Ah, the call of the open range. The enduring pull of America’s wilderness, the rewarding views after a day spent climbing, hiking, and relaxing in the fresh air. The sweaty, hungry children, the bugs, the fire you can’t start and then can’t keep going and then can’t get hot enough to cook your hot dogs and then can’t tell if it’s out at the end of the night. The heavy pots, the endless mess, the trash… so much trash to haul out, so much food to keep cold. Where’s the ice machine in the middle of Joshua Tree when you need it?
Well, maybe you don’t need ice, or a cooler, or a cast-iron pan, or little portioned packs of salt and pepper and butter and olive oil. Maybe all you need to eat well in the middle of nowhere these days is a spork.
Freeze-dried, never-go-bad backpacking meals have come a long way in the past few decades. For people of a certain age, the thought of freeze-dried food conjures images of Army green bags vacuum-sealed around bricks of dust, form-stamped with words like “chipped beef” on the outside. From MREs to Styrofoam-adjacent Astronaut Ice Cream, freeze-dried meals have long been left to two kinds of purchasers at outdoor recreation stores like REI: hardcore adventure extremists with little sense of actual taste and bunker-loving doomsday preppers. Not anymore.
Today’s crop of freeze-dried meals spans just about every genre of food imaginable, from egg-focused breakfast bowls to pad Thai, from macaroni and cheese to chana masala. (And this doesn’t even take into account the bagged and shelf-stable chana masalas and other Indian food options from regular grocery stores, which I often use in a camping pinch.) But these days, freeze-dried brands like Peak Refuel and Mountain House offer dozens of pre-portioned options to choose from, carefully labeling their lightweight, heat-reflective pouches with nutritional information for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone with allergy restrictions. Better still: All these meals require is a few bucks, a couple of cups of boiling water (or less), and some time. Cleanup is as simple as packing out the empty pouch.
Here’s what to know about all those freeze-dried meals you’ve seen at REI, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and beyond:
Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef
This is basically the G.O.A.T. meal. Like all good backpacker foods, it’s ideally eaten after a long day on the trail when your legs are tired and the sun is already low enough to make starting a fire a pain. With macaroni noodles, a slight spice to the sauce, little chunks of protein-rich beef, and plenty of beans, it’s an unstoppable combo meant to refuel you and also make you deliciously full. Oh, and don’t listen when the bags say that each meal is meant for two. That’s a lie promoted by un-hungry people.
Firepot Baked Apple Porridge
Firepot, £5.95 | Check your local retailers
Though not widely available, Firepot (when found) is a worthy addition to any backcountry meal plan. The company is part of a burgeoning group of healthy-focused freeze-dried meal companies like Heather’s Choice and Good To-Go, meaning fewer ingredients and a higher quality overall. Their cinnamon-y, just sweet enough baked apple porridge is among the best things you can eat out on the trail, bar none. Is it breakfast? Dessert? A midday snack served warm with a view? Yes.
Peak Refuel Beef Stroganoff
Almost always, great backpacker meals will rely on simple starches, thick sauces, and familiar flavors. What makes this beef stroganoff such a surprise (if a bit salty) hit is that it doesn’t try to do anything fancy, it just leans into the dried herbs and gloopy off-white sauces of every mediocre small-town restaurant in America. For a similar alternative, the Backpacker’s Pantry fettuccini alfredo ($11.95) is also a hit, and unlike the versions you can get at neighborhood Italian spots, this meal can be eaten on top of Mt. Whitney.
AlpineAire Foods Spicy Pasta Bolognese
Noticing a trend here? Noodles are basically the default base of the freeze-dried realm. They’re versatile, bounce back quickly with boiling water poured into an in-bag reheat, and you can even bring along some little packets of crushed red pepper or Sriracha or Parmesan cheese to coast this meal over the finish line. See also: anything labeled “lasagna.”
Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai (veggie)
Much like the “vague Italian noodle” genre, every company in the backpacker’s food world has a pad Thai on offer. But don’t be fooled, they’re certainly not all created equal (say no to Firepot’s spicy pork noodles). The simplest (and among the least expensive) is the Backpacker’s Pantry vegetarian version, 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 out of for meals like this, and don’t forget to always keep some hot sauce packets handy in your bag, too.
Backpacker’s Pantry Rice and Beans
Backpacker’s Pantry, $7.99
Another staple meal type, rice and beans come in a variety of versatile flavors, each with its own pan-global bent. There are jambalayas and red beans and rice dishes done with a bit more zip, and a Cuban-inspired coconut rice and black beans from Backpacker’s Pantry that is simple, filling, and can be eaten as a standalone main or a robust side dish — say, if you do happen to be cooking up a steak in a cast-iron pan.
Trailtopia Blueberry Oatmeal
If there is one thing to take away from backpacker dining culture, it is here: Do not get the breakfast skillets. Every brand has them; they are all bad. Pebbly, reconstituted eggs have no place in the beauty of the backcountry. Instead, opt for inexpensive and healthy single-serving bags of oatmeal. It’s just as filling, the slightly rubbery fruit pieces feel like dining at an airport lounge (in a good way), and for the love of all that’s sacred, you won’t be trying to scarf down chalky eggs.
Backpacker’s Pantry Dark Chocolate Cheesecake
Please, no more Astronaut Ice Cream. It’s fine as a novelty, but isn’t worth the pack space for anyone actually craving dessert. Instead, options like AlpineAire’s chocolate mudslides or Backpacker’s Pantry’s dark chocolate cheesecake mix are the way to go. They’re rich and gloopy, with a manufactured sweetness that feels all the more eye-opening in the middle of nowhere. They’re not fussy, and certainly not for people afraid of getting a little messy (but then again, you’re backpacking); each sporkful feels like licking the back of the spatula after frosting a homemade cake.
If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.