Roughly six to eight million adults in the U.S. identify as vegetarians. Worldwide, that number explodes to an estimated 375 million. According to research published by the National Institutes of Health, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets…are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
But the term “appropriately planned” is important. If you don’t prepare diligently, the benefits can be illusive.
That’s why outdoor activities such as camping and hiking pose such a high risk. How can you balance specific eating habits and proper nutrition with the need for ultralight, durable, and limited materials?
Fear not. From the experts here at OutdoorFoodLab, here’s how to successfully navigate the world of outdoor nutrition while staying true to your vegetarian or vegans needs.
Nutrition Basics for Vegetarian or Vegan Hikers & Campers
Before delving into specific foods, meals, and practices, it’s important to understand what exactly you’re looking to maximize. While the exact volumes depend on the type of activity and its intensity—along with your personal metabolism and external conditions—the two biggest nutritional factors you’re looking to optimize during an outdoor adventure are:
If you don’t properly maximize the nutrients above, you’re going to severely limit the enjoyment of your trip. Worse yet, it can lead to life-threatening conditions like hyponatremia. We’ve especially seen vegetarians and vegans run into trouble in two ways:
1. Fruits and vegetables often have a lower calorie density
As a vegetarian myself, I love the guilt-free snacking options of an apple (95 calories), banana (105 calories), or a handful of snap peas (60 calories). But the calorie density often pales in comparison to meat alternatives like a serving prepared sausage, which has four to fives time the calories per ounce compared to popular fruits and veggies.
But as any seasoned vegetarian or vegan will tell you, there’s plenty of non-meat options other than fruits and vegetables. You’ll just need to identify the best food categories to pack (more on that soon).
2. It can be tougher supplement electrolyte intake with whole foods
Similarly, whole fruits and vegetables—whether dried or fresh—don’t have large amounts of natural sodium. For regular life, this is a huge benefit of going meat-free. But for outdoor activities, which often require several times your normal sodium intake, this can make things tough.
Take our sausage example from the previous section. On a recent hike, a friend brought a dried sausage with 500mg of sodium per ounce. That’s over 4,000mg of sodium in a single package! Most whole fruits and vegetables have nearly 0mg.
But as mentioned earlier, there’s a whole world of food possibilities other than whole fruits and vegetables to choose from, but you may have to alter your regular eating habits during an outdoor adventure.
Best Foods to Pack for a Meat-Free Adventure
Your eating habits will change when you’re on the trail, kayaking a new river, or climbing your next peak. You’re going to need plenty of calories and electrolytes to stay safe and have fun. But those aren’t the only considerations. At OutdoorFoodLab, we rank every meal by three important characteristics:
- Taste—What good is a meal if it’s not satisfying?
- Ease of Preparation—Needing a bunch of equipment or preparation time isn’t always an option.
- Weight—You’ll want to focus on foods with a high calorie to ounce ratio, so you’re not stuck lugging unnecessary pounds throughout your journey.
We’ve identified many ready-made meals that fit these requirements, but if you’re looking to make your own, here are our favorite categories:
Nuts of all kinds grant you an incredible blend of nutritional benefits: plenty of protein and heart-healthy fats, along with several vitamins and minerals. For example, a single cup of cashews can have nearly 800 calories (around 150 calories per ounce). While most nuts are similar in calories per ounce, macadamia nuts and pecans lead the way (200 calories per ounce).
Better yet, you can get nuts that are oil-roasted and salted. While these characteristics aren’t usually considered “healthy,” oil is one of the most calorie dense foods you can find (250 calories per ounce). Many veteran thru-hikers sprinkle coconut or olive oil over every meal. And the salt helps up your electrolyte intake in a tasty way.
We ranked Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai highly on all fronts. It comes with a healthy portion of peanut butter, a packet of whole peanuts, and is 100% vegan.
A backpacking classic, all you need for preparation is some dry oatmeal and boiling water—although some of our testers have used cold water when in a bind. Preparation and cleanup couldn’t be easier. Plus, a little brown sugar and a sliced banana (which keeps better in a pack versus other fresh fruit) can make this meal a delicacy in the wild.
Dried oats typically have around 110 calories per ounce, and while that may not be deemed properly “ultralight,” its nutrition also provides a small boost of fiber and protein. And after a cold night, nothing beats waking up to a warm breakfast. Grits are a good alternative if you’re looking to mix things up.
While it’s only vegetarian (not vegan), see our review for Mountain House’s Granola With Milk and Blueberries for a quick and easy oatmeal option.
A vastly underrated backpacking food, many edible seeds come close or surpass OutdoorFoodLab’s coveted “ultralight” ranking, meaning there are more than 150 calories per ounce. A few examples:
- Sunflower Seeds—160 calories per ounce
- Pumpkin Seeds—130 calories per ounce
- Chia Seeds—140 calories per ounce
- Hemp Seeds—160 calories per ounce
- Sesame Seeds—165 calories per ounce
You can use seeds as a quick snack, or better yet, sprinkle them on every meal to raise your nutritional density. They don’t crush or go bad easily in your pack, and can withstand an impressive variety of conditions.
4. Energy Bars
Ready-made energy bars can actually be a tasty, nutrient dense, extremely packable addition to your outdoors meals. They’re not fancy or instagram-worthy, but they work.
For example, PROBAR Meal Bars have nearly 130 calories per ounce, plus plenty of protein to help you recover. With flavors like Superfood Slam, Chocolate Coconut, and Banana Nut Bread, don’t pass these quick-fixes by when preparing for your next trip. At the end of a long day, it can be a lifesaver to rip open a wrapper and eat something tasty immediately. Plus, the carry-out garbage is as light as it gets.
5. Tortilla Wraps
These alone aren’t that impressive at roughly 90 calories per ounce, but they keep fresh incredibly well, can be stuffed in a variety of places and positions, and are adaptable to nearly every meal.
Have extra peanut butter? Make a tortilla sandwich. Leftover pasta? Eat it out of an edible tortilla bowl. Lazy? Just eat the tortilla. Despite their so-so ultralight characteristics, we know dozens of serious hikers, climbers, and kayakers who pack some tortillas for every trip.
There are clearly hundreds of incredible options not mentioned on this list, but these were the classics that have stuck with many of us throughout dozens of trips. And with ready-made outdoor meals advancing significantly in recent years, you no longer need to scramble to find all of the raw ingredients and preparation materials.
Check out our Outdoor Meal Reviews for some great ideas. You can easily filter them for only vegetarian or vegan options.