If you’re reading this, you’re about to go camping somewhere and need some hiking food or you for some reason want to eat camping meals on daily basis. We’ll assume the former. A good hiking meal and good company(or you’re own if you prefer solo camping) are very important during your outdoor adventures.
These meals are usually the bulk of your food while you’re out and about in the wilderness and will help you replenish energy you need along with your journey. There many factors in picking your hiking food that will play a key role in if you’ll feel stuffed, re-energized, and cozy, or tired, hungry and cranky. In this guide, we’ll do a deep dive into the best things you can eat for your hiking meals.
What are my options for trail food?
You have so many options when it comes to hiking meals, however, your hiking itinerary should help you focus in on what you should and should not bring.
Going on a 3-day backpacking trip over the Sierras with 4,000+ elevation gain? You’ll want to bring lighter and more compact meals. Going on a car camping trip with some old friends to get away from the city? You can opt to be more luxurious and bring a cooler and stove to cook fresh food. You want the hiking food you bring to provide energy and deliciousness when you’re resting at camp.
If you’re going on a more leisurely hike that’s fairly short in time and distance than you have the luxury to bring fresh food. Fresh food is food that generally only lasts for that day or food that cannot really take the beating of being out all day long during your hike due to the temperature changes and being tossed around as you hike(remember that banana you brought on your 3-day backpacking trip?).
Example of fresh food would be bringing fresh fruits, sandwiches from the shop or The benefit of fresh foods is they taste the best and will make you the happiest, but the downside is they don’t last long and are only viable during day hikes. burritos if you’re ambitious.
These kinds of foods are things such as pasta, ramen noodles, crackers, and bread. You can bring dry foods on longer day hikes and overnight trips, however, you’d have to bring camp kitchen gear to prepare it. Dry foods, while delicious and provide good flavor, require you to stop your day hike and cook the food. The benefit of these foods is they’ll last a long time while out on the trail, but they take longer to cook.
Dehydrated meals are an amazing option to provide you with a full meal that is delicious. If you’re the type that likes to stop during your day hike for a full lunch, these are perfect for you. There are dehydrated meals ranging from teriyaki chicken, scrambled eggs, all the way to pad thai(whoa, what?? – our same thoughts). These meals usually take 5 to 10 minutes to be rehydrated.
The downsides to dehydrated meals are you have to have a method to boil water, usually a camp stove and small pot, you need water, (your own or a water source from the trail), you have to carry out the trash, and the cost (some are as much as $12 per meal). I’d recommend these if you’re out on an intense day hike and you need to replenish your energy.
The forgotten sibling of dehydrated meals, can foods are your next option. Who doesn’t like some alphabet soup or clam chowder out on the trail? The biggest downside to can food is the weight! Cans are really heavy and you’ll need a way to open them while out on the trail. You’ll also have to deal with carrying around an empty can after you eat.
We really only recommend can foods while car camping due to the amount of weight and trash left over. The benefit of can foods is they are very inexpensive and provide a convenient source of food that tastes pretty good.
The most important part of your meal planning isn’t even food. (Wait, what??) Yea, the most important are beverages. Most people underestimate how much water to bring during their day hikes. Always bring more water than you think you need. If you’re going on a longer day hike, definitely bring a drink that has electrolytes to help keep your body going.
Drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, or coconut water(our favorite) will replenish the salt your body is losing as you sweat on your way up those switchbacks. Other options you have are a source of caffeine from either coffee or tea. Being properly hydrated is the difference between you being the one hiking down after summiting and telling others “You’re almost there”, even though they’re only half a mile in.
What should I bring?
All of the above is helpful, but you need to have a plan for your days. Your hiking situation will dictate what you should and shouldn’t bring. Hiking burns a massive amount of calories and people usually only plan enough food for their normal work/school day(the average of 2,000 to 2,500 calories), but you’ll definitely need more because you’re burning calories each step you take on your hikes.
You have to factor in the weight of your pack, the distance you’ll hike, and the elevation you’ll gain during your hike. The more intense your hike, the more calories you’ll burn, so the more food you’ll need out on the trails.
If you’re planning on bringing food that requires boiling water or cooking, check if your trail will have water sources readily available. This will allow you to carry more water and filter as you go. If there isn’t then you’ll have to plan to bring extra water to cook on top of your drinking water.
Distance & Elevation
Depending on how long your hike is and the difficulty, you’ll be burning more calories the longer your hike is. On top of the hike distance, also factor in the amount of elevation gain you’ll have. Your body will be working even harder as you go higher and higher up.
The last thing you need to think about is the weather because this controls whether or not you can cook. If you know it is going to be raining hard, then you won’t be able to stop and cook. If you’re hiking in the summer and it’ll be 90 degrees plus, then you probably won’t want to plan food that takes time to heat up either, but instead bring something that is quick and easy to eat.
What’s the best way to pack and store my food items?
The best way I’ve found to pack dehydrated meals is inside of a compression sack, the dehydrated meal packaging makes for a quick mess if you just dump them in your pack. If you don’t have a compression sack, just use a good old plastic bag and tie them together, the downside of this is my plastic bags usually rip from the sharp edges of the meal packaging. This helps keep your food all in one place.
When I started hiking I’d just carry big bottles of water, but then I found myself drinking water infrequently due to the inconvenience of having to open my pack and grab my bottle. (maybe I’m just really lazy) It wasn’t until I discovered hydration packs that I was able to bring more water and have an easier way to drink water.
For other beverages such as Gatorade or coconut water, I like to bring a vacuum-sealed bottle with ice in it. Nothing beats an ice cold beverage in the middle of a hot hike.
The same goes for hot tea or coffee, I’ll bring a vacuum-sealed bottle to keep them out throughout the day. Ultralight hikers probably just sighed in unison as bringing these bottles is more weight to carry, but it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
For Areas with Bears
Most parks require bear canisters now, so double check with the local ranger station. This is like the ultimate Tetris test. You thought you were good at Tetris? Wait till you try to stuff five days worth of snacks and meals into one bear canister… Make sure to follow the rules of placing your bear canister away from your tent while you sleep, you don’t want smokey the bear to come knocking for snacks.
What should I do with the trash?
Leave no trace.
There’s no worse feeling than making a weekend road trip to see that amazing view you saw online, only to arrive and see trash everywhere. What we do is pack our trash out in the ziplock bags. For our meals, we bring an entire empty gallon zip lock bag just to store the dehydrated meal packaging after we’re done eating.
What do you recommend?
Our go-to for hiking meals are dehydrated meals. They are the most convenient to eat, make us feel full, provide a nutritious meal, and require very little work to cook.
Our favorite brands are Good To-Go, Heather’s Choice, and Trailtopia. These brands are healthier and have a variety of flavors available for you to choose from. Usually, everyone starts off with Mountain House since they are sold in big grocery chains (Walmart, Costco).
Where should I get these items?
For all of your day hiking trail food, just hit up your local grocery store, the local outdoor retailer, or try us out.
For your overnight trips, grab dehydrated meals – your best bet is your local outdoor retailer or shop around online.
A meal planning for a weekend trip
Heather’s Choice Blueberry Cinnamon Buckwheat Breakfast
Banana, Nuts, Tea
Trailtopia Pesto Chicken Pasta
Good To-Go Pad Thai
Trailtopia Egg Scramble
Good To-go Bibimbap
Trailtopia Chili Mac with Beef
You are now equipped with enough knowledge to strategically plan your backpacking meals. Always bring a bit more than you think you need as you never know what could happen out on the trails. Buying in bulk and waiting for sales for dehydrated meals has served us well over the years. If you sign up for Hiker Crate, we also give discounts on a variety of brands for the trail bars, jerky, and even dehydrated meals. We recommend buying a variety of flavors and textures as you don’t want to be stuck eating the same spaghetti three days in a row.