Backpacking Essentials Part I: Preparing Food for the Trail

I have decided to start a new series on my blog about backpacking essentials. Backpacking is a big part of my life and I thought it might be fun to share some tips on how to get the most out of a backpacking trip. If you have questions you want answered or need some general guidance, please contact me or leave a comment below and I will make sure to address those topics in future posts.

It’s the ideal time of year for backpacking – at least it is in the Pacific Northwest. As the weather cools slightly, pesky bugs and crowds slowly dissipate and venturing into the wilderness brings more solitude. The temperatures in Oregon feel more like what you would expect in southern Texas right now, but that will change once this silly heat wave passes next week. Since backpacking season came late this year due to lingering snow on the trails and unseasonably cold weather in June and July, Tim and I still haveĀ  a hefty list of trails we hope to hike in the upcoming months.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about preparing food for overnight (or longer) backpacking trips for quite some time. When Tim and I first started backpacking together (waaaaay back in 1996!) we took simple, bland food like ramen noodles, crackers, raisins, and oatmeal packets. We have learned over the years that fresh, flavorful food is much more enjoyable on the trail. It is also better for you since packaged meals contain more sodium and other icky ingredients. We developed a knack for creating exciting meals on the trail when we lived in New Zealand. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for us to make pizza or stir-fry at our campsites! I remember making fried bananas for dessert one night…

Anyways, preparing for backpacking trips is quite easy once you’ve picked a trail and have your map (always have a map!!). Usually Tim checks road/trail conditions while I plan/prepare our meals. We pack our gear the night before so that taking off in the morning is quick and effortless.

We have also learned over the years to pack lighter (I will write a post on this topic in the future). A few years ago we made our own backpacks (Tim uses his, but I don’t like mine very much because it hurts my shoulders), tent, tarp, and sleeping bag (yes, we share a sleeping bag, but the pattern was designed for two and it’s pretty amazing). The combined weight of the last three items is less than that of one regular sleeping bag from an outdoor store (or very close in weight). We have a standard tent that we use on occasion too. The lighter weight of our gear allows us to stretch a bit and use more fresh foods for our meals.

Here is a list of some of our top choices for staying full and nourished on the trail:

Breakfasts

  • Couscous mixed with a bit of sweetener, dried fruits, nuts, cinnamon, and unsweetened shredded coconut (cooked using powdered soy milk mixed with water to make it richer and creamier) – Add a dollop of peanut butter to the top for extra protein

  • Homemade granola topped with dried bananas and non-dairy milk (using soy milk powder and reconstituting with water)
  • Bagels topped with peanut butter and dried fruits or avocado (also nice for quick lunches)
  • Oatmeal topped with chia seeds, nuts, dried, fruits, and maple syrup (we only make oatmeal if we are tired of the other options)
Lunches/Snacks
  • Carrot sticks
  • Dried apple rings
  • Homemade energy bars

  • Fresh grapes, blueberries, and/or pitted cherries (sturdy and refreshing)
  • Kale chips
  • Tofu jerky (homemade is nice because you can control the flavors/seasonings)
  • Bagel sandwiches (sturdy and filling)

  • Nuts
  • Small cookies or squares of chocolate (if it isn’t too hot to melt them)
Dinners
  • Soba noodles with sliced bell peppers, broccoli florets, cabbage, carrots, and coconut curry sauce (made at home and carried in a small leakproof bottle)

  • Pasta with sauteed tempeh cubes (marinated and cooked at home) and marinara sauce (also made at home and packed in a small, leakproof bottle)
  • Soup (better enjoyed during colder weather) – Pack some bouillon cubes, diced veggies, and small noodles and you are pretty much set. If you don’t mind packing a few small squares of cornbread, your dinner will be much more filling. Dried onion, garlic, and nutritional yeast are also nice, flavorful additions.
  • Curry – Chop and prep a variety of veggies at home (carrot disks, green beans, bell pepper, etc) and also prepare a small bottle of sauce. We serve our curry over couscous since it cooks so quickly. But, curry served as a stew is equally nice too.

  • Soft tacos – Pack small soft corn tortillas, a bell pepper, prepared soy curls, and some refried beans (in a ziplock bag, not the can). We usually pack half a can of beans and that is plenty for two people.
Desserts
  • Small cookies
  • Chocolate bars
  • Sturdy brownie squares
  • Graham crackers spread with chocolate hazelnut butter (travel size squeeze packets are great for this!) and topped with vegan marshmallows
  • Pudding, if you have the patience, is so much fun! You just need to mix the proper ratio of powdered non-dairy milk, dried sweetener, cocoa powder, a thickening starch such as arrowroot, and maybe some chocolate chips with water. Backpacking stoves can be fussy, so watch carefully when you cook the pudding.

Tips:
  • If you can find small (1 – 4 ounce sizes work well), leakproof bottles, I highly suggest making the investment. You can tote sauces, cooking oil, biodegradable soap, etc with ease. We use Nalgene brand bottles, like these.
  • Take along a small scrubby sponge (we cut a square from our dish sponge at home) and scraper to make washing pots/dishes less of a hassle. Make sure to use a biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner’s.
  • As much as I hate having to use ziplock bags, they are essential for backpacking. We wash and reuse our ziplock bags so we don’t need to buy them very often. Ziplocks are great for packing meal components. I even save the bulk spice ziplocks (which are often very small) from my co-op to pack toppings for meals (sesame seeds for noodle meals, shredded coconut for oatmeal, sprinkles for pudding, mixed herbs for soups, etc). Make sure to use a variety of sizes so you aren’t packing extra unnecessary weight and bulk.
  • It also helps to group each meal’s ingredients together. That way, you aren’t digging around looking for noodles in one bag and sauce in another bag. Keeping your meals organized means you save time cooking and can stow food you don’t need out of the way.
  • Prepare as much of your meals at home as possible. If you have been hiking for eight miles, the last thing you want to do is spend an hour or more making dinner. I always make sauces in advance, precook/marinate tempeh or soycurls, wash and chop veggies (except for mushrooms) at home the night before we leave.
  • Label your bags! Make sure to write on each food bag what the contents are and any cooking instructions needed. If you measured oats at home and didn’t write the amount on the ziplock, you’ll be making guesses on how much liquid to add later.
  • Get rid of any excess packaging from store-bought foods. You will save weight (obviously) and will have less trash to pack out after your trip.
  • Speaking of trash, PACK IT OUT WITH YOU!!!! Don’t be a lazy litterbug. Tim and I have come across random garbage on the trail and grumble every single time. We pick it up as long as we have room to pack it out with us. If you can’t be responsible for your own trash, stay at home and live in your stupid mess.
  • Don’t wash your dishes, pots, and utensils in local water sources. It is bad for all the wonderful creatures who live in the water and it is bad for the environment. Wash your dishes with as little soap and water as possible and do so away from your tent (you don’t want to attract critters!). We sprinkle our dishwater away from water sources and our campsite. This is why having a pot scraper is handy – you can get as much food from your dishes off as possible so there is less to dispose of later.
  • Keep snacks more accessible in your pack. Sometimes it’s a nuisance to take off your pack and dig around looking for snacks. I keep a day’s worth of tasty snacks in the lid of my pack so I can reach them with ease.
  • Pack more perishable items a bit deeper in your pack if the weather is warmer. They will stay insulated longer.
  • Speaking of more perishable foods, use them first. For example, if you have a meal that uses tempeh and a meal that is noodles with veggies and sauce, make the tempeh meal first. We have found that fresh veggies last a few days on the trail so don’t fret about them going funny on you.
  • Make sure that you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. If you are grumpy, you won’t be a fun hiking companion and you won’t have the energy to prepare and eat your delicious meals! We pack Emergen-C packets and teabags for snazzing up plain water. Cocoa is nice in the colder months (add some vegan marshmallows if you fancy that sort of thing).
  • Don’t hesitate to pack fresh veggies. It took us several years to realize that fresh really is better on the trail. Sure, prepackaged foods are lighter, but they don’t bring as much joy to your tummy. If you want to lighten your meal load, check out this AMAZING book, “Another Fork in the Trail – Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes for the Backcountry” by Laurie Ann March (check out Laurie’s website here). I had this book from my library for nearly a month and didn’t want to part with it. There are tons of wonderful recipes inside, many of which require a food dehydrator. I am all for self-dehydrating foods at home rather than buying those meals made specifically for the trail. If you make it at home, you control the ingredients!
  • When you go to sleep at night, make sure you hang your food. Don’t pack it in your tent with you! If it is accessible to creatures and critters, they WILL find it and eat it. We once accidentally left an oatmeal cookie in Tim’s pack and a raccoon ate a hole in Tim’s pack to get to the cookie! You needn’t worry about this if you are in an area where creatures and critters are less predominant. Use your best judgment.
  • Cook and eat your food away from your tent. You don’t want to attract animals to your site.

That’s all I can think of for now. Stay tuned for Part II next week and also the last installment of my Summer Adventure Series in the next few days.

12 thoughts on “Backpacking Essentials Part I: Preparing Food for the Trail

  1. Ha! “Stay at home and live in your stupid mess” – preach! I hate litterbugs. So ironic that the individuals enjoying all that beauty are contributing ugliness.
    New Zealand!? When did you live there? Details! How interesting.

  2. Love this post! I go backpacking too, and am always looking for more vegetarian meal ideas for overnight trips. It took me awhile to start bringing fresh vegetables too. For some reason I was afraid they would go bad even on short trips, haha.

    • Hooray for fellow veggie backpackers!!! If you have any favorite meals you make on backpacking trips, I’d love to hear about them. I tend to rotate through the same meals and would love some new inspiration :)

  3. Awesome primer! I was hoping you’d write one :) I’m going to print it out and stash it in my backpack for the next time I go out (hopefully next month! I mean, geez, I live right on the appalachian trail…)

  4. I love this post! When we lived in California we went camping and hiking a lot – but no matter what I always feel like a noob when it comes to meal planning around a campfire. Can’t wait to try some of these out!

  5. Hey there…. just a little note from Canada to thank you for the compliment you gave me on Another Fork in the Trail. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I also wanted to let you know that I post the odd new vegan/vegetarian recipe on my Facebook page (aptly called A Fork in the Trail after my first book).

    Happy Hiking!
    Laurie Ann

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