After completing the PCT as a vegetarian and the CDT on a gluten free, dairy free, and low grain diet, backpacking with dietary restrictions is something with which I have a lot of experience.
Nutrition is the primary way that I manage my autoimmune condition and keep debilitating symptoms at bay so that I can continue doing what I love—hiking big mile days in remote wilderness environments. When I’m backpacking, not only do I need foods that keep inflammation as low as possible, I’m also looking for energy-dense foods that keep pack weight low and which are shelf stable.
That said, backpacking on a restricted diet isn’t nearly as difficult as most people assume. In this post, I lay out some nutritional considerations to keep in mind if you’re on a restricted diet, and then provide a variety of meal and snack options. While I haven’t tried everything on this list, many of these are tried and true favorites.
On multi-month hikes, I’ve found the least hassle and most success at having the food I need by planning ahead and mailing at least a few resupply boxes. I send boxes to locations with limited options, and purchase from local grocery stores in larger, full service towns. For me, it’s worth the extra preparation time at home to be sure I have what I need to feel my best on trail.
For vegans and vegetarians, particular considerations to be aware of are specific nutrient deficiencies as well as protein intake. The most common deficiencies in this population are Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Iron, and Zinc. These all play a role in energy and immunity and the best way to know your status is to get tested.
The other concern is adequate protein consumption. Vegetarian or not, everyone should be paying attention to protein intake as it’s easy to overlook on trail. Protein is critical for muscle repair and synthesis, as well as proper immune function. The best way to know if you’re consuming enough is to track your intake/plan your menu.
Overview of Backpacking Food Options
In general, most backpackers’ food choices fit into the following 4 “styles”:
- Freeze-dried meals
- Typical thru-hiker “convenience” foods
- Home-dehydrated meals
- Assembled meals from purchased/bulk ingredients (my pick)
You could find options on a restricted diet with any of those approaches, but freeze-dried meals tend to be pricey (especially on a long hike), and gluten free/dairy free/vegan convenience foods tend to be low in nutrients and no healthier than their traditional counterparts. Dehydrating your own meals at home is a great option if you have the time and interest. My personal preference is to purchase dehydrated or freeze dried ingredients and assemble my own, simple meals at home. Here are a few recipes.
Gluten Free Meal & Snack Ideas
In addition to everything on this list being gluten free, 90% is dairy free, and a few options are vegan. All are suitable for cold-soaking, if that’s your preference.
For the most part, this list focuses on “healthier” options because that’s my personal preference and I’ve found that the quality of my diet directly correlates to how well I feel and perform on trail. Healthy is a nebulous term, but I’m using it here to mean foods that are nutrient-dense and low on the inflammation spectrum.
Keep in mind that just because a product is vegan, gluten free, keto or has any other specialty label, that doesn’t make it healthy. Oreos are a classic vegan cookie! Read ingredient lists and stick to whole food-based products. Many hikers get caught up in only thinking about calories, which matter, but your food can do so much more for you.
Do your due diligence when purchasing any of these products. If you have Celiacs, confirm that products were manufactured in GF facilities.
For more gluten free, dairy free hiker foods, sorted by calories per ounce, grab the Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide!
Gluten Free Snack/Lunch Ideas
- Bars: GreenBelly, GoMacro, Kind Bars, Picky Bars, Lara Bars, RxBars, Trail Nuggets, Taos Bakes, ProBar meals and Base protein bars, Kate’s Real Food Bars
- Tuna/Chicken packets
- Jerky/Meat Bars like Wild Zora bars, Mighty Beef Sticks, Chomps, or Tanka
- Summer sausage
- Nut butters like Trail Butter, Justin’s Nut Butter, Rx Nut Butter, Yum Butter, 88 Acres Seed Butter, Barney Butter… or just get a 16oz plastic jar of whatever’s local (avoid added seed oils if possible)
- Vegan jerkies (Louisville, Jack and Friends)
- Quinn Snacks Pretzels (some grain free, some filled with almond butter!)
- Jackson’s Honest tortilla chips, sweet potato chips (some grain free, made without inflammatory seed oils)
- Mary’s Gone Crackers
- Rice crackers
- Nut crackers like Blue Diamond
- Dried fruit, banana chips (Trader Joes or Natural Grocers are good options for this stuff)
- Nut and Seeds such as almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Home-made trail mixes w/ dried fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut flakes, etc.
- Dark Chocolate
- Moon Cheese or Cheddar Whisps
- Store bought trail mixes like Gorilly Goods
- Homemade paleo granola or something like Supernola
- Fruit leather or fruit bars, like Pure Bar
- Seaweed Snacks
My approach to dinner is to start with a protein (meat or beans), add a carbohydrate (beans, noodles, rice, etc), add healthy fat (olive oil or coconut oil), add veggies, add spices.
- Instant hummus
- Instant black beans, refried beans
- Dehydrated veggies
- Rice noodles, like Lotus Foods
- Coconut wraps
- Corn tortillas
- Instant quinoa
- Minute Instant rice
- Freeze dried meats
Additional Gluten Free Ingredients
- Protein powders: collagen or plant-based
- Cheese powder
- Whole milk powder
- Butter powder
- Coconut milk powder
- Olive oil packets
- Coconut oil packets
- Mustard packets
- Hot sauce packets
- GF tamari packets
- Avocado mayo packets
- Instant coffee
- Instant tea (I like Cusa)
- Electrolytes: EmergenC, Nuun, Replenisher, LMNT, Bumble Roots
- Treehouse drinking chocolate
Pre-packaged Options for Gluten Free Hikers
- Food for the Sole
- Heather’s Choice
- Outdoor Herbivore
- Patagonia Provisions
- Fresh Off the Grid
- Next Mile Meals
- Wild Zora
- Mary Jane’s
- Nomad Nutrition
Ready to take the next step?
The Performance Nutrition and Meal Planning for Backpackers course guides you step by step through determining your food needs, figuring out the right macronutrient ratio for you, choosing a cooking method, and putting together a meal plan and resupply strategy for your next trips. You can rinse and repeat the process for all future trips as well!