Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

There are three types of campers out there: the glampers, the campsite tent-type, and the backpackers. Of the three, the backpackers have it the hardest when it comes to dinner. 

I’m a seasoned campsite camper (glamping is often beyond my budget), and I love cooking some hash browns, bacon, and eggs over an open fire (one time I even made butternut squash risotto from scratch over nothing but flaming logs). But if you’re a backpacker or backwoods camping sort, well, you’re more like Legolas and Aragorn when they go after Merry and Pippin: “Leave all that can be spared behind. We travel light.” No cast iron skillet, no perishable ingredients, no logs. Sad! But it doesn’t have to be. 

While you can grab some instant mac and cheese or a box of instant rice and some bagged beans (they’re actually quite good!) and call it a day, there’s also a whole market of freeze-dried backpacking meals out there. Just boil some water in a backpacking stove, add it to the package, stir, let it sit for a few minutes, and dinner’s ready. But are any of them, well, good? I sacrificed my stomach for you, oh brave, fearless backpackers, to find rehydrate-able backpacking meals that are a far cry from the mealy, mushy backpacking meals of yore (as in, I actually relished eating them).  

The Winners, at a Glance

The Best Chicken Backpacking Meals

I was on a backpacking trip of sorts when I ate this cheesy chicken, broccoli, and rice meal. I also forgot to pack a canister of fuel on said trip (it’s a long story). So, the fact that this meal was actually quite delicious even though I couldn’t get water to a roaring boil (or even a gentle simmer) over some smoldering twigs is a testament to its tastiness. It’s got cheese (like, actual stringy pulls of it), supple grains of rice, not-nasty chunks of chicken, and broccoli. 

While this was less like risotto and more like instant rice, I still liked how herby and flavorful it was, not to mention it was completely packed with (slightly dry, but overall decent) pieces of chicken. 

While I wished there was more chicken, this quinoa bowl was super flavorful and herby, and the seeds rehydrated to be the perfect, pop-in-your-mouth texture. 

The Best Red Meat Backpacking Meals

This is SO good for a rehydrated beef meal (trust me, rehydrated meat can be ick). The creamy sauce (which has the tang of actual sour cream) coats egg noodles with bits of beef and mushroom throughout. For best results (and less crunchy bits of beef), up the amount of water to 1 cup and let steep for 12 minutes. 

While a little bit more involved than most backpacking meals (there are lots of separate packets, and it’s best cooked in a backpacking skillet), the biscuits are flaky and tender, and the sausage gravy has a nice peppery kick and smooth, creamy texture. It’s also super filling. 

While this was a wee bit on the runny, crunchy side (I might cut back the water to 1.25 cups and let it soak for a few minutes extra), it was flavorful and filling. Oh, and they even give you a small bag of tortilla chips and a packet of Texas Pete hot sauce. Cute! 

The Best Plant-Based Backpacking Meals

You don’t even need to boil water to enjoy a healthy, flavorful lentil salad for lunch. Just add cool water, soak, and enjoy. I really liked the sweetness added from chunks of apple, and the dressing provided a nice piquant tang to earthy lentils. Pair it with a tin of fish, and it’s a healthy, filling meal. 

While you do have to simmer this soup in your backpacking pot, it’s filling and nicely spiced (though it does need salt).

With warm spices and a tinge of sweetness from coconut milk and carrots, this was a flavorful meal that would be super comforting after a long day hiking. 

A big ‘ol bag of rice and beans is a standby when it comes to filling backpacking meals. This was a hearty entree with a kick of lime, which brightened it up. 

The Tests

Serious Eats / Grace KellyTaste Test: We tried each backpacking meal, following the instructions to make it per the packaging. We noted the taste and texture.Cooking Test: We noted how easy the backpacking meal was to make, and if the instructions were clear. 

What We Learned

Time and Water Amount Were Open to Interpretation 

Looks gross, tastes good! Even our favorite meals had their drawbacks: we would have added more water to our favorite beef stroganoff.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Some recipes called for a scant amount of water—the Peak Refuel Beef Stroganoff, while delicious, was on the crunchy side when made with the 10.5 ounces of water the pouch instructions called for. I would’ve upped the amount of water a bit (probably by 1/4 cup), and let it sit a smidge longer to encourage further hydration. But other meals, like the Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili, called for more water—in that case, 1.5 cups—leaving results runny and wan. While it’s good to follow instructions for best results, sometimes you live and learn to use less/more water. Oh, and letting your food soak longer is never a bad thing. 

Bring Salt 

Nearly every meal I tried was in dire need of salt—the exceptions being our winners, more or less (the Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili and a few others required a pinch or two). But it was the Good-to-Go Double Chicken Gumbo really stood out for this trait—it was SPICY but flavorless, and it was only when I frantically grabbed a pinch of salt and heavily seasoned it that it became palatable. If left unsalted, this would be a very, very sad meal, so I recommend adding a few ounces of weight to your backpack and bringing along a baggie (or tiny tin) of salt. 

Don’t Expect Perfection 

The nature of backpacking meals means that they won’t be perfect, but some were actually quite good.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

While the best meals we ate were truly heads above the worst, they weren’t perfect. It’s the nature of backpacking food, really—a freeze-dried or dehydrated meal that you rehydrate with water is bound to have a few, lingering crunchy bits. It’s when the whole meal is off (bland, watery or pasty, totally crunchy, slimy, etc.) that you’re in for a sad dinner. 

Most Meals Were Really Easy to Make 

Most backpacking meals were super easy to prepare: just add hot water, stir, and let sit.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

Freeze-dried or dehydrated backpacking meals are meant to be lightweight and easy to make—just add water, stir, and steep, and your meal will be on the proverbial table in 10 to 20 minutes. And of the 20 pouches we tried, nearly all of them followed that formula to a tee. However, there were a few outliers that required a tidbit more effort, including two of our favorites: Packit Gourmet Skillet Biscuits & Sausage Gravy and Patagonia Provisions Organic Black Bean Soup. The Packit Gourmet meal was best made with a skillet instead of a small, backpacking pot and had a few separate steps: add cold water to the biscuit mix, then cook in the skillet; and heat water and add to sausage gravy packet. That said, it was still dead simple to make, if a bit messy. The Patagonia Provisions black bean soup, unlike most backpacking meals, needed to be simmered in the pot over a backpacking stove rather than a simple 10-minute steep. Again, easy peasy, but you’ll have to clean the pot or skillet out for both of these meals rather than just dispose of a pouch. 

Protein Content and Calorie Count Are Important 

While flavor and texture are key players in a good pouch of backpacking food, another thing to take into consideration is protein and calorie count. If you’re hiking miles and miles a day, you’re going to want a meal that can help your body recover and refuel. According to Brierley Horton, M.S., R.D., the calorie count varies from person to person. “For the average man—who is moderately active to quite active—aim for 2,600 to 3,000 calories a day. For women, it’s slightly less (but not far off!): aim for 2,000 to 2,400 calories,” she says. “Keep in mind that these targets are on those days that you are most active—they’re not meant for your more sedentary days. And also, depending on your hike, your calorie needs will vary: if you’re doing 10-plus miles of varying steepness you’re going to burn far more calories than when you hike a few miles of rolling hills.”

In addition to looking at calorie count, protein is something to consider when choosing a meal, since it helps you maintain muscle even if the meal’s calorie count is less than desired. Horton says, “The American College of Sports Medicine recommends eating 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day if you’re trying to build muscle or maintain it when you’re very active. So for a 180-pound person, that’s about 98 to 139 grams of protein a day. And for a 140-pound person that’s around 76 to 108 grams each day.”

The Criteria: What to Look for In a Backpacking Meal

Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

There are no strict guidelines when it comes to flavor and seasoning—some pouches just taste better than others, and whether or not you like a meal can also come down to personal taste. For example, I wasn’t a fan of the GOOD TO-GO Indian Vegetable Korma (I didn’t like the overwhelming carrot and parsnip flavors) but my husband thought it was pretty good. One thing you can look for is serving size (if you’re looking to get more bang for your buck) and calorie and protein count. You want a meal that’s filling and won’t leave you hungry and swooning an hour later. 

The Best Chicken Backpacking Meals

What we liked: Creamy, cheesy, and with perfectly cooked grains of rice—this meal was like a warm hug after a long day outdoors. It was perfectly seasoned, and the texture of the chicken, broccoli, and rice was quite nice—there was a  bit of bite (not mere mush), but it wasn’t crunchy and under-hydrated. I also loooooved that there were actual gobs of cheese that pulled up nice and stringy with each sporkful. It’s also decent in terms of calories and protein, and the portions were generous. 

What we didn’t like: I would’ve liked more broccoli—more semi-bright pops of veg in a sea of delicious beige. It’s also a bit high in sodium. 

Price at time of publish: $13.

Key Specs

Serving size: 2Calories per serving: 550Protein per serving: 26 gramsSodium per serving: 540 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: This meal was PACKED with chicken, which was actually a decent texture overall (though a tiny bit dry). The herby rice was savory and rehydrated nicely, and it was overall a tasty, filling meal. 

What we didn’t like: With risotto in the title, I expected a creamy dish with some cheese perhaps, but this was more like a pot of instant rice made with chicken stock. It was good, but it wasn’t risotto. It also needed salt, and the calories and protein are a little skimpy. 

Price at time of publish: $13.

Key Specs

Serving size: 2Calories per serving: 290Protein per serving: 15 gramsSodium per serving: 670 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: I’m not a massive quinoa fan, but this herby, warm, and savory meal was quite delicious. The texture was also spot-on—it was neither soggy nor crunchy, with the little quinoa orbs providing a pleasant pop and crunch. 

What we didn’t like: While I liked this dish overall, the carrots did overwhelm the flavor a bit in some bites. I also wished the chicken was in bigger pieces and that there was more of it—as it was, it was barely perceptible. It’s also pretty pricey for a single-serving meal. 

Price at time of publish: $10.

Key Specs

Serving size: 1Calories per serving: 550Protein per serving: 26 gramsSodium per serving: 410 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

The Best Red Meat Backpacking Meals 

What we liked: This stroganoff actually had the tang of sour cream, with a creamy sauce swaddling egg noodles, mushrooms, and beef. And the beef (while a tad dry) was actually quite tasty—many other beef or red meat dishes had a greasy, burger-like taste that was off-putting. It’s also quite filling, though you still might be tempted to gobble the whole thing up yourself. 

What we didn’t like: The instructions called for 10.5 ounces of water, which I found led to crunchier results than I would’ve liked. I also would’ve liked some more noodles and mushrooms. 

Price at time of publish: $14.

Key Specs

Serving size: 2Calories per serving: 400Protein per serving: 20 gramsSodium per serving: 470 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: Plush biscuits and creamy, peppery sausage studded gravy make for what seems like fine dining in the backwood. The gravy wasn’t gloppy, like some other dishes, and the biscuits were actually quite soft and flaky—and the mild, grassy flavor of jalapeno was a welcome touch. 

What we didn’t like: It’s a little bit more involved to make, requiring a skillet, hot and cold water, and a few utensils. Also, I love salt, but wowie zowie, the sodium content in this is very high! It didn’t taste overly salty, but it’s something that you wouldn’t want to eat all the time, for the sake of your blood pressure. 

Price at time of publish: $13.

Key Specs

Serving size: 1Calories per serving: 790Protein per serving: 17 gramsSodium per serving: 2470 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: Protein-packed, filling, and with a slew of warming spices (I detected chili powder and cumin), this was a decent chili once I augmented it with a pinch of salt. It came with a little bag of tortilla chips and a packet of hot sauce, which was just such a lovely (and tasty) touch. 

What we didn’t like: It was a bit watery when made with the given amount of water, and the beans were a little crunchy. It also benefitted from some salt (though the sodium content is quite high already). It’s also pretty pricey for a single-serving. 

Price at time of publish: $14.

Key Specs

Serving size: 1Calories per serving: 680Protein per serving: 39 gramsSodium per serving: 1510 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

The Best Plant-Based Backpacking Meals

What we liked: With a simple list of ingredients, this lentil salad was surprisingly flavorful—pops of apple! A zing of vinegar! The herbaceousness of dill! I was also surprised how well it hydrated, given it’s made with room temp water instead of boiling H2O—this also makes it a great “on the trail” lunch, or a lowlift dinner if you’re really feeling pooped. It also has a decent calorie and protein content for a plant-based meal. 

What we didn’t like: A few bits of veg were slightly crunchy, though the lentils were all nice and soft (without being mushy). 

Price at time of publish: $15.

Key Specs

Serving size: 1Calories per serving: 600Protein per serving: 29 gramsSodium per serving: 760 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: While it needed salt and some of the beans were a little crunchy, this was a tasty, filling soup packed with spices (a lil sweet, a lil smoky) and pops of corn to brighten it up. If you’re feeling luxe, pack a baggie of tortilla chips or Fritos for some crunchy contrast.

What we didn’t like: Some of the beans struggled to properly rehydrate (sad little dry beanlets), and it desperately needed salt. It also requires you to stew the soup in a pot, instead of just adding hot water—this wasn’t a huge deal, but it does leave you with a dirty pot. The calorie and protein count is a bit low per serving, even though we did find this quite filling. 

Price at time of publish: $8.

Key Specs

Serving size: 2.5Calories per serving: 280Protein per serving: 17 gramsSodium per serving: 380 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: This flavorful curry was loaded with carrots—like, it was mostly carrots with a few errant pieces of broccoli thrown in for good measure. But the seasoning was warm, with a hint of sweetness from the coconut milk, and the quinoa was perfectly cooked and nutty.  

What we didn’t like: I would’ve liked more additions that weren’t just carrots, and the dish needed a smidge more salt. It’s also quite pricey for a single-serving meal. 

Price at time of publish: $14

Key Specs

Serving size: 1Calories per serving: 500Protein per serving: 11 gramsSodium per serving: 290 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

What we liked: Have you ever had those tortilla chips they dust in lime powder (or whatever it is)? That’s what this tasted like—and I liked it. The tang of lime brightened the dish, which was more of a soup than a rice bowl. The servings were quite ample, and it was overall filling. 

What we didn’t like: Like most backpacking meals, it needed salt. We also would’ve cut back a smidge on the water, to make it less soupy. And at $7.75 per serving, it’s on the pricier side. 

Price at time of publish: $16.

Key Specs

Serving size: 2Calories per serving: 540Protein per serving: 15 gramsSodium per serving: 580 milligramsSerious Eats / Grace Kelly

The Competition

Not Bad

Next Mile Meals BUFFALO RANCH CHICKEN: This meal, which consisted of shredded chicken and a few ribbons of bell pepper, is for anyone who really wants to pack in the protein (57 grams per serving). I found the chicken a bit dry, and the ranch and buffalo flavors were mild, so if you want more buffalo flavor, we suggest packing some packets of Frank’s, too. And since I’m not on a Keto diet, I would probably pack this along with some instant rice or mac and cheese, to make it more than just shredded chicken. Bushka’s Kitchen Entrées Hunter’s Pie With Ground Venison: I quite liked the kick of black pepper this had, and the ground venison, while a tad dry, was pleasantly meaty (without tasting like grease). This is also LOADED with peas—it was mostly peas, to be honest, which brought it down a notch. The potatoes were nearly all dissolved, save for a few grainy chunks. Gastro Gnome Montana Beef Shepherd’s Pie: This skewed a bit too carroty for my taste (I should note that I’m not a huge fan of cooked carrots, so I am biased). That said, it was basically like mashed-up shepherd’s pie, with fluffy mashed potatoes, bits of beef, and some peas for color. Good To-Go Double Chicken Gumbo: With salt, this became much more palatable, though it was still a bit on the runny side for my taste. I liked the visible chunks of okra, but the gumbo was rather spicy and the meat had the texture of pencil erasers. Good To-Go Indian Vegetable Korma: While I found the carrot and parsnips overwhelming in this, my husband quite liked it. The sauce was creamy and heavily spiced (the cinnamon and cloves stood out), though it did need salt. Nomad Nutrition Hungarian Goulash: Another “not bad, but not great” offering, I found the chunky, thick texture of the sauce a bit off-putting, though the paprika flavor shone through and was pleasant. 

Not Recommended: 

AlpineAire Foods Forever Young Mac & Cheese: This watery mac and cheese featured the puzzling addition of peas, carrots, and corn. The noodles in our packet were ultra-slim macaroni (not the rotini pictured in the promo images) that were a little on the soft side, and we would’ve liked more cheesy flavor. We’d go with a package of Annie’s or instant ramen over this. AlpineAire Foods Spicy Pasta Bolognese: The tomato sauce was quite sweet, the noodles soggy, and the texture of the sauce was just too pasty and thick to eat without gagging slightly. Mountain House Classic Beef Stroganoff: Oh where to start: the greasy beef crumbles? Or the gloopy sauce? No matter, both made this dish shudder-worthy upon each bite. Next Mile Meals Italian Beef Marinara: I found this a bit disappointing since there was no pasta, and “marinara” was a very loose term for the watery sauce that the ground beef swam in. The big hunks of cheese were good, though. 


How much food should I bring for a two-day backpacking trip?

According to REI’s backpacking guide, plan on packing “about 2,500 to 4,500 calories of food per person per day.” While this is a good starting point, it’s best to consider your weight, physique, and how strenuous your backpacking trip will be when calculating your food needs (e.g. if you’re scaling mountains at a good clip, you might want to pack more food). Also, make sure to keep hydrated—while lugging lots of water along with you might be impractical, you could invest in a portable water filtration system; eating water-rich items can also help.

What do I need to make backpacking food?

Since backpacking trips require light packing, a lightweight backpacking stove is essential—one of our favorites weighs a mere seven ounces. A small pot and/or skillet, some fuel, some lightweight utensils, and a filtration device are also essential to cook backpacking meals (many of them require boiling water). 

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