My first trail meals were in the Army years ago, where we begrudgingly squeezed our dinner out of foil packs. The options were limited, and trading always ensued for the more coveted flavors. Fortunately, prepared trail meals have come a long way, with some meals mimicking those of a gourmet restaurant.
Now, as my daughter has joined me on the trails, we are gaining a discerning palette for prepared ‘backpacker’ meals. We’ve begun making our list of favorites (likely you have, too) and enjoy trying out new recipes.
Yet, as a hiker and a parent, I wonder:
Are freeze dried meals healthy? Luckily, yes, there are many healthy, dried meal options out there. So, let’s take a look at what makes them healthy, how they’re prepared, and some of the folks making really tasty recipes.
How to determine if a backpacking meal is healthy:
Just like any meal we prepare – it begins with what goes into the pot. Whether or not a meal is healthy depends largely on the source ingredients, and what is (or is not) added during processing. Look at the ingredients used in the meal. Are they fresh, whole ingredients? Was salt added? If so, how much? And if you’re looking to reduce your exposure to pesticides, there are many organic options out there.
The advantage of dried meals (dehydrated or freeze-dried) is they do not require preservatives. This good news for many people looking to reduce or eliminate the chemical content in their foods.
Vegan? Nut allergies? More good news: you can now find meal options for a wide range of dietary choices like vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, organic, low-sodium, tree nut and peanut-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and Gluten-free.
Ultimately, how truly “healthy” the meal is for you, depends on your physiology and health status. So always make your meal choices with your own health in mind, and in consultation with your health professional.
Preparation Methods: Dehydrated vs Freeze-dried
Dehydration is the oldest form of food preservation on the planet. For millennia, people have dried foods for long-term storage during the leaner months. Today, the process involves cooking the food first, then using heat and air currents to remove the majority of moisture and to make it shelf-stable.
Freeze-drying, also called cryodesiccation, involves freezing the constituent food ingredients, then removing the water through sublimation. (Where the water goes from ice to vapor and is removed.)
Which is better?
Each has its advantages. Dehydrating uses less energy to produce, and some chefs like that the ingredients are fully prepared together before drying. But dehydrated meals have a shorter shelf life, typically 3-5 years.
Freeze-dried meals require more energy to produce, but last longer on the shelf, upwards of decades. And the first time the ingredients are cooked together is when you add the water, which some companies tout as fresh-tasting.
Why are prepared meals so popular with backpackers?
It’s pretty simple: convenience, weight, and shelf stability.
While some folks enjoy preparing their own trail recipes (kudos), many of us look for the convenience of the prepared options available at the gear store. You can easily put together an entire trip’s worth of meals in minutes, and cross that off your checklist.
As we all know, backpacking is all about storage and weight reduction/distribution. How can I get more out of less for those long days on the trail? Since food is high in moisture content, dried meals are incredibly lightweight (+/- 90% weight reduction from original), while retaining a majority of nutrients.
Shelf life can be really helpful in many situations, not just backpacking. Dried meals are a great addition to your pantry for emergencies. I even keep some in my car. And the shelf life is good news if you get a chance to buy on-sale and save it for future trips.
The best tasting meals:
No short answer here! There are many companies actively preparing healthy, delicious meals for the trail. Here are just a few of them, and some of their tastier recipes:
Good To Go
Begun by a NYC chef in 2014, Good to-Go has become a staple in the gourmet trail food market. Starting with fresh ingredients, each meal is prepared from beginning to end in one facility- in a classic little yellow house in Southern Maine. They prepare meals in large batches, then utilize a dehydration process to preserve them.
Good to-Go also worked with their packaging supplier to reduce their BPA-free packs to just three layers. They also recommend reusing the packs for other things like storing your trash on the trail. They’re air sealed and super sturdy, so they won’t mess up your pack. By the way, their packaging suppliers recaptures pre-consumer waste for reuse as well.
They have meals for every diet, and some truly tasty recipes like herbed mushroom risotto, or Bibimbap, a spicy Korean dish. Love that I can bring such wide-ranging flavors into the backcountry.
I especially like the Pad Thai, it’s super tasty and light: goodto-go.com
Backpacker’s Pantry started in 1951 following a trip with the Girl Scouts. Heavily laden with canned goods, they began looking for alternatives, and 70 years later, they’re still producing great meals. Based in Colorado, they use a freeze-drying process for their meals which offers a shelf life of 3-10 years.
Their packaging is BPA-free and recyclable through TerraCycle®, and they support the Conservation Alliance. They cater to all diets and even offer a range of Kosher spices to add to your meal.
Start your morning on the trail with their powerhouse oat-quinoa breakfast: backpackerspantry.com
Mountain House started in 1969 providing better meal options for the military, before branching out into the civilian market. Based in Oregon, they produce freeze-dried meals of nearly every variety, and their packaging is also recyclable through TerraCycle®.
You can choose from their adventure meals for the trail, or their Just in Case products which boast a shelf life of 30 years. Or if you need a quick bite, they offer Simple Sensations, too. And except for coconut, they’re also a nut-free production facility.
While they have some unique options, there’s nothing like a good ol’ lasagna with meat sauce: mountainhouse.com
Patagonia is always at the forefront of ethical sourcing and production, and they now offer tasty, healthy, and responsibly sourced meal ingredients. While most of their meals require additional ingredients, and possibly oven preparation, you will find some products you can add to your trail menu, too. Some of their packaging (like the aluminum cans) are recyclable, while others are not.
For your next trip, spoil yourself with their smoked sockeye salmon: patagoniaprovisions.com
Mary Janes Farm Outpost
Mary Janes is producing some great meals, and other products, while supporting small farmers and producers around the country. For trail meals, their patented EcoPouch® has no aluminum foil and can be burned in a fire pit. Not all meals can be prepared inside the pouch, but you’ll likely have your cook system and pot with you anyway.
They do use organic ingredients, and Mary Janes Farm created their sourcing protocol called Project F.A.R.M. (First-class, American, Rural Made) which supports small producers in rural communities. Check their website for more about their F.A.R.M. guidelines, and try things like their organic Bavarian chocolate Mousse! maryjanesfarm.org
This is the lens through which we should all be examining our purchases and choices. Who made our products, where, how far did it travel, and what happens to the waste? It’s a lot to consider, and there are trade-offs with every choice, so here are a few things to consider when making your selections:
Energy usage: Freeze-dried food lasts longer, but does use more energy than dehydration. Are they conserving energy where possible, or offsetting their carbon footprint in other ways?
Shipping/Packaging: Are you ordering from a company nearest to you? If you’re on the east coast, perhaps look for a company in that region, and vice versa. And is the packaging minimal, recyclable, reusable? A completely compostable package, with an oxygen barrier, and that you can still cook your food in, is the Holy Grail for this market. It’s not out there yet, but folks are working on it.
For now, we can do our best to minimize our impact.
Ingredients: Are they using responsible food suppliers? Is their supply chain transparent? Are they using organic, or at least have that option?
Trail Cooking Tips
Prepared meals are great, but they do get expensive, so I like to add some of our own food/snacks to the kit. I always make my trail mix, which is good for snacking or dessert, and you can always bring a small can of tiny shrimp or tuna to jazz-up any meal. Prepackaged, flavored tuna is pretty inexpensive and easy to find at the grocery.
I am using a GSI Soloist system, and I was able to order a second bowl directly from GSI to effectively make it a mini-dualist for my daughter and me. I can fit the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove inside as well as a couple of MSR folding forks. It works well for two and saves on space. Also, for a few bucks, I like the Jetboil tripod stand for the gas canister.
GSI Pinnacle Soloist: gsioutdoors.com
MSR Pocket Rocket Stove: rei.com
MSR Folding Forks: rei.com
Jetboil stand: backcountry.com
For years, I’ve hauled the bear canister around, it’s a rigid, nearly indestructible plastic drum for storing food and toiletry items. It works great, but it’s heavy and does not pack easily. One alternative is a bear bag system, like Ursack’s Major Bear Bag. They’re flexibility allows them to be stuffed into your pack. Do check the regulations in the place you’re hiking/camping, as they may have specific food storage requirements.
Garcia Bear Canister (Black): rei.com
Liberty Mountain Bear Canister (Yellow): ems.com
Ursack Major Bear Bag: rei.com
With plenty of healthy, prepared meal options out there, you can eat well at home and on the trail. And there will certainly be more options to come as each of these companies expands their menus, and increase their sustainability. So, we can eat well while reducing our impact- the ultimate goal!
Happy (healthy) Trails!
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Bryce is a freelance writer and preservation consultant who lives in Southern Maine with his wife and their two awesome kids. Previously from Upstate NY, he climbed the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks before discovering the mountains of New England. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, Bryce can be found writing, teaching, photographing old buildings, or getting crushed by his daughters in Monopoly.