Camping Food Prep 101

Backpacking meals are flying off the shelves as people get ready for trips or prep emergency kits. While the idea of boiling water and pouring it in a bag is pretty simple, there are still some important considerations to make to ensure you get a tasty meal. Rachel Leung (Presidio Marketer and knowledgeable backpack enthusiast) has created a short checklist to guide you through your backcountry cooking experience.

A Note on Backpacking Food

While you can buy bulk dehydrated ingredients or make your own dehydrated  meals, I recommend pre-packaged backpacking food for emergencies or most backpacking trips simply because they’re easy to make and already field-tested. Mixing your own food is a creative trial and error of its own and if you’re in an emergency there’s really no time to be chef de cuisine! 

Four packs of different backpacking food packs on a counter

    Long gone are the days of mushy, flavorless backpacking food. The selection today is packed with tons of nutrients, diverse flavor profiles, variety of dietary options, long shelf life and they’re so simple you really can’t screw `em up! As the instructions say, “Hang out and think about how big the universe is” while you wait for your food! 

    Cooking Essentials:

    • Backpacking food 
    • Cooking Tools - Build yourself a kitchen kit that has all your essential equipment for cooking.
    • Stove - In a backpacking or emergency kit you’ll probably be using a small propane stove or a lightweight backpacking stove
    • Fuel - Make sure you have the right fuel for the type of stove you have. 
      Hot Tip: Basementeers get free refills of propane
    • Pot/Pan - You’ll need something to boil water in. There are some meals that need to be cooked in a pan so consider that when you’re shopping for meals. 
    • Fire starter - Lighter, flint or waterproof matches to get your stove started. It’s good to have options ready. 
    • Utensil - A backpacking spork would do here. An extra long one would be great to avoid the mess of sticking your hands in a hot food bag. 
    • Bowls - These are nice to have, but many packaged foods can be cooked and eaten right out of the bag. Check your meal prep instructions. 
    • Cleaning - Have a few cleaning tools on hand like a sponge, biodegradable soap and a silicone scraper to do dishes.
    • Clean water - If you have a water filtration device, that’s great for questionable water sources. In cases of cooking, the water will be boiled to extreme temperatures, so starting with clean, clear, moving water is a good place to start (like a running river) if you don’t have a filtration device. You can review the EPA’s tips for boiling water and other emergency water disinfection methods. 
      Hot Tip: In a seriously sticky situation, you can even use a clean t-shirt to filter debris from water.
    • Cooking area - You need a space to cook, right? Sounds like a duh moment, but having a prepped cooking space could be the one major step you take to prevent an accident or unwanted fire. Make sure your cooking area is flat, easy to access and protected from the elements as best you can. Clear the cooking area of any debris, leaves, twigs or anything that may ignite.

    Backpacking food pack next to a jet boil stove boiling water.

    Successful Instant Food Preparation

    • Extra water 
      • Meals often need a splash of water more than it says. You can add up to an ounce of extra water for cooking.
      • If you’re backpacking, you’ll need extra water to do dishes - at least 200 feet from any water source per Leave No Trace. We never recommend doing dishes in water sources. Filter or boil your water before doing your dishes to maximize sanitation.

    Two pots with water and a small Jet Boil stove

    • Consider cook time
      • Wrap extra clothes around your heated packaged meals (NOT the stove!) to insulate them and help the food cook faster. 
      • Give yourself more time! I've found that meals often need a few extra minutes for cooking than stated. 
      • Remember that rehydration time doubles with every 5,000 feet of elevation gain. 
    • Stir up your meals
      • Squeeze the cooking bag every minute or so to help incorporate the ingredients without opening the bag and releasing heat. 
      • Mix more seasonings into your meals! While camp foods have come a long way, most still could use an extra punch of flavor. You can have some salt, pepper and other seasonings ready to add as needed. 
    • Reuse your food bag to pack out trash
      • Consolidate your trash, especially those little wrappers or small pieces of plastic that are easy to lose track of. 
      • If you’re an ultimate Leave No Trace champ, then maybe you’re even grabbing trash you see on the trail and we love you for that. 

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