Packing the right food is essential if you’re heading out on an ultralight backpacking adventure. You want to balance weight reduction and nutritional value, ensuring you have enough fuel to keep you going without weighing down your pack.
One of the great things about ultralight backpacking is that because your gear will be much lighter, you can indulge a little extra weight in your meals and snacks. Even still, there are some general guidelines and tricks to follow for choosing ultralight backpacking food.
What Do Ultralight Backpackers Eat?
Ultralight backpackers prioritize calorie-dense, lightweight food. Choosing food like instant oatmeal, dried fruits, jerky, tortillas, and dehydrated meals can help keep your pack light while meeting your energy needs.
How to Plan a Full Day of Ultralight Backpacking Food
The most important thing to do when packing food for an ultralight backpacking trip is meal planning. This way, you’ll stay organized, ensure you have enough calories per day, and avoid over or underpacking.
Consider the nutrients and calories you’ll need to sustain your energy levels and support your mileage.
Here are some steps to help you create a well-rounded backpacking meal plan.
1. Determine your daily calorie intake.
Calculate the approximate calories you’ll need to consume during your backpacking trip. This can vary depending on your body weight, hiking speed, and trail conditions.
Generally, you can expect to burn about 150 calories or more per mile. Multiply this by your daily mileage to get a rough estimate of your caloric needs.
2. Factor in nutrition.
In addition to calories, it’s helpful to ensure you’re getting a balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Ideally, aim for a diet that supports overall health and muscle recovery while promoting high energy levels.
I prefer a protein-rich diet while hiking, as I find it brings the best-sustained energy throughout the day without any crashes. (Like those you may deal with if you’re relying on sugar and carbs.) You can also supplement with electrolyte powders, green drink mixes, or protein powders to ensure you cover all of your bases.
3. Choose lightweight, calorie-dense foods.
Choose foods with a high ratio of calories per ounce. Some examples include dried fruits, trail mixes, nuts, and protein bars.
Freeze-dried or dehydrated meals are also convenient options that are lightweight, require minimal preparation, and often provide a good mix of nutrients and high calories.
4. Plan your meals.
Divide your day into meals and ensure you’re packing adequate snacks, too. See a few ideas and options below.
|Instant oatmeal and dried fruit
Dehydrated egg scramble
Granola and nuts
Instant single-serving coffee packets
Tortillas with nut butter and trail mix
Cheese and crackers
Tuna salad packets
Salami or other cured meats
Trail mixes and nuts
Nut butter packets
|Ramen, mac and cheese, or other noodle dishes
Pre-cooked, dry-packaged meals
Instant mashed potatoes
Dehydrated or freeze-dried meals like stews, chilis, etc.
Best Ultralight Snacks
Snacks provide quick energy bursts and help keep you going between meals. On a long-distance trip, I like to use the pro tip of eating a small snack roughly once an hour. Below are some of the best options for ultralight backpacking snacks.
Nuts and trail mix: Nuts are a good source of healthy fats, protein, and calories. Trail mixes live up to their name and are calorie-dense and easy to pack.
Dried fruit: Dried fruits like banana chips, cubed pineapple, mango strips, or craisins are lightweight, natural sources of sugar. They are also rich in vitamins and minerals, making them a nutritious snack choice.
Fruit snacks: You can buy a box of fruit snacks, which usually come in a bunch of small, single-serving packets. A little package of fruit snacks made with real fruit juice is one of my favorite ways to get a burst of sugar.
Jerky and other dried meat: Jerky and other dried meats are excellent sources of protein, making them an ideal snack for replenishing energy during long hikes. I’ve even brought air-dried beef slices that are more lightweight than jerky.
Nut butter packets: Almond or peanut butter packets are a convenient way to pump up your protein and fat consumption on a hike.
Small cheeses: Some cheeses are lightweight and resistant to spoiling on a backpacking trip. I like Babybels and Laughing Cow spreadable cheeses as they last a while without refrigeration.
Protein bars: While there are endless options for bars available these days, try to pick bars with high levels of protein rather than junk calories based on sugar. ProBars are my favorite because they’re lightweight and are high in protein with clean ingredients.
Energy blocks and gels: Energy blocks and gels are basically highly-concentrated sugars and electrolytes. They’re great when you really need a pick-me-up mid-hike.
Tips to Make Your Backpacking Food Lighter
The ultralight backpacker seems to be always searching for ways to cut down on pack weight. It’s a never-ending game, and ultralight backpacking food storage is one area where you can shed some grams!
Food will always get lighter as your trip goes on since it’s a consumable, but it’s great to be as lightweight as possible to begin with. In addition to choosing lightweight snacks, here are a few tips to make your backpacking food lighter:
1. Remove everything from its original packaging.
Transfer your ultralight backpacking food items to resealable bags (e.g. Ziploc). This eliminates unnecessary bulk and weight. And it really simplifies the Tetris game of packing your food, especially if you need to use a bear canister (like in some national parks and parts of the Pacific Crest Trail).
2. Don’t bring canned food.
Cans are heavy, take up too much space in your pack, and create awkward trash you’ll have to carry around.
3. Make a detailed plan.
Calculate precisely how much food you need for your trip, then add one extra meal for emergencies. Consider your daily calorie requirements and pack accordingly.
While it’s better to overpack than under-pack, making a meal plan for your backpacking trip will help you to avoid bringing excess food. And that will help cut weight that you don’t need.
4. Consider a food cache.
Consider a food cache if you’re taking a longer backpacking trip, a trek, or a thru-hike. Rather than packing food for the whole trip, just take enough for a few days or until you’ll intersect another trailhead or road.
On your drive to your starting point, swing by that spot and hide a food container from public view, where you can find it a few days later. Just make sure it’s in a bear and varmint-proof container and that you’re not breaking any rules.
Once you pick up your fresh batch of food, you can even ditch some of your trash or other used items. Just don’t forget to pick it up on your way home.
How to Find Cheap Backpacking Food Anywhere
If you are embarking on a thru-hike, by necessity, you’re eventually going to become an expert at finding cheap backpacking food at random places. Even if you’re only going on a shorter adventure, you can still benefit from buying backpacking food at a supermarket, rather than a specialty outdoors store, to keep your food costs low.
Any grocery store or gas station will have light, cheap, non-perishable food suitable for backpacking. Look for options like:
Ramen: Ramen noodles are a staple for many backpackers due to their low cost, availability, ease, and low weight. They can also be enhanced with additional ingredients like dehydrated vegetables or meat.
Mac and cheese: Instant mac and cheese is another budget-friendly and easy-to-prepare option. Look for single-serving boxes.
Instant mashed potatoes: These come in several different-sized bags and are a calorie-dense, inexpensive, and extremely lightweight option.
Ramen bombs: Combine a regular-sized bag of Idahoan instant mashed potatoes with a package of ramen noodles, and you have a super cheap base for two ultralight backpacking dinners. Put these into two separate Ziploc bags in advance for less hassle.
At camp, you’ll just add half to 1 cup of boiling water, gobble it up quickly, and sleep like a baby when you’re done. You can combine different flavors of ramen or potatoes and even add a pack of tuna or pre-cooked chicken for some protein.
Pre-packaged meals: I’ve used pre-packaged rice and Indian or Asian-inspired meals from the grocery store on trips. Tasty Bites or similar options are fully cooked and flavorful.
Instant oatmeal: Buy a box of single-serving oatmeal packets for convenience and flavor variety, or purchase a big box of instant oatmeal and portion it in ziplocks.
Tuna and chicken salad packets: Single-serving packets of tuna or chicken salad can be eaten with crackers or tortillas. I usually look for little boxed chicken salad meals with crackers and a plastic serving spoon.
Trail mixes and small nut packages: Look for small packages of nuts or trail mixes in the snack aisle. Sometimes these are only 99 cents at a gas station!
Toaster pastries: High in calories and sugar but actually sometimes fortified with vitamins, toaster pastries are available in any grocery store. I like to buy mine in advance from health food stores for a slightly more nutritious breakfast option on the trail, but you can find Pop Tarts anywhere.
Candy: While not the most nutritious option, candy can provide a quick burst of energy when you need it. Choose lightweight options like gummies, M&M’s, or small candy bars.
How to Find Cheap Backpacking Food at a Grocery Store
So you find yourself in a supermarket or gas station looking for cheap backpacking food. Wading through aisles of food for something suitable to throw in your pack doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Just ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is it shelf-stable?
Look for food that does not require refrigeration.
2. Is it lightweight?
Choose foods that are lightweight and easily packable. Avoid cans and other bulky items that can’t be re-packaged for your trip.
3. Is it calorie-dense?
Read the nutritional labels and choose items that provide a good number of calories per serving. High protein is a plus.
Does it meet all of these requirements? If so, bring it along. Congratulations, you’ve successfully shopped for your ultralight backpacking trip at a grocery store without spending a bunch of money at an outdoor retailer!
Homemade vs. Store-bought Backpacking Food
There are plenty of nutritious, lightweight, and tasty backpacking meals on the market. You can have a variety of good meals on the trail just by purchasing pre-made dehydrated food.
These pouches are convenient, lightweight, and calorie-dense. Most can be cooked in the package they come in just by adding boiling water, saving you from dish cleanup.
However, building an entire trip around pre-packaged, dehydrated meals can get expensive.
Some hikers make their own backpacking meals using a dehydrator. Dehydrating food at home allows you to save money in the long run. Plus, you can also cook and bring almost whatever you want!
While there is an initial investment in the dehydrator, the cost-per-meal can be significantly lower than purchasing pre-packaged meals.
Homemade backpacking meals do require an extra level of preparation and planning. Dehydrating food can be time-consuming. Additionally, homemade dehydrated food has a shorter shelf life than store-bought, pre-packaged backpacking meals.
Ultimately, deciding between homemade and store-bought backpacking food depends on your personal meal preferences, budget, and the time you’re willing to dedicate to food preparation.
Some of the best hiking meals I’ve ever had have been homemade, but there are great pre-made options on the market, too. It’s up to you how much time and preparation you want to put into creating your backpacking meals.