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Backpacking meals, also referred to as camping or hiking meals, are the morale-boosting frosting atop the literal mountain you just scaled. A great backpacking meal can make the difference between a vibrant, energy-filled adventure and a dreary flashback to the worst rucks in basic training. After all, you can’t and shouldn’t walk all that way on an empty stomach.
Enter our comprehensive — and appetizing — guide to the best backpacking meals for your next hike. We did your homework so you don’t have to. From calorie-dense powerhouses for the gym rats out there to plant-based vegan options, we’ve got you covered via extensive research and even hands-on taste-testing of a few brands. Take a peek, excite those taste buds, and as always, happy shopping!
- Best Overall: Peak Refuel Freeze-Dried Meals
- Best Budget: Backpacker’s Pantry Freeze-Dried Backpacking & Camping Food
- Honorable Mention: Mountain House Adventure Meals
- Best Vegan: Loma Linda Plant-Based Complete Meal Solution
- Best High-Calorie: Genuine Military Surplus MREs
- Best Dehydrated: GOOD TO-GO Dehydrated Food Kit
A top-notch product and a personal favorite, Peak Refuel’s Freeze-Dried Meals are camping foods fit for the most dedicated outdoors enthusiasts. Dense and filling, some menu items pack over a thousand calories per pouch plus nearly 50 grams of protein to boot. They fuel hikes just as well as they served me as post-gym recovery treats.
From my experience sampling its chicken alfredo and breakfast granola, textures were spot on, and flavors were far more potent than other outdoor food I’ve tasted without being overbearing. It was hard to believe that they were freeze-dried rocks in a bag moments prior. Preparation was a cinch, with Peak Refuel meals requiring a tad less water to prepare than competitors’, so you could save those spare ounces of water to wash it all down. This was proper food and surprisingly satisfying for what it was, but it does come at a couple of nitpicky costs.
Being a “premium” brand of camping food, Peak Refuel meals sit a few dollars above its rivals near the upper end of the price scale. Far from MRE money, but they’re not value deals either. Their shelf-life also bars them from pulling survival kit duty.
- Calories per serving: 260 – 520
- Servings per container: 2
- Shelf life: About 2 years
Filling and dense, especially with certain dishes
High in protein makes it an athlete’s delight
Top-notch quality and taste
Requires less water per pouch to prepare
A tad pricier than most prepackaged camping meals
Relatively unremarkable shelf life
A pleasant surprise and a warmly-welcomed addition to our guide, the Backpacker’s Pantry Freeze-Dried Backpacking & Camping Food lineup is a budget-friendly choice without sacrificing quality. Prices hover below $10 per pouch and between $50 and $60 for a six-pack bundle, a few shillings beneath other brands. Dishes are a colorful array of choices that will have outdoorsy foodies up and giddy. No vomit-inducing, half-baked meals here. They can also be found across many retailers from online companies, outdoor outfitters, and even in-person grocery stores.
A handful of consumers even attest to this brand being far superior and more flavorful than typical “premium” camping food brands. They’re reportedly quite filling with decent serving sizes for most people, which has led many buyers to use these as an easy escape from cooking.
If there’s any bone to pick, it’s how certain dishes include “flavor-enhancing” ingredients that aren’t so well-executed. Consumers noted an odd aftertaste from the bacon that doesn’t quite pair well with the mac and cheese, but the overall dish remains delectable and rich. Additionally, large variety packs with multiple entrees are currently unavailable at the time of writing.
- Calories per serving: 260
- Servings per container: 2
- Shelf life: 5 – 7 years
Undercuts rivals by a few dollars or more per pouch
Doesn’t sacrifice taste and quality
A standout menu of unique dishes
Available both online and from many in-person retailers
Variety packs are currently nonexistent
Certain “flavor enhancers” may not appeal to all
Mountain House Adventure Meals are well-rounded choices for all enthusiasts. Full-send mad lads and casual nature strollers will equally enjoy the appropriate portions and admirable quality of their dishes. My parents certainly did with them, now regularly purchasing pouches from REI in preparation for overlanding trips. Their 30-year shelf life is the freeze-dried cherry on top, enabling them to serve as survival food reserves.
I had the opportunity to sample the beef stroganoff, with tender shards of beef and perfectly cooked noodles, and the breakfast granola, which was crunchy and sweet but paled compared to Peak Refuel. Both were no-brainers to prepare and can be done in no time at all, but they require more generosity from your water supply versus Peak Refuel.
Admittedly, Mountain House backpacking meals occupy a middle ground in terms of nutritional content. As delicious as they were, they didn’t feel as filling as other food items I sampled. Some online consumers give the taste test crown to others, such as Peak Refuel and Backpacker’s Pantry. Their calories and protein content are also a slight step below, which still makes them perfectly fine for lighthearted nature walks and beginner climbs.
Why It Made the Cut
Less dense and relatively inexpensive versus other options on this list, Mountain House’s meals are trailside treats for those leaning on the lighter side without sacrificing quality.
- Calories per serving: 200 – 300
- Servings per container: 2
- Shelf life: 30 years
Solid tastes and texture
Stronger value than a few others on this list
Shelf life to survive the collapse of civilization
Commonplace in outdoor stores
Not the most calorie-dense for hardcore adventurers
Other options are more flavorful
Loma Linda Plant-Based Complete Meal Solutions are the perfect gluten-free, vegan- and vegetarian-friendly go-to for satiating the outdoor munchies. Nearly all dishes are crafted from freeze-dried rice, beans, and veggies. Meats are supplemented by Loma Linda’s soy-based “Chik’n” and “Tuno,” which put up enough of a convincing front to reportedly appease a few carnivorous buyers.
A standout trait for Loma Linda is its dizzying array of dishes, all of which have garnered some level of praise for their quality. The brand is mainly marketed as an at-home alternative to ditch the pots and pans, encouraging them to serve creative meals such as Thai curries, Southwest chili, and Hawaiian bowls. Their rapid and simplistic preparation with hot water, no different than purpose-made hiking meals, still makes them viable commodities for the trail.
Unfortunately, they can’t hold a candle to some hiking meals in terms of nutritional content. Aside from the higher sodium levels expected from freeze-dried, packaged food, they’re not bad for you. They’re just not as calorie-dense, which is what you may need in the wilderness. Additionally, many menu items are sold in small bundle packages but can’t be taken individually.
- Calories per serving: 250 – 260
- Servings per container: 1
- Shelf life: 2 years
Perfect for vegan and vegetarian explorers
Unique menu items not common from other brands
Acclaimed quality and flavors
Their heartiest dishes can’t match non-vegan protein and calories
Most menu items only sold in packages
Outdoor enthusiasts, take note. MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) are hidden gems skulking somewhere in the Amazon listings, and I will die on this hill. Often packing over 1,200 calories per pack, MREs come loaded with the main entree plus a myriad of beverage mixes and snacks to sate your hunger as you wait for the entree to heat — or you can chow down while it’s cold — MREs allow that freedom.
White chicken meat and tuna typically come with tortillas and condiments, Peanut M&Ms and Skittles appear like gifts from the heavens, and the chili mac is indistinguishable from Chef Boyardee. Compliments to the factory that pumped it into its vacuum-sealed pouch.
However, other MREs are more of an acquired taste, as the beef stew tasted akin to wet dog food and had my civilian colleague gagging after I let her sample it. Breakfast items are uninteresting. You’d be lucky to get a sausage patty with the mocha mix. Additionally, the bulky packaging of an MRE does hinder their portability, so pack wisely if you insist on showing off to your hiking buddies that you’re a military enthusiast.
- Calories per serving: About 1,250
- Servings per container: 1
- Shelf life: 5 years
Highest calorie count per container
Mix-and-match items in every pouch
Water-activated heater included
Pasta worth fighting your squadmates for
Some unappetizing beef and breakfast entrees
On the pricier side
Bulky packaging hinders its portability
An endangered species among backpacking meals, GOOD TO-GO Dehydrated Food Kits stand as one of the few prepackaged camping foods to be dehydrated rather than freeze-dried. Unlike many methods of dehydration, however, GOOD TO-GO’s practices are on the milder side using a short burst of 165-degree heat to dry out its meals without harshly impacting their nutritional content. Such a method enables it to eclipse Mountain House by a hundred calories or so and approach Peak Refuel in terms of protein.
Its menu is a colorful myriad of choices from vegan- and vegetarian-friendly entrees and various ethnic cuisine, including pad thai, bibimbap, and gumbo. Nearly all dishes have been mostly well-received, with only a few complaints about flavors not being rich enough.
Note that the shelf life of dehydrated foods is typically on the lower end of the spectrum, and GOOD TO-GO is no exception. Expect shelf lives of two to five years, within range of a few freeze-dried items on this list, but far behind products such as Mountain House.
- Calories per serving: 330 – 540
- Servings per container: 2
- Shelf life: 2 – 5 years (dependant on dish)
Dizzying menu variety
Many items are vegan- or vegetarian-friendly
Somewhat calorie-dense and high in protein
Choosing dehydration over freeze-drying sacrifices shelf life
Tasty, but not the most flavorful
Things to consider before buying a backpacking meal
Calories and fats
Here is a measure of how dense and filling backpacking meals will be. Your needs will vary based on how intense your adventures are, among other lifestyle needs. Gym rats and bodybuilder types may benefit from higher-calorie, higher-protein camping foods just the same as an average Joe embarking on a trek up Everest. On the other end of the scale, casual nature enthusiasts going for strolls may not need those immense energy reserves and would be just fine off lighter menu items.
How long will your camping meals last? While perhaps not as crucial as this would be for survival kits and emergency supplies, it’s nice to know that your surplus of Mountain House packs won’t rot in the next few months. Typical methods of preservation such as dehydration and, more popularly freeze-drying, ensure that camping meals can lay dormant in your pantry for years. Most typically stay fresh for two to five years, but some products designed to pull double-duty as survival stashes can last up to 30 years. Do note that dehydrated meals will often have slightly shorter life spans because dehydration doesn’t evacuate as much moisture as freeze-drying.
Here’s a tidbit that folks may not always think about when stuffing their packs full of other essentials such as tents and sleeping bags: Can you fit your meals in your backpack? More often than not, backpacking meals prove to be a simple commodity that nearly anyone can just toss in their bag and forget. They’re usually packaged in compact bags and can squeeze between the rest of your goodies. Just pack wisely if you intend to carry a buffet lineup of meals or perhaps an MRE or two, the latter choice being bulky and better-suited to large rucksacks.
FAQs about backpacking meals
Q. Why are backpacking meals important?
A. As you journey into the wilderness, whether it’s a casual nature walk or a grueling excursion, you need sustenance to fuel yourself; carbs for energy and protein for muscles, etc. Backpacking and hiking meals will provide all of that in a delectable package to ensure you don’t get sluggish from hunger out on the trail.
Q. How much do backpacking and hiking meals cost?
A. Most meals cost between $10 and $15, with our Best Value winner at $8 to $9 per pouch. Large variety packs are available, mostly running between $120 and $150 per bucket (usually 12 pouches). Military MREs ring in at $40 to $50 for a four-pack and are really for those desperately hunting for that chili mac and cheese spread.
Q. How are backpacking and hiking meals prepared?
A. Prepackaged camping food is as mind-numbingly easy to prepare as can be. Do you have hot water? Perfect, you’re done. Pour the recommended amount into the pouch, let it stew in its own flavors for the recommended time, and ta-da. MREs include heaters activated by water to warm food while also including beverage mixes, snacks, and toiletries.
Q. Are there breakfast items available for morning adventures?
A. You bet your sweet bippy there are. While less common, there are plenty of breakfast items for morning treks, with some companies offering more or less variety. Oatmeal and granola are the most common dishes sold in stores, but breakfast skillets with eggs, veggies, and meats are also available.
Q. What are the differences between freeze-dried and dehydrated camping foods?
A. Dehydrating is a simple and ancient method of heating and drying food over some time to evaporate moisture, typically 80 percent or so. It’s a cost-effective method that most folks can try through various methods. Freeze-drying is more complex, as food is flash-frozen at low pressure before gradually raising temperatures. This evaporates up to 95 percent of moisture without harsh heat, which may degrade nutritional content.
Q. Are backpacking meals healthy?
A. In the sense that they provide hikers with sustenance, fats, and protein to fuel their expeditions, yes, they are quite nutritious and effective and deliver needed energy. But given many products’ high-calorie counts and fat content, they can be over-consumed, especially when taken frequently with minimal physical activity. Save your freeze-dried gratin potatoes for when it’s time not to be a couch potato.
Peak Refuel wins top marks for its well-rounded, easy-to-prepare meals guaranteed to load you with the necessary fuel for the journey ahead. Being among the most filling and flavorful also plays in its favor. Backpacker’s Pantry makes for a solid choice for those searching for quality backpacking meals on a budget as it gives up nothing to save you a couple of dollars per bag. And Mountain House still stands as a solid consideration for quick, tasty meals that can be enjoyed by rookie and veteran adventurers alike.
As journalists and fellow adventurers, we always seek to deliver the most informative yet honest reviews possible in every buyer’s guide we curate. This guide has been curated mostly through extensive research and deep dives into company specs and, more importantly, real-world consumer experiences. While Amazon continued to serve as a useful encyclopedia of customer input, the widespread availability of backpacking meals has also allowed other sources to aid in curating our guide, including REI, Scheels, Walmart, and numerous food brand websites. Their availability has made it relatively easy for this author to perform some hands-on nitpicking on a few brands.
Quick stops at my local REI rewarded me with meals from Mountain House and Peak Refuel to sample for this guide, plus a previous guide to survival food kits. I examined taste, how filling they were, and how easy they were to prepare using the recommended methods. As a current service member, I’m no stranger to MREs either and was able to deliver feedback based on real-world experiences with such items. The best meals sacrificed little-to-none in terms of taste and texture versus something you’d buy in cans from the grocery store while effectively fitting their niche (vegan-friendly or high in calories).
As always, readers are encouraged to learn more about how we at Task & Purpose typically curate our buyer’s guides.