One of the most important considerations when planning any hike is deciding what food to take. Whether you’re heading off on a day hike or a multiday trek for weeks, food is something that requires quite a bit of planning and preparation. The best food for hiking is energy dense, lightweight, non-perishable and quick cooking. There are also other considerations like packaging, taste, cost and variety that impact what kind of food you take. All of this can be quite overwhelming, especially if it’s your first overnight hike or longer backpacking trip.
I often get asked about what food to take hiking. I’m also gluten and dairy free, which obviously adds extra constraints on what I can and can’t eat. So, I thought I would put together this guide to food for hiking, including food planning tips and meal ideas to help you plan your next hike.
Food planning tips for hiking
There are some really important things you need to consider when organising your food for a hiking trip. Depending on whether it’s just a long day hike or a multiday adventure, here are some of the key considerations you need to think about when planning your food.
Focus on energy dense and nutrient rich food
When you’re exerting so much energy out on the trail, you’ll need to carry enough food with you to provide the right amount of energy and nutrients to keep you going. While everyone is different, people generally agree that you need to carry around 2000-4000 calories per person per day.
While focusing on getting enough energy is one aspect, you also need to ensure you’re getting good nutrients. This means that you can’t just rely on eating whatever junk food you want to get enough calories into your body. Try to pack complex carbohydrates, protein and a healthy amount of fat, and think about the quality rather than quantity of the food before putting it into your pack.
Ensure you pack lightweight food
While you have to worry about getting enough energy into your body, keeping pack weight down is another one of the most important aspects for hikers. This is especially important for multi day hikes, when you might have to carry multiple days’ worth of food without breaking your back. This means ditching things like canned foods and packets of rice, which are way too heavy to carry despite their convenience.
A common rule is to budget between 700g to 1kg of food per person per day (although I would say to try to stay closer to 700g as much as possible). This means that planning your meals before you head out is important. You should lay out what food you will eat for each of your meals plus snacks before you go and try to keep it under this weight suggestion. If you’re relying heavily on dehydrated food, then this will be much easier than if you’re opting for other food items.
Try to stick to non-perishable and stable foods
Obviously, you won’t have any source of refrigeration while you’re out on the trail, so this limits you to only packing food that has a long shelf life or is non-perishable. While this usually means lots of dry food, dehydrated meals and packaged items, you’ll be surprised at what you can safely carry in your backpack without it spoiling (even cheese and salami can last longer than you think out of the fridge, read below for specific hiking food ideas).
However, fresh foods can be okay to carry on day hikes or short overnight hikes too. Produce like bananas, tomatoes, apples and carrots are all food that can easily last a couple of days, as long as you pack them so that they don’t bruise easily. It’s much better to pack even a little bit of fresh food, as you’ll get sick of dehydrated and freeze dried foods soon enough.
Reduce packaging and soft plastics as much as possible
Leave no trace principles are integral to anything you do in the outdoors. This means that you need to carry all of your rubbish out with you, which can quickly pile up when you’re relying on packaged and dehydrated food. Try to reduce the amount of packaging you take with you and get creative with ways you can cut down on plastic waste.
Bulk food stores are a great way to purchase things like nuts and dried fruit in large quantities. This way you can put together your own trail mix in reusable bags or containers for your hike. Another hiking food tip is to use your own reusable packaging as much as possible. Whether it’s reusable sandwich bags or small containers for carrying things like peanut butter or hummus in smaller quantities, try to put together as many of your own meals as you can without relying on pre-packaged options.
Consider cooking time and water access
If you’re planning a multiday hike or backpacking trip, then cooking time and access to sufficient water is another important factor to consider when planning your food for hiking. Quick cooking foods are obviously much more convenient and usually use less water as well. This is one of the main reasons why dehydrated meals are so popular and easy for hiking as they only require a bit of boiling water to rehydrate.
If you’re trying to cook things like rice from scratch out on the trail, you will need a lot of water and gas compared to other options. This is not ideal for two reasons; first, you may not always have access to that much water on certain trails and, second, you don’t want to risk running out of gas for your stove. Options like porridge and couscous (or quinoa for gluten free hikers) are far quicker to cook than rice and are better options for hiking.
Be mindful of the cost of food for hiking
Dehydrated or freeze dried food is certainly not cheap, with individual meals costing between $12 and $18 each. However, there are ways to cut costs, especially if you’re willing to spend a bit of time putting together your own meals.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of overnight hiking, then purchasing your own dehydrator and making your own meals is the cheapest and best way to save some money while also making healthier meals. It takes a bit to get the hang of (I’m still working mine out with a lot of trial and error), but many experienced hikers love their dehydrators so it can be worth getting one.
Always pack extra for emergency
For safety reasons, it’s always recommended to pack a little extra food with you on any hike. If something was to happen and you have to spend longer than expected out on the trail, then you’ll want to ensure that you have enough energy to keep you going. For multiday hikes, most recommendations suggest packing an extra days’ worth of food for emergencies.
Where to buy food for hiking
If you’re looking for good food for hiking, then you might have to shop around to get the best meals together. Here’s my suggestions:
The obvious place to go shopping for any food is at the supermarket. While you can certainly get some great hiking snacks and basic meals there, you might not be able to get everything you want. Supermarkets are great for muesli bars, breakfast cereals and porridge sachets, cheese, biscuits, instant soups and beef jerky.
They’re stocking more and more quick cooking and convenience foods too, so you should be able to get most food for an overnight hike at a supermarket. However, dehydrated foods are more of a speciality item and must be bought elsewhere.
Health food stores and bulk food shops
If you want to purchase some quality energy bars, or you’re like me and have some dietary restrictions, your local health food store will have some great hiking snacks and other food to take with you.
Bulk food shops can also help you put together your own trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried fruit offered in individual scoop and weigh options. My local bulk food store also has some good hiking snacks like chocolate covered macadamias and chocolate covered freeze dried strawberries… you won’t find a better hiking snack than that.
Hiking and camping stores
For dehydrated food and freeze dried meals, you will have to head to your nearest hiking and camping store to find them. There’s a variety of brands now making great hiking meals with options ranging from beef curry to roast chicken and vegetable stir fry.
You can also browse and order them online at Snowys Australia who stock Back Country, The Outdoor Gourmet Company and Go Native.
Dehydrating food yourself
If you want to get into dehydrating your own meals and snacks then you’ll have to either purchase a dehydrator or use your oven. I’m certainly no expert on dehydrating and drying foods, but I have a dehydrator that I’ve used for some basic things like dried apples and dehydrated risotto.
You need to spend a bit of time trying different foods and getting the drying time right, but you can practically dehydrate any meal or food that you can think of. You also need to store dehydrated foods properly to prevent spoiling. While sealed glass jars work well, you can also get a vacuum sealer if you want to get really serious.
What’s in my camp kitchen
Once you’ve worked out what food you want to take hiking, you’ll have to work out how to pack it and cook it out on the trail. Here’s what you’ll find in my backpack for overnight hikes:
- JetBoil Flash stove for cooking and boiling water
- JetBoil gas
- Cooking pot 1.2L
- Lightweight camp set with cutlery, bowl and cup
- Reusable sandwich bag or beeswax food wrap
- Food containers for carrying condiments, sauces and spreads in small quantities
Hiking food and backpacking meal ideas
Alright, if you just want some practical suggestions and ideas of exactly what food to pack, then this section has all my best hiking food ideas. For breakfast right through to dinner, here’s what’s on my shopping list when I’m planning an overnight hike.
It’s important to get your day off to a good start, especially when you’re going to be staggering up a big hill with a heavy pack. Your breakfast should be energy dense and filling. Some of the most popular breakfast meal ideas include:
- Porridge: Especially quick cooking, cook with powdered milk or water.
- Muesli or granola: Eat dry or with powered milk.
- Dehydrated cooked breakfast: Back Country make a “cooked breakfast” dehydrated meal (have yet to taste it myself!).
- Muesli bar or breakfast bar: Convenient for mornings you want a quick start or can’t be bothered getting your stove set up (this tends to be me most mornings).
- Cold pancakes: If you’re only going for a couple of days, making pancakes at home and then carrying them cold with you will easily last a couple of days in your pack.
There seems to be two types of hikers: those that like to stop and have a leisurely lunch break and those that prefer to snack their way through the day without stopping. Whichever category you fall into, you’ll still need to pack some food to get you through the day. For some hiking lunch ideas, try:
- Wraps or pita bread: Much lighter than bread and will last a couple of days in your pack.
- Salami: Non-heat treated salami (in other words, traditional Italian salami) does not need to be refrigerated and will last a while in your pack.
- Cheese: Hard cheeses like parmesan or cheddar will last a quite a few days in your pack without refrigeration and it’s extremely energy dense too (can’t say the same for vegan cheese unfortunately).
- Beefy jerky: The classic hiking snack, it’s worth paying more for high quality jerky.
- Biscuits or crackers: I usually opt for dry biscuits for my lunch, as you can get some great gluten free options.
- Canned fish: This is only ideal for a day hike or overnight hike, as it’s rather heavy but offers a good source of protein and energy.
- Hummus or peanut butter or other spreads: Carrying small containers of spreads and dips is a great lunch for hiking. Proper hummus can be kept unfrigerated for a couple of days too and is a good nutrient rich food.
- Sandwich: For a day hike, sandwiches are the most convenient option and can be easily made before you head out. You’ll be more limited with fillings out on the trail, but you can always carry basic spreads like peanut butter.
Perhaps the most important meal while hiking, dinner is what requires a bit of planning. You’ll need some good food to refuel your body after a long day, so ensure you’re getting a good mix of carbs, protein and fat, with plenty of nutrients. While pre-packaged dehydrated meals are the easiest options for dinner, you can get creative if you want a bit more variety.
- Freeze dried or dehydrated meals: There’s a variety of options available, with many also offering gluten free, vegetarian or dairy free options.
- Instant soups or noodle soups: These are perfect as an entree or a snack to tie you over until dinner. You can opt for cheap and easy two minute noodles or find some gluten free rice noodle packets at a health food store.
- Pasta: A good, high energy food, pasta is a hiker’s favourite. While you can certainly cook it out on the trail, you can also buy instant or ready made pasta packets from the supermarket for more convenience.
- Couscous or quinoa: Grains like couscous and quinoa are quick cooking and lightweight and offer a nutritious option if you want to cook from scratch on the trail.
- Basil pesto or tomato sauce: If you’re just doing an overnight hike, you can easily carry some pesto or sauce in a small container to add to your meal.
- Microwave rice: This is a heavy option to carry, but if you’re only camping out for the night, there are a variety of microwave rice options in packets. They can be easily reheated in a pot with a little bit of water.
Hiking snacks and desserts
There are plenty of hiking snacks available which can get you through the day and in between meals. They are great for providing a quick burst of energy and come in endless options, depending on your taste and dietary requirements. There’s also plenty of good gluten free snacks for hiking out there too.
- Trail mix: A blend of dried fruit and nuts and anything else you want to throw in there. You can buy some already packaged or make your own in ziplock bags.
- Bliss balls, muesli bars or energy bars: These high energy snacks are great and come in a variety of options. Gluten free and vegan options are usually date based with plenty of healthy fats from nuts and coconut as well. Or, you can always make your own to avoid extra plastic packaging.
- Chocolate: Obviously a crowd pleaser, chocolate is always in my backpack. Whether you have a couple of squares during the day or as dessert after dinner, it’s never a bad idea to carry a block or two.
- Pork rind or pork crackle: An energy packed and lightweight food, you can find pork rind at supermarkets.
- Chips or cookies: While they’re a bit bulky and not so nutrient rich, I have seen large packets of chips or crisps attached to the outside of packs before. They can get crushed in your bag so they’re aren’t the best option.
- Bananas: One of the best natural energy foods, bananas can last a while in your pack as long as you stop them from getting bruised (which can be difficult). For a day hike or overnight hike, they’re my go-to snack.
Hydration and drinks
While avid coffee drinkers will say a good coffee is worth carrying a mini espresso maker for hiking, there are other hydration and drink options to consider as well that don’t weigh quite as much.
- Tea bags: Tea is cheap and lightweight and is a staple in my backpack.
- Electrolyte tablets: For those hot and sweaty days on the trail, electrolytes are a great thing to carry with you to avoid dehydration. I always have some tablets in my first aid kit.
- Hot chocolate: For a nice treat after dinner, hot chocolate powder is easy to carry with you and lightweight as well.
- Wine: It’s not uncommon to see people carrying wine with them on an overnight trail or longer. While I can’t justify the added weight, if you’re keen there’s even portable wine bottles to help you carry it!
- Water filter: If you know you’ll be refilling from questionable water sources like a river, you’ll need to have some way of purifying the water. My favourite is the LifeStraw bottle which kills almost everything and is a chemical free alternative.