Lots of Vegan Backpacking Food Ideas
Fritos, Nutter Butters, Oreos, Ritz Crackers, Kellogg's Unfrosted Pop-Tarts, Cracker Jacks, Sour Patch Kids… the list goes on. Who would have thought these items were vegan? Not that every vegan wants to pack their cart full of bags of Fritos and sleeves or Oreos, but the fact that there are options like these means that there are many more healthy, flavorful options out there for the vegan backpacker. Even better, you don't have to search far or spend a lot of money to eat well.
When I was preparing backpacking food for a CDT thru-hike in 2013, I was a fairly new vegan, having been vegetarian for a long time, and I was surprised by the amount of options once I started looking at labels. What seemed a daunting task at first was actually not very difficult, and has only gotten easier since.
What is vegan?
Without straying too far from this post and going into the different ways that people define their own diet and lifestyle, vegan in dietary terms is a plant-based diet that avoids the consumption of all animal products like meat, dairy, eggs and honey. Talk to any vegan and their choices may differ, which is completely fine and offers even more variety. In putting together this post, I used vegan in the strictest sense, citing products that are certified vegan, not because I believe there is a "best" vegan way out there, but so that I cover all vegans.
A few caveats:
- I choose to eat vegan for my own personal health reasons, but by writing this I'm not suggesting people go vegan. This is meant to be a resource for those looking for vegan options on the trail and in trail towns along the way
- I'm ok eating food that could share the same manufacturing equipment as milk and eggs (if I weren't, the amount of options would greatly decrease, though not disappear), but in the same turn I don't eat French fries in restaurants; oftentimes the fries share the same oil as meat
- I'm ok eating junk food if that's the only option. The gas stations in Atkins, VA on the Appalachian Trail and in Lima, MT on the Continental Divide Trail were both especially memorable because of my food choices.
- I have no affiliations with any of these stores or brands and cited them because I shop here for trail food and use these brands while backpacking
What do vegans eat?
If you're vegan yourself and hoping to better answer this question, or thinking about going vegan and wondering what options are out there, or just curious about what vegans actually eat on the trail, then read on and discover that vegans have no trouble consuming satisfying, filling, and even healthy calories along the way.
For a quick list with brands and exact products listed, check out this general list of vegan breakfast items, often found in a standard grocery store and in the "natural foods" section of some grocery stores.
- Granola and Cereal – I found lots of flavorful options at Trader Joe's and in two other brands, Nature's Path and Cascadian Farm Organic, and both brands are found in medium/large sized grocery stores and online. All these options are reasonably priced, no $13 per pound granola, and offer enough variety that I never tire of one kind. Also check out bulk bins in stores like Winco and Fred Meyer, depending on your location, or at natural foods stores. Whole Foods certainly has options that are high in calories and taste, though I can't promise that the options will be wallet friendly.
- Oatmeal –Quaker Oatmeal, a true standby on the trail, can still do the job and do it on the cheap and is widely available, and in several flavors. We packed the instant packets of oatmeal as our backup snacks on the CDT for those days when we needed just a little something extra to fill us up. When I didn't feel like using water for it, I just dipped a spoon of peanut butter in the packets for a unique snack.
- Dehydrated milk – Better than Milk brand makes both soy and rice milk, available on Amazon. I've only tried the soy milk and had success using it for cereal and granola. I've looked for dehydrated Almond and Coconut milk, but can't seem to find a reputable source.
- Bagels – Thomas New-York Style Bagels (plain, everything and blueberry) are a great vegan option and topped with your favorite nut butter, are a very high calorie start to the day or easy snack. This is an easy find in towns along the trail.
Lunch and Dinner
Here is a list of generic and branded vegan food items, many of which are easily found in any standard grocery store.
- Dehydrated Beans – There are quite a few options in the world of dehydrated refried beans, something I ate every day on the CDT for one meal a day. Talk about gas powered! My favorite brands are Santa Fe Bean Company, sold online such as Amazon.com, Taste Adventure, sold on their website and in smaller pouches or 10 pound bags for those long, cost-conscious hikes, and Fantastic Foods, sold in grocery stores, online and Whole Foods. We ate all three brands on the CDT and soaked them in peanut butter jars, no cooking necessary. Top with Fritos (yep, those are vegan) and you're set.
- Ramen - One item that has gotten us through many resupplies and small trail towns is one of the few types of ramen that is vegan, the Nissin Top Ramen Oriental flavor. It doesn't need to cook over heat, as it will rehydrate in a peanut butter jar, and it's cheap and widely available. It may not be the healthiest option out there, but if options are very limited, this little 3 ounce meal packs 380 calories and a lot of salt.
- Dehydrated Soups – Taste Adventure has options for flavorful, quick-cooking, budget-friendly soups and chili. Along with the beans, we bought the lentil soup in bulk and repackaged them prior to the CDT hike, and didn't need to cook either of them. Top with your favorite crunchy snack and you have an immensely satisfying meal. Another brand of instant soup bowls with widely available options is Thai Kitchen brand. Their website has a fantastic spreadsheet showing all dietary and allergy information.
- Prepared Meals – Outdoor Herbivore is the brand I'd most like to try, but haven't, offering tasty, healthy, easy to cook vegan meals, available online. I've had the Backpacker's Pantry Katmandu Curry and loved it, though price-wise that would be a more infrequent meal over the course of a long hike.
- Boxed Meals – One reason I want to hike this summer? So I can pack Earth Balance Cheddar Mac & Cheese! All of their products, including crackers, snacks, meals and nut butters, are vegan. Whole Foods as been my source for Earth Balance products. In addition to beans, Fantastic Foods makes instant hummus, taco meat, and tabouli, all of which we ate without cooking on the CDT. Top these with crackers, pita chips, Wheat Thins, or Triscuits. One box of Fantastic Foods product can be split between two hungry adults. Near East brand, affordable and widely available in basic grocery stores and Whole Foods, makes tasty couscous meals like Toasted Pine Nut Couscous and Roasted Garlic & Olive Oil Couscous, which is quick-cooking and flavorful.
- Tortillas - Mission brand flour tortillas, found in most any grocery store, are another great vehicle for beans and taco meat, or even just the quick plop of peanut butter for a high calorie snack.
Snacks, Sides and Extras
- Bars – Lots and lots of options for granola bars and energy bars, and since we ate 2-4 a day on the CDT, variety was key. The brand we ate the most was Lara bars, as they have a high calorie to ounce ratio and lots of flavors, and we mixed it up among Luna bars, Clif Mojo bars, Trader Joe's granola bars, Kind, Odwalla, and Nature Valley bars. Bars are fairly easy to find in trail towns along the way and lots of variety can be found in stores like Whole Foods, beyond the common brands in regular sized grocery stores.
- Chocolate – Trader Joe's Pound Plus bars are the best deal for the quantity of chocolate, weighing in at a pound for less than $5, but most stores have lots of specialty bars if you want variety, such as Theo chocolate. Justin's brand Peanut Butter cups are pure luxury out on the trail, found at Whole Foods and even some grocery stores. Trader Joe's also has vegan chocolate chips, so if you're making your own GORP, be sure to pick up a bag of those or Whole Food's 365 Everyday Value, or Ghirardelli Semi-Sweet chocolate chips, depending on your store options. If you're splurging and want a two-for-one punch, chocolate covered espresso beans, found at Trader Joe's, are worth every ounce.
- Nut butters – Move over Jif, there are other brands taking the spotlight and mixing up the peanut butter world. It's not just peanuts filling the jars anymore. There are an amazing amount of vegan options out there across several brands, all available in small squeeze packets or jars. Justin's, found online, in standard grocery stores and Whole Foods, makes a delicious Chocolate Hazelnut Butter. Other brands available online and in stores, each with unique flavors, include Peanut Butter & Co and Wild Friends Nut Butter. Peanut Butter & Co makes a vegan White Chocolate Wonderful. Peanut butter by the spoonful, anyone?
- Salty Snacks – Aside from the standard potato chips, pretzels, and tortilla chips found anywhere from a gas station to Coscto, there are lots of options out there, such that finding filling, flavorful, vegan salty snacks is actually quite easy. Garden of Eatin makes yummy tortilla chips and Earth Balance makes white cheddar popcorn that will leave you in a state of pure bliss. Original flavor Chex Mix is crunchy, salty, high in calorie, and widely available. Peanut butter filled pretzels are addictive, available at Trader Joe's and oftentimes Costco, Pringles, including Plain and BBQ flavors, are easy to transport without crushing and easily found, Stacy's pita chips are a nice change and great vehicle for dehydrated hummus and tabouli, Veggie sticks/chips are again a welcomed change from the normal chip, and Fritos or their generic corn chip brother are just unbeatable atop beans and soups. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have some really unique salty snacks while the more standard ones are easily available at gas stations, grocery stores, Wal-Mart and membership places like Costco.
- Jerky - If you're looking for a real change from the norm, check out Primal Strips soy jerky, sold at Whole Foods and online. It's a wonderful alternative to chips, available in 6 different flavors and packed with protein. We didn't discover these until mid-way through the CDT and had relied on sub-par salty energy bars until then, and I regret having not found these sooner.
- Cookies and Candy – If all you have to resupply with is a gas station, Oreo Cookie, Nutter Butters and Skittles are some of the best options out there, and if you're shopping ahead of time and have more options, Newman's O's are a good Oreo alternative, and Trader Joe's Speculos cookies and Strawberry Licorice are yummy. I'm much more a fan of chocolate over cookies because of the caloric density of dark chocolate, and it's more satiating for me, but in hot temps, chocolate will melt and cookies are a great alternative for a sweet snack. Candy like skittles and red licorice are also great in hot temps and are easily found in town.
- Trail Mix, Dried Fruit, and Nuts – I lumped these all together, as I consider them my high calorie, once a day snack that's easy to find pre-trail and in trail towns. Chocolate in most trail mixes tends to have milk, so be sure to check labels. There are quite a few options for each one at several different stores, Trader Joe's being one of the best one-stop-shops around. I could eat my weight in dried mango. TJ's has a little bit of every option, good prices, and smaller quantities in case you don't want to sign up for eating a Costco-sized bag of almonds. I filled an entire cart with snack items pre-CDT and as I was checking out, the woman behind me laughed as she asked, "Are you buying snacks for the whole swim team?" I answered, "Nope, just myself and my husband for the next 4 months, and these are just the snacks!"
- Olive Oil – 1 Tablespoon contains about 120 calories and is an easy way to add on calories. Take a small plastic bottle that you fill in trail towns along the way or as we did, mail yourself small, recyclable plastic water bottles with whatever amount of oil you want inside.
- Vegetable Bouillon Cubes – An easy way to add flavor and salt to plain pasta or rice dishes, and easily found in grocery stores, such as Knorr brand.
- Vitamins – I take a multi-vitamin on a daily basis both on and off the trail and have been happy with the Rainbow Light brand of vitamins, as they don't upset my stomach and are clearly labeled. There are other brands out there, found online and in stores like Whole Foods and other specialty markets, depending on your location.
- Drink mixes - Gatorade mix and Chrystal Light are both vegan and will not only mask that mysterious, slightly disturbing hint of yellow in your water, but will also add some flavor and extra calories, depending on the mix.
So there you have it, hopefully a starting point for you to feel prepared to eat well as a vegan on your next backpacking trip. I'm sure I missed something, as there are new products and brands popping up all the time. That's why I'd suggest going to your local stores and just perusing the aisles, taking time to write down products that will work, then going home and building your "food inventory" as I call it, so that you know what options you have to choose from. I did this for Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Kroger, Meijer, Walmart, Costco, and online brands. It definitely takes some effort on your part, but you'll thank yourself when you're in the middle of the mountains, on day 5 of a 9 day resupply, and you pull out a strip of teriyaki flavored soy jerky as an alternative to regular potato chips, and suddenly life is good again. You just might have some non-vegan friends asking if they can try a bite.
You can check out part two of this write up: Vegan Town Food Guide
This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Julie "Stopwatch" Urbanski who is the author of three books, The Trail Life: How I Loved it, Hated it, and Learned from it, Between a Rock and a White Blaze: Searching for Significance on the Appalachian Trail, and her latestA Long Way From Nowhere: A Couple's Journey on the Continental Divide Trail.