When thinking of hiking lunch ideas for a day hike, don’t overcomplicate things. You probably are not going to want to take along backpacking stoves or build a fire to cook something on a day hike.
So focus on simple food that gives you the nutrition and lots of calories you need during your backpacking trip and will survive a day of hiking.
Below are a few tips to consider regarding what backpacking food to take and how to pack it. But before we get to that, let’s look at what to eat before you go hiking.
Your backpacking food strategy should contain a good mix of the following
Complex carbs are commonly found in whole grains and starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes. However, not all complex carbs or lean proteins travel well. Complex carbohydrates (fresh fruit and vegetables) and whole grains provide healthy and nutritious hiking lunch ideas.
Eat complex carbohydrates to benefit from the slow release of energy which takes place over several hours compared to the quick release of the less healthy simple carbs. Plus, a further benefit of slowly releasing the energy is the ability to feel full for longer.
Avoid packing foods for the trail that are high in sugar content. While sugar-rich food can give an initial boost of energy, this won’t last long and you don’t want the slump…believe me!
Pack fruits or vegetables that will hold up well in a backpack, such as broccoli, carrots, pears, oranges, and apples. A hard-shell lunch box is practical to protect soft produce like plums, grapes, cherry tomatoes, etc. Also, the sandwiches or crackers should be of the whole-grain variety.
Hiking lunch ideas include protein-rich shelf staples like pouches of tuna. I like to use whole-grain crackers with cheese and tuna to create a simple snack rich in fiber and protein.
Plus, other add-ons for crackers include peanut butter (pack the plastic jar variety for obvious reasons)
Basic picnic food can be packed such as roasted chicken or sausages (wrap in foil and place in an insulated box).
Fats contain a lot of calories per gram and release energy slowly over time, which is ideal for activities like hiking. Good sources of fats for backpacking include nuts and cheese for those extra calories.
Try to focus on heart-healthy nuts such as almonds and walnuts. These contain high-quality fats, which can be easily eaten on the move and incorporated into trail mix. Get them raw if possible and avoid things like salted peanuts as you don’t want all that salt.
Hard cheeses are more practical for eating on a hiking trip. My preferred choices include slices of provolone and cheddar.
Meats that are easy to pack for an outside adventure include salami and pepperoni. But, these meats are high in salt, and the fats are processed, so eat these sparingly.
You then need to combine this into a backpacking meal framework so you can get the right nutrition into your body at the right times
What To Eat Before Your Hike (Pre-Loading)
Your body takes a while to process the food you eat. The food is broken down and, the calories that are not needed are stored as fats and glycogens. Fats are a slow-burn energy store, while glycogens are used to power our muscles.
Since protein takes a while for the body to break down, I will eat more protein the day before and then stock up on the carbohydrates the morning of my hike.
This means that if you are planning a big hike, you need to start loading your body the day before and eat a good breakfast.
The day before I will typically eat as normal and then add in an extra protein-rich snack or two, such as a turkey or chicken salad sandwich. You can then double the portions and bag it for your trip during your hike!
So for breakfast options, I will look to get in a good amount of complex carbohydrates. Usually, I eat something like instant oatmeal with apple and banana or make a smoothie to consume before I head out to start my hike.
I will sometimes make myself a morning coffee, but it has been shown that this is more effective to take around mid-morning, so I’ll often just make up a flask and take it along or make it on the trail if I take a camp stove.
What Should You Eat On A Day Hike?
If you’re going on a day hike, the most important thing is to get the calories in, as you will need lots of calories to get yourself up and down those hills.
However, just eating anything is not the best approach. It’s important to take the right food for backpacking. Bring foods that are high in complex carbohydrates and lean protein.
Your hiking snacks can make the difference between feeling sluggish and groggy or feeling energized and ready to tackle the next hill.
The most important thing is to ensure that the meal before your hike is packed with nutritious content focusing on whole grains and lean protein.
How Many Calories Per Day Will do I Burn Hiking?
This is not an exact science, but the number of calories you will burn depends on your size and how much gear you are carrying, and the length and difficulty of the hike.
For a smaller person on an easy hike, you may only need around 200 calories per hour, which will increase to around 400 or more on a tough hike. Larger individuals will need from 300 up to as many as 600 per hour.
The average American male weighs around 200lbs (90Kg) so they should burn around 300 calories per hour for easier hikes. So for a 4-hour hike, they would need to take around 1200 calories on their backpacking trip.
You can get more information on the number of calories burned hiking here
You are going to lose a lot of water through sweat and heavy breathing on your hike, so make sure you have enough water for your hike. As a rule of thumb, adults need 2 cups of water per hour of hiking
I prefer taking cold water in a hydration bladder over bottles as they are much easier to pack on your back (water is pretty heavy!) and this also helps to insulate them better too. The tube makes it much easier to drink little and often too.
You don’t want your cold water to be too cold though as this can cause cramping, although I will often pack some frozen juice that can cool the food in my pack and will have sufficiently melted by the time I need it.
Electrolyte powders and mixes are a great way to replenish the nutrients lost through sweat. They can also cover up any unpleasant taste in your filtered water.
Liquid I.V. come in a wide variety of flavors in single serve sticks, and works well
Coffee and Tea
I like to take some coffee or tea bags with me. If I have a backpacking stove, I will heat up the water or take a flask with me.
You may have heard that coffee and tea are diuretics and should not be during exercise, but you need to drink a lot before it had any effect, and the amount of water consumed at the same time would offset it.
On the flip side, caffeine works as a pick-me-up and has been shown to have a significant positive effect on physical performance (although slightly more in men than women) so I have no qualms about drinking it while backpacking.
I am not a big fan of instant coffee though, so my preference is to take an Aeropress. This is a lightweight pair of plastic tubes with an airtight seal that creates the pressure you would get in a good coffee machine.
I put my coffee, filters and if you take it, sweetener and powdered milk, in the hollow of the smaller tube and you have a very small package that can make some proper coffee on the trail…bliss!
How Do You Pack Food for Day Hiking?
Packing food for a day hike can be tricky. You want to keep your lunch from getting smashed in your daypack, but you also want to have snacks close at hand.
Since lunch is not usually eaten on the move I tend to pack my lunch, such as sandwiches in airtight and leakproof containers at the bottom of my pack as I can easily unpack to eat it when stopped. If you pack your lunch at your top, you have to push something further down.
Since I usually need to get things like my waterproofs or first aid kit with more urgency than my lunch, my food generally gets pushed down.
For foods that need to be kept cool, surround them with frozen gel packs or frozen drinks. Packing these at the bottom of your pack also helps to insulate them with the other geat on top. It is also a lot less messy if something springs a leak!
However, you will not want to stop to dig through your pack to get a quick snack for energy. So keep your snacks and water within easy reach.
Put some granola bars or trail mix in a Ziploc bag and stash them in the thigh pockets of your hiking pants, outside pockets of your pack or a fanny pack to keep snacks close at hand.
What Foods Should I Not Bring on a Hike?
On a hike, avoid sugary snacks and carbonated drinks, while hiking. While these can provide a fast hit of energy, the crash is miserable on a hike.
Do not be tempted to take junk food like potato chips. While junk food contains calories, they don’t provide the other nutrients you need and often contains too much salt and processed fats.
Also, if you cannot take any cool bags, or it is going to be very hot, don’t bring any foods that could spoil, like egg salad. You don’t want to get sick from spoiled food while hiking. Instead, opt for more stable choices that won’t go bad.
Here are some more foods to avoid:
- Greasy or fatty foods like deep-fried chicken
- Foods that can spoil
- Sugary snacks, like candy or chocolate bars
- Carbonated beverages, including sparkling water
- Junk food like potato chips
In general, if you can’t keep food cold that needs to be kept cold, don’t bring it on your hike.
My Hiking Lunch
Hiking lunch ideas should use a combination of protein and complex carbohydrates to provide the desired energy and strength to complete the more strenuous trails.
Here are some simple backpacking food ideas to pack:
- Easy to assemble meals like tuna packets and avocado on crackers
- Sandwiches (see below)
- Raw Vegetables (eg carrots or broccoli)
- Grain salad, eg quinoa
Plus, it is also essential to pack enough water (use hydration packs or water bottles) to last the duration of the hike.
The humble and the best sandwich in the world in a sealed Ziploc bag is really what it takes to keep you full during the day and couple that with trail nuts, an energy drink.
Think about the types of food that will easily survive the constant motion. Plus, a packed lunch must be easy to eat out on the trails
Packing boxes of frozen juice of frozen fruit in the insulated container will help to keep other food cold and ready for use later in the day. Any food like mayonnaise, eggs, or meat should be packed with ice to make sure it is kept cold until lunchtime.
Other sandwich suggestions:
- Cheese, mustard, and greens
- Chicken salad and mayo (if you must!)
- Banana and peanut butter
- Strawberry fruit spread and almond butter
- Egg salad
Naturally, you can always mix up what you make them on, something like pitta bread or bagel sandwiches will do just fine too.
Freeze Dried Dehydrated Meals
If you can fit a backpacking stove into your pack, you can find a surprising amount of good options in your local supermarket in the shape of freeze-dried meals. These come in a bunch of flavors, but some of our favorites are from the likes of Mountain House and Readywise.
Some of these meals are surprisingly tasty, last for ages, and can be prepared simply by adding hot water (or cold at a stretch!) Do remember to check the fire regulations as backpacking stoves are often banned when there is a high risk.
The good news is that you do not need to take along any pans to make these as you just pour the boiling water into the bag and eat from that…simple!
Here are some of my favorite meals in foil packets!
Between meals, you will probably need to add a few extra calories. These are the sort of things I like to have in easy reach for a mid-hike snack
- Dried fruit
- Trail mix (homemade or store-bought)
- Raw nuts (the best place to get these is a local store just before your trip as they don’t keep that well)
- Energy bars
- Peanut Butter Bites
- Fresh fruit (apples, oranges, grapes)
- Hard-boiled eggs (although not so great for me as I am allergic to egg white!)
- Jerky (Home-made or bought)
Along with the food for backpacking, make sure you take hand sanitizer. Your hands will get sweaty and will collect whatever you touch, which is not great when it comes to then using them to pick up your food!
Also, don’t forget to take things like cutlery and a camp stove if you have brought something like dehydrated beef stroganoff to cook and eat.
If you are hiking in bear territory, make sure you understand all the rules and regulations about what you can take and how you need to store it. Bear canisters are usually a prerequisite and for good reason – you really do not want a Grizzly to join you for tea!
So the aim is to take nutritionally dense food that is compact and light, while able to withstand the trials of the trail! A good protective lunchbox will keep your food protected and cool, so it makes an excellent purchase.
So keep it simple, take nutritious food and plenty of cold water and you will do just fine…and always remember to take a hand sanitizer…!
Matt Green, is an avid hiker and lover of the great outdoors. He is always planning his next big trip or hitting the trails for a solo hike.
He’s traveled extensively to many remote regions and has plenty of experience exploring various terrains, and stories to tell.
- 1 Carbohydrates
- 2 Proteins
- 3 Fats
- 4 What To Eat Before Your Hike (Pre-Loading)
- 5 What Should You Eat On A Day Hike?
- 6 How Many Calories Per Day Will do I Burn Hiking?
- 7 Hydration
- 8 How Do You Pack Food for Day Hiking?
- 9 What Foods Should I Not Bring on a Hike?
- 10 My Hiking Lunch
- 11 Sandwiches
- 12 Freeze Dried Dehydrated Meals
- 13 Hiking Snacks
- 14 Other Necessities
- 15 Summary