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The 15 Best Backpacking Foods and Meals

Health + Wellness
MStudioImages / E+ / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Backpacking is an exciting way to explore the wilderness or travel to foreign countries on a budget.


However, carrying all of your possessions on your back can make it difficult to plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks.

Fortunately, many foods are not only nutritious but also lightweight — making them perfect choices for backpackers.

Here are 15 of the healthiest meals and snacks for backpackers and travelers.

1. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are portable, convenient options for backpackers.

They also make excellent snacks for those who are traveling.

Nuts and seeds are high in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, fiber and protein, which backpackers need to stay fueled.

Additionally, they're high in calories, yet small in size.

Depending on the terrain, backpackers can burn through thousands of calories per day. Therefore, choosing calorie-dense foods is important (1Trusted Source).

Almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds can be mixed with dried fruit for a tasty snack that can be enjoyed on the move.

2. Dried Fruit

Unlike fresh fruits, which are highly perishable, dried fruits are heat-stable and have long shelf lives.

The drying process removes excess water from the fruit and inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause food to spoil (2).

Dried fruit retains many of the nutrients found in fresh fruit and provides a healthy source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and carbs.

For example, sun-dried raisins retain the minerals and antioxidants found in fresh grapes, including resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that benefits heart health (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).

As an added bonus, dried fruit is compactable and can be easily stored in a backpack or travel bag.

Plus, it can be mixed with nuts and seeds to create a high-energy trail mix

3. Jerky

Backpackers often avoid fresh meat, as it's highly perishable and needs to be kept refrigerated.

Jerky is an excellent alternative to fresh meat that is shelf-stable and backpacker-friendly.

It's made by drying meat or fish in order to prevent spoilage.

Since most of the moisture is removed during the drying process, it's lightweight and can be stored without refrigeration — making it a perfect choice for travelers.

There are many types of jerky on the market, such as beef, chicken, turkey and even salmon varieties.

Jerky can provide a good dose of protein when fresh sources are unavailable.

4. Nut Butter

Nut butters, including peanut butter and almond butter, are delicious, nutritious products that are popular with backpackers — as long as you stick with natural products without added sugars and other unhealthy ingredients.

Though transporting a large jar of nut butter is not possible for most backpackers, nut butter packets or dehydrated nut butters are excellent alternatives.

Nut butters are high in calories, healthy fats and protein, which you will need to stay fueled on the trail (5Trusted Source).

Plus, they're versatile and can be added to many meals and snacks.

Most nut butter packets have a shelf life of over a year, so they can be enjoyed on long backpacking trips without the worry of spoilage.

5. Dehydrated Meals

Although dehydrated meals are not usually associated with being healthy and tasty, there are many nutritious choices for people wanting a warm meal while on the trail.

In fact, many stores that cater to backpackers and hikers sell a wide variety of dehydrated breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

These meals contain dehydrated meal components, such as meat, poultry, vegetables, grains and fruits, that can be cooked by adding boiling water and letting the mixture sit.

There are many dehydrated meal choices that contain high-quality, limited ingredients. By carefully reading labels, you can be sure to find a healthy product.

Dehydrated meals come in lightweight foil containers that are easy to store and carry.

6. Protein Bars

Depending on the type of excursion, backpackers may need to bump up their protein intake.

Similar to endurance athletes, backpackers need to consume quality protein sources on the trail in order to repair muscle and stave off hunger (6Trusted Source).

Protein bars are portable sources of high-quality protein that can fit any dietary preference, including veganism and vegetarianism.

Plus, they're shelf-stable and don't need to be refrigerated.

When searching for the best protein bar to pack, look for products with limited, whole-food ingredients and avoid products containing artificial sweeteners, flavors or colors.

7. Instant Oatmeal

Instant oatmeal is a healthy choice that is easy to prepare when backpacking.

Oatmeal is packed with fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and manganese and provides a filling source of carbs (7).

Though some instant oatmeals are loaded with added sugar and artificial ingredients, many products contain healthy ingredients with little to no added sugar.

Choosing instant oatmeals with no added sugars allows you to add healthier sources of natural sweetness like raisins or dried apples when preparing your meal.

Additionally, you can add nuts, seeds or nut butters to instant oatmeal for an extra dose of protein and healthy fats that can keep you fueled throughout the day.

8. Powdered Milk

While fresh dairy products are not backpacker-friendly, powdered milk can provide a healthy source of nutrients when refrigeration is not an option.

Just like fresh milk, powdered milk is loaded with high-quality protein, B vitamins, calcium, potassium and phosphorus (8).

Additionally, it can be an important source of calories for backpackers in rugged conditions.

Powdered milk can be added to instant oatmeal, dehydrated meals and morning tea or coffee to provide a boost of nutrition.

9. Coffee and Tea

Coffee and teas are backpacker-friendly beverages that can be enjoyed while traveling or on the trail.

They're lightweight and easy to prepare, making them a perfect choice.

The caffeine found in caffeinated coffee and certain teas can help you stay focused and energized during your expedition (9Trusted Source).

Choosing lightweight bags of loose-leaf tea and coffee, rather than single-use packets, is the best way to reduce waste and pack efficiently.

Plus, enjoying a warm cup of coffee or tea in the morning is a healthy way to boost your mood while preparing for the day ahead (10Trusted Source).

10. Fish or Poultry in Foil Packets

Storing fresh poultry or fish when backpacking is out of the question.

However, fish and poultry in foil packets make excellent choices for backpackers searching for high-quality sources of protein.

These products are shelf-stable and do not require refrigeration, making them a perfect choice for backpacking and traveling.

Chicken, tuna, sardines and salmon in foil pouches can add a protein boost to meals and snacks.

These products are packed with protein, B vitamins, iron and many other nutrients that backpackers need to stay healthy (11).

Unlike canned fish and poultry products, foil packets are light and can be easily stored in your backpack.

11. Hard Cheeses

Hard cheeses are shelf-stable and can be used as a flavoring for meals and as a source of protein and healthy fats when backpacking.

Unlike soft cheeses, hard, aged cheeses — such as parmesan, aged cheddar and pecorino romano — have a low moisture content, which extends their shelf life and inhibits the growth of bacteria (12Trusted Source).

Hunks of these cheeses can be enjoyed as a snack with dried fruit or shredded over meals to provide a tasty pop of flavor.

Cheese is an excellent source of healthy fats, B vitamins, calcium and phosphorus (13).

Plus, its high protein content makes cheese a go-to choice for a filling and nutritious snack.

12. Preserved Meats

Preserved meats, such as pepperoni and salami, don't have to be refrigerated, making them a good choice for backpackers.

These meats are low in moisture and have a high sodium content, which extends their shelf life (14Trusted Source).

However, they're considered processed, and high consumption may increase your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and certain cancers (15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source).

For these reasons, it's best to consume any processed meat product in moderation.

13. Beans in Foil Packs

Beans are packed with nutrients, such as protein, fiber, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium and B vitamins (17).

What's more, they don't need to be refrigerated, which makes them a good choice for backpackers.

While canned beans may add too much weight to your backpack, beans in foil pouches are lightweight and compressible.

Beans like chickpeas, black beans and kidney beans can be added to any meal and can be enjoyed hot or cold.

Beans in foil packs have a long shelf life, making them a smart choice if you're embarking on long expeditions.

14. Whole Grains

Whole grains like oats, quinoa, farro and buckwheat are highly nutritious, providing a powerful source of fiber, complex carbs, vitamins and minerals (18Trusted Source).

They're shelf-stable and portable, which makes them a perfect fit for backpackers.

Whole grains can be enjoyed at any time of day — plus, they're highly versatile.

They're also easy to prepare over a fire, which is the most common method of cooking while backpacking.

What's more, buying whole grains in bulk allows backpackers to plan meals ahead of time while saving money in the process.

15. Spices

Eating the same meals day in and day out can become boring if you crave variety.

Packing spices — such as garlic powder, turmeric, chili flakes and paprika — can add flavor and depth to meals while providing powerful nutrition benefits.

Spices, such as turmeric and paprika, are packed with antioxidants that can reduce inflammation in your body.

Consuming spices may even reduce your risk of health conditions like heart disease and certain types of cancer (19Trusted Source).

Additionally, spices only take up a tiny amount of space, which is important when backpacking or traveling.

Healthy Tips for Backpackers and Travelers

Staying healthy while backpacking or traveling can be a breeze as long as you're taking care of your body.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is essential for cellular repair, brain function and immune health (20Trusted Source).

Getting enough sleep also ensures that you're functioning at an optimal level, which is important for safety while backpacking.

Lack of sleep can increase your risk of injury and negatively impact your mood (21Trusted Source).

Avoid Alcohol

Alcohol can dehydrate the body and slow reflexes, which can lead to dangerous situations for backpackers (22Trusted Source).

Drinking alcohol can also negatively impact your immune system, weakening your body's defenses and increasing your chances of becoming ill (23Trusted Source).

Plus, alcohol is heavy and adds substantial weight to your backpack.

Eat Real Food

Though high-calorie snack foods, such as candy, sugary cereals and powdered meal replacements, are tempting, there are healthier options for backpackers.

Processed foods tend to be high in sugars, unhealthy fats and artificial ingredients, which should be kept to a minimum.

Prioritizing nutritious foods — such as those listed above — is always the best bet for health.

Stay Hydrated

Because backpackers expend energy and moisture carrying heavy packs and navigating difficult terrain, it's critical to maintain proper hydration.

Staying properly hydrated can keep your digestive system healthy, improve brain function and boost athletic performance (24Trusted Source).

Because many water sources like lakes and rivers may be unsafe to drink from, it's often necessary to use water disinfection techniques, such as boiling, UV light purifiers or charcoal filtration systems (25Trusted Source).

Summary

Getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol, staying hydrated and eating nutritious foods are excellent ways to stay healthy while backpacking.

The Bottom Line

Though many healthy foods require refrigeration, there are a number of shelf-stable, nutritious options for backpackers to enjoy on the trail.

Dehydrated meals, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, nut butters, aged cheeses and whole grains are just some of the options for health-conscious backpackers.

No matter the location or length of your trip, choosing nutritious, portable foods is the best way to stay fueled.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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