No matter where we ride, how we pack our gear, or whether we prefer gravel roads or singletrack, there’s one thing all bikepackers have in common: a massive appetite.
Figuring out what to eat on a bikepacking trip can be tough. We need to carry all our food in limited cargo space, find what we need in out-of-the-way places, adjust to unfamiliar cuisines, and sometimes keep an eye on our budget. Satisfying a cyclist-size appetite within these constraints can be a tricky puzzle.
In this post I’ll share what I’ve learned about eating while biking thousands of miles on gravel, dirt, and pavement, in remote and populated areas, on both coasts and straight through the middle (twice) of the US.
If you’ll be venturing abroad on two wheels, things get even more complicated. Figuring out what to eat while bike touring in Vietnam, Sudan, or Kyrgyzstan presents a whole other set of issues. In this article I’ll focus on the types of food typically available in my home country, the United States, but some tips apply to other places too.
Bikepacking vs. Bike Touring?
Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m all for inclusive bike travel terminology! Panniers or seat bag, I don’t care what you run, we’re all one big happy family.
But food for bikepacking, traditionally defined as more about remoteness, camping, and dirt or gravel, is a trickier puzzle to solve than food for bike touring, which I’ll loosely define as involving more towns, motels, and pavement (and thus, of course, more grocery stores and restaurants). The space constraints of a bikepacking bag setup, compared to rack and panniers, don’t help either.
So, I’ll be talking about bikepacking food from here on out. But if you tour in the US, especially in less populated areas, a lot of this applies to you too.
What to Consider When Planning Your Food
Before we get into specifics, we need to talk about what kind of bikepacking trip you’re planning for. I loosely break this up into a few different categories based on availability of food, gear you want to carry, and desired mood / pace.
How long is your trip?
For a short trip, say 1-3 nights, you might carry most or all your food from the start. This lets you control your menu and not worry about store hours. Dehydrated meals and other backpacking-style foods work well here (ideas below).
For longer trips you’ll need to resupply along the way. With this kind of flexibility it’s easiest to just buy what’s available as you go along, never planning more than a couple days ahead.
Most people will struggle to pack more than three days of food into a bikepacking bag setup, though it can be done. In practice it’s rarely needed. since small towns are fairly easy to come by every few days except on the most remote of routes.
How often will you resupply, and what’s available?
Take a close look at your route and expected daily schedule. Will you be passing through something resembling civilization multiple times each day? Once every day or two? Not at all?
The size of the town usually determines what you can buy there. Peruse Google Maps if needed, and be sure to check business hours. Most towns big enough to have a 24 hour gas station will also have a grocery store, fast food chains, and other restaurants to choose from. Knock yourself out!
Small towns often have a single general store or convenience store, and maybe a restaurant that serves burgers and sandwiches. Their hours might be as limited as their selection, so call ahead to check their hours before relying on them.
My typical US bikepacking trips usually involve a mix of resupply stops. I might carry a few dehydrated meals from the beginning, restock snacks along the way, and take advantage of occasional restaurants and grocery stores for extra calories and nutritious food.
Stove or no stove?
Do you need to bring a stove on your bikepacking trip? This comes down to personal preference and will be influenced by:
- How often you’ll encounter food on your route
- How light you’re trying to pack
- Dietary restrictions that limit what you can buy when resupplying
- How much you mind the occasional cold cup of ramen, canned chili, or instant coffee
- How cold the weather will be. Freezing mornings make hot coffee and oatmeal extra-appealing.
For me personally, it’s usually not worth bringing a stove if I can get to a convenience store at least once a day. The exception is a leisurely tour with chilly mornings and evenings.
Alternative Lightweight Stoves
Do you enjoy planning and prep?
Are you the type who wants to plan and pack every meal in advance, or do you enjoy the challenge of piecing together a menu from sparse shelves? Do you have time to prepare in advance, or is it easier to just buy as you go?
Dietary requirements can also put some riders in the planner category simply because they can’t count on finding what they need if they don’t bring it themselves.
What are your dietary goals?
Generally speaking in the US at least, the smaller the town, the harder it is to find varied and nutritious food. Vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free folks, and others with specific dietary needs will struggle to eat from convenience stores and roadside diners.
If you have strict dietary needs, look for towns large enough to have chain grocery stores. You can also mail food drops to yourself via General Delivery at most US post offices, but pickup hours in small towns can be inconveniently limited.
Relaxed or ambitious pace?
Is this trip more of a “mobile buffet” style, a ton of eating with some biking thrown in? Then it’s totally worth carrying the stove and some extra goodies if cooking at camp, and scheduling plenty of time for restaurant meals when available. Bring on the bacon cheeseburgers!
On the other end of the spectrum, bikepack racers are all about shoving down calories – any calories – while riding as many miles as possible. Racers typically stick to convenience stores because restaurants and grocery stores take far too much time, and they wouldn’t dream of carrying a stove and spending time to cook. It’s all about energy bars, trail mix, and as many frozen burritos as you can carry.
How big is your budget?
While food isn’t a big expense compared to things like bikes, gear, and travel, it can be the single biggest expense once you’re actually riding. Generally speaking, here’s the expense hierarchy:
- Most expensive: restaurants
- Moderately expensive: fast food, convenience stores, ready-made dehydrated meals
- Least expensive: grocery stores, DIY dehydrated meals
What Makes Good Bikepacking Food?
Before getting into the specifics, let’s get on the same page about goals. Preferences vary, but here’s what most bikepackers strive for:
- Food that’s lightweight and doesn’t take up much space.
- Food that’s calorie dense, which usually means high in fat content.
- Food that packs well – no squishing, squooshing, or spilling inside our bike bags.
- Enough food – bikepacking makes us hungry.
- Some semblance of nutrition, especially on longer trips. It’s all too easy to overdo the junk food.
Depending on your location and budget, some of these can be easier to achieve than others. Let’s look at some specific ideas and techniques.
Dehydrated Bikepacking Meals
When it comes to food, a short bikepacking trip in a remote area isn’t all that different from a backpacking trip. Dehydrated meals intended for hiking are a great option for bikepackers too, because they’re designed to be calorie-dense and weigh as little as possible.
There are two main approaches to dehydrated meals for bikepacking: buy premade, or make your own at home.
Premade dehydrated meals: Mountain House and Backpacker Pantry are two popular brands. The single-serve pouches are convenient but they’re also more expensive, create more packaging waste, and often come in serving sizes that are too small for a hungry cyclist.
I like to buy #10 cans from Mountain House (Chili Mac n Cheese is my favorite), portion them out in custom serving sizes, and add extra powdered fat and freeze dried vegetables for more calories and nutrition.
DIY dehydrated meals can be made to suit your preferences and pack in more nutrition, and the process can be fun if you have the time. Here’s a good collection of ideas.
Even DIY meals come in a range of effort levels. You can combine a few simple ingredients from the grocery store, buy ingredients that are already freeze dried and powdered and mix them together, or make your favorite homemade meal and they dry it in a food dehydrator (I use this one from Nesco).
Dehydrated meals make the most sense as dinners, when you really want a hot and hearty meal that doesn’t weigh too much while you’re carrying it. Egg-based breakfasts are a nice change from oatmeal in the morning, but they take a long time to rehydrate (crunchy eggs… yum…). Buying oatmeal and other simple breakfasts from Mountain House seems like a waste of money to me, since they’re easy to assemble from grocery store ingredients.
Here are a few of my favorite dehydrated meals:
- Mountain House Chili Mac ‘n Cheese
- Mountain House Adobo Rice and Chicken
- Mountain House Breakfast Skillet
- Dehydrated lentil stew (make your own, or dehydrate Tasty Bites Madras Lentils)
- Dehydrated veggie chili (make your own, or dehydrate Amy’s canned chili)
All of these can be fancied up by adding extra cheese (real or powdered), butter powder, bacon bits, dried veggies, or other goodies according to preference. See the next section for ideas.
Powdered and Dried Ingredients
Powdered, dehydrated, and freeze dried ingredients are easy to buy online but hard to find in stores. I use them in two ways:
- At home, while mixing or supplementing dehydrated meals to take on a trip
- On the road, packed in smaller baggies to supplement meals I make from grocery store and convenience store ingredients
Here are some of my favorite dry ingredients to mix into meals for more calories and nutrients:
- Whole milk powder
- Butter powder
- Cream powder (great for mixing with instant coffee)
- Coconut cream powder (non-dairy alternative source of fat)
- Cheddar cheese powder
- Dehydrated veggies (mixed or specific types like spinach or tomato)
- Bean flakes
- Shredded coconut, sliced nuts, pumpkin seeds, etc. for adding to granola or oatmeal
The powdered fats can be added to pretty much anything – pasta, rice, oatmeal, coffee – to add more calories. The veggies and beans make me feel like I’m getting a little more nutritional variety.
For a long ride like the GDMBR, I mail myself bags of these every few weeks so I can add them to the meals I make on the road. See the Mail Drops section below for more on mailing food.
Simple Hot Meals for Resupplying on the Road
When buying food as you go, options are more limited. You probably don’t have access to a full kitchen and food dehydrator; you might be hard-pressed to even find a grocery store.
These simple meal ideas can be made from ingredients found in most small grocery stores or even convenience stores. You can also make them at home and pack them for your trip if you need quick and affordable dry meals.
To spruce these up, add some powdered or freeze dried ingredients (especially extra fats and veggies) from the section above.
For meal ideas that don’t require cooking or adding water, including lunches, see the next section.
- Instant oatmeal: add peanut butter, nuts or trail mix, powdered milk or cream.
- Granola with water: add milk powder and nuts or trail mix (also good cold).
- Instant coffee (I particularly like Anthony’s for buying in bulk, but single-serve packets are convenient for short trips): add cream or milk powder.
- Ramen noodles: add peanut butter and hot sauce (Trust me! This is a favorite, and very affordable too.)
- Mac ‘n cheese: add extra cheese, bacon bits, or salami. Be sure to get the fast-cooking instant kind (usually comes in cups).
- Instant mashed potatoes: add cheese, bacon bits, or salami
- Couscous: add cheese (are you seeing a pattern here?), canned chicken or tuna
- Instant rice (Korr brand “Rice Sides” are popular): add canned chicken or tuna
- Couscous: add bacon bits, bean flakes, canned meat, and extra butter or cheese powder
- Cans and pouches of soup, stew, etc: Though heavier than dry meals, these can be a nice change of pace.
To literally spice up these meals, horde a few condiment packets from restaurant or fast food meals. A squirt of taco sauce, salsa, or ketchup (the latter especially for mashed potatoes) makes these simple meals a tad more exciting.
Warning about pasta: Most of the pasta in the grocery store needs to be cooked in boiling water for about ten minutes. This uses lots of fuel and leaves you with a bunch of pasta water to dispose of – not exactly “leave no trace.” Look for instant noodles instead, which have already been cooked and then dehydrated. They’ll rehydrate in hot (not necessarily boiling) water in just a few minutes.
No-Stove Bikepacking Food Ideas
Whether you’re packing light and going stove-free, or just want to diversify your menu, these bikepacking meal ideas don’t require any cooking or hot water.
- Protein bars (see my favorites here – MetRx and Builder Bars are usually easy to find)
- Various pastries, pies, muffins, etc. – add peanut butter to make them more filling.
- Cold instant coffee, optionally with milk powder and sugar. Tip: instant coffee does dissolve in cold water, but it helps to shake it well in a bottle.
No-Cook Lunches and Dinners
- Tortillas with cheese and salami. Hard cheeses and meats last a long time without refrigeration, but softer ones may not.
- Tortillas with peanut butter or other nut butter, and perhaps fruit jam
- Tortilla with canned refried beans and cheese
- Tortilla with canned tuna or chicken
- Pre-made sandwich, often available in convenience stores, or Subway if you’re lucky
- Microwave burrito, a convenience store staple
- Tasty Bite lentil pouches (can be heated, but also not bad cold).
- Canned food: can also be heated on a stove, but usually not bad cold. I find ravioli and vegetarian chili more appetizing than other options when cold. Be sure to choose cans with pull-off lids if you’re not carrying a can opener.
- Ramen rehydrates fairly quickly (give it 20 minutes) even in cold water and tastes pretty good too.
- Pretty much any dehydrated meal can be “cold soaked” to make it edible, but it might take a few hours.
Looking at this list, you can see that many no-cook meal options are heavier than dehydrated meals, and they also may not stay fresh as long (especially sandwiches and burritos). This makes them particularly well-suited to routes with frequent resupplies, or as a treat on your first night after resupplying.
While in town, some of my favorite foods to buy and eat before pedaling out include chocolate milk, yogurt, and bananas.
A note about microwave burritos: Most instructions say to microwave them for food safety reasons. Generally they are already cooked, but presumably the microwaving kills any pathogens that may have grown during transport and storage. It’s probably a good idea to follow this precaution and microwave them before you leave. That said, I and many others have taken them frozen to-go and eaten them once thawed, with no ill effects. Try at your own risk!
Bikepacking Snack Ideas
Snacks are probably the easiest type of bikepacking food to find, and also the most dependent on personal preference. Here are a few of my staple bikepacking snacks that are usually available at even the smallest convenience stores:
- Trail mix
- Dried fruit
- Peanut butter
- Meat sticks or jerky
- Cheese sticks or wheels
- Protein bars (tip: slather on some peanut butter to super-charge a low-calorie bar)
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Potato chips, especially in hot weather
If you have access to a larger grocery store, here are some tasty healthier ideas:
- Bite-size fruits and veggies (carrot sticks, grapes, sweet peas, berries)
- Date bites or similar idea, if you can find them. They’re nicely sweet but not overly processed, and they don’t melt in the heat like chocolate does.
A note about sweets: My own experience has been that overdoing sugar leads to bad places. Convenience stores in the US are filled with candy, but it will only power you so far before your body begs for something more substantial. The more I ride, the less candy I eat or even want. That said, sometimes the quick pick-me-up of sugar is exactly what’s needed, and if you have a sweet tooth there’s no better time than a bikepacking trip to indulge it.
How Long Will Food Stay Fresh?
If you buy a sandwich in the morning and it sits in your handlebar bag until dinner, is it still safe to eat?
I’m not a microbiologist, and spoiled food can occasionally be dangerous, so use your own best judgment. But from personal experience:
- Most perishable food, like a sandwich, will easily last a few hours to a full day. In cool weather with overnight temperatures in the 30’s to 40’s F, a sandwich can last until the next day.
- Hard foods like aged cheese and dry salami can last weeks, especially in cool weather and if not pre-sliced. The less moisture and surface area a food has, the longer it will last.
- Frozen burritos will defrost slowly in your bag, in theory keeping them ready to eat for longer.
- Try to keep all food sheltered from the sun’s heat and light. Pack it in the bottom of your bags, not the top where the sun warms the fabric.
- If you start to eat something and it seems “off,” don’t finish it. Keep some emergency energy bars on hand for times like this. It’s not worth getting a nasty stomach bug while you’re on the road.
Bikepacking Nutrition Tips
There are so many different ideas about what it means to eat healthy these days, and I’m not one to judge. But personally speaking, I struggle to eat a diet that doesn’t make me feel disgusting during long bikepacking trips.
I can enjoy cheeseburgers and candy for a few days, even a week or two. But if I’m on the road for a few weeks or more, this diet just doesn’t work for me. I start craving salads. If my daily mileage isn’t very high, I might even gain weight. It’s hard to explain, but I just don’t feel good after too much junk food.
If you can relate, here are the tips that help me:
- Take it easy on the sugar. The candy aisle at the gas station can be so tempting, but when I overdo it I get energy crashes and start to feel gross. When I catch myself reaching for a candy bar or package of cookies that I don’t even really want, I substitute “real food” (cheese, nuts, etc.) instead.
- Take it easy on starchy carbs too. Most of the easiest bikepacking meals – rice, pasta, potatoes – are based on starch. I try to use smaller amounts of the starch and mix in more protein and fat for better macronutrient ratios.
- Enjoy fresh fruits and veggies whenever possible. If it’s not practical to take them with you, buy extra in town and eat them before you leave. I don’t normally love vegetables, but I’m always surprised by how good a salad tastes after a week of trail food.
- Listen to what your body wants. If salty food looks delicious, you might need the electrolytes. If sweet food seems extra appealing, perhaps you need a pick-me-up. If a big greasy pizza sounds amazing, you might need the calories.
Vegetarian and Vegan Bikepacking Food
Life isn’t easy for vegans and vegetarian bikepackers, especially in rural places. We Americans really do like our meat. My best suggestion for non-carnivores is to focus on other sources of protein and fat – you’ll be eating a LOT of nuts and beans.
Some options that I see regularly while riding, even in small stores:
- Peanut butter (add to tortillas or eat with a spoon)
- Canned beans or vegetarian chili
- Nuts and trail mix
- Certain protein and granola bars, for example Kind Bars, are vegan
- Dairy like whole milk and yogurt (for vegetarians not vegans, obviously)
- Avocados (available in grocery stores, but probably not convenience stores)
To get enough calories, vegans may need to add extra fat to pretty much everything. Olive oil decanted into a small plastic bottle, and powdered coconut milk, are both good vegan-friendly options.
If you happen to be vegan or vegetarian yourself, please comment below with your ideas! I would love to expand this list with some concrete experience.
Keto and Low Carb Bikepacking Food
Low carb diets are a growing trend these days, and not just for weight loss. It turns out our bodies can fuel themselves using stored fat, if we train them to, which allows us to ride farther between meals without that horrible bonky feeling. A low carb diet also limits sugar, which has been shown to be unhealthy in a variety of ways.
A typical convenience store bikepacking diet is likely to be high in both sugar and carbs. Think about all those Snickers bars, Gatorade, and ramen packets! It’s definitely possible to maintain a low carb diet on the road (strict keto is a bigger challenge), but you’ll have to make careful selections. See this list of low-carb backpacking food ideas, which apply well to bikepacking too.
Mail Drops for Bikepacking
Mailing food to yourself on the road, as thru hikers often do, is usually more trouble than it’s worth since bikepacking gets us between towns faster than hiking. But there are a couple cases when it might make sense:
- You have special dietary needs that can’t be covered by the resupply stops on your route.
- You’re on a long ride (like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route) and want to restock on ingredients that are hard to find even in grocery stores, such as powdered coconut milk, freeze dried veggies, or healthy homemade snacks.
If you’re thinking about mailing food drops for your bikepacking trip, keep these tips in mind:
- Address the package to Your Name, General Delivery, and the address of the post office where you want to pick it up.
- Label your box with an ETA (estimated date of arrival), but note that many post offices won’t hold General Delivery mail longer than 2 weeks. Some will though; call ahead if you’re unsure or need them to hold it for longer.
- Bring your ID, you’ll need it to pick up the box.
- Factor post office hours into your schedule. Many are only open on weekdays, especially in small towns.
How to Carry Food While Bikepacking
As with the rest of packing for bikepacking, figuring out where and how to pack your food is a puzzle.
Stem bags – also called feed bags for good reason – are used to hold snacks you want to nibble on the go. Here are a couple budget-friendly options available on Amazon (the first is my personal favorite):
A handlebar pouch is great for meals or snacks you’ll get into less frequently. I love this budget-friendly pouch from RockBros because it holds so much. It can attach to the top or front of a typical handlebar roll bag for extra capacity.
Top tube bags like this one (also budget-friendly) are another way to carry small snacks accessibly while riding.
Your seat bag is a good place for dinner and breakfast food that you won’t need until you get to camp. While budget options exist, I’m partial to Revelate these days. Try to put heavy stuff, like canned food, closest to the seat post and lighter stuff toward the back.
Dry sacks in cages on the front fork can also work well for food, especially stuff that’s heavier and should be carried down low.
For everything else that doesn’t fit, you’ll have to get creative:
Safe Food Storage For Bikepacking
If you’re bikepacking in bear country, or even rodent country, you’ll need to take care with how you store you food overnight.
I once left some trail mix in my stem bag overnight by accident. I woke in the morning to find a rodent had eaten half of it, pooped all over my stem bag, and ran off with my cycling gloves! At least it wasn’t a bear…
If bears are not an issue, I will usually pack all my food in a single bag and bring it into my tent at night to keep it safe from rodents. At the very least, I put it in my seat bag and buckle it up securely. I have heard stories of rodents chewing through tents and bags, but at least they have to work for it instead of just enjoying a rodent buffet.
When camping in bear country, it’s important – for both your safety and that of the bears, who are often euthanized if they develop a taste for people food – to store your food properly. Bikepacking bags and bear canisters don’t play well together, so you’ll be doing a bear hang (harder than it looks) or ideally carrying an Ursack (see my review for more detail) for overnight food storage.
Eating and Cooking Gear For Bikepacking
This could be a whole post on its own, but here are a few quick notes on cooking gear for bikepacking.
Whenever I travel on my bike I always pack a lightweight but durable spoon and a collapsible cup/bowl. Even if I’m mostly eating grab-and-go meals and never plan to cook at camp, these always seem to come in handy somehow.
For cooking at camp there are quite a few options and you’ll need to consider fuel availability. In the US, canister fuel is available at outdoor gear stores and you can find it in most medium to large towns. Two popular canister fuel stove styles are:
Two alternative stove types that don’t use those bulky canisters:
- Alcohol stoves are a common alternative to canister stoves. They’re lightweight, cheap (you can make your own) and pretty easy to find fuel for.
- For a super-lightweight stove setup on short trips, there’s also the solid fuel Esbit stove and fuel tablets. These won’t cook a full meal, especially in cold weather or at high elevation, but they’re perfect for when you want to warm the occasional mug of instant coffee or canned food.
When bikepacking solo, I’ll cook directly in my titanium mug so I don’t need a pot. This works for every stove type mentioned above except the JetBoil, which has an integrated pot.
Other Bikepacking Food Tips
A few last assorted tips:
- Pack enough food! Count your total calories if you can, and pack more than you think you need. The correct amount of food will probably feel like too much when you’re stuffing it into small bikepacking bags, but I promise, you’ll appreciate it later.
- Always keep some emergency food on hand in case that small town store is closed or a mechanical issue delays you by a day. I recommend a packet of Ramen and a few protein bars stored deep in your seat bag where you won’t be tempted to break into them.
- Save your empty ziplock baggies. They come in really handy for repackaging food to make it fit better in your bags (like cups of noodle soup).
I hope this post helped you understand how to plan, choose, and pack food for bikepacking. If you have any favorites or helpful tips of your own, please share in the comments below.
More Bikepacking Resources
You might also find these helpful:
- Bikepacking For Beginners
- 9 Ways to Carry Water on Your Bicycle
- Creative Gear Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget
Or visit the bikepacking resource center for even more pedal-powered goodness.
Discover bike travel and bikepacking blogs from riders all around the world.
You might also like my other project:
Bike resources in your inbox?
There’s more where this came from! Sign up here for occasional emails full of inspiration and information about bikepacking and bicycle touring.
Share the Adventure
If you found this article helpful, please consider sharing so more people can benefit from it: