Ah, the call of the open area. The lingering attraction of America’s wilderness, the rewarding view after a day of climbing, hiking and relaxing in the fresh air. The sweaty, hungry kids, the bugs, the fire that you can’t make and then can’t go on and then can’t get hot enough to cook your hot dogs and then can’t tell if it’s at the end of the night. The heavy pots, the endless mess, the rubbish … so much rubbish to take away, so much food to keep cool. Where’s the ice machine in the middle of Joshua Tree when you need it?
Well, maybe you don’t need ice cream, cool box, cast iron frying pan, or small portion packs of salt and pepper and butter and olive oil. Maybe nowadays all you need is a spork to eat well in the middle of nowhere.
Freeze-dried backpack meals that never go bad have come a long way in the past few decades. For people of a certain age, the thought of freeze-dried food evokes images of army green bags vacuum-sealed around blocks of dust and stamped on the outside with words like “chipped beef”. From MREs to styrofoam-adjoining Astronaut Ice Cream, freeze-dried meals have long been left to two types of buyers at outdoor recreational stores like REI: hardcore, unflavored adventure extremists and bunker-loving doomsday preppers. No more.
Today’s crop of freeze-dried meals spans pretty much every genre of food imaginable, from egg-focused breakfast bowls to pad thai, from macaroni and cheese to chana masala. (And that doesn’t even take into account the packaged and long-life chana masalas and other Indian food options from regular grocery stores that I often use for a camping pinch.) But these days, freeze-dried brands like Top refueling and Mountain house offer dozen of pre-portioned options to choose from, and carefully label their lightweight, heat reflective pouches with nutritional information for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone with allergy restrictions. Better still, all of these meals require a few dollars, a few cups of boiling water (or less), and some time. Cleaning is as easy as unpacking the empty bag.
Here’s what you should know about all of these freeze dried meals you’ve seen at REI, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and others:
Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef
This is basically the GOAT meal. Like all good backpacker food, it is ideally eaten after a long day on the trail, when legs are tired and the sun is low enough to start a fire. With macaroni noodles, a light seasoning in the sauce, small pieces of high-protein beef and lots of beans, it’s an unstoppable combination that should fill you up and fill you up in a delicious way. Oh, and don’t listen when the bags say every meal is for two. This is a lie spread by hungry people.
Firepot Baked ple Porridge
Fire pot, £ 5.95 | Check your local dealer
While Firepot isn’t widely available, (if found) it’s a worthy addition to any backcountry meal plan. The company is part of an emerging group of health-focused freeze-dried meal companies like Heather’s Choice and Good To-Go, which means fewer ingredients and higher quality overall. Their cinnamon-like, just sweet enough baked porridge is some of the best things to eat on the way without exception. Is it breakfast Dessert? A warm lunch snack with a view? Yes.
Peak Refuel Beef Stroganoff
Great backpacker meals are almost always based on simple starches, thick sauces, and familiar flavors. What makes this beef stroganoff such a surprise hit (if a little salty) is that it doesn’t try to make something fancy, it just leans on the dried herbs and gooey cream sauces of every mediocre small town restaurant in America. For a similar alternative, the Backpacker’s Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo ($ 11.95) is a hit too, and unlike the versions you can get at neighborhood Italian eateries, this meal can be eaten on the mountain. Whitney.
AlpineAire Foods Spicy Pasta Bolognese
KING, $ 8.95
Do you notice a trend here? Noodles are basically the standard base of the freeze-dried empire. They’re versatile, bounce back quickly when boiling water is poured into a warming bag, and you can even bring a few small packets of crushed red pepper or sriracha or parmesan cheese to get that meal across the finish line. See also: anything with the label “Lasagne”.
Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai (veggie)
Similar to the “vague Italian noodle” genre, every company in the world of backpacker food has a Pad Thai on offer. But don’t be fooled, they are certainly not all created equal (say no to Firepot’s spicy pork noodles). The simplest (and among the cheapest) is the vegetarian version of Backpacker’s Pantry, perfect for warming you up from the inside on a cold night in the forest. Pro tip: if you can swing it, bring a lime to cut small wedges for meals like this, and don’t forget to have a few packets of hot sauce handy in your pocket as well.
Backpacker’s pantry rice and beans
Backpacker’s pantry, $ 7.99
Rice and beans, a different type of meal, come in a variety of eclectic flavors, each with their own pan-global orientation. There are jambalayas and red beans and rice dishes made with a bit more zip, and a Cuban-inspired coconut rice and black beans from Backpacker’s Pantry that is simple and filling and can be eaten as a standalone main course or sturdy side dish – say if you can want to prepare a steak in a cast iron pan.
Trailtopia blueberry oatmeal
If there is one thing you can take away from the backpacker food culture, it is here: Don’t get the breakfast pans. Every brand has it; they are all bad. Gravelly, reconstituted eggs have no place in the beauty of the hinterland. Instead, opt for inexpensive and healthy sachets of oatmeal. It’s just as filling, the slightly gummy pieces of fruit feel like eating in an airport lounge (in a good way), and for the love of all that is sacred, you won’t try to scrape off chalky eggs.
Backpacker’s pantry cheesecake with dark chocolate
Please no more astronaut ice. As a novelty, it’s okay, but not worth the packing volume for someone who really craves dessert. Instead, options like AlpineAire’s Chocolate mud slides or the dark chocolate cheesecake mix from Backpacker’s Pantry is the way to go. They’re rich and sticky, with an artificial sweetness that feels even more revealing in the middle of nowhere. You’re not fussy, and certainly not for people who are afraid of getting a little messy (but then again, you are backpackers); each sporkful feels like licking the back of the spatula after icing a homemade cake.
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