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How to Choose (and Pack) Food for Hiking and Camping

Posted in: Camping Food

First time camping? Here's what you need to know about choosing and packing the right food for hiking and camping. It isn't hard, but it can be confusing. Here's how to choose healthy food that fits your camping plans: either from a fixed site or on a long hike.

Food for camping and hiking

How to Choose & Pack Food for Hiking / Camping

Choosing and packing food for hiking and camping goes one of two ways: smooth or disastrous.

Unfortunately, too many people have their time outside ruined by either choosing the wrong foods or packing unwisely. If this sounds familiar, stress no more! This post will teach you how to choose and pack the right foods the right way.

This post is divided into 2 sections:

  1. Choose: How to choose food for hiking and camping (jump to section)
  2. Pack: How to pack food for hiking and camping (jump to section)

Food for camping

Read more: 13 Thru Hiking Tips for Beginners (Save Time, Money and Energy)


How to Choose Food for Hiking and Camping (10 Tips)

1. Consider budget

When choosing food for hiking and camping, keep your budget in mind. To save money, you might have to spend a little more time prepping.

  • Homemade granola: Instead of purchasing expensive high-energy granola bars, take the time to make your own a couple of days before the trip. Or, a couple of weeks before if you freeze them!
  • Dehydrate food at home: Another expensive item backpackers like to use are freeze-dried meals. It may take some time to learn, but dehydrated foods can be made from scratch. However, there are times when even the thriftiest camper has to bite the bullet and buy for convenience sake.

2. Think about nutrition

Food for hiking and camping should deliver energy replenishing nutrients. This includes simply getting enough calories on your trip. Depending on how much hiking goes on, the average person can burn in the thousands of calories per day!

Now, there are avid outdoor adventurers that swear by eating junk food throughout the trip, and they excuse this by claiming they need calories. However, just as important as the calories are where they came from. The best sources are proteins and complex carbohydrates. This dynamic duo provides muscle-building fuel for your body.

How many calories do you burn a day hiking?

According to Mayo Clinic, hiking consumes 438 calories per hour (160 lb. / 73 kg person). A larger person will burn even more. So for a day where you are hiking for 6 hours, you'll need to consume an extra 2600 calories.

Camping food

More reading: Guide to Thru-Hiking Food (Snacks, Meals, and Tips)

3. Make something yummy

Now is not the time to be experimenting with new foods. Buy things you know you will enjoy eating because your body will be deprived enough as it is. Backing yourself into a corner by choosing food you don’t want will increase the likelihood of not eating.

If you don’t eat enough food, your energy will take a nosedive. So, make sure you have any comfort foods, drinks, or other goodies if you can’t easily get to a store.

Pro tip: When backpacking or hiking, consider bringing flavor packets for water. A solid day or two of water will have you wishing for a more flavorful beverage.

4. Check the weather

Appropriate food for hiking and camping can change with the season and even weather conditions.

  • Winter: bring extra food for fuel and put food that will freeze close to your body.
  • Rain: bring food that is quick to make and easy to eat. All snacks would not be a bad idea!
  • Heat: heavy food and chocolate should be left at home.

5. Make the most out of ingredients

Try to maximize the impact of your packed food for hiking and camping.

If you know powdered milk is on your list for oatmeal, think of another meal that it’s used in. Carrots not cooked in foil packs could be eaten as a snack the next day. When chocolate for s’mores don’t get unwrapped, plan on chocolate pancakes the next morning.

6. Refrigeration situation

When choosing food for hiking and camping, consider refrigeration. Will you have it? Do you at least plan on carrying a cooler for car camping? If you bring a cooler, will there be a place to buy more ice? Do research and make sure you can answer the last question. If there is nowhere to purchase ice, food will start going bad. This could be a trip ender for campers depending heavily on meat.

Most fresh foods can last 1-2 days in a pack with no refrigeration. The exception to that rule is carrots, which seemingly last forever. Furthermore, food will be edible longer in cold weather. If you are camping in the winter, there is no end to how much perishable food you can bring!

When car camping, it can be beneficial to bring an extra cooler for beverages. This way, people won’t constantly let out the air keeping your perishables cold.

More reading: How to keep food cold when camping (9 tips)

7. Cooking method

There are a few primary ways people cook food for hiking and camping. Hikers typically bring along food they can easily reach and quickly eat. Things like peanut butter and jelly, bagels, and cold cut sandwiches are staples for day hiking. If any heat sources are used, they are the same two that backpackers typically utilize: portable camp stoves and fires.

Car campers have the most choices out of everyone. A vehicle to work from allows for a barbeque, a smoker, a fire, or a camp-stove to be utilized for delicious meals. If your car has space, don’t be afraid to use it!

Before even thinking about food for hiking and camping, ask yourself one question: Can I have a campfire? If you don’t 100% know the answer, look it up. It is of the utmost importance to yield to any warnings or fire dangers posted. Not only could you receive a large fine, you could end up burning down the area. This information can be found online at either the official State or National Park websites.

Planning a campfire? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Starting a Campfire (6 Ways)

8. Water availability

This is primarily a consideration for backcountry hikers and backpackers. Anyone depending on a natural water source needs to make sure it is still there. Many streams and even puddles are seasonal. Sometimes springs run dry.

Warning: anyone planning on using non-potable water must properly filter it first.

9. Weight limit

This mainly applies to backpackers deciding on food for hiking and camping. Dry foods take up less weight. Examples are pasta, soup mixes, and instant rice. Consider using spices. You can put them in plastic baggies. A dehydrator is an awesome way to make your own lightweight foods including jerkies.

Watch on YouTube

10. Time requirements

Don’t spend too much time prepping or cooking. Try making your meals ahead of time for reheating. This works great for dinner after a long day or breakfast on an early morning. Keep it simple most days. Great choices for an easy breakfast are things like oatmeal and other instant cereals, pancakes, instant coffee, granola, and fruit. Not a fan of instant coffee? Here's how to make good coffee while camping.

If you are hiking at a quick pace, you may want to employ the following strategy to save time: snack throughout the day instead of stopping to unpack a whole meal!

As an added bonus, the variety of food will keep a wandering palette happy! Pack items such as nuts, energy bars, trail mix, dried fruit, jerky, vegetables, and tuna packs. Eating the same things every day all day can be psychologically hard on even the most experienced outdoors person.

Camping food ideas simple

Learn about the best underwear for hiking, including the top 5 features in our detailed buyer's guide.


How to Pack Food for Hiking and Camping (7 Tips)

1. Know your storage limits

How much stuff can fit into your car camping vehicle? How many liters can your backpack hold?

These are the things to consider when packing food for hiking and camping. Since we can’t survive without food, make sure to save enough room for all of the edibles you need on your trip. Of course, it helps if you choose foods with your storage limits in mind.

Saving space on your hiking gear can leave more room and weight limit for food. Here are some suggestions for ultralight camping gear.

2. Plan your meals

This is a great way to make sure you don’t forget anything, including what you want to make and when! Planning your meals ahead of time will make breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time much less stressful. Instead of putting together a bunch of random foods, you will know exactly what you have to look forward to. You can use this plan to figure out how much meal prep to do beforehand.

3. Prep your meals

To make sorting food for hiking and camping easier at the campsite, do the prep work before you go. When planning on a roast or foil packets, cut your vegetables beforehand. The same goes for fresh fruits and anything else you will want to have cut. Although this can be and is done at the campsite, it is not the most convenient or fun solution.

Who wants to invest time and energy in cooking when they are exhausted from a day of adventure? Marinating meats in advance can also be a time saver. Furthermore, longer soak time will infuse the meat with more flavor than a last minute marinade.

Here's another example of preparing meals at home to save time at the campsite. This video looks at dehydrating food at home – spaghetti.

Watch on YouTube

Portion out food for the day(s), and put them in freezer bags, and label them by food, name, meal, or date! If you can freeze them the night before, do so!

Frozen foods are wonderful space saving ice alternatives! Then put each meal into 2 plastic grocery bags. One for your dry goods and the other for the items which need to be kept in the cooler.

Watch on YouTube

For car campers with a lazy streak, start your meal prep in advance. Every time you make a hearty meal, freeze a portion for your next trip. There are quite a few foods that can be frozen with little consequence to taste and texture. With this method, even the laziest of outdoors people will always have an arsenal of ready-to-go camping meals!

4. Try to minimize

The more stuff you bring, the harder it is to keep things organized. The key when packing food for hiking and camping is to minimize everything. Try not to bring more than you need on your trip. The only caveat to this is backpackers. They should bring enough food for an extra day.

Instead of using ice, use your frozen foods. Even something like transitioning to collapsible cooking gear can help you save space and sanity.

Pro Tip: Whenever the opportunity presents itself, grab a few free condiments from your local fast food restaurant. They come in handy when adding flavor on a backpacking trip and they are great to use when car camping! The mini-packets reduce the need for carrying an unnecessarily full and heavy container.

5. Use freezer bags to eliminate bulk

Something as easy as pre-mixing dry ingredients in a freezer bag can help streamline packing. If you are using any cooking ingredients, it is time and weight saving to put them all into freezer bags instead of bringing their original containers.

To get rid of extra trash and make more room, get rid of all bulk containers. Anything like instant pasta that comes in boxes should be dumped into a Ziploc. The same goes for canned foods, fresh foods, and cold foods. Don’t forget to bring along extra! Ziploc’s work great when packing things like pb&j, fruits, veggies, and crackers for the hike.

6. Make a list

Having everything written down simplifies the process of packing your food for hiking and camping. In fact, this is the best way to ensure you don’t leave behind anything necessary. It becomes as simple as crossing items off of a list.

7. Organize

Once everything has been prepped and you are ready to pack, get 2 decent sized boxes. One will be for non-perishable foods, and the other for cooking gear. Use something small like a recyclable grocery bag for any car snacks that need to be accessed easily. Finally, don’t forget the cooler!

Both your non-perishable and perishable foods should already be organized into plastic bags by meal. Go ahead and pack both, putting the meals you will be eating last at the bottom of the cooler or the box. Continue packing in this way, until your food for the current day is on top. The only exception to this general rule is for fragile foods. If you have eggs, bread, or other crushable delights, they should be kept on top.

Backpackers and hikers should pack their foods in the same way. The only exception is snacks. These should be kept somewhere easily accessible for quick energy.

Camp Food Hacks

Watch on YouTube

Food for hiking

Read more about hiking with kids


Choosing and Packing Food for Hiking and Camping Can Be Easy

No longer does choosing and packing food for hiking and camping have to be a negative experience! Following these suggestions will make pre-camping and meal cooking a much more enjoyable experience. You will find eating in nature is actually relaxing when adequately prepared!

What are you planning to bring on your next trip? Please share your tips and ideas below.

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GudGear - and is working to make it the best resource for outside gear. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with Bryan and Dena.

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