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Trail Food 101

By Jim Eldridge
Originally Published in the IAMC Newsletter, June 2011

This is a topic that probably has a million different opinions as everyone has different tastes (literally,) but I will just try to explain what has worked for me and some of the other basics I have seen riders use for eating on the trail. The meals I outline will work just as well for a typical weekend ride or a week-long backcountry excursion since most are not perishable.

First The Super Simple Techniques:

One of the simplest techniques might be to just throw a case of PowerBars in the saddlebag and call it good, but that might get old real quick.

Another convenient option is to pack a bunch of backpacking-style freeze-dried meals from Mountain House, Backpackers Pantry, etc. But they are expensive, can take up a lot of room, and for breakfast and lunch when you are typically looking for something quick, they take time to prepare.

Then there is the famous RWC strategy of buying MREs on eBay and living off one MRE per day since they contain so many calories. This works good for him and is certainly a technique that fits what I consider to be the basic food packing criteria for a backcountry trip. (To credit Ryan, he also owns a food dehydrator and comes up with many other meal options, which I will touch on later.)

The Criteria:

My priorities when packing meals are: Simple to prepare, relatively inexpensive, can survive the pounding of multiple days of off-road riding, doesn’t take up a lot of room or weight per meal, and finally has some resemblance to a balanced nutritious diet that actually tastes good. Note my cooking system is basically a Pocket Rocket stove with one 3½ cup covered pot and a small drink cup. Thus my meals have to work with this setup. The stove is nice because it is small and, unlike a JetBoil, has the ability to simmer your food, which is critical with some of my dinner options.

Breakfast: This is probably the easiest meal for me as I like oatmeal. Oatmeal is quick, cheap, and warms you up on those cold mornings. I have used the instant packets (two per meal) of which the Apple Cinnamon is my favorite. Lately I have been making my own variations by mixing ½ cup instant oatmeal with ¼ cup powdered milk, some raisins or other dried fruit such as cranberries or diced apricots, some chopped walnuts, and maybe some cinnamon and a touch of salt and sugar depending on your tastes. Place everything in a Ziploc bag and at camp just dump the bag contents into 1 cup of boiling water and simmer for a couple of minutes until thick. I add to this a cup of tea (teabags take up very little room) for my morning caffeine fix and I am done. Note that for efficiency, I boil all the water at once, pour off all but 1 cup into my teacup and then mix the oatmeal into the pot. I also tend to pack some Tang drink powder if I feel like “orange juice” in the morning, but most of the time it does not get used.

Typically, I pack a couple cereal bars as a backup in case it is pouring rain, and I don’t want to cook or if I oversleep and only have a minute to power down some food before everyone hits the trail.

Lunch: This meal is most often eaten on the trail vs. at camp, so for me, not having to dig out the stove or other cooking items is key.

Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches are the staple here. They keep for several days and are very quick. Yes, they tend to get a bit smashed bouncing around in the bags, but still taste the same. Add to this an apple or orange and some trail mix or other snack if you are still hungry and you are set. Note bananas are a great nutritious food source, but tend to get beat up quickly in your bags and you end up with a big black messy mush – trust me, not a pretty sight. Thus unless the first few days are mainly pavement and the weather is not too hot, I tend to avoid them as trail food.

I have seen other riders bring hard cheeses, salami, and crackers as their core lunch or as snacks if you like “meat” with your meals.

Snacks: Energy bars, trail mix, or dried fruit are the typical choices here because of their high-calorie density. Also, jerky or beef sticks are good protein options. Cookies or multi-grain crackers also work if you protect them from crushing. I also pack some Emergen-C powdered drink mix packets, which are quick to mix for a fizzy fruit drink that also helps for an afternoon energy boost with 1000mg of vitamin C and other minerals.


This is probably the hardest meal to plan but also where you can have the most variety. In general, you have more time to prepare dinner than other meals as you have made it to your destination, have set up camp, and are winding down after a good day of riding.

For the first night if you know there will be a campfire, nothing beats a good Hot Link or Brat Sausage (or 2) toasted over the fire. Freeze them at home in a Ziploc bag, and they will be ready for the flames by dinnertime. I would not trust them for night two unless the weather is cool and they are the pre-cooked variety.

Dinner is where I have used the freeze-dried Mountain House bags, but since these get expensive as your main go-to-meal, I will often just carry one as a backup or extra “emergency” meal if traveling far from civilization.

I have found dried soup mixes like Bear Creek Chunky Potato are a good option. (Note you need a stove with the ability to simmer for this.) You can add protein such as diced dry salami or sausage or foil packet ham, salmon, tuna, etc. For the vegetables, I like to pack a Ziploc full of carrots and maybe some broccoli florets, which can be eaten raw while your other meal is cooking. (Again, I only have one pot and raw veggies are better for you anyway…)

The combination of meat in the form of a foil packet or small cans of tuna, chicken, etc., mixed with some starch side dish packets of rice, noodles, or dried potatoes is a good filling, hot meal that I see a lot of riders use for dinner. The packets are what you find at the grocery store with such names as Knorr/Lipton Rice Sides or Pasta Sides. You can also buy your own bulk dried potato, minute rice, or pasta (couscous is quick-cooking) and then mix in a sauce packet from the same Knorr, etc companies. Or you can create your own combination of powder and spice mixes, but that takes more planning. And of course, those instant ramen noodle packs you used to buy by the case back in college are also an easy, cheap, and filling option that packs well on the trail.


For those who like to indulge a little around the campfire, it is hard to go wrong with a basic metal or plastic flask filled with your favorite beverage. Glass, of course, is a bit risky for off-road use…

If mixed drinks are more your favor, one rider has demonstrated that the combination of Country Time Lemonade (the powder packs well) combined with some vodka makes a very refreshing combination.

Food Dehydrator:

As a means to add variety to your trail meal options as well as save some cash, a food dehydrator may be a worthwhile investment. I personally do not have any experience with these but have heard great things from riders like RWC who has made everything from dried fruit roll-up snacks to just-add-water dried spaghetti with meat sauce. If you like to experiment and/or have access to seasonal fruit or garden veggies in bulk quantities, this might be a great way to go.

Example of a Typical Weekend Ride Meal Plan (Fri Dinner – Sun Lunch):


  • 2 Ziploc bags of oatmeal with dried fruit, nuts, and powdered milk
  • 3 Teabags (extra one typically caffeine-free as an option for a night drink)
  • 1 Small plastic container of Tang drink powder
  • 2 Cereal bars as backup


  • 2 PB&J sandwiches
  • 2 Apples or Oranges


  • 1 Quart size bag of Trail Mix – typically nuts, seeds, raisins, M&Ms variety.
  • 2 PowerBars, granola bars, or other energy bars (no chocolate coating which melts …)
  • 2 Emergen-C powder drink packets


  • 1 Packet Lipton Cajun Sides Rice and Beans.
  • 1 Ziploc with Dry Potato Soup Mix – 2 servings worth is typically plenty.
  • 1 5oz can of chicken (for Cajun rice)
  • 1 Ziploc with several slices of salami or pepperoni (for soup)
  • 1 Ziploc with about 3-4 raw carrots peeled and cut in half

Place all the smaller bags into one gallon-size heavy-duty freezer Ziploc to keep food organized and for added protection from punctures.

Other Considerations:

Depending on the ride route, the group will typically stop for fuel sometime around midday and often use this as an opportunity to grab lunch at some fast-food joint or even at the gas station convenience store, so this could reduce your need to pack some meals. Or if the fuel stop is late in the day, one could also grab dinner or some evening beverages at that time which again reduces the need to pack all meals.


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