We stopped cooking on backpacking trips twenty years ago. Our no-cook menu has evolved over many iterations and is now finely tuned to what works for us. We share it here for others who want to try a no-cook trip and are not sure where to start.
We don’t cook on any of our hiking trips. This article includes the details of the menu we use for five to eleven day wilderness backpacking trips. On hikes of two to four days we carry heavier food such as hummus, deli salads, fresh produce, and hard boiled eggs. On hikes with grocery store resupply we supplement the menu with bread, fresh produce, yogurt, potato chips, hummus, and wine.
The amounts listed in the table are per person per day, and total of 25.5 ounce and about 3000 calories. The calories per ounce value shown is based on the items we are packing for our next trip. For each line item on the list the calories per ounce varies based on the exact selection, for example tuna packed in oil is more caloric than tuna packed in water.
We can increase the calories without changing the total weight by making minor changes, such as taking a little less dry fruit and a little more nuts. Our menu is tuned to what we currently find most satisfying, and we make minor modifications to it after each trip.
Notes about the menu
This menu was created through dozens of iterations and it works for us. We did not create it by doing any sort of analysis of calorie requirements or assessing health benefits. We don’t mean to imply that we think this menu is better than any other menu, however it might be a good starting point for somebody who has never taken a no-cook no-fuss trip.
Cheese: we carry only semi-firm, firm, or aged cheeses. We eat the semi-firm cheeses like P’tit Basque in the first 5 days and the firm or aged cheeses, like our favorite Vella Dry Jack, later in the trip. Here is a good article about varieties that are appropriate for backpacking.
Meat: beef/pork/turkey jerky; smoked fish; or dry cured ham such as prosciutto, coppa, or speck. Dry cured ham can be stored at room temperature. My current favorites are Bacon Jerky and Del Duca Jamon Serrano. My local Cost Plus World Market occasionally has both products at reasonable prices.
Tuna in foils packs is available in several flavors, or unseasoned tuna packed in either oil or water. The highest caloric density is Tuna in Extra Virgin Olive Oil at 73 calories per ounce; the seasoned varieties are about half that.
Crackers and other crunchy things: in addition to traditional crackers we are fond of Trader Joe’s Inca Giant Corn Nuts, Pepperidge Farms Goldfish, and Sonoma Creamery’s Crisps and Mr Cheese O’s.
Cookies: shortbread cookies have high caloric density and are sturdy and compact.
Mumble Bars: Clif, Luna, NuGo, Zone Perfect, ProBar or similar. These vary in caloric density from 149 calories per oz (Kirkland Nut Bar) down to 104 calories per oz (Clif Cool Mint Chocolate).
We frequently carry a few Altoid mints and other hard candies, but they don’t add up to much weight or calories.
The menu is optimized for protein and calorie dense fats, compact packing, and flavor. Noodles, rice and potatoes are not calorie efficient at 4 calories per gram versus 9 calories per gram for fats, have little protein or fiber value, often require cooking, and we do not find them as tasty as crackers, which often have enough fat to raise their calorie density.
We eat cheese, meat or tuna, crackers, cookies, and Tang or lemonade at lunch and again for dinner. Each evening we apportion the nuts, fruit, bars, and chocolate we plan to eat throughout the following day.
Our menu is not very diverse on paper, but by carrying different cheeses and crackers for each meal, and by mixing the meat selection, we don’t get too bored. We also carry five or six different varieties of dry fruit. Sitting down to a meal of prosciutto, Vella Dry Jack cheese, Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisps, dry pears, and candied pecans is satisfying.
Amy carries all the food that needs to stay cool. James carries the food that can get warm. In the bottom of Amy’s pack is our down Love Bird Quilt. The food bag sits on top of that, with clothing surrounding it. In addition to her own clothes, Amy carries James’ down jacket, which gives her more insulation to work with. We never expose the core of her pack during the day. Each evening, we open the food bag and put the following day’s food into a separate ziplock, which we can then access without opening the main bag of cold food. We have used this process on trips of up to eleven days duration where daytime temperatures were in the 80’s and even into the 90’s, and still have kept the chocolate from melting.
Our entire kitchen gear is one spoon used to measure servings of nuts and Tang. In addition to the platypus bottles we need for water capacity, we each carry a wide-mouth Gatorade-type bottle to mix the Tang; the wide mouth is helpful for getting the powder in. We do not carry any cups or bowls.
Why we like it
When weather or mosquitoes are bad we can easily eat inside our tent.
We like to start hiking at sunrise. It is easy to eat a breakfast of bars and nuts and fruit while we walk instead of cooking oatmeal like we did on family trips when we were kids.
We reduce our pack weight by using a no-cook menu. The weight of the food in a no-cook menu is the same, calorie-for-calorie, as a menu that requires cooking, since cooking only adds heat and water. We do not have to carry a stove, pot, or fuel.
Cooking volatilizes odors, which is problematic where there are bears.
We are not affected when stoves are prohibited due to wildfire danger.
We sometimes opportunistically plan outings just two days before we leave based on a good weather forecast so it’s important to have a quick-to-assemble larder. We can quickly buy and package the food for a ten day trip.
Most importantly, we think it tastes a lot better than the freeze dried hot food we used to eat while backpacking.