Homemade Backpacking Meals, Just Add Water

Originally Published May 26th, 2015

Photos and Story by Laura Lancaster

You know the aisle I’m talking about. The one between the fuel cannisters and the camp chairs. You tell yourself you don’t need them, that, this time, you’ll walk right on by with your new dry sack and that inflatable pillow you had your eye on, and you won’t give in. But you’ll stop, just to look. We all do.

“Oh, pasta primavera, I haven’t had that one yet!”

After all, you’re only buying it for that first backpacking trip of the season. (It might be good! And it’s only $8!) You deserve a treat after hiking 15 miles to that mountain lake. Go ahead.

But you know how the story ends. In disappointment–too much water was added, the noodles were mushy, the flavor lackluster. And when you finally remembered to check, there was only 600 calories in there anyway, and you had to break into the next day’s trail mix.

You came out here to hike, to lose yourself (or find yourself) in the natural world. Not to be hungry or spend precious time cooking.

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It’s time to take a leap into the unknown and start making your own backpacking meals. By combining a couple of cups of boiling water with ingredients that you can buy at the local grocery store you can create a real meal in the backcountry that has as many calories as you want. 

The Base

Let’s start with your carbohydrates. Choose one that isn’t fussy (this isn’t the time for wild rice), and that packs light. Ideally, your carbohydrate will be over 100 calories per oz, and rehydrate without the need to boil water for more than a minute (saving fuel). Here are a few examples:

  • Couscous: One of my favorite ways to start a backpacking meal. On a hot day, couscous cooks completely by adding cold water, covering, and leaving out in the sun for twenty to thirty minutes.
  • Rice noodles: A great choice when you are looking for texture.
  • Potato flakes: Idahoan potatoes are an important staple for many backcountry meals. I prefer to start with the plain flakes, and add my own flavoring from there.
  • Instant rice: While you can rehydrate instant rice with cold water, like couscous, I find that heating up your water to a simmer will yield better results.
  • Macaroni: Pasta shapes that are small and thin (like those found in macaroni and cheese boxes) will cook completely by adding to boiling water, covering, turning off the heat, and waiting five to ten minutes.

The Flavor

Next, it’s time to consider how to season your base with.

  • Seasoning mixes: Seasoning packets come in a wide range of flavors, including fried rice, chow mein, and chili. A great place to look for these is at an Asian grocery store, where you can also find great backcountry meal additions like powdered coconut milk and the instant chicken and beef broth used for pho–an improvement on the traditional bouillon cubes.
  • Spices: Don’t overlook your spice cabinet. A little dried mustard perks up your couscous. Dried basil can be added to pasta. Some chipotle gives a kick to the instant rice. Start experimenting and see what you like.
  • Curry paste: I usually feel pretty comfortable packing curry pastes straight into my instant rice on week long treks into the backcountry, but you’ll have to gauge your own comfort level.

The Nutrition

Getting nutrition into your meal will be the hardest part. Vegetables are heavy, so think outside of the box and look for products which have had their water weight reduced. I usually aim for 50 calories per oz, which include staples like sun dried tomatoes and dried onions that can be found at almost any grocery store. Trader Joe’s is also a great source of dried vegetables, including dried coconut, dried grean beans, and dried kale. At a recent stop I also found fried onions, which would be an amazing topping to almost any backpacking meal.

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If you’re willing to splurge a bit to create the perfect meal, there are online companies that sell almost any vegetable you’d want in backpacker friendly form, from freeze dried spinach to dehydrated sweet potatoes

The Calories

When choosing a fat for my backcountry meals, you can’t go wrong, calorie-wise. Most fats are upwards of 160 calories per oz, so don’t hold back if you’re looking for a hearty meal. I almost always default to olive oil that I carry with me in a lightweight disposable water bottle. But there are a number of others you can choose from — including peanut oil, avocado oil, safflower oil, and others. Just remember that you’ll want to keep your oils separate until the rest of your food has had a chance to cook. Oil and water don’t mix!

This is another place where a bit of a splurge can make a big difference. Powdered butter can liven up any backcountry dish made with potato flakes while powdered parmesan or cheddar cheese can make a pasta dish worthy of the frontcountry.

The Protein (optional)

You should have been snacking on almonds, beef jerky, and peanut butter all day, so it isn’t really necessary to have protein packed into your end-of-day meal. But if you want to incorporate this into your own backcountry recipe, there are a few options for you. At the grocery store you’ll find both bacon bits, and, if you look carefully, dehydrated refried beans. There are also a wide range of dehydrated beans from Harmony House, and, for the brave, freeze dried ground beef.

There are endless ways to combine the above set of ingredients into dishes that are fast, easy, and delicious. Play around at home and experiment a bit before heading out on an overnight trip with your new creations.

Here’s a dish to get you started:

Spicy Fried Rice with Thai Basil

1 cup instant rice

2 tbsp dehydrated onions

½ cup mixed hot veggies 

Kikkoman Fried Rice mix 

1 pinch Dried Thai basil

2-4 tbsp olive oil

¼ cup dehydrated bell peppers (optional)

¼ cup bacon bits (optional)

¼ crumbled dried mushrooms (optional)

¼ cup freeze dried eggs (optional)

Mix all ingredients except the olive oil thoroughly. If you’ll be leaving for the backcountry in the next day or so, scoop into a gallon size Ziploc freezer bag. If it’ll be a couple of weeks, vacuum seal for maximum freshness.

At dinnertime, boil half a liter of water and add it to your dried ingredients directly in the Ziploc freezer bag. Stir to mix, cover, and wait five to six minutes. Pop the lid, mix in the olive oil, and enjoy!

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Laura Lancaster started backpacking at the age of 12 and hasn’t let up since. Currently a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, she thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and the Wonderland Trail in 2015. Laura has been published in Backpacker, Survivor’s Edge magazine, and American Survival Guide. You can see more of her work at lauralancaster.net.

  • Nice post, thanks for the great tips!

    • MSR_Staff

      Thanks Serge!

  • Brett Lohr

    How do you know how much boiling water to add. Is there a golden ratio of pounds of food to water? Is it just dependent on the rice? What about noodles or potato flakes?

    • MSR_Staff

      From Laura:
      There isn’t a golden ratio for water to pounds of food, but fortunately the answer is still pretty straight-forward. Instant rice and potato flakes both have a ratio of 1 cup to 1 cup water. Couscous is 1 cup to 1.5 cups water. Of course, any dehydrated vegetables or powdered cheeses are going to absorb water too, so you’ll want to add a bit extra if you are including any of those.

      All three of these are very forgiving (especially the Idahoans), so if I’m not sure how much water my meal will need, I’ll add enough hot water to cover the food in the freezer bag, wait until it is absorbed, taste, and add more water as needed. Just put the lid back on your pot so that the water stays warm in case it’s needed.

      For rice noodles and macaroni, I advise adding them directly to the pot of just boiled water, covering, wait for it to “cook,” and then drain off some of the excess water before adding it to your freezer bag. Just keep enough of the hot water with the noodles to rehydrate the rest of your meal.

      Happy eating!

    • Just_me_and_God

      I always go for a bit on the soupy side, you probably need the extra water anyway, and it makes eating every last bit of food that you can and clean-up much easier.
      Sometimes getting that dried out mac and cheese out of your cooking container, difficult and time consuming, wouldn’t you rather it just slide out?

      • John Smith

        Very peculiar focus on non-issues. Not at all recommended.

        • Just_me_and_God

          Why not?
          You give no explanation or proof!

          You don’t need the water anyway?
          You’re not most likely dehydrated?
          You like wasting food that ends up in the local environment?
          You like cleaning out stuck on or burnt on food?

          • John Smith

            An appropriately Quixotic response.

          • Just_me_and_God

            As opposed to your troll like non-answer!

            But thank you, Don Quixote De la Mancha is a hero of mine!

  • Dan

    Unless your plastic bags specifically indicate that they are safe for boiling water, I would suggest pouring the meal out into a pot. There are plenty of nasty chemicals you can pick up from adding boiling water to a plastic bag. Love the ideas though, and can’t wait to make my own backpacker meals!

    • John Smith

      What chemicals? Name them, or don’t say they exist.

      • Just_me_and_God

        All kinds of nasty chemicals leach out into boiling water, from plastic bags not designed for cooking and boiling in.
        Do you know how to use a search engine?
        Try looking it up yourself!

        • John Smith

          It was YOUR proposal. Rather than trying to play petty tyrant, just state the truth, “I have no idea.”

        • babyowl53

          Why would you bother to mention the chemicals and not share? Seems to me, it strictly an unfounded statement when people won’t share. Kind of sad. Sure I can look it up and will.

  • BlaineC

    Dan, a while back I discovered Sous Vide cooking. This is basically boiling the food in a bag so it reaches an exact 160-180 degrees and softly cooks. According to testing they conducted, if it is a food storage bag, like Ziploc, it is safe to boil. It will not leach any chemicals. As long as it is sold as intended for food storage, it should be safe

  • Marcella Branniff

    Hi Laura! My wife and I thru hiked the PCT in 2014 also, and we live in Seattle, too. I wonder if we’ve met? Our trail names are Port and Starboard. Also, great article! As vegans, it’s great to see recipe ideas that aren’t meat based.

  • John Smith

    What about quinoa? It has all the amino acids unlike rice or pasta. It is fast cooking (ten minute boil) so you don’t need an “instant” version. Great stuff suitable for any meal, add anything to it.

    http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=142

    • Doc mauser

      Quinoa is an awesome food, but ten minutes of boiling time on the trail is a waste of fuel for long trips.

      • John Smith

        That’s presumptive of what you see as waste, and what you presume as a trip. Not fact based for everyone in all situations. It certainly beats the fuel use of macaroni suggested in the article.

  • Joel Sparks

    What is the number of people that the above recipe serves?!

  • Tom Herriman

    The nutritional advice here is all wrong.
    It is impossible to eat a calorie.
    A calorie is a unit of measure, like an inch. Can you buy an inch anywhere and put it to use?

    Protein (optional)… you should be snacking on protein all day as you hike?
    Protein is a building block, not an energy source! Yes, you need some protein throughout the day because the body does rebuild as we go, but more protein is needed during down time than during exertion because this is when the rebuild process is peaked.

    Eat carbs as your meal? Carbs are the body’shop only energy source. You should be snacking on carbs and eating them before you set out on a hike. You should not be waiting until you stop to cook!

    • CanuckAmuck

      It is impossible to eat a calorie.
      A calorie is a unit of measure, like an inch. Can you buy an inch anywhere and put it to use?

      Likewise, one cannot “kill a few [minutes/hours]”, because those are just units that measure time. Do units of time have metabolic processes the functioning of which one can disrupt?

      I bet you’re the type of person who, upon hearing a joke about a talking dog, proclaims it makes no sense because dogs can’t talk.

  • MSR_Staff

    Usually 1 -2.

  • BestCampingMeals.com

    Great tips Laura! I really like how you’ve given hikers a calorie density benchmark to aim for. Great to hear about all those products that are available too (sadly not all of them here in New Zealand, but good ideas nonetheless!). Good to see the breakdown by food groups.

    I don’t always go for quick cook items though it’s good to have some meals like that prepared. I find that the fuel efficiency of a reactor stove means I can do risottos and quinoa dishes in the backcountry. I also enjoy using a twig burner for a totally different pace of cooking.

    One other thing I’d stress is the value of preparing the right quantities of your ingredients in Ziploc bags beforehand. You don’t have the equipment to start measuring things when you’re at camp. And that way, you only carry what you need.

  • Astrid CS

    Wooot wooot…. surprised to see Indonesia’s Nasi Goreng from Indofood!!!!
    There are many more here!! *happy*