While testing this year’s crop of new just-add-water backpacking foods, something weird happened: I actually went back for second and third bites of not one but several items. In fact, after I finished testing, I grabbed the winning meal and ate it for lunch. In my office. With access to a fully stocked kitchen. As a host of new backcountry meal companies have emerged in the past five years, dehydrated food is no longer something to endure.
“I find that most backpackers are adventurous people and tend to be that way with their food choices as well,” says Kim Safdy, who runs Outdoor Herbivore. “The standard American staples like lasagna and stroganoff are getting replaced with bolder flavors from cuisines coming from places like Thailand, India, and the Middle East.” Meals are getting healthier, too. “More and more people are moving away from the heavy, processed foods like mac and cheese and are looking for very clean ingredients,” says Dawn Anderson, co-founder of Paleo Meals To Go.
After a day of heating, stirring, and tasting, these meals came out on top.
Winner: Good To-Go Bibimbap
My only complaint is that after trying this, I’m going to be tempted to haul kimchee into the backcountry with me. Good To-Go’s Bibimbap fluffs up in 15 to 20 minutes and tastes almost as good as what comes sizzling in a clay pot at your local Korean joint. It’s vegan—something I didn’t realize until I looked at the package because the dried shiitake mushrooms and red miso powder give the dish plenty of meaty, umami flavor. Sure, the outer bits of rice don’t get that crunchy goodness from searing in the heat of the bowl, but this is one of the best backpacking meals I’ve ever had and a welcome break from the rut of traditional Western dishes like shepherd’s pie and lasagna.
Close Second: Paleo Meals To Go Bedrock Beef Chili
Big hunks of sweet potato and beef make this stew feel like a step up from other companies’ offerings. The sauce is super savory, with plenty of onions, garlic, and chili powder. I found that the sweet potatoes had to sit for a few more minutes than package instructions specified to be truly soft, but it’s possible my water wasn’t quite hot enough. Still, it was worth the wait.
Best Some-Assembly-Required Meals
Winner: PackIt Gourmet Pasta Beef Bolognese
Sure, beef Bolognese may sound kind of basic, but the flavors are deep and miles ahead of what most other backpacking companies are making. You need a pot to boil the pasta for this dish, but everything else is easy to prepare. There’s an upside: With just-add-water pasta, the manufacturer decides how al dente you want it—and often it’s not toothsome enough for my liking. With this method, I can control my pasta chew.
Close Second: Patagonia Provisions Savory Grains Green Kale + Kamut
Patagonia Provisions wants its new packets of quick-cooking grains to become household staples, not just camping fare. But they work so well for camping. Patagonia has invested in several ancient grains that can be harvested in sustainable ways, one of them being kamut—a nice, nutty change from quinoa or rice. The grains mix nicely with chopped mushrooms, bits of onion, dried mint, and parsley. It’s maybe not hearty enough to be a main course on its own, but with a tin of sardines, you’d have a nutritious, easy meal.
Best Fruit- and Veggie-Based
Winner: Outdoor Herbivore Pacific Crest Vinaigrette
After a few days of camp food, I crave—and need—some fiber. Seeing a salad offering set my heart aflutter. Now, to be clear, this isn’t like baby spinach tossed with a light dressing. It’s broccoli plus peppers marinated in vinegar and oil, which hold up to dehydrating in a way spinach would not. (That’s right, you still rehydrate this salad by adding water. But it helps the dressing coat everything evenly, and the vegetables still hold their crunch.) Do I wish it were a true salad? Yes. But this still acts as a nice tangy break from grains, protein, and sauce.
Runner-Up: Paleo Meals To Go Apex Fruit Snacks
Warning: These are addictive. While dried fruit can be insulin-busting sweet, these freeze-dried bits are just perfect. The mix of strawberries, bananas, blueberries, mango, and pineapple makes each handful taste a bit like an astronaut smoothie.
Winner: Paleo To Go Butte Cacao Banana
I’m not technically clear on what this is—it’s not quite an oatmeal since it has no oats, and calling it a cereal seems wrong, too. It’s almost like warm banana bread batter, and it is luscious. This was another item where I kept going back for additional spoonfuls. I would have consumed the whole bag had I not noticed that it has nearly 600 calories. While that’s perfect for fueling a long day on the trail, it’s a little over the top for an office worker’s midmorning snack.
Runner-Up: Good To-Go Granola
There is so much good stuff in this little bag. The granola itself is delightful, but the whole nuts, seeds, blueberries, and figs make it seem like you’re eating granola and trail mix’s love child. I used hot water to mix this up, and it felt decadent—almost like a hot cobbler minus the fruit.
Winner: Packit Gourmet Moonshine Margarita Mixer
Powdered margarita mix isn’t something I’d spring for in any other context, but I make an exception on the trail. This mixes into a refreshingly sweet-tart sip that’s just begging for a splash of tequila. If you aren’t the drinking type, it tastes great as is.
Runner-Up: Packit Gourmet Mango-Kale Jump Start Smoothie
A powdered smoothie offers another welcome break from pasta and grains. This version, which blends kale with mango, whey protein, yogurt powder, coconut milk, and lime, is pretty good, although it did take a while to get from the chalky to smooth stage. Shake vigorously—and when you think you’re done shaking, shake some more.