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Healthy Food for a Backpacker: Easy and Energizing

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • edited by: Cheryl Gabbert • updated: 4/26/2010

Healthy food for a backpacker should include plenty of snacks and meals that will keep you fueled and operating at peak efficiency for your forays into wild, beautiful places. Here we’ll give you an overview of food groups and specifics that should be in the pack for your trips.

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    Sustenance for Energy, Agility, and Endurance

    Backpacking the Crazies The healthy food for backpacker trips into the wilderness consists of meals and snacks carefully chosen for their nutritious value, along with the properties within them to release energy when you need it. Luckily, you won’t have to compromise on taste, since you have a wide variety of options under the umbrella of each general category.

    High carbohydrate based foods are important since you’ll be burning a lot of calories hiking long distances with a pack. Backpacking is rugged, hard work that combines strength, agility, and stamina. With trekking poles, you get a full body workout, along with relieving your joints of a lot of stress. Read more at How to Use Trekking Poles for Hiking: the Bennefits and Basics. Fresh fruits and veggies can be a great source of carbs, and I like the freeze dried fruit medley that comes in a resealable package. If I’m going to camp near a stream, I take along fresh fruits, like strawberries, in a little Tupperware container, and submerge it half-way and pile a hefty rock on top. I haven’t had a critter steal from me yet, and I plant it pretty far from my tent if I’m in Grizzly country. Granola-based trail mixes and fruit also give you great energy boosts when you need it.

    Just like distance runners who carb-load before races, backpackers can eat pasta, rice, and potato-based meals to fuel them along. I’m a loyal Mountain House guy, because it doesn’t get any easier than preparing any of their wide variety of meals, which I find delicious. They design their meals with the healthy intention of aiding the adventurist, especially backpackers, in their energy-consuming pursuits.

    All you do is boil a quantity of water (usually 12 ounces), pour it in the resealable and durable pouch it comes in; mix it up with a fork/spoon; reseal it just like a Ziploc bag; and wait the prescribed number of minutes for it to be ready. There are no dishes to clean because you can eat it right out of the pouch. Mountain house just came out with the fillings for several different kinds of wraps (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) which adds another healthy component. Flat round tortillas (great carb source) are just as easy to carry and don’t consume a lot of space. By the way, Mountain House packages have never burst in my pack, and I can be known to shove and jostle stuff around roughly in there.

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    Protein Bursts

    Dinner in Minutes Next, we have the need for speed and the protein to accommodate it. Again, the freeze dried meals mentioned above are your best bet for the meats you might want. But protein comes in eggs, beans, and peanut butter, too. Protein bars and trail mix are a high-value source for this. You’ll be sweating a lot, no matter what season you’re backpacking in, so replace that used energy often. Eat lighter meals five or six times a day and dress appropriately or your body will work too hard to adjust. Learn about layering and wicking clothing essentials for optimum safety and comfort on the trail.

    I always carry an emergency stash for the psychological push that I reserve as a last resort, when pushing up a steep trail, or rounding out a long trek of many miles. These consist of the gels, bars, and drink mixes made by companies like Cliff or PowerBar. Some people dispute the healthy effectiveness of such products, but they work for me, even if it’s just a placebo effect. But the fruits, in original form, mashed, or in jams work just as well. Since I’m really addicted to caffeine, I need one of those tall-boys, here and there, although I know it’s not the healthiest choice.

    If you want to be more of a gourmet about it, has delicious recipes that you can cook and store before the trip, or you can make out there in the wild, if you’ve got a good camp kitchen with you. Be sure and check out what you need for preparation. has plenty of lightweight kitchen gear along with anything else you could possibly need for backpacking.

    Couscous with dried veggies is an old standby healthy food for backpacker. You can carry a worthy assortment of spices and herbs for all your meals in small containers or tiny bags. And lastly, there is a strong case made for corn-based meals, and Pinole, by Christopher McDougal in his very entertaining book, Born To Run. The legendary distance-running tribes, known as the Tarahumara, rely on such foods for their astounding long-distance running feats. We’re done listing a worthy selection for your menu, so eat well, and always pack out what you pack in.


    Mountain House

    Backpacking Meals

    McDougall, Christopher. Born To Run. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.