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Backpacking trips are, without a doubt, grand adventures, but they do come with one intimidating problem. Trudging through the wilderness for days on end requires hikers to be well-fed, but because they’re limited to what they carry in their packs, many backpackers only bring foods designed to satisfy their basic nutritional needs. Protein bars, trail mix, instant oatmeal. These foods provide sustenance but little comfort.
It’s a misconception that wilderness adventures preclude backpackers from eating well. Even with scanty cookware and a shortage of non-essential ingredients, it’s possible to make warm, hearty meals that bring both nourishment and joy. For tips, tricks, and recipes, Matador spoke with Glenn McAllister, aka Chef Glenn, the Backpacking Chef, an outdoorsman and author who’s been sharing his secrets for elevating on-trail cuisine for over a decade.
Here’s how to eat well on backpacking trips without surviving off gorp, according to an expert.
Dehydrate your favorite foods
Seasoned backpackers are no strangers to dehydrated food. Brands like Mountain House and AlpineAire specialize in freeze-dried cuisine that’s compact, lightweight, and shelf-stable. All these meals are missing is water and time — that and, too often, flavor.
Backpackers who turn to pre-made camping meals have the right idea. Dehydrated food is the key to a varied outdoor diet. But freeze-dried feed can be expensive and high in sodium. Tastier on-trail meals that are tailored to your palate and dietary needs start in your home kitchen.
“Almost all my meals include a starch, a protein, and a vegetable,” says McAllister, who adds that you can dehydrate almost anything. “That way I know I’m meeting my nutritional requirements.”
Some of his favorite dishes include peach salsa rice, which he makes by combining dehydrated rice with dehydrated peach salsa, and couscous salad with dehydrated vegetables and cucumber salsa dressing. One benefit to Moroccan couscous, the smallest variety, is that it does not need to be precooked or dehydrated at home. This is also true of starches like grits, bulgur wheat, and instant oats, which can be made either sweet or savory. These are excellent options for backpackers looking to load up on ready-to-pack foods from the grocery store.
McAllister is also proud of his beef and bean chili recipe, a simple meal he says his readers are still raving about more than a decade after he shared it.
First-timers may be reluctant to buy a high-capacity dehydrator for a single trip, but it’s a worthwhile investment for backpackers who take long or frequent trips, as well as anyone serious about improving their backcountry cooking. McAllister recommends Excalibur dehydrators, which range from under $100 to almost $700. NESCO also has several models in the $50 to $100 range, as well as reasonably priced vacuum sealers to package your meals. Plastic or reusable food storage bags take up slightly more space but also work fine.
Make a menu to avoid overpacking
Bringing too much food is a common mistake newer backpackers make. Meal prep will help. McAllister plans for three meals a day and four snacks.
Breakfast might alternate between hot and cold meals, such as oatmeal with dried fruit, grits with dried ham, and dehydrated eggs or pancakes opposite granola with powdered milk. Lunch and dinner recipes are interchangeable, but variety is important.
“I like rice meals for lunch because they give me quick energy for the afternoon,” says McAllister, whose top choice is unstuffed peppers with rice, ground beef, bell peppers, and tomato sauce, which he turns into a leather that can be added to a number of dishes. In a separate baggie, bring a couple of tablespoons of Parmesan cheese to top it all off.
Dinner that evening might be ramen with dried shrimp, curry tofu with veggies, or macaroni and cheese with ground beef and taco seasoning. Different recipes call for a different ratio of food to water to reconstitute, so you may want to write instructions for rehydrating each meal on the containers you use to portion them out.
Snacks are also crucial. “Nuts are an important part of the snacking assortment because of their caloric density,” says McAllister. “But it’s good to have a few sweet snacks too.” One go-to is sweet potato bark, which he made with apple juice, maple syrup, and cinnamon. The bark can either be eaten like fruit leather or turned into sweet potato pudding if you add water.
Splurge on seasonings
Seasoning can make or break a dish. Most seasoning agents also weigh next to nothing. Filling small containers, such as travel-sized Nalgene bottles or old Tic Tac boxes, with dried herbs and spices is an easy way to elevate your on-trail cooking. To save on space, pre-mix a couple of spice blends using your favorite ingredients or stock up on premade mixtures such as everything but the bagel seasoning, ranch packets, or onion soup mix.
Anything powdered is a luxury backpackers can afford to bring, from sugar and powdered milk for your instant coffee to ingredients like powdered peanut butter and hummus that can be eaten as a snack or incorporated into dishes like oatmeal. The same goes for single-use condiment packets like soy sauce, ketchup, and hot sauce. Olive oil packets are particularly useful. Not only are these essential for quality cooking if you have the opportunity to fish for your own dinner, but olive oil also adds flavor and a luxurious texture to dehydrated savory meals.
Bring minimal cookware, but use it right
A major perk of cooking with dried and dehydrated foods is that most prep is done off-trail. This makes the list of cookware that backpackers need to schlep short.
“All you really need is a pot with a lid and a spoon,” says McAllister, who recommends titanium pots because they’re light and easy to clean if they have a hard anodized coating, which is a corrosion-resistant oxide layer that’s tough to scuff. The size will vary depending on your group, but 900-1,000 milliliters will suffice for solo backpackers, while 1,200 milliliters can easily feed two. Remember to use the lid when you’re boiling water to save both time and fuel.
Because he relies primarily on dehydrated foods, McAllister also swears by packing an insulating pot cozy, which he notes you fashion yourself using Reflectix material. Rehydrating takes at least 10 to 20 minutes, with the pot in the cozy once the dish has come to a boil. On the other hand, a thermos food jar allows you to prepare your meals hours in advance.
“I add a dehydrated meal to it with boiled water in the morning, and that makes having a hot lunch as easy as opening the thermos,” says McAllister, adding that it’s beneficial for cold-soak salads, as well. “After lunch, I put dried fruit in the thermos with cold spring water. Later in the day, it’s the best snack ever when it’s hot and you need refreshment.”