Backpacking Meals Made Simple

Find your inner balance with the help of a few effortless modifications to your mountainside meals.

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by Adobe Stock/mooshny

The wonder of a backpacking trip can’t be beat — a running stream tumbling over rocks, fresh air, scenic beauty, and the opportunity to get away from life’s stresses. What better way to add to the day’s adventure than enjoying tasty food out in the woods?

Oddly, many hikers spend a fair amount of time planning their upcoming hike and gathering the necessary gear, but give little time or thought to food preparation for the big trip. Many grab what’s quick and convenient while unaware that prepackaged food choices can adversely affect health and performance during and after a backpacking trip. If we put poor nutrition into our bodies while on the trail, we’ll get poor performance out of our bodies, resulting in a lack of energy, fatigue, poor sleep, headaches, and weakened immune systems. An inadequate nutritional and caloric intake can also lead to weight loss and decreased muscle mass on long-distance hikes, or rapid weight gain post-hike.

tourists pouring water into the kettle

After backpacking for many years and experiencing similar symptoms, I learned that these issues stemmed from poor food choices and inadequate water intake. Because of the ill effects I suffered on trips fueled by prepackaged foodstuffs, I endeavored to create new meal options and change the way I eat while backpacking. This reboot offered better food variety, along with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins for better wellness on and off the trail.

Breakfast: Rise and Grind

This important get-up-and-go meal needs to deliver staying power to start your hiking day. Common foods that hikers use are toaster pastries, glazed doughnut rolls, and oatmeal packets — all sugar, with little nutrition and staying power (see “What to Avoid and Why” below). A more wholesome start can be your favorite organic granola cereal and dried milk, supplemented with your preference of nuts and dried fruits. Premade bars from brands such as GoMacro, Clif, Luna, Kind, and Nature Valley will keep you full and energized. Even bagels and peanut butter (or other nut butters) work well.

Homebaked Cookie Bars With Chocolate Chips, Cranberry, Coconut, Pecan

If you’d like to start with a warm breakfast, keep a zip-close bag filled with a cup or two of steel-cut oats; a teaspoon or so of evaporated cane syrup crystals; dried fruits, such as blueberries, cherries, cranberries, and dates; and almonds or walnuts. When you’re ready for breakfast, add water (1 cup water to 1⁄2 cup dry mix) to your combined ingredients, and cook it all for several minutes on a backpacking stove to yield a fortifying and energizing morning treat.

Lunch: Planning Ahead for Making a Tread

A combination of wraps in a favorite tortilla or sandwiches in a bagel can make for filling meals. Avoid bringing soft breads on the trail, as they’ll easily smoosh in your backpack. Spreads can include anything from nut butters and jams to reconstituted dehydrated hummus or pesto. Various hard cheeses, such as cheddar and smoked Gouda, can make the journey, but avoid soft cheeses, such as cream cheese.

Tuna packets are a good lunch option, but pay special attention to the sodium levels. Jerky made of beef or tofu also satisfies protein requirements. Soups can be easily prepared in cold weather (see “New Ramen Soup” below). For a bit of a treat, pecan cookie bars (see below) or your favorite granola mix can wrap up a delicious lunch. These options provide a source for endurance in addition to being strong sources of energy. They also keep well in a backpack.

Dinner: Hearty Meals for Hiking Thrills

The all-important dinner is the pièce de résistance after a long hiking adventure. A good meal will give your body the nourishment it needs to heal after the rigors of hiking. Carry a little salt, pepper, and even some herbs in snack-sized zip-close bags to season to your taste. Soak dehydrated ingredients while you set up your evening campsite. The dinner recipes I’ve included yield enough for one person. Use separate zip-close bags for the ingredients, and label them for easy identification.

pan of pasta sitting on a camp stove on wood with a blue cup next…

Hikers head to the woods to feel better and realize a dream, so it makes sense to eat right too. With a little planning, creativity, and some preparation, meals on the trail can be simple, satisfying, and add to the long-lasting effects of a well-enjoyed trip.

What to Avoid and Why

Here are a few examples of typical backpacking fare and the reasons you may wish to avoid them.

Prepackaged dehydrated meals: They’re favored for their convenience, but they’re expensive, offer inconsistent quantities, and can contain additives and an excess of sodium.

Canned foods: Chicken and Spam packets are impractical, heavy to carry (your legs and back will feel it), and laden with preservatives and an excess of sodium. Conversely, fresh fruits, vegetables, and regular breads can bruise, spoil, or get smooshed in a backpack.

Ready-made products: Hikers often choose to carry ramen noodle soup mixes, Knorr pasta or rice sides, potato pouches, tuna and chicken packets, pepperoni, toaster pastries, oatmeal packets, candy bars, and so on. Cheap and quick, these items are poor quality and loaded with additives — GMOs, high sodium, MSG, sugar — that amounts to little nutritional value, and they’re similar in processed flavor.

Snacking On the Trail

Combinations of the famous trail-hardy GORP (which can be much more than “good old raisins and peanuts”) can satisfy hunger at rest points throughout your hike. Farmers markets, health food stores, and large supermarkets offer assorted nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, sesame sticks, dried fruit, and anything else you want for making unique snacking combinations.

blonde woman wearing hiking gear holding hiking sticks leaning on a wood post with an…

If you buy dried fruit from the store, avoid added sugar. Freeze-dried fruits, though very light, easily crumble into powder and aren’t worth the price. Candy bars are a favorite snack for hikers, but they can make you sluggish because of the high sugar content that raises the glycemic index. The same brands of premade bars listed for breakfast can also make wholesome snacks. When snacking on a trail, moderation is key.

5 Easy Dehydrated Foods

A dehydrator removes water content, allowing hikers to safely carry a variety of foods (which can later be rehydrated for meals) through their routes with ease. No need to spend a lot, either. I use a Nesco Snackmaster food dehydrator or my home oven on the lowest temperature with the door cracked open for air circulation.

  1. Fresh and frozen vegetables, such as peas and carrots, make great dehydrated additions to hiking meals.
  2. Sauces, such as tomato or pesto, can be dried to a leather using the plastic sheet that comes with the dehydrator.
  3. Jerky is made by slicing beef, such as London Broil, into thin strips, marinating them overnight in 3 parts soy sauce to 1 part red wine (remember to remove the air from the plastic zip-close bags when marinating), and then dehydrating the meat until it’s dry but not crisp.
  4. Extra-lean hamburger (or firm tofu) can likewise be marinated, cooked, patted dry with paper towels, and dehydrated. If you want to add chicken to your backpacking experience, raw or cooked chicken is too tough and difficult to rehydrate. However, a good canned chicken breast, though it
    contains a lot of sodium, is best for dehydrating (so consider this when using it in a meal preparation).
  5. Fruits, such as sliced apples and peaches, can also be dehydrated, but I usually purchase them. Buying at my favorite places, such as Trader Joe’s, natural food stores (even online options such as Thrive Market), and farmers markets, yields a variety of nutritious foods to bring for snacks or as ingredients to create meals.

Try out these tips and tricks yourself on your next hiking adventure using the recipes below!

New Ramen Soup

More nutritious than the prepackaged kind and with no MSG-loaded seasoning packets, this ramen is great for a quick, hot lunch, along with whatever tortillas or bagels are left. It can also be easily adjusted for vegetarian or vegan diets.

Yield: 1 bowl.


  • 2 zip-close bags
  • 1 heaping teaspoon dried organic broth, any flavor (use less if using dried tofu made with soy sauce)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon favorite herbs (I use poultry seasoning for chicken base, and herbes de Provence for beef)
  • 1/4 cup mixed dehydrated vegetables, such as peas and carrots
  • 1/4 cup dried beef, chicken, or tofu
  • 3/4 cup broken Italian capellini pasta


  1. Package first 4 ingredients in the first zip-close bag and the pasta in the second zip-close bag.
  2. In camp, soak the ingredients in 2 cups of water.
  3. Bring to boil and simmer 3 minutes.
  4. Add the noodles and simmer approximately 3 minutes.
  5. Adjust seasoning.

Thanksgiving Trail Dinner

Reminiscent of the holidays, this recipe is packed full of hearty fare to keep your body well-balanced while hiking.

Yield: 1 bowl.


  • 2 to 3 zip-close bags
  • 1/4 cup dried chicken
  • 1/3 package gravy mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 cup stuffing mix
  • 1/2 cup dried unseasoned potatoes


  1. Package the first 5 ingredients and the last 2 ingredients separately in zip-close bags.
  2. In camp, add the first bag of ingredients to 2 cups of water, creating a thinned gravy broth.
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat, add stuffing and potatoes, and stir until moistened.
  5. Add extra water if needed, adjust the seasoning to taste, and enjoy.

— Adapted from Lou Adsmond’s The Appalachian Trail Food Planner.

Beef Stroganoff

This recipe can also be made with dried tofu and dried vegetable broth for vegetarians. In addition to the vegetarian substitutes, you can omit the milk in favor of vegan nut milks.

Yield: 1 bowl.


  • 2 to 3 zip-close bags
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon non-MSG dried beef broth
  • 1/4 teaspoon herbes de Provence
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 cup dried peas
  • 1/4 cup dried extra-lean hamburger
  • 1 cup noodles or broken fettuccine
  • 1 tablespoon instant dried milk
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons cornstarch


  1. Package first 5 ingredients in zip-close bag.
  2. In camp, soak those ingredients in 1-3/4 cups of water.
  3. Bring to a boil and simmer 3 minutes.
  4. Add noodles and milk and cook 7 minutes until it reduces.
  5. Gently stir in some cornstarch with a little cold water until it thickens, and then enjoy.

— Adapted from Lou Adsmond’s The Appalachian Trail Food Planner.

Pecan Cookie Bars

These pecan cookies make for a sweet treat to be consumed at your leisure.
I enjoyed them on my Appalachian Trail journey. Yield: 24 bars (depending on size of cuts).


  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup evaporated cane juice or raw sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 1 egg yolk (reserve egg white)
  • 2 cups organic flour
  • 1/16 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans


  1. Cream butter and sugar.
  2. Beat in vanilla and egg yolk.
  3. Mix in flour, salt, and cinnamon.
  4. Press mixture into a greased 15-by-10-by-1-inch pan.
  5. Brush with slightly beaten egg white, and gently press pecans into the mixture.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes.
  7. Allow the mixture to cool, and then cut into bars.

— Adapted from Lou Adsmond’s The Appalachian Trail Food Planner.

Lauralee Bliss has completed the Appalachian Trail twice, worked as a ridgerunner for Shenandoah National Park, and spoken on hiking topics. She is the author of Mountains, Madness, and Miracles: 4,000 Miles along the Appalachian Trail, and, coming in 2019, Gators, Guts, and Glory: Adventures on the Florida Trail. Visit her at Blissful Hiking and on Facebook for her tips on backpacking.

dehydrator with two layers set next to it with dried fruits and greens sitting inside…

Make Your Own Backpacking Meals

Dry the season’s harvest for long-term preservation and snacking with the 6-Tray Digital Dehydrator from Weston. This lightweight, compact dehydrator is ideal for dried herbs, fruit leathers, jerky, banana chips, and more. The adjustable thermostat, digital display, and 48-hour timer with auto shut-off make it simple to preserve your favorite foods, and the continuous airflow ensures even drying. It includes one netting sheet for drying herbs, seeds, and other small food items, and a solid sheet for making fruit leathers.
Order from the MOTHER EARTH LIVING Store or by calling 800-456-6018. Mention promo code MMLPAIZ6. Item #8854.

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