Food is fuel, and you need fuel to power your adventure. Personally like to enjoy my fuel intake, but many ultralight backpackers are mainly concerned with the calories not the taste. On the other extreme foodies often seem to forget they have to carry everything on their back and pack out the waste. I always search for a happy medium, but ultimately you’ll have to experiment some and to find out your backcountry cooking style. This post will share some tips I’ve learned over the years, show some of my favorite trail foods, and give an overview my camp kitchen set up.
I originally planned to discuss different cooking options such as stove vs. open fire, but when I started writing on this subject I realized it could be a whole separate post, especially when you include the growing trend of “soaking” in the conversation. Therefore, look for a future post on food preparation. In general, backcountry cooking is such an extensive topic I will likely do multiple posts in this category including some recipes and cooking videos.
Tips for planning:
- Key components of backpacking foods: lightweight, shelf-stable, durable, and high caloric value. You want your foods to hold up in a cramped pack, not add a lot of weight or packaging, last well out of the refrigerator, and provide nutrition to keep you going.
- Don’t break the bank on pre-made backpacking meals like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry. These are usually expensive and full of sodium. That being said, I sometimes toss one of these in for a easy, no cleanup meal. However, you can usually fix similar meals with normal grocery store items for less money and salt, and you can prepackage them yourself in mylar resealable bags if you just want to pour hot water and not worry about cleanup on the trail.
Some of my favorite trail foods in their store packaging
- Consider your cooking fuel for each meal. The less stove preparation needed the less fuel you’ll need to carry, which saves weight and space in your pack. Try to have at least one meal a day you don’t have to use the stove. You should also make sure you still have plenty to eat if your stove malfunctions or you miscalculate your fuel use and run out. Most dehydrated foods can be rehydrated and eaten without heat, but they may not taste as appealing (think cold oatmeal or Ramen).
- Don’t forget the cleanup. Many backpackers dread cleaning pots and pans after a long day on the trail, but you should have a cleaning kit or eat out of resealable bags to keep your gear clean. This is especially important for bear country, as leftover food waste and dirty dishes can attract wildlife to your camp. Even if you aren’t in bear country, raccoons can be a real pain and terrifying to wake up to as they scrummage through your camp.
- All food waste and packaging must be packed out. It may be helpful to repackage foods before a trip to cut down on trash. This will also decrease your pack weight slightly, and save you time when preparing a meal after a long day. Any food not eaten must also be packed out for Leave No Trace, so make sure you consider your portions. Having optional snacks available after dinner will help cut down food waste from oversized meals, but provide extra calories if you are still hungry after a meal.
My camp kitchen supplies, as well as a few extras
A list of some of this gear, with non-affilite links, is provided at the end of the post, but basic cook system needs are outlined here:
- Water filtration– Most meals require some water, and unless you plan to pack all your water in you will need to filter or purify your water for cooking. The CDC recommends bringing water to a “roaring boil for 1 minute minimum” to remove all pathogens, but water tablets, drops, and filters are commonly used for backcountry travel.
- Cook pot with lid– Using a titanium, aluminum, or steel cook pot with lid are the most effective methods for backcountry cooking. I use a Snow Peak titanium pot because it is extremely light and durable. A lid helps retain heat and conserve fuel, but for ultralight hikers aluminum foil works well.
- Stove and fuel– Lightweight, compact backpacking stoves range from around $25 to over $100, but I have used the MSR PocketRocket Mini for several years. I’ve tried more expensive ones that I actually didn’t like as well, and I want to try the new BRS Ultralight Stove which is getting great reviews and is under $20. (alternative “cooking” options discussed below)
A few more tips:
- Bandanas can be used as napkins and potholders.
- Most foods can be eaten with a spoon, so there is no need to carry a spoon and fork. I personally don’t like sporks, but they are also popular with backpackers.
- A recycled mac-n-cheese cup is a lightweight insulated bowl for a second person, and it nest nicely inside a cook pot.
- Combustible solid fuels can be used as a backup to boil water if your cook system fails.
- Four ounce isobutane/propane canisters will nest inside most cook pots, but 8oz canisters are also available.
Clearly this post won’t train you to be a backcountry chef, but it should provide you a general overview of what you’ll need to get started as well as some tips to help you find your own backcountry cooking style. Overall, make sure you pack the right foods to energize you through your adventure, know how to use your cooking supplies, and be prepared in case your cook system fails.
Kate Gribbin, Founder and Lead Naturalist
Butterfly Outdoors doesn’t currently work with any affiliate sites, so all of these links are simply to help you locate the products pictured above. #stillnotsponsored
- MSR stoves
- MSR cleaning brush
- BRS Ultralight Stove
- Esbit combustible solid fuel blocks
- Light My Fire Grandpa’s Fork
- Light My Fire Spork
- Sawyer Mini water filter
- CNOC 2L water storage bladder
- Snow Peak titanium cook set
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