Backpacking is an incredible way to explore the wilderness and connect with nature. When it comes to ultralight backpacking, it requires more careful planning and preparation to make sure you have the right equipment and supplies to stay safe and comfortable on the trail.
Cooking is an essential part of any backpacking trip, but it becomes even more important when you're trying to travel as light as possible. With limited gear and supplies, you'll need to carefully balance your food, water, and cooking equipment to make sure you have everything you need to stay nourished and hydrated throughout your trip.
Whether you're a seasoned ultralight backpacker or just starting out, it's important to have a basic understanding of how to cook while on the trails and to choose the right gear and supplies to make your experience as safe and enjoyable as possible.
This article will cover everything you need to know about cooking for ultralight backpacking. We’ll fill you in on the following points:
- What is ultralight backpacking?
- How much food and water should I take?
- What types of food should I bring?
- Cooking options
What is ultralight backpacking?
Ultralight backpacking emphasizes reducing the weight and bulk of gear to a minimum. You only carry the essentials for your trips. Less is more!
Typically, ultralight backpacking trips last 3–7 days. This short duration allows you to minimize the amount of gear you carry, cover more ground, and experience more of the great outdoors.
This approach is different from other forms of backpacking, such as thru-hiking. Thru-hiking usually lasts 15+ days, even a few months. Even though their duration is different, their attitude to ultralight is the same.
So, what gear do you need to bring to stay ultralight?
Basic Cooking Gear Needed
A traditional backpacker typically carries a 50 to 65-liter capacity backpack with a base weight of 35 pounds or more. (Base weight - the total weight of all items in the pack, including the pack, but excluding consumables such as food and water).
Light backpackers aim for a base weight of 20 lbs/9kg or less, while ultralight backpackers aim for 10 lbs/4.5kg or less. You only bring the necessities, such as a camping stove and fuel, some cookware, and a long-handled spoon or spork.
Camping Stove & Fuel
A small, lightweight camping stove is essential for cooking while backpacking. Titanium canister stoves and multi-fuel stoves are the best options available.
Under ideal conditions, a 3.5oz/100g gas canister will last for about 10-14 meals or 30 minutes continuously. It's roughly a three to four-day trip. When planning a 7-day trip, you need to take a larger one (8oz/230g). However, it means carrying more weight.
If you want to save weight, consider a multi-fuel stove. It is compatible with alcohol, gasoline, and even fuel tablets. For example, 5 fl oz/0.15ml of 70% rubbing alcohol will provide approximately 50 minutes of burn time. That is 15-23 meals with only 5 fl oz. In this regard, a multi-fuel stove is more efficient.
Titanium pots and titanium cups are excellent choices for cookware. Not only can you use them for cooking, but you can also use them to boil water and make yourself a hot cup of coffee in the morning.
When backpacking with others, you can try a pot set of two or three pots. However, make sure to select those with a nesting design. It can also be used to store food, snacks, and fuel.
The 25.3fl oz/750ml size is ideal for use with titanium cups when camping. It provides ample space to prepare a satisfying breakfast, such as oatmeal.
Additionally, a titanium cup with a lid is an excellent choice for cooking dehydrated food. Simply boil water in the cup and add the contents inside, stirring regularly. Depending on food style, heating is also a great option adding a little water to prevent burning if needed.
Titanium Long-handle Spoon or Spork
A titanium long-handled spoon or spork can be a great companion if you want to be as light as possible. You can easily scoop food and even get the last scoopfuls of food in your large dehydrated food pack.
Aside from the base pack weight, how much food and water you bring with you plays a significant role in your backpacking experience. Let's dive in.
How Much Food and Water Should I Take?
When planning an ultralight backpacking trip, it's essential to carefully consider the amount of food and water you need to bring.
While food is typically the heaviest item in your backpack, dehydrated food is an excellent choice for ultralight backpacking as it removes the need to carry raw ingredients. However, the exact amount of food you'll need will vary based on several factors, including the duration of your trip, your level of physical activity, and your body size and weight.
For example, if you plan to cover 15 to 20 miles/24 to 32km a day, you'll need more calories than if you're only doing 5 to 10 miles/8 to 16km. It may take some trial and error to find the right amount of food for you, but a general rule of thumb is to aim for 1.5 to 2 lbs/0.68 to 0.9kg of food per person per day or 2,500 to 4,500 calories. Bring 4.5 to 6 lbs/2 to 2.7kg of food if you plan on hiking for three days.
When it comes to water, a good rule of thumb is to drink 33.8 fl oz/1L every 2 hours while hiking. To stay hydrated, you should drink at least 67.6fl oz/2L of water per day if you plan to hike for 4 hours per day. More water is required as you hike further.
However, taking all the water you need for the entire day or trip is a nightmare. The ideal amount is to take only 33.8 fl oz/1L with you. So you need to consider access to water sources along the trail and whether you'll need water purification tablets or a mini filter. Boiling water in a titanium cup is an option, but be sure to have a plan in place to ensure your water is safe and drinkable.
Finally, it's critical to strike a balance between bringing enough food and water to keep you safe and energetic while avoiding overpacking. To make it happen, you must carefully select the food you bring.
What Types of Food Should I Bring?
Here are some food options for you to consider.
To maximize your food's calorie and nutrient density, it's important to choose foods that are high in calories relative to their weight and volume. A good goal is to aim for at least 100 calories per ounce, with 125 calories or more being even better. It's fine to treat yourself to a chocolate bar if it means getting over the next hill or motivating you to the next camp but try to eat healthy foods whenever possible.
Some calorie-dense food options include nuts, seeds, and dried fruit that can be added to your oatmeal in the morning. They will make your hot breakfast tastier.
Dehydrated meals are a popular option for ultralight backpackers because they are convenient, require no cleanup, and can be easily packed into a backpack.
Popular dehydrated meals include freeze-dried beef stroganoff, teriyaki chicken with rice, beef curry, and Mexican-style chili. There are also vegetarian options, such as veggie lasagna, lentil stew, and three-bean chili. Many of these meals are light and easy to prepare. You can make a tasty meal by simply adding some hot water to it.
However, purchasing pre-packaged dehydrated meals for multiple-day trips can be both expensive and bulky. Another option is to dehydrate your own food, which allows you to control the ingredients and save money. This can be done by dehydrating individual ingredients, such as vegetables, cooked pasta, or meat, and combining them into meals. Alternatively, you can dehydrate entire meals, such as chili or soup, for a more streamlined option.
With dehydrated food, don’t forget a good long-handled spoon or spork to reach the bottom of the food bag.
Stoveless Backpacking Meals
Stoveless backpacking meals will come in handy if you're tired of adding hot water to your backpacking meals. It truly is a ready-to-eat meal. Simply tear it open and eat.
There are options such as Greenbelly Meals Meal2Go, Kate's Real Food, and ProBar Meal etc. They are minimally processed, so the nutritional content of the food is preserved. And they have a variety of flavors to suit your preferences.
It truly is a quick, simple, and compact solution for ultralight backpacking. However, 7 usd for a sinlge meal can be crazy. If you have a tight budget, this option isn’t for you.
On the other hand, it's a good idea to mix things up and bring a variety of meals. Although this isn’t for everyone. Some people I know choose to eat the same meal each day while backpacking. They call it loyalty. A friend recently did this for a 7-day hike in New Zealand. 7 days!
Furthermore, do not bring food that you do not like or have not tried. If you can't stand oatmeal or peanut butter at home, the picturesque scenery won't make it any better.
After some experience, you'll be able to create the ideal backpacking menu. Now let’s consider the cooking options that would best suit your trip’s needs.
Stoveless is a convenient option for ultralight backpacking, as it eliminates the need for a stove, fuel, and cooking pot. It will cut down the base weight a lot, making it easier to carry other essentials on the trail.
This can be achieved by bringing food that doesn't require cooking, such as energy bars, nuts, and jerky.
This approach works well for short trips, like 2-3 day hikes, where it won’t put too much strain on your appetite and digestive system. On longer trips, stoveless food can serve as a quick and easy breakfast option.
However, if you prefer hot meals on your trip, you can go for one-pot/cup cooking.
One-pot/cup cooking is another convenient option for ultralight backpacking, as it requires minimal gear.
All you need for this method is a single pot or cup and a camping stove to boil water. Then you have three options to cook it.
Cooking in A Pot/Cup
The first one is to use a pot or cup to boil water. Then put dehydrated food in the boiling water and stir. When the meal is done, the pot or cup can also be used as a container to eat the meal. The size of the cup or pot varies but 600ml - 750ml is a good go-to.
A multi-purpose pot or cup is simple and efficient saving fuel and weight. It is also simple to clean up after eating or drinking.
Cooking in A Dehydrated Food Bag
Another option is when you are done boiling water, simply pour the boiling water into the bag of dehydrated food and place it in an insulated sleeve. Massage the bag after 20 to 30 minutes to evenly distribute the heat and rehydrate the meal. You can then eat straight from the bag.
Furthermore, because the bags are usually large, a long-handled spork or spoon is required.
Ready-to-go Food Bags
The final one is to use ready-to-go food bags. Simply place or fold the food bag inside the cup, add water, and bring it to a boil. When the water starts to boil, your food is ready. After the bag has cooled, simply rip it open and eat.
With food bags whether ready-to-go or dehydrated food, choose quality packaging from respected brands. This is because you don’t want poor-quality materials and packaging in use when boiling or heating.
In a nutshell, the one-pot/cup cooking method allows you to go further without a doubt. However, you must take into account the amount of fuel needed for the trip. If you plan for a 7-day trip, an 8oz/230g canister is required.
On the other hand, if you want to simplify the process and avoid the hassle of carrying fuel, a campfire can serve as an alternative cooking method.
Cooking with Campfires
Campfire cooking can be another option to replace camping stoves, especially for those who prefer a more natural and traditional way of cooking on their trips.
Unlike camping stoves, it does not require any special equipment or fuel, making it an ideal choice for those who want to keep things simple and lightweight. However, the drawback is that you cannot control the flame, which may affect the cooking time. In addition, if the conditions are dreadful getting a campfire going can be a right pain.
Furthermore, it is critical to check the local fire restrictions before starting a campfire and to build it in a designated area or build a fire pit.
To start the fire, always bring a fire starter, such as a lighter, matches, or a flint.
Finally, there are no perfect cooking options, each have disadvantages. Simply take your time, try, and discover what works best for you.
Cooking methods vary depending on the length of your trip and your food preferences. For shorter trips of 2-3 days, consider eating high-calorie foods and using a stove-free cooking method. For longer trips, try cooking with a single pot/cup or a plastic bag and dehydrated foods.
Furthermore, follow the general rule of 2 lbs (0.68 to 0.9 kg) of food or 2,500 to 4,500 calories per day, and drink 33.8 fl oz (1 L) of water every 2 hours. Then try to find the best cooking option for you using these guidelines.
I hope you found this information useful. If you have any further questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment below.
To your next adventure!