Adventures in Prepping Healthy Backpacking Meals (Plus Recipes)
When hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), there are various ways people handle resupplying food along the way. Some will buy everything as they go, which often equals convenience stores, instant mashed potatoes, and snickers bars. Others will mail all of their food to post offices and businesses along the way. Most will take a hybrid approach to varying degrees. Whichever approach, weight is always critical, so most backpackers opt for dehydrated food when possible.
I opted for a hybrid approach, leaning heavily on mailing resupply packages (roughly 70% of hiking days). I sacrifice a bit of flexibility but have much more control over my food. This makes sense for me because I feel best on a healthy low-ish-carb diet to manage various health conditions—mashed potatoes and snickers don’t quite fit in for me as a major food group.
Preparing 100+ days of healthy, tasty food with enough variety to keep it palatable is no easy task. In fact, it’s one of the greatest logistical challenges I’ve ever encountered. But, I have to admit, I kind of love it. I enjoy creative problem solving within a set of constraints, especially if it involves cooking. As I furiously develop recipes and prepare food in bulk, I am starting to wonder if hiking the PCT is just an elaborate excuse to nerd out on backcountry cooking.
Strategies for Healthy Backpacking Meals
I started out by reading all of the books and blogs I could get my hands on around backpacking food: Hungry Spork books and Backcountry Foodie are two favorites, but there were many others. That helped build a base of techniques and ideas to draw from. Next, I spent over a month just experimenting with existing recipes. Then, I felt like I understood the medium well enough to create a few of my own. Here are some of the most important strategies I learned along the way.
- Swap out simple carbs for alternatives with protein: Instead of regular pasta and rice, I use edamame or mung bean pasta and lentil-based rice. They still have carbs but are a bit more balanced.
- Add fat on the trail: Dehydrated foods have a longer shelf life without fat, but fat is a critical part of my diet. Fat also packs more caloric density per ounce than carbs, so is more efficient from a weight standpoint. I prepare food without any added fat, then carry olive oil or ghee packets with me to add when I prepare the food.
- Keep on-trail preparation simple: All of my food can be prepared by just adding water to a single bag—hot water for the dinners and cold water for lunches. For example, pasta is precooked and dehydrated to make on-trail prep easier and use less fuel.
- Sauces require special preparation: I prepare all sauce-like ingredients (e.g. marinara sauce, Thai curry paste) by dehydrating the sauces into a “leather” (think fruit roll-ups), then grinding them into a powder in a spice grinder. This second step helps with rehydration consistency.
- Buy specialty powders online: You would be amazed at the powdered ingredients you can find online to make life easier. My favorites are coconut milk powder, peanut butter powder, and butter powder.
- Load up with veggies: I add as many dried veggies as I can to every dinner for nutrition and flavor. I buy these dehydrated in bulk to save time and be generous with my portions.
Menu and Selected Recipes
I have been eating the same breakfast backpacking for quite a while, though the details have evolved over time. This is one I never get sick of. I do overnight oats (just add water the night before) with all the fixings: peanut butter powder, coconut milk powder, collagen, toasted coconut slices, almond slices, cinnamon, and freeze-dried berries. This time I also added pumpkin pie oats to the rotation using homemade dried pumpkin powder.
Lunch and Smoothies
- Lentil black bean chili (recipe below)
- Saag tofu (recipe below)
- Sun-dried tomato pesto pasta (adapted from Backcountry Foodie)
- Thai red curry noodles
- Peanut noodles
- Pasta primavera
- Tofu mushroom Stroganoff
- Spaghetti squash pad thai
- Butter tofu
- Thai green cashew chickpea curry
- Miso ramen soup
- Refried beans and rice
- Pasta with marinara sauce and capers
- ¾ cup dehydrated spinach
- ¼ cup dehydrated tomato flakes
- ⅛ cup heavy cream powder
- ⅛ cup coconut milk powder
- 1 Tbsp dehydrated onion
- ¼ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp ground coriander
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- ¼ tsp ginger
- ⅛ tsp garam masala
- ½ tsp dried cilantro
- ⅛ tsp red pepper flakes
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- ½ cup dehydrated tofu (prepared according to these instructions)
- ⅛ tsp salt
- Ghee (to serve; can substitute coconut or olive oil)
Directions: In advance, mix all dry ingredients in a zip-top freezer bag. In the backcountry, heat hot water and add to bag to desired consistency. Let sit for 10 mins in an insulated koozie (a puffy jacket will work in a pinch). Add ghee packet.
Lentil black bean veggie chili
- 1/3 cup dehydrated lentils
- 1/3 cup dehydrated refried black beans
- 1/4 cup dehydrated tomato flakes
- 1 Tbsp dehydrated onion
- 1 Tbsp dehydrated bell peppers
- 1 Tbsp dehydrated zucchini
- 1 Tbsp dehydrated cabbage
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp chipotle chili powder
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1/8 tsp salt
- cheddar or other hard cheese (to serve)
- olive oil (to serve)
Directions: In advance, mix all dry ingredients in a zip-top freezer bag. In the backcountry, heat hot water and add to bag to desired consistency. Let sit for 10 mins in an insulated koozie (a puffy jacket will work in a pinch). Add pieces of any hard cheese (I always carry some while backpacking) and olive oil (packets are convenient).
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