Vegan Backpacking Food Ideas for Every Meal on the Trail
By: Julie "Stopwatch" Urbanski
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 every vegan wants to pack their cart full of bags of Fritos and sleeves of Oreos, but having these sweet and savory options do well to compliment the more healthy and flavorful choices out there that exist for vegan backpackers.
Even better, you don't have to search far or spend a lot of money to eat well on the trail.
When I was preparing backpacking food for a Continental Divide Trail (CDT) thru-hike in 2013, I was a fairly new vegan. Having been vegetarian for a long time, 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 since has only gotten easier.
In this blog, I’ll cover more on what eating vegan means and some tasty vegan options for backpackers along the trail.
What is vegan?
Vegan, in dietary terms, is a plant-based diet that avoids the consumption of all products derived from animals, including, but not limited to, meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. Choices of nutritional variety and lifestyle may differ among those who consider themselves vegan, but the fundamental standard of animal-free origin is the same.
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 I can cover all vegans.
What do vegans eat?
Vegans have no trouble consuming calories that are satisfying, filling, and healthy along the trail. Below, I’ll share some details to help if you’re:
- Vegan yourself and hoping to better answer this question
- Thinking about going vegan and wondering what options are out there
- Just curious about what vegans actually eat on the trail
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 with eating food that may share the same manufacturing equipment as milk and eggs (if I weren't, the amount of options would greatly decrease, though not disappear). In the same turn, I don't eat fries in restaurants because they oftentimes share the same oil as meat.
- I'm OK eating junk food if that’s the only option. The gas stations in Atkins, Virginia, on the Appalachian Trail and in Lima, Montana, on the Continental Divide Trail were both especially memorable because of my food choices.
With that, the following sections are organized by meal, including:
- Vegan breakfast
- Vegan lunch and dinner
- Vegan snacks and sides
- Vegan extras
1. Vegan Breakfast
Below is a general list of vegan breakfast items, often found in standard grocery stores in the "natural foods" section.
- Granola and cereal: I’ve found lots of flavorful options at Trader Joe's and from two other brands: Nature's Path and Cascadian Farm Organic. Both brands are found in medium- and 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. It is both widely available and made in several different 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, I just dipped a spoon of peanut butter into the packets for a unique snack.
- Dehydrated “milk”: Better Than Milk brand makes both soy and rice milk, which are 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, especially when topped with your favorite nut butter. A very high calorie snack or start to the day, these bagels are an easy find in towns along the trail.
2. Vegan Lunch and Dinner
Here is a list of generic and branded vegan food items for lunch and dinner. Many of these are easily found in any standard grocery store or are available online.
- Dehydrated beans: There are quite a few options in the world of dehydrated refried beans, something I ate for one meal every day on the CDT—talk about gas-powered! My favorite brands are Santa Fe Bean Company, sold online at places like Amazon, and Taste Adventure, available at Safeway and Whole Foods. We ate both 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 Nissin Top Ramen Oriental flavor. One of the few types of ramen that is vegan, it doesn't need to be cooked over heat, as it will rehydrate in a peanut butter jar. It may not be the healthiest option out there, but it's cheap and widely available. If options are very limited, this little three-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 our CDT hike so we wouldn’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 the Thai Kitchen brand.
- Prepared meals: Food for the Sole is an Oregon-based small business that specializes in some of the tastiest just-add-water vegan meals out there—everything from Biscuits and Mushroom Gravy to Coconut Rice and Cuban Black Beans. If you’re a hiker who prefers not to carry a stove or just feel lazy when it comes to cooking, they also have multiple cold-soak options that pack a ton of flavor. The Zesty Miso Broccoli Slaw and Triple Peanut Slaw rehydrate into what feels like a fresh, decadent salad, maintaining the good crunch of the veggies. Other brand options you can try are Outdoor Herbivore or the Backpacker's Pantry Katmandu Curry.
- 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 has been my source for Earth Balance products. Near East brand is also affordable and widely available. It makes flavorful, quick-cooking couscous meals, like Toasted Pine Nut Couscous and Roasted Garlic & Olive Oil Couscous.
- Tortillas: Mission brand flour tortillas, found in most any grocery store, are another great vehicle for beans and vegan taco meat (or even just the quick plop of peanut butter for a high-calorie snack).
3. Vegan Snacks and Sides
Snacks are one of the greatest parts of backpacking, and you needn’t skimp on them simply because you’re vegan. Below are a bunch of vegan snacking options, as well as sides.
- Bars: There are lots and lots of options for granola bars and energy bars. Since we ate 2 to 4 per day on the CDT, variety was key. The brand we ate the most was Lärabar, as they have a high calorie to ounce ratio and lots of flavors. 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. 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, and you can find them 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, Whole Foods 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 or 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 gas stations to Costco, there are so many options out there 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 calories, and widely available. Peanut butter filled pretzels are addictive and available at Trader Joe's and Costco. Pringles, including Plain and BBQ flavors, are easy to transport without crushing and are found easily. 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 six different flavors, and packed with protein. We didn't discover these until midway through the CDT and had relied on subpar salty energy bars until then. I regret having not found these sooner.
- Cookies and candy: If all you have for resupply is a gas station, Oreo Cookies, Nutter Butters, and Skittles are some of the best options out there. If you're shopping ahead of time and have more options, Newman-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 dark chocolate over cookies because of its caloric density, and to me it’s more satiating. In hot temps, however, 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 four months—and these are just the snacks!"
4. Vegan Extras
In addition to your main food groups, there are always the extras you need, like oils and supplements. Below are a few vegan options to fill these needs.
- Olive oil: One tablespoon contains about 120 calories, so it 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, Knorr brand is delicious and can be easily found in grocery stores.
- Vitamins: I take a multivitamin on a daily basis both on and off the trail and have been happy with the Rainbow Light brand of vitamins because they don't upset my stomach and are clearly labeled. There are other brands out there that are found online, in stores like Whole Foods, and, depending on your location, other specialty markets.
- Drink mixes: Gatorade mix and Crystal 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 (depending on the mix) extra calories.
Enjoy the Best of Vegan Backpacking Food With a Little Advanced Planning
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, and then going home and building your "food inventory," as I call it. This will help 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 five of a nine-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!
For more information on vegan eating in trail towns, you can check out part two of this write up.
This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Brand 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 A Long Way From Nowhere: A Couple's Journey on the Continental Divide Trail.