Backpacking Food Ideas for Families
It can be daunting to transition from car camping to backpacking because you have to carry everything. All of a sudden you aren’t just thinking about food that can be cooked outside easily but food that is light and nutritious that your kids will eat. I once spent a 3-day backpacking trip eating only ramen three meals a day. Never again. Plan ahead and eat well.
Don’t worry, I’ve got all the options and details you need to get this figured out so your family can be off on your first backpacking adventure. Specific food options in this post are roughly organized from least to most work (and broadly, therefore, most to least money). I also am including information on nutrition, quantity, and gear, plus some meal and recipe ideas.
As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we earn from qualifying purchases.
- Backpacking Food Ideas for Families
- Nutrition Considerations When Backpacking
- Types of Backpacking Food for Families
- Prepackaged Freeze-Dried Food for Backpacking
- Upgrade Store-bought Food to be Appropriate for Backpacking with Kids
- Assemble Backpacking Food for Your Family From Pieces
- Make Your Own Backpacking Food
- What About Kid-Friendly Backpacking Desserts?
- Lunch Food for Backpacking
- Beyond Oats: Breakfast Specific Ideas
- How Much Do You Need?
- What We Do
- Gear You Need
- Food for Backpacking With Your Family
- Related Articles
- Backpacking Food Ideas for Families
Nutrition Considerations When Backpacking
It’s impossible to physically carry as much food as everyone in a family needs for a backpacking trip, so you will end up with a calorie deficit. It’s not a huge deal for short trips, since you will eat more once you get back home, but if you are going on an extended trip with children, remember that while you might have weight to lose, they don’t. So, it’s really important to pay attention to carrying calorie and nutrient dense food.
Estimating Calories for Backpacking
FarOut, a crowd-sourced long-distance trail guide app, has this helpful article to estimate caloric needs when backpacking. This is a good starting point just to get a sense of how much food you might need to be carrying.
Macro-Nutrients When Backpacking
Protein needs do not vary much depending on different diets. Thru-hiker.com walks us through determining protein needs based on a person’s weight. Eating enough protein can make the calorie deficit of backpacking less problematic because at least you are getting nutrients.
Another thing to keep in mind is that carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram (113 per ounce) while fat has 9 calories per gram (255 per ounce), so carrying more fat will naturally mean more nutrient dense food. Because fats don’t dehydrate well, this can mean that you might need to carry some liquid or solid fat to increase calories you are carrying, especially on long trips or in the winter. We bought these baby food pouches to carry oil or ghee. I also have been collecting pint sized disposable water bottles for the same reason.
Remember that variety is key. You can have all the greatest food in the world but if you are bored with it, you won’t eat it. Your kids might have a different threshold for getting bored with meals, so keep that in mind with planning.
Types of Backpacking Food for Families
Prepackaged Freeze-Dried Food for Backpacking
With the increasing popularity of backpacking in recent years, freeze-dried single serving meals have become very common. Most say that they have two servings, but most adults will eat an entire package for a meal. Two kids could probably split one.
Pros for these meals: They are easy to handle, take no advance planning (other than maybe shopping for sales or buying in bulk), have a lot of variety, and just need hot water.
Cons for these meals: They can get expensive if you have more people or a longer trip, they have a lot of trash associated with them, some people are allergic to the preservatives.
Upgrade Store-bought Food to be Appropriate for Backpacking with Kids
Some people eat dehydrated store-bought food for their backpacking trips. This can be a really cost-effective option, as low cook dehydrated food is common in the grocery store. Instant mashed potatoes are a particularly popular option among long-distance hikers, for example, because they are light, cheap, and calorie dense.
Store-Bought Carbohydrate Bases for Your Backpacking Meals
The problem for the backpacking family is that you won’t get a heck of a lot of nutrition for your backpacking kids out of macaroni and cheese, instant mashed potatoes, ramen, and instant rice. The good news is that you can use these carbohydrates as the base for healthier meals by adding dehydrated proteins and vegetables. You can either dry these yourself or buy dried ingredients from companies such as Harmony House (see below for more information on this assembly).
Store-Bought Breakfast Options for Backpacking
Breakfast is one meal where we tend to eat carb-heavy food and thus the store-bought option works well. You’ll save a ton of money over the freeze-dried options and not spend too much more time. You could buy instant oatmeal, grits, or cereal and eat that with hot water or rehydrated powdered milk.
Our family typically buys oatmeal in bulk and carries various mix-ins for it. We like peanut butter, nuts, dried fruit, powdered whole milk (from Hoosier Hill Farm), and brown sugar. To save on packaging, we carry oatmeal in one bag and all the various possible toppings in their own bags. This way each person can make their own preferred oatmeal at breakfast and we aren’t carrying a small bag for each person for each day.
Assemble Backpacking Food for Your Family From Pieces
A step beyond adding a few veggies and some protein to ramen from the store is to buy dried ingredients and make your own meals. Rather than taking all the time and effort to dry your own ingredients, stores like Harmony House Foods and Hoosier Hill Farm have reasonably priced bulk dried ingredients. You can add more variety with a bit of searching, like buying instant hummus as a protein.
Dried Vegetables, Beans, and Vegetarian Meats for Backpacking
Harmony House Foods has several backpacking kits that come with recipes backpackers have tested for them. We like to buy their food for anything that would otherwise require drying plain vegetables. For example, with a few types of vegetables and lentils plus salt and spices, I can make a really good lentil soup.
Their dried black beans, vegetables, and potatoes make a really great burrito bowl eaten in a wrap or over rice. To add more protein, OvaEasy egg crystals are a MUCH better alternative to powdered eggs. (In a pinch, we’ve used them at home!)
Freeze-Dried Dairy Products for Backpacking Food
Hoosier Hill Farm has really high quality dried dairy products. Their powdered whole milk, cream, butter, and buttermilk don’t taste anything like the non-fat powdered milk you can buy in the grocery store. They are tasty dairy products that, like the eggs, we have used in a pinch at home.
Starches for these meals can come from instant rice, ramen, instant mashed potatoes, or quick cook pastas.
Make Your Own Backpacking Food
This is the most time intensive option, but it leads to really great food, with a little preparation and upfront work. There are two basic options: drying parts then assembling or drying cooked dishes. For top-notch support and ideas, I strongly recommend the Dehydrating Your Own Backpacking Food Facebook group.
Drying Ingredients Then Assembling Into Kid-Friendly Backpacking Food
Chef Glenn McAllister is the guru of DIY backpacking food. He has written an authoritative book on the topic, Recipes for Adventure, and a sequel with even more recipes, Recipes for Adventure II. His website also has lots of recipes and tidbits for drying your own food. He tends to provide more information on drying individual ingredients and then assembling meals from the ingredients, although he does give some tips on drying cooked dishes.
I love these books as a way to learn about what dehydrates well and what special processes might be needed for certain ingredients. For example, ground beef only dehydrates well if you include bread crumbs in it or you can dry scrambled eggs if you cook them in the oven with polenta following his instructions.
His ideas for fruit leather and desserts are particularly popular with my kids. I’ve covered these topics more in the desserts and lunch food sections below.
Drying Cooked Dishes to Make Backpacking Food for Families
This is a strategy we have gravitated to in our family. We enjoy eating Indian legume dishes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, and others). Fats don’t dry particularly well, but the Indian Slow Cooker Cookbook has dozens of low-fat legume dishes that we make regularly in the slow cooker.
When we are preparing for a backpacking trip, I make larger portions of Indian legume recipes and dry all the leftovers. We rehydrate them in the field and serve over instant rice.
Some recipes call for coconut milk, which is quite fatty. To address this, I buy powdered Thai coconut milk from Amazon and add that when I am packaging the food up for our trip.
I have also had really good luck drying dishes like chili, which I make with textured vegetable protein instead of ground meat so that I don’t have to worry about ground meat that doesn’t rehydrate quickly.
Recently I have been branching into drying meat dishes. Chef McAllister explains that drying canned meats leads to better rehydration, so I made a Persian pomegranate walnut stew (Fesen Joon) with canned chicken and dried it for a summer backpacking trip. We will eat it over instant brown rice.
What About Kid-Friendly Backpacking Desserts?
It can be hard to find backpacking desserts amidst all the really fantastic ideas for camping desserts floating around the internet. Unless you are certain that you’ll have access to a campfire, though, you need to find something else for dessert. Here are a few things that we’ve tried and the kids have liked.
Instant Oreo Cheesecake as a Backpacking Dessert
This is my kids’ favorite dessert for backpacking. We buy an instant cheesecake package and pre-mix in the powdered milk and butter. Then we just add hot water to the various parts in camp.
Fruit-Bread Pudding Backpacking Dessert
This is another one the kids love. Dry an Angel Food Cake (low fat) or French or Italian Bread (lower sugar, also low fat) and take it with you. Also take instant vanilla pudding with the milk powder already added. Rehydrate the bread or cake with a dried fruit of your choice. Serve with the pudding.
Trail Brownies in a Bag Backpacking Dessert
This one is graham crackers, chocolate chips, nuts, milk powder, and sugar all rehydrated in a big gooey mess. Yum!
Other Backpacking Dessert Ideas
When in doubt, kids always love marshmallows. Marshmallows weigh almost nothing, so you might as well fill all available extra spaces with them. Excellent for bribery along the trail, adding to hot chocolate, or just eating plain. They can be dehydrated and are supposed to be good even if you don’t rehydrate them.
Chef McAllister has an entire section of Recipes for Adventure dedicated to creative dessert ideas.
Amelia also has a whole section about backpacking desserts in her Easy Camp Cookbook.
Lunch Food for Backpacking
Lunch food needs to be something you can eat without cooking unless you want to stop and get out your whole cook set in the middle of every day. The problem is, that if you aren’t going to be cooking food, it can easily add a lot of weight to your pack for not much caloric gain.
Many people don’t like to stop for full lunch meals, and so these snack ideas are great for trail lunches as well. I find that my kids need some savory food but that I tend to make snacks sweet, so I have to consciously find midday food that is not just sugary. You can find more kid-approved snack ideas here.
Sausage and Cheese for Backpacking Lunches for Families
Summer sausage is one of our go-to savory options. Hard salami or pepperoni that has not yet been cut up are other good choices. Jerky is great, but often has a lot of sugar in it.
We usually pair the sausage with a hard cheese. We have used baby bel brand cheese because the individual waxed cheeses are not going to go bad. Unfortunately, because they are individually wrapped each one produces quite a lot of trash that you then have to keep carrying.
Recently, I’ve been buying larger blocks of aged cheddar instead because it already aged for 2 years and thus won’t go bad on the trip. If it does mold a bit, cutting off and carrying out those pieces is less waste than the baby bel wrappers. Larger wax wrapped cheeses would be another good option.
My daughter isn’t wild about cheese once it gets warm and a little sweaty, but she doesn’t seem to mind so much when we are backpacking. Cheese is such a calorie dense food that it really fills us all up.
Trail Mix for Backpacking Lunch for Kids
We usually carry a lot of trail mix, or GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts). Sometimes we buy premade trail mix from the store, avoiding the ones with crumbly low-calorie ingredients such as pretzels. We gravitate towards more basic gorp recipes: a selection of nuts, a selection of dried fruit, and some melt-resistant candy (like M&Ms). Our favorite trail mix ideas are in this book!
Peanut Butter as a Key Part of a Family-Friendly Backpacking Lunch
Peanut butter is another go-to ingredient for us. I don’t bother with the powdered stuff for lunch food (although it is great as an add-on for dessert or breakfast) and instead carry plastic containers of natural peanut butter. I really like peanut butter on chocolate bars (ok, that violates my need for savory food, but it’s so good!) and dried fruit pieces.
What Can You Put Peanut Butter on for a Backpacking Lunch?
We used to carry wraps with us but decided that they add very little in the way of taste or calories but are REALLY heavy. I’d rather eat the peanut butter with a spoon or on dried fruit. We get plenty of carbs with the low-fat breakfast and dinner foods, plus all the sweet trail snacks, so the wraps don’t add a whole lot.
One option for a bread-substitute during the day is to make Logan Bread. Logan Bread is a dense bread full of whatever long-lasting ingredients you choose to put in it. It can be an excellent vehicle for all the peanut butter you want to consume.
Energy Bars for Backpacking
Our daughter won’t eat most energy or granola bars. I suspect it’s the soy pieces that are added to these, but I don’t know for sure. She will eat Larabars, but those are pricey and relatively small each (~50 g per bar).
That’s fine for short outings, but for longer trips, the money can add up fast since they are so tasty. This year I’ve been making energy bars from dates, nuts, and various other flavors (chocolate chips, other dried fruits) using A Mind “Full” Mom’s recipe.
If you will use them relatively quickly, you can just store them in a container or bag in the fridge. If it will be a while, you can vacuum seal them.
Odds and Ends of Backpacking Lunches With Kids
We find that we often end up eating snacks regularly plus two “meals” between breakfast and dinner. The first will be sausage and cheese and the second peanut butter, fruit, and chocolate.
I’ve been considering dehydrating pickles to get a tart snack, and sometimes I’ve carried vacuum sealed packs of olives to get something with salt and oil midday.
Beyond Oats: Breakfast Specific Ideas
Oatmeal for Backpacking Breakfast with Kids
Oatmeal is the classic go-to backpacking breakfast, and for good reason. It’s pretty bland, so you can add all sorts of different flavors and make it taste slightly different every day. If you buy the instant packets, then there is basically nothing to do and you have your breakfast for the trip.
If we have oatmeal for breakfast, we prefer to go with bulk quick cook or instant oats. We’ll carry that in a bag with enough for the number of breakfasts we are eating it for and enough for each person. We carry toppings (dried fruit, peanut butter powder, powdered milk/butter/cream, brown sugar) separately and everyone can make their oatmeal to their own liking every day.
Other Hot Cereals for Family Backpacking Breakfasts
To mix things up, we also use Cream of Wheat and Cream of Rice for sweet hot cereal breakfasts.
Cold Cereal as a Backpacking Breakfast for Kids
Some people prefer cold cereal, although flake-y cereals don’t hold up well and many types have a lot of air, meaning they take a lot of backpack space for relatively little calorie benefit. Granola and Grape Nuts are two options that are relatively dense, but with granola you have to be careful that it isn’t just sugar. If you do go with cold cereal, you can mix up milk from powder to eat on it.
Dairy Products for a Kid-Friendly Backpacking Breakfast
Hoosier Hill Farm is my favorite source for dried dairy products. They sell in bulk. We keep it in the freezer and take out what we need on each trip.
Savory Backpacking Breakfasts for Families
Another savory option is to make burrito bowls (or burritos if you carry tortillas) with OvaEasy egg crystals, instant rice, and dried black beans, peppers, onions, spinach, and potatoes from Harmony House Foods. You can top it off with the Hoosier Hill Farm Big Daddy Mac Mix you already got for the grits breakfast. This is a good dinner option as well, of course.
Smoothies to Feed Your Backpacking Kids for Breakfast
My final breakfast suggestion is smoothies. We haven’t tried this yet, but have some prepared for our summer backpacking trip. There are lots of ideas and details in the files on the Dehydrating Your Own Backpacking Food Facebook Group.
We have been blending fruit up with water then drying it and freezing it. Once it’s frozen and brittle, we will powder it in a spice grinder. We also bought some freeze-dried fruit powder from Harmony House Foods. We will add powdered coconut milk and OvaEasy egg-white protein powder when packing for the trip. Our plan is to rehydrate overnight in plastic peanut butter jars because they are lightweight and easy to clean.
I’m a little worried that the smoothie won’t be enough food for breakfast, so I’m treating it as more of a supplement and extra flavor so that we can get some extra protein and calories at breakfast.
How Much Do You Need?
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to eat on your backpacking trip, you need to decide how much you will need. There are two basic approaches to this calculation: individual meals or bulk rationing.
Bulk rationing is the idea that while you don’t know exactly what someone will want to eat on a given day, you can make broad estimates of how much they will need and how it should be distributed among different food categories (breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and so on).
NOLS takes this approach with their groups and has published the NOLS Cookery to explain both the principles they use with rationing and to give sample recipes and ration lists.
The pros of this approach are that you can plan for lots of people more easily and that you reduce waste by having items you will eat multiple times (like oatmeal) in a single bag rather than in individual servings for each person and each day they will eat it.
The cons of this approach are that you might end up with weird ingredients towards the end of a trip and that it can be weird to bulk ration for just a few people.
Plan Individual Meals
The other approach is to plan individual meals. At the extreme end, buying all freeze-dried meals for all members of the group for every meal is an individual meal approach. If you make your own meals, it will mean making bags for each meal (possibly for each individual) and packing those all up.
The pros of this approach are that you know exactly how many meals you have planned for and exactly how much of each ingredient each meal will use.
The cons of this approach are that you don’t have ingredient flexibility (you can’t decide to use your bell peppers in your scrambled eggs instead of your burritos, for example), it can be hard to know exactly how big to make each meal, and you use a lot more plastic bags.
What We Do
Given all this information, you might be wondering what we actually do with our family.
I use a mix of assembling meals from pieces and making our own. I don’t dry ingredients that we can easily purchase because it doesn’t feel worth my time. On the other hand, we eat a lot of Indian lentil dishes, so it makes a lot of sense to me to dry those and use them for backpacking meals.
For quantity of food, I use a mix of the bulk rationing and individual meals approach. Because I like to dehydrate full meals, I will know that we are having certain dinners.
However, because I can’t ever figure out exactly how much we will need for each meal, I tend to go with the bulk approach to get approximate weights of different types of foods. This helps me from going way overboard on desserts and snacks.
I like that bulk rationing saves on bags and thus weight for an entire trip. So, I’ll carry oatmeal in a single bag for all the meals we think we’ll use it for, and then have the toppings in separate bags for us to mix in as we prefer. Similarly, if we will eat instant rice with all our dinners, or the same types of vegetables with many dinners, I’ll carry those ingredients in bulk.
Sample Three-Day Menu
This is a menu we actually used on two different three-day two-night backpacking trips last summer. I have organized it by evening, so day one is the first day and night, including breakfast. I tend to not budget food for the last day of a trip because I always over-budget on food. That means we just eat whatever is left for the day three lunch.
Sample Food for Day One of a Family Backpacking Trip
Lunch 1: Sausage, Cheese, and Pickles
- Summer sausage
- Sharp cheddar cheese
- Pickles from a bag
Trail Snacks 1
- Peanut butter M&Ms
- Trail mix with peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms
Dinner 1: Lentil Soup and Rice
- Harmony House dried lentils
- Harmony House dried bell peppers
- Harmony House dried onions
- Harmony House dried spinach
- Spice mix we made at home
- Instant brown rice
Dessert 1: Cheesecake
- Oreo cheesecake
- Hoosier Hill Farm butter
- Hoosier Hill Farm dried whole milk.
Breakfast 1: Oatmeal
- Powdered peanut butter
- Hoosier Hill Farm powdered milk
- Brown sugar
- Dried fruit
- Hot chocolate for kids, coffee or tea for adults
Sample Food for Day Two of a Family Backpacking Trip
Lunch 2: Peanut butter and dried fruit
- Peanut butter mixed with oatmeal, powdered honey, milk powder (made at camp in morning)
- Dried fruit
Trail Snacks 2
- Beef jerky
- Parmesan cheese crisps
- Peanut butter M&Ms
Dinner 2: Red Lentils With Rice
- Masoor Dal (made in the slow cooker and dried at home)
- Powdered coconut milk
- Harmony House dried spinach
- Instant brown rice
Dessert 2: Fruity Bread Pudding
- Dried French bread
- Instant pudding
- Dried fruit
Note: rehydrate all ingredients together.
Breakfast 2: Breakfast Burrito Bowls
- OvaEasy egg crystals
- Harmony House black beans
- Harmony House dried bell peppers
- Harmony House dried onions
- Harmony House dried spinach
- Hoosier Hill Farm Big Daddy Mac cheese powder
- Instant rice
- Hot chocolate for kids, tea or instant coffee for adults
Packing Advice for Sample Backpacking Menu For Families
To make packing easier and to reduce trash, I had one bag of vegetables that we used in both dinners and the second breakfast.
This coming summer we will be doing a 25 day thru-hike and I am going to take ghee and olive oil to add to meals to get more calories because the kids don’t have weight to lose.
Gear You Need
You’ll need some gear to feed your family while backpacking.
The Whisperlite is really flexible with what fuel it takes. The Jetboil is extremely efficient. However, neither the Whisperlite or Jetboil simmers particularly well and the Jetboil only heats about 2 cups (half liter) of water at a time.
The PocketRocket isn’t particularly efficient compared to the Jetboil, but at least it heats more water. I bought a windscreen to make it more efficient. This is what we use these days.
Something to Reheat In
We reheat our food in reusable silicon bags. Many people carry and reheat their food in freezer strength zip-top bags, but I find those really hard to clean and can’t stomach throwing away all that plastic when we get home.
If you aren’t going to cook your food and just want to rehydrate it in hot water, it’s helpful to have a cozy to keep it warm.
Sometimes we put the silicon bags inside a pot of hot water to keep them warmer. Another option is to wrap them in an insulating layer (like a hat) or to carry a cozy made of mylar (space blanket material). I am planning to make some mylar cozies for our trip this summer.
We often boil meals for just a minute to make them cook faster, even though it means washing dishes and using a little more fuel. They generally rehydrate better that way.
Food Storage Bags
Food storage bags have been hard for me to figure out. For a long time, I used heavy duty (4 or 6 mm thick) food grade zip-top bags. I always have these on hand for carrying samples while doing my geoscience research, so they were easy to work with. When they are 4 or 6 mm thick (4 mil or 6 mil in bag company speak), they are really durable.
However, I found that powdered ingredients (milk, butter, peanut butter) got stuck in the tops of the bags and that they were hard to wash.
This year I decided to buy thinner (2 mil) bags that are food grade and flat top, but relatively long and skinny (20”x8”, for example). I was unable to find 4 mil flat top food grade bags in reasonable sizes. I loosely tie an overhand knot at the top of the bag and can then double bag to make up for the thinner plastic.
This is a hack I found in the NOLS Cookery book. I’m hoping it means that we will be able to use the bags for longer and wash them more easily.
If you are going to dry much of your own food, you’ll want a dehydrator, as oven temperatures are a little high for dehydrating most food. I have an older Nesco American Harvest dehydrator that is something like this Nesco Garden Harvest dehydrator. Recipes for Adventure has details on the pros and cons of a huge range of dehydrators.
Many people vacuum seal all the food they dry and prepare for backpacking. I am not doing that because I don’t want all the plastic waste. Those bags are not reusable. They also can be hard to efficiently pack because they are so solid. We just throw our dried food (purchased or made) in a chest freezer until it is time to pack for the trip.
Food for Backpacking With Your Family
Although it can be daunting to consider moving from car camping to backpacking, there are tons of options for food, even for picky eaters or those with food intolerances and allergies. For example, my sister is allergic to a preservative in freeze-dried food, so she has to find alternatives for backpacking.
Once you have a sense of whether you would rather spend time or money on preparing food for your next trip, you now have the resources available to feed your family well in the backcountry.
- Camping Lunch Ideas
- How to Store Food in Bear Country
- Winter Camping Food
- Best Kid-Friendly Snacks for Your Adventures
Backpacking Food Ideas for Families
© 2023, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.