There are entire books written on cooking while backpacking, hundreds of prepackaged dehydrated meals available at most outdoor stores and even more online, lightweight stoves and backpacking ovens for baking, and an enormous number of other online resources offering ideas and advice on backpacking foods. This blog post is entirely different from them all and you're either going to hate or love what I have to say. This rice & chicken meal is supposed to feed two people at 400 calories each. That's enough energy to hike for perhaps one hour.
We've been backpacking for 7 summers now and for the first four and a half we tried a lot of food options. We bought a lightweight stove (MSR Simmerlite) and cooked soups, stews, pizzas and other great-sounding hot meals and baked baked biscuits, muffins, cinnamon buns, and cake on our lightweight Backpacker's Pantry Outback Oven. We were often the envy of other campers as the smells of our baking drifted through the campground. It thus might surprise you to know that we don't do any of that anymore, and for trips up to 5 days in length we don't even carry a stove. Instead we carry fresh food that doesn't require cooking. It might sound crazy, but let me explain the events that led us to start doing this.
1. It was windy, raining, and the temperature was near zero degrees.
Not only that, our seldom-used rain gear turned out to be only marginally waterproof. Absolutely freezing we managed to set up the tent, crawled into our sleeping bags to warm up, and most definitely did not feel like sitting out in the sleet for an hour cooking and eating dinner. Instead we ate a lot of our tasty high-calorie snacks in the tent. We got our energy back, warmed up, and had a wonderful evening watching a wolverine forage nearby. While you might be thinking it's terribly unsafe to eat in a tent, what with all the bears waiting to eat you, the scents from the uncooked dry foods we had were certainly less potent than the smells our clothes would normally absorb from being near a hot meal.
This chocolate bar has 600 calories and I'd rather eat it than any rehydrated meal.
2. We realized how gross most of our meals actually were.
Many backpackers brag about how great their food tastes, but in reality it's gross. They'd never eat it at home or feed it to their friends outside the woods because it's just plain awful. We were the same, extolling the virtues of the new dehydrated meal we were eating while pretending to be nice to each other by asking "do you want some of mine?" while in actuality we were searching for a way to avoid eating the stuff. Then we'd fight over who got the most dessert, which was really the only good part of the whole meal.
3. I read the nutrition labels.
For some reason I thought expensive dehydrated meals were full of calories. They're not. When I realized the hot, unusually flavored meal I'd just eaten had fewer calories than the very tasty chocolate bar I was eating for dessert, I asked myself why the heck I didn't just eat two chocolate bars and go to sleep full of energy and happy. And then there is the salt content. Most prepackaged meals are loaded with salt, and while you do need this while hiking the meals often had way too much, meaning we had to get up repeatedly during the night to pee.
4. We got tired of cooking. 8 Breton crackers with this fantastic cheese has 400 calories, the same as the dehydrated meal. Delicious, no-cook, high calorie food.
Cooking dinner is complicated and time consuming while backpacking. First, if you're staying at an official campground you need to wait for a table, and you wouldn't believe how long some people like to take. Then you must set up the stove, cook the meal (requiring perhaps 30 minutes or more), eat it (easier said than done), and then pack up the stove and wash the dishes, the latter task involving a walk down to a stream for water and then freezing your hands, which were probably already cold from sitting around waiting for dinner to cook. The whole process just isn't any fun. Plus those prepackaged meals generate a lot of garbage that you've then got to carry for the rest of your trip.
All this led us to completely reevaluate how we fed ourselves while backpacking. After a bit of experimenting we've reached the point where we don't carry a stove, fuel, pots, most dishes, dish soap, or backpacking oven (which was optional before). It takes us less than 5 minutes to prepare a meal, we can eat it in the tent if the weather is terrible, and the meals taste really good and are more nutritious than anything we had before. In fact, we eat most foods we take backpacking at home too. It's just normal food, so why wouldn't we? On cold mornings we do miss the stove and the hot chocolate it could make, and in the evening our fresh-baked treats are missed, but we've decided it's just not worth carrying the stove, pots, oven, and fuel and the trouble to cook and clean up to be worth it. I'd also bet that one of the main reasons you think you need a hot drink on a cold morning is because you spent so darn much time sitting around cooking that you got cold!
So what do we eat? Breakfast staples include bagels with hard cheeses, jam or peanut butter, dried fruits, various granola mixes with powdered milk, and muffins. Lunches include homemade multigrain buns with hard salami, trail and nut mixes, crackers and cheese, and carrots with peanut butter. Dinners can be any combination of the above or a multigrain baguette or rye bread topped however we like with dried meats or pepperoni. Chocolate bars and Pringles often serve as dessert. For short trips we also include heavier items like fruit cups, fresh apples, and if fires are possible we'll bring hotdogs for the first night too. This all packs very well, generates very minimal waste, and for trips up to four days in length the weight is the same or less than what we used to carry to cook hot meals. The only downside is that the higher calorie content and edibility of the food means we no longer loose weight while backpacking, but that was never a goal anyway!