Planning meals for backpacking trips is hard. Foods need to be optimized for weight and – to a lesser degree – space. You want to bring just the right amount of food to be satiated, without being wasteful. People in your group must actually want to eat the food you bring. There should be sufficient variety to ensure you look forward to meals; but also, you want to avoid having to do too much planning and testing. Avoid meals that require long simmer times, which wastes fuel and patience. Watch out for “messy” recipes that involve oil or making glop which will be a pain to clean.
While you’re on the trail, the normal rules for nutrition are flipped; you want abundant fats, carbohydrates, simple sugar and salt. My main metric is “energy density;” how many calories per gram does something contain? The higher the calorie density, the more efficient it is to carry. Nuts and candy (sugar) are more than 5 calories per gram; dehydrated beans and rice are about 3 calories per gram.
How much food to bring?
Strenuous backpacking burns about 4000-6000 calories per day. Don’t plan on eating that much per day; it would weigh a lot (even 6000 calories of energy-rich almonds would weigh 1.2 kg or 2.6 lbs), and you’ll find that your appetite won’t match your energy demands.Most people who hike the JMT will lose 5-10 lbs. You’ll still be eating more than usual; a single “normal” serving for a 2000 daily calorie diet is too little.
I generally plan for 1.5 servings per person, with a 3000 daily calorie target; and I aim for about 1.3 – 1.5 lbs of food per person per day (590-680g).
Assuming you’re doing the JMT in 21 days, that is about 27-31 lbs of food per person. Most people divide their meals and mail their food in advance to resupply points at Tuolumne meadows (optional); Red’s Meadow (Devil’s Postpile); and Muir Trail Ranch. Even so, there is no easy resupply south of Muir Trail Ranch, and the stretch from Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney Portal will take 9-10 days, so you’ll need to carry 12-15 lbs of food.
If you bring a bit too much food, you can leave it the resupply locations for other hungry backpackers. Likewise, you can almost certainly scrounge for extra food at these spots, or buy extras from the stores. The PCT hikers in particular are voracious; their appetite has had enough time to adapt to match their energy needs. Sometimes you’ll find kind souls have organized the spare goodies, like in this bear box at Red’s Meadow:
Give us our daily soup
One thing I’ve learned from my dad is the importance of soup when backpacking. After a long day on the trail, within a few minutes of arriving to camp I’ll start heating water for soup. It does wonders to restore spirits, erase cranky moods, and it will keep you warm as you finish setting up camp.
Oatmeal is yucky, granola is tasty
OK, maybe that’s a bit strong, but watch it on the heated breakfast glop. Cream of wheat and oatmeal are super-easy to pack and are nutritious, but you might face a rebellion if you try to serve that stuff every day. Sometimes, oatmeal just seems so… depressing and not fun to eat. Even though it’s served cold, granola (or other cereals) always seem to be something people look forward to.
“Lunch” is a series of snacks
I’d suggest that you don’t plan for a single large mid-day meal, but instead bring a steady stream of snacks you can eat throughout the day. Usually, this is some combination of energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, candy, and jerky; and also, powdered drink mixes for electrolytes and quick sugar.
Freeze-dried food packets?
It’s tempting to just buy the freeze-dried food packets which are ubiquitous at mountaineering stores (Mountain House, Alpine Aire, etc). This isn’t a bad option; some of these are quite tasty! But be sure to consider a few things first:
- A single serving is too small; you’ll definitely want to plan 1.5 – 2x servings per person. Give the calories and serving sizes a careful look.
- Read the directions ahead of time, because some packets aren’t just-add-water; e.g. we discovered a yakisoba noodle dish directions included stir-frying for 10 minutes, which was tricky with our cook kit on a windy day.
- Test all the meals at home. We found that one of our friends just couldn’t stand certain items, they upset her stomach.
- You’ll need to carry out the bags as waste; this can add up.
- The food packets can be rather pricey. You can buy them in bulk online, but even so the costs can add up.
Meals that worked well
- Granola, 3/4 cups per person, with powdered milk pre-mixed in (we used soy milk powder – to each their own).
- Powdered eggs (1/2 cup dry) served on top of mashed potatoes (1/2 cup dry)
- Additionally, somewhat watered down powdered protein shake
Note that lunch is, by a significant margin, the heaviest meal.
- Assortment of energy bars, e.g. Kind bars, Clif bars, etc.
- Turkey jerky
- Powered coconut water
- Country time lemonade – it’s all about the sugar!
- Dried fruit – mango and ginger. Note that Trader Joes unsweetened mangos are reliably cheap and good quality.
- Freeze-dried split pea (1/2 dry cup per person)
- Miso (weighs practically nothing)
- Bulk cous-cous is cheap!
- For each person, 1.25 cups dry cous-cous, plus veggie soup bullion cube, raisins, and sliced almonds (stored separately).
- (Optional) Add a small glug of olive oil to liven it up
- Black beans and rice
- For each person, 3/4 cups dehydrated black beans mixed with 3/4 cups instant rice
- Add dehydrated veggies, 1 tbsp tomato powder, and chili powder to taste
- These chow mein noodles – one bag per person.
- Tea after dinner is lovely; it keeps people warm and hydrated, and weighs very little.
Remove excess packaging before leaving, and combine items where it makes sense. For example, I unbagged the chow mein noodles and put several together into a zip lock bag. For some foods, consider repackaging in double-bagged paper sacks which can be burned at your campsite, to avoid having to carry the waste.
Bring a backup meal
I always pack an extra breakfast + lunch + dinner in case plans changes or there is a problem. This has saved me on multiple occasions!
Figure out your bear cans
You are required to bring bear cans, and to completely fit all your food into them. Depending on your itinerary and resupply points, you will probably need the capacity to carry between 9-11 days of food. Make sure your food fits! For the three of us, we needed four 700 cubic inch bear cans.
Test your food and cook kit
I know I’ve said this earlier, but it’s really important that your group goes on a “test run” backpacking trip before your big JMT trip. Make sure that your “kitchen” works for you; does the stove heat water fast enough? Is the pot steady or could it tip over? Do you need a way to hold the pot to pour water into your mugs? Will people eat this food? Is there too little or too much?