It’s Lunch Time!

So you have your breakfast and dinners planned, but what about your lunch and snacks?

Every year, parents and backpackers ask me for advice about what food to bring, and every year my list fluctuates—finding a balance between necessity and luxury. For a long time, I would use the Poway Backpacker food list as a means to pack as much junk food as possible. Then one year, I was digging through my pack for a snack and realized, I didn’t want Oreos, I didn’t want Pringles, and I couldn’t imagine eating another Pop Tart. I did not want any of the unhealthy snacks I had packed. I wanted real food. This epiphany inspired me to really rethink my menu.

My menu isn’t too different from the Poway Backpacker food list. I kept a lot of the basics, but started removing things that I didn’t like or never really ate in past years. (For you returning backpackers, think of all the food you threw away on the last day—do you really need those items?) I was eliminating things such as Hostess cakes, Jolly Ranchers, and puddings. I found myself wondering how I could pack light but have delicious and nutritious foods. There is always a trade off. Sometimes the healthier foods can be as heavy as the junk foods.

When packing food for your trip, it becomes about taking the Poway Backpacker food list and making it your own. Try to imagine it like you are meal planning for a week, except your food has to fit in a box that you have to carry on your back for ten days. This changes everything. I love Ritz Cracker’s Handi-Snacks but they take up substantial space, have unnecessary packaging, and are heavy.

Quesadilla party
Quesadilla’s on top of Mt.Whitney is a great way to pack in the protein needed for the long descent. Photo / Brian O’Malley

For me, quesadillas and tuna sandwiches were staple lunches, so I wanted to find ways to make them better and more filling. I tried to find ways to incorporate more vegetables or healthier alternatives, adding things such as avocado, onions, and bell peppers to my menu. Trust me, these ingredients can get heavy, spoil, and stink up your bear canister; I know from experience.

Tuna Sanwich
Tuna sandwich with mayo, mini bell pepper, and pearl onion. Photo / Brian O’Malley

One day, doing my shopping, I stumbled across pearl onions and thought to myself how awesome it would be to have a fresh onion for every meal, sandwich, or quesadilla I made on the trip, and not have to worry about having to use it all at once or letting it stink up my pack.

I always ask other leaders and past participants about their menus and what they are adding to their lists. Whether it is Mike and his microwaveable bacon, or Ian with his “epic bag of candy;” they all have great ideas.

Each year, I slightly modify my menu, but here is an example of the idea list I use to pack my lunches and snacks. Please note that I do not take all of these things, but instead use it as a guideline when planning. Most importantly, read the fine print on the Poway Backpacker’s food list and eat before you shop! Once you figure out your menu items and finish meal planning, it is then time to get all the food. Don’t worry I have a few hacks and strategies for you all.

Hints and tips for shopping and packing food:

Howell Quesadilla
Audrey Howell sporting the classic american cheese quesadilla with pepperoni. As you can see she is stoked. Photo / Brian O’Malley

First off, I always recommend pairing up with people on your trip and plan for some trades. It is highly unlikely you are going to consume 24 slices of American cheese on this backpacking trip or an entire bag of Jolly Ranchers. The past few years, Ian and I have been trading clementines for American cheese. It is also good to talk to returning backpackers for advice on what they pack.

I will usually do a bulk of my shopping at Vons and then get my healthier items at Sprouts or Trader Joe’s. However, The World Market is one of my favorite spots to get my novelty or “luxury” backpacking items. They have mini Tobascos, individually wrapped gourmet cheeses (tomato basil is my favorite), and an array of tiny sausages. Instead of bringing gigantic chunk of Salami or summer sausage from Vons or Ralphs, I pick up three or four mini sausages from the World Market.

Once you have purchased all of your food, you need to fit it in your bear canister. Ziplocks are your best friend. I take all of my food out of their packaging and put them in ziplock bags. This helps me discard any excess trash, keeps the wilderness cleaner from stray wrappers, and allows me to organize. I use snack, sandwich, quart, and gallon size freezer ziplocks to repackage my items. For example, in a single quart size I will have a sandwich bag filled with snack size bags of sugar, tea packets, and drink mixes. Then in a different quart size, I will have a sandwich bag of snack size bags of peppers, onions, and spices. Call it overkill, but having my ziplock system helps me organize, limit trash, and most importantly prevents my bear can from smelling like onion flavored gummy bears. Don’t forget a few gallon ziplocks to double as trash bags (I will usually end the trip with two full gallon ziplocks stuffed with trash).

Deluxe double-decker sandwich
Garrison Walters is one of our innovators when it comes to creative lunch meals. This is known as the “deluxe double-decker sandwich.” Photo / Brian O’Malley

I always bring along a bread box in addition to my bear canister. Holding about five or six sandwiches worth of bread, tuna packets, and mayo/ketchup packets inside the box. Once I’ve eaten a sandwich or two, I can fit my peanut butter and jelly tubes in the bread box, giving my bear canister a little more breathing room.

Instead of bringing a whole container or a heavy bottle of ketchup/mayo I will grab packets from some of my favorite fast food joints. In past years I have had a hard time finding which places have the packets I need. Before I tell you my favorite spots get condiments please DO NOT run into any establishment and steal their condiments. Make a purchase and only take what you need. Three mayo, two ketchup, and eight fire sauces is all I need to get me through an eight day Poway backpacking trip.

Here is a list of places that I have used in the past:

  • Chick-Fil-A has a vast selection of mayos, mustards and ketchups (I usually get my ketchup from In-n-out).
  • Taco Bell hooks it up with the Fire Sauce salsa
  • Seaworld Dining has Cholula packets
  • Relish is the tricky one, but a must have for any accomplished tuna sandwich (I think last year I got it from a Submarina or Quiznos.)

I am definitely a spice of life kinda guy. So in addition to my condiment packets, I do bring an arsenal of seasonings, but when it comes to backpacking you simply cannot bring the whole pantry. Jody Prescott discovered this awesome hack a few years back that I’ve implemented ever since. For spices, oils, and seasonings, use a plastic straw, crimp, then burn the ends. Crack open the tip when you want to use the desired spice and then when you are finished recrimp and burn the tip and pinch it shut. (Check out this other cool recommendation that the Prescotts shared with us Moose Goo)

Epic bag of candy
Ian Rinehart smiles at the success of his “epic bag of candy” resolidifying into delightfully epic candy bites. Photo / Brian O’Malley

I used to bring big bags of trail mix/gorp but never ate it all. I really just liked the salted cashews and peanut m&ms. So I ditched the trail mix and now just bring the peanut M&Ms and salted cashews. This left me a gap to fill, so I started bringing what Ian lovingly calls the “Epic Bag of Candy.” It is basically all the candies you’d ever want on a trip put in one bag. I love Gushers, Airheads, Lemon Drops, Peach Rings, and Sour Skittles. What’s even better is when all of them are combined! It’s kind of a similar idea to Gorp, where all the ingredients start to combine and melt together when it’s hot, and then when it cools, the candies will solidify into epic candy bites!

In recent years I have started bringing chia seeds, a superfood, to add to my breakfasts and Nalgene bottle. I also like to bring Cuties and lemons on the trip. Combined with some chia seeds, they are a great source of refreshing energy and can be sliced to add a little flavor to your Nalgene water. Then, instead of burying or burning the peels, I throw them in my trash bag to help combat the growing stench.

Now you are ready to dive into your shopping with a little more knowledge about what is what. I hope you find my hints and tips useful and are now prepared to go out there and perfect your own backpacking menu. If you have any questions or fun ideas, please post them in the comments section. we love to hear your feedback!


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