Imagine: You’re several days into a long backpacking trip. You’ve been hiking since 6 a.m. this morning, carrying everything you need to survive on your back. You’ve made it 10 miles over rugged terrain, and you still have five more to go before reaching camp, but you want to stop for lunch. Your mind trails off, dreaming of hearty Thai curry, a savory pasta dish or even a fresh, crunchy salad. But when you reach into your bear canister — a lightweight container most backpackers use to safely store their food — you’re forced to face a brutal reality: The only lunch food you’ve packed for yourself is Trader Joe’s gourmet jelly beans.
Bags and bags filled to the brim with jelly beans. Nothing else.
This was the nightmare I found myself in last summer. And while I still had an incredible time living in the wilderness for a few weeks, it was a terrible idea to only pack jelly beans. I angered the thru-hiking gods, and as an act of repentance, I’ve written out a comprehensive guide to affordable and plant-based backpacking cuisine. I’ve done enough trial and error for us all, and I’m here to share my hard-earned wisdom.
Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or you’ve never stepped foot on a trail before, I promise you can learn something useful from this guide. It’ll be a four part series, and I’ll guide you on backpacking breakfast and coffee, lunch and snacks and dinner and dessert. But for now, let’s start with the basics.
Invest in a bear canister
Before you can start packing food, you’ll need a bear canister. Bear canisters keep your food safe from wildlife, but more importantly, they keep wildlife safe from your food. In most regions of California, bear canisters are mandated for any overnight backpacking trip. I recommend buying your own because it will last for years, but if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, you can likely rent or borrow a bear canister from CHAOS (Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society) or from any outdoor retailer in your area. If you have your bear canister handy, you can plan out how much food can reasonably fit inside before you head to the store.
How many calories will you need?
I’ll be the last person to count calories in my everyday life. However, when you’re planning for a backpacking trip, counting calories can help you balance energy intake and expenditure. You should aim for 3,000 – 6,000 calories per day, depending on your size. This number might sound outrageously high, but trust me; when you’re hiking with a heavy pack at a high elevation for hours on end, you’ll run a huge energy deficit.
Calorie to weight ratio
So I just told you that you need to fit thousands of calories worth of food into your bear canister, and then carry it all for days — or weeks — on end. You’re not alone if you’re thinking “how in the world is it all going to fit, and how am I supposed to carry that?” That’s the eternal question, and only the thru-hiking gods know the answer. Us mortals can only fiddle with our calculators and try to follow the 100 calories per one ounce rule. It’s pretty self-explanatory: Only pack foods that offer 100 or more calories per ounce. Obviously, it’s okay to make exceptions to the rule, but generally, you’ll be much happier if you try to stick to it.
Store-bought packaging is not made for the outback. It’s heavy and bulky, the exact opposite of what we’re aiming for. You’ll have to repackage almost all of your food, and basically vacuum seal it into high-quality plastic bags. You might even need to double bag some items if you’re worried about the bag breaking or leaking (it’s a lot of plastic waste, I know). You can buy silicon bags online that might work nicely, but no judgment from me if you opt for disposable bags. I only buy one box of plastic bags per year, exclusively for backpacking trips. We can’t always be perfect in our efforts to be sustainable!
Utensils and cups
You’ll need one water bottle, one cup (with a lid) and a quality spoon and fork. Only put water in your water bottle, and use the cup for all of your food and coffee. As long as you keep these items relatively clean, they will last as long as you need them. To clean your cup and utensils, wash them with filtered water and a bandana (you really don’t need to use soap). Yes, everything might start to taste the same as a result, but such is the nature of backpacking.
A backpacking stove and fuel
I highly recommend that you bring a backpacking stove if you want some semblance of comfort, but it’s definitely not necessary. If you do choose to bring a stove, you’ll also need propane fuel. You can find all of these items online or at an outdoor retailer, but make sure you know how to use the stove before you head out into the backcountry. Keep your stove pot clean, always. The only food that should ever go into the pot is pasta or noodles — foods that will be easy to clean. If your pot gets crusty with food, you’ll have to fit it into your bear canister, which is borderline impossible.
Stoves can be expensive and fuel is bulky and heavy. There are a lot of ultralight backpackers who cold-soak their food, a replacement for cooking food with a stove that works for most recipes. This is a great option if you’re tough as nails and willing to sacrifice your hot coffee in the morning (I’m not). You’ll just have to add the dry food to a lightweight jar (a lot of folks use a Talenti Gelato container), fill it with water and let it soak for several hours before you eat it. Also, if you’re going stove-less, make sure you trust your water filter with your life; boiling water to decontaminate it won’t be an option anymore.
If you’re in the planning stages of your first backpacking trip for the summer, hopefully now you know how to start preparing your food. Follow along, and soon I’ll share some recipes and advice for your backcountry meals!