How to take your first backpacking trip – Part 4: Camp food and backpacking recipes

In Part 3 we gave detailed gear recommendations and talked about how much food to bring. (2 lbs dried or fatty food per person per day.) Let’s get specific on what you might bring, and get you started with some easy and delicious meal ideas. If you just want the recipes, skip down to here.

selective focus photography of people holding sticks with sausages
Tube steak for the win?

What to eat?

FOOD

The goal is lightweight, tasty, and quick & easy to cook and eat. ‘Lightweight’ means high caloric density, which means foods that are dry or fatty. Nerds like me can look at the nutrition label and divide the calories per serving by the grams per serving. Your goal is to average between 3 – 4 calories / gram.*

Dry carbs (3.5 – 4 cal/g) like flour, corn meal, pasta, oats, crackers, rice, beans, popcorn, dried fruit, and potato/corn/veggie chips are all good choices.

Butter (7 cal/g), vegetable oils (9 cal/g), lard/tallow, hard cheeses (4 cal/g), nut butters (6 cal/g), and dried meats like jerky (~2-3 cal/g) are great for fat and protein. Fatty, preserved fresh meat like bacon (6 cal/g), side pork, or sausage will keep at least a couple of days when buried in your pack with other cold stuff, especially if the nighttime temps are still in the 40s or below.

Gourmet tip: I pre-cook and pre-season fresh meat to dry it out a little and for easier meal prep, then throw it in a ziplock and add it last to warm up after cooking a carb base. It’s a real treat, and worth the extra water weight. Going for fattier meats like hamburger and sausag, and packing the rendered fat with the meat increases your efficiency vs using leaner meats.

Get the quick-cooking version of everything so that you can whip up a meal fast and with less cooking fuel. Go for instant rice, quick-cooking oats, instant mashed potatoes, thin pasta like angel hair or mini-pastas with 7 minute or less cooking times, ready-to-eat cereal, and instant refried beans. Instant mac & cheese is another winner.

For milk, use this brand of dried whole milk (5 cal/g.) The fat-free stuff from Carnation or your grocery store brand is nasty.

Beverages

CAFFEINE

For coffee, go instant, and go Arabica (the bean type) if you can. Starbucks Via is very good but a little more expensive (worth it!) Nescafe Clasico or Nescafe espresso (basically, the Italian-style ones) are ok. Nescafe Taster’s Choice and Folgers is gross. If you have a sweet tooth, Vietnamese-style 3-in-1 (sugar + milk + coffee) packets are convenient.

For tea, I recommend just bringing a few tea bags, or some loose tea that brews up quickly. The smaller the tea is chopped up, the quicker the brew, so go for ‘Broken Orange Pekoe’ vs full-leaf black tea.

For black tea bags, Twinings is quite good, as are Stash teas. For green tea, jasmine (a type of tea, not a brand) is nice and hard to go wrong with brand-wise.

I’m partial to Zarrin and Alwazah for loose-leaf teas, but they take at least 10 minutes to brew. Brooke Bond brews up in 5 minutes and is a solid choice. For $6 – 10/lb you can get great loose leaf tea from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or Assam (India), often in the Eastern European/Russian/Middle Eastern section of your local ethnic grocer.

We mentioned milk above. Bring some sugar/sweetener in packets or in a ziplock if you use it.

NOT cafFeine

Roobois is a good decaf tisane option, or mint or chamomile or other herbal tisanes. Korean/Japanese-style barley tea is a great decaf option for cold weather.

You could bring any number of powdered juice mixes. Maybe apple cider in fall?

BOOZE

Whiskey (3 – 3.5 cal/g) is the go-to backpacking alcohol for me. With apologies to Samuel Johnson, anyone who aspires to be a hero must drink whiskey. Store it in a lightweight bladder pouch, like your 16 oz Sawyer mini one.

Any hard liquor optimizes for weight, although mixers and lack of ice present a challenge to the cocktail-inclined. (One reason to camp just below the snow line…?) Get creative with dry mixes that only require adding sugar or water. Citric acid in powder form could serve as a lemon substitute if you really wanted to build a lightweight cocktail, you unredeemable sot you.

Wine is ok for the weight. Transfer it into a sacrificial 1 liter pouch: it will forever taste like wine afterward.

Beer, or hard cider, is a wanton luxury. But, if you want to delight your friends and don’t mind a few extra pounds, surprise the group with a can for each at the end of the first day. The larger the can and the higher the alcohol content the more weight-efficient you’re being.

Beverages can be chilled in a glacier-fed stream or lake, but don’t lose them!

What meals to make?

I usually do a hot dinner and hot breakfast (with hot drinks) in camp, with a cold lunch and cold snacks in between while on the trail.

For breakfast, keeping it simple helps get a jump on the day, but if you’re lingering in camp, feel free to do it up with bacon, bannock (quick bread fried in your skillet or pot) or toast, and maybe rehydrated scrambled eggs or this Mountain House breakfast skillet (one of the better instant meal brands out there.) Fry your bread or eggs in your bacon fat. If you’re not too concerned with weight, crack out and beat some raw eggs and funnel them into a lightweight water bottle for easy scrambled eggs made fresh in camp.

Recipes

Breakfast

Drink: Instant coffee, tea, or hot chocolate mix, with rehydrated milk or sugar.

Milk: Add 1/4 c Nido powdered milk to 1 cup water for 1 cup whole milk. It’s even better if you mix it up the night before and let it sit overnight.

Easiest: 2 oz cold cereal with 1/4 cup + 2 Tbl Nido powdered milk to 1.5 cups (12 oz) water (yields 1.5 cups milk.)

Instant Oatmeal for ONE person (double it for two):

Pre-mix in a ziplock bag at home:

1 individual baggie plain instant oat meal / 2 oz instant oatmeal (3 oz if you’re a big eater)

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg/cloves/allspice (optional)

2 Tbl c Nido whole milk powder (if you omit this, reduce the water by 1/2 cup)

1 Tbl butter (optional for added calories & richness)

~1 tsp brown sugar to your taste (if using plain oatmeal; the flavored packets already have a ton of sugar)

In the morning, add 1.5 – 1.75 cups (12 – 14 oz) boiling water and stir and cover for 1 – 2 minutes. Do this right in your eatin’ bowl for easier cleanup. If it’s cold outside, adding more boiling water = more heat in your body!

Top with dried fruit, sliced almonds, fresh picked berries from the trail, and more brown sugar, cinnamon, butter as desired. You can also just use instant oatmeal packets vs mixing your own spices.

Lunch & Snacks

Crackers like saltines, Wheat Thins, Triscuits, Ritz (best for the weight) are all good options. Spread them with cream cheese, peanut butter, a slice of hard cheese, salami, pepperoni, or even smoked salmon. Jerky, nuts, trail mix, dried fruit, and granola are all good options for lunch and snacking.

Junk food like potato chips, Fritos or Cheetos (5 cal/g!), Cheez-Its, Goldfish, Pringles and the like are a treat. Consider durability though: Fritos and crunchy Cheetos hold up better in a backpack than Lays or tortilla chips.

Candy bars, power/trail bars (Clif), and chocolate are de riguer for sweets and quick carbs.

Pre-made sandwiches for a lunch on the trail the first day are worth it for convenience, or eat them on your drive to the trailhead and just plan on snacking until you have dinner in camp.

Dinner

Now is the time to let your inner Jacques Pepin shine. The tent is assembled, your sleeping pad is inflated and your bag rolled out on top of it, and you’ve rested your weary back and feet a moment. Get cooking with these trail-tested recipes. Tsp = teaspoon, Tbl = Tablespoon, c. = cup, g = grams, and oz = ounces.

Lena Lake Bolognese (for two or three people)

At home: Fry 1 lb of hamburger with 1/2 of a large onion, diced, in 2 Tbl of either bacon fat, beef tallow, or olive oil over medium-high heat until everything is cooked through and most of the water in the meat and onions has evaporated.

Add 3 medium garlic cloves, minced, and 2 Tbl of red wine (optional), and your favorite pasta sauce spices: 1 tsp each of garlic powder, thyme, basil or oregano is a good mixture. Up the garlic powder if you aren’t using fresh garlic. [Yes, I realize I’m adding garlic in two forms. I love garlic!] Add salt and pepper to taste and one 6 oz can of tomato paste.

Fry it all on medium-low heat while stirring frequently to cook the paste and evaporate more water. Turn off the heat after ~3-5 minutes when things looks fairly dry and thick (this is just to save weight, so don’t sweat it too much.)

Dump the sauce into a ziplock bag when it’s cooled to room temp. Pack a 1/4 cup or so of grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese in a separate ziplock. If you want to get fancy bring some red pepper flakes and a small container of olive oil to drizzle over the top, or even a handful of fresh basil leaves.

In camp: Bring enough water to a boil in a 2 quart pot to boil 8 oz (for two people) to 12 oz (for three) for the time it says on the package. I use angel hair because it cooks up a few minutes faster than regular pasta, but any kind will do.

Cook your pasta to al dente, then artfully eyeball the amount of cooking water you want to keep in the pot, and add your sauce. If you’ve dried your sauce out and estimated, you’ll have the perfect amount of liquid to rehydrate your sauce to the right consistency.

The less confident can pour off a few cups of the hot pasta water into a mug or two and then add back liquid as needed after you dump in the sauce.

Portion out the sauced pasta to your guests and have them garnish with the cheese or any extras you brought. Bon appétit!

Quick-cooking pasta and frying your sauce at home makes for an easy one-pot meal that also impresses.

Ward’s Thai curry noodles for TWO:

2 thin vermicelli ‘bean threads/glass/cellophane noodles’ clumps (~34 g per clump; get from Asian mart. These are usually made from mung beans or pea starch, NOT the thicker Vietnamese-style rice vermicelli.)

1 (60 g) packet of coconut milk powder

~1/2 lb pre-cooked meat (ground pork/chicken/turkey/hamburger, stew beef cubed) or fried tofu. You could use dried meat or tofu too and add extra water to rehydrate when cooking the noodles.

Pre-mix in a ziplock:

1/2 oz Thai green curry paste (get from Asian mart; Aroy-D is good, any flavor works)

2 oz vegetable oil/solid fat

Dash of fish sauce (get from Asian mart)

1/2 oz dried vegetable flakes (check at your Asian/ethnic mart in spices aisle)

1/8 oz dried onion flakes or 2/3s less onion powder (check at Costco or Asian mart)

Fry the curry-oil-flake ziplock mixture at medium heat for 30 seconds to a minute while mixing it into a paste.

Add the coconut milk powder & 12 oz water (and dried meat/tofu, if using), mix, and bring to a simmer.

Add the noodles and cook for 1 – 2 minutes until softened and spread out. I bring a pair of wooden chopsticks to tease them apart, as well as for stirring the paste and serving them out to the group, but you can use your spork too.

Add your cooked meat or tofu on top, then turn off the flame and cover for 5 – 7 minutes until the noodles are fully cooked (they cook quickly; don’t reduce them to mush!) and meat is warmed through.

This one is a real winner if you like Thai curry and have access to an Asian grocery store to get the ingredients. (Or get them online for a little extra.)

Robert’s Sage and Butter Pasta

At home: combine a handful of dried or fresh sage leaves and butter (1/4 stick per person) in a ziplock bag.

In camp: boil 4 oz dry pasta per person per the package instruction. Either dump out the pasta water or save it to drink (nice in cold weather), and portion out the noodles, keeping them warm as best as possible.

In the now-empty pot, melt the butter on low-medium heat, then add your sage leaves, along with any pre-cooked meat if you’re using it. Fry the sage leaves until just crispy, but don’t burn them. Portion out the sauce over everyone’s noodles.

Garnish with the same kind of toppings as in the bolognese recipe above: cheese, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, olive oil, or maybe some anchovies if you really want to blow your skirt up.

A simpler pasta dish than the bolognese that still impresses. Add pre-cooked chicken or Italian sausage if you want meat in it.

Camp popcorn

Cover your pot with a 1-kernel-thick layer of unpopped popcorn and add 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, Crisco, or lard + 1 Tbl salted butter, reserving another 1 Tbl salted butter to add afterward.

Heat your pot with the lid on over medium/medium-high heat until it starts popping. Lower the heat if you need to to avoid burning it. Wait ’til the popping slows down significantly, shaking the pot gently with your gloved hands while it’s cooking to keep from burning it.

Add the remaining butter, and any extra salt to taste, stir, and serve warm in the pot.

If you use unsalted butter, bring some salt to taste.

You can pre-mix everything, including the kernels, salt, oil/fat, and half of the butter into a ziplock, keeping the extra butter separate to add at the end. I like to use a solid fat like Crisco or lard since it’s less likely to leak out of my ziplock. Double-bag it just in case!

Cold snacks are easiest, but popcorn is a surprisingly simple and weight-efficient snack to make in camp. It comes out of the pot piping hot, which is a treat in cooler weather.

If you want something simpler for dinner, Mountain House makes freeze-dried meals that aren’t bad. Some are better than others. The ‘Breakfast Skillet’ is a good choice for a just-add-water hot breakfast. Everything instant tends to be pretty salty and not as good as if you cooked it yourself, however.

An option in between boil-in-bag dried meals and doing your own cooking from scratch are quick-cooking carb sides that you can add things to. Knorr Rice and Pasta sides are inexpensive pre-seasoned carb dishes that you can add pre-cooked meat or veggies to, along with spices or dried onion & veggie flakes. One package can serve two people if you add extra meat and butter/olive oil to them.

Don’t sweat the recipes too much, because everything tastes better on the trail. A mediocre instant meal at home will taste like a gourmet feast in camp after a long hike in.

What stove to use?

Read this section on backpacking stoves from the previous post. The DIY cat food stove is the lightest option for ‘boil and eat’ meals, especially if there’s only one or two of you, but a typical canister stove like this one is easiest when just starting out backpacking.

For car camping, I use and recommend the classic 2-burner Coleman camping stove. The lid doubles as as a windscreen, and it’s quite powerful and provides a nice stable surface for cooking. I’ve had mine for many years and it still works great. Buy these portable fuel canisters (a cheaper generic brand is fine too), or figure out how to rig it up to your gas grill’s 30 gal tank if you’re going to stay awhile/cook for a crowd. You definitely want a propane-fueled stove vs pure butane for car camping since butane stops working as you get close to freezing temperatures.

What do YOU like to eat in the backcountry?

Tell me about your favorite camp meals in the comments, and happy cooking!

In our next post we’ll answer some frequently asked questions about backpacking.

*Technical food discussion for nerds

Water and fiber don’t provide calories, so in general you want dry food. Fat is the most efficient at 9 cals/g, carbs & protein each have 4 cals / g, alcohol has 7 g/cal, but usually lots of water with it…

Thus, pure fat with no water in it, like oil or lard, is the best you can do weight-wise. A completely dry white carb like flour or pasta would be about 4 cals/g (there’s always a little fiber or water usually, so it’ll be slightly less.)

Author: Ward Williams

Personal finance blogger with an interest in saving, investing, and learning new skills and doing things for myself & others!

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