Now that the new year is almost here, I see queries from people asking about long distance, or even weekend, backpacking appropriate food.
Will MREs work? Do I need to bring commercial freeze-dried meals? And so on.
I’ve touched upon this topic before but thought I’d expand on the subject in a bit more detail.
Let’s go through the standard categories people ask about…
- Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)
For those not familiar with MREs, these are the ration packs issued by the military and relief agencies in natural disasters, and for humanitarian and military missions. Each MRE is a complete meal and often comes with a chemical heater pack. Included are a main entre’, a dessert, drink mix, condiments, utensil and so on.
Though convenient, they are heavy and bulky. These rations make sense when someone has the logistic support of the US military. However, if someone is schlepping all their food, the weight and bulk of these rations are prohibitive. And they can be expensive. Note that when military personnel are “backpacking” for their missions, meals similar to commercial freeze dried meals are brought. Note OFD, the company that makes many of these military versions of backpacking meals, is the parent company of Mountain House.
Individual MRE portions can be bought and used. However, there are enough commercial options out there that I don’t think there is any compelling reason to go out of the way to procure an MRE or the component parts. An exception? MAYBE for convenience if a person absolutely just wants an all-in-one meal. But that just seems like an expensive way to be lazy 😉 ). Naturally, if you happen to have MREs, the component parts can be used for backpacking. Just don’t take the whole thing.
- Freeze dried or dehydrated meals
For whatever reason, these meals are what many people think they need for backpacking. They come in cute little pouches with generic looking nature scenes that are colorful. These meals can be expensive ($7 – $10 a pouch at REI) unless bought in bulk. My local Costco will often sell the popular Mountain House brand for ~$45, or less, for a ten-pack. These meals are also only about 500 calories for a pack. Not enough for a more strenuous day. Adding more to the price overall meal.
They are convenient and reasonably light and not too bulky if broken down and put in a freezer bag. I have some on hand for when I am feeling lazy and just want a quick meal when I can get out of town at the last minute. And these meal pouches work well for winter backpacking because they are simple. But I often forgo these meals because they are often better, and less expensive, options easily made.
Another related option is to buy freeze dried food in bulk as #10 cans and place them in a food storage bag. Or better yet, use a vacuum sealer for a long term storage. The price is more economical versus the standard pouch meal. And you can buy ala carte items such as freeze dried chicken as well.
- Grocery store
Oatmeal, cream of wheat, couscous, chicken packets, Ramen noodles, coffee packets, instant mashed potatoes, stuffing, nuts, dried fruits, instant beans…. All the basics needed for some simple, light and nutritious backcountry meals can be found in your local grocery store. A little imagination and some basic prep work and you can eat well in the backcountry. On long hikes, the options in the local grocery stores may be limited. But unless someone is on a time crunch, a special diet (or has food preferences) or just wants the convenience of food waiting for them, the local grocery store is an excellent option without having to worry about mail drops (food mailed to yourself at a post office, hostel or another service in town for a later pick up). Note that this option may not work on more isolated routes or certain small towns even on the well-known routes. You may have to mail supplies to yourself ahead be it from a larger town or from someone at home.
- Dehydrate your own
With a dehydrator, many meals or components to meals can be made for backpacking. Soups, chilies and stews are popular to dehydrate for a simple meal. Other options include dehydrating such items as vegetables or making jerky crumbles to add to a meal. Note that dehydrating food does take more prep work.
- A hybrid approach
But why limit yourself to one option? Such staples as powdered butter, individual packets of condiments, dehydrated veggies or beans, cous cous, etc. can be picked up from a combo of on-line sources, the grocery store, bulk food stores such as Costco and other places. I use this hybrid method myself for backpacking meals. I wrote an extensive article about it for TrailGroove Magazine. Personally, I find having such staples on hand not only allows me to have some backpacking meals that I enjoy in the backcountry, but it also means I can take a trip at the last minute very easily. Just quickly grab my pack that is mainly setup, throw in some food, and GO.
I think this information should cover the main approaches for food in the backcountry.
- MREs should be avoided for most, if not all, backpacking.
- Freeze dried or commercial dehydrated meals are convenient but somewhat expensive. Quality and taste of food can vary among brands or individual meals. Bulk buying of meals or individual items is an option, too.
- The grocery store has a wide variety of food choices that work well for backpacking. Great option for long hikes IF the trail is not too isolated or the towns are small.
- Dehydrating food gives a lot of variety but can be time intensive.
- The hybrid approach is my personal favorite in recent years. A nice way to get variety, nutrition, and flavor in meals using many different sources.
Candy. You forgot candy. Chocolate candy 🙂
BTW, Merry Christmas to you and your wife.
To you as well! My mother in law always mails us some delicious chocolate from Germany. So hard to eat some Hershey’s!
I go with the “hybrid” approach as well. I just added Thai Red Curry paste and powdered coconut milk to my pantry. I had a lunch test of thai curry, harmony house veggies and ramen noodles (no nasty seasoning pack) that was delicious, looking forward to adding some tuna when I hit the trail in a couple days.
I do something similar with the Ramen, too.
One of my favorites:
Mussamun or yellow curry paste
Powdered coconut milk
Dehydrated red/yellow peppers
Dry-roasted peanuts (handful)
Put everything in a freezer bag, add 16oz of boiling water and allow 10-15 minutes of rehydration before eating.
Hi, Paul! What is the shelf life of the freeze dried food from the #10 Mountain House cans once you’ve opened them? You mention vacuum sealing or using Ziploc storage bags. Is refrigeration helpful as well? And how long does preopened freeze dried food stay “fresh” once your out on a multiday backcountry trip? Thanks!
Per MH, about 30 yrs unopened :O
Opened? Per this article, looks like a still good 6-12 months – https://www.thereadystore.com/blog/shelf-life-open-10 THe food in your pack should be fine in other words (and my experience as well.)
I don’t think refrigeration would help. Now that I think about it, a cool dry place probably works best vs the humid environment of a fridge.
Hope this helps.
Thanks, Paul! Very helpful, and good information for future reference. This year, I sprung for the MH Adventure Kit at Costco, which gives me 13 meals for ~$4.50 each. I’ve never done that before because, typically, maybe half of the meal choices were something I really didn’t want to eat. This year, I got lucky and everything in the package was either something I really like or, at least, acceptable, so it was a good deal. The MH #10 cans may be worthwhile in that I can stock up only what I actually like at, hopefully, a good price. I’m… Read more »
I used to use the MH-style meals (From Costco as well!) for snow-based backpacking excursions as they are easy to use and I often felt lazy. 🙂 As with you, I used the MH #10 items (such as chicken) to add to the meals I put together at home. Worked well and I may do that again.