Going backpacking is the pinnacle of outdoor experiences. You'll want to pack light with backpacking food, but that doesn’t mean lowering your standards when it comes to flavor. The occasional pre-packaged freeze-dried meal is great when time is of the essence, or when you just need something easy after a long day of hiking. But you didn’t get a reputation as a foodie for nothing, so why not elevate your game while you’re on the trail? With these tips, you'll be packing the best camping food on the your next rugged trip to the great outdoors.
1. Stock Up on Freeze-Dried Staples
As always, the key is in preparation. Plan your meals in advance so you’ll know what and how much to buy. Keep in mind that while you might never use instant rice or potato flakes at home, everything’s fair game on the trail. Your local supermarket likely has a good selection of dried beans, mushrooms, veggies, and fruits that are perfect staples for your al fresco dinners. The nuts-and-dried-fruit-aisle at Trader Joe’s, especially, is a backpacker’s best friend. For extra flavor, pack some fresh herbs, Parmesan cheese, cayenne pepper, and honey.
If you’re specifically looking for dried foods and can’t find much locally, browse the web. Packitgourmet, Karen’s Naturals, North Bay Trading, and Harmony House each offer wide selections of dried/dehydrated base ingredients (freeze-dried vegetables, meats, grains, potatoes, etc) in backpacker-friendly formats.
2. Pack Our Picks for the Best Freeze-Dried Meals
If you can’t be bothered to make your own meals for that trip to the back country, there are plenty of camp-ready, freeze-dried civilian MRE (that’s "Meal, Ready to Eat") dinners to take along on your trip. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite standalone to throw in your pack.
Thai chilies lend just the right kick to Good To-Go’s Thai Curry, a flavorful mash-up of fresh broccoli, cauliflower, peas, and green beans over jasmine rice. Spice lovers will also like Good To-Go’s Bibimbap, a zippy Korean mixed rice dish with sesame, carrots and spinach. If you want to bring along a taste of India, Chana Masala from Backpackers Pantry — packed with chick peas, tomatoes and south asian zest — might just be the closest you’ll get to Indian take-out on the trail. For breakfast: chia, hemp, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds mingle with dried banana, currant, and coconut in the brand’s protein-packed Oatmeal breakfast.
Comfort food on the trail is like a warm blanket. Alpine Aire’s Chicken Gumbo satisfies with big chunks of vegetables and a spicy kick. Long a backpacker’s staple, Mountain House’s Beef Stroganoff with Noodles gets the texture right and the rehydrated meat and vegetable chunks practically melt in your mouth. And finally, Mary Jane’s Farm uses all organic ingredients (meat, cheese, potatoes). Plus, this dish gets kudos for old school flavor and the “stick-to-your-ribs” consistency of its Organic Shepherd’s Meat Pie.
It’s partly what it doesn’t have — gluten, grain, milk, soy, or nuts — that makes Paleo Meals To Go’s Canyon Chicken Chili appealing to those with food sensitivities. But the southwestern flavor and protein punch are what make this meal a keeper for any of us.
Don’t Forget Dessert
You’ll need all the calories you can get if you are checking off the trail miles all day long. Mountain House’s Neapolitan Ice Cream may be chalky but tastes almost as good as the real thing—especially when you’re out in the backcountry and far from the neighborhood ice cream truck.
3. Dress Up Your MRE’s
Freeze-dried meals sure are convenient — just boil some water and pour into the pre-made meal’s Mylar bag, right? Sometimes a freeze-dried dinner satisfies your need for calories but isn’t tasty. Spice up a bland MRE with your own favorite flavors with these tasty ideas. If you mix a little creativity with opportunism, your trailside culinary options are unlimited. Just don’t forget your camp stove!
- Throw in some additional dried veggies.
- Stuff your meal in a bell pepper, wrap it in tin foil and roast the whole shebang over hot coals for 10 minutes.
- Drizzle in some olive oil, or give it a few taps off the hot sauce.
- Fill a tortilla with your MRE and add some fresh avocado and onion. Mix in some sausage or some tuna.
- Fry an egg and slide it on top.
- If the MRE is too salty or you want to make it stretch to feed your hiking partner too, add in extra beans, rice or couscous.
- If you score some good dinner rolls at a bakery on your way to the trail, stuff your ready-made meal in it and call it a sandwich (next level hot pocket?).