Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with new picks for 2017. You can find last year’s picks on Page 2.
Modern innovation has advanced the pursuit of ultralight gear — the contents of hiking packs have been trimmed down to their skeletons, including traditional outdoor cooking gear. The grub itself didn’t escape the trimming, either: dehydrated, ready-to-eat meals have replaced ice-filled coolers and bagged PB&Js. They’re lightweight, simple to make and sold at every outdoor retailer. All that’s required is hot water.
History’s taught us that convenience and quality usually have inverse relationships. Could adding hot water to dry food result in a meal that doesn’t taste like mush? Today, the answer is a resounding yes. A wide range of companies have overcome the quality-versus-packability conundrum with real food made with quality ingredients that are perfect for the trail.
Sustainably Sourced, All Organic: Despite being a giant in the outdoor space, Patagonia consistently bucks market expectations, favoring social and environmental well-being over quick and easy profit margins. It was only a matter of time before the company delved into the food industry; Patagonia Provisions offers a full line of dehydrated meals as well as ready-to-eat meat products such as buffalo jerky and wild-caught sockeye salmon. You won’t find any strange, unrecognizable additives here, and next to every ingredient on the list, you’ll find the word “organic.” Patagonia Provisions’ meals take slightly more effort to prepare — you’ll need a stove and pot — but the result is worth it, as is any responsibly sourced meal made with whole, real ingredients.
Best Recipe: The Black Bean Soup is tasty enough on its own, but try and doctor it up with some fresh avocado, cheese and lime. It’s a simple dish that’s manageable on the trail, and that might make it into your at-home menu.
No Stove Necessary: The genius of OMEALS is its convenience. It’s the only maker of backcountry meals that don’t require boiling water to cook, which means there’s no need to carry a pot and stove. Each pouch comes with an individually sealed meal, utensils and heating element. The heating element is activated with three to five ounces of liquid — ocean water, river water and stale beer are all fair game. Minutes later, the fully cooked (never freeze-dried) meal is hot in its package and ready to eat.
Best Recipe: OMEALS prides itself on home-style cooking, and the chicken creole with brown rice is a tasty example to start you off.
The Up and Comer: LYOFOOD’s parent company, Lyovit, is the largest producer of freeze-dried products in Poland. The company has been using the process to preserve fruit, veggies, spices and herbs for over 20 years and has been using the same tech to produce full meals for almost as much time. And in that time, LYOFOOD has fine-tuned its product, expanded its menu and won a handful important European awards in the process. It has also supported significant expeditions — from Himalayan first ascents to self-supported circumnavigations — and will continue to do so when Ben Lecomte attempts to swim from Tokyo to San Francisco. Everything is 100 percent natural (a term that means a lot more in Europe) and cooked without artificial additives or preservatives. Right now LYOFOOD is only available in Europe, but look for a U.S. launch later this year.
Best Recipe: LYOFOOD offers some unique European recipes including bigos, a traditional Polish stew. Also known as hunter’s stew, bigos is a mixture of sauerkraut, meat, mushrooms and smoked plums.
Chef-Made Meals: There aren’t many dehydrated meal companies that can claim a famous New York City chef as a founder. Jennifer Scism’s culinary CV begins with an education at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, middles with a smattering of stints at successful NYC eateries, and culminates with ten years as co-owner of the recently shuttered Annisa. Scism left Manhattan for Maine and founded Good To-Go shortly thereafter. She and husband David Koorits have been feeding backpackers since 2014 with a variety of unique recipes that seem to draw inspiration from the same round-the-world trip that led to Annisa. Each meal is concocted from healthy, pronounceable ingredients and can be prepared right in the pouch it comes in.
Best Recipe: Pad Thai is one of the latest meals to make it into Good To-Go’s lineup. The pescatarian-friendly meal is loaded with traditional banh pho rice noodles, whole pasteurized eggs and sustainably raised American shrimp.
Drytech Real Turmat
Scandinavian Home-Style: Drytech’s Real Turmat meals are the result of one man’s quest to preserve his wife’s homemade stew and take it with him into the Norwegian wilderness. Luckily for Rolf Hansen, and the European trekkers who now rely on the meals he creates, the discovery of a gentle freeze-drying process helped to preserve those full flavors without additional preservatives. The Real Turmat menu includes a variety of Scandinavian breakfasts, soups and entrées that will make dinner at camp an eating experience to look forward to.
Best Recipe: Drytech harvests its ingredients seasonally, when the flavors are best. Try some of the unmistakably local dishes like Cod in Curry Sauce or Reindeer Stew — “When in Rome…” definitely applies, here.
An Outdoorsman’s Classic: Mountain House is one of those brands your dad might recognize. It’s been supplying backpacking trips, expeditions to the Poles and even trips to the moon since 1969. Before that, the brand’s parent company, Oregon Freeze Dry, won a bid to supply the military with better-tasting rations during the Vietnam War under the brand Long Range Rations. The company continues to supply the military with meals today and has maintained its status as one of the most recognizable names in freeze-dried foods for outdoor pursuits. The wide-ranging menu covers all the bases, from biscuits and gravy to lasagna with meat sauce to raspberry crumble, available in multi-portion buckets as well as single-serving pouches.
Best Recipe: Freeze-dried beef stroganoff may not sound very appetizing, but it’s been Mountain House’s most popular meal year after year. Let the traditional Russian flavors subvert any preconceptions (or visuals) you may have.
Hailing from the Oregon northwest, Mountain House’s parent company, Oregon Freeze Dry, started developing preservative foods for our military over 50 years ago. They’re a world leader in freeze drying and, pertaining to entree pouches, these guys are pros: alongside their wide spectrum of dishes, they’ve also got gluten free, low sodium and vegetarian options.
Tasting Notes: We sampled the mac & cheese ($7, serves three). Quick suggestion: pour it into something. The finished pouch contained some excess water, but when we dumped it into a second container it looked more appetizing. Bottom line, the mac & cheese tasted quite good, much better than its “instant” relatives. Maybe it could’ve used some pepper.
Another titan in the dehydrated pouch game, these guys manufacture in the foothills of Boulder, CO. Their nutrient-rich lightweight meals are specifically designed for those crashing in sleeping bags. Advertised as gourmet food for adventurers, it lives up to the billing.
Tasting Notes: The sweet and sour chicken ($11, serves two) had a nice medley of colors and smelled appetizing. Again, it was a pretty wet dish, but otherwise there was little to complain about; its small bits of chicken and pineapple were reminiscent of passable high school cafeteria food, and we ate it all.
We also tried their freeze-dried cookies & cream ice cream sandwich ($3), which is definitely bizarre and more cookie than ice cream. One percent of its sales are donated to Defenders of Wildlife and their Polar Bear Adoption program.
Relatively new to the dehydrated meal scene, Good To-Go was founded in Maine by husband and wife duo Jennifer Scism and David Koorits. Camping and cooking were the pillars of their relationship, and now they’re spreading the love. Jennifer, as an accomplished chef (she beat Mario Batalia on Iron Chef and is the co-owner of the Greenwich Village-based restaurant Annisa), knows what she’s doing.
Tasting Notes: We tried their Herbed Mushroom Risotto ($11, serves two). Risotto’s texture is notoriously hard to replicate, and this version, unsurprisingly, struggled to match the homemade stuff. But the flavors were rich, and it was obvious the company uses quality ingredients. After a long day of hiking and camping, you’d be happy to eat it.
An organic farmer for nearly 30 years, MaryJane Butters fell in love with the outdoors after serving as a forest fire lookout in Idaho. Paradise Farm, her Idaho sanctuary, was featured in a 1995 National Geographic issue about organic farming. Her backpacking pouches are an organic alternative to mainstream other mainstream options.
Tasting Notes: The Kettle Chili ($6, serves two) tasted more like lentil soup — but it was damn good, tasting more homecooked than anything else we tried, perfectly spiced and filled with healthy ingredients.
Alpine Aire Foods
“Hike far. Breathe deep. Eat well.” says the bottom of Alpine Aire Foods’s pouches. The company’s been around since the late ‘70s and offers meatless, beef, chicken, turkey, vegan and gluten free entrees straight from Rocklin, California.
Tasting Notes: Out of all the pouches, Alpine Aire definitely had the most upmarket packaging. Their chicken gumbo ($7, serves two), besides needing a stir in a bad way, was spicy with large vegetable chucks. On a whole, all the ingredients were tasty and recognizable — no over-processed minces.