Ahhhh backpacking food. So delicious yet so not nutritious! Backpackers are notorious for eating the worst of the worst – all in the name of getting the biggest bang for their buck: the highest amount of calories with the least amount of weight. I am 110 percent guilty of this. To put it in perspective, I, a typically quite healthy, active vegetarian who eats a variety of fresh foods and few processed foods in a normal day, came off the Appalachian Trail (AT) looking like a fitness model and feeling like garbage.
Though I was by far in the best shape of my life, my energy seemed to dissipate in northern New Hampshire and I still had not recovered it two months post-trail. My aunt, who is a phlebotomist, generously offered to run some tests for me. I feared I may have picked up Lyme or some other insect-borne trail disease. The reality, though, was much less sinister. I had eaten myself sick. Six months of marching up and over mountains while fueled by ramen, Knorr pasta sides, candy bars, Pop-Tarts, protein bars, granola, cheese, peanut butter, and tortillas had left me with anemia and high cholesterol.
I am determined to do better next time. Admittedly, on my few short backpacking trips since getting off the AT in 2018, I’ve still been up to my old tricks. It feels like a novelty to indulge in Indomie (the best packaged ramen you will ever taste in your life) and Snickers bars. But this cannot be another long-term holistic diet. I’m slowly investigating some healthier alternatives and I’ve asked the world of social media for some ideas on vegetarian and vegan recipes to cook while backpacking. They delivered, and I wanted to share these with you!
Enjoy, and please report back if you try any of these!
Hot granola is one of the few healthyish foods that I ate regularly on the AT, and it brought me a lot of joy on cold mornings. All you do is heat some water in a pot on your stove, mix in powdered milk or hot chocolate powder, throw in your granola with your choice of dried fruits and nuts (and maybe sometimes a little almond butter or chocolate chunks), let it cool a little bit, and you are ready to go! A high calorie, nutritious breakfast to warm you up and fuel you for several miles until lunchtime. Stephanie S. suggests using coconut milk powder instead of powdered cow’s milk, which I will have to try sometime!
Lunch and Dinner
Sent by Stephanie S. – a former colleague, friend, and environmental educator
Stephanie’s favorite ingredient to use while backpacking is dehydrated coconut milk powder, which you can find in larger grocery stores in the Asian food section. She says it tastes “so much better” than powdered cow’s milk and bonus: it’s vegan and higher calorie. She loves to mix it with curry powder and couscous as a quick, go-to dinner base. Mix it all up with boiling water, add some dried fruit and nuts, let it sit for a few minutes, and voila! You have a delicious dinner. Note: when using dehydrated coconut milk powder, you need to use hot water to mix it.
Vegan Quesadillas with Amy’s Chili
Sent by Max F. – a college friend of my brother
Max’s favorite backpacking meal is a can of Amy’s spicy chili with some vegan quesadillas. For the quesadilla, you’ll need: tortillas, Violife Colby jack cheese, some spices, and mushrooms (if you fancy them). Pile the cheese, spices, and mushrooms on top of the tortilla and fold in half. Warm on a pan over the fire until the cheese has melted and dip in the chili. You may not want to carry a whole lot of cans of chili out to the backcountry, but he says this makes an “amazing night one backpacking dinner.” As far as the spices, Max has his own special secret flavors mix (that he may patent, so can’t share the full-on recipe). However, he did say that he uses a mix of garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper, and the secret ingredients.
Vegan Mac and Cheese Powder
Sent by Meagan G. on Instagram
This recipe comes from the Vegan Richa site and was sent to me by Meagan G. on Instagram. She says it’s a terrific backpacking staple as you can cook it in a jetboil with just water. You’ll need: raw cashews, nutritional yeast, flour, tapioca starch, garlic powder, onion powder, ground mustard, sugar, salt paprika, pepper, and pasta of choice. You can mix all the ingredients (aside from pasta and water) up in a food processor for two to three minutes before you get out to the backcountry. Mix it up with water in a pan on the your camp stove and bring to a boil, mix it with some precooked pasta and cook for an additional minutes, cover and let it sit for a couple minutes, and you’re good to go! Check out the Vegan Richa site for all the measurements.
I had a few comments from people that they love to make easy tacos in the backcountry, and I couldn’t agree more. Personally, I’d start with a whole wheat tortilla, add in some freeze dried black beans, maybe some instant mashed potatoes if you’re feeling wild, and sprinkle some cheddar cheese and hot sauce on top. Good to go. If it’s your first day out of town, you might even want to carry out an avocado as a treat! Meagan G. recommends using a packet of Spanish rice, and Kerry E. likes to add textured vegetable protein into his for an added protein source. The sky is the limit!
Korean Soft Tofu Stew
Sent by Jill F. – a colleague of mine at the University of Colorado
This recipe is from the Dirty Gourmet cookbook, and is a favorite of my colleague Jill’s. I was especially excited to include it because I have a soft spot for all things Korean, having taught English there for a spell several years ago. I hated the food when I arrived, and loved it (with some exceptions – I still can’t get down with kimchi!) by the time I left several months later. For this, you’ll need Korean chili flakes, garlic powder, a vegetable bouillon cube, salt, dehydrated cabbage, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried chives, water, and silken tofu. To prepare at home, all you’ll need to do is crumble the bouillon cube into small pieces and combine all the ingredients except the tofu and water in a Ziplock bag. At camp, drain the water from your tofu, cut into cubes, and set aside. Add two cups of water to your pot along with the contents of the Ziplock bag and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, add your tofu, and cook for another five minutes or so. For the full recipe, including measurements, check out the recipe from Dirty Gourmet. If you’d like more options on how to handle the tofu, since silken tofu tends to be heavy and need refrigeration, check out this article on backpacking with tofu from Backpacker.
Sent by Katie W. – my colleague at the University of Colorado
Katie loves to make roasted chickpeas for camping trips, saying these are “crunchy little snacks that stay good for a long time and are easy to pop in your mouth on the go!” There are recipes all over the interwebs, but Katie’s favorite are seasoned with garlic, paprika, and a little cumin. Grab a can of chickpeas, lay them out on a kitchen towel and pat them dry while your oven preheats to 400 degrees. Once the chickpeas are dry, mix them with a drizzle of olive oil, a little salt, and your favorite spices, then spread them out on a baking sheet and pop them into the oven for about 20 minutes or until they’re crunchy. Enjoy!
Cherry Cucumber Chips and Cherry Peach Fruit Leather
Sent by Jessica S. – a former environmental education colleague of mine
Jessica loves to dehydrate her own snacks – though she does say it takes some advanced planning as most foods take at least a half day to dehydrate. She sent me a recipe for some cherry cucumber chips and cherry fruit leather, both of which she made with leftovers!
For both, start with whole cherries and a sweetener (she used agave) and simmer on the stove. You can eyeball how much sweetener to use depending on how sweet your cherries are and how sweet you want the snacks to be. She used a cup of whole, destemmed Rainier cherries and two tablespoons of agave. She also added two tablespoons of water because she was making a brine. After some heating, mash the cherries to release their juices. Simmer covered for about 20 minutes. Strain out the pulp, leaving just syrup. From here, the recipes differ.
For the cucumbers:
Put syrup in shallow dish with cleaned, sliced cucumbers. Add a couple pinches of salt. Soak in refrigerator overnight then dehydrate on the vegetable setting until dry (this will vary by machine).
For the fruit leather:
Use a blender or food processor to blend down fruits. For peaches, remove skins and pits. For cherries, you can use the leftover pulp with the pits removed from the cherries that you started with. Sweeten to taste (she used just a little agave but her cherries were already pretty sweet). Dehydrate this fruit mix or use an oven. Hers went on a baking sheet with a silicone mat. She baked these on the lowest setting until the middle was no longer tacky. In her oven, this was at 170 degrees Fahrenheit for almost 5.5 hours.
Thanks to all of you who contributed recipes and favorites! If anyone has anything to add, feel free to share in the comments! As always, don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and sign up for my e-mail list if you enjoy my posts!