One of the life’s great pleasures is food. After all, who does not love to snack on a crisp apple or cut into a grilled steak?
This pleasure is only enhanced when you head into nature. With all that hiking and the miles under your feet, and maybe a little canoeing or romping around, your appreciation for food and appetite only grows stronger.
Our guide is here to help you navigate packing food for camping and backpacking so that you stay nourished, energized, and fulfilled.
The sustenance needs while camping versus backpacking is different, along with your ability to carry certain foods. Realistically the two subjects need to be approached in different manors.
That is why our guide is going to discuss food options for your next camping and backpacking trips separately, while also providing you a list of foods that are better left at home no matter what.
Considerations and Solutions for Car Camping
Car camping is the ideal way to create a food heaven in the outdoors and your best friend when glamping.
Nonetheless, space and temperature are still a common concern when dealing with limited trunk space.
Most of the time, fitting a cooler into your car will be possible and offer more than enough room.
Keeping Things Cold
As for keeping things chill, I recommend good old ice or dry ice (be careful, use precautions, and always handle dry ice with gloves).
Additionally, if you are headed out for more than two days, it can be helpful to freeze any meat you are bringing with you.
This will make the meat last longer, as the already frozen meat will take it longer to thaw out and the ice will just extend that time.
To be on the safe side, you might also like to take hotdogs or semi-pre cooked options, rather than raw steak, which will be less susceptible to bacteria.
BBQ or Grill Availability
It is always good to check in advance if there will be a grill available at the campground. If so, also check if there is wood or charcoal for sale there or if you need to bring your own.
While purchasing wood or charcoal near a campground is possible, it is usually on the expensive side.
Therefore, take into consideration your interior car space and make a decision on which is more valuable: additional space or money.
Time To Cook
As long as a fire fit or grill is provided, you have many options available for food.
Additionally, most campgrounds will let you bring in your stove if nothing else is available.
Therefore, pack one pot, one pan, some oil, and a spatula, and you will be able to prepare almost anything!Do not forget your plates, silverware, and cups for serving.
There are very few limitations when packing for a car camping trip. The only thing to strongly consider is duration and temperature, aka: keeping things cool.
- Eggs are fragile but otherwise pack extremely well. They can stay out of the refrigerator for extended periods of time and are easy to cook (scramble them for breakfast in the morning in a large pan, or boil them for an afternoon snack). This easy source of protein will keep you going all day long.
- Pancake mix is a great “go to” food for camping breakfasts. It is easily packable, usually only requires water to be mixed in and maybe an egg or two, and one pan to cook. If you cannot tap into a local maple tree, then be sure to bring your syrup along!
- Coffee is a necessity to break that morning chill. Set a large pot on fire in the morning while preparing your pancake batter and dump the grounds in. Let the water boil for at least 5 minutes, take it off the heat, let the grounds settle, and you have yourself a pot of cowboy coffee! And yes, there will be ground in the coffee, thus why we call it “cowboy” coffee – nice and rough and tuff.
- PB&J is a classic sandwich for a reason. Requiring only bread, peanut butter, and jelly this is an easy sandwich to make that person will enjoy for lunch or as a snack.While all three ingredients can easily stay outside of a refrigerator. Just make sure that none of your group members are allergic to peanut butter before bringing it along.
- Hot dogs or sausages, since they are commonly slightly pre-cooked, they are easier to pack than raw meat, while still offering a great excuse to get the fire blazing.
- Pasta, because let’s face it, you have a large pot and huge fire. So, you may as well enjoy your resources and bring the good stuff! Additionally, sauté onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and garlic, then add in tomato paste (comes in easy to pack tubes) mixed with a little water, and you will have an excellent sauce.
- Cans of vegetables are easy to pack in the car and do not go bad. This means that you can easily bring along nutritious food to your carload. If you do not want to bring along pre-made soup, this is a great option for bringing along all the ingredients (diced tomatoes, beans, corn, etc.) required for a tasty vegetarian soup.
- Apples, kale, cucumber, bell peppers, carrots, onions, eggplant, squash, lemons, and oranges all pack extremely well and are not too susceptible to temperatures. Either for snacking or just adding into meals, these foods are excellent additions to keep around!
- S’mores are an absolute must! This classic camping dessert is a gram cracker sandwich with chocolate and a freshly roasted marshmallow inside. Be sure to bring metal hangers along to create poles for roasting (or you can buy the fancy poles for exactly this). Guitar music and camp songs also pair well with this experience.
Time To Cook
Heading out into the backcountry is always filled with slightly more obstacles, but completely worth the extra planning time.
When you are taking into consideration be realistic about what you will and will not eat, how much you will eat, how many people are in your group, what size your pack is, and how the food will be split up amongst you all.
Keeping It Light
Arguably, the most important consideration when you are backpacking is how to keep your pack light?
Water and food will almost always be your heaviest gear and take up at least 10 liters in space (minimum of 3 liters in water, and most food packs down to at least 6 liters if you are heading out for three or more days).
Therefore, it is extremely important to make sure that you are packing calorie and fat rich foods that will be worth space and energy needed to carry them.
Dehydrated food is a great option since it tends to be extremely light, while also cooks quickly. Requiring you to pack less gas.
While it is possible to buy premade dehydrated food packages at most outdoor supply stores, it is also possible to make your food in a dehydrator.
The process is long but allows you complete control over your nutritional intake and ingredients.
Additionally, freeze dried fruits and vegetables may have a slightly odd texture to them, but weight nearly nothing.
However, they easily turn to powder if crushed. So be prepared to sprinkle them on your oatmeal rather than eating them like whole strawberries.
Depending on where you are trekking, you might be required to carry a bear canister. Be aware that this is extremely common in National Parks across the United States.
These canisters are small in size, most commonly between 7 and 11 liters, and can be an awkward shape to pack in. The easiest solution is to use small plastic bags instead of cans or hard shapes. That way, you can easily stuff and smoosh everything in.
Stoves In The Backcountry
It is most common to bring a small, single burner stove and pot when traveling into the backcountry. Always make sure to get all required permits before starting a fire or using a stove within a park.
When packing, your main priorities will be a small and light, but take into consideration the altitude you are traveling to. Some stoves are meant for low altitudes and will lose power at higher altitudes.
And therefore, take forever heating up something as simple as water and waste gas in the process.
If you are traveling for a long time, it is easiest to bring dehydrated food that is ready once mixed with hot water for the simple reason that water is usually the quickest thing to heat up.
Not needed to cook anything in your stove heavily will save you gas, meaning that you can carry fewer gas canisters in your pack and save weight.
If you are planning on cooking unprepared food, such as rice or pasta, in your pot, then count on your stove constantly running for those 20 to 30 minutes and pack gas accordingly.
Also, be sure to bring enough water to clean out your pot if you are cooking. If you are not near a river, cleaning can be a waste of your precious water resources.
Recommended Foods For the Trail
- Oatmeal is lightweight, extremely filling, and cooks almost instantly. Therefore, it is a fantastic breakfast on the trail. It is one of the easiest hot breakfasts to prepare, and can easily be mixed with fruit, spices (such as cinnamon), or peanut butter for additional nutrition.
- Tea or instant coffee, since in all reality coffee grounds are just too hard to deal with, but you will still want that warm cup of comfort in the morning. Make sure to pack some caffeine if you usually start your morning with a cup of coffee. You do not want to find yourself with a withdrawal headache out in the forest.
- Peanut butter is my personal go to food. A plastic jar is worth the weight due to its high protein and fat content (depending on the manufacturer, one tablespoon can offer around 4 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat), along with the fact that it is a very filling food. Be aware that peanut is one of the most common allergies in the United States and do not bring it along if anyone in the group has an allergy – even if they do not plan on eating it.
- Tortillas are a great food for snacking on, but I love them due to their lightweight and packability. Easier to pack than bread and crackers, less squishing and no crumbling, you can easily squish or even roll them. Add peanut butter or cheese, and you have breakfast or a hearty snack.
- Hard cheeses, while technically cheese can grow bacteria anytime it is out of the refrigerator, hard cheese tend to pack great unless you are traveling to desert heat. A hard Parmesan, Manchego, or Gouda (over 12 months) can easily last for multiple days outside the refrigerator. Please take into consideration your comfort level when packing time-sensitive foods.
- Dried fruit, easier to pack than fresh fruit and has no “squish factor.” This is the perfect snack along the trail when you need a quick and easy sugar spike.
- Nuts bring us back to the discussion of heavy food that is worth its weight. Rich in protein, fat, and vitamins, a small handful of nuts a day can be the difference between fulfillment and hunger. Keep the nuts to a reasonable amount, usually two handfuls a day or less.
- Tuna can now be purchased in either a can our pouch, and while I have never been a fan of taking cans on backpacking trips the lightweight, easily compressible pouches are amazing! This is the perfect way to work a little meat into your diet that will not spoil no matter what the environment throws at you!
- Jerky is go-to for bringing meat on the trail. Salted and dried, it does not spoil. The only consideration to keep in mind, that while it makes a great snack, most people will not eat enough of it to fulfill dinner needs.
- Fresh cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, and apples are the easiest fresh foods to bring along. While they all will eventually go back or squish, they are some of the most durable trail foods if you need a little fresh “pick me up.”
- Gels, power shots, or any other instant “goo” marathon runners use to get them through their course are an excellent thing to carry in your pack. Most people prefer not to eat them as a common snack due to their high sugar content. However, they can be an amazing source of quick energy on an extremely hard trek over a pass or to a summit. Additionally, keeping two in a first aid kit is always a smart idea since they can help combat the side effects of truly low blood sugar, including blurry vision, slurred speech, and inability to made rational decisions.
- Finally, there are always the dehydrated, pre-made meals that are sold at outdoor stores throughout the world. You will be able to find everything from soup to macaroni and cheese, chicken and rice. These options are excellent if you are limited on prep-time.
Leave It Behind
When it comes to camping and backpacking, there are certain foods that are better left at home. While foods that easily squishes is usually recommended to be left behind, it is not necessary.
However, foods that require refrigeration should be avoided. Food poisoning is a real factor when it comes to cooking outdoors and is most easily avoided by using only fresh food that is well maintained.
If you become sick for any reason, including but not limited to vomiting, nausea, or fever, immediately seek a doctor.
Foods to avoid are:
- Raw meat that easily spoils: chicken, beef, lamp
- Foods that smell “off” or “funky.”
- Ice cream or any other foods that have already melted
- Milk, cottage cheese, soft cheese, whip cream, or other dairy foods
- Anything with mold on it
Whatever you decide to pack make sure that it is food you like and want to eat. Also be sure to throw in a few reward goodies for the longer days, including an extra candy bar or fruit for when you need a helping hand up that last peak.
Do you have a favorite food that we did not mention? Please comment bellow as we are excited to hear about your favorite eats along the trail! And be sure to share our list with your camping buddies.
Happy cooking and enjoy your next adventure!