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How to Fight Backpacking Meal Fatigue

Salty. Calorically Dense Foods
Salty. Calorically Dense Foods

Have you even opened your backpacking food bag and lost your appetite at the prospect of eating the same boring meal again? Do yourself a favor and increase the variety of food you bring on backpacking trips. Develop a menu that keeps you interested in eating, so you can refuel with the calories you need.

Here are some tips I can recommend for keeping your food interesting:

Don’t Repeat Dinners

Dinner is usually the biggest meal of the day for a backpacker and quite possibly the only one that you sit down and kick back for. Do yourself a favor and don’t eat the same meal more than once every three weeks. If have a favorite Mountain House meal, I guarantee you’ll grow to hate it if you have to eat it once a week for 20 weeks on a thru-hike. Twice in two weeks is bad enough!

Bring Dinners You’ve Never Eaten Before

A backpacking trip is an adventure. Shouldn’t your dinners be too? Bring foods you’ve never tried before on your trips. You’d be surprised at how a little novelty can enhance your dining experience. Having a hard time thinking up novel meals? Volumes of backpacking recipes have been written that you can get recipes from. I recommend you get Recipes for Adventure and Freezer Bag Cooking, which are two of the best backpacking cookbooks written by backpackers for backpackers.

Too lazy to dehydrate or prepare recipes? Buy a wide variety of meals from many backpacking food makers. My favorites are Outdoor Herbivore and Packit Gourmet.

Hearty Soups and Sauces

You can eat simply but still have a lot of variety. For example, I carry packs of ramen noodles and instant rice and simply mix them into hearty soups or add rich sauces to create a wide variety of meals. It’s the reason I like Outdoor Herbivore’s prepackaged soups and sauce meals so much but you can make your own or mix up ingredients in camp. These also cook and clean up very easily which is an added bonus.

Breakfast Mix-Ins

There’s no denying that instant oatmeal, hot wheat cereal, or granola make a fast and easy breakfast. But you can add an infinite variety of mix-ins to add calories and make them taste different every day. Try packing up 21 days of different combinations of nuts and dried fruits that you can mix into morning cereal and give it some interesting “mouth-feel.” Almonds, cashews, raisins, cranberries, dried apples….it’s quite easy to mix and package these breakfast helpers in snack bags.

Lunch and Snacks

Variety is the name of the game with lunch and snacks to0. Nuts, dried fruit, protein and snack bars, sausage, cookies, jerky, and candy. It’s pretty easy to assemble a wide variety of options without any repeats (even if you resupply in towns).

The easiest way to find these is to go to Trader Joes and stock up on the wide variety of food they have. Amazon also has a very wide selection and you can save by buying variety packs in bulk.

How do you keep your backpacking food varied and interesting?

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  1. I am a huge fan of Packit Gourmet and usually eat this for all of my dinners but recently discovered Outdoor Herbivore. I added this to the mix on a recent 3 day trip and will make it part of my rotation because I really enjoyed the taste and ease of use.

    I like to focus on the trip and hiking and don’t like to spend a lot of time prepping meals. These two companies make it easy and give enough variety that I won’t get bored.

  2. This sounds like crazy talk to me. :-)

    I do the opposite – I bring the exact same thing for breakfast (instant potatoes and bacon chunks), lunch (tuna packets), and dinner (used to be Pad Thai, now Lasagna) every single day. I don’t want to think about it. Food is food.

    Oh yeah, lots of Frank’s Red Hot because “I put that $%*# on everything”.

  3. Appreciate the post as I prepare for the Colorado Trail in August. I agree with Packet Gourmet and Outdoor Herbivore and use them as my core dinner meals.

  4. I made a mistake once and all my breakfasts were almost the same. After couple of days when I was thinking of my morning meal I was getting shivers ;) Yes varying your meals is very important.

  5. I have to disagree about “bringing dinners you’ve never eaten before”. I see the point you are making about novelty, but it is not uncommon for someone to purchase a freeze-dried meal only to find that it doesn’t meet expectations. After being faced with forcing down a meal that was too salty or simply unpleasant, or with too large a portion size, I learned to try new prepackaged freeze-dried backpacking meals at home before taking them on a trip.

    I’ve moved away from prepackaged backpacking foods and now home dehydrate all my meals. I prepare meals that I know I like that are not necessarily something I frequently make, so that they are something to look forward to. On longer hikes when food fatigue is more likely I bring some dinners that I’ve dehydrated and some dinners that I can do a pick and choose approach by bringing instant mashed potatoes, dehydrated baked beans (or any black beans or pinto beans), dehydrated caramelized onions, dehydrated spinach, freeze-dried corn and/or peas, freeze-dried cheddar cheese, shelf stable Parmesan cheese and then mix and match these as suits my appetite that evening. It is not a wide range, but it does relieve some of the food fatigue.

    I second your suggestion on a variety of add-ins for breakfast grains.

    You can find freeze-dried fruits and veggies at many grocery stores. I purchase freeze-dried cheese from Packit-Gormet.

    • Cindy

      I made that mistake once of saving something that sounded really yummy for a hike. It wasn’t. Went to bed hungry that night. I try everything at home once before packing it. Like the ad on TV, “The best surprise is no surprise.”

  6. Meal fatigue! I love it! I’ve never called it that, but I know *exactly* what you mean. Thanks for the article, Philip.


  7. I’ve never had a chance to backpack long enough to suffer classic meal fatigue, however, I did suddenly get tired of my ramen-with-everything-in-it supper that I’ve often used, although I’d always enjoyed it in the past. I’ve been experimenting with some homemade pad thai on recent hikes. As far as breakfast is concerned, I stuff as many dried fruits in with my oatmeal as I can find and like it so much, I’d rather eat it than just about anything else at any meal. I make up a bunch of it into snack bags and store them in the freezer and have a tendency to get into them for breakfast around the house.

  8. I haven’t had “meal fatigue” but have often rescheduled dinners so that either the most difficult to prepare or the one I liked least was the “extra food” meal left over at the end of the trip! More recently, though, I don’t take an extra dinner because I normally have enough snacks left over to take me through an extra day if needed.

    I have found out (the hard way) that it’s a really good idea to test your food at home ahead of time! Especially awful was the time I took a home-dehydrated chicken casserole. I cooked the thing for 20 minutes (that was before the days of “freezer bag cooking”) and the result was chicken mush containing peas that remained the consistency of buckshot! It took me a long time to eat the mush and pick out the peas, forcing me to miss most of the sunset on Washington’s Glacier Peak!

    I now buy freeze-dried veggies in bulk and add them to home-dehydrated meals. Chopped frozen spinach works well in home dehydration and can be added to one-dish meals.

  9. Food is fuel. I find the best flavor enhancer is hunger. I can eat the same thing for weeks on end with not much variation. I will eat most anything though. Im not known to be a picky eater.

  10. I saw a lot of this on the PCT Hike..Especially among the Younger Kids, 16-33 who thought they were gonna eat Curries, and Miso, Hummus and such truck for their trip.. By the time they reached the Mt. Laguna Store they were ravenous for real food and were emptying their Food Boxes and filling the Trash can with it all to buy the store out of Mystery meat sausages, beef sticks, Mac&Cheese, Sardines, an half a dozen Ice Cream sandwiches etc. etc… In the time it took to go from the Border to Laguna many have lost 5 pounds or more.. . Personally, I never eat the same meal twice in 5 days. I also may throw in odd foods like a can of Smoked Clams, or a small can of Corned Beef or Corned Beef Hash and have been known to eat an entire box of Fig Newtons or Oreo’s with a half a gallon of milk at one sitting after I reach the Post Office and pick up my food box. Variety is the spice of life… I met one Hiker in Kitchen Creek who I met later in the Denny’s in Bishop who was eating nothing but the four varieties of Cup of Soup who I watched demolish 5 servings Of Pancakes and Bacon and then decided to have Lunch a Club Sandwich followed by two orders of Apple Pie… I saw him later stretched out at the Hotel Pool with this huge bellyache going on as it stretched to accomodate all the food…. You have to learn about what you body wants to. Your food preferences go through a big change one week into a hike as you body adjusts to the new routine and it begins to tell you what it wants, for me that is huge amounts of Protein and Calcium containing products. So I began to make my own Breakfast of Granola with double the Milk Powder thrown in .I see Alpineaire now has a two serving Granola offering in about the right size for me at nearly triple the price of what it would cost me to make at home… .MRE Cheese, the Jalapeno selection, is another Favorite…or the MRE Peanut Butter with Chocolate to which I add Strawberry Jam..nothing better on earth than that combo on some days and then Fig Newtons….I don’t eat any of those items at home where I am a very healthy eater compared to what I consume on the Trail, Lots of Rabbit Food etc. etc. … I also like Boxed Hash Browns and will just eat that for one meal…and those Idahoian Instant Mashed Potatoes with Sour Cream and Chives with Butter Buds thrown in and a packet of Paramsean Cheese sprinkled on top. I do eat a lot of Greens I find along the Trail and bring a small bottole of Olive OIl and Balsamic Vinegar or Apple Cider vinegar already mixed..Only need a Teaspoon full. … The more you hike, the more you learn about what your going to want to eat….Feed the Monster inside you anything it wants……During the Bishop Basin Hikes I also meet up with Hikers from the JMT who had hoped to supplement their Pack food with Trout, and well one soon learns Trout does not carry that much energy or caloric value for a hiker…

  11. I’ve found my biggest “problem” is that at the end of a big mile day, what appeals to me most is oatmeal. Consistently, I end up eating the next morning’s breakfast for dinner, and then either the dinner for breakfast, or dipping into my snacks for breakfast. I do vary my dinners, but still, half the time, it’s oatmeal. I’ve been experimenting with high protein hot cereals, b/c I find my muscles recover better if I keep the protein higher. But yeah. Oatmeal: it’s what’s for dinner.

  12. Excellent advice. I’m planning a 1.5 – 2 month long adventure and am planning to dehydrate meals. My challenge is I’ve been testing out recipes to test the rehydrated meal– The problem is I’m eating backpacking food while I’m most definitely NOT backpacking. If I keep this up I’ll be 400 lbs by the time the Big Adventure begins.

  13. Food, glorious food!
    Lucky for us “Down Under” in NZ the supermarkets have a good range of flavorsome goodies to experiment with. The base pastas, precooked rice and potato flakes do the job well then add what grabs your fancy from soup mixes for flavor, pulverized cheeses, salami. and other smoked sausages or biltong for a protein hit then tart is up with dried Asian veges, Japanese dried fish flakes etc.
    These on the hoof mixtures are great and cost a fraction of the freeze dried ready meals. The down side is the need to cook which means carrying a stove of some sort. Many here now favor Jet Boil stoves but for my money my Alocs alcohol stove is still first choice. For 2/3 day trips fresh veg is a good choice, think Chinese stir fry and cut very thin to cut cooking time.
    I love food and will try most things at least once. Who’s for chocolate mousse?

  14. I haven’t had “meal fatigue”, I have another problem with meals… As I type this, I’m sitting in my office 9 ft ASL, I almost never get above 300 feet during “real life.” For a typical trip, the first day on the trail is usually at 8500 ft or higher, and the elevation change just kills my appetite. Even items that are in the “eat until it’s gone” category leave me completely uninterested for the first three days or so, which of course is not good. My strategy to overcome this has been to find things I can chew while hiking, and eat that over the course of the day, then eat smaller portions at meal time, so I don’t end up with half a dinner that I can’t force down. A recent success has been to chomp on raw Minute Rice Mulitgrain Medley (yeah, I know, not for everyone!), which is 320 cal per bag and has pretty good nutrition numbers.

    • I’m the same way – with big miles and perhaps the higher altitude, I have no appetite for meals. I mostly just live on home-made gorp with a lot of variety, and have been bringing less food per day every subsequent trip. But when I hit a resupply point, my appetite suddenly reappears and I’ll then binge on cooked real food, fresh fruit, and salad.

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