I like hiking, but if there’s one thing I like even more, it’s eating. Perhaps the reason I enjoy overnight backpacking trips so much is that I can combine both these interests.
Of course when you’re car camping or carrying food for a night or two you can eat like you would at home. Spark up your two-burner Coleman stove and fry that bacon and eggs. On the West Coast Trail I met some people who’d brought in steaks… for one night, anyway. Carrying and cooling that stuff gets impossible past, so if you’re backpacking, and your budget runs to CDN$13 or so per dinner, dehydrated meals are pretty universally considered the way to go. Their shelf life is years, meaning your extra food will be perfectly good next time you go out. There’s a certain sameiness of taste, given which ingredients are good dehydrated and which aren’t, but within those limits you can find food to suit any palate.
The world of backcountry cuisine is full of misinformation. Meals say “2 servings,” or even “2.5 servings,” on the package, and if you’re eating them while sedentary, rising only occasionally to tend the fire, that may be true, but on the move carrying a big ol’ backpack it ain’t. (Admittedly I am rather fat.) Then there are the “cookless” types, who try to tell you that eating pouches of peanut butter, nuts, and ghee for two weeks makes not carrying a stove seem like a reasonable idea, or on the other hand the “backcountry gourmets” whose backpacks are two-thirds spice rack and who stagger into camp, having carried more than is reasonable, only to spend four weary hours trying to perfectly sear salmon on a JetBoil. I can understand people who don’t take dehydrated backpacking meals along because they’re too expensive (and they are), but that consideration aside they are the ideal combination of convenience and tastiness.
As always I am the only one who will tell you the truth. Here are the ten best dehydrated backpacking meals, out of the ones I’ve eaten.
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Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce. Accept no substitutes. This is a formula at its best: not a fine gourmet layered pasta like momma used to make but a bag of nutritious, thick goop that sticks to your stomach, making you feel full all day and fart away the night. Beef, virtually the ideal meal for this format, rehydrates well and obviously noodles are easy. The sauce is great. You get an ocean of calories to power a day’s adventure. The “cheese” has no obvious relationship to cows but is the perfect accent, and you’d miss it if it was gone.
If I was trapped in the jungle with a broken leg, no hope of rescue, and savage tribesmen approaching to take me prisoner and make me read the complete Charles Dickens aloud for the rest of my life, this is the meal I’d heat up before I gave myself to the piranha.
Backpacker’s Pantry Beef Stroganoff. This company seems to be trying to create freeze-dried foods that provoke the initial reaction “you can’t really make that tasty, can you?” Some of these are incredible failures; I tried a forkful of someone else’s pad thai once and have never felt the desire to explore further. Beef stroganoff, especially as served here with egg noodles, mushrooms, and cream sauce, seems outside the usual run of backpacking cuisine. In fact AlpineAire offers an almost identical product (reviewed below) and they’re both good. I prefer Backpacker’s Pantry, though: nicely-spiced and good texture, flavourful without being overpowering. Provided you like mushrooms. Boy you better like mushrooms.
Mountain House Pasta Primavera. My heart never cries out for this like it does the lasagna or the beef stroganoff, but when I spend a week in the woods I sure seem to eat a lot of it. It’s light, simple, quick, nutritious, and when you’re sinking pallets of rehydrated sauces and sugary granola that starts to appeal. Other people seem to like it out of all proportion to its complexity; it’s just some penne in a light sauce with vegetable-style bits in it. But it works, God knows why. It’s a summery backpacking food: light, wholesome nutrition rather than glutenous stomach-swelling excellence. The one to have if for some insane reason you wanted to eat one of these on your patio.
Backpackers Pantry Shepherd’s Potato Stew with Beef. I’m not trying to be balanced, it’s just how it’s working out. Here a Mountain House, there a Backpackers Pantry. Here something airy and agreeable, there something thick and huge. This one tastes very huge, though with fewer calories than it seems like it should, and when you’re working hard I’m afraid that drops it off the podium.
They don’t call it “shepherd’s pie,” you’ll notice. Even more than Mountain House’s lasagna you will see that this is highly… deconstructed. Dehydrating a mashed potato is not hard but making it edible is. But this is fully delicious; though it misses the podium, I can’t say a bad thing about it. Good gravy, even the gravy is good! And you sure feel full after a sack of it. A bag of glue won’t stick to your ribs better than this.
Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. Fear not, Scots, the spaghetti was cut up before it went in the bag. Otherwise it’s the lasagna without the cheese-like stuff. I did not realize how much of a difference this would make until I tried it. Still good but in a Chef Boyardee way. You’re among friends, though: wouldn’t you absolutely level some Chef Boyardee after four ten-mile days? This costs ten times as much but saves packing out the can.
Mr. Noodles. On a Canadian website no list would be finished without Monsieur Noodlé, king of the dehydrated trails. It has less nutritional content than your bootlaces and doesn’t actually fill you up that much but is still somehow indispensable as a starter for every backpacking dinner. People who like hot meals but also saving money manage to live on this and peanut butter for weeks. And it tastes almost but not quite like food. Perfect.
Mr. Noodles Flavour Speed Rankings: 1. chicken 2. beef 3. spicy chicken (hot orange!) 4. vegetable 5. kimchi are you kidding me?
Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef. Weird food. Macaroni in a kind of tomatoey sauce with spices like a neutered version of the flakes they give you at Boston Pizza and an unconvincing amount of dry beef. You can get it in you; this isn’t a “bad meals” list. But it isn’t unique enough to be a satisfying change and not tasty enough to eat twelve of them. The only reason I ever get it is that the better pastas are out of stock. Given that this option is always available, I think that’s the consensus view.
AlpineAire Creamy Beef & Noodles with Mushrooms. Generally this space doesn’t recommend AlpineAire’s dinners, so heed an exception. In the spirit of open-mindedness I took a few of theirs along recently, and while most did not impress the creamy beef and noodles came through. Not spectacular, but very palatable with a different taste than many options. Very like Backpacker’s Pantry’s beef stroganoff, which you’ll noticed is ranked a couple places higher. There’s no earthly reason to pack both on one trip, they fill the same role of “hearty, belly-filling, mushroom-y variety.”
If a dehydrated meal is executed competently (which all of these are), preferences are very individual. On MEC’s website, the crowd had rated the AlpineAire offering four stars out of five and the Backpacker’s Pantry 3.5 stars, despite generally deprecating the AlpineAire dinners as much as I do. AlpineAire also offers 20 more calories for 50 cents less, and all else being equal why not get better value? If mushroomy noodles are your thing, try them both.
Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese. A classic backpacking food. My mom dehydrated macaroni and cheese for me when I was a Boy Scout going camping. Multiple manufacturers offer their variations. And when you think about it, what is a box of Kraft Dinner but dehydrated macaroni and cheese? Admittedly bringing butter and milk into the backcountry can be a nuisance, but that’s what I think whenever I have one of these. “I could be eating the king of Canadian cuisine right now, but I’m playing.” Keeps it out of the top rank.
Earlier this summer my girlfriend and I took this and Backpacker’s Pantry macaroni and cheese out for a wilderness macaroni shootout. The results can be inferred by the fact that I rank Mountain House number nine and Backpacker’s Pantry nowhere, but this photo sums it up. Mountain House on the right. If the left looks better to you, you go for it.
Nomad Nutrition Hungarian Goulash. Don’t let anyone tell you I’m stuck in my ways. When I hiked the Chilkoot Trail I did something insane: I took along a couple vegan meals, because I hadn’t tried them before and I prefer made-in-Canada products when I can get them. I make sacrifices.
The goulash tasted satisfactory, and I’d pursue more Nomad products if it wasn’t such hippy-dippy vegan nonsense. I am aware, however, that there are hippy-dippy nonsense vegans in the world, and they should consider the goulash, which had a recognizable, tolerable taste in the best “it’s a bag full of things” tradition. Still, I won’t get it again. Too hippy, too dippy, not filling enough without meat content. A small business owner trying to compete with established brands has to differentiate himself, but if Denis Mikhailov wants to get back on the meat, I’ll be first to get the new product line.
Shoppers be advised: this meal appears to be available in both a large, 600-odd calorie package (linked above) and a smaller half-meal package (available at many retailers). Do not buy a half-pack thinking you’re getting a full one or you’re in for a very hungry night. That said, I do toy with combining the little pack with a dehydrated bag o’ beef cubes and see if I can’t get a real meal out of it.