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Freelance writer doing story on M.R.E.s vs Backpacking Meals

Hi all! I'm a freelance writer for The Takeout, and I'm writing about the differences between M.R.E.s and backpacking meals.

I am aware of some of the obvious distinctions, e.g. that backpacking meals generally require water to prepare and thus add less weight to your load, and it seems like the actual experience of eating backpacking meals is more -- well, pleasant than that of eating M.R.E.s. However, I'd love to speak to some frequent backpackers who have brought one or both of these types of meals on trips, and find out which you prefer (and why). 

Please let me know!

 

-Rachel 

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Hopefully, some folks will chime in.  I did not serve in the military.  I have had some MREs not usually during a backpacking trip.  They are noted as weighing a bit more.  I think the weight of an individual MRE is 1.125 - 1.625 pounds.  With most backpacking meals being freeze-dried (not dehydrated), they weigh less as there is no water in the meal itself.  So, that (weight) would be one thing that would favor the backpacking meal.

MREs just like other backpacking meals are always being developed and improved (or at least intended to be improved).

As for the taste, I think you will find many options on that.  I didn't have any issues with the few MREs that I have had.  And, I have not had too many backpacking meals that I didn't care for either.  Although there are a lot of choices in the backpacking meals group.

Again, hopefully, others that have had much more experience with these meals will chime in.

Enjoy

Hi John -

Thank you so much for your reply! Since I posted this, I've actually decided to focus more on evolution of backpacking meals, and on what the current landscape looks like as far as options, general quality, etc. -- not as much on the comparison with MREs. Can I ask how long you've been backpacking for, and whether you've noticed a significant change in the meals available for backpackers over time? 

Thank you!

-Rachel 

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I hae been hiking, backpacking, and climbing since the 1950's, mostly eating standard items, usually avoiding very heavy or bulky items.  FD food can be handy sometimes, but it is not usually critical.  There is often a place for non cook items as well.

Backpacking and gourmet dining are mutually incompatible....

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I backpacked a few times in the 1970s and a bit more again in 2013 to the end of 2017.  In the 70s, the group I was go with would have used used more of the canned goods.  So, that would be a bit of extra weight to carry.  Most or those few times were short (1 night) trips.  I would imagine that there would be similarities in what the military looked at and backpackers.  Things from canned SPAM to the modern MREs (and what the future holds).

One example of a company that has done the military meals and also do backpacking meals is Oregon Freeze Dry (the parent company of Mountain House meals).

I would expect that it is mostly dehydrated and freeze-dried meals for backpacking.  The DIY options would probably be dehydrated.  The taste is always something that companies are looking at.

My short bounce back into backpacking (2013-2017) would not have shown much of a difference.  Although, there seem to be more options becoming available all the time.  Also, I have seen things like more of an individual serving sized snack packages.  Things like peanuts, trail mix.  Adn, folks are looking at the SPAM singles, chicken, Tuna, Salmon, etc. packages that do not need refrigeration.

At Philmont Scout Ranch. there are a couple of dinners that are not freeze-dried meals.  You still add boiling water.  Here is one of the meals.

Chicken
Stuffing Mix
Turkey Gravy
Dried Cranberries
Chips Ahoy—K

And it is pretty tasty (a lot like Thanksgiving dinner).

The freeze-dried meals are a very nice convenience.  In that they do not require any extra prep beforehand.  Put them in your pack, boil some water, stir and eat.  There are more options (i.e., VEGEN, other vegetarian options) and plenty of choices (i.e., lasagna, spaghetti, rice, and egg dishes as well as deserts).

There are folks in the community that definitely have more experience and have seen more changes in taste than I have.

Enjoy

I've personally noticed big changes in backpacking food over the past 15-20 years or so. Used to be few options that all tasted like cardboard. Now there are a rapidly expanding menu of cuisines available in backpack-friendly freeze-dried form, many of which are quite tasty!

Maybe my gut is just weird, but I do find that the freeze dried meals almost always give me indigestion afterwards, so I typically still stick with simple, easy to cook foods (pasta, rice, pouches of chicken/tuna, some seasonings, etc.)

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Hi Rachel!

Growing up camping with my parents during the mid-1960’s, Mom would always pre-prepare homemade meals to keep refrigerated or stored in our truck camper as we toured cross country multiple times, and for the long weekends at Indian River Inlet, our favorite Delaware beach campground and salt water fishing hot spot. 

We would always take advantage of what we could harvest along the way…freshwater or saltwater fish, huckleberries, tunas fruit from cactus, etc, as well as fresh produce from rural roadside stands. 

That was the benchmark of camp food quality I was raised with.

As I grew up and backpacked on my own, I too took advantage of the freeze dried foods available at the time, to save space and weight during my outdoor adventures.

Agreed, freeze dried foods have greatly improved with menu variety, yet I always seek out and harvest what the local environment has available in the way of fresh edible nourishment, and preferably pre-prepare my own healthy menu of meals, rather than rely on prepackaged processed foods.

Bottom line: Processed freeze dried foods are still tolerated as nourishment and haven’t achieved the taste or healthiness of a home prepared meal.

 

My own evolution in backpacking meals - much like a lot of other folks, I reckon - started with things  like pasta dishes, mac & cheese, maybe some canned meat, etc. In other words, things that were kind of bulky and heavy, and that you needed to actually cook, sort of like you would at home.  

The advent of freeze-dried meals that didn't weigh as much meant both a lighter pack on a per meal basis and that it's possible to pack for longer trips without resupplying as often.  The downsides of most freeze-dried meals is that even the tasty ones tend to be somewhat on the salty side, but IMHO many are just kind of meh (or worse!). There's a more detailed discussion and views on this is in the Instant Backpacking Meals, Ranked Worst to Best conversation that you might find useful.

My backcountry meals are generally dishes I've made at home and dehydrated, or that are made using things like Knorr pasta sides or Bens "ready rice" mixes (tho admittedly some of these can be a little salty), tuna and chicken in foil pouches, etc., that are in pretty much every half-decent grocery store (handy for resupplying while on the trail).  I also carry foods that can stand not being refrigerated for a time (or at all), like hard cheeses, summer sausage, and nuts to round out what's in the food bag.  There's lots of examples of this approach to backpacking meals in the Share your favorite campsite recipes! discussion (and elsewhere in the Camp Cooks Group), that I think illustrates that you can have some really tasty meals when backpacking!

I should point out that if I'm just doing an overnight (or 2 night) camping, I'll go a little bit gourmet with more fresh ingredients, and actually cook over a stove (or campfire, if one is allowed) - not quite to the level of car camping, but close!

I never had MRE's when I was in the Army, we had C-RATs (canned rations) and like MRE's which I tried as a civilian, I have never had a tasty one. And they are expensive, often more than a dehydrated meal. They also have a lot of waste you need to pack out.  You are going to need to store this waste in a Bear Keg, Grub Can, or UrSak or if you have a vehicle, your trunk.  All packaging attracts bears and rodents.  Compared to a dehydrated meal that you can fold up the envelope and store it in a bear proof container to pack out.  Less waste.  There are even a few companies that have packed their meals in biodegradable pouches so you can bury those (check with instructions).

This entire Spring, like the last several Springs and  SUmmers there is a burn/barbeque/campfire (includes jet boils,etc)  ban in most of habitable Alaska.   That includes even heating up water outside.  We have had so many forest fires-started by residents and  homeless  (2,000 estimated- maybe higher- folks living in the woods in Anchorage area alone- because they can not afford to live inside) and by tourists who thought "this is not an open burn".  

Dehydrated meals, even with dehydrated meats or chicken, can be safely made with cold water reconstitution but with a longer wait time. Still lighter than MRE's or even foiled sealed already prepared meals like the heat and eat meatloaf and potatoes you can find in the grocery store that are not refridgerated.

 

 

 

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I am going to ping a few folks and see if they can chime in a bit.

@Philreedshikes@Rob6@REI-CarterC@REI-JohnJ and anyone else.  if you would, can you let @RLB831 know the evolution of recreational backpacking meals?

Enjoy

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