How To Cook in the Backcountry

Photo: Hannah Dewey/TandemStock

How To Cook in the Backcountry

Most people don’t start backpacking because of the food, but they soon learn that camp meals are one of the great pleasures of life outdoors. Nothing seasons a meal like hunger and a good view. Still, you’ll want to make sure your camp cooking is easy and nutritious. Here’s how.  

What you’ll learn in this article

  • Pre-trip prep 
  • Menu planning 
  • Camp kitchen setup 
  • Cleanup 

Pre-trip: Menu planning & preparation

Do as much prep work as you can before you hit the trail. 

Dehydrated Meals

If you want the easiest and lightest camp food, you want dehydrated meals.  Just add hot water, wait a few minutes, and dig in.  

The simplest option: Buy dehydrated meals. The best ones are truly delicious, but they’re also expensive, and tend to be heavy on the sodium. With prepackaged meals, check the calories and account for bigger appetites after a long day on the trail. Some two-person meals will be more suitable for one, depending on the trip and who’s eating.

DIY option: You can also dry your own homecooked meals with a small dehydrator or oven; this takes more prep time, but you’ll save money and can customize taste and nutrition. This is a great option for foodies who want to take their favorite recipes on the trail.   

Cook in Camp

With good preparation, camp cooking can be (relatively) easy and fun. Start with a carbohydrate base, then add protein, veggies, and flavorful extras. Fresh ingredients taste good, but they’re also heavy and have a short lifespan in the field. 

Base: pasta/ramen, quinoa, couscous, instant mashed potatoes, polenta, instant rice 

Protein : tuna or chicken packets, shelf-stable sausage, dehydrated beans, pepperoni 

Veggies: Sun-dried tomatoes; dried (or fresh) mushrooms, peas, broccoli, carrots 

Extras: Spices, hot sauce, powdered or regular cheese, powdered milk, bacon bits, nuts 


Start “cooking” at home: You’ll save weight and time in camp. 

  • Measure portions of the ingredients you need (such as quinoa and spices) and repack them in a zip-top bag or lightweight plastic food container.  
  • Do prep work like grating cheese, but don’t slice fresh fruits or veggies if you’re not intending to eat them within a few hours—they’ll start to spoil.  
  • Get rid of unnecessary packaging and consolidate as many items as you can into one bag. Pack all ingredients for each meal in one gallon-size bag. 
  • Pack crushable ingredients—delicate herbs, bread—in a lightweight plastic container or your cookpot. Planning an egg breakfast? Crack them into a plastic bottle with a tight seal (freeze them for a longer life), or pack them intact in a plastic container with crumpled paper towels for cushioning. 
hand cutting peppers at a campsite Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock

In Camp

You’ve pitched your tent, and everyone’s hungry. What next? 

  • Find your cooking zone. Some backcountry sites will have a designated cooking area; in bear country, go at least 100 yards away from your tent (to keep any food odors that might attract wildlife far from your sleeping area) and 100 yards from the nearest water source.
  • Create a camp kitchen. Look for a flat, protected area; broad rocks and/or stumps make useful seats and stove platforms, if you can find them. 
  • Set everything up before you start cooking. Place your stove, fuel, lighter, all ingredients, water, pots, pans, and utensils around you, within arm’s reach, so you don’t have to get up once the stove is on.
  • Windy? Use a backpack or rocks/logs as a windbreak. You can also use a windscreen with some stoves (avoid enclosing stoves that sit atop a canister; they can overheat and explode). 
  • Wash your hands, or use hand sanitizer, before you start cooking.
  • Don’t leave the camp kitchen while the food is cooking if you can help it. Unattended food is much more likely to burn or be knocked over by an inattentive campmate.  
  • To “cook” a dehydrated meal, add hot water to the pouch (or mix it in your pot) and let it soak until the food rehydrates (about 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the meal).  
  • Cooking pasta or grains that need straining? Do the Leave No Trace thing and save the water: Use it to mix up soup packets for a side, or just drink it.  

Post-meal Cleanup

Somebody has to do the dishes. Here’s how: 

  • Scrape out dishes and pack out all food scraps. 
  • Walk 200 feet away from camp and water sources to clean dishes. 
  • Use a small scrubbing pad—or sand—and hot water to scrub out any remaining residue. If necessary, add a little biodegradable soap and hot water to finish.
  • Fling the dish water widely.