Easy, nutritious, & compact foods perfect for the campsite or outdoor adventure
Probably the most difficult aspect of wilderness survival is food acquisition. You need it often and in high quantities. Sure, everyone hears about how "you can survive for 3 weeks without food", but that is with minimal calorie expenditures and while enduring physical fatigue and discomfort. It's not a long-term survival strategy. Besides, bushcrafting is all about making your time in the great outdoors work to your advantage, not struggling to live.
Ancient Man (hunter/gatherers) spent almost all of their days searching for food, and they were experts at it, having been raised in that environment and being well-adapted to it. So imagine yourself, relatively dependent on modern conveniences, successfully living long-term in the woods obtaining three square meals every day. It ain't gonna happen. Sure, you can hunt, trap, fish, forage, and scavenge and if you're good at it and well-experienced, gather a bounty of food (with a lot of work), but it is virtually impossible to meet all of the human nutritional requirements long-term, even for an expert, in an outdoor survival scenario. After all, hunting/fishing/trapping/foraging takes a lot of time and isn't always successful.
That is not to say that it is impossible to "live off the land" 100% self-sustaining, but you would need to incorporate agriculture in order to sustain that. Otherwise, you will be going hungry a lot. The ancient "cave man" spent so much of his time searching for food that he had almost no time or energy for anything else. It was only when agriculture was developed that man truly started to live comfortably and was able to devote his energies to other curiosities. Most backpackers and outdoor adventurers aren't even interested in searching for food in the wild. So, even if you want to try your hand at surviving in the wild living off the land, it is a good idea to take some modern chow with you, if only for backup.
When it comes to food-choice for "camping", there are three main factors to consider: Nutrition, Weight, and Size. A bag of potato chips isn't going to cut it when hiking miles into the backcountry. You need a travel-ready supply of foods that balance protein, fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins/minerals. The list below attempts to cover the complete nutritional requirements while also being lightweight, space-efficient, and easy to prepare, and possibly even delicious. Of course, you yourself should understand your nutritional needs and know what foods work best for you, and never follow someone else's advice blindly.
(Click on each image for more information)
Long Grain Brown Rice
Rice... the long-time staple of campers and other people everywhere. Easy to cook, stores well, goes with almost anything, and even tastes good with a lot of salt on it! Also one of the most compact foods available. Probably the most nutritious rice is long grain brown rice. A must-have edible for any camper.
Simply cook rice with boiling water in a 100% metal container seated on a campfire for about 30-45 minutes. Load with salt and your favorite spices! Of course, rice goes great as a side dish to meat and vegetables.
Highly nutritious, beans are some of the healthiest food on the planet. Loaded with good protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins/minerals, a good batch of mixed beans is hard to beat as far as hearty, well-rounded meals go. Dry beans last a long time and store conveniently, making them great for the backcountry campsite.
Beans take awhile to cook from dry, at least 1-2 hours or more. Best saved for a lazy day around the camp. Beans can be cooked and stored for a few days in a sealed container, carried around for a quick cold snack on the trail or reheated at another campsite, called "refried beans".
Loaded with good fats like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3's, nuts are probably the best on-the-go, energy packed snack. Nuts also contain trace carbohydrates and proteins, plus many vitamins/minerals. Nuts naturally avoid spoilage, due to high fat content and lack of water. Nuts are easy to store, easy to eat, and don't have to be cooked. Great for snacking while on the move. Good mixed nuts are some of the best food for backcountry living.
Fat, or oil, is a very energy-dense substance, more-so than carbohydrates or protein. One tablespoon of olive oil contains 3X as many calories as one tablespoon of sugar. So, good solid fats provide better, longer physical energy and support than simple sugars providing a short-lived "sugar high".
Eating a batch of mixed nuts gives a wider spectrum of nutrients than eating only one type of nut. Peanuts are probably the cheapest nut, but they are also one of the lowest quality nuts. Almonds are among the best nuts. Mixed nuts are a must-have snack for any outdoor person.
The Breakfast of Champions! Hearty and filling, whole grain rolled oats have a good balance of fat, carbohydrates and protein. Plus, oats are delicious with added salt, sugar, pepper, cinnamon, maple syrup, honey, fruit, and more! i.e. "oatmeal"
Whole grain rolled oats are one of the best sources of complex carbohydrates, giving you the energy to push hard throughout the day. Rolled oats are great for the hiking trail because, like many other camping foods, they are completely dehydrated, store compactly, and have a long shelf-life. Plus they are versatile and highly nutritious! A must-have breakfast staple for any outdoorsman.
Oatmeal is super easy to cook, simply add a cup of rolled oats to twice as much boiling water and heat for about 10 minutes. Add your favorite ingredients!
Fish is some of the best, healthiest meat on the planet, and canned tuna is the go-to protein source for many people on the move. It's hard to keep meat edible long-term, it can easily spoil if not well-preserved by smoking, salting, sealing in a container, etc. Canned tuna however, can last several years on the shelf, making it a key component for any long-term food storage. While other camping foods such as dry beans, rice, and nuts can naturally last for months or years, raw meat can spoil in hours and cooked meat can spoil in days, so using the modern technology of canning is a great way to keep food fresh for a long time.
Of course, if you have canned tuna you're going to need a can opener. Imagine the frustration when you're starving in the woods and you go for that delicious can of tuna only to discover you cannot open it! A good multitool will usually have a can opener. There are some tuna cans that have easy pull-off lids, they are good but for long-term storage normal cans will hold up better because there is no breach in the metal. Tuna "pouches" are also available and they are a good option, especially for the short-term backpacker, as they are compact and easy to open.
Aside from convenience, tuna is also highly nutritious and delicious. It is perhaps the best source of lean meat for a hiker/camper/backpacker. Tuna also contains some good fats like omega-3's, and considerable vitamins/minerals. It can be eaten straight from the can or sautéed over a campfire with vegetables, or mixed with rice or a stew, etc. Canned/Pouched Tuna is a must-have item for any meat eating camper.
A healthy dose of natural sugar and vitamins/minerals in the form of fruit. Delicious! Perfect for on-the-move snacking, fruits are filled with carbohydrates that give you the energy needed to keep moving. An essential part of the diet, fruits contain a lot of simple sugars, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamins/minerals. You will have to get your protein and fat elsewhere. They can also be sugary and quite hard on the teeth so be prepared in the wilderness with a toothbrush!
Freeze-dried fruits are the most travel efficient since they contain 0% water and are very lightweight and shrunken. They can be mixed with water before eating for a nice fruity juice soup, or mixed with other dishes like oats. Eating freeze-dried fruit dry is quite sweet and sticks to the teeth. Other options like raisins(grapes), prunes(plums), apricots, figs, banana chips, etc. are also good.
A popular practice is to mix dry fruits with nuts, seeds, chocolate, etc. called "trail mix". Be careful though, some trail mixes contain a lot of empty calories like pretzels and cheesy-puffs. Quality trail mix however is a great option to blend some fat and protein with your fruit. In the end, dried fruits are an essential part of any hikers food stash.
Meal Replacement Powder
Not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of outdoor foods, but this powdered "meal replacement" is highly nutritious, convenient, and even delicious. It is made up of about 50 organic fruits, vegetables, and grains and also contains probiotics and enzymes. Simply mix a scoop with a cup of drinking water and you're good to go.
Though not especially high in calories or fat, good meal replacement powder is some of the most vitamin and mineral rich food available, and is even a good source of plant-based protein with all essential amino acids. And it's about as convenient as it gets for camping food. Simply add one or two scoops into a good ziplock bag for each day you plan to go camping and throw it in your backpack!
What can you say about beef jerky? It's delicious and loaded with protein. One of the easiest sources of meat for a camper in the woods, it's good for a few days up to several weeks. Many modern packages of jerky will contain preservatives of multiple kinds, which will probably help the meat keep longer, but my preference is to go all natural whenever possible and so I have sourced an all natural brand of beef jerky.
You can make your own jerky by slowly smoking thin cuts of fresh meat over a fire instead of cooking it. Dehydration and a layer of smoke that forms around the meat will help protect it from bugs, bacteria, etc. and the jerky will last much longer than normally cooked meat. Keeping stored jerky in an airtight container like a good ziplock bag with all the air squeezed out will help it last a lot longer, as will cooler temperatures. Oxygen absorbing packets will help in a sealed container, and coating the meat heavily with salt can also help preserve it long-term.
Loaded with solid meat protein and some fat, beef jerky is great for snacking on any time of the day. It's one of the few convenient sources of meat for your average backpacker. Best in moderation and coupled with other foods like fruits and vegetables. A great choice especially for people who need convenience.
Packed with everything a hiker needs, clif bars are loaded with a healthy serving of nutrients from across the board, including good fats, simple and complex carbohydrates, sodium, potassium, proteins, and many vitamins and minerals. Basically a really healthy candy bar, clif bars are the perfect food to tear into while on the move.
A long time favorite of outdoor enthusiasts, clif bars come in many flavors from chocolate to peanut butter, nuts and fruits. Clif bars are all natural, largely organic, and often vegan. They're sweet and delicious, like dessert. One of the few foods you can easily eat while trekking, making clif bars a must-have snack for any serious hiker.
Commonly used as a rice substitute, quinoa is a whole grain that is extremely versatile. It can be added to many kinds of foods such as stews, cereals, slaws, and in place of rice or pasta. Considered to be a "super food", quinoa is an excellent source of protein, one of the best in the vegetable kingdom.
Like rice and oats, quinoa is a good fundamental food source for any camper, and in fact any person. Easy to prepare, simply add quinoa to twice as much hot water and cook in a pot for about 15 minutes. Add spices like salt and garlic. Best served as a side dish.
Vegetables are probably the best source of minerals on the planet. Though generally low in fat and calories, vegetables are a necessary source of nutrients that are hard to find in other foods like meat, fruit, grains, etc. A mixture of many different types of vegetables is best for a variety of nutrients.
Vegetables are generally not fit for backpacking and travelling in the bush unless they are completely dehydrated and stored well. Adding moisture-absorbing packets to a ziplock bag is a good idea. When cooking, a good batch of dehydrated vegetables can be added to almost any dish, in soups, rice, or cooked in a pan with oil and water.
Often overlooked, vegetables are truly an essential factor of a complete diet, even for backcountry campers.
Getting enough protein can be difficult in the wilderness, so a good batch of pure "protein powder" is the ticket for when you need that extra boost. Vegetable protein is healthier than dairy/whey, and even contains some vitamins and minerals.
Easily stored in a ziplock bag, a scoop of protein powder can be added to several dishes like oatmeal, a smoothie, or just mixed in plain water or milk. A targeted source of nutrition, quality protein powder is a decent addition to a camping supply of foods.
Basically pasta, couscous is an excellent source of wheat, and therefore carbohydrates and protein. Couscous is small beads of pasta so it compacts very well for backpacking, unlike macaroni noodles for example.
Easy to prepare, simply add a cup of couscous to the same amount of boiling water and let sit for about 5 minutes. Add your favorite ingredients like salt, veggies, meat, etc. Couscous is a good addition to any basic food storage, especially for pasta lovers.
One of the tastiest foods around, good wild caught salmon is possibly the healthiest meat on the planet. Loaded with lean protein and good fats, it is hard to top a good cut of salmon for quality meat and delicious flavor. Canned salmon makes this excellent meat convenient and long-lasting.
Salmon does not seem to take to canning as well as tuna does, but there is still some quality canned salmon to be found. Wild caught salmon is much healthier than farm-raised. Salmon goes great with many sides, like rice, pasta, veggies, etc. and cooking it up in a pan over a campfire is amazing!
Delicious and perfect for the hiking trail, granola has been a long time favorite of backpackers everywhere. Great for snacking on throughout the day, granola provides a load of simple and complex carbohydrates, giving you the energy needed for exerting physical effort. Plus, granola contains some trace proteins, fats, and vitamins/minerals.
Granola is not really a single ingredient but a mixture of ingredients; that being rolled oats, sweetening like honey or brown sugar, and often fruits and/or nuts. Several granola flavors are common like honey, almond, raisin, apple, blueberry, coconut, cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, etc. Granola can be cooked or often eaten raw.
A good and probably only source of dairy you will get whilst in the wilderness, powdered whole milk is loaded with fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Dehydrating milk is a great way for a backpacker or anyone to transport and store dairy in a form that is lightweight, compact, and long-lasting.
Powdered milk is a great addition to oats or granola for breakfast. Mixed with drinking water, you have yourself a "fresh" glass of delicious whole milk... maybe. Powdered whole milk is a good addition to any long-term food storage. It needs to be kept absolutely dry when stored or it can spoil, so strong containers with good seals are key.
A good source of a wide array of vitamins and minerals, good "multi-vitamins" are a smart addition to any food supply. Acquiring all of the essential nutrients can be difficult when living on just a few different types of food, so rounding out the diet with a quality vitamin/mineral supplement can go a long way in providing that extra edge of whole-body health needed for wilderness survival.
Not all multivitamins are made equal. Natural ingredients are probably better than lab-synthesized vitamins and minerals (in my opinion). Do some research into what multivitamins are best for yourself.
While probably optional, a good pack of multivitamins is a worthwhile consideration for anyone on an incomplete diet, like a camper. And for people who push hard physically, like mountaineers, a multivitamin might even be considered essential.
Salt is more than just a spice! Salt is an essential mineral and you can actually die if you do not intake enough salt. Wild animals travel long distances just to lick at a salt deposit. Without enough salt you will begin to crave it after a few days.
Most of the simple ingredients and meals you prepare in the bush will not contain much if any salt/sodium. You must include it additionally! Plus it makes everything taste many times more delicious.
Sea salt from a good source like the Mediterranean sea or the Himalayas is the healthiest and tastiest, and even has some other trace minerals as well. Iodized salt was developed decades ago for people on a poor diet who didn't get enough iodine. If you think this is a problem for you then use iodized salt, but most people on a complete diet will get plenty of iodine from food sources.
Salt, don't take it for granted! Include a significant portion of salt with your other camping foods.
An energy packed supplement, granulated sugar is pure carbohydrates in the form of "simple sugars", which are the quick-burning calories that give you a "sugar rush". While not good to consume by itself, sugar can be added to many meals like oatmeal, stews, beverages, etc. to add some delicious sweetness and also an extra dose of calories needed for physical exertion.
And let's not forget about morale. Morale, or attitude, is an important aspect of living and survival, and small things like the food tasting good or bad can have a big impact on one's morale, especially children, who have simple tastes. So, sugar is a good item for picking up someone's spirits believe it or not.
Unrefined sugar is better than refined, and can even contain trace minerals. A targeted source of carbohydrates, good granulated unrefined sugar is a great addition to any food supply for that extra kick of flavor and calories.
A targeted source of fat, coconut oil (and other fats/oils) is a great way to precisely add some extra fat to your diet if it is lacking. Also good for cooking with and adding some extra flavor, good fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and duck fat are a smart addition to any camping food supply. While very messy, the benefits of having good oils/fats on hand far outweighs the detriments.
Super dense in calories, a mere tablespoon of coconut oil contains 130 calories, making it very compact for travelling. Generally messy and liquidy, a strong bottle or jar is usually called for to store the oil or fat. Don't put it at the bottom of your pack with a lot of weight on top, it could burst. Some fats or oils will solidify at colder temperatures, making them easier to handle. Coconut oil is a great choice for this reason, as it solidifies below 76F / 24C, and in colder temperatures can simply be stored as a chunk in a ziplock bag.
Fat is what the body needs for tough physical endurance, so adding a dab of oil to dishes like oatmeal, veggies, rice, etc. is a great way for a camper to get that extra edge of calories and nutrition. It can also be used anywhere butter would. Coconut oil is probably the healthiest oil, as it is loaded with good, healthy fats like medium chain fatty acids and omega-3's, and is considered to be a "super food".
Fats and oils can even be used in an emergency for waxy coatings, as waterproofing, rust-proofing, or on the skin for insulation like Vaseline. Oils/fats will also burn slow and long and can be added to wicks to burn like a candle or kudlik. Indeed, coconut oil is an unobvious but excellent choice for a backpacker.
Dense in flavor but void of calories, herb spices give a delicious taste to your otherwise bland camping dishes. Seriously affecting the flavor like night and day, a small spice kit can be a backcountry eater's best friend. Aside from salt, herb spices is where you rely to give your food some seasoning.
Herb spices are super compact and lightweight, and good for morale. They're an important addition to any food kit. Not everyone will like the same spices though. Some spices to consider are powdered versions of garlic, pepper, ginger, paprika, monosodium-glutamate(MSG), onion, soy sauce, cayenne, cumin, etc.
Water and Oxygen Absorbing Packets
Good for preserving food and other items, water and oxygen absorbing packets are an important component of effective long-term storage. Both water and oxygen in the air can erode metal, degrade items, and spoil food! Prevent this with good sealed containers plus moisture and oxygen absorbent packets.
While not really necessary for the weekend excursion, if your trip is to last several weeks or more you should seriously consider throwing some food-preserving packets in with your food store. Otherwise, you may be regretting it when you see some moisture has caused mold to grow on your rolled oats.
Water absorbers, often called "desiccant", is good for anything that needs to stay 100% dry, like freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, rice, beans, etc. It is especially needed where fats or oils are low, which act as natural preservatives. Nuts for example are high in fat, and need no real preservation. Rice however, will quickly spoil when exposed to water. Water absorbing packets are especially useful in moist environments like jungles, where food can spoil faster.
Oxygen absorbing packets are needed for things that aren't completely void of water, but still need to be preserved, mostly meat and commonly used with beef jerky. Oxygen, like water, is required for biological processes, so by removing the oxygen we are sort-of freezing the food in time.
Remember, these water and oxygen absorbing packets must be used in containers that are 100% sealed! If there is a leak in the container then the packets will quickly be used up and wasted. It is also good to squeeze out all of the air before sealing a container, as the air holds a lot of moisture and oxygen. Also, don't leave containers just sitting open, close them as fast as possible for best preservation.
Ramen noodles, a popular camping dish, but seriously lacking in quality ingredients, nutrition, and travel-efficiency. If you like ramen noodles, just make couscous pasta and add your favorite spices like salt, pepper, garlic, onion, paprika, ginger, sugar, chili powder, soy sauce powder, etc.
Peanut butter, a popular treat of many backpackers, it basically just contains peanuts, oil, sugar, and salt. A variety of better quality nuts like almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, etc. is a much better option and less mess.
Bread, while a good whole grain bread is a great addition to any diet, it is just too moist, aerated, and spoilable for efficient backpacking. Bread is mostly just wheat and other grains, which can be acquired through more camping-friendly foods such as couscous, oatmeal, granola and multiple grains mixes like muesli.
Crackers, while tasty when stacking with canned tuna, most crackers are very aerated and lacking in nutrients.
Jelly, messy, sticky, large water content adds a lot of weight. Pain in the ass, though delicious. Can spoil easily due to water content.
Smores, sorry, but marshmallows are the antithesis of efficient backcountry traveling. Though a good chocolate bar is an idea...
What do you like to eat while camping? Tell us in the comments below!
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You asked what I take. It depends. If backpacking or camping I will dehydrate low fat meals in advance. Spaghetti with marina sauce. Spaghetti and meat sauce made with very lean ground meat with the meat rinsed after browning. Chili and beans with meat the same way. Just dehydrate using a fruit tray until fully dehydrated. Keep frozen until ready to leave and lasts for months on the trail. I also take a homemade baking mix that allows cooking bannock or biscuits or pancakes. combo of whole wheat and all purpose flours with a little salt, baking powder, powdered milk and powdered shortening. Just add water. Gravy mix which is magic mix from Utah extension service recipe. I mean you need gravy for the biscuits. I also dehydrate cooked beans such as pinto or black beans before going. Just add water and rehydrate on the fire. Takes about 1/4 the time of dried beans. The easiest is just rinsing canned beans and dehydrating. Will need chili powder for flavor. I also take corn bread mix to make cornbread in pie tin oven or Johnny cakes in the skillet. Need something for the chili. All my mixes are homemade and just add water. Using powder eggs, powdered butter or shortening and powdered milk make it possible to do it yourself. I also have used a lot on you list other then the meal replacement option, just never thought of it.If just through hiking I usually just take the dehydrated meals packed in individual servings and oatmeal packets with a lot of trail mix. Usually don't want to sit around cooking. Great list of options in your article and some I will try. Ready for spring in the north22nd February 2017 5:53pm
I am surprised there is no mention of pearl barley. It's better than rice in some siruations as you can use it to thicken up a broth and add good quality carbs.12th June 2016 5:30am
Pearl Barley - excellent suggestion! It is very similar to rice, oats, pasta, etc. in that it is high in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and protein and works well as a side dish or "filler". Most pearl barley takes at least 1 hour to cook which may not be convenient. Thanks for that suggestion, I may add it to the list at some point.20th February 2017 4:11pm
beans - if you're camping what are your thoughts on pre-soaking dry beans? soak in AM, drain and cook with fresh water in evening.19th October 2015 2:55pm
same thing for steel cut oats instead of rolled.
obviously not as easy if moving from camp to camp. you would probably want your container for drinking water instead of carrying around soaking food items.
Good call, pre-soaked beans will cook faster. In fact, at the house I like to soak dry beans in the refrigerator for about 3 days prior to cooking. This begins the germination process which supposedly unlocks nutrients and makes the beans even healthier!20th February 2017 3:54pm
Curiosity....why is MSG included in the spices? MSG is an extremely toxic substance that would never have been allowed onto the market as it stands if not for a highly corrupted FDA. naturally occurring MSG in foods is fine as it is not concentrated but as a "spice" should not be consumed...again it is toxic.19th May 2015 11:42pm
Indeed, there is a lot of talk about the toxicity of MSG, especially as an excitotoxin. However, most scientific studies have failed to show a clear link between MSG and its supposed toxic affects. After all, it occurs naturally in safe foods, so the factor of toxicity may be a question of quantity (as you mentioned). Garlic, for example, is also toxic in excessive amounts, but that does not merit "banning" or complete avoidance. Garlic can actually be beneficial in small amounts.It's a question of balance, and therefore your suggestion of not using MSG as a spice or additive is spot-on, because it is the excess that appears to be the problem. However, in very small doses (even when added), it appears to be safe. But of course, use at your own risk. It may be "better safe than sorry" to just avoid it completely, especially if you're allergic to it. Personally, I can eat a whole bucket of Chinese food and not develop any of the MSG "symptoms". Some people are more sensitive and should avoid it, especially as an additive. I would definitely avoid synthesized MSG, which is pretty rare anyways.One consideration; Asians use a lot of MSG and Asians have some of the healthiest, longest lives, according to record. Take that for whatever it's worth.BTW, if you experience MSG toxicity, mix some cream of tartar with water and drink ;DThanks for leaving a comment and mentioning that!20th May 2015 5:59pm
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