How to Build Healthy and Easy Backpacking Meals: Pack the Perfect 3-Day Backpacking Menu

Backpacking is a great way to explore the wilderness, but there is a lot to think about when packing the single bag that will be strapped to your back for several days (or longer). Your pack is your lifeline and in addition to all of your gear (tent, sleeping bag, clothes, toiletries, trekking poles, stove, cookware, etc.) you also need to carry enough food to fuel your adventure. Whether you are backpacking for a casual long weekend with friends or clocking mega miles on a famous lengthy wilderness trail, you’ll want to pack easy backpacking meals that are nutritious and lightweight.

Flat lay of foods to create easy backpacking meals for a 3-day hike

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Nutrition for Backpackers

CALORIES: Calorie needs depend on the distance and intensity of your daily treks and can range from 2,500-5,000 calories each day on the trail (about twice as much as you eat on a regular day). How do you carry enough calories to fuel a multi-day trip? Calorie density. Choose foods that have the most calories for their weight (i.e., high-calorie, light-weight foods). Dried, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods are great solutions. Removing the moisture from foods reduces their weight and the space they take up in your pack. Not to mention they retain most of their original nutrition. While you may need to maximize calories for high-mileage excursions, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise on nutrition.

CARBS, PROTEIN, & FAT: All calories are not created equally. When it comes to calorie density, out of all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat), fat has the highest calories per gram. But you need more than just fat. Backpackers need energy for walking during the day and nutrients that support recovery at night, so a mix of macronutrients is key. Carbohydrates and fat provide sustained energy for big-mile days and protein helps muscles recover in the evening.

HYDRATION: Hydration needs will depend on the temperature and intensity of your hike. Ensure you are getting enough water by monitoring the color of your urine. The lighter the color (clear or pale yellow) the better hydrated you are. Carry a hydration pack or multiple water bottles in your backpack. Do your research before you set out on you adventure to understand where you can find access to potable or filterable water throughout your trip.

Flat lay of easy backpacking meals for a 3 day trek

Backpacking Meal Prep Tips

WEIGH IT: While food requirements may vary depending on your body composition and exertion level on the trail, aim for 1-2 lbs of food per person per day. Choose mostly dehydrated meals that reconstitute with water which weigh less than fresh or canned foods.

REPACKAGE IT: Remove all excess packaging to reduce bulk and weight. Empty meal contents into zip-tight bags, remove all excess air before sealing and write the cooking instructions on the bag with a permanent marker or create a printed label sticker.

ENJOY IT: While minimalism is key, you may find that there are a few creature comforts worth packing to help maximize mealtime enjoyment. Boost the flavor of your meals with to-go condiment packets like mayo, mustard, soy sauce, hot sauce or ketchup. Or pack tasty beverages to accompany your food like instant coffee for breakfast, a bag of tea after dinner, or a flask of whisky to share with friends as a nightcap on a short casual trip. 

How Can I Make Healthy and Easy Backpacking Meals?

For your backpacking trip, you’re going to need light-weight calories that are nutritionally balanced. While there are a lot of convenient pre-made freeze-dried meals on the market, you don’t have to break the bank on them to enjoy tasty, healthy, easy backpacking meals in the backcountry. Here is a 3-day meal plan we used on our backpacking trip to Yosemite (see Backpacking in Tuolumne for trip itinerary) that delivers on nutrition and satisfies hiker hunger. If you’re just taking a day hike, see this list of backpack essentials.

3-Day Easy Backpacking Meal Plan

Day 1: Drive to the trail head and hike into the wilderness.

Day 1: Breakfast

When: At home or on the road

What: We did an early morning fast-food drive through for some coffee and a quick breakfast.

Tip: Order something light (like oatmeal or an egg wrap) that won’t make you feel sluggish on the road.

Day 1: Morning Snack

When: On the road

What: 1/2 cup trail mix + granola bar

Tip: Homemade trail mix is a cost effective, nutrient dense snack. Combine a sweet and salty mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat like crunchy chow mein noodles, raisins, dry roasted edamame, honey roasted peanuts and sweet Thai chili almonds.

Day 1: Lunch

When: In the parking lot at the trail head before hiking into the wilderness

What: PB&J sandwich on whole wheat bread (1 for her; 2 for him) + apple + 1 oz hard cheese

Tip: If bringing fresh food, enjoy it early on in your trip to reduce backpack weight.

Day 1: Afternoon Snack

When: On the trail

What: Snack-size bag of pretzels + 1-2 oz beef jerky

Tip: Repackage beef jerky into 1-2 oz snack-sized portions.

Day 1: Dinner

When: At campsite using a camp stove

What: Asian Peanut Noodles (recipe below – serves 1)

  • Ingredients:
  • Directions:
    • Cook noodles in boiling water for 3 minutes or until soft. Drain.
    • In bowl or mug, combine peanut butter power, soy sauce, hot sauce and peanut oil with enough water (~1-2 Tbsp) to make a thick sauce.
    • Add noodles to sauce and stir to coat. Mix in chicken.

Tip: If you’re backpacking in bear country, you will likely need to secure your food in a bear locker or canister at night. Some backpacker campgrounds may have communal bear lockers, while others offer canister rentals at the trailhead. You can also bring your own. Do your research ahead of time to understand what you’ll need and make sure all of your food (and anything with a scent like toiletries) for day 2 onward fits inside so your food is safe from wildlife at night. I was able easily fit enough food for two people (the following meal plan x2) into one BearVault BV450.

Bear canister with easy backpacking meals inside

Day 2: Hike

Day 2: Breakfast

When: At campsite or to-go on the trail

What: Instant coffee or tea + biscotti

Tip: Homemade or store-bought biscotti can be a shelf-stable, nutritionally balanced breakfast that’s great for the trail. Look for recipes or varieties that include whole wheat flour, dried fruit and nuts or seeds like this Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti or this Whole Wheat Walnut Raisin Biscotti. Slather with peanut butter for a more calorie dense option.

Day 2: Morning Snack

When: On the trail

What: 1 pack seaweed snack + granola bar

Tip: Veggies are probably the most challenging food group to get into your diet while in the backcountry. While they are packed with nutrients, they tend to be low in calories and therefore overlooked by most backpackers. Add dehydrated veggies to dinners or munch on seaweed snacks. Seaweed snacks are a great light-weight option that, when repackaged, take up minimal space and offer a welcomed crunchy, salty snack while on the trail.

Day 2: Lunch

When: On the trail

What: PB&J sandwich on whole wheat bread (1 for her; 2 for him) + 1-2 oz beef jerky

Tip: Make the PB&J sandwiches before you leave home to minimize hassle on the trail and double up on sandwiches for a heartier meal.

Day 2: Afternoon Snack

When: On the trail

What: 1/2 cup trail mix + 1 oz hard cheese

Tip: Wax-wrapped cheeses can last a couple days unrefrigerated.

Day 2: Dinner

When: At campsite using a camp stove

What: Buffalo Mac & Cheese (recipe below – serves 1)

Tip: Single-serve mac and cheese packets or cups are easy backpacking meals because they’re designed for quick cooking by just adding water. Repackage them to minimize bulk and double up on the serving size for a heartier meal.

Day 3: Hike out of the wilderness and drive home

Day 3: Breakfast

When: At campsite or to-go on the trail

What: Instant coffee or tea + biscotti

Tip: If you like cream your coffee, single serve liquid creamers don’t need to be refrigerated. Even better is dried creamer or milk powder which is lighter and more compact. For convenience (but at a higher price point), you can purchase single-serve sleeves of coffee, creamer and sugar combined like these.

Day 3: Morning Snack

When: On the trail

What: 1/2 cup trail mix + 1-2 oz beef jerky

Tip: For hot sunny trails, you may want to enhance your water consumption with an electrolyte boost to replenish salt and potassium lost in sweat. Sport drink powders, gels or blocks are all great options. 

Day 3: Lunch

When: On the road

What: Any leftover food/snacks

Tip: Munch on any remaining snacks that went uneaten to get you through the afternoon while you start the drive home.

Day 3: Dinner

When: On the road

What: We stopped at a fast-casual restaurant on the drive home to celebrate our return to civilization.

Tip: Order something hearty but balanced to satisfy your hiker hunger.

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