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If you’re heading out on an adventure — whether it’s camping, ultra-light backpacking or a few days’ of Alpine trekking — the last thing you want is for bags of food to weigh you down. But gone are the days when GORP, beef jerky and powdered eggs were where your hiking calories were coming from: Freeze-dried foods have come a long way in recent years, thanks to new approaches that utilize seasonal ingredients picked at their prime, an emphasis on organic, all-natural ingredients and creativity that goes beyond the classic trail staples of beef stroganoff (although, admittedly, chili is still one of the favorites, as you’ll see below — sometimes you just can’t beat a good comfort food around the campfire).
Freeze-dried foods are made by taking a little more moisture out of food than your standard dehydration process does, but that doesn’t mean nowadays that flavor needs to be sacrificed. For those looking to avoid heavy pans and stoves, these are also increasingly able to be prepared in their pouches — just add boiling water, stir a bit, and it’s ready to enjoy.
Whether you’re looking for a high-protein option to rebuild your strength, a solid dinner after a day above the treeline or a gluten-free option, we’ve put together a list of the best freeze-dried meals available today. Bon appetit!
Best Overall: Mountain House Chili Mac With Beef
Mountain House is practically an institution for hikers looking for lightweight trail meals, and the company’s chili mac with beef is the long-time, hands-down winner from the line. It’s not as protein-rich as the gluten-free version, but this is what you’ll want if you just need some old-fashioned comfort food around the fire at the end of a long day. The beef tastes like beef, and both beans and pasta rehydrate exceptionally well — making it as close to the home-cooked stovetop meal it’s based on as it could be. If it’s been a particularly long hike, however, you might want to bring one packet per person, as some hikers have said that one serving might be a bit small for particularly famished trekkers. Another tip: The recommended amount of water is a little much for this recipe — use less and add more if needed. And if you really keep putting off that trek? It’s got a 30-year taste guarantee.
Best Organic: MaryJanesFarm Organics
Made with the environment as a top concern each and every step of the way (even going so far as to use non-aluminum EcoPouches), the Idaho-based MaryJanesFarm Organics products aren’t just winning eco-friendly points but deliciousness ones as well. Dinners like the Shepherd’s Meat Pie — a favorite among the brand’s devotees — features organic potatoes, organic ground beef and organic cheddar cheese for a hearty campfire dinner and can easily be prepared in its pouch for ultimate convenience. Other options include Organic Lentils, Rice and Indian Spice for a jazzier take on the old camping staple of rice and beans. Just keep an eye on serving sizes if you’re calculating your macros on the trail — the Shepherd’s Meat Pie, for instance, has 1.5 servings per package and 250 calories, though plenty of hungry hikers report that they’re likely to eat it all.
Best for High Protein: Peak Refuel
When your focus is on creating slow-burn, strength-giving energy, protein is where it’s at — and Peak Refuel loads its full product line with plenty of that, for delicious dishes that are also ready to energize at the beginning or end of a long day on the trail. Heck, when a serving of strawberry granola has 11.5 grams of protein, that’s pretty good. Dishes like the beef pasta marinara and chicken teriyaki are all winners, though we also love the option of a variety pack for a one-stop shop (Peak Refuel’s come in both a lunch/dinner pack and a breakfast-specific one). One thing to watch: There are two servings in each packet, but the amount of protein is listed per package, not per serving, so you’ll need to divide by two most of the time to calculate exactly how much of the good stuff you’re topping up on. Each has a five-year shelf life, so you have plenty of time to use these on trips for years to come.
Best Paleo: Paleo Meals to Go
Gluten-free, grain-free, milk-free, soy-free and nut-free, this line of products receive high marks not just for their adherence to the paleo diet but for their downright delicious taste. The line, started by a mom-and-son duo in 2013, is still new-ish on the market, but they’ve gone a long way toward perfecting trail-ready meals. Hikers tend to like the fact that the meals, like the Canyon Chicken Chili, aren’t over-seasoned — rather, the focus is on bringing out the flavors already in the ingredients. Thanks to a recent acquisition by Wild Zora Foods, Paleo Meals to Go now includes grass-fed, sustainably raised beef and other meat products in its backpacking meals. The price tag is a little steep, but the company has a strong commitment to high-quality ingredients and actual food in the bags versus cheap additives — hence too the shorter shelf life of a year for meat products and six months for its breakfasts.
Best Dessert: AlpineAire Cinnamon Apple Crisp
At the end of a hard day hiking the trails, sometimes you just need something sweet to reward yourself for all the miles you’ve walked. Dehydrated food pros AlpineAire — already a favorite of ours for their gluten-free chili — also does a wickedly good cinnamon apple crisp. Apple pie-like and decadent, it’s so good, in fact, that some hikers swear it’s just as amazing as a crumble you’d get in a restaurant or piping hot out of the oven at home. Everything rehydrates perfectly, with a good balance of flavors, and apples that are juicy without being soggy. Don’t think you’ll be missing out on the “crisp” part, either: The recipe comes with a separate packet of granola-like topping so it’s as crunchy as sweet as it should be. If you eat it for breakfast, we won’t tell anyone (quite a few hikers swear by this as a start to their day).
Best Gluten-Free: AlpineAire Foods Black Bart Chili with Beef & Beans
Although there’s a lack of dedicated gluten-free freeze-dried food makers, AlpineAire’s gluten-free black bart chili with beef and beans might just be the only thing you’ll want to eat on the trail anyway. With 290 calories in a serving and a whopping 25 grams of protein, this is exactly the thing to use for a midday refuel or to end the day. It’s easy enough to prepare: just fill the packet up to the line with hot water, and you’re good to go — there’s no need to bring along extra supplies like a pot or measuring cup. One tip: Always use a bit less water than recommended (it’s a lot easier to add more than take it away), and give this a few extra minutes to soak up the water for optimal results. The all-natural meal has a shelf life of five-plus years, so if there’s a sale, we highly recommend you stock up for a few adventures to come. (P.S. If you want to be decadent, campers swear by adding a few Fritos to the pouch once the meal’s been rehydrated.)
Best for Gourmets: Backpacker’s Pantry
One of the less-expensive food lines out there is also one of the best — and that’s a sign of progress in the typically bland world of freeze-dried meals. Backpacker’s Pantry does both dehydrated food and freeze-dried food, which lends itself to some creative, nutritious breakfasts, lunches, dinners and desserts for the trail. Some of the more unexpected dishes in the lineup are also some of the most raved-about: The Chicken Piccata with Tagliatella Pasta, for example, is much-loved, with egg pasta, all-natural chicken, parmesan and even capers rounding off this classic dish. (We suggest a little less water for this one, by the way — it can be a little soupy otherwise). Another unexpected it? The Pesto Pasta with Salmon, which is almost restaurant-like in its flavor and brings 18 solid grams of protein to the table. Genuine warning: Just don’t take the salmon pasta to bear country, as the delicious scent tends to travel.
Best for Vegetarians: MaryJanesFarm Organic Bare Burrito
Yes, it might be one of the more expensive burritos you’ll ever eat, but MaryJanesFarm has a reputation in the industry for being among the best at providing organic, vegetarian dishes to hikers, backpackers, and trekkers needing a great meal at the end of a day — or halfway through one to refuel. This blend of rice, beans, corn and cheese has almost a five-star rating (a rarity in the world of freeze-dried foods that are slowly, but surely, getting better), with some experienced hikers even calling it “restaurant-worthy.” It might remind you of the delicious components of a Frito pie eaten straight out of the bag with chips (which, in fact, is highly encouraged), but you can also bring your own tortillas if you want to make the burrito a little less bare. One hint: If you like your food spicy, bring some hot sauce packets to really make this freeze-dried meal shine.