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Backpacking Food

Hey everyone!  This week I'm going to be talking about food.  Everyone's favorite subject, right?  Food is delicious!  It's pretty!  It's fun to take pictures of for your Instagram account!  It's even fun to cook!

...except backpacking food.  Bring up backpacking food, and the mood changes.  Backpacking meals are expensive, your choices are limited, and frankly, many of them aren't that tasty.  Packing backpacking food is always the most painful part of packing for my next trip.  I hate spending $60 to $80 per person for a three day trip.  Backpacking is my go-to weekend activity that costs next to nothing, until you count the food.

These days, I don't buy a single prepackaged backpacking meal from REI or any other outdoor store.  And you know what?  I save a LOT of money, and I like the food that I take much better than before.  Is it heavier?  No.  Is it harder to cook?  Nope.  Do I like saving my hard earned money for other things?  You bet I do.

What's my secret?  With the addition of a few specialty ingredients, I get all of my backpacking food at Big Lots, Trader Joes, Target, and the regular old supermarket.  The last backpacking trip that I went on was three days.  I got all of the food for $60, for both myself and my husband, and we had a ton leftover for future trips.  So how did I do it?  Follow along and I will show you!

MENU:  Those of you that are backpackers know that when you're backpacking, you want as many calories per once as possible, especially for longer trips.  You also want a good blends of carbs, proteins, and fats.  I like to cook a good breakfast, have multiple little snacks during the day (I don't cook a hot lunch), and cook a good dinner, with maybe a little something sweet for dessert.  In the traditional backpacking food world, this means two prepackaged backpacking meals, at $8 to $12 a pop.  Ouch!  Also, most of these meals SAY that they have two servings per package, but I call bull.  If I tried to share one of those meals with my husband after a day of hiking with a 30 lbs. pack, one of us would be going to bed hungry... so no more of these meals for me.  This is how I do it!

Remember the special ingredients that I was talking about?  Let's talk about those first.  I start with a dehydrated meat (chicken strips, beef crumbles, pulled pork, etc.), some dehydrated fruits and veggies, and maybe some dehydrated eggs and dehydrated milk powder.  These are what I use to add nutritional value (and flavor) to my backpacking meals.  When you buy them, they will last you for multiple trips if you store them sealed up well, in a cool, dry place.  

There are multiple places that you can get them.  I get mine through Thrive Life, which is a company that specializes in freeze dried and dehydrated food.  You buy their products though consultants at parties or on the internet.  They have a great shelf life, so don't worry that you are buying more that you need for just one trip.  Another great option is Trader Joe's.  They have freeze dried and dehydrated fruits and veggies, but no meats.  Many natural grocery stores have these products as well, and there is always the internet!  Amazon, Harmony House Foods, and The Ready Store are all great places to get these ingredients.  Powdered milk is the easiest one to get, as it is in almost every supermarket, but freeze dried meat in the hardest (of course, you can always borrow a dehydrator and make your own). 

Here are the "special ingredients" in my backpacking food tub right now:

  • Thrive Life dehydrated chicken strips

  • Trader Joe's freeze dried broccoli florets

  • Trader Joe's freeze dried blueberries

  • Thrive Life dehydrated scrambled eggs

  • Thrive Life dehydrated shredded cheddar cheese

  • Bob's Red Mill powdered milk

  • Harmony House dehydrated vegetable soup mix (mixed veggies and parsley)

So what do I do with these ingredients?  Let's talk meals.

BREAKFAST:  My go-to breakfast is oatmeal with a few extras.  I like Trader Joe's unsweetened instant oatmeal with Trader Joe's freeze dried blueberries, slivered almonds, and a packet of sugar-in-the-raw.  I usually eat more than one packet of oatmeal (backpacking is hard work).  Instead of carrying multiple packets and baggies with me, I put everything in one quart size ziplock freezer bag, and just add boiling water.  Keep the bag insulated in a mug or pot wrapped in a koozie or something similar, and your oatmeal will rehydrate nicely.

I also enjoy a good "omelet" in the morning.  For this, I start with dehydrated egg powder and a little bit of powdered milk, and add dehydrated veggies and some spices or hot sauce (you can even buy dehydrated cheese to go on top).  Again, this can all be mixed ahead of time in a ziplock bag.  Don't forget to oil your cook pot or cleanup of this breakfast can be tough.  Bring a tortilla if you want to make a burrito.

PRO TIP:  Get a box of Trader Joe's coconut oil packets and smear a little on the sides and bottom of your cook pot.  Makes cleanup a lot easier!


Another great option to start your day is granola with milk.  Either get ready made granola at any supermarket (Big Lots actually has a really good organic coconut granola), or make your own from the bins at stores like Smart & Final Extra or Sprouts.  Make sure you've got nuts, fruit, and plenty of oats in there, so that you're getting carbs, fat, and protein.  Add powdered milk, a little honey, and enjoy!  You can mix everything together in a ziplock ahead of time and just add cold water when you're ready to eat.

PRO TIP:  Save ALL the little packets of condiments that you get at resaurants, in to-go meals, and that are available in the cafeteria at work.  Mustard, mayo, hot sauce, soy sauce, jam, dressing, honey... they are all perfect for backpacking, and they are already packaged up and ready to travel!  

SNACKS AND LUNCH:  There are so many options for lunches and snacks.  If you're like me and you snack every couple of hours between breakfast and dinner, then make sure that you've got lot of varied options so that you're getting enough carbs for energy, but also enough protein and fat to build muscle with all of the exercise that you're getting.  Look at getting jerky, energy bars, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, crackers, cheeses, and more.  Go to any store that sells bulk tubs of stuff, like Sprouts or Smart and Final Extra, and make your own trail mix.  You'll get exactly what you want and none of what you don't.  Trader Joe's has a great selection of trail mix, as does Target, although Target's options have a LOT of sugar in them, so heads up (complex carbs are better than simple carbs).  Cost Plus World Market has a lot of great snack options that are different from most other stores.  Check them out if you have one nearby.

Get creative with your combinations.  Both Target and other supermarkets have individual serving size peanut and almond butters.  Try these with some pretzel sticks, banana chips, or dried apples.    Combine Trader Joe's flatbread with some parmesan slices and pesto.  Go as basic or as gourmet as you want.  You are only limited by your imagination.

If you're the type who likes to have a more substantial lunch, there are some easy options that don't require cooking.  How about a wrap?  You could fill one with summer sausage and cheese.  My favorite wrap is made with a tortilla, a packet of shelf-stable smoked salmon, and a few wedges of shelf stable cream cheese from Cost Plus World Market.  Sprinkle on a little dill, and yum!  So tasty.  You could do something similar with a packet of tuna or chicken.  

You can even bring some fresh ingredients if the weather isn't too hot or if you are planning on eating them right away.  Hard cheeses like parmesan are fine left unrefrigerated for up to a week if the weather is mild.  Even cheeses like cheddar or the individual Babybels are ok for a couple of days.  Be careful with more sensitive foods that spoil more quickly, like meats and fresh mayo.  You don't want to get food poisoning in the woods!

PRO TIP:  Go to Big Lots, Cost Plus World Market, or someplace similar around Christmas.  Stock up on the shelf-stable meat and cheese gift packs.  The summer sausages and cheeses are shelf stable and are great for lunches and snacks.

DINNER:  Here's where Big Lots is going to impress you.  You know all of those sides that come in a bag and cost a buck or two?  These make great entrees.  No really.  Stay with me here.

Start with one of these sides.  One of my favorites is Knorr Chipotle Rosa.  It's spiral pasta in a creamy tomato sauce with a bit of a kick to it.  I add dehydrated chicken, tomatoes, and onions.  It's delicious!  I think I paid $1.50 for this bag, and when I added the chicken and veggies, it still ended up being under $5 for a whole meal.  I ate the whole package. Not ashamed at all.

This works great for just about any meal side that you can find.  Red rice and beans?  Add freeze dried pork.  Annie's mac and cheese?  Add chicken, broccoli, powdered milk, hot sauce, and a little bit of coconut oil for a tasty and never bland meal.  Lipton Parmesan noodles?  Add chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and dried mushrooms.  The possibilities are endless.  Not a huge pasta fan?  There are plenty of options that have rice instead of noodles.  You can even start with a package of instant mashed potatoes and add bacon bits and veggies and cheese.  Instant stuffing is surprisingly good too.

This even works with ramen noodles.  Yes, I know, you haven't eaten Ramen noodles since college, but hear me out.  Get a packet of ramen noodles (are they up to 25 cents a packet yet?) and add some dehydrated beef crumbles and mixed veggies.  There you go - a $2 meal.  Now celebrate with a packet of Land-o-Lakes hot cocoa from Target with a bit of whisky in it, and you've got yourself a feast!  

On a side note, backpacking flasks exist...and they are awesome.

DESSERT:  If you're the dessert type, and you want something fancier than a square of chocolate and a sip of whisky, look to the baking section of markets and Big Lots for single serve desert items.  The Jello no-bake cheesecake is a great option, as are some of the mug cake mixes.  Just make sure to grease the inside of your cook pot, or cleanup is a pain in the butt!

DRINKS:  This depends on your preference, but there are a lot of options for not a lot of money.  Trader Joe's makes instant coffee packets that are pretty tasty, and don't require messing with a filter or french press.  

If you're not a coffee drinker, take a handful of tea bags and packets or honey or sugar.  You can also take instant cider or hot cocoa.  Just remember to take that kind that you add to water.  If it requires milk, pack the powdered variety.

For during-the-day drinks, look for workout or electrolyte drinks.  I like the Nuun Active tablets, available at Sprouts, REI, and plenty of other places.  Lightly fizzy, with good flavors and not too sweet or fake tasting.  If you really want a sugar rush, you can get Tang or Kool-aid or similar, but that's a LOT of sugar.  Also, always mix these in a separate water bottle.  You'll never get them cleaned out of your hydration bladder, and the dyes can stain plastic.

That's it for now.  Are you ready to plan the menu for your next backpacking trip?  Do you have any suggestions for foods that I didn't cover?  Let me know in the comments.  Happy trails!




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