5 Lightweight Backpacking Dinner Recipes

Here are five of my favorite backpacking dinner recipes. I’ve eaten these meals dozens of times and never tire of them. They are lightweight, high calorie, easy to prepare, taste good and the ingredients are inexpensive and easy to find in most trail towns.

The only utensils you will need to prepare these “one pot” meals on the trail are: cookpot (700ml or larger), drink mug, pot cozy, camp stove and spoon.

Dinner #1: Chicken Couscous, Hot Cocoa

Dry Weight: 11 ounces
Calories: 955
Serves: 1 hungry thru-hiker (or 2 day-hikers)


1 box Near East Couscous* (5.7 oz)
1/2 Foil Pouch Chicken (3.5 oz)
1 tbsp Olive Oil (0.5 oz)
1 pk Land O’Lakes Premium Hot Cocoa (1.25 oz)
2 1/4 c Water (18 oz)


1. Bring water to boil in cookpot.
2. Pour 1 cup (8 oz) of boiling water into mug containing cocoa. Stir.
3. Add couscous and seasoning packet to remaining water (1 1/4c) in cookpot. Stir.
4. Cover cookpot with lid and transfer to pot cozy. Let sit for 5 minutes.
5. Add olive oil and chicken to couscous. Fluff with spoon and enjoy!

* Near East Couscous come in several flavors. I use “Herbed Chicken” for this recipe.

Dinner #2: Sausage Mac n’ Cheese, Hot Tea

Dry Weight: 12.1 ounces
Calories: 1,295
Serves: 1 hungry thru-hiker (or 2 day-hikers)


1 box Kraft Mac n’ Cheese (7.25 oz)
3 oz Summer Sausage
1 String Cheese Stick (1 oz)
1 tbsp Olive Oil (0.5 oz)
1 Tea Bag (0.1 oz), 2 packets Sugar (0.25 oz)
2 3/4 c Water (22 oz)


1. Chop sausage and string cheese into cubes. Set aside.
2. Bring water to boil in cookpot.
3. Pour 1 cup (8 oz) of boiling water into mug containing tea. Add sugar. Steep.
4. Return water in cookpot (1 3/4 c) to flame. Add macaroni and boil additional 2-3 minutes.
5. Cover cookpot with lid and transfer to pot cozy. Let sit 10 minutes.
6. Drain excess water from macaroni (if any).
7. Add olive oil, cheese packet, sausage and string cheese cubes. Stir and enjoy!

Dinner #3: Jerky Mashed Potatoes, Hot Cider

Dry Weight:
8 oz
Calories: 860
Serves: 1 hungry thru-hiker (or 2 day-hikers)


1 bag Idahoan Mashed Potatoes* (4 oz)
2 oz Beef Jerky
1 tbsp Olive Oil
2 packets Hot Apple Cider Mix
3 c Water (24 oz)


1. Break beef jerky into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
2. Bring water to boil in cookpot.
3. Pour 1 cup (8 oz) of boiling water into mug containing cider. Stir.
4. Add olive oil, jerky and potatoes to remaining water (2 c) in cookpot. Stir.
5. Cover cookpot with lid and transfer to pot cozy. Let sit for 5 minutes.
6. Fluff with spoon and enjoy!

* Idahoan Mashed Potatoes come in several flavors. I use “Loaded Baked” for this recipe.

Dinner #4: Chicken & Stuffing, Warm Milk

Dry Weight: 12.5 ounces
Calories: 1,148
Serves: 1 hungry thru-hiker (or 2 day-hikers)


1 box Kraft Stovetop Stuffing (6 oz)
1/2 Foil Pouch Chicken (3.5 oz)
1 tbsp Olive Oil (0.5 0z)
1/4 packet Turkey Gravy Mix (0.25oz)
1 oz Dried Cranberries
4 tbsp Nestle Nido Powdered Milk (1 oz)
2 packets Sugar (0.25 oz)
3 c Water (24 oz)

1. Combine 1/4c (2 oz) water and gravy mix in mug. Heat, stirring until thickened. Set aside.
2. Bring 1 3/4 c water to boil in cookpot.
3. Add stuffing and chicken. Cover cookpot with lid and transfer to pot cozy. Let sit 5 minutes.
4. Fluff with spoon. Top with cranberries and cover with gravy.
5. Clean mug and use it to heat 1c (8 oz) of water.
6. Add powdered milk and sugar to mug. Stir and enjoy!*

Dinner #5: Tuna Alfredo, Hot Coffee

Dry Weight: 8 ounces
Calories: 670
Serves: 1 hungry thru-hiker (or 2 day-hikers)


1 bag Knorr Pasta Sides Alfredo (4.4 oz)
1 Foil Pouch Tuna (2.6 oz)
1 tbsp Olive Oil (0.5 oz)
1-2 pks Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee (0.25 oz)
2 packets Sugar (0.25 oz)
2 1/4 c Water (18 oz)


1. Bring water to boil in cookpot.
2. Pour 1 cup (8 oz) of boiling water into mug containing coffee. Add sugar, cream*
3. Return water in cookpot (1 1/4 c) to flame. Add pasta and olive oil. Simmer 2-3 minutes.
4. Cover cookpot with lid and transfer to pot cozy. Let sit for 10 minutes.
5. Add tuna to pasta mixture. Stir and enjoy!

* If you take cream with your coffee 1/2 tsp Nestle Nido Powdered Milk is a good substitute.

Lightweight Packing Tip: Remove items that come in bulky or heavy packaging and repackage them in Ziploc baggies to save weight. Write preparation instructions on the outside of the baggies with a permanent marker.

What are some of your favorite backpacking meals? Please post your comments below…

70 Responses to “5 Lightweight Backpacking Dinner Recipes”

  1. Dave Reply

    I just discovered your site thru a friend of mine. I wish it had been sooner, i would have hiked all over Big Bear by now.. Great site and advice, thanks!!

  2. lisa Reply

    Hey just came across a link to your site these are really awesome light weight meals, I am assuming you are american because in canada we don’t have the same commercial products ie pouch chicken, or as many flavoured instant grain and pasta options. But your recipes give me enough of an idea what I can do with what I got here.

    I might try dyhydrating some cooked chicken breast meat …for a 3 week camp hike. DO you ever dyhydrate your own meat?


  3. Alex in Seattle Reply

    I love the StoveTop Stuffing idea, never thought of that.

    I notice you mix a lot of instant things together which is what I did after finally divorcing expensive freece dried MH.

    Last year I started dehydrating my own meals for my 3-6 day trips. Had I known how simple it is to dehydrate and how much easier it is to simply cook my own meals at home just the way I like it, and then have them in little sandwich bags, I’d have started long ago.

    My favorite: Make a whole bunch of ground beef, onions, red kidney beans and some sloppy joe sauce, rehydrate in the mountains and in a separate container rehydrate some instant garlic mashed potatos. Combine. Unbelievable!

  4. Chris Reply

    I’m from Canada and for the life of me I can’t seem to find “foil pouch Chicken” anywhere. Have checked, Safeway, Save-On, Sobeys, Superstore, IGA, Walmart. These chicken recipes look great and I am keen to try them on some upcoming backpack trips but I may have to dehydrate chicken instead.

    Any suggestions anybody ?

    • @Chris: If you can’t find it in your local grocery stores you can buy the foil-pouch chicken online. It’s available here from Amazon.com. You could also substitute freeze-dried chicken or turkey, which has a longer shelf-life once opened. Or you could use foil-pouch tuna instead of the chicken. The tuna will probably be easier to find in your local grocery stores.

      • Chris Reply

        Thanks Erik. I already found the foil pack Tuna and I ordered a number of pouches of freeze dried chicken from Harvest Foodworks up here in Canada.

        Thanks again ! Love your recipes !

  5. Patrick Potter Reply

    You need to come east (Smokey Mtns) and hike! I really enjoy all the information that you share!! Great reads and great information…

  6. Chris Reply

    Hi Eric, I have browsed countless websites looking for easy and tasty menu ideas for the trail and yours tops them all ! Awesome !

  7. Stephanie Reply

    Thanks Erik, The whole 7 oz with the pasta is too much for one night for just little ol’ me! I think I’ll end up going with the freeze dried too. Thanks so much. ;)

  8. Stephanie Reply

    Hi Erik,

    I have a question about the foil chicken packets. When hiking alone 7 oz of chicken isn’t really suitable weight for one meal, how do you manage to keep the contents from spoiling after it has been opened? Thanks

    • @Stephanie: I usually eat the entire packet in a single serving (adding it to something like couscous or mac and cheese). I’ve tried eating only half and storing the rest in a ziploc baggy until the next evening. I didn’t get sick, but the chicken did look a little green and greasy after that, so I don’t really trust it. Now I always eat the whole thing as soon as it’s opened. Lately I’ve been using Freeze Dried Chicken and Turkey in place of the foil-pouch chicken because it’s lighter weight and has a longer shelf life.

  9. Randy Reply

    Hi Erik

    Of the five meals for dinner can you make these from a bag and a cozy?
    We will be in the Grand Canyon in the spring and water will be short in one overnight stay. So trying not to have to clean the pot.

    Really like your website. Has helped me a lot.


    • @Randy: Couscous, Mashed Potatoes and Stuffing (#1,3 and 4) can all be made in a bag/cozy just by adding boiling water. The main ingredients require very little cooking so it works great. The noodle dishes (#2 and #5) will have a better texture if you boil and simmer them in a pan for a few minutes. Just adding boiling water to noodles tends to make them mushy.

  10. Howard Phillips Reply

    Eric, valuable information here and very useful. Important question – after opening packs of meats (summer sausage, peperoni, etc.) how long does it last before spoiling.

    Thanks Eric

    • @Howard: I have found that cured meats (like salami, pepperoni, cooked bacon, summer sausage) will last the entire five days until my next resupply. I don’t think the foil-pack meat or tuna will last as long because it’s not preserved in the same way, so I eat those within 24 hours of opening (usually right away).

  11. Merry Christmas to all and Erik I simply loved the ideas and recipes. Looking forward for such ideas more. :)

  12. Jac McMahon Reply

    so how are people dehydrating the beans and quinola? regular ovens? dehydrators? microwaves? for how long?

  13. RobW Reply

    How long do you carry string cheese? Will it go bad or does the packaging prevent that?

    • @RobW: I carry string cheese up to five days with no problems. The air-tight packaging and low moisture content of mozzarella gives it a pretty long shelf life.

  14. Ben Reply

    may i also suggest adjusting and substituting trail food to align with blood type? type A= mostly veggies, B= no chicken, AB= a mix, O= meet. Cook Right For Your Blood Type by Dr. Peter J. D’Adamo is a book with great info for the individual. what works well for one type, may not work for others. also has a ton of recipes! HYOH

  15. Julie Reply

    Thank you for the recipes! My husband forwarded your link after a Cub Scout camping trip where we tried out some MRE’s and had a car camping version of one of my favorite backpacking meals. We’re on the hunt for a happy medium between lugging tons of stuff for car camping, and getting back in the groove for some backpacking.

    Regarding beans on the trail, if you don’t have a dehydrator, Fantastic Foods has instant black beans and refried beans that used to be a staple for me. I couldn’t find them recently in my local store, but they used to be very near the Near East couscous mentioned in your first meal. Black beans + misc spices + instant rice + optional chicken in foil packet or can + optional cheese packet from Mac&Cheese (if using throw in some instant milk and squeeze margarine) + optional packet of piquante sauce + optional chip crumbles (Fritos seemed to last better) – yum.

    I used to backpack with a college group – mainly young guys with sky high metabolisms . Squeeze margin was their friend and added in copious quantities to any meal to up the calorie count. In our backpacking meal class instant rice, instant potatoes, noodles from Ramen noodles, and Stove Top Stuffing were the basis for many meals. Instant beans, foil or canned meats, cheese packets from Mac&Cheese, and pre-grated canned Parmesan were the next step. Additional add ins included instant milk, squeeze margarine (your olive oil sounds better), nuts and seeds, dried fruit, dried veggies from anything – often instant soup, and misc spices such as granulated garlic, onion powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, dried oregano, and dried basil. Put the combination in a freezer zip lock, and add hot water on the trail.

  16. mleav Reply

    I’m a lightweight camper and found a vacuum sealer to be essential for preparing my own foods – less packaging, really lightweight and easy to separate each meal per day AND I’m a strict vegan and make all my meals from scratch, only buying prepackaged vegan “granola” foodbars. I figured I’d post because I read a few comments about vegetarian options. I usually use dehydrated beans since they only require 10 minutes to prepare on the trail.

    I’m going to dolly sods for 3 days and here’s my food list. I buy most of this from the bulk section of the grocery and the bread from the bakery for a high option with nuts baked into it, so the dinners are less than ~$6 each to prepare and high in nutrition. Using the vacuum sealer on the peanut butter sandwiches is crazy, they get squished down to a really thin sheet.

    Lunch: 2 peanut butter sandwich with seed bread; 3 foodbars
    Dinner: quinoa/tofu/mushrooms/dried chives/chopped spinach/oliveoil/spices; hot tea

    Breakfast: coffee; steelcut oatmeal/nuts/berries
    Lunch: 2 peanut butter sandwich with seed bread; 3 foodbars
    Dinner: rice/tofu/beans/oliveoil/spices; hot tea

    Breakfast: coffee; steelcut oatmeal/nuts/berries
    Lunch: 2 peanut butter sandwich with seed bread; 3 foodbars

  17. Lisa Reply

    These are a must for when we go hiking:

    -Bagels (squished down to save room, still tastes the same) dipped in peanut butter with granola sprinkled on top.

    -If you go to harmonyhousefoods.com they have a backpacking kit that includes several varieties of dehydrated veggies. Comes with soup recipes that you can make and put in a ziplock baggie. Add chicken or beef granules and whatever spices you want. All you do is add the dried contents to a cup of water, put over the fire and wait until everything’s rehydrated again. Goes great with any meal. Very lightweight.

    -Peanut butter and brownies. This is probably the most important thing when we’re on the trail. Usually an afternoon snack when energy is low (and sometimes morale).

  18. Terri Reply

    I am a parent and gs leader. These recipes are GREAT for families and groups with kids. Thank you!

  19. Kat Reply

    My favorite lightweight backcountry dinner is the cheddar and broccoli rice side that Knorr/Lipton makes, plus a pack of chicken or tuna. One of those food that I would never eat in civilization, but I work on a trail crew so when I’ve packed 5-10 miles, clearing trees as I go, it tastes so goooooood. And it contains something green, which is a plus when you spend most of the summer eating things that are easy to transport by backpack or mule(fresh veggies don’t usually make it).

  20. P Luoma Reply

    Hi Erik, three of your recipes went into my favourites even before I’ve tasted them. I realised I had become stuck with the tried favourites, like tinned reindeer stew (comes with the fat required for the pan) with champ (fresh leeks keeps forever; a quarter is enough). A QUESTION though: what is the minimum size of cookpot for these, to allow for the dried ingredient expansion. My 0.8 liter must be too small?
    …And allow me to sneak in a question about your brilliant packing list/evaluator.In the latest version of Excel the tick boxes and the 1 or 2 choice stopped working. So in which version should I save it?

    • @P Luoma: I have used a 0.7 liter cookpot for all of these meals before. It gets really full in some of them (such as the one with the stuffing) but I think your 0.8 liter should do the trick. I’m behind the times with Excel (still using the version from 2003) so unfortunately I don’t know how the spreadsheet reacts with the newer versions.

  21. Pat Reply

    Thanks for writing this. I am planning a long solo thru hike this winter. A year ago I went through cancer treatments that have left me with problems eating solid, or particulate food, so keeping calories high enough on the trail will be a challenge. These recipies look doeabe, and will handle the calories at this end of the day. I intend to try each one of them now, and select the easiest for inclusion.


  22. Greg Reply

    Check out BableFish5′s Hungry Hammock Hangers DIY meals. Very good stuff


  23. Christopher Reply

    I really need to get away from the Mountainhouse… those all look delicious!

  24. Stephen Reply

    This is one of my favorite trail dinners. Just add some olive oil packets from Subway and some chicken from a foil packet and you’re good to go!

    Thai Kitchen Stir Fry Noodles

  25. Watertank Reply

    +1 on Derek’s comments again. I think Mark’s Daily Apple is a great resource, loaded with well thought out information.

  26. Derek Reply

    @Stephen: I forgot to give you a link on antinutrients. This page has a decent section on antinutrients about halfway through the article, if you can wade through the hyperbole:


    He also had an article on rice that covers phytic acid pretty well:


  27. Derek Reply

    @Stephen: The anti-nutrients in cooked brown rice are mostly limited to phytic acid, which binds with zinc, magnesium, and calcium in a way that the human gut isn’t able to disentangle. It’s nothing too sinister, and it won’t eliminate your ability to digest minerals, but it will reduce it depending on how much of it you eat. It’s also a fairly common chemical, since it’s the main way plants store phosphorus in seeds, so many nuts are pretty high in it as well.

    The unique thing about rice is that all of its phytic acid is stored in the bran, so we can easily strip it off. Since this is where all the minerals are stored, on paper this looks like we’re taking all the nutrients out, but since the phytic acid would have kept us from absorbing those nutrients and any other ones we were consuming in that meal, you actually come out ahead.

    That article you linked mentioned this problem in passing. It cites a study (Callegaro) that found that all the extra nutrients in brown rice didn’t actually show up in practice. Another study (Miyoshi) found that a brown rice diet didn’t improve plasma mineral content as compared with a white rice diet.

    None of this is particularly relevant if you aren’t planning on making brown rice a major source of your calories. If glycemic index is a big issue for you, you’re not going to eat enough rice to make antinutrients an issue, and even if you plan on eating a lot of it, brown rice is still one of the most innocuous carb sources out there. Personally, I lean toward white rice (and potatoes) partly because of the mineral factor and mostly personal taste, but if you like brown rice better, it’s easy enough to mitigate it by eating less nuts. But if you prefer white rice like most people do, there’s a fairly convincing nutritional case for going with that. Cheers!

  28. Stephen Reply

    Here is what I found on this topic.


    I think i’ll stick to brown rice. :)

  29. Stephen Reply

    Tuna is an awesome choice. I love bringing the foil packs along with some condiments and eating it right on the trail for lunch along with my almonds. I was not aware that white rice would be a better option in this case and would be interested in reading about these anti-nutrients you speak of. I would venture to say that the lack of calcium absorption on the trail would be bad considering I use the Nido brand powdered milk for breakfast along with either quinoa, steel-cut oats or cream of wheat as my sole source of calcium. Do these anti-nutrients interfere with the production of vitamin D by your skin? Thanks!

  30. Derek Reply

    @Stephen: Brown rice is very slightly lower in its glycemic index than white rice, but I would actually steer you in the direction of white for a long hike. Brown rice contains a few anti-nutrients that block absorption of zinc and calcium in your gut, which could lead to problems on the trail. Quinoa has similar problems, but if you’re vegetarian or otherwise limited in what protein sources you can take, it may not be a bad option. That said, a can of tuna has the protein of 2 pounds of quinoa, and if you’re concerned about blood sugar, a much more favorable macronutrient profile.

  31. Stephen Reply

    If you are going to use rice, you may as well use instant brown rice, which is metabolized slower and doesn’t cause your blood sugar to spike like white rice does. A better option if you don’t mind prepping is to cook some quinoa and then dehydrate it. Quinoa is far superior nutritionally than pretty much any grain because it gives you a shot of amino acids and protein that you will not get elsewhere.

  32. Stephen Reply

    I like to bring peanute butter. High in calories and tastes good. I put 2 oz in a snack size ziploc bag as a serving and just cut the corners and squeeze it out onto whole wheat thin sandwhich bread.

  33. Watertank Reply

    +1 on Derek’s first comment, I spent many years in a pre-diabetic state because I was told (like everyone else in the ’90′s) that “fats are bad” and that “carbs are good”. If you think you can thrive on a starch based diet, hiking big miles or not, good for you. But there is no denying that you are seriously taxing your pancreas on a high carb diet.

  34. Jon Reply

    I dehydrate canned re-fried beans and put in a zip freezer bag.
    On the trail I add boiling water into the bag . They re-hydrate very quickly and then I add some type of corn chip to the paste.
    Great taste and no clean up.
    If desired add onions, garlic, cheese……

    • @John & Derek: Thanks for the bean-cooking info. I use the buy-as-you-go method for resupplying so usually try to buy foods that don’t require any advanced prep or maildrops, but beans sound like a good food for hikers who don’t mind a little extra prep before hitting the trail.

      @Bob Nelson, Derek and Watertank:

      I agree that 1,000 grams of carbs per day is excessive.

      Here is how your nutritionist probably arrived at his or her recommendation to eat 1,000+ grams of carbs per day:

      Hiking hills while carrying 20-40 pounds burns about 600 calories per hour. If you hike at an average pace of 2.5 miles per hour and cover 20 miles per day then you are burning 4,800 calories during the 8 hours while you are hiking.

      On top of that your body will still burn energy when you are resting. This is known as RMR (resting metabolic rate) and this rate is higher for an active person than a sedentary person. On a thru-hike you might burn around 200 calories per hour at rest.

      8 hours of hiking (4,800 calories) plus 16 hours of resting (3,200 calories) = 8,000 calories per 24 hour period (In theory)

      Since there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, 1,000 grams of carbs would provide 4,000 calories (about half of your expected energy needs according to these calculations). On top of that I imagine they would recommend eating 2,400 calories from protein and 1,600 calories from fat to achieve a 50/30/20 macronutrient ratio (which is a common nutrient profile for athletes and active people).

      When you crunch the numbers like this it seems reasonable to make food recommendations that might otherwise seem outlandish, given the high energy expenditures of your average thru-hiker.

      The problem is: These figures which nutritionists often rely on have never been properly tested or proven. Even the concept of a calorie itself and how it relates to human energy is not entirely known. All people really knows about nutrition is that there is a correlation between eating, energy production and fat storage. Each of these is affected by a multitude of variables (type of food, cooked or not, body chemistry, activity levels, etc.) that make it even more difficult to quantify their affects.

      My feeling is that calorie recommendations by nutritionists typically lean on the high side. For example, they say that an average person needs around 2,000 calories per day and that is probably too much. Likewise, 8,000 calories per day for a thru-hiker is probably too much as well. Even if you carried calorie-dense foods that provided 125 calories per ounce you’d still have to pack 4 pounds of food per day (about twice what most hikers carry). This extra food weight would making hiking more strenuous, causing you to expend more energy, requiring even more food, creating a “snake eating it’s own tail” sort of situation.

      I would think that 400 – 600 grams of carbs per day should be enough. It’s possible that the symptoms you experienced on the PCT may have been exacerbated by other non food-related factors such as exhaustion, dehydration, sun exposure, illness, etc. in addition to lack of carbs.

  35. Tom Reply

    I’m curious about the general number of calories long distance hikers count on per day (3000? 4000?) and the total weight (on average)long distance hikers plan on for a typical day’s food (not counting water needed for rehydration, etc.). Thanks.

    • @Tom: I start out packing around 3,500 calories and 2 pounds of food per day for the first month or so. During this time I will be burning off the extra 10-15 pounds of body-fat I’ve packed on during the winter. After that I’ll increase my food intake incrementally to a maximum of about 5,000 calories and 3 pounds of food per day for multi-month hikes (supplemented with big meals in trails towns).

      I’m 32 years old, 6′ tall and my body weight fluctuates between 220 and 180 pounds. Individual calorie requirements will vary depending on age, weight, sex and metabolism, but I think a good starting point would be around 2 lbs and 3,000 – 4,000 cals per day (then adjust as necessary).

  36. Derek Reply

    @Patrick: I used to go vegetarian whenever I went backpacking, just to simplify meal planning. If you can find freeze-dried tofu, the kind they use in miso soup packets, that’s a pretty tasty addition to meals for very little weight. Tempeh is a lot healthier, of course.

    I knew a girl ate raw vegan on the trail. She had great energy levels, and it kept her compartment syndrome under control, but she was WAY more energetic that the median grain-fed vegan. The downside was that she depended pretty heavily on sprouts, and even then, her food weight per day was crazy high.

  37. Derek Reply

    @Erik: You can dry canned beans and lentils on a dehydrator, and they’ll rehydrate nicely. If they’re not canned, you’ll want to cook/pressure cook them first.

  38. Derek Reply

    @Bob Nelson: 1000 grams of carbs per day is an INSANE amount. I burned out my pancreas, possibly for good, on a third of that. The human body just isn’t built to go through that amount of glucose, even when we have elevated energy needs. Since my glucose metabolism went kaput a year ago, I’ve had to majorly rework my trail nutrition, moving towards high fat meals supplemented by just enough clean carbs (potatoes, rice, corn) to replace glycogen in my muscles. I’ve found that it’s much easier to hit my caloric and nutritional goals, and I stay energized for longer. Even on the trail, my carb requirements never cross 100 g per day, much less 10 times that much.

    I was inspired not by choice, but by medical necessity, but the benefits have been enough that I’ve been encouraging my friends to try to shift to a primarily fat-burning metabolism (ketosis) before long hikes for these reasons. As a bonus, weight per meal for fatty foods is much lower, and lower oxidative stress and lower vitamin requirements reduce the risk that you’ll run into nutrient deficiency or other nutritional problems on long hikes.

    • JT Reply

      I eat a ketogenic diet for health reasons and will be hiking the John Muir Trail this summer. This is my first long-distance hike. I would like to keep my daily carb intake as low as possible. Any way you could give me some tips on menu planning? I will be able to resupply a few times throughout the trip.

      • @JT: Unless you have some sort of serious allergic reaction or medical reason not to eat carbs I would recommend setting aside your diet while you hike. Carbs are a staple hiking food because they are high in calories, low in bulk, low in weight (due to their low water content) and non perishable. It would be difficult to get the 4,000+ calories per day that you will need to hike the John Muir Trail from a low-carb diet. The great thing about hiking is that you can eat complete junk and still get in the best shape of your life. Some of the worst foods for dieting are actually the best foods for hiking.

      • Derek Reply

        @JT, which health issues you’re dealing with will make a difference in how I answer that. I’m going to assume you’re doing it for the usual insulin regulation reasons, but if you’re not, correct me, okay?

        Is it absolutely necessary for you to stay in deep ketosis, or can you get most of the same benefits out of a regular lowish carb diet? Even if you have blood sugar issues, you can mitigate that by staying on the move. Tired muscles uptake glucose faster than most other tissues. You may be able to get the same benefits of a very low carb diet without producing the ketones. You may not have to stay low carb at all. I don’t completely agree with Erik’s advice not to worry about it, but he makes a good point that your activity level will cover a multitude of sins so long as you’re just worried about fat and longer term insulin resistance.

        Another reason to consider bumping your carbs is recovery. Keto is great for short trips if only because it keeps you from having to get fat adapted again, but the drawback for longer trips is that because you’re usually active, your muscles aren’t able to get their glycogen stores back up to 100% using fat alone in the short amount of rest time you give them. Over time, your ability to recover takes a hit. If you can get some sane carbs in, this will make a dramatic difference.

        My suggestion would be to bring 100-200g of smart carbs per day, based on what you think you could handle on a highly active day, and eat them when you start to feel drained.

        So that’s the carb level digression. If it turns out you’re doing keto for nerve damage, I’m going to feel silly. I’ll get to some concrete suggestions next.

      • Derek Reply

        @JT, continued:

        So assuming 4000 calories per day, your rough macronutrient breakdown looks like this:

        200 g protein
        200 g carbs
        266 g fat

        Potentially, this can be lighter than standard high carb backpacking food, but that depends on your budget, preparation, and ability to digest fat in large quantities.

        If you’re going to boost your carb intake from ketogenic, they’d darned well better be good carbs that won’t spike your blood sugar into the EARTH IS VIBRATING I CAN TASTE COLORS range. Nuts are a good source, as are dried fruits, if you avoid the ones with added sugar (looking at you, cranberries and pineapple.) Don’t shy away from the usual backpacking carbs if you can spread them out. I’ve been experimenting with a drink called iskiate made with chia seeds, which take a while to break down in your stomach and prevent an insulin spike.

        If you’re highly fat adapted, you can get away with bringing the most concentrated easy calories a human being can digest: pure oil. 255 calories per ounce, zero water weight, and tasty. I bring a tub of coconut oil or bottle of olive oil, depending on the temperature, and add as much as I can stand to my meals. This is the old trick of adding butter to your hot chocolate on a cold night, except every night, done to everything. You can potentially add a tremendous amount of calories to your diet relative to the extra weight. At the upper limits, be careful about diarrhea, especially with the coconut oil.

        Everyone I hike with thinks this is gross, but I like to mix coconut butter, peanut butter, coconut oil, nuts, and dried fruit with a cinnamon and salt, then chop it with a food processor for just a few pulses so it’s a paste. I load it into squeeze tubes and dispense as necessary. It’s essentially fat-soaked trail mix. I came up with it for trail runs, but it’s such a convenience I usually bring it on hikes nowadays.

        Here are a few of my favorite meals:

        – Heavy coffee: coffee, coconut oil, cinnamon, and coconut cream powder
        – Grainless granola (after an hour or so of walking to blunt insulin spike)
        – If weight is not object, scrambled eggs and bacon

        – Cheese and dry sausage, the original hiking lunch with a thousand variations
        – Tuna salad on tortillas
        – Miso soup with tuna

        – Chili
        – Thai chicken curry
        – Puerco pibil
        – Chicken cacciatore
        – honestly, most meat and vegetable-based keto-friendly stews do just fine if you throw your leftovers in a dehydrator.

        I hope I gave you a few ideas. Good luck with your hike!

        • JT Reply

          Thanks @Erik the Black and @Derek. It sounds like I will be putting aside myway of eating in some regards. I (at 140lbs, female, and 5′ 4″) now consume less than 50g total carbs (including fiber), 85g protein, and up to 140g in fat a day. I’ve been eating this way for about 8 weeks in order to avoid my predisposition for diabetes, obesity, and cancer. My goal with the hike was to stay in ketosis and just consume enough carbs to replenish my glycogen stores. From what you are saying, I wonder if 100-200g of carbs will be so much to switch me out of ketosis. Or would my muscles just soak it all up and I’d remain in ketosis, burning ketones as my primary fuel source? This is all quite confusing for me. Ha. Those menu ideas sound great- especially the fat-soaked trail-mix. And I’ll definitely be eating tons of coconut oil. I think I am quite comfortable digesting fat in large quantities.

          • @JT: In my opinion, trying to stay in ketosis while hiking would be counterproductive. Ketosis is characterized by a lack of glycogen, and glycogen is exactly what you will need most on a long hike. Glycogen (unlike bodyfat) is an energy reserve that can be quickly mobilized and converted to glucose (blood sugar). Body fat is more of a backup energy source for use when there is no glycogen, which is slower to metabolize and a less efficient source of energy.

            Long distance hikers will often deplete their glycogen stores quite by accident, despite eating a TON of carbs, because the energy requirements of hiking 10+ hours a day with a loaded pack are so high. You can feel when this happens. One minute you are cruising along just fine and all of a sudden you become tired, sluggish and exhausted. This is referred to as “bonking” or “hitting the wall”. When it happens there is only one solution, which is to eat some carbs. Within minutes of carbing up you feel better and are able to continue on. But it’s an uphill battle. You have to eat some more carbs every couple of hours to stay on top of it.

            I have tried refueling during these times with protein and fat based foods (such as beef jerkey, tuna, salami or string cheese) but it just doesn’t have the same effect without some carbs added (like a tortilla, nuts, dried fruit, granola bar). Protein and fat based foods by themselves make me want to lay down and take a nap instead of get up and hike more miles. That is why I eat most of my protein and fat at dinner time.

          • Derek


            Being in ketosis and fat-adapted helps tremendously with bonking. Instead of switching to fat as a last resort once your blood sugar is depleted, which is the norm when you’re running on glucose, in ketosis you’re using a trickle of fatty acids at all times. It’s every bit as efficient as glucose, but you get a more even energy curve. If you’ve been doing it long enough that you’re fat-adapted, your muscles get better at producing glycogen constantly from fat. Since you can safely store fat and glucose has to be used immediately, that kind of adaptation has HUGE benefits for endurance.

            If you don’t have that kind of adaptation, your muscles take a long time to rebuild glycogen. In that case, carbing up is the only realistic option. That’s why fat after bonking just makes you more tired and miserable. But if you eat and train right, bonking while fat adapted is much harder to do.

            To me, ketosis is THE secret to endurance sports. I can run for hours without a snack just on heavy coffee and enjoy it. That’s completely impossible for me on glucose.

            Carbs are an important part of nutrition for endurance sports, but those of us who’ve had to balance blood sugar issues with sports are discovering that they’re important for different things that we had thought originally. I can’t even tell you how many people who assured me I’d have to stop distance running and take up yoga or something. More than a dozen, at least! Fortunately for me, the human body is amazingly adaptable and works in surprising ways.


            “My goal with the hike was to stay in ketosis and just consume enough carbs to replenish my glycogen stores. From what you are saying, I wonder if 100-200g of carbs will be so much to switch me out of ketosis. Or would my muscles just soak it all up and I’d remain in ketosis, burning ketones as my primary fuel source?”

            That’s the question, isn’t’ it? In theory, it’s possible for you to hike without ANY carbs at all and replace all your glycogen via fatty acid degradation, but it’s probably a terrible idea. After only 8 weeks, you’re probably not completely fat-adapted yet, and there’s not enough health benefit in trying to build your diet around eliminating carbs.
            I suggest that you do two things before your hike.

            1) Get as fat-adapted as possible and get a feel for exactly how much energy you can get out of fat alone before you start to feel run down. If you bonk, you’ll need more carbs to recover in a reasonable amount of time.

            You can improve your muscles’ ability to replenish glycogen from fat, but it takes time and practice. Do some endurance training without carbs, including post-workout carbs. You can even do it fasted, but if you do, consider taking a scoop of protein powder or 10 g of BCAA powder before you start to prevent muscle catabolism, and eat immediately afterwards.

            2) Learn how much glucose you need to get your muscles to recover from an intense workout. The average human body contains about 450 g of glycogen (subject to huge personal variation). You may be surprised how much glucose you can consume when your muscles are hungry before your blood sugar suffers.

            If you’re moving all day and timing your carbs for recovery, you will still be producing a decent amount of ketones, but only during periods when your blood sugar drops to normal. When you have glucose in your bloodstream, you burn only glucose until it’s gone. In that sense, you’ll be out of ketosis, but you’ll still have most of the benefits of ketosis since if you time it right, it won’t stay there long, will go preferentially to your muscles and brain, and will go right back into ketosis.

            I was asking around about this question, and superawesomedude Robb Wolf pointed me to this article by Peter Attia on exercise and ketosis. Check the related posts, because there’s a wealth of great information there. He advocates a product called Superstarch that he says can replenish glycogen without interrupting ketosis or spiking insulin.

    • Cactuswren Reply

      @Derek- maybe some good news for you- I did the same thing- burned out the pancreas. After following a low carb diet for two years, my pancreas recovered, and I am fine now. I will continue to be carb conscious, to not risk relapsing, but it is nice to be able to eat more normally again. Good luck!

  39. Shawn Hudson Reply

    Thanks for the recipes. I think I’ll be trying out that chicken and stuffing one, for sure. Looks delicious!

  40. juma Reply

    I saw a short skinny gal eat this in the whites – 2 boxes of mac and cheese and a can of corned beef. 18 ounces. seems heavy to the gram counting section hiker but the real deal don’t care.

  41. Sarah Reply

    I’m surprised by your general lack of rice. I use minute rice in a lot of my dishes including taco rice, asian inspired meals, and chicken curry

  42. Patrick Reply

    There are plenty of Vegan/Vegetarian dehydrated meals on the market and one can easily substitute any bean for any meat in the above recipes though it may lead to stomach upset if you’re not used to beans every night. A Beano-a-night might be your best friend (and your hiking partner’s).

    One could also try Tempeh though it’s travel life hasn’t been confirmed by me beyond a few days. As a life-long carnivore turned vegan, eating while backpacking can be difficult and, sometimes, one just has to go veg for a bit. Going back to meat isn’t necessary for me as their are many vegan protein powders available and the weight/protein ratio is slightly better than packaged meat. Also try Quinoa (Keen-wah)which is similar to couscous for a complete protein. I replace the cheese/cream sauce packages with Bob’s Red Mill nutritional yeast and always drink my “Greens”. Spirulina, Chlorella, Chloressence from Sequel or GreenSuperfoods will do the trick.

    There are a number of options available but they take extra effort to find. Sometimes I don’t want to take the extra effort and just buy the dehydrated meals. In the end, you may need to eat a few more of them due to lower calorie counts but they’re easy. Hope this helps.


    • @Patrick: Thanks for the vegan/vegetarian info. I’ve only cooked beans a few times before but I remember having to soak them overnight to soften them up and then boil them for a long time. Is there a better way to cook beans on the trail or a specific type of bean that doesn’t take as long to prepare?

      • Amy Reply

        sprouted/dehydrated beans cook fast – great mixed variety bag you can get at Costco. If I’m on a multi-day trip I have been known to soak regular beans but they are “tough” . Lentils, couscous, quinoa, amaranth all work well and the last two are high in protein.

      • Cactuswren Reply

        You can cook our beans ahead of time and dehydrate the precooked beans. We did that when my son did the PCT. He had more variety that way. Some were done with chili, some with herbs, each with a couple ways of serving them, by adding different proteins. He would add water to a freezer bag of them at lunch, and by dinner they were dehydrated just needs to be heated. We also did lentils that way, and made salad for lunches as well as having them warm for dinner. He took little to-do parks of lemon juice, honey, maple syrup, soy sauce, and hot sauce to make them more interesting.

    • Sarah Reply

      TVP is also a great vegetarian protein option. It just takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in, great as a substitute in chili and tacos. I buy Bob’s Red Mill TVP and repackage it for my specific meals.

      • Paul Reply

        Hi Sarah,

        TVP would be great, however does it not have GMO Soy?

  43. lollygag Reply

    Where is the vegetarian option? Seriously I had no problem not eating meat on the trail thanks to knowing all the elite distance hikers eat beans everyday. I did however eat meat and whatever else I wanted in town…

    • @lollygag: Maybe somebody else can recommend some vegetarian alternatives. I’m a life-long carnivore ;)

    • Mike Reply

      I eat meat but found “Another Fork in the Trail”, (Laurie Anne Marche) a very satisfying collection of dehydrated recipes for vegan, vegetarian, celiac and other diets. In addition to the lessons in use of spice and unicorn dust, I found a lot of her ideas on dehydrating food very useful. (The water bottle sprout garden is interesting.) Though it would not be difficult to amend many of these recipes for high calorie output, the book is not specifically geared for thru-hiking or ultralight backpackers. Most of the food prep on trail is simply rehydrating. Caloric density will need adjusting for the levels being discussed here.

  44. Bob Nelson Reply

    After a near disaster on the PCT I went to a nutritionist. She taught me how to eat to support my body’s insane need for food during a hike. I need over 1000 gms. of carbs, mostly simple, a day. I can’t carry enough to meet this goal nor can I eat that much anymore, I’m 69 years old. Your meals always look good and maximize carbs but it would be helpful if you included the carb content in you recipes.

    • @Bob Nelson: Most of my dinners are based around carbohydrates. I usually follow this basic formula:

      1) Carbohydrate main course (rice, pasta, potatoes, grains, etc.)
      2) A little meat for protein and fat (chicken, tuna, salmon, sausage, etc.)
      3) A little more fat to boost the calorie count and improve the taste (cheese, olive oil, powdered milk, etc.)
      4) A hot drink for warmth, comfort and sweetness

      Most of the meals in this list provide between 100 – 200 grams of carbohydrates each. If you need even more carbs you might consider adding a snack of dried fruit, seeds or nuts (which are carbohydrate dense and lightweight) or some junk food like a candy bar or energy bar.