10 food mistakes every beginner makes when hiking and how to avoid them

Throw out that canned tuna and follow along for our best tips of what to pack

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This post is brought to you by Back Country Cuisine – our go-to favorite freeze-dried meal in New Zealand on hikes and adventures

Adventures hiking in the backcountry take A LOT of planning. And hiking food is no exception.

Scooping routes, finding adequate camping spots, locating water sources, triple checking you have all of your gear, studying maps, memorizing weather forecasts.

Whether a night or two weeks, when it comes to planning a hiking getaway, it’s easy to put packing your food low on the priority list. Too often I’ve thought I could just throw it together in the morning and so often I have been burned by poor food planning.

When you have to carry all of your food on your back, getting it all right and as light as possible matters a lot.

hiking food

My first backpacking trip was a complete fail in the food department.

Already cooked pasta salad, whole baked potatoes, loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter and jelly. My bag was surely half of my weight and easily the heaviest pack on the trail that day.

Luckily, I’ve come a long way from my beginning backpacking blunders and have since dialed in my food and nutrition. Trust me on this. I’ve made every mistake in the book so you don’t have to!

Here’s are the top 10 food mistakes every beginner makes when backpacking and hiking and how to avoid them.

hiking food

1. Packing too much

Perhaps the most common mistake while hiking is overpacking on hiking food.

It’s easy to fall under the trap of better too much than too little but that mentality can take a huge toll on your legs, forcing you to expend more energy than you actually need and ending up with wasted food at the end of your trip.

When I started backpacking, I packed as if I were planning my last meal on earth. Be strict with yourself and plan out each meal. You know better than anyone how much you’ll *actually* eat in a day.

hiking food

One of my top tricks is taking a few extra pouches of Back Country Instant Mashed Potatoes with me on the trip. They weigh practically nothing but are a good way to bulk out a meal. It’s a good way to pack the “just in case” food without the weight.

*I also always pack one or two extra freeze dried meal JUST IN CASE. Whether you get stuck out in the wild for longer than you planned due to unforeseen circumstances or you encounter someone who needs extra food (trust me, it happens) it’s better to be safe than sorry and instant food weights little.

Part of the Mountain Safety Council’s Outdoor Safety Code is taking extra supplies.

hiking food

2. Not packing enough

Of course, there’s a fine line between packing the right amount of hiking food and packing too little.

Nothing’s worse than getting to your last day of the trip with nothing more than a handful of trail mix to sustain you through the hardest and longest miles of your trip. When you’re expending a lot of energy, you’ve got to make sure you’re eating the right stuff!

Again, it’s crucial to plan out each day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks AND dessert. Obviously desert. Write it down in advance if you have to.

Be honest with yourself in how much you’ll eat and pack just a bit extra to account for how ravenous you’ll be after a full day of walking but don’t overdo it. Balance is key!

hiking food

3. Packing bulky foods

So you’ve packed the right amount of food but it’s somehow not all fitting in your bag. Ugh why?

A loaf of bread will be light to carry, sure, but it’s going to take up as much space as your inflatable sleeping pad.

Striking the balance between weight and bulk will make your trip much more enjoyable.

Go for packable foods that are full of calories and nutrients. Dehydrated and freeze dried meals, like the ones made by Back Country Cuisine, are a great choice for hiking food when minimizing bulk. They pack down to basically nothing and have minimal waste to pack out when you’re done.

The packaging means you just add boiling water and you can rip it open in a specific way so that it turns into it’s own bowl.

hiking food

4. Not enough variety

Sure, backpacking is all about stripping back your pleasures to the bare minimum but getting to the end of each long day hiking out in the wilderness and eating the same meal for a week is super demoralizing.

Trust me, there’s only so many times you can eat PB&J sammies for dinner before you want to throw your food off the closest cliff.

Try to make each day’s meal a bit different than the last. It’s true that almost anything will taste good after you’ve expended so much energy but don’t let yourself get to a point where you can’t force yourself to swallow another bite of your monotonous food. (I’m looking at you, Hollie, and your pounds of butter in Greenland).

Dehydrated meals are a great option to get a lot of variety with minimal effort. Beef Teriyaki, Thai Green Chili, Creamy Carbonara. You can get a lot of different types of food without the hassle and you can easily spice up and add flavor to them without the weight.

hiking food

5. Not enough savory foods

I’m often the victim of this rule.

So much of backpacking food falls under the sweet tooth category for me. Chocolate covered pretzels, breakfast bars, even trail mix seems sweet with the bits of chocolate and dried fruit.

After a while, I find myself craving something salty to balance out the hiking food. My go-to salty snacks are beef jerky and salted nuts. It’s just enough to break up the sweet treats and keep me going until my next real meal.

hiking food

6. Packing heavy foods

Another common mistake by beginner backpackers is packing heavy foods.

Often I hear of hikers packing canned food: tuna, beans, spaghetti. I get it. They are quick meals, high in energy and one their own, one can may not seem like too much weight but added to a few other cans, your bag is going to be significantly heavier, making your days in the hills even longer and harder. Honestly, who wants to carry cans? And since we live by the “leave nothing but footprints” rule, that means you’re stuck carrying empty cans out too. Talk about heavy!

I’ve adopted the light and quick hiking food method so I make sure all of my meals are full of nutrients but still uber light. My go to when backpacking is freeze dried meals because they offer the best balance of minimal weight, sufficient energy supplies and varied “real meal” taste.

hiking food

7. Not packing enough nutrient-rich foods

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: two-minute noodles is NOT an adequate backpacking meal.

Sure, they might fill you up for a bit but they are empty calories. They are not going to be enough to sustain huge amounts of energy you’ll be expending the next day.

Find  hiking food that has actual vitamins and minerals and nutrients which will sustain you all through the next day. Trust me, your body will thank you for it.

Honestly, nothing is worse than having your energy levels plummet mid-adventure, and you still have hours of hiking ahead of you. That’s how shit happens.

hiking food

8. Planning elaborate meals

I’ve had too many trips filled with the best intentions for my meals.

Elaborate dishes with interesting ingredients. It all sounds great in theory until you put it to practice. You’re finishing a 10 hour day on your feet and all you want is to consume as much delicious food as soon as possible before crashing into a blissful food/exhaustion coma for the night.

There’s nothing worse than setting up camp after a long day and remember you packed ingredients for Duck Confit, which will surely take two hours to make on your jet boil. After a big day adventuring, you want to eat fast.

If you want to be fancy, maybe treat yourself to a Gourmet Meal – hello wild mushroom and lamb risotto. It’s quick and easy and has the same effect as your Michelin Star inspired dish.

hiking food

9. Too much sugar

Sugar is good for small bursts of energy but too many backpackers get sucked into the sugar high only to find a huge lapse in energy a few hours later. Don’t fall into this trap!

You’ll want to seek out food sources that are filled with carbs and good fats to sustain you through your long days. Stuffing your body with sugar will make you feel tired and sluggish once the high wears off.

Make sure your meals and snacks are balanced!

hiking food

10. Not knowing your own dietary needs and preferences

At the end of the day, no one knows your food preferences better than you do.

Take time to practice your trail diet at home before you’re out in the woods, far from civilization.

Before you go on any major long distance through hikes, you should have a pretty good idea of how much food you require during high activity and what kinds of food suit your body. Try not to compare yourself to other campers or hikers.

Everyone is different and the most important thing is to find what works best for you!

hiking food

Hiking or adventuring in the backcountry is all about returning to basics.

Sleeping with the sun goes down, rising at dawn and lots of walking in between. Food is third only behind hiking and sleeping so it deserves attention and detail. A poorly planned backpacking diet is sure to ruin an otherwise great trip so take your time and be thorough.

Organizing a backpacking trip is truly an art. Good luck!

If you’re just getting started on backpacking, here are my recommendations on what to eat:

2 day hike:

Day 1:

Morning: Breakfast at home or on the road
Lunch: Crackers, cheese, salami, apple
Snacks: Granola bars (3-4 a day), chocolate covered pretzels, beef jerky
Dinner: Backcountry Cuisine Spaghetti Bolognese
Dessert: Backcountry Cuisine Apple Crumble

Day 2:

Morning: Backcountry Cuisine Porridge Supreme and coffee
Lunch: Tuna in a pouch, 2 pitas, apple
Snacks: Granola bars (3-4 a day), salted nuts, and a victory chocolate bar at the end of the day
Dinner: on the road or home

3 – 5 day hike:

Day 1:

Morning: Breakfast at home or on the road
Lunch: Crackers, salami, cheese, carrot sticks, apple
Snacks: Granola bars, trail mix, dried banana chips, chocolate bars
Dinner: Backcountry Cuisine Venison and Rice Noodle Stir Fry

Day 2: 

Morning: Backcountry Cuisine Porridge Supreme + Black Coffee
Lunch: Pita bread, tuna, cheese, apple
Snacks: Bliss balls, beef jerky, trail mix, granola bars
Dinner: Backcountry Cuisine Wild Mushroom and Lamb Risotto
Dessert: Backcountry Cuisine 3 Fruits Cheesecake

Day 3:

Morning: Backcountry Cuisine Yoghurt and Muesli + black coffee
Lunch: Backcountry Cuisine Creamy Mushroom and Potato Soup + a packet of instant rice if I know I’ll be extra hungry
Snacks: Beef jerky, crackers, cheese, muesli bars
Dinner: Backcountry Cuisine Vegetarian Stirfry
Dessert: Backcountry Cuisine Carrot Cake

Day 4:

Morning: Backcountry Cuisine Cooked Breakfast
Lunch: Backcountry Cuisine Cottage Pie
Snacks: Granola bars (3-4 a day), chocolate covered pretzels, beef jerky
Dinner: Backcountry Cuisine Moroccan Lamb
Dessert: Backcountry Cuisine Apricot Crumble

Day 5:

Morning: Backcountry Cuisine Wheatflakes and fruit salad
Lunch: Backcountry Cuisine Malaysian Chicken Soup
Snacks: Granola bars (3-4 a day), salted peanuts, and a victory snickers
Dinner: Backcountry Cuisine Roast Lamb and Vegetables
Dessert: Backcountry Cuisine Apple Pie

What do you think? Have any food tips to share for backpacking? Any major fails? Spill!

hiking food

Many thanks to Back Country Cuisine for keeping us happy, warm and fed on all our adventures in the mountains – like always we’re keeping it real, all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!

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28 Comments on “10 food mistakes every beginner makes when hiking and how to avoid them

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  1. I love love love this! I used to run a collegiate Outdoor Program, and while I took care of planning the big meals it was still hard to get my students to wrap their heads around facts like these. I’ll never forget one of my students that was insistent on bringing a 10lb bag of apples, which she begged us to eat on day three because she hadn’t eaten any and was tired of carrying them ? I think cuisine while backpacking is something we all fine tune with time, but it sounds like you’ve got it down ? My first backpacking trip, I brought waaaaaay too much (lol), and definitely didn’t have a risotto that sounds that amazing ? I’m hoping to make it to New Zealand soon to cross some of their trails off my list ? Cheers x

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