medication in your first-aid kit. Don't forget to store it with your other scented items (if it has a scent).
▸ Vacuum Sealer (optional)
We purchased this sealer to help us better pack meals for the John Muir Trail. We needed it because we needed everything packed really tight so it could fit in our bear can for the last 10 days of our trip. Yes, we had to carry food for 10 days. It was easier than we expected and the sealer helped a lot. More about that in a future post.
As always, thanks for reading this article! We hope we could help you make a more informed decision regarding food and food gear for your own backpacking trip. We'd love to hear from you, please leave a comment below.
Have a delicious backpacking trip!