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DIY Trail Food: Eating Healthier and Homemade for Backpacking, Survival, and Travel

Do you want to eat healthier on the trail without breaking your budget?  Have a hankering for beefing up your Bug Out Bag (BOB) but can't stand the thought of MRE's?  How about having a taste of home when on the road in hotel rooms?  If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, but don't know where to start, then this post is for you!

Freeze Dried Backpacking food
Craig with his dinner
When backpacking with a group, dinner time around the fire is like show and tell for grown ups.

Frequently heard at meals: "What are you having?" usually followed by "do you want to try some?"

Also heard: "Yours looks better than mine?" or  "how much salt is in there, anyway?"

Much more rarely heard: "Yuk, this is nasty!" Because everyone knows that any meal on the trail is:

  1. Flavored by hunger so everything tastes better than at home.
  2. This stuff is expensive and you carried it, so you might as well eat it.
  3. You don't have anything else to eat because you planned out each meal before leaving home, so you either eat it or starve.

After setting up camp and gathering fire wood, everyone sits around the fire and pulls out their food bags.  The requisite blue foil of Mountain House, the tan paper of Mary Jane Farms, the clear plastic of Packit Gourmet.  Except me.  I am one of those who beat to a different drum. Living on the fringes of society. Walking the line of sanity.  What can I say, I am a hammock hanger :)

Save Money, Eat Healthy, Be Happy :)

Ok, maybe I am also a little dramatic. But anyway, one thing I do differently than most other backpackers is to avoid big name prepackaged food.  Read the labels, and the first ingredient is usually a cheap "filler" like rice, potatoes, or pasta, followed by salt.  The majority of the cost is for packaging and a filler ingredient.  This means spending ten bucks for a pretty package with rice and sodium.  Highway robbery, if you ask me!

I love to make my own backpacking / survival meals. Beef stroganoff with cauliflower "rice", spaghetti with zucchini noodles, soups, stews, and casseroles. Whatever Mountain House makes I can make better!   Ok, maybe not always better taste-wise, since they have the advantage of big business on their side. But I have the benefit of knowing what is better for me health-wise and homemade meals are definitely cheaper. I've had a lot of bombs with my trail food "experiments," but I have also had some real winners to add to my food bag and give me more variety.

A Fork In The Trail: Which One Would You Pick?

Current nutritional guidelines suggest that we should obtain half our calories from carbohydrates (grains, fruits, veggies), one-fourth of our calories from high quality protein (chicken, fish, beef), and the remaining fourth from fat (olive oil or other "healthy" fats).  These are called macronutrients because they form the building blocks of what humans need to survive, or the foundation of our diets.   Macronutrients also include fiber and water.

A lot of backpacking meals are loaded with sodium, but deficient with the vitamins and minerals we need such as iron, iodide, anti-oxidants, and folate, just to name a few.  These vitamins and minerals, referred to as micronutrients, are essential for a working body.   And how hard does a body work on the trail with a pack?  Whew!

We will discuss nutrition in more detail with each step, addressing the increased caloric needs of backpackers.  Slow or low-distance hikes may require fewer calories than longer or cold-weather hikes.  Long distance hikers report needing 4000+ calories per day to maintain their performance!

The Five Basic Ingredients to DIY Trail Food

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a 'What the hell?' attitude."  ~Julia Child

There are five basic elements to making your own trail food, as we will explore below.  Play around with the different elements and you can completely change the flavor and texture of your dinner and create your own trail masterpieces.  There are some dishes (like stews and chili) that benefit from cooking at home in one pot,  then can be dehydrated at home and rehydrated altogether on the trail.  However, for most of my meals, I keep individual ingredients on hand and mix and match textures and flavors based on whims.

Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice with Mushrooms
DIY Backpacking Dinner
These meals are designed for the freezer-bag cooking (fbc) method, but can easily be cooked in your pot in minutes.  Regardless of your preferred cooking method, anyone can learn to easily put together a trail meal with a little advance planning.

Step One:  Pick your Base

Step Two: Pick your Meat or Meat Substitute

Step Three: Get Healthy with Veggies

Step Four: Get Saucy

Step Five: Toppings, Sides, and Packaging

Where to Buy Ingredients for DIY Meals

The ingredients can be dehydrated at home or purchased online for those that are dehydrator-challenged.  The site I recommend for freeze-dried or dehydrated food is Emergency Essentials Food Store (this is where I buy my food).  Amazon also has bulk sauce mixes and dried foods.

A dehydrator is an initial outlay of money, but can be a huge money saver in the long run.  Buying a dehydrator doesn't have to break the bank; an entry level Harvestmaster or Nesco runs about $50, or the cost of about seven store-bought meals.  This can easily be recouped by making two weekends worth of meals.  Shameless plug:  if you purchase a dehydrator through this link, I can make a couple of dollars to keep blogging (it won't cost you anything extra, either)!

I will go into more detail in upcoming posts about ideas for each type


"Macronutrients." Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <>.

Dietary Guidelines.  Bibliography:, (2014). Dietary Guidelines. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2014].


Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids.  Institute of Medicine, (2002). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington (DC): National Academies Press.

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