SIMPLE BACKPACKING FOOD IDEAS: TOP PICKS FROM THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
There’s a funny thing about food and the psyche when you are out in the backcountry. You spend a lot of time thinking about pizza, beer, and wings….all of the overindulgent things that you can’t have. You also spend a lot of time dramatically complaining about the food that you do have. “If I have to eat another freeze-dried meal, I might just be sick.”
But then you carefully pour the boiling water into that package of Mountain House Chili Mac and spend the next 10 minutes drooling, counting down the seconds till those ground beef morsels are rehydrated and ready to be wolfed down. And then second it hits your tongue, it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven. That savory, salty, thick, hearty goo. It’s like there’s nothing more satisfying in the entire world.
The key is variety. You do not want to be eating the same thing every day over and over again. Having a mix of different breakfasts, lunches, and dinners gives you something new to look forward to and keeps your palette from getting bored.
The second critical element, at least for us, was to choose foods that were easy to prepare and clean up – ideally, dinners that we could repackage in ziplock freezer bags. For these kinds of meals, you can pour the boiling water right into the ziplock and eat straight out of the bag – resulting in minimal dirty dishes.
Here’s a list of simple backpacking food ideas from our time on the John Muir Trail. These are readily available online, delicious, easy to prepare, and require little cleanup.
** Looking for guidance on how much food to pack for your JMT Thru-Hike? Check out my Complete John Muir Trail Food Shopping List **
— Backpacking Breakfasts —
PROBAR Meal Superfood Slam
Bars made for a quick and easy breakfast because you could eat them on your own time frame as you packed up for the day. The dense 380-calorie PROBAR is packed with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit and tastes like real food because that’s what it’s made out of.
Bobo’s Oat Bars
A super-filling, soft, chewy, delicious oat-based bar. Slightly sweet with 360 calories to sustain you till lunch; plus they have gluten-free options if you have Celiacs. My favorite flavors were coconut and peanut butter.
Everyone complains about oatmeal, but as long as you don’t have to eat it every day, it’s tasty, easy, and filling. All you have to do is boil a little extra water with your morning coffee. I enjoyed the texture and flavor of Trader Joe’s Multigrain Triple Berry Instant Oatmeal, as well as Nature’s Path Organic Instant Oatmeal.
Simply Native Foods Wild Rice Cereal
Hate oatmeal? Fuel your day with Simply Native’s hot wild rice cereal. This stuff has become a staple in my van & on backpacking trips. It’s a delicious instant wild rice mix with seeds and cranberries and only takes a cup of water and 10 minutes of simmering to make a hearty breakfast. The texture is awesome and chewy, nothing about it tastes instant. The rice comes straight from Simply Native’s family run farm in Wisconsin, and each serving has 4 grams of fiber, 9 grams of protein, and 240 calories – providing all the things you need to get energized for a tough day on the trail. Throw in some veggies and salami for an even heartier dinner. You can pick up this wild rice cereal on Simply Native’s website.
Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy
I don’t know if it’s the fact that everything tastes better in the woods, but these biscuits and gravy tasted just about as good as any diner I’ve been to. The biscuits had a perfect texture with an almost crisp edge, as if they were fresh out of the oven.
Maxim Gold Korean Instant Coffee
This is the best instant coffee I’ve ever had. I probably shouldn’t admit that I’m still drinking it now that I’m home. It comes in the same little tubes as Starbucks Instant coffee, but it already has the cream and a small amount of sugar mixed in. On Amazon you get 100 instant servings for $22. A steal!
Backpacker’s Pantry Mocha Mousse Pie
Chocolate addicts will love this. It’s basically chocolate pudding with a graham cracker topping. It’s technically a desert, but we had it for breakfast, because, well…we do what we want. It’s packed with 400 calories and a ton of carbs…a perfect start to a day with a big climb.
OvaEasy Whole Egg Crystals
All you gotta do to make these eggs is add water and scramble. They were honestly pretty good and one package went a LONG way. Add a little salami, cheese, salt, pepper, and hot sauce for a bangin’ breakfast burrito.
— Backpacking Lunches —
StarKist Tuna in Sunflower Oil in a Tortilla
I was skeptical of this tuna. I thought how good can it be, especially without covering up the taste with some other kind of sauce. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. This StarKist Tuna had a nice, non-fishy flavor and the sunflower oil adds extra fat and calories. Throw it in a tortilla with some cheese and you got a pretty tasty lunch. (For what its worth, I did NOT like salmon that came in a pouch. When eating it plain, I thought it tasted like cat food. Ick!)
Salami is another delicious protein to throw in a tortilla that doesn’t require refrigeration. My favorite is the Chianti Artisan Salami from Trader Joe’s. To up the gourmet factor, throw in a dollop of powdered hummus, cheese, and cranberries.
Cheese certainly isn’t essential, but really adds a nice touch to tuna and salami wraps. Go for a hard cheese like aged gouda or the mini Babybels that come in the red wax. The hard cheese, in particular, might sweat a little bit, but either of these will last for weeks.
Oh Nutella. Why can’t I eat you all the time? Oh that’s right. Because I wouldn’t be able to control myself, and I would turn into a blimp. This chocolatey hazelnut goodness slathered on a tortilla is just heaven. Bring more than you think you’ll need. One jar only lasted us 5 days. More Nutella would have been a total game changer.
— Backpacking Dinners —
Peak Refuel Backpacking Meals
Up until recently, the number of major backpacking food brands has been pretty limited, but over the last few years, we’ve seen some new players in the game that are focused on creating healthier, more natural backpacking food with fewer chemicals. One of these new companies, based out of Utah, is Peak Refuel. Their meals are non-GMO, calorie dense, and packed with protein…but even more important, they are delicious. Check out my favorite Peak Refuel meals in this blog post.
Good To-Go Backpacking Meals
Good To-Go is a new player in the backpacking food scene. Their lightweight dehydrated backpacking meals are meat-free, gluten-free, and have less sodium than the competition, filling a huge gap in the food aisle at REI. I’ve tried every meal in their lineup, and recently wrote up a post listing out my top Good-To-Go picks.
Mountain House Freeze Dried Meals
I ate a LOT of Mountain House on my John Muir Trail backpacking trip…We were Mountain House loyalists on this trip, and for a good reason…they are consistently good. I only wish we had brought along a larger variety. Also the package says it serves two, but after burning all those calories, half of one will likely not be enough for dinner unless you have a small appetite. We usually split a Mountain House meal and then split one of the other items below, like some ramen or couscous.
- Sweet and Sour Pork – transported me right into a Chinese restaurant. We ate this on my birthday, and I couldn’t have been happier. The little chunks of pineapple really make this dish.
- Chicken Ala King – kind of like a chicken pot pie but with noodles instead of the pie. Savory and homey.
- Spaghetti with Meat Sauce – I preface this with the fact that homemade spaghetti is the one food I would choose if I was stuck on a deserted island with only one meal for the rest of my life. This spaghetti is no homemade, but it did the trick.
- Chili Mac – This was one of the heartier and more filling Mountain House meals. Pretty good flavor, but don’t be afraid to add in a little Tapatio.
- Beef Stroganoff – Creamy, salty goodness packed with mushrooms, noodles, and beef. Mmm mmm mmm.
- Chicken and Rice – For some added umph, throw it in a tortilla with your favorite hot sauce. Big portion and the rice is filling.
The only ones I didn’t really enjoy were the Pasta Primavera, which wasn’t filling enough (vegetarians might like it though!) and Noodles & Chicken, which reminded me more of a thick chicken noodle soup.
Couscous is awesome for backpacking. All you have to do is boil water, add the couscous and seasoning, turn off the heat, cover, and it’s ready in 5 minutes. My favorite was the Near East Couscous. I thought it was great on its own, but if you want to make it a more hearty meal, add in some salami or beef jerky and a handful of cranberries.
Idahoan Mashed Potatoes
These Idaho taters were the talk to the trail. Everyone loved these. They stay piping hot in the JetBoil and are quite filling. The four cheese flavor was delish. Throw in some bacon bits, and it’s just like a loaded baked potato.
On the trail, I loved ramen so much that I joked that I might just start eating it on the regular at home. Grab your favorite flavor and mix in a foil pouch of chicken and some Just Tomatoes Just Veggies for a more filling and “nutritious” meal.
— Backpacking Drinks —
Powdered Hot drinks
While we didn’t bring any cold drinks other than water, we saw plenty of people carrying Tang and Gatorade powder. I can’t help but think that some orangey Tang would have been nice with lunch every once in a while.
— Backpacking Snacks & Treats —
Cranberries, tart Montgomery cherries, apples, apricots, coconut, mangos. Pack a variety of your favorite fruits for a healthy sugar boost.
Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews
Pure gummy goodness that is naturally caffeinated from white tea. After sampling almost all the flavors, I would recommend pomegranate, limeade, and fruit punch.
This is a given. Recommendation: Trader Joes Omega Trek Mix. It’s packed with all of the best nuts including almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and pecans. Alternatively, load up on your favorite ingredients in the bulk section and make your own trail mix concoction.
I’m a picky jerky eater. I hate when it’s dry and hard and gets stuck in your teeth. Introducing Tanka bites made of natural buffalo meat. The spicy pepper variety had great taste and soft texture.
Loucks Sesame Snaps
Crunchy, sweet, and packed with fat, calories, and protein. These sesame snaps only weigh 1.4 ounces so you get a lot of bang for the weight.
Backpacker’s Pantry Creme Brulée
Yeah that’s right. Creme brulée. And no blow-torch required. Follow the directions carefully, and this stuff from Backpacker’s Pantry turns out light and fluffy and even has caramelized sugar on top.
Do it. Load up on those Snickers Bars and Sour Patch Kids. In my recent post 22 Lessons from 22 Days on the John Muir Trail, I explain that backpacking is not the time to go on a diet. You don’t want junk food to be the only thing you consume, but treating yourself here and there is totally acceptable.
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