The food you pack can make or break a camping trip. Having good food can mean the difference between going to bed hungry and miserable, or getting a good night’s sleep and waking up feeling refreshed and ready to go. For many people, cooking food over a fire or camp stove is an integral part of the camping experience.
However, sometimes it’s uncomfortably hot, or there’s a risk of wildfire, or you’re just too tired to cook after a long day on the trail. If that’s the case, having no-cook meal options is a good way to make sure that you’re fed and happy without having to spend time preparing your dinner.
In this article, we are going to discuss all types of options for no cook meals. You’ll find lightweight options, heavier, but delicious options, cheap options, all natural healthy options, and everything in between. Our goal is to show off some great ideas for camping, car camping, and even lightweight backpacking.
What Is a No-Cook Meal?
A no-cook meal is simply a meal that you don’t have to cook… at least, not while you’re camping or backpacking! These meals might require some prep work while you’re still at home, or they might be packaged food that’s already been cooked for you. Some of these meals are familiar versions of something you might eat at home; others might be a little outside of what you normally consider a regular meal.
When To Choose the No-Cook Option
There are lots of reasons why you might choose no-cook options when you’re exploring the outdoors. While cooking over an open fire might be an important part of your camping experience, for many campers and backpackers it just isn’t feasible to cook every meal of a whole weekend (or even longer!) over a fire.
Weight & Space Saving
Backpackers are often concerned about how much weight they’re carrying with them, and having no-cook options means that you aren’t carrying food preparation materials. You don’t have to worry about having cooking vessels, and if you’re ok not having hot water, you won’t have to carry even the lightest stove. Having no-cook ideas can save time, by reducing prep time on the trail. Some no cook meals can also save space in the pack if you don’t bring cooking supplies. Most backpackers will carry a combination of no cook snacks and meals, and cookable meals.
Cooking Time & Fuel
Most hikers who take day trips usually don’t worry about cooking. They can pack lightweight pre-packed snacks that can get them through the day. If you’re planning a multi-day camping trip, taking cooking gear itself might not be a problem— but many cooking nights requires enough fuel for a stove, so having no cook meals is a good mix.
Food safety is another concern when you’re camping. If you’re taking a cooler for an overnight trip, that’s probably not going to be an issue, but if you’re planning multiple days in the woods, how are you going to keep your cold ingredients cold? Some ingredients don’t need to be kept cool, but many raw protein sources do. Having pre-cooked meals that you can just break out at mealtimes can be simpler and safer for those that do consider taking non traditional backpacking meals by avoiding freeze dried dehydrated meals.
Both campers and backpackers alike may also appreciate the added safety value of no-cook meals. If you’re in bear country, no-cook foods may have less waste, and smell for a bear to get curious about. If you’re in an area where there’s a high fire risk, not needing to cook reduces the likelihood that you will contribute to wildfires.
Another big concern for campers and backpackers alike is the weather and reliability. You might have plans to cook over an open fire or a camp stove, but if it’s particularly wet or windy, your stove has any issues, or you run out of fuel, you might not have the option. In that situation, having a no-cook meal that you can fall back on can make the difference between going to bed hungry or going to bed full.
When you’re choosing food for hiking, whether it’s no-cook food or not, keep the three major macronutrients in mind. Food is fuel for you, and your body draws energy from protein, carbohydrates, and fat in different ways. In order to understand how best to plan for and pack your no-cook meals, you need to understand the basic concepts about how our bodies use these macronutrients to keep going. We have a guide to the science behind choosing hiking food here, but the basics are as follows:
Carbohydrates are the easiest form of energy for your body to break down and use. Carbs and proteins have about the same amount of energy per gram (4 calories per gram), but fats have more than twice as much at 9 calories per gram.
You rely less on protein for energy, but because protein takes longer to digest, you may feel fuller for longer if you eat a lot of it. Proteins are used for growth and contain the essential amino acids we need for our bodies to grow, develop, and repair themselves.
Not all proteins are created equal! The body can use 100% of the protein in eggs and a high percentage of the proteins in meat and animal milk. We aren’t as good at using the proteins in vegetables and cereals; our body can only use about half the protein in these.
Fats have a bad reputation, but the reality is more complex than people might realize. Fats have long been blamed for issues like raising cholesterol and causing heart disease, but there are actually many heart-healthy fats like those found in olive oil, fish, avocados, flaxseed, and nuts. These so-called good fats are chemically pretty simple and are easy for your body to access and use. While fat doesn’t digest as quickly as carbohydrates, it doesn’t take as long to use as protein.
All of your meals should include carbohydrates, fats, and protein— but knowing the differences between them and how your body breaks them down is important for great no-cook camping menu planning!
Types of No-Cook Food
Just because you aren’t cooking in the backcountry, that doesn’t mean you won’t be doing any cooking at all while preparing for your trip. Many of these meals are pre-cooked or pre-prepared in some other way. That means you’re putting them together at home before you head out. Some of these are truly no-cook food, like sandwiches; others require slightly more intensive preparation. When you put these meals together, you have complete control over what goes in them. We have a list of some of the best foods for backpacking here, which will give you an idea of what kinds of food work well on hiking trips!
Packaged or processed food, on the other hand, is pre-made without any work on your part. These are usually simple, single items that can be components of a larger meal or eaten on their own like a meal bar. These also include freeze-dried food and MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat), which we’ll go into more detail on in a bit. Packaged food often has a fairly high sodium content to keep it shelf-stable, which can be good when you’re hiking and sweating! It also might have fairly high sugar content, so you might want to save the packaged stuff for snacks, lunches, and dinners and focus on a good balanced meal for breakfast.
You should be careful when choosing this kind of food, though. Pre-packaged or processed food is often full of “empty” calories. These are calories that come from simple carbohydrates. Your body goes through these quickly, but they have little nutrition to offer besides just that sugary burst of energy. This may be exactly what most people need during long backpacking trips however. If you want to take meal bars or something similar with health in mind, making sure that they have complex carbohydrates and plenty of protein is a great idea! The same is true for trail mix— pick trail mixes with good nuts and not too much candy!
No-Cook Breakfast Ideas
For breakfast, you want to plan meals that have as much protein as you can pack in there. Of the three macronutrients, protein takes the longest to digest, so a protein-packed breakfast will provide a solid energy base for the rest of the day. Protein is also very filling, so you’ll be able to put some distance between you and your next snack break.
Overnight Oats & Instant Oats
Instant oatmeal is a simple and cheap breakfast option. With warm, or cool water, you can pour directly into the instant oat pack, and have delicious oatmeal in 15 seconds that can be eaten directly out of the package. All that’s needed is a spoon and some water. This is a fantastic budget backpacker breakfast.
For non-backpackers, overnight oats can be made ahead of time and can be packed in containers like tupperware, plastic bags, or mason jars if you don’t want to bring milk with you and don’t mind the extra weight. Overnight oats are great for camping because they are incredibly filling and packed with nutrients. You do need to let them sit overnight, so make sure you get them going before you go to bed!
Overnight oats are really simple. You just take your favorite oatmeal, whether that’s steel-cut or rolled, add fruits and nuts and seasonings like cinnamon to your taste, add water or milk, and then let the oats absorb the liquid and flavors overnight. For a boost of protein, you can add protein powder or peanut butter if you like the flavor. You can also add flax seed for a serving of heart-healthy fat with your breakfast.
Bagels and Lox
Lox is a brined filet of salmon that is usually smoked. It is delicious and packed with healthy fat and protein. If you’re not a fan of salmon, you can get other smoked meat or fish that’s easy to carry and shelf-stable. This means it’s great for backpackers who don’t want to carry a cooler. You can get shelf-stable packets of cream cheese to go with your smoked fish, and when you combine the rich, tangy cream cheese with the sharp smoked fish on a dense, chewy whole-grain bagel… that’s a winning combination, whether you’re in the backcountry or your favorite deli. Regular cream cheese may be good in your backpack up to two weeks in cooler environments.
Boiled and Baked Eggs
Eggs are great sources of protein, but they’re a pain to carry around raw. They’re fragile and if they break, they’re tricky to clean up. However, if you hard boil your eggs, they are easier to transport. You can even leave them in their shells until it’s time to eat so that they don’t crumble. Hard-boiled eggs are very versatile. You can slice them and serve them as a breakfast sandwich with some precooked bacon. You can mash them with avocado for a protein-packed egg salad. You can just eat them as they are if you like them that way!
You can also bake your eggs, frittata-style. This has to be done before you leave, but these egg bites are great for breakfast on the go. They’re light and can be packed densely, so they’re great for backpackers. They also taste fine cold, so you don’t have to worry about heating them up! You can make all kinds of frittata flavor combos. You can pack them with veggies, cheeses, and meats depending on what you like to eat.
Energy bars come in all different tastes, textures, and types with different ingredients that produce different results. If you want a bar for breakfast, you should choose an activity bar, endurance bar, or energy bar that focuses on prolonging energy. These include Clif Bars, Pure Protein bars, PowerBars, Naked Bars, and Honey Stinger Bars. You might also want a meal replacement bar like Nutribars, ProBars, or Balance bars which are designed to provide the complete nutrition of a balanced lunch or breakfast.
When choosing a bar, look and see how much protein it offers and what types of ingredients it uses to make sure that you’re choosing a product that can support your activity level. Energy bars are very popular with backpackers as both a meal and a snack because of how lightweight, small, and durable they are. They work great for campers, too.
Pre-Cooked Waffles Or Pancakes
While you may not want to cook these, bringing frozen waffles and pancakes, or pre-cooked pancakes is a meal that is delicious, easy, and will stay well for a good amount of time. It is easy to bring small packets of syrup or other toppings.
For lunch, you will want to make sure that your meal includes simple carbohydrates for a quick boost of energy in the afternoon. Even if you are camping with a stove for hot water, no-cook lunches may be best served cold so that you don’t have to stop for too long.
Sandwiches And Wraps
There’s a reason backpackers everywhere love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The protein in the peanut butter plays well with the carbs in the bread and jelly to create a perfect mid-afternoon energy boost. You also don’t have to worry about keeping this classic cool— peanut butter and jelly both do fine without refrigeration. You can take other sandwiches, too, but if you’re out on a multi-day hike you probably don’t want to be carrying around lunch meats for too long, as those need refrigeration. If you are looking to bring a sandwich with deli meat and cheese, we recommend eating on night 1, and have other non perishable sandwiches for subsequent nights.
Some Popular Camping Sandwich Options:
- Tuna / Chicken / Egg Salad
- Salami and cheese
- PB & J
- Banana and Peanut Butter
- Turkey & Avocado
- Pepper, Onion, Tomato, Cheese (Any veggie combo)
Canned/Packaged Tuna, Sardines, Squid, Chicken, & Other Options
Canned foods can be great no cook meals. For backpackers, many companies make small packages that are lightweight, and densely packed. Patagonia has some incredibly delicious options for backpackers, but every store will have canned options for other camping scenarios. This food can be eaten by itself, or used with wraps, bread, cheese, or veggies to turn it into a more filling and better tasting meal.
Mason Jar / Reusable Bag Meals
Mason jars are great for camping. They’re somewhat heavy, so they might not be your go-to for backpacking, but there are a lot of tasty meals you can make in a mason jar or a plastic bag for backpackers. Mason jar salads, where you put all your ingredients into a jar, can be highly customizable depending on your tastes. Anything in a mason jar can be duplicated in a plastic bag (preferably reusable) to save weight for backpackers. Some winning combos that we recommend include:
- Greek salad: Greek dressing, leafy greens, chickpeas, chopped cucumbers, red onions, feta cheese, pine nuts, olives
- Egg and quinoa: Quinoa, a chopped hard-boiled egg or two, chopped avocado, cherry tomatoes, dressing of your choice
- Not-so-instant ramen: Cooked ramen noodles, sliced mushrooms, hard-boiled egg, shredded carrots, seasonings of your choice
This style meal for backpackers is recommended as a day 1 or night 1 meal. So that your first meal on the trail can be of the fresh variety, and then subsequent meals can be non perishable foods.
Mix and Match Meals
If you’re planning on several days of adventure, you’ll want to pack multiple meals without getting too many repeats. A good way to do this is to follow a formula of carb+protein+condiment. You can pack these as wraps or as mason jar meals. Wraps are better for backpacking, just because mason jars are a bit on the heavy side.
To mix and match your meals, first, you’ll need to choose a carby base. This can be vermicelli or glass noodles, tortilla wraps or other flatbread wraps, rice, or something similar like riced cauliflower. Then, pick a shelf-stable protein like tuna, boiled eggs, cured meat, or hard cheese. Finally, add your condiments. These can be packets of sauce or more complex things like guacamole or dip mix, hummus, or something along those lines. For mix and match meals, you have a lot of freedom to customize!
For dinner, you want to avoid simple carbohydrates so that you don’t have a burst of energy before bed. You want to be able to get the best sleep possible. Protein, fat, and complex carbs are what you want for a campsite dinner.
While freeze-dried food mostly requires rehydration with hot water, it is otherwise a great no-cook option for eating outdoors. You may find freeze dried food that can be eaten with cold water as well. If you’ll have access to hot water, we’ve got a whole list of the best freeze-dried options available here. Freeze-dried food is great for backpackers because most of the weight in food is water. By removing the water, the products become incredibly light and reduced in size, meaning that it’s easier to pack them than conventional food.
Lots of dinner foods taste great when they’re cold. You can economize by bringing your leftovers along with you and eating them on the trail. This is great for backpacking and camping alike, depending on what kind of leftovers you have and how you want to pack them. Roasted and grilled meats hold up better than most vegetarian leftovers. Keep in mind that weight does matter when backpacking, and you may want to consume this style meal early on to avoid carrying large amounts of weight for long distances.
Loaded Potatoes (Sweet or Regular)
This is a great meal or side dish for campers, but not so great after the first night because the potatoes tend to get soggy. Pre-cook a big sweet potato ahead of time and bring along some toppings. Butter packets, cinnamon, salt, pepper, chives, whatever you like on a potato! Sweet potatoes are better than white potatoes for this because their complex carbohydrates provide longer-term energy than the simple starches in white potatoes.
The MRE, which stands for “Meal, Ready to Eat,” is a no-cook food option used by militaries the world over. MREs are designed to be eaten in hostile, dangerous environments and include a flameless ration heater. This heats food safely and quickly without the need for fire. It works by introducing water and causing an exothermic (heat-producing) chemical reaction. Even if you don’t want to buy MREs, you can get these heaters separately. They are easy to use and lightweight enough to pack easily.
Pasta salad is another highly customizable meal that works great for camping. All you need to do is cook up and cool some pasta at home, and then add your favorite cheeses, chopped veggies, herbs and seasonings, and a little olive oil or dressing. Whole-grain pasta with its complex carbs is a great option for this. You can also swap out the pasta for cooked grains like quinoa, bulgur wheat, barley, or brown rice. Throwing a can of beans like chickpeas or black beans into the mix is a good way to work in some extra protein as well! This is a heavier option and not recommended for backpacking unless bringing just a small serving for a shorter trip.
No Cook Snack Ideas
Snacks on the trail are also hugely important. They can be eaten while moving, taking a quick break, or even after a meal as a dessert. There are tons of no cook snack options that may be great:
- Nuts and nut mixes
- Granola bars
- Candy & Chocolate
- Veggies (carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, etc)
- Fruit (apples, bananas, oranges, mangos, etc)
- Beef jerky
- Pretzels, Cheeze-Its, Goldfish
Regardless of whether you cook or not when you’re out in the woods, balanced nutrition is vital to your trip’s success. No-cook meals are easy, tasty ways to get the fuel you need for your adventures. These are only a few of the many no-cook meal options out there, and we hope these inspire you as you plan your next camping menu. Happy trails!
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and sharing experiences with others. Max is a published author for various outdoor websites and digital marketing websites. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about