Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Compared to cooking indoors, camping may seem like roughing it. But try your hand at backpacking or trekking, and suddenly portable gas or charcoal grills seem like pure luxury. Cooking while backpacking requires a little more finesse; not to mention, a refined cache of products. Stoves must be very lightweight and highly packable. Cookware should be stackable or collapsible. Everything should be feather-light. Food and ingredients must be efficiently packed and non-perishable.

Although backpacking is not the ideal scenario for a four-course, foraged, gourmet meal, you can still eat well on a multi-day trek. To sort through the glut of backpacking-cooking gear on the market, I consulted Serious Eats staffers of the outdoorsy type, as well as Beth Rodden, a professional mountain climber and writer (who is no stranger to spending a night or two suspended on the side of a cliff). I’ve added a few picks of my own, as I’ve spent plenty of time eating outdoors (often literally on the go) since I trail run and train for ultramarathons. From actually tasty freeze-dried food to a clever folding skillet, these are the new essentials for eating and cooking well, whether you’re a hiker, backpacker, or peak bagger.

Associate commerce editor Grace Kelly (who has extensively reviewed backpacking cooking gear) recommends this lightweight camping stove that’s literally the size of a deck of cards. “I love how light and compact the burner is; you can fold it up and stash it away easily. It’s also super easy to use: just screw the bottom onto an iso-propane butane canister (don’t use propane or any other fuel), open the fuel valve, and use a lighter to start the burner. Plus, this setup comes with a small pot that’s perfect for boiling water to rehydrate backpacking food.” 

Key Specs

Fuel type: Isobutane-propaneNumber of burners: 1Average boil time for 1 liter: 5 minutesBurn time at maximum flame: 74 minutesPrice at time of publish: $145Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

If you’re looking to cook up something slightly more complex than rehydrated fare (perhaps some instant biscuits or pancakes), a skillet comes in handy. And this offering from Jetboil is simple and effective. We like the concentric lines on the bottom that help keep the skillet steady over your backpacking stove, and that the handle folds inwards for easy storage.

Key Specs

Diameter: 8 inchesMaterial: AluminumWeight: 10.6 ouncesNonstick?: YesPrice at time of publish: $45

Beth Rodden is a fan of this collapsible dinnerware set, which features fold-out bowls and plates. “My neighbors recommended these to me a few years ago, and now my family loves them. They’re super light and work well (enough). That’s my expert advice—ha—to get something that works well enough. Collapsible dinnerware isn’t as nice as Heath dishes, but it works great and is easy to clean, easy to pack.” It’s nice to know that although you’ll be washing them with boiled water in the woods, you can pop them in the dishwasher for a thorough clean when you return home.

Key Specs

Pieces included: 3; dish, bowl, and cupWeights: Dish: 1.4 ounces; bowl: 1.4 ounces; cup: 1.2 ouncesCare: Dishwasher safeExtra features: BPA-freePrice at time of publish: $18

Coffee is a crucial part of getting up and at ‘em—especially when getting our butts in gear on the trail. Although freshly brewed French press coffee may sound dreamy (and look like the Instagram moment of our fantasies), in reality, most coffee gear is too bulky to justify bringing on a backpacking trip. The great news: instant coffee has gotten downright delicious over the last few years and this offering from Intelligentsia is senior commerce editor Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm’s favorite. “It’s really, really good,” she says, and I concur: I’ve willingly made it at home, even when I had real beans available.

Key Specs

Servings per package: 5Serving size: 4.5 gramsServing directions: Pour one sachet into cup; add 8-10 ounces hot water and stirPrice at time of publish: $12Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

If you’re looking to buy a comprehensive set of backpacking cookware and be done with it, this love set from GSI has you covered. “Not only does it include a pot and skillet, but it also includes little serving cups if you’re sharing a meal,” says Grace. “Plus, it’s actually pretty compact considering what it includes.” We’re big fans of the clever design, which allows for all the equipment to be stashed away inside the pot. Gotta love efficient real estate!

Key Specs

Items included: 2-liter pot, 8-inch fry pan, 2 mugs, 2 cupsTotal weight of set: 1.8 poundsMaterial: AluminumNonstick?: YesPrice at time of publish: $110

Bars and powders are an efficient way to pack in extra protein when you’re hiking, but if the thought of choking down another chalky shake sounds… not appealing, may we suggest tinned fish? Grace is a big fan, which is noteworthy because she used to despise canned tuna. “Some of my favorite options are from Patagonia, Fishwife, and Siesta Co. (and many other brands, which you can learn more about here).” Pouches and cans of preserved fish are delicious and shelf-stable until opened, and the industry has come a long way from Bumblebee tuna (although I’ll note that I have a nostalgic soft spot for that). Not sure where to start? Says Grace, “I quite like Patagonia’s Spanish Paprika mackerel, Fishwife’s Smoked Salmon (which goes really well with eggs, be they fresh or rehydrated), and Scout’s Chili Crisp Seafood Snack (pair it with some instant rice and *chef’s kiss*).” 

Key Specs

Patagonia: Patagonia offers a variety of seafood samplers, as well as individual tins. Prices range from $8 to $192. Fishwife: Fish is canned in Spain, Washington State, and British Columbia, and Fishwife states that “we source from responsibly managed fisheries and aquaculture farms.” Keep an eye out for limited releases.Scout: There are lots of options to choose from, including tins and “Seafood Snacks.” Prices range from $15 to $40, with the option to buy tins in larger quantities. Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Before you object—we’ve heard all the hot takes about freeze-dried food—you’ve got to give Peak Refuel Beef Stroganoff a try. “Listen—I know freeze-dried beef sounds disgusting, but this stuff was actually so good, I ate both servings myself,” Grace says. “And not only was it delicious (it actually had the tang of sour cream, and was rich and mushroomy), it was super filling—an essential trait for food when you’re hiking miles a day.” Unlike some nonperishable food options, this can be mixed right in the bag, which earns points for efficiency. Just pour in hot water, mix, and enjoy (truly!).

Price at time of publish: $14.

Key Specs

Serving size: 2Calories per serving: 400Protein per serving: 20 gramsSodium per serving: 470 milligramsPrice at time of publish: $14Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

I love oats as much as the next person, but after a day or two of bars and granola, I’m ready for something savory. Everything from Good To-Go is legitimately delicious (I have definitely made their freeze-dried dinners at home during lazy nights), but the hash really hits the spot during a trek.

Key Specs

Servings per container: 1Ingredients: Butternut squash, feta, carrots, potato, spinach, olive oil, garlic, thyme, and oreganoNutritional facts and allergens: Contains dairy; is gluten-free, vegetarian, peanut-free, tree nut-free, and soy-freePrice at time of publish: $9

Nobody’s expecting separate salad forks and entrée forks on a backpacking trip (nobody’s expecting salad, either), but having a set of “real” flatware can be a surprisingly comforting touch when backpacking or camping. The key is to go for lightweight materials and invest in a set that has its own carrying pouch, so you don’t lose your trusty spoon. Hydroflask is known for its durable water bottles, but Riddley likes their flatware set, too. “It hasn’t rusted or tarnished in the year-plus I’ve had it, and I like its soft, lightweight carrying pouch.”

Key Specs

Pieces included: Knife, fork, spoon, carrying pouchMaterial: Stainless steelExtra features: Silverware is stackable for low-profile storage; dishwasher-safePrice at time of publish: $24

Where would a list of backpacking gear be without a spork shoutout? The ideal spork has actually-useful tines and a deep bowl, and this one delivers. Plus, it’s made from polypropylene, which is both lightweight and durable. It’s one of Beth’s favorite utensils on and off the trails: “We have a million of these lying around. They’re great for everything from backpacking to school lunches to mom lunches.”

Key Specs

Material: Recycled polypropylene Weight: 0.5 ouncesDimensions: 7 x 1.3 x 0.75 inchesCare instructions: Dishwasher-safePrice at time of publish: $10

I have about a zillion of these bags at home, but trekking and hiking is their time to shine. They’re much more durable than disposable zip-top bags, so you never have to deal with a busted baggie of G.O.R.P. at the bottom of your pack, again. Plus, Stasher makes lots of sizes and you can use them with a sous vide machine (obviously not when you’re backpacking, though). There’s no shortage of reusable food storage bags on the market these days, and in fact, we recently tested a bunch of them. Check out our review to compare.

Key Specs

Material: SiliconeDimensions: 7.5 x 7 x 2.25 inchesCapacity: 28 ouncesCare instructions: Dishwasher-, microwave-, and freezer-safePrice at time of publish: $18Serious Eats / Eric King

“I love this water bottle,” says Beth, and I agree. Although I’ve got about a half dozen metal water bottles kicking around, this is the one I reach for when every ounce matters: it’s half the weight of Yeti’s popular Rambler line of bottles, owing to its BPA-free plastic construction. It’s totally leak-proof, and you can customize the lid and carrying situations because the Yonder is compatible with Yeti’s Tether Cap and Bottle Sling. And I’ll admit: although aesthetics aren’t the most important consideration when trekking (okay, they’re not important at all), I appreciate the variety of available color options. The Yonder is available in four different sizes, too: 20, 25, 34, and 50 ounces.

Key Specs

Capacity: 34 ounces; additional sizes availableMaterial: BPA-free plasticSpecial features: 50% lighter than the Yeti RamlerPrice at time of publish: $28

If your hike takes you deep into the backwoods, you’ll need a plan and a backup plan for accessing clean drinking water. Boiling works, but can be inefficient and take a long time. Luckily, lightweight UV-filters do a much quicker job, and zap all the harmful stuff in under two minutes. “I love this for my water filter,” says Beth. “It saves so much time, but doesn’t work everywhere in the world, so make sure you research your location before using it.”

Key Specs

Filter type: UltravioletOutput: 32 fluid ounces per 90 secondsRemoves and destroys: Protozoa, bacteria, virusesDimensions: 7.3 x 1.6 x 1.3 inchesWeight: 4.94 ounces (with rechargeable battery)Price at time of publish: $130

Folks who like to cook may feel lost without their favorite chef’s knife on the trail, but for obvious reasons it’s dangerous to trek around with an 8-inch blade bumping around in your backpack. That’s why we love a good folding knife, which is sharp enough to handle basic meal prep or just slice up an apple. Beth has more than one. “I love our Opinel knives. Our kiddo has one, too. It’s great if kids want to help cook, and the folding feature makes it safe to stash.” 

Key Specs

Materials: Stainless steel blade, wooden handleWeight: 1.6 ouncesBlade length: 3.28 inchesOverall length: 7.59 inchesCare instructions: Hand wash only. Do not immerse in water. Dry blade before closing.Price at time of publish: $19

Squirts of hand sanitizer can be a saving grace on the trail, but sometimes you just really want to wash your hands. This ultra-thin set of soap “leaves” is a must, and actually quite convenient to carry with you at all times (I have some in my car’s glove compartment). Each leaf dissolves into a liquid once introduced to water, and it’s made from entirely biodegradable materials, making it a great option for washing dirty backpacking pots and pans. Friendly reminder, though, that even biodegradable soap shouldn’t be used in a natural water source, like a lake or a stream. Suds up a couple hundred feet from the water.

Key Specs

Quantity included: 50 “leaves” of soapDirections for use: Remove from bag with dry hands; add water to dissolve and use as a liquid soapExtra features: TSA-approved; green tea scentPrice at time of publish: $6

FAQs

Is there good backpacking food?

Absolutely! Most backpacking food is dehydrated or freeze-dried; all you have to do is add hot water and mix. Backpacking food has come a long way from its origins, with brands like Patagonia Provisions and Good To-Go offering upgraded flavor combinations and meals, like Thai Curry and Chicken Pho. That said, it’s still a good idea to pack plenty of ready-to-eat options, like protein bars, nuts, and dried fruit for easy energy and nutrition while you’re on the move.

What do you need to cook on a backpacking trip?

A small backpacking stove really helps. Even if you have dreams of cooking over an open campfire, it’s a good idea to pack a stove. Conditions may not be appropriate or safe for making a campfire, and camp stoves have the convenience of being able to be turned off and packed away. You’ll also need a vessel to cook in; a saucepot is ideal for boiling water, and a small, foldable skillet (no more than 8 inches) makes up the basics. A lightweight, heatproof spatula will do the job of stirrer and serving vessel.

Can you carry a stove during a backpacking trip?

Yep, you really can! The Jetboil Stash we mentioned above is only seven ounces, and packs up so efficiently, you’ll barely notice it in your pack.

Why We’re the Experts

Rochelle Bilow is a freelance food writer from Vermont.She was previously a social media manager for Bon Appétit and Cooking Light Magazine.She has written extensively for Serious Eats, with other pieces including air fryer toaster ovens, cutting boards, balloon whisks, portable gas grills, and many more.We interviewed Beth Rodden, a professional rock climber, for this piece.Grace Kelly has reviewed backpacking stoves and cookware sets for America’s Test Kitchen, as well as backpacking meals for Serious Eats. She has frequently used the Jetboil Stash system on camping trips.Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm has reviewed numerous products for Serious Eats (including soft coolers, which are great for low-key outdoor adventures) and is an avid ultra-marathon and marathon runner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *