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Ultralight Backpacking Meals

author image Marie Dannie
Marie Dannie has been a professional journalist since 1991, specializing in nutrition and health topics. She has written for "Woman’s Own," the "Daily Mail," the "Daily Mirror" and the "Telegraph." She is a registered nutritionist and holds a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in food science from the University of Nottingham.
Ultralight Backpacking Meals
A family is backpacking outside. Photo Credit Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images/Getty Images

Backpacking, whether for one day, one week or one month, is a vigorous exercise, even if you go at a relatively slow pace. Bringing enough food for your journey is essential, and the key factors are size, weight and nutrition. In general, the lighter the overall weight and the less bulky the food, the better it is for backpacking, since space is limited and heavy foods, such as canned goods, will weigh you down over the long term. Choose from a variety of healthy, nonperishable foods for minimum weight and maximum nutrition.

Dried Foods

Dried foods, such as beef jerky, powdered milk, dried fruit and dehydrated vegetables, are ideal for backpacking trips because they are lightweight, highly nutritious and take up little space. Take quick-cooking dried foods, such as instant grains, avoiding dried legumes as they can take a long time to prepare. Bring a small baggie of dried spices for flavor. Adding just a pinch of oregano, cayenne or garlic powder to your meal can make it tastier and more satisfying, according to T.D. Wood, writing for REI. A quick meal from dried foods can be beef jerky stew. Simply boil together pieces of beef jerky, dried carrots, onions and celery and some spices -- such as garlic powder, cayenne and oregano -- to create a tasty and nutritious meal that can be quickly prepared and eaten. Serve it with crackers or with quick-cooking carbohydrates, such as couscous.

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Freeze-Dried Foods

Freeze-dried foods are similar to dehydrated foods, and they often come in the form of complete meals. The benefit of this is that you can just add water and heat, and the food is ready to consume, with no extra fuss or preparation needed. Freeze-dried foods, such as fruits, can also make for a ready snack as the crunchy texture is rather appealing to some. Like dried foods, freeze-dried foods are very lightweight, although because they don’t shrink as much during the drying process, they are slightly bulkier in size. Freeze-dried foods can be prepared much like dried foods -- you can boil them if you want to -- but they can also be eaten as is, as their texture is less tough than dehydrated foods. Make a dessertlike breakfast by mixing together some nuts, a mix of freeze-dried fruits and some freeze-dried ice cream.

Vacuum-Sealed Foods

Vacuum-sealed foods include common canned or bottled products, such as tuna fish, cooked chicken and condiments such as mayo or mustard. Choosing these over the more common metal canisters means you can add in some variety to your meals without having to worry about the bulk of the cans. Use tuna fish mixed with mayo over crackers for a quick snack or entree, or add in some cooked chicken to a pot of rice with dried red peppers, celery and garlic for a quick chicken-rice stew.

Packing Tips

One of the biggest dangers of high-weight meals while backpacking is simply bringing too much. Calculate how much food you need based on your caloric needs and the length of your trip. Pack a little extra for emergencies, but don’t overdo it. According to the book "National Outdoor Leadership School Cookery" by Claudia Pearson, you need between 2,500 and 4,500 calories per day while backpacking, depending on the length of your trip, the difficulty of the hike and your personal calorie needs. While you might be tempted to severely limit the amount of food you bring on your trip, this isn’t a good idea as not having enough fuel for your hike can make an otherwise pleasant experience terrible. In addition to planning for meals, include snacks to munch on throughout the day, to keep your energy levels up, such as jerky, granola, nuts and trail mix.

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