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Turn your meal into a masterpiece! Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

Trail Pantry: How to turn your Picnic from Ghastly to Gastro

Food doesn't just supply us with energy on trail: it shapes our experience. All because it's prepared and eaten on trail doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable. We have tips for how to take your next on-trail picnic to the next level! By Joseph Gonzalez.

Food is a reflection of ourselves: who we are, where we come from and what experiences we share as a community. Hiking food may have a reputation for being bland and processed, but it doesn’t need to be that way. If you’re up for a little extra effort, your meal can not only be the cherry on top of your hike… it can reframe your entire experience. Instead of dehydrated beans and rice, you and your friends can enjoy a backcountry taco bar. Rather than settling for a boring Lunchable, you can toast to your experiences over a decadent picnic. A good meal can indulge your senses, and with it, help you savor your environment as well.

We love a good on-trail meal and, with that in mind, we’ve pulled together some tips that even help you win-over that friend who believes hiking should be a sufferfest. Once you’ve created a fun, memorable experience for them, they’ll be sure to come back for more. The key is to take bite-sized steps and use presentation, practicality and creativity to turn your picnic from paltry to professional.

A hiker prepares their backcountry meal from a picnic spread. A tablecloth is spread over a rock, showcasing several bowls full of food.
Backcountry hummus, meat and condiment spread. Photo by Joseph Gonzalez.

Step up your ingredient game

Ingredient quality is a game changer. Incorporating fresh ingredients will impress your friends and turn even the most generic dehydrated dishes from Blandsville to FlavorTown. The speed that fresh food spoils depends upon the temperature and time spent outside, so let’s break this down by day-hikes and overnight trips


It’s easier to commit to an extravagant meal if you can bank on the comforts of home after the hike. Want to go all-out? Thermos are cumbersome, but can elevate your flavor game to the next level. Mix your favorite concoction at home (like sangria or margaritas), then throw it into your thermos with a few ice cubes to have a celebratory toast at the top of your climb. Keep contents ambiguous to your friends — a treat always tastes better when it’s unexpected. For those who want something more casual, work smarter, not harder: Bring a pre-made meal wrapped in foil. Make a sandwich at home or at the trailhead, or pack-in some leftover pizza! Other ideas are items that are yummy but quick to spoil, like smoked salmon, avocados or bananas. You can enjoy these early in the day, or stow them in a cooler (more on that below) for an afternoon snack.

A hiker sits on a rock with a cutting board and knife to prepare a Waldorf salad.
Packing lightweight cutlery is a game changer. Photo by Tyler Gates.

Overnight trips

Backpacking trips require extra attention and planning. The key is to transport any perishable items in an insulated container, like a soft-sided cooler, and to eat fresh food early in the trip. Precooked bacon, fresh cheese or summer sausage go nicely with a breakfast burrito, and a few stalks of cilantro with a slice of lime can make a huge difference in rehydrated beans or noodles. Other items, like crushed tortilla chips or peanuts, are lightweight and enhance a dish’s texture and color palette. A single cucumber or carrot can go a long way when sliced thin, especially when dipped in hummus. Items you want to keep cool, but aren’t immediately perishable, can keep insulated inside your backpack.

Pro-tip: hiking in bear country? Bring a bear canister to keep liquids cool, cheese from melting and toaster pastries un-smashed!

Let’s take things a step further. What’s the difference between a meal and a bowl of ingredients? Presentation. It’s amazing how much presentation matters, especially for folks who are less acquainted with fine, on-trail dining. Here are some low-effort tricks you can use to impress your hiking companions and make your snack Instagrammable: 

A pancake is cooked over a gas stove in the backcountry.
Backcountry pancakes. Photo by Joseph Gonzalez.

Bring a lightweight tablecloth

  • Making wraps on a log? Throw a tablecloth down, and BAM: that wrap is now a savory burrito.
  • Picking at some finger food near a creek? Drape a tablecloth on a flat rock and BOOM: it’s now a charcuterie luncheon.
  • As a bonus, the tablecloth will whet the appetites of every hiker walking past (earning you major trail cred). It will also catch food scraps that missed your voracious maw, thus reinforcing Leave No Trace principles and keeping food away from wildlife.

Bring the right cutlery and tableware for the job

      • Plastic serving dishes create a sense of community and make for great photos.
      • A small cutting board and knife allow you to curate the picnic to the exact serving dimensions and platter design you need.
      • Rubber gloves and a couple of trash bags (one for waste and another for dirty dishes) make clean-up much easier.

    Plate your food like a pro

            • Packing food in whole, then slicing it right before the meal, preserves the ingredients for as long as possible
            • Try thinly slicing veggies, cheese, or sausage then layer them in a spiral around the plate, gently overlapping. If you have a dip, put it in a plastic bowl in the middle.
            • Fold deli meats in half and arrange them in a cascading fashion to make them appear more appetizing (even if they’ve been sweating in your backpack for the last few miles).
            • Bring spices, oils and condiments in to-go packets from eateries or in reusable containers to provide customized flavor for your friends.
            • Pro tip: always keep that hand sanitizer close (and in a ziploc. Hand sanitizer doesn’t taste good).
    Multiple plates of food with various cheeses, meats, fruits and veggies are stacked in a cascading fashion on a tablecloth draped over rocks in the shade of a tree.
    How would you feel if you saw this on trail? Photo by Joseph Gonzalez.

    Finally, if you’re going to be carrying extra supplies and ingredients, ask yourself if you’re willing to risk it for the biscuit. If pack weight is important to you, and especially if you’re planning a long trip, ensuring your hiking meals pass a weight-to-calorie ratio can help. The ratio will change depending on how long your hike is and how heavy you want your pack to be. (It’s easier to carry a heavy load on shorter hikes). Aim for about 100 calories per one ounce of food. It’s a double-edged sword; you need calories to keep your energy up, but carrying extra weight makes you use more calories. Following the 100 calories per ounce guideline is the optimal balance.

    That doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice variety and nutrition. The key is to always think in terms of value. Consider water, which weighs about 2.2 pounds a liter. It’s (usually) easier to find water along the way than it is to camel-up from the trailhead, so look for foods you can rehydrate. There’s a thriving market for dehydrated hiking food and plenty of advice on how to D-I-Y your own meals. Instead, let’s focus on simple ingredients that can boost your enjoyment of your meals and your time on trail:

    Instant coffee

                      • Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world, and many hikers don’t start their morning without it. Instead of fussing with grounds and filters, consider an instant powdered packet.

      Powdered peanut butter

                        • Peanut butter is calorically dense and delicious! It is an excellent addition to wraps and oatmeal, or can be enjoyed straight-up. Going with the powdered version instead of a jar can shave precious weight off the food you carry.

        Powdered drink mixes

                          • In terms of weight to value, drink mixes are a no-brainer. Their sweet flavors incentivize staying hydrated on days when the water you’re carrying is warm, or if your water sources are less than delicious.
                          • Drink mixes can provide electrolytes or caffeine, which is especially helpful on hot or grueling days.

        Several days worth of backpacking food are organized on the floor.
        Perishable items like cheese and soyrizo are best enjoyed early in your hike. Photo by Tynesha Campbell.

        Powdered hummus

                          • Hummus is a food most hikers never expect to enjoy while on trail due to its weight and perishable nature. Powdered hummus suffers from neither of those ailments, and makes a deliciously nutritious accompaniment to many dinners or lunches.

        Powdered eggs

                          • Brands like OvaEasy and VeganEgg offer crystalized eggs that can be rehydrated with water. They’re calorically dense and tasty and bring an emotional comfort most hikers wouldn’t expect on the trail.

        Liquor is lighter

          • Do you like to responsibly enjoy an adult beverage when on trail? A can of beer isn’t a big ask for some hikes, but for overnights, wine is lighter and spirits are the lightest. Both options pack a higher alcohol content for their weight. Consider carrying your alcohol in a reusable plastic water bottle or wineskin and leave the glass at home.
          • Pro-tip: bring a salt packet and a small lime to really enhance the experience.
          • Feeling thirsty? Check out these boozy cocktail ideas to wow your friends!

        A series of dishes are aligned on a picnic table.
        Fresh fruits and veggies always taste better outside. Photo by Joseph Gonzalez.

        Take these culinary trail tips with a grain of salt; they’re not necessary to make or break your picnic, but they definitely help. Keep in mind that even bland food tastes better on trail than it does in your kitchen, so most hikers will be impressed with whatever you prepare (has a block of cheddar paired with a tortilla ever hit so hard?). With a little bit of prep time and some creative planning you can really make your wilderness lunch pop. Just be careful your friends get too accustomed to it — you’re not a Maître d', but you are a hiker.