If you’re like me, and I really hope you aren’t, you are incapable of thinking about the future. Instead, you like to procrastinate planning for your weekend of backpacking until you simply have to throw gear haphazardly in your pack (did you grab the headlamp?) and then pray that you’ll find something to eat at the gas station closest to the trailhead. I have more than the average number of gas-station grabs thanks to my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, where I was blessed with quite a few resupplies from teeny tiny convenience stores due to my lack of proper planning.
Whatever your case may be, I wanted to solve a common hiker dilemma: cobbling together a passable weekend menu at a gas station convenience store. I’ll concede my normally sought criteria of organic, local and nutrition-packed, and simply try to avoid the very real negative outcomes I’ve seen in the past (think fistful of jerky, a few boiled eggs and a box of bars). So with that in mind I explored the closest quick market near my go-to weekend overnight spot within striking distance of Seattle (not telling), and hit the trail. Spoiler alert: This menu isn’t half bad. Enjoy—and hit us with more ideas in the comments.
Friday Dinner: Tuna Mac and Cheese
I have successfully avoided tuna mac for my entire six-year backpacking career. Although many consider it a go-to meal because it’s easy and a good source of protein, those cans of tuna make me think of cat food. But cat food is the next aisle over, and you know what? Other than my personal distaste for tuna, it checks the boxes for what makes a good backcountry meal: quick, easy, calorie-packed. If ever there’s a time to try to expand my palate, the gas station is one. Right?
Side note from friends who love tuna mac: I asked if anyone actually liked tuna mac, and it turns out I’m simply wrong.
“Me. I have no sophisticated explanation for it; rather, my love of tuna mac comes from nostalgia and my parents serving it to my brother and I as a treat when we were kids. It’s definitely still a guilty pleasure. Protip: chunk light tuna might actually work better than solid albacore only because the albacore tends to dry out and is harder to mix in.” —KT Breen.
“I DO AND DON’T APPRECIATE YOUR TONE. #macandcheeseandcannedfishisdelish” —Liz Meyer
“It’s a tuna melt, restructured to be eaten with a fork, and not constrained by the structural integrity of toast/bread.” —Matt Koehler
As expected, this wasn’t my favorite, but again, you can’t argue with cheap and filling—and I found a way to make it more palatable for those who don’t love tuna (or the texture of instant mac and cheese). Prefer vegetarian? Try hunting for veggies—frozen, canned or fresh—or add in real cheese.
- 1 can of tuna
- 2 single-serving bowls of mac and cheese
- 4 sea-salt multigrain tortilla chips, crumbled
- 2 pieces beef jerky
- Boil recommended amount of water with macaroni.
- Struggle until the can of tuna is open (let’s hope your gas station has the packets—they are way better for backpacking!).
- Once at a boil, let macaroni sit covered until cooked, about five minutes.
- Stir in cheese packets and drained tuna.
- Crumble chips and jerky on top.
Saturday Breakfast: Cereal and Fruit
Most gas stations have cereal. With most of the options being super sugary, I went for classic O’s and found fruit cups nearby that I thought might make a good combo—and a pretty close approximation of the oats and fruit I have on trips with better planning and resources. The fruit cup’s syrup stood in as the liquid to make my cereal less cardboard-y, more yum. I will say, because of that, this meal served up quite a bit of sugar. So, take that into consideration. Add in instant coffee shaken, not stirred in a bag, and it’s a delicious way to start a morning. You probably don’t need directions, but here they are anyway.
- 1 cup of cereal
- 1 fruit cup
- 1 packet of instant coffee
- Pour cereal into bowl.
- Pour fruit cup into cereal.
- Pour water into instant coffee in a bag and shake, shake, shake.
Saturday Lunch: Meat, Cheese and Cracker Plate
Limited food options at most gas stations will generally mean more basic meals. I was lucky enough to find an incredible protein trail mix, which included three types of sausage sticks, two kinds of cheese and two different jerkies. Add in the super-tasty tortilla chips, and this was a surprisingly satisfying lunch. Veggie option: I like ants on a stump (not ants on a log), which is peanut butter and raisins on salty crackers.
- 1 packet of protein trail mix with cheese, sausage and jerky
- 1 bag of sea-salt multigrain tortilla chips
- You know what to do.
Saturday Dinner: Cold Sesame Noodles
I was born and raised in New York City, which among other things, means I’m obsessed with cold sesame noodles. I now live in Seattle, where they are nowhere to be found, unless you get creative with egg noodles, sesame oil, soy sauce and peanut butter. So I made a (gasp!) sesame-less version of them with ingredients easily found at just about any gas station, and this meal was legitimately incredible. Stop reading and go make these. You won’t regret it. Unless you have a nut allergy.
- 1 cup of noodles, chicken-flavored
- 2 tablespoons of creamy peanut butter (bring a few more spoonfuls, all in a plastic sandwich baggie for an awesome snack later in the day)
- 1 handful of spicy peanuts (I found this strange treat next to the rest of the nuts)
- An hour before you want dinner, add cold water to the cup of noodles in a plastic sandwich bag. Add another sandwich bag around the first, to prevent spillage. Let the noodles rehydrate as you hike.
- Pour noodles, draining any excess water, into bowl once hydrated.
- Stir in peanut butter, adding in more water as needed to create a slightly thinner consistency.
- Sprinkle spicy peanuts on top.
Sunday Breakfast: Oatmeal with Fruit
I’m in love with oatmeal. Sadly for me, this particular gas station was one of the only ones ever to not have single-serving oatmeal packets—or “fresh” fruit at the register. But I found a delicious way to improvise using granola bars and candy (seriously).
- 1 peanut-butter-flavored oatmeal bar
- 1 handful of dark-chocolate-covered acai and blueberry nibs
- 3 single-serve containers of half-and-half
- Crumble oatmeal bar.
- Add “fresh” fruit.
- Drizzle half-and-half over your meal and let sit until desired consistency.
Sunday Lunch: Noodles With Salmon and Sunflower Seeds
Cool discovery: Gas stations can be a treasure trove of strange food items. This convenience store was all about Pacific Northwest goods. I was able to find sesame and seaweed encrusted salmon jerky (yes, please) and wasabi-flavored sunflower seeds. That’s one way to spice up a basic noodle dish.
If you’re not as lucky as me, there are so many options for spicing up your noodles. A few of my favorites are cheap yakisoba sauce (add soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, sriracha and sugar), breakfast noodles (add eggs and bacon bits), egg drop soup (boil noodles and flavor packet and drizzle a beaten egg into boiling soup) or even just classic beef jerky in the mix.
- 1 cup of noodles, shrimp flavored
- 1 packet of sesame and seaweed salmon jerky (pick the jerky that’s available to you, not every gas station will be so fancy)
- 1 handful of savory wasabi sunflower kernels—without shells
- Boil water.
- Add boiling water to cup of noodles, let stand for five minutes.
- Drain any excess water and add in salmon jerky and sunflower seeds to taste.
I was adequately fueled for an 18-mile weekend backpacking trip, bought food in 20 minutes and paid less than $40. By enjoyment and flavor, I was super happy with everything except the tuna mac. But, I knew going into it that it might not be for me.
The Nitty Gritty
- Mac and cheese: 4 oz.; 440 calories
- Tuna can: 4 oz.; 100 calories
- Salmon jerky: 2 oz.; 180 calories
- Sea salt multigrain tortilla chips: 2 oz.; 260 calories
- Cereal cup: 1.3 oz.; 130 calories
- Mixed fruit cup: 7 oz.; 140 calories
- Protein trail mix: 4 oz.; 480 calories
- Chicken cup of noodles: 2.25 oz.; 290 calories
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter: 1 oz.; 190 calories
- Spicy peanuts: 1.75 oz.; 290 calories
- Shrimp cup of noodles: 2.5 oz.; 320 calories
- Wasabi sunflower seeds: 3.5 oz.; 630 calories
- Oatmeal bar: 2 oz.; 240 calories
- Dark chocolate, acai and blueberry sweets: 3 oz.; 340 calories
- 3 half-and-half single-serve containers: 1.5 oz.; 60 calories
Totals: 41.8 oz. (2.6 lbs.); 4,090 calories; $39.72