How to Hack Backpacking Meals with Supermarket Ingredients

It’s easy to prepare shelf-stable backpacking meals. Here are five tips, plus one recipe, to get you started.

Published Oct. 27, 2021.

Many seasoned backpackers don’t just rely on pricey freeze-dried meals for sustenance on the trail. Instead, they often prepare their own quick-cooking backpacking meals from shelf-stable supermarket ingredients: instant rice; packets of refried beans; ramen noodles; and even hard cheeses, such as Parmesan. Some even invest in a dehydrator to get really gourmet (think dehydrated vegetables and even meat)! Here are five tips to help you hack your own backpacking meals.

Photo: SDI Productions, Getty Images
  1. Pick a Base: There are tons of grocery options when it comes to quick-cooking, filling bases for your meal: Instant ramen, mashed potatoes, rice, couscous, and packets of soup all cook up fast with the addition of hot water. Pasta is another great base, though it does take longer to cook. Bread, especially tortillas and pita, is another great, lightweight base for a meal. 
  2. Add Protein: While you don’t need to add protein, it’s a great way to boost your energy and fill up during a long trip. Shelf-stable options include fish or meat packed in water; cured meats such as Spanish chorizo, smoked fish, and various jerkies; TVP (textured vegetable protein); and some quick-cooking legumes, such as red lentils and split peas. Avoid canned items, since they are quite heavy; instead, opt for items sold in packages and pouches, such as this salmon
  3. Load Up on Vegetables: While you might think having fresh vegetables on the trail is a pipe dream, think again! Some fresh vegetables, including carrots, spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, snap peas, and broccoli, can be kept for about three days without refrigeration. To prepare larger vegetables such as broccoli, cut florets into small pieces and store them in zipper-lock bags. 
  4. Get Creative with Add-Ins: While instant rice, ramen noodles, and even bags of refried beans (they are a thing) are great foundations for a hearty backpacking meal, they can benefit from a little creativity to boost flavor. Take a meal of instant rice and refried beans; on its own, it’s filling and tasty, but it’s even better if you add some pregrated hard cheese, a packet of hot sauce, and some crushed Fritos to create a sort of nacho bowl. Nonrefrigerated pickles are another great way to boost flavor (you can find some amazing options at Asian grocery stores), as are nori, nuts, and seeds. 
  5. Don’t Forget Seasoning Packets: Seasoning packets are an easy way to boost flavor. Add a seasoning packet to your base (rice, pasta, mashed potatoes) to make dishes such as pasta Alfredo, red beans and rice, or chicken-broccoli rice. We used packets of Knorr Alfredo Sauce Mix and Knorr Parma Rosa Sauce Mix for our backpacker Alfredo recipe.

Three Ideas to Get You Started

Now that you have the basics, here are three other quick ideas for shelf-stable meals, plus a recipe for Grocery-Store Backpacker Alfredo with Mushrooms and Sun-Dried Tomatoes that we used in our testings of backpacking stoves and backpacking cookware sets.

  • Tuna Salad Pita Pockets: Water-packed tuna + mayonnaise packets + relish packets + salt and pepper + pita 
  • Loaded Ranch Mashed Potatoes: Instant mashed potatoes + ranch seasoning packet + bacon bits + store-bought fried shallots
  • Broccoli Bonanza Pasta: Pasta + chicken and broccoli pasta seasoning packet + broccoli florets + Parmesan cheese

With a few simple ingredients, it’s easy to have a hearty Alfredo during your backpacking trip. We cooked 3 pounds of this while testing backpacking stoves and cookware sets, and the leftovers were a huge hit.

Grocery-Store Backpacker Alfredo with Mushrooms and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Serves 2

Be sure to use dehydrated sun-dried tomatoes here. Do not use sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil; they are not shelf-stable. You can substitute another pasta for the linguine, if desired. It’s most efficient to cook one serving at a time, because most backpacking pots are rather small. 

  • 1 packet Knorr Alfredo Sauce Mix or Knorr Parma Rosa Sauce Mix 
  • ½ cup dried porcini mushroom slices, broken into pieces
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes 
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ cup dehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, chopped coarse
  • 8 ounces linguine
  • 2 (⅜-fluid-ounce) packets olive oil 
  • 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 cup)
  • 3 cups water, divided
  1. Combine sauce mix, mushrooms, pepper flakes, basil, and oregano in bowl; divide mixture evenly between 2 zipper-lock bags. Divide pasta into two 4-ounce portions and place 1 portion in each bag. Place 1 oil packet (unopened) into each bag. Place Parmesan and salt and pepper into separate zipper-lock bags. 
  2. Empty contents of 1 spice-mixture bag into pot (along with oil packet). Cover with 1½ cups water (this should be enough to cover pasta). Bring to boil over high heat. Lower heat to maintain simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for about 14 minutes. Add ½ cup Parmesan and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving bowl. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Serve.

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Photo: Marko Geber, Getty Images

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