When it comes to trip planning, backpacking food is one of the easiest things to mess up. Beginners are prone to epic mistakes. For example, I once packed five pounds of pancake mix. Don’t ask. And intermediate and experienced backpackers often fall into sub-optimal packing routines simply out of laziness or lack of time. Are you dissatisfied with your adventure fuel, hoping to lighten your load, or just looking to improve an important backcountry skill? Below are 10 backpacking food mistakes and how to correct them.
But first, what makes a good backpacking diet? I believe there are six key traits: lightweight, calorie dense, low volume, varied (in flavor and texture), reasonably healthy, and easy to eat/prepare. Beyond those, you should also strive for food that tastes good, and supports your daily mileage and itinerary goals.
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#1: Not enough variety
My dream backpacking meal plan consists entirely of unique food items, with no two snacks being the same. While I may never achieve that perfectly, I belive variety makes everything taste better. If you’ve ever been on a longer trip and packed the same things to eat every day, you’ll understand the soul-crushing feeling of looking into a food bag and realizing that you already hate all the options. One way to correct this is to buy a wide variety of foods in bulk at the start of backpacking season, then store them well and dip into each for one or two serving per trip.
#2: Too much trail mix, too many bars
The most common way to fail the variety test is by overpacking in these two specific categories. I shudder to recall the times I’ve seen my partners snack game consisting exclusively of bars and nut mixes. Every bulk, health and junk food section will offer a wide variety of good snack options that are not those. Especially Trader Joe’s, if you have them around. For maximum salivation, I personally recommend no more than one bar and two trail mixes per day.
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Here are a few of my personal favorites: Half Pops, peanut butter filled pretzels, sesame sticks, Aztec trail mix, toasted coconut, dried cherries, dried mango, cinnamon candied almonds, white chocolate pretzels, Korean BBQ flavored dried chick peas, chipotle smoked gouda, Twix, fiber supplement brownies, mozzarella cheese sticks, fig newtons, salted sunflower seeds, Clif Kid Z fruit ropes, landjäger.
#3: Not enough salty food
Hiking is a sweaty business, especially in summer, and you’re going to need to maintain a steady intake of electrolytes. You’ll be especially hard pressed to find salts if you fall for Mistake #2. Plus, who—besides 6-year-olds—wants to eat sugary food literally all day long? To correct this, while laying out your food at home, make sure to pair each sugary snack with a savory snack and you’ll guarantee an even mix.
#4: Too bulky
We only have so much room in our backpacks, so it’s important to bring things that don’t absorb all the space. There are three common worst offenders: hard-sided or inflated packaging, freeze-dried meals and fluffy stuff (bagels, bread, popcorn, etc). To solve this problem, make sure to decant all your food into sandwich-sized Ziploc bags, learn to pre-make your own dinners, and shop space-consciously (i.e. tortillas over bread).
#5: Too much food
Packing the exact right amount of food is exceedingly difficult and most people prefer to err on the side of caution and overpack. Often to the detriment of our legs. On numerous occasions, I’ve exited the trail with an entire extra day’s worth of munchies. To correct for this, learn how many calories your body requires on short, medium and long hiking days, and use nutrition labels to pack approximately the right amount according to your itinerary. For the average hiker, I recommend ~3000-4000 calories on <10 mile days, ~4000-5000 on 10-20 mile days, and ~5000-6000 on 20+ mile days.
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#6: Overpacking the last day’s food
Speaking of overpacking, the most common way to screw up is packing too much food on the last day of the trip. Having learned this lesson, I rarely pack more than a breakfast, instead relying on consuming any overage from other days of the trip, plus fueling up immediately after with a monstrous brunch or burrito. Most people end their trip with a half day plus a drive, so unless your itinerary differs, I recommend keeping your end-game victuals to a minimum.
#7: Too little food
Beginners rarely pack too little food (see Mistake #6). This problem usually comes from the fast-and-light crowd, looking to cover maximum distance with minimal packs. That’s all good and fine, but if you’ve ever run out of food, you know the risk-to-reward-ratio just isn’t worth it. To prevent this problem while going ultralight, make sure you lay out your daily rations while packing at home, count calories, and focus on super rich options like meat, oil, cheeses, nuts, and seeds.
#8: No veggies
Most people desire to eat a complete diet, but when it comes to fruits and veggies, everyone skimps on the latter. The problem is mainly that dried veggies are simply less available than dried fruits. To solve for this, stock your pantry online. I recommend things like Karen’s Naturals dried veggies and Mother Earth freeze dried broccoli. At the grocery store, you can usually find wasabi peas, seasoned dried chickpeas, or veggie chips, or kale chips (too crumbly for snacking, add into dinners).
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#9: Too bland
If you cook your own breakfasts or dinners, there’s probably room to add more flavor and ingredients to spice things up. Here are a few of my favorite additives: olive oil packets, sriracha packets, jerk seasoning, salt and pepper, dried veggies, cheese, bacon bits, salami, pepperoni, summer sausage (or flavored soy protein if you’re vegetarian).
Mistake #10: Too expensive
Let’s be honest, backpacking gear is expensive enough already. Nobody wants to break the bank on food. The easiest ways to cut costs are buying in bulk and avoiding particularly expensive foods like freeze dried meals, jerky (always overpriced and not high in calories), and the archetypical chia-based energy bars. Instead of buying individual bars, buy six packs. Instead of buying jerky, buy summer sausage. Instead of freeze dried meals, eat couscous, mashed potatoes, ramen, or stove-top stuffing. Backpacking food doesn’t need to be expensive! $20 per day is a reasonable target.
Behind only hiking and sleeping, eating is the third most common ways to spend time on a backpacking trip, so it pays oodles of lifetime value to master the art. Are you an aspiring backcountry gourmand? Then the challenge of packing delicious lightweight food should inspire you to keep perfecting a menu. Do you view food purely as fuel? Then finding the most calorically dense options will certainly appeal. No matter your style, there’s lots to be gained in upgrading your pantry. Happy hiking!
Photos by Austin Siadak and Elise Giordano.