Review of the best dehydrated and freeze-dried food brands for backpacking.
Updated: July 5th, 2021
Freeze-dried food makes a fantastic option for your lunches and dinners on the trail because it's lightweight and highly nutritious. In fact, freeze-drying preserves up to 90 percent of a food's nutritional value.
When choosing a particular freeze-dried meal brand, you'll want to consider shelf-life, ingredients, cookability, taste, cost, nutrition, and weight. We'll show you what to look for and what to avoid so you can choose the freeze-dried food that's right for you.
Below, we review some popular freeze-dried meal brands and put them to a taste test to see how they compare and show you how to prepare and eat your meals.
Here's what's coming. Click on any item to jump straight to the section:
SHELF-LIFE: ANYWHERE BETWEEN 1 AND 30 YEARS
Natural meals tend to have a shorter shelf life—roughly four to six years. In comparison, the artificially supplemented freeze-dried meals have a shelf life of up to 30 years.
For backpacking, a one-year shelf life is largely sufficient. For other survival situations, it might not be long enough. We're looking at you, preppers!
INGREDIENTS: 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.
Look for dehydrated foods with a short list of ingredients and watch out for these additives in your food:
Sulfur Dioxide: This is used in dried fruits and vegetables to make them last longer and preserve their color. It has been found to induce asthma in people and cause cancer in mice.
Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate: This mostly used to preserve processed meats. When cooked with amino acids, nitrites and nitrates convert to nitrosamines, which are considered strong carcinogens.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): Used to prevent fats in foods from going rancid, this chemical is thought to be a carcinogen, though it is approved by the FDA.
Remember, salt is a natural preservative. Unless you plan on keeping dehydrated food for years, removing the water and adding salt should be sufficient to preserve the ingredients.
COOKABILITY: SOME RECIPES COOK FASTER AND EASIER THAN OTHERS
Fuel, water, and time are limited resources on the trail, so choose food that is efficient to cook and doesn't require much of either.
Freeze-dried food is already cooked, so all you are doing is soaking it until it's ready. It may take anywhere between 10 minutes and 20 minutes and plus or minus one cup of water to get a meal ready, depending on what brand and/or recipe you get.
Skimp on the heat or time and your food may be a bit crunchy and not very palatable.
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.
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.
Taste and texture vary among manufacturers, and you may 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.
NUTRITION: AT LEAST 100 CALORIES PER OZ AND 600 CALORIES PER MEAL
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.
Suggest post: How Many Calories Do I Burn Backpacking?
Although most 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.
|(Per Pouch)||Calories||Protein (g)||Fat (g)||Fiber (g)||Carbs (g)||Price|
|Next Mile Meals||540||61||30||3||9||$14|
|Trailtopia Adventure Food||540||30||6||16||98||$15|
|Food for the Sole||420||14||14||9||57||$11|
If you’re after fun eating in the backcountry, Packit Gourmet delivers. Along with meals, they have a range of dips, snacks, and even cocktail mixes.
They set themselves apart by including separate condiments, toppings and seasonings with the meals. This provides more variety of texture, flavor and crunch than their all-in-one meal competitors.
If you’re looking for stoveless meals, Packit Gourmet has a “cool water” line. Be sure to check the size.
Many of their one serving meals have more calories than two serving meals from other brands. However, they can be higher in sodium and have shorter shelf lives.
If you’re looking for keto friendly fare, Next Mile Meals specializes in creating meals to serve this diet.
The meals are designed to be low in carbohydrates, high in protein and healthy sources of fat. Because of this extra fat, Next Mile Meals tend to be more calorically dense than other options that rely on carbs.
Due to the focus on quality natural ingredients, the large single serve pouches are on the expensive side. Like other brands that focus on minimizing the use of artificial preservatives, shelf life is shorter.
Trailtopia is another relatively new company focusing on all natural foods with little to no chemicals or preservatives.
The meals have a nice balance of carbs and proteins. The packaging is shorter and wider than most other brands allowing you to eat it with a standard sized spork.
They offer sample packs so you can try a variety of meals before buying a full size. The serving sizes are smaller, for some meals you’ll want two servings per person.
The squat packaging is cool but Trailtopia’s offerings are the middle of the road in both flavor and cost.
If you’re looking to load up for the long haul look to Wise Food.
Wise Food has made its name in the emergency preparedness market with their large buckets of long life food. They offer the same food in backpacking orientated pouches with an impressive seven year shelf life.
Along with their standard options they offer gluten free, vegan and vegetarian lines of meals.
Wise Food meals are cheaper than other options, especially if you buy in bulk. However, to achieve the long shelf life, they contain more artificial ingredients and preservatives.
If you’re looking to get lots of healthy nutrition along with your calories, Wild Zora is a great option.
Wild Zora Paleo Meals to Go stand out as one of the few entirely paleo options on the market.
All meals are gluten, soy, dairy and grain free. The meals are high in protein and feature wholesome ingredients like grass fed beef, free range poultry and fresh vegetables.
The lack of preservatives means they are only shelf stable for two years. The high quality ingredients make them more expensive than other options.
Outdoor Herbivore is a great choice if you’re looking for lots of healthy cold soak options.
Outdoor Herbivore focuses on making meals using food sourced locally and sustainably.
More than 85 percent of the organic, non-GMO ingredients are grown in the United States. They are free of flavor enhancers, fillers, processed foods and artificial ingredients.
Outdoor Herbivore is one of the only companies to have a special line of meals designed to be no-cook/cold soak friendly. A recent packaging update means their meals are now in just add water pouches. Outdoor Herbivore also sells additional bulk and DIY ingredients.
AlpineAire is a mainstay in the freeze-dried backpacking food business with over forty years of experience.
Their wide range of meals are easy to prepare in the pouch. The handy ruler on the side of the bag makes measuring the amount of water you need easy.
If you’re watching your salt, AlpineAire is lower in sodium than many other meal brands. However, they tend to be more bland flavorwise than other options.
They are labeled as two servings. But, realistically if you’re hiking big miles or thru hiking you’ll want to consider a full pouch per person.
Harmony House is for the DIY camp cook who wants full control of their recipes in the backcountry.
Their products are mostly individual ingredients like fruits, vegetables, beans and TVP (textured vegetable protein). There are no pre-made entrees, but they offer a selection of soup mixes.
All ingredients are vegetarian and gluten free. Some ingredients require simmer time, which means cooking in a pot is required. They don’t offer carbohydrates or meat, so you’ll need to source those elsewhere.
If you’re willing to do the assembly work yourself, buying in bulk can save money in the long run.
If you’re looking for a wide range of options at a low price point, Backpacker’s Pantry is a top choice.
Backpacker’s Pantry has a diverse range of flavors, meal options, and scores high on taste. Their impressive line includes many vegetarian and gluten free options, too. Many of the desserts can be made by cold soaking only.
The pouch size is suitable for one hungry hiker.
The only real drawback is that soak time in the pouch is slightly longer than other brands.
If you’re in a pinch or on a budget Mountain House meals are a good way to go.
Originally designed for military special forces, Mountain House has become one of the most visible brands of freeze-dried meals, available in many stores and online.
Their range of meals is smaller and skews more towards comfort food classics. However, the flavor and texture consistently rank well. Listed as two serves, one pouch contains enough calories for one hiker.
On the downside, they contain more sodium and preservatives than the competitors.
If you’re a thru hiker needing to replenish after huge miles or looking for a protein bomb to split with your hiking buddy Peak Refuel meals are a great cost per calorie option.
Peak Refuel hangs their hat on the high amount of protein in each freeze dried meal. These meals also have a quick rehydration time and a high caloric density. The double size pouches are bigger than other brands, packing a large number of calories.
However, the carb heavy meals lack the creativity of other companies on our list.
If you’re looking for healthy, veggie packed meals Food for the Sole delivers.
Food for the Sole focuses on healthy meal choices with lots of veggies and whole grains.
While their options are limited they are all vegan and gluten free. Their salad meals are stoveless, designed to be rehydrated with cold water only.
The pouches come in two sizes. The lunch size contains 250-300 calories and the full size packs 550-600 calories.
Food for the Sole also donates a portion of its profits to groups that support inclusiveness in the outdoors.
Omeals offer precooked, self heating meals that can be eaten hot or cold.
Yes, you read that right. By sealing the food pouch, a heating element (think disposable hand warmer) and any liquid inside of the larger main pouch the meal is heated.
Omeals are not dehydrated, allowing them to taste better than other options. However, this means they contain water weight and a very low calorie per ounce ratio.
While watching the self heating bags work is a fun curiosity, these meals are way too heavy to be practical for most backpackers.
Freeze-dried food is super easy to prepare. The key to freeze-dried backpacking food is rehydration. You need to moisten the food adequately, or it will have the texture of styrofoam. The most popular and practical method is to rehydrate the meal directly in its pouch.
1. Boil Water. One cup is usually enough Check the packaging for exact measurement. Note some meals don't require cooking and can be prepared with cold water.
2. Add water to the meal pouch, stir using a spoon or spork, and seal. Don't forget to take out the oxygen absorber packet before you add your water.
3. Wait for 10-20 minutes or so. The exact time will be indicated on the pouch. To keep the food warm while it soaks, you can use a cozy to help hold in the heat.
4. Eat straight from the pouch. When you are done eating, just wipe off your utensils, dry your pot, and throw away or pack out the empty meal pouch.
Note: 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. You can't throw away your pot and toss it dirty into your pack. Make sure to follow LNT principles when cleaning up so you don't contaminate the environment or leave food behind to attract wildlife.
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.
Dehydration: 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.
Pre-Cooking: 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.
Though not freeze-dried, 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.
Here are some of the reasons dehydrated meals aren't quite as in demand as their freeze-dried counterpart, though:
TASTE: NOT AS TASTY
Dehydrated foods are essentially slow-cooked until they have dried. This cooking process causes the ingredients to lose some of their flavors.
TEXTURE: MORE CHEWY
Even after rehydrating, freeze-dried meals usually have a better texture, as cooking a dehydrated meal will not always make the ingredients less chewy.
NUTRIENTS: LOST VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Since freeze-drying doesn’t use heat, it preserves the nutrient content of food. Again, dehydrated foods are cooked for a long time to dehydrate. This process causes the vitamins and minerals to break down.
COOKING: REQUIRES MORE WATER TO REHYDRATE (& MORE TIME)
Freeze-dried meals have more of the water taken out of them than dehydrated meals do. This means they will rehydrate faster. If you have a meal that requires less water to rehydrate, that means less fuel used to boil that water. It also means less wait time until you can eat. And, if you’re on a trail where water is scarce, you won’t have to worry about saving water to rehydrate your meal.
SHELF LIFE: UP TO ONE YEAR
Dehydrated food typically has a shelf life of up to one year, while freeze-dried meals remain good for 4 to 30 years depending on the ingredients and preservatives used.
|(Per Pouch)||Calories||Protein (g)||Fat (g)||Fiber (g)||Carbs (g)||Price|
|Mary Janes Farm||250||15||6||4||87||$12|
|Mother Earth Products||700||42||0||42||126||$7|
Backpacker’s Bistro chef Melissa Lynn Lieser uses her culinary training to design some of the most flavorful and sustainable gourmet backpacking meals on the market. The food used is sourced from local farms and sustainable suppliers. She chops the food by hand and dehydrates it in the oven overnight. All scraps are composted, nothing is left to waste. The vegetarian and vegan options are more balanced than other carb heavy alternatives. The meals take longer to rehydrate than other brands, but if you’re in the mood for a sustainable, chef created meal while backpacking, Backpacker’s Bistro is a top choice.
Order Backpacker's Bistro's Wild Rice and Mushroom Pilaf on Amazon.
Good To-Go’s meals focus on all natural foods have been wowing diners with their impressive flavors. Overall, their range of options is on the smaller side but features a diverse set of flavors from meat dishes, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan meals. The double serving pouch packs a generous amount of calories for one hiker. But this, and using higher quality ingredients, does make Good To-Go meals one of the more expensive options. Good To-Go’s meals do take up to 20 minutes to rehydrate, but the flavors are worth the wait.
Order Good To-Go's Herbed Mushroom Risotto on Amazon.
Mary Janes Farm Outpost Backpacking Meals have a line of over 40 meals containing all natural, organic and vegetarian options. Unlike other dehydrated meals, these meals cook up quickly. The packaging is made from recycled materials, is aluminum free and can be burned in a fire. Outpost Backpacking Meals score middle of the road in terms of flavor, but are widely found at many outdoor retailers such as REI. These meals are a good choice if you’re in need of a real food option but can’t wait for an online order to arrive.
Order MaryJanesFarm's Organic Shepherd's Meat Pie on their website.
Nomad Nutrition offers an entirely plant based, gluten, soy and dairy free line of meals with vegan and paleo options too. What sets Nomad’s meals apart is their dehydration called “REVdry”. This process removes the need for preservatives and extra salt while retaining the taste, smell and texture of the food. REVdry is also energy efficient and allows for a very high calorie per ounce ratio. The food rehydrates quickly with approximately eight minutes of soaking. The smaller line of meals is a downside, but for the hiker that has special dietary needs, Nomad Nutrition is a great option.
Order Nomad Nutrition's Hungarian Goulash from Amazon.
Patagonia Provisions, owned by Patagonia, is dedicated to environmental change and showing that ecological stewardship can produce great-tasting meals. They work closely with farmers and fishermen to ensure ingredients are sourced sustainably. Currently, they do not offer meals. Most of the food is focused on snacks and side dishes. The meals require a pot to cook and is less calorie dense than most backpackers are looking for. However, if you’re committed to spending dollars impactfully, you can be assured your money is going straight into the hands of farmers with Patagonia Provisions.
Order Patagonia Provisions' Organic Red Bean Chili on their website.
Mother Earth Products specialize in a number of non-GMO, preservative free dehydrated goods with a shelf-life of up to 25 years. While there are a few soup mixes, Mother Earth is best for the DIY backcountry chef or those looking to bulk up existing meals. They offer a variety of instant beans, vegetables, fruit and TVP (textured-vegetable protein). A big drawback is many of these ingredients need to be boiled, not just rehydrated. If you don’t mind cooking at camp, Mother Earth offers a great range of building blocks for your meals.
See Mother Earth Products' large selection at motherearthproducts.com.
Prefer stoveless options? Try our Greenbelly Meals. They're ready-to-eat, loaded with nutrition (600+ calories), and made of tasty all-natural ingredients.
Freeze-dried food has been used for centuries and only in the past 100 years was it industrialized for commercial use.
1400s: It 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.
Later: The Northern American Inuits and the Northern European Sami people used similar techniques to preserve fish and other food for their nomadic lifestyles.
1940s: Industrially, freeze-drying took hold during World War II when it was used to transport life-saving blood to troops on the frontlines.
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.
2000s Onward: Now, freeze-dried backpacking food has exploded. It is used not only by astronauts but also by the military, hikers, and survivalists.
Some photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)
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.
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