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Food: a backpacker’s best friend. I’ve never met a backpacker who didn’t know the psychological value of a hot meal after a grueling day. When the trail gets tough, backpackers bring out food. Commercial trail food is often scantily portioned, expensive, and flavorless. Custom trail food, on the other hand, can be vegan, diabetic, vegetarian, or “manly,” while staying affordable, delicious, lightweight, and tailored to dietary requirements.

Cooking, Winter Outing, Alberta, Canada, VanderVelden Customized Backpacking Food
Step One: In a trail version of Spicy Chili Cheese Mac, step one is boiling water to rehydrate beef, beans, jalapenos, salsa, and ramen noodles. Emylene VanderVelden demonstrates the simplicity of a homemade meal while on a winter gear and meal test outing in Alberta, Canada. Photo by Craig Douglas.



  • Read and follow directions
  • Organize food

Necessary Equipment:

  • A kitchen
  • A dehydrator (or oven)
  • Drying trays (or cookie sheets)
  • Freezer bags (Ziploc are best)
  • A Permanent marker

On-Trail Skills:

  • Read and follow directions
  • Be patient
Cooking, Winter, VanderVelden Customized Backpacking Food
Step Two: Open the meal bags and follow instructions. Marking directions and water fill lines on bags helps one avoid flavor-compromising mistakes. Homemade meals work at -20 F (-29 C) with the windchill.  Just insulate the canister from the cold ground and warm it in your hands.  Then prepare meals in freezer bags.  Photo by Craig Douglas.

On-Trail Equipment:

  • Stove (optional)
  • Pot to boil water (optional)
  • Stirring and eating utensil
  • Preferred Food

Homemade trail meals can be simple or complex.  Choose food that satisfies cravings and calorie requirements. I keep all my ingredients, trail meals, and trail food in freezer bags or sealed jars in a cardboard “hiker box” in my freezer. When I am getting ready for a trip I pull out the box and make meals or pull whatever ones I have pre-made. I usually make a few trips worth of meals and snacks at a time and keep them in my hiker box until its time to go. Storing food in the freezer keeps it fresher. Meals stay fresh for up to six months.

Basic Winter Trail Kitchen, VanderVelden Customized Backpacking Food
A trail kitchen is not ultralight, but it does not need to be overweight. A basic winter setup includes: a Jetboil Ti, fuel canister, a MYOG sit pad/canister insulator/cutting board, a Spork, an oil container, and a lighter.

Making the Meals

Follow these steps for homemade food on the trail.

1) Calculate your calorie consumption.

Compute the number of calories you will need every day and pack corresponding food. Packing too much food wastes weight, space, and requires more effort while being hungry on the trail potentially affects one’s judgment. An average backpacking male, 5’10” and 180 lbs (178 cm and 82 kg), requires about 3500 calories each day while an average female 5’4′ 125 lbs (163 cm and 57 kg,) requires about 2500 calories per day. (The free calorie counter from UnderArmor: myfitnesspal features a food calorie, calorie requirement, and a recipe calculator). Calculate your calorie requirement, count the calories in each food item, bag the correct amount of food for each day separately, and never pack more than an extra day’s worth of food.

2) Make a list of meals you enjoy at home.

Dried, instant and crushed food never tastes like fresh. Familiar meals taste better than bland, expensive, commercial meals. Instant foods like ramen noodles, Minute Rice, stuffing, dried mashed potatoes, and scalloped potatoes improve with additions. With imagination, almost anything can taste great in the backcountry.

Favorite at home meals I’ve converted to lightweight trail food:

  • Chili Cheese “Mac”*
  • Sun-dried Tomato Tunaghetti*
  • Beef Stroganoff with rice and vegetables
  • Beef and cheese tortillas
  • Rice pudding
  • Apple pie
  • Shepherd’s pie
  • Loaded mashed potatoes
  • Strawberry Cashew Wheaties and Oats*
  • Pancakes
  • Biscuits and gravy
  • Pizza
  • Jello
  • Chocolate pudding
  • Mint hot chocolate

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