My Guide to Backcountry Cooking Part 1 – Meal Planning

I’m in the process of prepping our food for our first backcountry adventure of the summer and I thought I’d share how I plan and prep for eating well in the outdoors (later I’ll share some meal ideas and give a walk through of my backcountry kitchen). I’m certainly not an expert, this is just what works for me. We’ve always eaten happy on our trips but you should think about your own likes and needs when you do your planning. We’re generally only out there for 3 to 7 days and I’m sure I’d do things a little differently if I was going for more than that.

1. Decide How Many Meals You Need

The first thing I always decide on isn’t what to bring, but how many meals, snacks and extras to plan for. At a minimum I plan for breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner and dessert for every day that we’re out. The last day of any trip I don’t plan a dinner and dessert – we’ll be eating on the road or at home on that day. If we’re going on an easier trip I’ll add a third snack (something to enjoy while hanging out in camp) to each day.

afternoon snack (600 x 402)

Some days are spent like this and it is nice to have a little extra candy to snack on!

2. Decide What You Want to Eat

After I decide how many meals I need to make, I choose what I’m going to make. I bring different meals depending on what we’re doing and how long we’re going for. If I’m packing for a canoeing trip, I will bring bulkier foods and some fresh food, while backpacking I stick mostly to dehydrated foods. There are lots of backcountry staples but really anything can be cooked if you bring the right gear and have enough time and fuel!

I’ll share some examples and recipes later, but my general rules for picking meals are:

  • alternate carbs (have rice and pasta dishes)
  • choose meals that require more time for short days, and vice versa (no one wants to wait an hour for something to rehydrate after a 25 km day)
  • have a variety of snacks
  • eat fresh food first and lighter meals last
  • if you try a new recipe for dinner, use an old standby for dessert – that way if it doesn’t work out you know you’ll at least enjoy part of the meal
  • eat stuff you like – if you don’t like couscous at home, why make it on the trail?
  • usually meals that require more prep at home need less prep on the trail
  • choose some meal items that require little work on your part, it makes prep at home a lot easier.
  • Have some breakfast items that don’t require turning on a stove. You never know when it will be awful in the morning and all you want to do is get out of there.

coldbreakfast (600 x 450)

This was one of those mornings where cooking was not a fun activity.

I use a spreadsheet to organise my meals. This seems like extra work but it means if we have lots of trips in a year we don’t end up eating the same thing every time and I can look back and see what we ate in previous years to get some ideas.

MealPlanningSheet (600 x 337)

3. Decide How Much

Knowing how much Jonny and I will eat of each meal helps me figure out how much I need to make, and if I can use recipes for multiple days. How much we eat for each of those meals will depend on what we’re doing, how long we’re going for and how hard the trip is expected to be. Generally for canoeing we will have more food (larger meals), and hiking we’ll have less food (smaller meals) since we’ve got to carry it around. A longer trip won’t mean less food over all, but I’ll cut out a few extras or reduce the amount of snacks to keep weight low.

Quantity is really a personal thing and it takes time to work out how much you really need to bring. For us, how much we eat on the trail is similar to what we eat at home. A breakfast at home would be two packages of oatmeal so I also eat two packages on the trail. For us that translates across all meals but I know that doesn’t work for everyone. Our usual amount of food is equivalent to one 20L roll top bag (more or less) split between two bags. I know I’ve packed too much if it doesn’t fit!

foodbags (600 x 402)

Our food bags – I divide the food into different bags to keep it organised and make packing easier.

4. Plan for an Emergency Day

We’ve never had to spend an extra day out on the trail so I have never eaten mine, but it is 2 packages of instant oatmeal (breakfast), 2 cliff bars (lunch), 1 packaged dried soup (dinner), a few hard candies and a chocolate bar. Not very filling, but I certainly wouldn’t die of hunger. This meal will get carried around on all of our trips in a year so it only needs to be planned and prepared once.

5. Start Early and Keep it Organised!

We’ve planned hiking meals in the grocery store when we were in Argentina but when I’m home I like to have time to get everything ready. Usually a couple of weeks before the trip I will make my meal plan and start prep work. This takes the stress away and gives me time to fit dehydrating and baking into my daily meal prep.

Once all the components of a meal are ready I bag them up in labeled ziploc bags with cooking instructions on them (just in case I forget) and then put the whole meal into a larger ziploc. Meals that are entirely dehydrated foods get made first and those requiring fresh food (like cheese or bread) won’t get fully assembled until the night before. The night before we leave I’ll gather up all the bags and divide them up between our large rolltop food bags by meal type and day.

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For a trip the meal planning and prep will stretch over a couple of weeks but can certainly happen faster (as it is right now – I’ve only got this week). I really enjoy it and love trying new menu items when we’re out so I don’t mind. Next post I’ll share some of my favourite backpacking meals and recipes to help with deciding exactly what to eat on the trail (or river) for times when you want to enjoy the meal prep and times when you just want to get it planned and over with.

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