Best Easy, Tasty Backpacking Meals for Your Next Adventure

JessESTL

We learned a lot last summer when we backpacked the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, including:

  • how to cook on a tiny stove (smaller than the size of our hands) with white gas
  • how to make really TASTY one-pot meals, from grocery-store-bought food
  • how to condense food and packages into easily-transportable portions

If you’re learning about hiking, or wanting some new backpacking meal ideas, especially for families, here are the meals we enjoyed (and I’ll tell you what our favorites were, too!).

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BREAKFASTS

  • FAMILY FAVORITE: Coffeecakes & pre-cooked bacon (find the kind that does not require refrigeration– note: it may be kept in the refrigerated section near the lunch meats!). WE ALL LOVED THIS. I mean we all know, under normal circumstances, bacon normally tastes amazing, right? But bacon on the trail is tremendous.
  • MY FAVORITE: Granola & pre-cooked bacon (Emerald Coffeehouse blend was my fave for breakfast– We also liked Cascadian Farms make this even easier)
  • Oat Bran cereal (or instant oatmeal)
  • Carnation Breakfast Drinks (13g of protein for the win!! And: mixed with water, it tastes like chocolate milk!)
  • Bagels/Good Seed bread w/ squeeze-packs of jelly
  • PopTarts

COFFEE:

  • Starbucks Via is a good, dependable instant coffee substitute
  • After a summer of drinking iced coffee drinks, Starbucks Via Lattes felt (to me) like no sacrifice at all.

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LUNCHES/COLD MEALS

  • FAMILY FAVORITE: Genoa or Dry Salami w/ pita chips or Italian-seasoned crisps — the salty tanginess and simplicity of this is EXACTLY perfect for an easy trail lunch.
  • Sandwich thins w/ chicken or tuna + mayo
  • Tortillas w/ chicken or tuna + mayo
  • PB with long pretzel rods (the long ones make it easy to eat right out of the jar!) This was a group favorite.
  • Tortillas w/ Rosarita taco-seasoned beef
  • Traditional sandwiches (pre-made… we did this for our first lunch on the trail)
  • PB w/ crackers or pita chips
  • Tuna fish & mayo w/ crackers or pita chips
  • Summer sausages & crackers
  • Babybel cheese packs can stay good for the first day (they are supposedly still “safe” for multiple days, but I don’t like the texture after that)
  • Beefsticks/pepperoni w/ some carb (pretzels, etc)

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HOT MEALS

  • FAMILY FAVORITE. Man-oh-man I hate copping to this one. But this was honestly our favorite dinner: Idahoan Au Gratin potatoes with Bacon-flavored Spam. Grossed out at the thought of long-shelf-life processed meat in a can, I thought it would be disgusting. It was actually a GREAT, flavorful meal that was a welcome relief on the hardest day of our trip.
  • Mac & cheese with tuna or ham
  • Zatarain’s rice/beans with chicken
  • Bear Creek Country chili – Rosarita taco meat makes a great stir-in. (Note: soups take more cook-time, which means more fuel-usage. We did one meal like this with no problem, but if you plan soups/chilis, consider fuel usage as you make your preparations.)
  • Knorr (or Uncle Ben’s) rice w/ chicken –
  • Instant mashed potatoes with sausage links
  • Alfredo lipton pasta w/ chicken
  • Tortellini w/ parmesan as a stir-in (Note: grated parmesan, sealed, makes a great backpacking stir-in for flavor and thickening.)
  • Uncle Ben’s wild rice with salmon
  • Stuffing w/ chicken & gravy packet
  • Tortilla soup w/ chicken

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This list may sound really unhealthy, but for us, there were some trade-offs to be made:

  1. We never eat like this in real life, so we figured we can eat like this for 12 days of our life and be OK. Sure enough, we lived to tell about it.
  2. High-carb meals, with plenty of protein, make for happy hikers.
  3. We wanted our trip to be affordable.

 

HOW MUCH SERVING SIZE SHOULD WE GIVE EACH PERSON?

For a family (with kids) on the trail, as you look at packages, shoot for 1.5 servings per person. If your people are all 12 & up, go for 2 servings per person. (For our family of 9, I aimed for 13-17 “servings” per meal.)

 

WHY NOT USE STOREBOUGHT “CAMPING MEALS?”

You can use the camping-supply-store dehydrated meals, but you pay a premium for these.

If you are just one guy, or one couple, it might be worth it to you to just grab your dehydrated meals and be on your way. But for a family, paying something like $36-50 for every trail meal would get super expensive, FAST. That’s why we opted for the foods above. These are simple, accessible in the average grocery store, and still VERY affordable for the portions we need as a family.

 

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I used Sharpie-directions and tiny-taped-on notes to keep our meals organized so I knew for certain which stir-ins, meats, and sauces went with which side items.

 

MEAL-MAKING TIPS:

  • Bring carbs that won’t crack/crumble. (Pita chips= more stable than crackers, pretzel rods= more sturdy than thin pretzel sticks, etc. Also, we packed bacon-sleeves around our coffeecakes to keep them from getting smushed.)
  • Bring extras to add flavor. Use dried milk, condiment packets, McCormick spice packs, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and salt & pepper to add flavor, texture, & thicken.
  • Foil-packed meats are lighter than canned meats. Look in unusual places (we found Rosarita pre-seasoned taco beef on the mexican food aisle) & be willing to try them in advance of your trip to vary your menu! Once you get on the trail you’ll be glad to have interesting flavors to look forward to each night.
  • Some things may not be “worth it” weight-wise to you, but other things, because of the satisfaction and JOY they will give you on the trail, will be TOTALLY worth it. Tunafish & peanut butter are both higher-weight items, but the salty & savory flavors ended up being totally worth it for us on the trail. Decide what those things are for you.
  • If you don’t like my suggestions above, go through your grocery aisles and look for “just add water” foods. Make your own meal combos and come back and let me know what you liked. I’d love more ideas!
  • Try recipes you’re not sure about, at home, before you hit the trail! We did one “meal” for our family with several 1-serving trail-meal ideas. Doing so let us know there was 1 meal we loved (and we packed 2 of that same meal for our 12-day trip), and 1 meal we all hated. Good to know in advance of the trail!
  • Bring a water bottle with measurements pre-marked with sharpie (1/2 cup, 1 cup, etc.)
  • We saved 8 POUNDS by getting rid of all unnecessary packaging. (Yes, my husband actually stepped on the scale with all the cardboard and excess packaging at the end of our work!) Take off all packaging before you go on the trail. Put foods into ziplock baggies & write the water measurement, meal title, and day # on the bag with a sharpie. This is especially effective when you’re combining packs to cook for a crowd.

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OTHER RANDOM BACKPACKING FOOD TIPS:

  • To maximize your calories-per-pound-of-food-carried, shoot for 125-150 calories per ounce of weight.
  • Add (at least) 500-1,000 extra calories per day, per person.
  • The pot we used (GSI Halulite 4.7L) was PHENOMENAL. No need for a strainer, or hot pads. It’s all built right in to the pot. AMAZING!
  • Get good sporks and bring one good stirring utensil. You don’t need a bunch; just get quality ones that won’t break/melt. We used some plastic camping sporks and some titanium ones. The titanium ultralight sporks were our favorite.

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IN THE COMMENTS: Agree? Disagree? What are your favorite meals for the trail?

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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