Freeze dried meals aren’t just for astronauts anymore. In fact, they’re some of the most popular meal options for hikers heading into the backcountry. They’re convenient, calorically dense, lightweight, and tasty at the end of a long day. All you have to do is add boiling water, wait a bit, and then eat your delicious meal straight out of the bag. Also, no dirty dishes makes for a happy backpacker.
Ok, before we get ahead of ourselves, it's probably important to set your expectations. This is not your grandma's home-cooked dinner; it's a backcountry meal. Chances are, even if the flavors aren't quite what you were expecting, you're going to be hungry enough to wolf it down with a smile. Everything tastes better in the wilderness. That being said, we always bring a small container of hot sauce, olive oil, and some salt and pepper packets for when we need kick a meal up a notch.
There are tons of different freeze dried meal flavors, and some are better than others. It’s tough to get more subjective than ranking personal food tastes, but we feel like sharing our opinions anyways. We hope this guide helps you upgrade your backpacking food game and find some tasty treats. For more information on backpacking meal planning, check out our Lightweight Backpacking Food Guide.
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Many backpackers choose freeze dried meals because they're a lightweight dinner option. The process of freeze drying a meal removes 80% of it's water weight, while retaining a high level of calorically-dense nutrition. Most meal pouches range between 500-900 calories and weigh around 5-7 ounces. This puts them in the 100-130 calorie-per-ounce ratio, which isn't spectacular, but is still quite good.
Are they nutritious?
The process of freeze drying can retain up to 90% of the nutrients, but the product will only be 20% of its original weight. That said, most freeze dried meals are packed with sodium and unrecognizable ingredients. Scientifically speaking, we’d put them into the “sorta nutritious” camp. Freeze dried meals will still do a better job providing a balanced meal when compared to most hiker dinner options, like ramen or instant potatoes. Certain brands, such as Mary Janes Organic and Good To-Go, use all recognizable ingredients or "real food," which is a step in the right direction in our opinion.
Freeze dried meals are not cheap and there are inexpensive alternatives (mashers, pasta sides, ramen, etc). If you’re spending months on the trail thru-hiking, meals like these will probably be too expensive to be sustainable. But for the casual backpacker, meals like this can add a lot of value, convenience, and enjoyment.
SQUIRREL RATING SYSTEM
Whenever we go backpacking, we take some of our tried-and-true favorite freeze dried meals. Each trip we also take some new flavors to test out. First established by our dear friend David Branson while hiking the Zion Traverse, the very “scientific” CleverHiker Squirrel Rating System was born. We’ll call it the SRS for now.
While consuming new freeze dried meals, we deliberate about how it tastes and ultimately decide on a squirrel rating. Every meal we eat earns a squirrel rating score between 1 and 5 based on flavor, texture, and overall deliciousness. There are only whole squirrel ratings, because half a squirrel would be gross. We update this list every time we put on our snobby food critic pants and stuff our faces in the backcountry.
Five Squirrel Meals
Did my grandma make this?! Our go-to favorite freeze dried meals for happy trail bellies.
- Mountain House - Chicken and Dumplings
- Mountain House - Chili Mac with Beef
- Mountain House - Biscuits and Gravy
- Mountain House - Beef Stroganoff with Noodle
- Mountain House - Lasagna with Meat Sauce
- Packit Gourmet - Dottie's Chicken & Dumplings
- Packit Gourmet - Banana Puddin'
- Good To-Go - Thai Curry
- Mary Janes Farm Organic- Bare Burrito
- Mary Janes Farm Organic - Shepherds Meat Pie
- Backpacker's Pantry - Dark Chocolate Cheesecake
- Mountain House - Neapolitan Ice Cream
Four Squirrel Meals
Pretty darn tasty! However, some flavors and textures made us knock it down a squirrel.
- Mountain House - Homestyle Chicken Noodle Casserole
- Mountain House - Italian Pepper Steak
- Mountain House - Chicken and Mashed Potatoes
- Mountain House - Chicken Fajita Bowl
- Mountain House - Breakfast Skillet
- Mountain House - Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
- Alpineaire - Chicken Gumbo
- Backpacker's Pantry- Three Sisters Stew
- Backpacker's Pantry- Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken
- Backpacker's Pantry - Creme Brulee
- Packit Gourmet - Austintacious Tortilla Soup
- Packit Gourmet - Cajun Ranch Chicken Salad
- Packit Gourmet - Deli Roast Beef Wrap
- Packit Gourmet - Big Easy Gumbo
- Heather's Choice - Black Espresso Packaroons
Three Squirrel Meals
Quite good still, but nothing to write home about. We might buy them again, but we weren't amazed.
- Good To-Go - Herb and Mushroom Risotto
- Good To-Go - Indian Vegetable Korma
- Good To-Go -Pad Thai
- Alpineaire - Guacamole
- Alpineaire - Spicy Sausage Pasta
- Backpacker's Pantry- Pad Thai
- Backpacker's Pantry - Jamaican Style Jerk Chicken
- Mountain House - Spicy Southwest Breakfast Hash
Two Squirrel Meals
Meh. Edible, but pretty underwhelming. This is when the hot sauce and spices come into play. But it's not like we had any leftovers or anything.
- Mary Janes Farm Organic - Lentil Rice and Indian Spice
- Good To-Go - Classic Marinara with Penne
- Good To-Go - Mexican Quinoa Bowl
- Mountain House - Chicken Teriyaki with Rice
One Squirrel Meals
Whoa boy, that was a disappointment. Considering how hungry we were, backcountry meals should probably be more foolproof than this.
WHAT'S IN OUR CAMP KITCHEN?
When we head out on backcountry trips, these are the items usually found in our packs. For more information on our favorite gear, check out the CleverHiker Backpacking Gear Guide and our Stove Buyers Guide.
We hope this guide helps you upgrade your backpacking food game! For more information on backpacking meal planning, check out our Lightweight Backpacking Food Guide. Please share it with your friends and click the little heart button below to give us a digital high five!
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