12 Simple Steps to Create a Superior Hiking Trail Backpacking Food Plan

Does the idea of planning your food for your Superior Hiking Trail backpacking trip stress you out? It can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. You don’t want to pack too little and starve but you also don’t want to carry extra weight. 

To help you out, I’ve broken down my backpacking meal planning process into 12 simple steps. What we choose to eat on the trail could look wildly different but the same 12 steps will work for anyone so you can build a meal plan you’ll enjoy while optimizing the weight and keeping bears and critters out of your stash.

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Where is the Superior Hiking Trail

The Superior Hiking Trail extends just over 300 miles from close to the border of Canada to Wisconsin along the ridgeline that overlooks Lake Superior in Minnesota. The trail takes you all along Minnesota’s north shore through Duluth and traverses through several Minnesota State Parks. 

The trail is designed to be easily hiked in sections, as day hikes, multi-day backpacking trips or a thru-hike. 

Map of northern Minnesota showing Minneapolis and St Paul in the south and the Superior Hiking Trail which extends along the north shore of Lake Superior from Canada to near Duluth.
The Superior Hiking Trail extends 300+ miles from Canada to Wisconsin through Minnesota.

Common entry and exit points from the trail include Grand Marais, Lutsen, Tofte, Two Harbors, and Duluth

Stay tuned for more info on how to choose which sections of the Superior Hiking Trail to hike, how to plan your Superior Hiking Trail backpacking trip and more.

12 Steps to Creating a 5-Day Superior Hiking Trail Meal Plan

1 | Regularly check the trail conditions before your trip watching for fire bans or precipitation.

There are many external factors that will impact your backpacking meal plan. Stay current on the trail conditions to make sure you’re prepared!

For instance, in the weeks leading up to my most recent Superior Hiking Trail backpacking trip, there was a fire ban put in place due to the extreme drought. Thankfully, small backpacking stoves were still allowed but water was scarce. So, I adapted my plan to include meals that required little or no water to prepare. 

2 | Purchase a bear-resistant container to store food and scented items. 

Before making a purchase, verify the latest guidance by the Superior National Forest Service as it relates to food storage on the trail (here’s their current guidance as of July 2021). As you can see, their preferred method is to store food in an approver container and place it on the ground at least 50 feet away from camp. The second option is to properly hang a bear bag. However, properly hanging a bear bag can be challenging and time consuming. So, if you are not confident in doing that, I recommend the preferred option.

Because I had heard that it is difficult to find trees to do a proper hang along the SHT, I chose to go with this approved bear-resistant container and tied it to the base of a tree at least 50 feet from camp overnight. This container is also rated to keep small critters like raccoons and chipmunks out of your food as long as you use it in combination with odor-proof bags

A bear proof bag is tied to the base of a tree along the Superior Hiking Trail. Next to it is a small bear proof container also sitting next to the base of the tree.
Tie bear proof bags around the base of a tree at least 50 feet from camp overnight.

While some trails in the US require the use of a hard sided bear bin, the Superior Hiking Trail currently does not. Personally, I find bear bins to be heavy and difficult to open and close, which is why I went with a bear bag instead.

Pro Tip: For 5 days, a 10L bear resistant bag is the perfect size for food and other scented items as long as you follow the tips below to minimize packaging.

3 | Estimate the number of calories you need to consume per day.

I found online guidelines and tools to estimate calories burn while backpacking to vary widely. There are so many factors to consider including your height, your weight, the weight of your pack, the terrain, the temperature, and more. 

So, I used the data from my Fitbit to estimate my typical calories burned in a normal day. I burn about 17-1800 calories on any given day. If I assume I am hiking for about 9 hours per day on the trail (8a-5p) and burn an extra 200 calories per hour then I should plan on an extra 1800 calories per day. If I assume I take an hour or so for breaks throughout the day, I can plan for 3400 calories total per day. 

But, here’s the thing. I know myself and my body. I know that when I hike long distance my appetite isn’t as strong. Plus, I’m only on the trail for 5 days, so I feel comfortable planning a slight calorie deficit for those days. 

I chose to target 2500 calories of nutrient and protein dense food for each day with an overflow of ~2000 calories that I could draw from if I needed to on a particular day. These are the targets I used when selecting my meals for each day.

4 | Brainstorm a list of nutrient dense foods you enjoy.

Before buying any food, start by brainstorming a list of nutrient dense foods that you like or enjoy eating. I created a Google Doc and sorted ideas into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. 

Pro Tip: While I generally don’t eat a ton of a carbs or sugary foods, I find that I need both when I’m on the trail. 

5 | Narrow down your list of foods into a draft meal plan.

Now it’s time to narrow down your list of ideas! This is a good time to check the latest weather forecast and fire ban situation to see if that might help you build your meal plan. As I mentioned, because of the drought in Minnesota this year, I planned to only use water for drinking, coffee, and a dehydrated meal for dinner.

When selecting foods for your backpacking meal plan, look for items that are:

  • Filled with nutrients you need like protein, carbs, and electrolytes
  • Relatively compact in size (or could be repackaged to be compact)
  • Lightweight
  • Satisfying or comforting (you’ll want that after a long day of hiking)

Pro Tip: Low moisture cheese, such as string cheese, is relatively safe to eat unrefrigerated for up to 7 days. This was a nice treat to add to my tortillas at lunch.

It may be helpful to look online or visit a store to check the number of calories for some of the items on your list. 

Some of my go-to items include protein bars, meat sticks, nuts, dried fruit, electrolyte powder, and pouches of tuna. Remember to include condiments in your plan and calorie count!

Pro Tip: With an overall pack weight of about 31 lbs, my food for 5 days weighed about 7-8 lbs.

The output of this step is to create a draft meal plan by day with estimates of calorie counts for each meal. 

6 | Check your daily calorie count.

Mix and match your meals until each day adds up to your target daily calorie count. This is where you need to think about serving size or quantities of each food item per day. For instance, to meet my calorie count on some days I chose to portion out 3 pieces of dried mango and 1/4 cup of almonds. I could easily increase or decrease these amounts on each day to hit my target.

Make adjustments to your meal plan, as needed, to reach your daily calorie target.

7 | Go shopping.

Now you’ve got a detailed shopping list, so head to the store or purchase the items online. Where possible, try to stick to your list but if you see something at the store you hadn’t thought of it’s ok to make substitutes to your meal plan. 

Again, I recommend choosing at least some foods that will be satisfying and comforting. I love Camp Chow‘s selection of hearty dehydrated meals. They are a small Minnesota-based company too!

Pro Tip: Before buying a dehydrated meal, check to see if it has a marking showing you how much water to add. If it doesn’t, either make sure you have a way to measure the amount of water to add OR buy another brand. My backpacking stove has measurements on it which I used to measure out the water. 

Assorted food is laid on a table with a column for each day. Food items are being repackaged into portions based on calories needed each day.
Remove excess packaging from food and portion it out by day and meal.

8 | Update your meal plan with final actual calorie count.

Inevitably what you buy at the store will be slightly different than the calories you estimated. So, look at the labels and create a final meal plan with the actual calorie counts by meal from the foods you purchased.

At this stage, I laid all of my food out on the table with a column for each day and rows for each meal. Once I had everything laid out, it was quick and easy to update my meal plan with the actual calorie counts. 

9 | Minimize packaging.

When you’re backpacking, ounces matter and they add up quickly. Food packaging can be bulky and there’s no need to carry that extra weight. Remove excess packaging for your food and consider portioning it out into what you need for each day. 

10 | Organize your food by meal and day and label with calorie count.

Some may say this is overkill, but I find it super helpful especially on a shorter backpacking trip to keep me organized and ensure my daily calories are consumed.

I organize all of my food for each meal into it’s own container. For instance, my breakfast for Day 1 included a protein bar, instant coffee, protein powder and a probiotic pill. I put all of those into one ziploc bag and labeled it ‘Breakfast Day 1 – 320 calories’. It didn’t actually matter if I ate ‘Day 1’ food on the first day, but all of my bags labeled Day 1 totaled up to the right calorie count for that day. I did the same for lunch and snacks. Since I chose to use dehydrated meals for dinner, I left them in their packaging and labeled them with a day number.

Superior Hiking Trail backpacking food organized by day and meal into ziploc bags in final portions.
Backpacking food is organized into ziploc bags by day, with labels for calories.

For 5 days, I now had three ziploc bags for each day (breakfast, lunch, snacks) plus a dehydrated meal for dinner. 

11 | Store food and scented items in scentproof bags.

Regular ziploc bags are great for organizing your food but they are not odorproof. If you truly want to keep bears and other critters away from camp, be sure to place your food items inside of scentproof bags as well. 

I placed several of my ziploc bags mentioned in step 10 into a single scent-proof bag and left the dehydrated meals fully sealed. These were all then placed inside of the bear bag. 

Pre-portioned backpacking food is organized into odor-proof bags and laying next to a bear-resistant bag.
Pre-portioned meals and food are organized into odor-proof bags to be stored in the bear resistant container.

When placing food into the scent-proof bags, both before your trip and while on the trail, make sure that your hands are scent-free. Be careful not to introduce odors to the outside of the scent-proof bags as that can attract bears and other wildlife. 

Pro Tip: Reuse your ziploc and scentproof bags on future backpacking trips. Also, remember to leave no trace. The ziplocs used to store your first day of food can be used to pack out waste. Waste should be stored in your bear bin or bag throughout the trip.

Remember to leave room for ALL scented items in your bear resistant container. For instance, if you plan to drink coffee out of a mug, cook food in a container, etc. these items should all be stored in your bear resistant container each night along with your toiletries.

12 | Make sure you know how to open, close and store your bearproof container.

The night before I left on my trip I was frantically researching what knot to use to properly tie my bear bag closed. Finally, I realized that there was a tag on the side of my bear bag with an image showing you how to tie it properly! This was so helpful to know it was right there so I could refer to it throughout the trip. Properly tying a bear bag will keep small critters out of your bag as well as bears!

Bear bins can be challenging to open, especially if they are brand new. There is a small plastic tab you have to press while turning the lid open. Practice this before you hit the trail!

My 5-Day Backpacking Meal Plan for the Superior Hiking Trail

If you’re curious about my complete 5-day backpacking meal plan for the Superior Hiking Trail, click here to get a downloadable version. It shows every item I packed, including the calories per meal and specific products I loved.

Here’s my ‘best of’ foods from this meal plan.

Best lunch: tuna pouch with mayo and string cheese on a tortilla

Best store-bought dehydrated meal brand: Camp Chow

Best treat: Sour Mike-N-Ike candy

Best splurge: Flask of tequila

Superior Hiking Trail Backpacking Meal Plan – Complete!

With these 12 steps you should have a great meal plan for your Superior Hiking Trail backpacking trip! All you need to do now is enjoy the trail.

Don’t forget to pack all of the essential items to prepare your meals on the trail! Check out my 5-day Superior Hiking Trail packing list for a complete list of items to bring with you.

Related content to read next:

How to Avoid Getting Eaten Alive by Mosquitoes & Ticks (for Hikers!)

How to Survive Hiking in Bear Country

20 Essential Outdoor Adventure Safety Tips

Check out my Minnesota travel page for even more inspiration and tips!

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Text: Superior Hiking Trail: 12 steps to create a backpacking meal plan. Image: Closeup of a hand holding a backpacking stove with nature behind it.

8 thoughts on “12 Simple Steps to Create a Superior Hiking Trail Backpacking Food Plan

  1. This Big Wild World says:

    That’s true, shorter trips give you a little more flexibility in how organized or detailed you need to be in planning. That’s great that you’re experimenting with your own dehydrated meals. Have you found any you really like? I’ve just started playing around with dehydrating food myself. Next year, I plan to backpack with all food I dehydrated and prepared!

    Yes – I LOVE babybell cheese. That’s also a great low moisture cheese option for backpacking!

  2. This Big Wild World says:

    Yep, there really are a lot of things to consider when planning backpacking meals! But, once you do it a few times it gets easier!

  3. This Big Wild World says:

    Camp Chow is a Minnesota-based dehydrated meal brand. I’ve been really impressed with the flavor and creative meals they have available. I do tend to add a little less water than they recommend to prevent them from being on the watery side. AlpineAire also has some pretty tasty meals. Specifically I enjoyed the chicken tex mex bowl.

  4. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks, Karen! Yes, I agree that prepackaged dehydrated meals are not always the best though I think they’ve come a LONG way over the last decade or so. I’ve started experimenting with my own dehydrated recipes as well. It is nice to get the flavors and spices you personally like by doing it at home!

  5. Karen Warren says:

    This is a very comprehensive way to meal plan for backpacking trips. It focuses on the essential things that are important for trip meals. I’m not fond of prepackaged dehydrated meals so I like to dry my own–that way I have control of the spices I put in.

  6. Krista says:

    There are so many things to consider with the food! Great idea tying the food down further away from the camping site.

  7. Josy A says:

    I am always so impressed when I see how people pack for longer journeys (our longest so far was just 3 days, so I have never had to be quite so organized as you!) This year we started making our own dehydrated meals (mostly so we could reduce packaging) but that wouldn’t work so well in an area that doesn’t have plenty of water!

    As well as string cheese, have you tried bringing baby bells? They work really well. 🙂

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