High protein food for backpackers
Mediterranean Tuna Pasta (Photo: LOUISA ALBANESE)

High-Protein Foods Are Hikers’ Ticket to Stronger Trail Legs

Protein helps your body maintain muscle mass, prevents next-day soreness, and sustains energy. Pack it in with these filling, recovery-boosting recipes.

Mediterranean Tuna Pasta
Laurie March

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To some people, food is fuel. To others, it’s a passion. But the best food is both: Great-tasting, but also a building block that will give you what you need to take your fitness to the next level. That’s why we’re sharing these protein-rich recipes with everyone. If you want more great backpacking recipes—plus skills, stories, gear reviews and more—sign up for Outside+ today.

As hikers and backpackers, we talk a lot about carbs. We love them, we need them, we dream about them while slogging through the worst of it. But what about protein? This important macronutrient is essential in muscle recovery and metabolism regulation, and it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough.

Why Hikers Need High-Protein Foods

About 10 to 20 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from protein so your body doesn’t break down muscle tissue. This nutrient also strengthens your immune system; it helps build the white blood cells that fight off pathogens found in trail dirt.

It’s crucial that you distribute and balance your protein intake throughout the day. Protein famously comes from animal products, but if you’re plant-based, you can still give your body the nutrients it needs however you want. Here are some of the best plant-based, protein-rich foods for the trail:

  • Mixed nuts and seeds
  • Nut butters
  • Plant-based protein powder (mix with water, stir into oatmeal, etc.)
  • Rice and beans (to make it easier, get beans that don’t require much soaking, such as lentils)
  • Hummus or pesto

If you have no beef with animal products, here are some ways to bulk up on protein in the backcountry:

  • Chicken, tuna, sardines or salmon in foil pouches
  • Beef or turkey jerky
  • Dehydrated eggs
  • Hard salami
  • Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan or Gouda
  • Whey protein powder
While meat is a good source of protein, it’s not the only one. (Photo: Dudbrain / iStock via Getty)

High-Protein Recipes for Hikers

Carrot Cake Quinoa and Chia Pudding

Calories: 650 | Protein: 23 g | Weight 6 oz.

Fill up with this sweet, nutty medley for breakfast or dessert. Serves 2

  • ¼ cup quinoa, rinsed and dried
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 pinch salt
  • ¼ cup hemp hearts
  • 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • cup chia seeds
  • 1 cup milk from powder
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • tsp. nutmeg
  • ¼ cup walnuts, chopped
  • ¼ cup raisins or dates, chopped

At Home: Place quinoa and salt in one zip-top bag and remaining dry ingredients in another.

In Camp: Add quinoa mixture to / cup water in a pot. Boil, then cover and reduce heat to low and cook until water is absorbed (12 to 15 minutes). Grate carrot and add to bag with remaining ingredients. Add 1 cup cold water and knead until combined. Stir in cooked quinoa and let sit 15 minutes. If needed, spoon in more water until the mixture reaches pudding consistency, then serve.

Mediterranean Tuna Pasta

Calories: 680 | Protein 30 g | Weight: 8 oz.

Change up your menu with this flavorful entree. Serves 3

  • ½ lb. Penne pasta
  • 3 oz. Parmesan cheese
  • 12 green olives, with 1 Tbsp. brine from jar
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. garlic granules
  • ½ tsp. crushed red chilies
  • 1 ½ tsp. parsley, dried
  • 9 sun-dried tomatoes, with 1 Tbsp. oil from jar
  • 1 6-oz. foil tuna pouch
  • 1 lemon
  • ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

At Home: Put pasta in a zip-top bag. Store chilies, garlic,
and parsley in one baggie and pine nuts in another. Wrap cheese in plastic wrap. Pack sun-dried tomatoes, tomato oil, and olive oil in one leakproof container. Pack olives (with brine) in another.

In Camp: Cook pasta and set aside with 1/3 of the pasta water. Chop olives (discard brine) and tomatoes. Grate or shave cheese. Heat oil in a pan, then add spices and tomatoes and sauté for 1 minute. Add tuna and half the cheese, then pasta and reserved water. Cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Mix in olives, juice of 1 lemon, and remaining cheese. Season with salt and pepper, top with pine nuts, and serve.

Lentil Soup

Warm up with this hearty recipe. Serves 4

  • 1 small onion
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup red lentils, uncooked
  • 4 tsp. chicken bouillon powder
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato powder
  • 1 tsp. garlic granules
  • 1 ¼ tsp. curry powder
  • ¼ tsp. cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp. garam masala
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 7-oz. foil pouch chicken

At Home: Pack dry ingredients in a zip-top bag (pack onion separately). Store oil in a leakproof container.

In Camp: Chop onion. Warm oil in a pot over medium heat. Sauté onion until it begins to brown. Add 4 cups water and dry ingredients, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add chicken and heat for another 5 minutes, then serve.

This story was originally published in Backpacker Magazine.