Sunday, April 4, 2021

New to hiking? Food considerations for long distance backpacking

After releasing our gear review of what types of equipment we use on the 24,000 km Great Trail we were asked for advice for what food to take on a long distance trek.  So over the past week we have  written out what we think are the most important things to consider as you strike out on your first long distance trek or thru hike in terms of food.  We hope you find it useful as a guide.

From our perspective, there are a number of factors that we always keep in mind when buying food for a hike.  The reality is that food and water will determine the shape of your hike, the weight of your backpack, and the distances you can and often must travel each day.  Where one ventures to from day to day is determined by water availability, how much food you have on you, and how much energy you have.  Similarly, where the next resupply point is often determines much of your schedule.  This is the reality of life on the trail.  Even with good planning there are always tough decisions and challenging days.   Energy vs. Weight vs. Hiking Distances and speed. 

Keeping up your energy and endurance are the keys to any trek and of course your regular diet is central to this. In addition however you also want remember while getting supplies that you want to find packable and lightweight foods that balance being high in calories as well as being nutritious.   Ideally your choices should be food that doesn’t have a ton of packaging, doesn’t rot or mold quickly, won’t leak into your backpack, and which aren’t going to cost you a fortune.  While this might sound challenging rest assured that there are great food options out there that fit all of these needs. 

Trail Food : Considerations

Trail eating is not home eating – This might sound obvious, but eating on the trail is very different than being at home.  At home we are all told that you have 3 meals a day.  On the trail life quickly transforms (at least for me) into breakfast, snack, snack, quick lunch, snack, snack, dinner, snack and tea.  I think it is fair to say that most of my nutrients come from the meals and most of my calorie energy comes from my snacking throughout the day.  It also means that you have to remember to grab some sweet, salty (and fun) snacks - that you keep accesible - to keep your energy up during the day between meals.  

Ideal vs Real – On the trail you have to come to realize that you aren’t going to gourmet cook every day or eat like you do at family meals.  You need to refine what you actually need and what you can comfortably carry against the distances you need to cover.  For instance, my mother is constantly sending me lists of “ideal camping meals” that have 20+ ingredients and an entire spice rack in them. She is excited when she finds them because they can be finished cooking in 30-60 minutes.  For someone who stands at a stove for 3 hours per meal at home watching water boil making an entire meal in 30 minutes seems like a miracle.   Now, don’t get me wrong, I am sure each of her recommendations are wonderful and taste great, it’s just that I’m not going to carry all of those supplies with me nor am I going to waste that much stove fuel each night.  The truth also is that when I am done trekking I have just about enough energy left to filter water, pour something into the pot and eat.  That is how much effort on the trail I use cooking.  Whether this is laziness or simply realistic I don’t know.  However for the sake of my own sanity on the trail I keep it simple. 

Salts and Sweets
– As noted, snacks are the mainstay of long distance hiking.  They replenish salt to the body, quick energy, give you the taste of new flavors, and a boost of happiness during the day.  In other words, dehydrated fruits, nuts, and chocolate are a likely a must for trekkers.   GORP (“good old raisins and peanuts”) mixes are also easy to customize and are a simple means to add variety to your regular handfuls of happiness.  Similarly if you are a bar person - as in trail bars (Cliff Bar, Larabar, GoMacro, etc. ) – there are a huge range of potential granola, energy, nutrition, and food bars out there that come in a large range of flavors and varieties.   Remember to keep these items close at hand so that they are easy to reach and snack on each day.  

Too much sugar, too few nutrients – Despite what I just said about Salts and Sweets being a necessity on the trail, and while I fully defend the need to indulge on your trek, you also need your nutrients.  This can come in the form of supplements or in trying to keep your meals and snacks balanced with proteins, veggies, and carbohydrates.  For us this comes in the form of adding dehydrated veggies and beans to our meals.  Adding a couple of different vegetables each night adds switches up the flavor and keeps some nutrients in our food.  When in towns we also tend to eat larger meals that include salads, fruits, and lots of protein to top up.  Sometimes making sure you are getting enough nutrients isn’t easy but ultimately your body needs more than raw energy and sugar to keep going.

Variety – This is the big issue most hikers face – how to get variety into your routine.  If you live on oatmeal, tea, and rice and beans you will eventually get sick of one or all of them.  I actually broke down crying in despair in one resupply town when the restaurant waiter brought me a bean salad with dinner after having only eaten rice and beans for the 60 days before hand.  At that moment I wanted anything other than beans.   This means that you need to build in some variety – which can be achieved a number of ways.  If you eat oatmeal get the variety pack, add freeze dried fruit or a package of sugar to it.  You can also add variety to your meal routine by carrying a couple of premade dehydrated meals (Backpackers Pantry, Mountain House, Happy Yak all have great options - though often too expensive to rely upon for week after week of trekking), switching what you eat on your own, or indulging in other foods that you don’t have to carry in resupply towns.  Similarly you can also make your own trail mix and change what goes into it.  The big hint I would add is that the key to variety isn’t just different foods, it is getting different flavors, and different textures too.  In our case we tend to stick to the same diet on the trail and when we hit a town with a grocery store we tend to splurge and either buy a large containers of veggies and fruit while working in the hotel room or order in a pizza (or two) with cans of ice tea (which I have an unreasonable craving for after weeks of only filtered water). 

Make meals fuller – One easy way to add variety to your meals as well as to increase how much you are eating is to add a package of rice or a package of mashed potatoes to dinner.  Neither weighs much, they cook up and rehydrate quickly, both come in a ton of flavored options, and both make a meal look much larger and fill you up more! 

Warm or cold? - A choice you have to make early on is whether you are going to cook or just assemble meals each day.   Remember that cooking meals means fuel usage which often (though not always) equals more weight in the backpack.  So if you are dedicated to your stove then you need to also pay attention to cooking time and fuel availability/usage.  With liquid fuel stoves that means cannisters and alcohol with bio stoves that means making sure you have enough accessible twigs near by.  With that said lots of people don’t carry a stove and go with rehydrating, soaking, and eating cold meals throughout their treks.  Cold soak oatmeal for breakfast and rehydrated beans or lentils for dinner work great.  While others (like myself) love the boost that a warm coffee or tea or a cooked meal provide at the end of a long day of hiking.  Regardless, what you intend to eat changes what you are going to carry and you have to plan and prepare accordingly.  

Water – One thing not to be dismissed or forgotten - because you aren’t necessarily buying it – is water.  Yet water is the essence of life, the basis for staying hydrated, the means to make coffee and tea, and the way you rehydrate your food en route.  It is also one of the heaviest parts of your backpack.  Therefore you need to plan to have water, fill up your water bottles, and be able to regularly locate water.  The importance of water cannot be understated and likely also means that you have to give thought to its location, the environment and the need to filter.  Regardless, despite being further down this list, water is the first and most important part of trekking and eating on any long distance hike!

Electrolytes – Though water is necessary and great for hydration, like your body it can always use some help.  Electrolytes to keep you going are also great for adding flavor and variety to your day!  We add electrolyte tablets (NUUN) to our water each day for a number of reasons the largest of which is that keeping up your electrolytes is essential to keeping your body running, especially in the heat and humidity of those summer days on the trail. 

Packaging weight – One of the major and often unexpected considerations that you have to give when making food choices is about the type of containers, tins, and bottles that food comes in.  Most food is excessively packaged, in heavy tins or bottles, or comes in bulk sizes.  The weight of packaging and containers in your backpack can be the death of you.  Not only does their weight add up in your backpack but you also have to trek with the empty packaging afterwards (Leave No Trace).  So you have to be smart with you food purchases to not add too much unnecessary packaging weight.  In Europe this was easier than here in North America.  French shops often carried single serving peanut butter, honey, jam packets, hummus, olive oil, etc.  While in Canada you often have to make the choice as to whether you are willing to commit to carrying that tub of peanut butter or not – or whether you are willing to beg a waitress at a diner to have a couple of extras with your meal.   Another challenge can be buying foods that come in juice or water which add liquid weight to your backpack.   It is easy to forget that while each item doesn’t weigh much ‘a lot of little bottles make a big bottle’ so when you buy something at the store don’t just dump it into your backpack.  Before setting out make sure to strip off all the unnecessary packaging and dispose of it properly in the community garbage cans before getting back on the trail. The image below shows what packaging for 2 people over 7 days on the trail can be reduced to with smart food choices.

Cleaning up – Not only do you need to be aware of how much packaging you will have on you and in your backpack until being able to properly dispose of but you also need to be conscious of the sort of mess that a meal can make.  There is nothing more frustrating than having a big creamy noodle meal only to realize that you now have a night of scrubbing your pots a head of you.  This can be especially challenging when you have a limited supply of water on you (that you don’t want to waste), need to find a place to safely dispose of your grey water,  and need to make sure that the smells of cooking aren’t going to attract the local wild life.  As such, despite how good a certain food smells and tastes some meals just aren’t worth the effort to clean up afterwards.  Instant eggs, creamy noodles, mac and cheese are all challenging for this reason. 

Comfort – While all of these factors can make buying food seem like brain surgery, the fact is that food is meant to energize and comfort you on the trail!  So remember to include some of your favorite comfort foods – whether this is a Snickers Bar, Coffee, or Tea!  In days past when we were on shorter treks and car camping this would also have included a metal flask of Brandy for the evenings at the camp fire as something to warm us up, to help to relax the body and to settle in with after a long day of tough hiking.  Regardless, don’t forget that having a little something extra at the day’s end that is your comfort food keeps up the spirits and can really help.  (My evenings on the trail are spent writing and are fueled by a Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar.)  Alternatively when you get into a resupply town take the opportunity to indulge in a treat meal.  

Expect the unexpected – With all of those considerations listed there are some practical matters to also cover about food on the trail. The first being – like a Scout – to always be prepared!   The fact is that things happen on the trail.  Routes are harder than expected, stores are closed, emergencies happen, there are unexpected regional holidays, and resupply packages get unexpectedly lost or returned.  As such we always carry 1 extra day of food and snacks at all times, because it is far better to have a little extra on you and not need it than to have to keep trekking on an empty stomach.  

Know the trail – Despite our seemingly ramshackle approach to meals on the trail, the reality is that we have mapped the entire pathway we are on. We know the exact distances between stores, and are aware of the number of kilometers and days between resupply points.   The fact is that you can’t just throw a long distance trail together or on the fly and hope for the best.  If you do then you should be prepared for some unpleasant and hungry moments out there.  The reality is that you need to know where the next water source is, where the next store is, and where you can resupply.  This means you have to either get a good guide, or learn to read maps to locate water sources, and plan out your trek in advance – or commit to carrying far more than is necessary.  Knowing the trail in advance will save you a lot of headaches.

Know your body, know yourself – Our final piece of advice (much like with gear selections) is to know what you need and know what you like.   If you aren’t a tuna sort of person, no matter how much people preach about it, taking it onto the trail isn’t going to make things fun.  Similarly if you aren’t sure you will like a certain food then try it out before getting on the trail.  Nothing can be harder on you than trekking for a full day and sitting down to discover that you hate what you have carried with you. So know what foods get you going, what snacks energize you, and what keeps you happy.  Above all do your best to find out how many calories you need to keep going and be happy.  If you know that your energy will crash mid morning then have an easy to reach, easy to consume snack ready each day.  If you have health requirements that mean you have to watch your blood sugar or take medicine then you have to plan your food accordingly as well.  If you know that you will have problems getting nutritious food regularly then carry supplements on you.

In our next blog we will be talking about what we have eaten on the first 6500-7000 km of pathway that we have hiked while crossing Canada on the Great Trail.


  1. UZ GUys are real tards and noobs! You dont need to carry all this food. Just get the pre made backpackers pantry and alpine aire which are way way way easier to makes up each day. Then UZ carry a little shovel and burry it in the ground. No mess no hastle no packkaging. I wked the triple cornw in the states the whole way like that. Your adviceis for noobs!

  2. too much work for a trail that isn't a trail. why even bother hiking in canada its all roads timmies and mooses up there U suck the hard balls for your shit blog!

  3. This is what happens when two regards think they can camp and tell people anything. I have lived half my life on my ATV and in the backwoods and this food list is shit! Why aren't you just mannin up and shooting and trapping your own food like a real hiker would? Then you wouldn't need to carry any of this crap. Geeze I guess they let anyone pretend to be an outdoors person these days. When you are going to be a real man post about real outdoors things until then SHUT UP and stop posting this shit!

  4. Stupidist blog post I have every read!

  5. Thanks for sharing your insight!

    I've been thinking about doing the Great Divide Trail and these tips are very helpful.

    Just remember not to feed the trolls ;) And consider comment moderation.


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