Step 1: Freezing: In this first step, the raw food and ingredients are cooked and tossed into the freezer until it is frozen solid. Bringing the food to a low temperature ensures the water in the food will be removed via "sublimation" and not melt in the second stage of the freeze-drying process.
Step 2: Drying (Round A): In this second step, the food enters a primary drying stage which removes the frozen water crystals from the food. The food is heated slightly and put in a vacuum to speed up this sublimation process (converts the ice into gaseous water vapor to preserve food texture). This stage can be slow, but it does remove up to 95 percent of the water and is faster than dehydrating, another standard method to dry and preserve food.
Step 3: Drying (Round B): Lastly, the food undergoes a subsequent drying step which raises the heat even further to remove the residual water. At the end of these three steps, the food has only 1 to 4 percent of water left. Now that is dry!
More Preservation Methods: Freeze-drying is not the only method of preserving food for backpacking. Some commercial and homemade meals use dehydration to remove water and increase the shelf life of the food. Dehydration skips the freezing cycle and instead uses low heat and extended drying time to remove water without radically changing the composition of the food. Nutrient loss is possible during dehydration, especially vitamin A and C, which are destroyed by prolonged exposure to the heat and circulating air of a dehydrator.
Some people also pre-cook their food, so it won't spoil right away and is ready to eat on the trail. Pre-cooking may be the most straightforward and fastest method to use, but it only preserves your food for a short time. Another way to preserve food is canning, but packing a bunch of canned foods for an overnight trip is far too heavy to be practical.
The key to freeze-dried backpacking food is rehydration. You need to moisten the food adequately, or it will have the texture of styrofoam. Re-hydrating is easy as most freeze-dried meals don't require cooking and can soak right in their packaging. Some meals contain beans, rice or similar ingredients that need minimal cooking instead of just soaking.
Option 1: In its packaging. To prepare, add the correct amount of hot or boiling water (usually one cup) and seal for a specific amount of time (20 minutes or so). Don't forget to take out the oxygen absorber packet before you add your water. To keep the food warm while it soaks, you can use a cozy to help hold in the heat. After the soak time is over, open the bag and eat. When you are done eating, there is nothing to clean. Just wipe off your utensils, dry your pot and throw the empty pouch into your trash bag. Some pouches can even be burned in a campfire if you have one.
Option 2: In a pot. If you prefer to not eat your freeze-dried backpacking food from a pouch, you can boil the water and add the food to a pot. Using a pot allows you to add some extra heat to help rehydrate your food without it getting cold. It also provides a vessel that is easy for eating and sharing your food. The biggest drawback to using a pot is... the cleaning. No fun. You can't throw away your pot and toss it dirty into your pack. You need to clean according to LNT principles, so you don't contaminate the environment or leave food behind to attract wildlife.
Freeze-drying is one of the preferred ways to preserve food because the process retains much of the food's nutritional value; yes, up to 90 percent of the nutrients remain. The high nutritional value of freeze-dried backpacking food is one reason why it is so popular for backcountry treks. Nutritional value is only one aspect; there are a handful of other features you need to consider when deciding on the best backpacking food for your next trip.
Cookability: Some recipes cook faster and easier than others.
Freeze-dried backpacking food is already cooked, so all you are doing is rehydrating it and heating it. To reconstitute the meal, it takes a cup of hot water and about 10-20 minutes of soaking. Skimp on the heat or time and your food may be a bit crunchy and not very palatable. But if you follow the instructions on the package, everything will hydrate with the right texture and flavors.
Taste: You're spending the money, make sure it's yummy.
Freeze-dried backpacking food may come with fancy names like Mango Sticky Rice, but don't expect these meals to taste like home cooked fare. They are satisfying after a long day of hiking, but the taste and texture vary among manufacturers. You have to try them yourself to discover which flavors and brands you enjoy. It's best to try them in the field because after hiking all day, you will be very forgiving on taste, and happy to have a hot and filling meal. We recommend bringing some packets of olive oil, hot sauce, dried cheese, salt, and pepper to add some extra flavor if needed.
Weight: Try to get at least 100 calories per oz and 600 calories per meal.
Freeze drying removes most of the water weight of a meal, leaving behind a lightweight and packable meal option. Most freeze-dried backpacking food contains 300-800 calories and weighs around 3-7 ounces (100-150 calories per ounce) making it relatively calorie dense. This caloric density is slightly lower than peanut butter which on average is 165 calories per ounce and right on par with ramen which is 127 calories per ounce. Some pouches contain two servings, but a hungry hiker can easily consume both servings after a long day on the trail.
Nutrition: Get a good balance, especially if you're thru-hiking.
Nutrition is the significant advantage freeze drying has over other preservation methods. The process of freeze-drying retains most of the nutrients in any given meal. As a result, almost all freeze-dried backpacking food is designed to be a complete meal with a combination of fats, proteins, and carbs to fuel your hike. Check the nutrient information to avoid overloading on salt or fiber when you eat. You can supplement any meal with dried meats, cheeses or mashers to add extra protein or carbs as needed.
Cost: There is a huge range in pricing. Be mindful of cost per calorie.
Freeze-drying is an energy-intensive method of preserving food, so freeze-dried backpacking food tends to be expensive. On average, the process uses 1.2 times more energy than canning and 1.7 times more energy than freezing alone. As a result, most single serving packs are pricey, costing between $6 and $15 per pouch. They are fantastic for section or weekend hikers, but they are cost-prohibitive for the thru-hiker. Backpackers can save some cash by purchasing freeze-dried food in bulk and creating their own DIY freezer bag meals.
Ingredients: Unless you need it to survive 30 years, go for a clean label.
The ingredient list is where freeze-dried backpacking food will vary. Some brands, like Outdoor Herbivore, use only whole ingredients that you can recognize, while others have lots of sodium and unfamiliar ingredients. Check the ingredient list before you purchase and try to stick with meals that are made of ingredients you can pronounce. These natural meals tend to have a shorter shelf life, four to six years. In comparison, the artificially supplemented freeze-dried meals have a shelf life of up to 30 years.
There are a wide variety of companies making and selling freeze-dried backpacking food. We chose some of the top brands and put them to a taste test to see how they compare.
Alpine Aire has been making freeze-dried backpacking food for forty years, so the company is far from a newcomer. Alpine Aire meals can be purchased online and in outdoor specialty shops.
Some freeze-dried backpacking meals have high sodium, but Alpine Aire keeps the added salt to a reasonable amount. The company does make some exciting meals like Wild Quinoa Pilaf with Hemp Seeds, Himalayan Lentils & Rice, and Wild Thyme Turkey. Besides meals, Alpine Aire also makes desserts, snacks, dips, and smoothies.
The meals are easy to prepare - open the pouch, remove the oxygen absorber and add hot water. Each bag has a ruler on the side to help you measure the amount of water that you need. When it is ready, you can do all your eating right in the bag.
Order AlpineAire's Cheese Enchilada Ranchero for $6.95 on Moosejaw.
Backpackers Pantry was founded in 1951 to make lightweight and nutritious trail meals for girl scouts. The company quickly expanded beyond its girl scout roots and is now known for its backpacking meals. The Colorado-based company is praised for its international flavors and its diversity of meals which are available in both single serving pouches and large cans suitable for groups.
Like most backpacking meals, the pouches can be used for soaking and eating. They are ideally-shaped for backcountry use thanks to the gusseted bottoms that help them stand up. You can set them on top of a log while they soak and not have to worry about losing a meal because they fell over.
Order a 2-serving pouch of Backpacker's Pantry's Louisiana Red Beans & Rice for $5.95 on Moosejaw.
Mountain House is the most visible company among those making freeze-dried meals. They've been making freeze-dried foods since 1968, supplying the military Special Forces with soldier rations. Mountain House then moved into the consumer market where it has flourished.
Mountain House is known for its homestyle American meals that are hearty and have a consistent flavor. The biggest critique is the meal's high sodium content. The company has an extensive reach; its breakfast, dessert, and dinner meals are found online, in outdoor shops such as REI and big-box retailers like Walmart.
Order Mountain House's Breakfast Skillet for $9.95 on Moosejaw.
Initially started by a mother and son hiking team who wanted healthy freeze-dried backpacking food for the trails, Paleo-Meals-To-Go is now owned by Wild Zora. The meals are paleo with whole ingredients such as local grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, farm-fresh vegetables, and hearty seasonings.
Healthy and hearty food is the focus of the Wild Zora Paleo-Meals-To-Go line of food. Each pouch contains a robust single-serving that is more than enough for the hungry hiker. All the meals are gluten-free, soy-free, milk-free, grain-free, protein-rich and shelf-stable for two-years from the date of manufacturing. Some meals are even nut-free, while others are made according to the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), a form of the paleo diet designed to minimize autoimmune diseases.
Paleo-Meals-To-Go ships in a resealable pouch that is suitable for cooking and eating. Just add water, wait for the food to soak, and you can eat right from the bag.
Shop for all Wild Zora's Paleo-Meals-To-Go here.
Harmony House freeze-dried backpacking food is for the DIYer who wants to make their recipes for dining in the backcountry. The company sells individual components such as freeze-dried fruits and vegetables. It also offers soup blend kits and chili mixes that contain everything you need to make a freezer bag recipe. Besides freeze-dried foods and dehydrated vegetables, Harmony House also sells textured vegetable protein (TVP) which is an inexpensive meat alternative that you can drop into any meal for a protein kick.
Find all Harmony House freeze-dried meals here.
Outdoor herbivore meals are made in small batches using food that is sourced locally as much as possible. More than 80 percent of the organic, non-GMO ingredients are grown in the United States. Meals are made with whole food natural ingredients that are freeze-dried and dehydrated. Outdoor Herbivore does not add flavor enhancers, fillers, processed foods or artificial ingredients to their meals. The focus is on quality foods seasoned with herbs, spices, and minimal salt.
Unlike other manufacturers that supply a bag suitable for cooking and eating, Outdoor Herbivore ships their meals in a light, non-gusseted bag to dave on space and weight. To eat outdoor herbivore meals, you have to transfer them to a pot or similar cooking vessel.
Order Outdoor Herbivore's Fiesta Salad for $6.49 on their website.
Packit Gourmet hails from Texas and is a family-owned and operated business. The company's roots started in the 70s when founder Jeff and Debbie Mullins hit the road with their growing family and worked hard at dehydrating food to make a decent meal. After decades of food making, their daughter Sarah had the crazy idea of turning their family camping foods into a business. In 2008, the family started making backpacking foods in their attic and advertising them out of a Volkswagen bus at 17 national parks. The rest is history. The company has earned accolades for its meals and is now among the top freeze-dried backpacking food companies.
Packit Gourmet places a priority on wholesome foods and classic homemade flavors. Each meal uses high-quality freeze-dried and dehydrated produce, lean meat proteins, and robust seasoning blends. They are authentic all-in-one meals as the company goes the extra distance to include packets of hot sauce, olive oil or cheese if a meal could use that extra kick.
Order Packit Gourmet's Texas State Fair Chili for $8.99 on their website.
Next Mile Meals has a small selection of meals, but there is a good reason for that selectivity. The company is relatively new; born during a 2017 PCT thru-hike fueled by keto-focused meals. During that journey, the homemade recipes not only provided plenty of fuel for a long distance hike but were popular among other hikers who were always asking for extras.
Now Next Mile Meals has a lineup of ketogenic-friendly fare for camping, hiking and traveling. The meals are designed to be low in carbohydrates and high in protein and healthy sources of fat. Because of this extra fat, Next Mile Meals tend to be more calories dense than meals that rely on carbs. Similar to other freeze-dried backpacking food, you can eat Next Mile Meals out their storage pouch after rehydrating them.
Order a variety pack of Next Mile Meals' best-sellers for $96 on Amazon.
Trailtopia Adventure Food is an up and coming company dedicated to making dehydrated and freeze-dried backpacking food. Based in Minnesota, Trailtopia launched in 2014 after founder Vince Robichaud was encouraged by friends and family to start selling the backpacking meals he was preparing for trips. The family-run company has been growing since its inception.
The meals are packed in compact pouches so you can add water and eat from the pouch without needing a long spork or spoon. The recipes have a nice balance of carbs and proteins.
Order Trailtopia's Beef Stew for $10.99 on Amazon.
Wise Food targets the emergency preparedness market and is known for the long shelf life of its foods. It uses a specialized Metallyte packaging developed by ExxonMobile that protects the freeze-dried and dehydrated foods from oxygen and moisture. This added protective layer ensures the food is shelf-stable for up to 25-years. If you don't need a long-term storage solution, the company also makes and sells its outdoor-focused food in a mylar pouch with a seven-year shelf life. You can choose the packaging you prefer when you purchase a meal.
Because it focuses on emergency preparedness, Wise sells its food in bulk quantities. You can purchase individual meals in cases of 6 pouches or choose sample kits that provide a variety of entrees and breakfast meals. The Wise meals are cheaper than other freeze-dried backpacking food options because it uses artificial ingredients and fillers.
Order the Chili Mac with Beef 6-pack for $49.99 here.
Though not freeze-dried, these dehydrated meals are worth a mention for the high-quality food and popularity among backpackers. You can prepare these meals just as you would with the freeze-dried backpacking food. Simply add hot water, soak and eat.
Chef Melissa Lynn Lieser used her culinary training and affinity for whole foods to create Backpacker's Bistro, a line of nutritious backpacking food with a gourmet twist. Lieser makes all the Backpacker's Bistro meals from her base in Portland, Oregon. Most of the food is sourced from local farms or sustainable suppliers and chopped by hand. The prepared food is then roasted in the oven and dried overnight. All the scraps are composted, so nothing is left to waste.
Backpacker's Bistro goes way beyond your run-of-the-mill freeze-dried backpacking food. The meals live up to their name by using bistro-quality ingredients such as red wine, olive oil, homemade pasta to create their unique flavors.
Order Backpacker's Bistro's Wild Rice and Mushroom Pilaf for $9 on Amazon.
Founded by chef Jennifer Schism and her business partner and husband David Koorits, Good To-Go is focused on delivering all natural foods that taste great in the backcountry. The flavors are exotic, and the meals are made with ingredients that you can pronounce.
Based in Maine, Good To-Go makes breakfast meals and dinner entrees both in single-serving and double-sized pouches. The company offers a handful of delicious recipes that are full of flavor and hearty enough to satisfy hiker hunger. Besides its meat dishes, Good To-Go also makes gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and pescatarian meals.
Order Good To-Go's Herbed Mushroom Risotto for $12.95 on Moosejaw.
Mary Janes Farm is more than a food manufacturer. The Idaho farm operates a bread & breakfast inn, offers a farm school and runs a food share co-op for those who live near the farm. As part of its various operations, the farm has developed a variety of organic breakfast, dinner and dessert meals that are sold via its website and online, at retailers like REI.
Many of the foods are available in different packaging options including the Outpost pouches which are designed for backpacking. This pouch has a box bottom that allows it to stand up unassisted and can be used for both soaking and eating. Best of all, the non-aluminum Outpost eco-pouch can be burned in a fire.
Order MaryJanesFarm's Organic Shepherd's Meat Pie for $12 on rei.com.
Nomad Nutrition bypasses the meat and offers entirely plant-based meals. The company carefully designs its meals to meet the nutritional need of backpackers with the right balance of fats, lean vegetable-based protein, and carbohydrates. Because they are plant-based, Nomad Nutrition meals are vegan-friendly, gluten-free and soy-free.
The company uses a unique form of dehydration called REVdry that retains the taste, smell and texture of the food without using artificial colors, artificial flavors, unpronounceable chemicals or undesirable preservatives. The REVdry process is also energy-efficient. It is six times faster than freeze drying and 24 times faster than conventional dehydration. The food also rehydrates more quickly taking approximately eight minutes of soaking instead of twenty.
Nomad Nutrition sources its food locally and then cooks it just like you would cook it in your home kitchen. After going into the REVdry machine, the food is packaged and prepared for shipping. The company makes six different entree meals and sells them in single-serving packs, double serving packs and sample bundles that contain multiple meals.
Order Nomad Nutrition's Hungarian Goulash for 13.99 from Amazon.
Patagonia entered the food market in 2012 intending to encourage environmental change through food. The company created Patagonia Provisions, a separate division based in California dedicated to fixing our broken food chain and showing that ecological stewardship can produce great-tasting meals.
Each meal is carefully sourced to ensure the ingredients are harvested sustainably by farmers and fisherman who minimize their environmental impact. In the case of its salmon meals, Patagonia only purchases its fish from reef-net fishermen who harvest the salmon sustainably using solar-powered equipment. When you are buying a Wild Salmon meal from Patagonia Provisions, you know your money is going to support these local fishermen and their environmentally-friendly fishing practices.
Order Patagonia Provisions' Organic Red Bean Chili for $7.00 on their website.
Freeze-dried backpacking food is a staple for long-distance hikers, but these mountain ramblers aren't the only ones who have discovered this lightweight method of preserving and storing food. It's been used for centuries and only in the past 100 years was it industrialized for commercial use.
Freeze-drying food was first used in the late 15th century by the Incas who stored their crops in the high altitudes of the Andes mountains. The cold temperatures on the mountain tops would freeze the food, while the exposure to the wind, sun, and altitude would remove the water. The Northern American Inuits and the Northern European Sami people used similar techniques to preserve fish and other food for their nomadic lifestyles.
Industrially, freeze-drying took hold during World War II when it was used to transport life-saving blood to troops on the frontlines. In the 1950s and 1960s, freeze drying became a favorite way to preserve food for the space race with NASA and Whirlpool famously developing freeze-dried ice cream for its Apollo missions. The ice cream never made its way into space, but that's not the end of the story. Now freeze-dried backpacking food has exploded. It is used not only by astronauts but also by the military, hikers, and survivalists.
Prefer stoveless options? Try our Greenbelly Meals. They're ready-to-eat, loaded with nutrition (600+ calories), and made of tasty all-natural ingredients.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.