AMC Outdoors, September 2002
By Michael Lanza
There are many ways of filling your belly in the backcountry — I have a friend in Wyoming who even speaks glowingly of his occasional dinner of marmot meat. But whenever you want to maximize your caloric intake per pound of food, freeze-dried packaged meals are the way to go.
For those of you who blanch at the idea of living for days on these “just-add-boiling-water” meals, there’s good news: This stuff keeps getting tastier. Good ol’ capitalist market competition has resulted in breakfasts, dinners, sides, and desserts that you’ll really enjoy on the trail and might even be tempted to eat at home.
To sort out the best from the merely good, I contacted several companies whose packaged meals are widely available in stores and asked them to send me their top stuff. Then I assembled a crack team of people who regularly eat outdoors — my friends and wife — and over the course of numerous backcountry trips last summer, fall, and winter, we chowed. The selfless volunteers who helped me represented a range of taste preferences.
Depending on the brand you choose and how much you eat, these meals may cost $5 to $7 per person for a dinner and less for breakfast foods and sides — more expensive than buying a pound of linguine and pesto in a store, but also several ounces lighter per meal, much faster, and more convenient.
After following preparation instructions, we each rated every meal on a scale of 1 (lowest score) to 5 (highest) based on taste, texture, consistency, and whether it cooked thoroughly or not, and averaged our ratings. The food we ate is listed below by category and in order of ranking, and I’ve only included the meals that scored highest, which explains the uneven representation of companies. The shelf life of all of these products is typically at least two years, and all but the MSR Mountain Gourmet meals are prepared right in their packaging. See a related article for more information on the companies that make these foods.
One last note about serving sizes: The USDA and FDA regulate all food producers, including freeze-dried products, and federal regulations dictate serving sizes. We usually found that “serves two” really means “serves one hungry camper.” Based on past experience with these meals, we planned in our testing that we’d eat about twice as much food as the packaging suggests. Some of these meals are quite flavorful (see related article), while others are deliberately bland. If, like me, you prefer flavor, pack some Tabasco, pepper, or other favorite spice.
Backpacker’s Pantry granola with blueberries and milk ($4.90 for two 13-oz. servings). Rating: 5.0. To say it beats oatmeal is an understatement. This is delicious. Add cold or hot water.
Mountain House granola with milk and blueberries ($3.60 for one 8-oz. serving). Rating: 5.0. Like the Backpacker’s Pantry version, we’d take this on every trip, and you can add cold or hot water.
Backpacker’s Pantry huevos rancheros ($2.95 for two 5-oz. servings). Rating: 4.2. All natural and vegetarian, this blend of scrambled egg mix, green chilies, red peppers, onions, cheddar cheese, and taco-flavored vegetable protein has a little kick.
AlpineAire scrambled eggs ($5.23 for two servings of two eggs each). Rating: 3.5. Not bad, but flavor lovers should pack the black pepper and Tabasco sauce.
AlpineAire Leonardo da Fettuccine ($5.76 for two 11-oz. servings). Rating: 4.7. We all liked this mélange of pasta, broccoli, and mushrooms in a rich sauce.
MSR Mountain Gourmet Southwestern couscous ($6.95 for two 2-oz. servings). Rating: 4.1. We couldn’t get enough of this moderately spicy marriage of black bean flakes, sweet corn, onions, and jalapenos, with Southwestern and Middle Eastern flavors.
Backpacker’s Pantry ginger-teriyaki stir fry ($6.95 for two 12-oz. servings). Rating: 3.7. It’s a little salty, but the sesame flavor rules! Ginger teriyaki sauce over green beans, broccoli, celery, onions, red peppers, sesame seeds, cabbage, and rice.
MSR Mountain Gourmet fiesta pasta ($6.95 for two 2.8-oz. servings). Rating: 3.5. A mildly spicy, slightly soupy cheese sauce over noodles.
Backpacker’s Pantry Louisiana red beans and rice ($3.95 for two 13-oz. servings). Rating: 3.3. This fairly spicy, somewhat watery meal of red beans and rice in a Creole sauce answers a yen for Cajun in the backcountry.
Mountain House vegetable lasagna ($5.90 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 3.0. A good mix of vegetables, including zucchini, eggplant, carrots, and spinach.
Backpacker’s Pantry stroganoff with turkey ($7.50 for two 12-oz. servings). Rating: 5.0. Great taste and consistency in this meal of turkey, noodles, peas, and mushrooms in a sour-cream sauce.
Backpacker’s Pantry Santa Fe chicken with rice ($7.95 for two 13-oz. servings). Rating: 5.0. The rice was just right, the green chilies and cheese added flavor, and the chicken tasted like chicken.
Mountain House chicken teriyaki ($6.80 for two 10-oz. servings.) Rating: 5.0. Just the ingredients list made our mouths water-chicken, soy sauce, brown sugar, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, red and green peppers, peas, sherry wine, onions, and spices.
Richmoor spaghetti with meat and sauce ($4.25 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 4.8. Everyone loved this hearty, delicious meal of tomato sauce, mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and spag, even my infant son.
Natural High classic chicken pot pie ($5.75 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 4.5. Two thumbs up for this traditional favorite, complete with chicken, peas, carrots, and creamy gravy-and excellent mashed taters.
Natural High spicy Thai chicken ($6.75 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 4.3. A mildly spicy peanut sauce over broccoli, spinach, and tasty noodles.
AlpineAire chicken gumbo ($7.09 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 4.0. Really nice spicy flavor to this white rice, okra, corn, red and green peppers, and other veggies; but where’s the chicken?
AlpineAire kung fu chicken ($7.33 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 4.0. Noodles, tasty vegetables, and chicken in a tangy fruit sauce with a spicy kick.
Backpacker’s Pantry/Campfood refried beans ($2.30 for two 7-oz. servings). Rating: 3.5. Soupy but pretty good, though more of a black bean stew.
Mountain House Oriental-style spicy chicken and vegetables ($6.80 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 3.5. There’s a variety of vegetables with the chicken, but we found it just OK.
Mountain House chicken stew ($6.40 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 3.3. This meal of potatoes, chicken, carrots, and peas is tasty enough, but needs extra water when preparing or it’s chewy.
Richmoor turkey tetrazzini ($5.25 for two 10-oz. servings). Rating: 3.3. The veggies were crunchy, the taste somewhat bland, in this creamy parmesan sauce over turkey, peas, and spaghetti.
MSR Mountain Gourmet black bean hummus ($4.15, makes one cup). Rating: 4.4. A tasty, somewhat spicy dip, delicious on crackers, chips, or bread.
MSR Mountain Gourmet garlic fry bread ($5.25 for two 3-oz. servings). Rating: 4.0. There’s a little prep time involved to fry these up, but you’ll gobble them down much faster. A great appetizer.
AlpineAire garlic mashed potatoes ($1.98 for two 5.5-oz. servings). Rating: 3.5. A good consistency to these taters, with an underwhelming garlic flavor.
MSR Mountain Gourmet refried black beans ($5.50 for 4.5 oz.). Rating: 3.5. Spicy-food lovers will enjoy this side dish that’s good with a number of entrees — it has a powerful bite to it.
Natural High three-berry cobbler ($3.50 for two 6-oz. servings). Rating: 4.8. We could eat this at home — boysenberries, blueberries, strawberries, and apples, with crunchy chocolate crumbs.
MSR Mountain Gourmet chocolate-chip cookies ($5.25 for two 2.5-oz. servings). Rating: 4.5. You fry them on a campstove, but your campmates will think you picked these up in a bakery.
AlpineAire deep-dish peach crumble ($5.75 for two 5-oz. servings). Rating: 3.9. Go for this one — sweet peaches in a rich sauce with a graham cracker topping.
Richmoor apple brown Betty ($2.55 for two 6-oz. servings). Rating: 3.5. Chunky apples, brown sugar, raisins, and a streusel topping — anyone with a sweet tooth will like this.
After eating this stuff for several months, I never got sick of it, and I still find it much more convenient for the kind of backcountry trips I do, when I want to spend more time hiking, climbing, or skiing than preparing meals.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books, and eats food every day.