If you're willing to pack in a bit more weight, you can have pretty much any food you desire, thanks to "retort" packs
For years, my bulky-but-had-to-have-it backpacking food was a can of tuna fish. I’d dutifully tote it along, eating it straight from the can and relishing its toothsomeness after a few days of freeze-dried chow. It reminded me of when I was a kid and my dad would fry fresh-caught trout over the campfire.
Then, about ten years ago, tuna in packets showed up on grocery store shelves. My years of hauling cans and can openers came to an end. “What luxury!” I thought while forking flakes of fish into my mouth at the bottom of Grand Canyon. Little did I know that things were only starting to get good.
The pouch-food revolution is upon us. For years, the military and European food manufacturers have used what the packaging industry calls “retort” packaging—or shelf-stable sealed pouches. In Europe, you can find bags of cream and other perishable items sitting on unrefrigerated shelves. But until recently, that idea seemed to gross out American shoppers.
Now, however, Americans can’t get enough of retort packaging. According a 2015 report from the Freedonia Group, an industry research firm, food in pouches may soon make up a $9.8 billion industry here in the United States. “People are living busier lives than ever before, so squeeze packs are helping food brands adapt to the on-the-go lifestyle,” says Michelle Glienke, co-founder of Munk Pack, a brand of squeeze-pack cooked oatmeal.
This abundance of squeeze packs is good news for backpackers. Compared to cans, the packaging shaves weight, both in your pack and during the food’s transit to the store, lowering its carbon footprint. Plus, many retort pouches are safe to reheat by throwing the pouch in boiling water. (Be warned that not all packages are made for this.) And many newly pouched foods are made with health in mind: Glienke chose retort packs because they allowed her to safely package cooked oatmeal without adding preservatives.
One drawback: “Multi-material pouches aren’t recyclable,” says Cassandra Rosen, a partner at food and beverage consulting firm FK Interactive. “But there are companies working to innovate in this space, and a number of pouch recycling programs are available nationally.” TerraCycle, a New Jersey–based recycling program, may be able to help you find a place to send your used squeeze packs.
Consider expanding your food-packet horizons with these backpack-approved pouches.
Glienke says Munk Pack was the first brand to do oatmeal in a squeeze pouch, so getting the texture right took some work. “Our goal was to achieve the thick, hearty consistency you expect from oatmeal, plus intact pieces of oats and fruit, while still being able to flow through the pouch spout,” she said. The work was worth it. The oatmeal flows freely, tastes good cold, and helps you avert the loathsome task of washing the crusty oatmeal pot before setting off for the day’s hike. (Clif Bar makes apple-cinnamon and banana-maple oatmeal pouches.)
Fruits, Veggies, and Smoothies
At Clif Bar, feedback from team athletes often drives new product innovations, and the company’s line of Organic Energy Foods is a prime example. When Scott Jurek asked for more whole-food options, the squeeze packs full of sweet potatoes and sea salt were born. While Clif Bar’s options are made with athletes in mind, many baby-food brands are offering similar squeezable purees. Plum Organics, a line of organic baby food, makes a Mighty Colors line of blended fruits, veggies, grains, and beans. Yes, it’s made for babies, but it’s a surprisingly tasty and effective snack for those of us with adult teeth. Similarly, Ella’s Organics makes a line of fruit smoothies that’s aimed at toddlers, but I’ve seen more than a few endurance athletes tuck them into back pockets for fuel on long rides.
Even whole veggies are popping up in this format. Gaea Gourmet offers little pouches of olives that are a perfect break from the endless stream of gorp we go through on the trail. Likewise, Bella Sun Luci makes packets of sun-dried tomatoes that are surprisingly good right out of the bag.
Tuna has been available in pouches for a while, but now many of its fishy friends are joining in. Salty Girl Seafood, a sustainable, woman-owned seafood company, offers wild-caught smoked Alaskan sockeye salmon in pouches, and label information lets you trace your fish back to the boat that caught it. Fishpeople Seafood, another sustainable seafood company, sells a line of shelf-stable fish soups in pouches, like razor clam chowder and crab bisque. They’re rich and hearty, with large chunks of seafood.
Artisanal Nut Butter
Justin’s, the Colorado-based nut-butter brand, has been putting its almond butters into squeeze packs since 2006 (and we’ve been loyal fans since day one). For many years, the company didn’t have much competition, but now others are joining in. Pip & Nut sells individual squeeze packs of coconut almond butter, and Artisana has a whole line of raw, organic nut butters, including walnut and pecan, plus a cacao butter, in squeezable pouches.
Ghee and Oil
I’ve stuck tiny bottles of oil into my backpack far too many times to count, but I cringe every time I do. Not only are you lugging more than you’ll need for most trips, but once these bottles are open, they tend to leak. Enter the single-serving oil packet. Fourth & Heart, a Los Angeles–based company, sells individually packaged portions of grass-fed ghee (clarified butter) in flavors like California Garlic and Madagascar Vanilla, plus a plain option. Artisana, meanwhile, sells individual packets of coconut oil, and Outdoor Herbivore sells single-serving packs of olive oil.