Eating in the Backcountry
There are many options for eating in the back country. When you are planning your menu there are a few things to take into consideration: how far will you be hiking each day? Will you be at altitude? Do you plan on bringing a stove? If so, what variety? How much effort are you willing to put into your meals? What is your budget? Once you have answered these questions for yourself you can begin planning your back country menu. Most backpackers estimate that their food will weigh 1.5-2 lbs per day, as long as they are using dehydrated food. Keep in mind this is a very basic article. There are so many resources about trail food out there. I will link to some of my favorites throughout this article.
Option 1: Specialty backpacker food
The easiest, and least intimidating way to build a backpacking menu is to take a trip to your local outfitter (or, hey, many Walmart's even stock dehydrated meals these days) and pick out a dehydrated backpacker meal for each time you plan on eating. Popular brands are Backpacker's Pantry and Mountain House.In recent years several new brands focused on more organic, or "wholesome" ingredients have popped up on the scene. I will say that I have had the most consistent success with palatable food from the more mainstream brands though. Your mileage will vary.
Check the serving size for each meal. For most backpackers, this will be fairly accurate, especially for your first day. Try not to cook more food than you eat, as you will need to pack it out.
Consider doing a taste test with some friends before you purchase 20 of the same meal though. Different people have different reactions to backpackers food. While I love the Beef Stroganoff, my boyfriend can't stand rich food at the end of a hike.
Backpacking Super-Site TheTrek.co conducted a reader poll to see what the favorite dehydrated meals were, see the link below!
Option 2: Grocery Store Treasure Hunting
You may be surprised to know that you can completely supply yourself with food for a multi-day backpacking trip from a 7-11. A regular grocery store is almost always going to provide you with better options, but just consider the fact that many thru-hikers hike for thousands of miles re-supplying at grocery stores and small convenience stores they can access from the trail.
Popular options include "Pouch Tuna" (Sunkist makes many varieties, I prefer the classic Deli Style, and the BBQ flavors.) wrapped in a tortilla, Knorrs Pasta Sides, granola bars, and Peanut Butter. I also like to have a container of minced onion or garlic from the spice isle to add to my meals while on a longer trip. Feel free to get creative with spices. Chili powder makes a great addition to many dishes.
While not strictly grocery store, I have also had great success shopping for more specialty items on Amazon. I like adding freeze dried veggies to meals, broccoli tends to go great in the cheesey Knorrs dishes, and sweet potatoes take longer to rehydrate, but are also a great option.
Many people choose instant oatmeal for breakfast. I like to add freeze dried strawberries and chocolate to mine. Cheetos hold up in a backpack way better than any other variety of chips. Cream cheese with Salami on a tortilla is my absolute favorite backpacking meal. There are plenty of options so feel free to get creative! There is really no limit to what you can eat while backpacking. My friend on the AT packed out a head of fresh broccoli every time she left town and added it to her instant mashed potatoes!
For special occasions, I like to pack out a carton of vanilla frosting and graham crackers. I have used this as my "birthday cake" for several years now, and I don't miss the real thing one bit!
Here's an article that gave me some inspiration for my grocery store cruisin' while I was on the Appalachian Trail:
Option 3= Option 1 + option 2
For most trips, you're going to go with this option, which is to say, both. You might choose to have instant oatmeal for breakfast, tuna and crackers for lunch, and a commercially dehydrated meal for dinner.
Of course you could also buy yourself a dehydrator and do it all yourself. For me, the cost savings have never been worth the effort, and time to dehydrate my own meals. I think I will stick to Option 3 for the foreseeable future, though I do mostly do my back country shopping at my neighborhood Safeway and Whole Foods these days. It's just more convenient for me, and honestly, I tend to like the food better.
Notes on Stove-less Backpacking
Some backpackers opt not to bring a stove backpacking. This is entirely a decision of personal preference. It is an excellent way to save weight once you have tried the traditional ounce cutting measures, and decide you want to go "ultra light" as your cooking system weight essentially disappears. Eric chose to leave the stove behind once he crossed the Mason Dixon line on the Appalachian Trail because he was sick of cooking, and didn't feel like it anymore. Since he was thru-hiking he was able to sustain himself on grocery store no-cook options such as Peanut Butter tortillas and granola bars. Some people also choose to rehydrate meals using un-heated water. This process can take several hours, so it is generally done using a screw-top container and rehydrating while you are still a couple of hours away from your final destination for the night.
Stove-less backpacking will be my preferred method this summer as I spend nearly every weekend in the Sierras. I don't really like cooking or cleaning at camp anyway, and I prefer many of the stove-less backpacking foods to the ones that require cooking. Since these will mostly be shorter trips, I am not worried about getting bored to Salami Tortilla burritos, or granola with dehydrated milk.
Do your research before going stove-less. Here is a great article to get you started: