Bonus: trying to convince a friend that backpacking food isn’t just trailmix and granola bars? You don’t have to wait for the holidays to eat well on the trail. Prepare a feast on any overnight trip to sway even glampers to go into the backcountry!
First of all, the number of people going is going to affect which dishes you choose to make. The ideal scenario is that you’re in a medium sized group – say 4-6 hikers, so you can do a potluck style dinner. Each person is responsible for one dish, and then you pass the bowls around so you get a little bit of everything.
Going solo or with fewer people is going to be a little more complicated – you’ll likely have to do more pre-trip planning and repackaging so you’re not sitting alone trying to eat an entire package of potatoes, an entire bag of stuffing, and an entire box of pudding by yourself. If you’re a small group, I suggest repackaging before your trip so you have smaller servings pre-portioned and ready to go. For example, a standard sized package of instant mashed potatoes is 4 servings, so portion that out into 4 separate Ziplock baggies. Also, rather than making separate dishes, try mixing classic Thanksgiving or Christmas flavors into a one-pot meal, like putting dried cranberries into your stuffing.
Second, consider the length of your trip and which night will be your feast night. Leaving the house on Thursday morning and planning to have dinner that night? Splurge on the weight of fresh or canned veggies. Going out for a week and want to save your fancy dinner for the final night? You might want to seek out more dehydrated foods so you’re not lugging a can of green beans for 40 miles.
Finally, keep in mind that these dishes are meant to be a starting point – use them as a suggestion and then get as fancy or simple, heavy or lightweight as you want. Everyone has that one family recipe without which it’s just not Thanksgiving – think about the flavors that mean Thanksgiving to you.
Lightweight Flavor Enhancers and Mix-Ins
Spices, salt, & pepper. Try rubbed or powdered sage, onion powder, garlic powder, minced onion, pumpkin pie spice, flavored salts, poultry salt etc. to bring more depth of flavor to a dish with ~0 extra weight. Put spices in Tic-Tac containers, pill containers, contact lens cases, or tiny baggies.
Pre-made spice blends. Do you have a secret family stuffing spice blend or custom pumpkin pie blend? Mix it up ahead of time and bring only what you need.
Olive oil. Adds calories and richness to food. Make SURE the bottle is leakproof (speaking from experience here) and carry inside a Ziplock to avoid messy spills.
Butter or coconut oil. Usually it’ll be cool enough by late November that butter will keep for a day or so, and either one will stay solid. Be extra careful with transporting, like with olive oil above, to avoid messes- try one of those tiny salad dressing Tupperware-type containers, and then put that in a Ziplock.
Brown sugar, tiny maple syrup bottles, mini marshmallows. For a little extra sweetness that captures the Thanksgiving flavor profile.
Ranch dressing powder. If you don’t feel like blending your own spice mix, this is a good substitute, and it has some creaminess to it from powdered milk.
Bouillon cubes or broth powder. Most often available in chicken, beef, and veg, and comes salted or unsalted. Adds more flavor than using plain water.
Bacon bits. Real or vegetarian.
Dehydrated soup mixes. Onion soup, cream of mushroom, etc., for a cup of hot soup on a chilly evening or as a mix-in for potatoes and stuffing.
Appetizers and Side Dishes
Cheese and crackers. Hard cheeses are usually good for a few days in warm weather and even longer when it’s cool. A soft cheese like Brie would even be fine for a day or two. One of my friends from Vermont almost always had a block of Cabot cheddar with him during our AT thru-hike. Sometimes he just chewed on the block, but using your camp knife to slice off elegant little squares will feel very fancy in the middle of the woods. You can also melt some cheddar into your potatoes if that’s how you roll.
Fresh fruit. For a short trip, pack out apple or pear slices to eat with your cheese and crackers.
Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy. What’s a fancy meal without rolls or biscuits? If you don’t feel like packing out bread products, give this dehydrated meal package a try – just add hot water and soak in the pouch. No bowl or pot required.
Instant Mashed Potatoes. This was one of my go-to stand-alone meals on the AT – the potatoes really stick to your ribs and satisfy the hiker hunger, plus they come in lots of different flavors. I particularly like the mashed red potatoes with skins. Suggested add-ins: butter or olive oil, bouillon or broth powder, cheese, bacon bits, Ranch dip mix, onion soup mix, mushroom soup mix, dehydrated cranberries, dehydrated mushrooms, corn, or green beans, onion or garlic powder or minced onion bits.
Instant Stuffing. The fragrance of stuffing is the most instantly Thanksgiving smell there is. When you buy the boxed or bagged kind, it usually already has spices mixed in, and just calls for onion and celery. Fresh chopped onion and celery can be made at home and packed out, or you can buy them dehydrated. Also consider adding dried apple and/or cranberries to be really fancy. Instead of adding plain water, rehydrate with bouillon, broth, or a soup mix. Just be aware things might get super salty if you’re using lots of packaged and processed foods.
Dried cranberries. Great to add into potatoes and stuffing, eat dry, or try making your own warm cranberry sauce. Simmer dried cranberries with sugar, almond or pecan pieces, dried orange zest, water, and an airplane-sized bottle of Grand Marnier (an orange-flavored liquer). You can pre-package the cranberries with the sugar, nuts, and orange zest at home.
Veggies (canned or dehydrated). For short trips, splurge on fresh-chopped or the weight of a can or two – the texture of dehydrated veggies can be a little chewy. For longer trips, if you can’t find dried veggies at the grocery store, try online – they can be pretty inexpensive in bulk. I’d recommend corn, green beans, peas, carrots, and sweet potato. Dried veg can be added into your potatoes, or made as their own side dish. If you’re doing carrots or sweet potatoes, consider adding butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, or marshmallows, and mashing together with your spork.
Instant gravy. Often comes powdered in packets, just add hot water. It’s hard to find vegetarian, though.
Honestly, I’m satisfied with a meal made entirely of side dishes, but here are some dedicated entree options.
Holiday Rice Casserole. A great all-in-one vegetarian Thanksgiving meal. Start with an instant rice-and-veg pouch, like Uncle Ben’s Minute Rice. Add dried cranberries, pecans, maybe even top with gravy when it’s all done. Mmmm.
Good to Go Herbed Mushroom Risotto. This is a pre-made, dehydrated meal – just add hot water and soak in the pouch. I’ve tried this before and it’s delicious. I would eat it if I wasn’t even on the trail. Easy clean-up – no bowl or pot required.
Polenta. Although polenta as corn porridge takes forever to cook, you can actually buy polenta pre-cooked in a tube and slice it into little pucks that make a great blank canvas for toppings. Fry them up with a little oil in the bottom of your pot, then top with mushroom gravy and sage, or almonds and craisins, or maple syrup if you want to go sweet instead of savory. It’s kind of heavy, so this is one you want to save for a shorter trip.
Mountain House Chicken and Mashed Potatoes if you’re not picky about your poultry. I don’t eat meat, but it has great reviews on Amazon.
Can or pouch of chicken. I hear it’s bland just on its own, but you can try mixing pieces into mashed potatoes or stuffing for a one-pot feast.
Mountain House Apple Crisp. What’s more fall than apples and spices? Just add hot water, soak, eat in bag.
Backpacker’s Pantry Hot Apple Cobbler. Ditto! Does anyone have a preference between the two they’d like to share?
Mountain House Raspberry Crumble. If you used dried apple bits in dinner and want to change up the flavors for dessert, this would be a tart way to wrap things up.
Instant pumpkin pudding. For the Jell-O brand, you just mix with milk and chill, so you’d need cooler weather. Mix up some milk powder with fresh, cold stream water (filtered, of course), and make it as soon as you get to camp so it’s ready for dessert. Eat plain, top with mini marshmallows, or dip into it with Nilla wafers or graham crackers. It’s like bite-sized pumpkin pie.
Apple pie filling. Be like Carl on Walking Dead and just spoon it right out of the can. No judgement.
S’mores. It’s not Thanksgiving-specific, unless maybe they make pumpkin spice graham crackers or marshmallows? I feel like either of those things could easily exist. Even if they don’t, S’MORES.
Boxed wine. There are all kind of single-serve wine options these days. A mini box (usually 2-3 glasses) would be the lightest option and also compress down when empty, but you could also do single-serve plastic bottles. Wine even comes in cans now! Either way you can drink right out of the container, because you’re classy like that. Pair it with your cheddar-and-pear-on-crackers appetizer for the ultimate in backwoods fancy-pants-ing.
Airplane bottles of liquor. Or decant into a plastic water bottle and pass it around the fire.
Cans of beer. Lightweight and compressible when empty.
Instant coffee. There are tons of single-serve options. If you want to be gourmet, try adding pumpkin pie spice, maple syrup & powdered milk for a latte-type beverage, or chocolate powder and marshmallows for a mocha. Don’t forget about spiking it with Bailey’s, whiskey, Grand Marnier, Kahlua… whatever strikes your fancy.
Hot chocolate. See mix-ins above (including adding coffee powder for a trail mocha)- enough said.
Always respect the alcohol consumption rules of wherever you are, and pack out (don’t burn) ALL trash!!