This is part of my series on Beginner Backpacking. The other parts are available here:
There are just about as many different styles of food systems utilized by backpackers as there are backpackers. Almost everyone does it their own way. Here I'm going to give you two options that I recommend for beginning backpackers. Then I'll tell you how I do it, and finally I'll briefly talk about other food systems utilized by backpackers.
Before you even begin to think about food plans, you need to think about water. Hopefully you took my advice from the Trip Planning article and you're planning to stay along a stream or other handy water source. Do not drink any untreated water directly from a stream, spring or pothole no matter how clean it looks. There are all sorts of nasty diseases you can get by drinking untreated water. Just don't do it. Carry a good backpacker's water filter, water treatment tablets or boil any water you consume. And try to get the water you do use from a good, clean source even if you are treating it. I use a Katadyn Hiker PRO Water Microfilter on all my backpacking trips. If you're on a long trip, take an extra filter cartridge just in case. Read the instructions and make sure you know how to properly use it to avoid contamination.
When you first begin backpacking, I recommend keeping your food system simple. The simplest and least expensive way to begin is to not cook your food at all. Take items that you can just open up and eat. This is how I still travel on some backpacking trips when I don't really feel like messing with stoves and pots and such. It's really easy to find food for a trip like this, and if you've listened to my previous advice about not hiking too far on your first trip, you won't have heavy calorie needs. You just need enough to get you through a couple nights out with a bit extra in the case of an emergency. You can find all the items for a menu like this at your local supermarket, maybe even a gas station. I recommend making a plan for each meal. So your no-cooking backpack menu for a two night trip might look like this:
Friday lunch: Can of Beanie Weenies with 10 saltine crackers.
Friday dinner: Foil bag of Asian flavor tuna on a flour tortilla.
Saturday breakfast: Granola bar and dried cranberries.
Saturday lunch: Can sardines and 10 saltine crackers.
Saturday dinner: Can Beanie Weenies with saltine crackers.
Sunday breakfast: Granola bar, dried cranberries and mixed nuts.
Snacks: Quart freezer bag of sweet and salty trail mix.
Extra meal: Foil bag of smoked salmon and saltine crackers.
Now some people might call me crazy for recommending canned food for backpacking, but for such a short trip, you'll probably break even with someone carrying a stove and cooking gear. Now you might find that this isn't enough food for you once you get out there, but it's enough so that you won't starve. Just as likely you'll find that you've brought too much. If you go backpacking enough, you'll eventually work out how much you need for each meal. Just make sure you have a plan for each meal, and make sure to take a little extra.
For me the one shortfall of the no-cook backpacking menu is that I need coffee. So I usually end up taking a teapot and a stove just to heat up water for coffee. If that's the case with you or if you just want something warm to eat, I suggest you take a few of the commonly available freeze-dried meals as the base of your food system. Don't overlook how much a warm meal can lift your spirits after a tough day of hiking and backpacking. A warm meal or warm cup of coffee can really make you feel human again if you've had a tough time of it. Two good brands of freeze-dried meals that are widely available are Mountain House and Backpacker's Pantry. Mary Jane's Farm also comes highly recommended from several sources. All you do to prepare these meals is rip the top off the pack, remove the desiccant pouch, pour in boiling water, stir, seal it up and wait till it's done. Most of the meals I've tried have been excellent. Some of my favorites are pasta primavera, chicken and rice, and beef stroganoff. They also make some good breakfast meals with eggs and bacon. These freeze-dried meals are relatively expensive, but for a first backpacking trip, they're just the thing. Here's what your two night menu plan might look like:
Friday lunch: Granola bar, dried apples, handful of mixed nuts.
Friday dinner: Pasta Primavera freeze-dried meal.
Saturday breakfast: Coffee, eggs and bacon freeze-dried meal.
Saturday lunch: Beef jerkey, trail mix.
Saturday dinner: Chicken and Rice freeze-dried meal.
Sunday breakfast: Coffee, granola bar, mixed nuts.
Snacks: Quart freezer bag of sweet and salty trail mix.
Extra meal: Beef Stroganoff freeze-dried meal.
You'll need a stove and a pot to heat the water for your coffee and meals. Technically you could use a campfire to heat the water, but a stove is much cleaner and easier. I highly recommend the GSR teapot for heating your water. I've used the same one for years. It's titanium so it's very light, and my stove fits right down inside it. You can find them for sale at several retail stores or online at several of the outdoor retailers. There are tons of stoves to choose from. For your first trip, I recommend something relatively inexpensive. I use a Trangia alcohol stove and carry denatured alcohol in old contact lens solution containers for my fuel. A single 8 oz bottle will get a single backpacker through at least three nights of typical use. Denatured alcohol is inexpensive, easy to find and easy to use. Another good option is something like the MSR Whisperlite that uses the canister fuels. Just make sure you read the instructions and know how to use whatever you buy before you hit the backcountry.
Those are the two methods I recommend you choose from for your first backpacking trip. They're simple and you haven't really wasted much time worrying over food in case you decide this backpacking thing isn't for you. Having said that, my food system has evolved over the years. I rarely purchase freeze-dried meals any more unless I'm trying to feed a large group. I have whole-heartedly adopted the Freezer Bag Cooking method. Basically you cook all your meals inside quart freezer bags using ingredients you can usually find in your local supermarket, and most of them are inexpensive. You can buy many in bulk to save even more money. There's no need to clean dishes at all with this method. Just seal the freezer bag back up when you're done, lick your spoon clean and toss the empty bag in with your trash. That's a huge benefit for me as I hate washing dishes in the backcountry. I've found the long-handled GSR titanium spoon to be very handy for eating out of the freezer bags. The long handle allows you to easily reach the corners of the bag without getting food all over yourself. I made myself a cozy from Reflectix insulation for keeping the food warm while it cooks inside the freezer bags. You could just as easily wrap the bag inside a coat to keep it warm, although I wouldn't do this in bear country as it might impart the food's scent to your clothing. The meals that you can prepare using this freezer bag method are almost endless and they taste even better to me than the freeze-dried meals.
Methods and ideas utilized by other backpackers are varied and interesting. Some live off the land, catching fish and eating edible plants. DO NOT do this for your first trip. It's just too risky. If you do happen to catch a few trout, they are lovely cooked on a green stick (make sure not to use something poisonous for your stick!) over a campfire or baked with spices in aluminum foil (I always carry a few folds of aluminum foil and a few spices in a sandwich bag for just such an occasion). Other backpackers will pack in fresh meat and produce for the first few days of a trip. You could try this if it appeals to you. Take along a vacuum-sealed steak that has been frozen. Pack it deep inside your backpack. By the time you're ready for dinner, it should be thawed and ready for cooking over the fire (actually you should cook it over the hot coals instead of open fire). There are folding backpacker's grills available that you could pack along for the occasion. Potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil are easy to toss in the coals of your fire for baking. Some types of cheese will last a couple of days outdoors. Feel free to take a flask of your favorite spirit or even a bottle of wine if you feel like hauling the weight, but make sure you don't overindulge. The backcountry is no place to find yourself inebriated.
If you begin backpacking often, you'll no doubt enjoy experimenting with your food system. For your first trip, keep things simple. In fact, I'd suggest not cooking at all unless you need coffee or tea. However, if you suspect you might be in low spirits at some point during your trip, a warm meal can make a world of difference. The main thing is to have a plan so that at the least your nutrition needs are met.