When you are trekking through the mountains or across a dessert, there’s lots of planning to do. You must figure out a route, pack the right gear, and stay hydrated the whole time. You also need to bring food with you. For hikes, it cannot be just any food. You want to get the maximum amount of energy while giving up the smallest amount of space and weight in your pack.
My family and I do dozens of day hikes throughout the year. In addition to that, I typically do several multiday hikes on my own. In both situations, picking the right food is vital. On my most recent long-distance hike, my plan was to cover 45 miles in four days. I brought oatmeal, peanut butter, bacon, and precooked pancakes for breakfast. It gave me the boost of energy I needed. Then I had plenty of good snacks with me to eat throughout the day. For dinner it was rice and rehydrated jerky. The terrain was much rougher than I expected, so I was glad to have the extra energy. In this article, we will cover how to plan out the best food for a hike of any length.
When packing food for hikes, there are a few key points of focus to always remember. One of the biggest is that you need to consider the size and weight of everything you bring. There will only be so much weight you can carry on your back, so try to keep it light. Dry foods like nuts, granola, oatmeal, and jerky take up the least amount of space and are the lightest. Wet foods in light packaging like MRE’s or fruit cups can give you more variety, but they are heavier. This also goes for fresh fruits, vegetables, or proteins. The heaviest option would be to bring canned goods, so I generally leave those at home.
You also want to be sure that you get the most nutrition possible out of the smallest and lightest foods you can find. This is counterintuitive, but you almost need to look at your food items like the opposite of a diet. You want lots of calories, lots of healthy fats, lots of protein, and lots of vitamins and minerals. Variety can be quite important. If you have been munching on dry foods all day like nuts and jerky, you may want something warm and soft for dinner like pasta.
You should pick foods that either require no cooking, or that are incredibly easy and quick to cook. I like to eat a hot breakfast and a hot dinner, but all of my other food requires no cooking. The items that need cooking just need water and heat typically. I can bring a steel cup or bowl and cook anything I need over the fire. Finally, consider how foods will affect your stomach when you have been hiking all day. Spicy and acidic foods tend to hit me harder when I am exhausted. I like flavor, but I am careful to avoid taking it too far.
The good part about day hikes is that you can push yourself a little harder since you will be sleeping in your own bed. This means you can carry more weight if you like. It also means that you can put more effort into your meals if you want. That being said, you cannot get lazy with your planning. You still need foods that give you lots of energy without causing you to crash afterwards. We don’t want sugary foods or foods that are especially greasy.
There are times on day hikes that we eat a big breakfast at home, bring snacks with us for lunch, and eat a late dinner on the way home that night. This completely eliminates the need to bring gear for cooking, and it allows you to cover more ground. With day hikes, you have the option of bringing fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats.
You can pack a small, soft shell cooler to keep everything cold if you like. Foods like these will also be fine to just load in your pack if you are only hiking for one day. I like bringing apples, pears, cured meats, and hard to medium hard cheese to make a charcuterie spread. If they come right out of the fridge or freezer, they will stay cold in your pack for a few hours at least.
I always bring snacks like granola, energy gummies, nuts, jerky, and energy bars. These snacks are perfect to keep you going between big meals. No cooking is required, and these are relatively light foods.
When you are packing food for several days, it is even more important that you are selective about what you bring. For these trips, you can still bring fresh foods. While I would leave the cooler behind, you can still bring fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats that are not preserved as long as you bring a small amount that can be eaten on the first day or two.
Your biggest priorities should be light, dry foods that can be cooked for nutritional meals. These foods include pasta, rice, pancake mix, oatmeal, dried vegetables, soup mixes, dried meats, dried fish, couscous, quinoa, polenta, or other grains. With any of these foods, you should be able to just add water to cook it over a fire. These are ideal for keeping the weight of your pack down.
While focusing on these dry foods, you still want some flavor and variety. You should bring plenty of those dry snack foods for energy in between meals. I like to bring a couple applesauce cups or something similar for a treat each day. You also need salts and fats in your diet, so bring salt packets and oil or butter. Finally, I like to keep a few meal-replacement bars to use if I am completely out of energy and need lots of calories fast.
If you take the time to plan out your foods for hikes, it will make all the difference in the world. Trail meals are a time to rest and enjoy time in nature. While you need to be practical with the foods you bring, you also want to enjoy your meals. I suggest you start out with a couple day trips just to get a feel for the process. Then just be sure you make the needed changes when you move on to longer trips. Remember that it is not just about what you eat on your hike, but also what you eat before and after your trip. If you pay attention to your diet and are selective, you will have plenty of energy for a wonderful hike.