The Gourmet’s Guide to Backpacking: The Best Food for Camping
I just got back from a four-day backpacking adventure through the wilds of Yosemite. This was my first backpacking trip–having only done a little camper camping and car camping before. And while these sports are related to one another, they are certainly not the same thing. The biggest difference? That 27 pounds (or more!) that you’re carrying on your back.
When you’re carrying that much weight, you put a lot of thought into what exactly qualifies as a “necessity.” Backpackers like to sit around the campfire and swap weight-saving techniques, like sawing the plastic handle off your toothbrush or bringing only one spoon for the whole trip.
Leading up to the trip, my biggest fear was definitely the food. The San Francisco food scene is legendary and I’m a devoted gourmet. How on earth was I going to survive on trail food for four days?!
And so, the research began. I read a bunch of camping blogs and realized that dehydrated food was probably my best option for dinner. Many backpackers resist it for awhile but once they cave in and try it, there’s no going back. The dehydrated food pouches have a few key advantages that prepared food can’t touch.
1) They’re incredibly easy. As all the packages say, “Just add boiling water, wait 10 minutes, and enjoy!”
2) They’re warm. You can’t underestimate how good a hot meal is after a day of hiking 14 miles with a 30-pound pack.
3) They’re almost no mess. You think you hate washing dishes at home? You will HATE washing dishes on the trail–particularly if you’re not camping near a stream or river and have to haul your precious water in.
After I made peace with the dehydrated food pouches, I entered the next phase of my research, and that was: Which is the best?
The most useful site for determining this was REI.com. There, you can do a search for dehydrated food and sort by meal (dinner, breakfast, dessert, vegetables)–and even by “Customer Rating” and “Bestselling.”
Based on the feedback of others, I settled on the following food pouches.
- Mountain House Granola with Blueberries
- Mountain House Beef Stroganoff
- Mountain House Mexican-Style Chicken and Rice
- Backpacker’s Pantry Pad See You
- MaryJanes Farm Organic Chili Mac
The two biggest winners were the Granola with Blueberries and the Beef Stroganoff. Both tasted like real food back home and the granola was especially nice because you can just add cold water–an awesome feature when setting up the camp stove is daunting.
The Mexican-Style Chicken and Rice was good too, though it was really just chili with chicken in it. There’s nothing wrong with chili. It’s just not what I had thought the dish would be.
My least favorite was the Backpacker’s Pantry Pad See You, which came highly rated. I’m a HUGE fan of Pad See You and this tasted nothing like the real thing. The noodles are matchstick thin and there was virtually no soy sauce taste. It also turned out a bit watery.
I never got to try the MaryJanes Farm Organic Chili Mac so I’ll have to report back on that another time. But it came highly recommended and I’ve learned that most successful dishes in the dehydrated food world are stews or are creamy and contain noodles–so I’m guessing it’s a win.
But what about breakfast and lunch, you might ask? I must say, I think we nailed it on those, thanks to exhaustive research and some fun foodie tricks.
Breakfast on the trail was instant oatmeal. I wished I had brought along a pack of dehydrated blueberries from Trader Joe’s to make the oatmeal a little more exciting, but it was still good. (Note that it’s a smart idea to budget at least a packet and a half of oatmeal for each person every day. You get hungry on the trail.)
The other key feature of breakfast was the Starbucks Via coffee. We budgeted two packets a day and that made one huge mug of coffee to split between us. Even people who aren’t big coffee drinkers back in the city appreciated a morning jolt on the trail. And as someone who normally hates instant coffee, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the Via was. (Trust me, my travel French press had been forcibly pried out of my hands.)
And of course one morning as a treat we had the Mountain House Granola with Blueberries. I wish we could have had this every other day, but there wasn’t room in the bear canister.
We had planned on two separate lunches and both were pretty successful–though I’ll make some tweaks next time. Both lunches were served on lavash bread that we grabbed the day we left from Whole Foods. I think the lavash worked out far better than pita–and I think it was more delicious too. Just roll up and eat!
Lunch #1 was salami, a sharp white cheddar, and fresh basil. It was the fresh basil that really made this sandwich and it took up virtually no room in the bear canister and added no weight to the packs. For the salami, be sure to get a pre-sliced pack and don’t overshoot it on how much. We hauled a very heavy second salami all through Yosemite–and it was not fun. The cheddar worked well, but I recommend wrapping it in wax paper and then putting it in a Ziploc bag. This will help the cheese stay fresh and not get…slimy.
Lunch #2 was almond butter on lavash. It was nice to have a break from the salami but the almond butter was very messy. To save space, I had put it in a small Ziploc bag. Next time, I’ll probably put it in a tiny Ziploc tupperware container and it’ll be more user friendly. I might even put raspberry jam on the other side of the container to give the sandwiches a little zip.
This is also a good lunch to bring for later in the trip–in case it’s too hot and your salami and cheese begins to look a little suspicious.
Bear Canister Totals:
- 4 bags of trail mix from Trader Joes (about right)
- 3 Clif Bars (wish we had done four and the Maple Nut is the best flavor!)
- 3 packets of Gatorade powder (wish we had brought 8)
- 2 salamis (just one would have been perfect)
- 1 HUGE block of sharp cheddar (wish we had done a half block)
- 1 tiny Ziploc bag of basil with a wet paper towel to keep it fresh
- 1 packet of lavash bread
- 1/2 bag of M&Ms (bringing the whole bag next time!)
- 3 bags of beef jerky (right amount)
- 8 packets of instant oatmeal (about right)
- 10 packets of Starbucks Via (about right)
- 5 dehydrated dinners (only needed 1 per night!)
- 1 dehydrated breakfast
- 4 packets of hot cocoa (about right)
My name: Alison Presley
Nickname: Presbo, because I'm good police.
How I earn my keep: I'm the manager of Travelocity's Travel for Good program. Visit Travel for Good to learn more about our green travel and voluntourism initiatives!
What kind of traveler am I: I'm an intrepid food explorer. I usually starve myself on the plane (not that that's too hard to do) so that the moment my toes touch foreign soil I'm ready to sample new and exciting cuisine. I like to dine everywhere from hole-in-the-wall local secrets to Michelin Guide gems. Cannelés, poi, boiled peanuts, oxtail soup, poutine--there's no stopping this adventurous palate.
Greatest travel lesson I've learned: It doesn't cost a lot of money to do good. Offsetting your carbon impact only adds a few bucks to your trip, green hotels are very affordable, and volunteering locally during your vacation is a great way to give back and learn about the culture.