Lightweight Cooking for Backpackers

I was about to take down camp when I heard my buddy Brad say:

“Hey man, you want some pancakes?”

And then he pulled out a thick-glass bottle of maple syrup from his pack. The thing must have weighed at least two pounds.

I started laughing. He didn't like it.

Lugging around something like that would make most lightweight backpackers cringe. Also, not bringing a heavy bottle with you on a trek is just common sense.

But there are many other less obvious ways to reduce the heft of your backpack by thinking about the food you bring on a trek. Before I get into that, you might be thinking: 

"Why should I spend time and energy reducing the weight of my backpack?"

Less is More for Backpacking

Because by cutting how many pounds you're carrying on a trek, you'll reduce the amount of strain on your back and knees. Plus, you'll be able to hike faster, which means covering more miles in a day.

Ultralight backpacking is especially popular among wilderness backpackers, who need to reduce as much weight as possible to cover monster hikes like the Appalachian Trail. But the concepts are equally as useful for trekkers exploring the Peruvian Andres or Nepal's Himalayan mountains.

Using lightweight backpacking cookware helps, but having the right skills is just as important.

I've learned a lot about lightweight food and cooking from my business partner Casey Fielder, who teaches ultralight backpacking skills. And even if you've never looked into lightweight backpacking, I bet there's at least one tip in this article that'll help you hike a little lighter.

The benefits of lightweight cooking

Lightweight cooking for backpackers

Everything you carry on a backpacking trip is either food or gear. And while every lightweight backpacker will tell you it's important to cut the weight of your equipment, it's just as vital to consider how to lighten up your grub as well.

In the summertime, most people will carry roughly 2-3 pounds of food per-day. That means if you're going on a week-long trip, your food can weigh as much (or even more) than your gear. So if you want to reduce the weight of your pack, it makes a lot of sense to focus on food.

But of course, you need to do it in a way that's safe and smart. Running of food when you're halfway into your trek, and having to beg other backpackers for their energy bars, gives ultralight backpacking a bad name.
And while these tips can certainly help you avoid those types of situations, it's still important to stay within your abilities and comfort level.

The #1 cooking style for ultralight backpacking

Have you tried those freeze-dried pre-made meals that are available at a lot of big-box outdoor stores? They are a very lightweight option for hitting the trail.

However, this commercial freeze-dried grub is also pretty expensive. And it often contains more sodium and less fibre compared to homemade cuisine.

That's why a lot of ultralight backpackers have embraced Freezer Bag Cooking (FBC) instead. This essentially involves rehydrating food "” like lentils or rice "” by pouring hot water into a freezer bag.

FBC gained popularity after the book Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple was published in 2007. And since then, more lightweight hikers have been choosing FBC instead of commercial dehydrated "space food."

Here's a quick run-down of how Freezer Bag Cooking works:

1) Prepare your meal before heading out. Staples like pasta, beans and rice are good options.

2) When you're ready to eat, bring water to a near-boil.

3) Pour the water into the freezer bag with your ingredients. Let sit for 10-15 minutes.

4) Stir well and enjoy!

Because you don't have to cook anything in advance, this method can work for trekkers backpacking in another country. Just purchase and package the staples once you arrive, based on what's available at your destination.

Best stoves for lightweight cooking

Lightweight cooking for backpackers 2

Simple cooking styles like FBC allow you to use lighter stoves while out on the trail, which can make a big difference when it comes to pack-weight. 

Esbit stoves burn solid fuel tablets that can be easily lit with matches. Plus, the tablets can be extinguished and then saved to burn later. The drawback of esbit tablets is that they do give off a bit of an odor and can sometimes leave a sticky residue on pots.

Alcohol stoves are another great lightweight option. In the ultralight community, these are often considered the go-to backpacking stove. These are typically small stoves made from thin metal with a basin to hold the liquid fuel. They come in a variety of different designs.

Now, alcohol stoves aren't the best for cooking food on, but they do boil water just fine. That makes them a great choice for dedicated fans of FBC.

You can also find tri-fuel stoves that offer the best of both worlds: allowing you to burn esbit, alcohol and even sticks and twigs you find in the area.

Pay attention to caloric density

Okay, here comes the math.

One of the simplest ways to reduce the weight of your food is to pick meals that pack in the highest amount of calories for the smallest amount of weight.

Caloric density simply means the number of calories divided by the weight of each item.

For example: almonds, Nutella and peanut butter all have a caloric density of over 150 calories per ounce. That's pretty good. But olive oil is the champ: it weighs in at a whopping 237 calories per ounce.

Here are a few more ultralight foods to consider, along with their caloric density (calories-per-ounce):

Macadamia Nuts: 203 

Pecans: 195

Walnuts: 173

Salted Almonds: 169

Jif Peanut Butter: 168.1

Fritos: 160

Dry Roasted Sunflower Seeds: 160

Almond M&M's: 153.8

But in the end, it's a balancing act

It's certainly possible to knock a few pounds from your backpack by embracing a lightweight cooking mindset while on the trail. But exactly how much you want to cut from your pack ultimately depends on how much you're willing to prepare ahead of time "” which isn't always easy when traveling.

Pre-making FBC meals before hitting the trail takes a lot more time than tossing a pack of commercial freeze-dried food into your bag. Just like calculating caloric density takes time. And researching stoves or fuel sources takes time.

But if you make the time investment to hike with as little weight as possible, you'll be rewarded with fewer aches and pains and a faster trekking time.


Dustin Walker runs the blog Slick & Twisted Trails, which is dedicated to helping hikers explore lesser-known backpacking routes.

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