The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Meals

Backpacking meal (buy)

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: It's the end of a long day hiking in the sun. Sometimes hot food can be super comforting. But maybe you don't want to go through the trouble of actually preparing & cooking a full meal, or maybe you're several miles in the backcountry and couldn't have carried in ingredients. This is where the backpacking meal comes in. These lightweight pouches of food can be cooked just by adding water (often right in the pouch) and are designed to replace much needed nutrients when you're on trail (sodium, protein, and carbs). Modern backpacking meals also come in all the trendy flavors you might find at your favorite restaurant

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

Food is essential, but there are many ways to plan food that don't require this (e.g., energy bars or non-perishable foods) .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What to use & how to choose

Key factors

Cool zippers, new waterproofing, etc... sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype (over-spending happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

We highly recommend reviewing Type or Style first, where we review what you can use to address the Core function--a regular item you have at home may work! The other factors are secondary & depend strongly on the Type or Style you've picked.

While we encourage you to use regular items wherever possible, as an outdoor gear shop, we only carry outdoor-specific products

Type or Style

This is one of the only gear guides where we don't start by talking about all the ways people can address the topic of food. This is because from bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; nothing but trail mix, energy bars; having a steak; or just having backpacking meals, there are endless ways to prepare food, and food planning is outside the scope of this page.

Instead, we focus on the two main types of backpacking meals.

Preservation technique Dehydrated Freeze-dried
Shelf life 1-5 years

20-30 years

Nearly all the water is removed

Nutritional value

Compared to pre-processed food, not raw ingredients

~50% lost

The process subjects food to more heat than freeze-drying

Minimally lost

No heat is involved

Taste

Compared to pre-processed food

Not as good

The process subjects food to more heat than freeze-drying

Very similar

No heat is involved

Time to rehydrate

10-20 min

Usually boiling water, needs to be re-cooked

~5 min

May be able to use either hot or cold water

Can be eaten without rehydration

Generally no

Can be very chewy or stiff

Sometimes

Think astronaut food for kids

Effect on secondary factors Weight Heavier

Lighter

Since nearly all the water is removed

Price

Less expensive

You can do this at home to an extent

More expensive

More technical process

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

We like the variety of flavors to be better in dehydrated food brands

Price

While the table above shows the general price difference between dehydrated vs. freeze-dried food, price is more determined by brand, capacity (see below), and by the food itself, such as:

  • All organic tends to be more expensive
  • Vegetarian tends to be less expensive

All backpacking meals tend to be ~$10 for a meal.

Capacity (size)

In this case, we refer to the serving size of the backpacking meal (if you're buying individual packets). Generally for most backpacking meals, a single serving is 300-500 calories. Meals can be pre-packaged into 1, 1.5, or 2 servings. Depending on your food planning, think about how many servings will be enough. If you've never had backpacking meals before, we encourage you to test them at home or trial them on shorter trips before a longer trip.

As you can imagine, as capacity increases, so does price and weight & size.

Weight & Size (Compactness) for Backpacking

If you're thru-hiking 20+ miles (32+km) per day, every advantage counts! In this case, size refers to compactness. You can carry more gear in the same size backpack if all of it is very compact, or for more weight savings, you can get a smaller size pack.

Food strategy is out of scope for this post (probably there are people optimizing for which foods are the lightest when dehydrated or freeze-dried!). Generally, the strategy we observe most frequently is buying in bulk. The biggest advantage isn't weight savings*, but size savings in cutting out individual packaging. Bulk food in a single plastic container is more compactable than several individually packaged meals.

*In fact, weight may be increased, since if you bring bulk food, you may need to bring cookware, whereas with many backpacking meals as we described above, you can cook directly in the package


Minor features that may be important

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about minor features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • Can you cook directly in the package? This is a great way to optimize weight, since you no longer need to bring cookware. Cook-safe packaging should not leach compounds into your food even when boiling water is poured inside
  • How do you dispose of the package? Everyone knows to pack out their individual waste. Sometimes food packaging, though, can be burned, which can save you some hassle. Be absolute sure that this is safe with your specific packaging; you do not want to expose yourself to toxic fumes!

What we carry

General Notes

  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the How To Choose section
  • Buy prices are MSRP with tax, i.e., what you see is what you pay. Prices may differ in-store due to change in models or discounts, but this is rare. If we don't sell what we rent, we list MSRP value with tax
  • Rent prices are the starting pricess; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!
Dehydrated type
Model Good-ToGo meals

Good ToGo meals, various flavors

Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten Free options available

Buy

MSRP with tax

$13

When you rent online, we will pick a model for you. You can change the model if you pick-up in-store, subject to availability. On the Options page of our online order process, you can also select options or write-in any preferences. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others. We will only pick something else if it doesn't conflict with your choices indicated on the Options page; moreover, if there's a major functional difference (e.g., capacity), we will attempt to contact you first

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!