The Best Backpacking Food of 2024: Staff Picks

We all need to eat. Thankfully, these trail treats make off-grid dining a scrumptious affair.

Heather Balogh Rochfort|Updated November 17, 2023

32 reviews with an average rating of 3.9 out of 5 stars
Smiling person sits in a camp chair holding a spoon and eats from a dehydrated meal in a beautiful outdoor setting.

Gone are the days when hikers must choose between backpacking and tasty dinners. Thanks to talented chefs and advanced dehydration and food-packing technologies, today’s meals-in-a-bag pack more flavor and nutrients than the gruel you’re probably accustomed to. Yup, that’s right: You can have your (dehydrated) cake and eat it too.

We tested countless backpacking meals available at REI, evaluating everything from portion size to price to how long each takes to reconstitute. And though we know that taste buds are as individual as fingerprints, we considered flavor and yumminess too. The options below ranked highest among the adults and kids we surveyed. Now all that’s left to figure out is whether you’d prefer Italian or Nepalese this evening.

Staff Picks

For quick recommendations, check out our roundup below, or scroll down for in-depth reviews.

Note: All nutrition specs are listed per serving

 

Rise and shine with a hint of sweetness in your breakfast bowl. The Granola with Milk & Blueberries by Mountain House combines granola, nonfat dry milk and freeze-dried wild blueberries with a powdered version of sweet cream for a satisfying breakfast without a lot of added sugar. Plus, it’s easy to make: Depending on your preference and camp breakdown schedule, just add hot or cold water (hot water will cook the dish more quickly; cold water will require time to soak). Or, if you’re in a hurry, ditch the water altogether and eat it dry. It’s technically a two-serving meal, but the calories are light for a duo of adults, so consider saving this one for yourself. Buy here.

 

It’s biscuits and gravy like grandma used to make—but without the mess. This PEAK REFUEL brekkie pouch packs a whopping total 36 grams of protein to keep your muscles primed for adventure. And, the pork sausage is free of artificial additives. The only drawback: There isn’t much in the way of vegetables (read: there are none), so consider slipping some greens into other meals during the day. Buy here

 

Raise your hand if you’re tired of munching on the same ol’ dried bars while hiking? Tickle your palette with some savory protein by popping a few fillets of Wild Pink Salmon from Patagonia Provisions instead. One box contains two pouches, each filled with a couple servings (4 ounces apiece) of sustainably sourced, wild-caught salmon from Washington’s Lummi Island Wild. The salty fish goes down easily when you’re working up a sweat, and our testers unanimously praised the lightly smoked, pepper seasoning. And, like the best on-the-go lunches, there's no cooking or rehydration needed. The fish is ready to eat. Buy here.

 

If we could justify eating cookies for dinner, we would reach for these. But because we believe in well-balanced meals, we’ll call the PEAK REFUEL Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Bites our favorite trail snack out there. The sweet bites are freeze-dried for crumb-free munching, and they don’t require any rehydrating. Just pop them in your mouth when your sweet tooth beckons. With two servings per pouch and more than 600 total calories, these are a great bang for your buck (other to-go cookies pack about half the calories). Truly: You can’t go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter. Buy here.

 

Turn your dinner into a multicourse affair with these flavor bombs from Patagonia Provisions. The Spanish White Anchovies are ready to eat right out of the package, serving up salty, oily goodness to famished hikers. This snack also supports small, family businesses—the Spanish fishermen who harvest the anchovies are part of a profit-sharing guild that dates back to medieval times. Crack open a tin while waiting for your dehydrated backpacking meal to reconstitute, or add them to soup or noodle dishes for a protein boost. Another option: Pack some crackers and serve the delicacies tapas-style—just don’t forget the wine. Buy here.

 

If you can’t go to a Nepalese restaurant—we hear they’re scarce in the backcountry—then this dinner by PEAK REFUEL may be the next best thing. The lentil-and-rice dish packs a flavorful punch by combining butternut squash, lentils and chickpeas with coconut milk. You may find it a bit spicy depending on your heat tolerance (hello, chili powder), but we love it for its satiating power and unique spice blend that set it apart from other backpacking meals. Bonus: It’s not only vegetarian, but vegan too. Buy here.

 

There is no better reward after a long, grueling hike to a campsite than dipping into this hearty, meaty meal. Thankfully, only nine minutes of rehydration time stand between you and the Homestyle Chicken Noodle Casserole from Mountain House. Packed full of chicken, noodles, celery, mushrooms and green peppers, this meal will have you feeling like you’re eating home cooking. For two servings, the sodium is pretty high (650 milligrams per serving), but the savory flavor and carby goodness make this comfort food well worth it. Though the calorie count is a bit low (especially after a long day of movement), that’s an easy solve: Just pack dessert. Buy here.

 

This pasta favorite from PEAK REFUEL hits it out of the park. Not only is it crammed with a satisfying combo of diced chicken, rotini noodles, Parmesan and creamy Alfredo sauce, but it also includes a hint of garlic that enhances the already savory taste. And there is ample protein to fuel those muscles: a solid 53 grams per bag. That should be plenty to keep you moving on the trail. Buy here.

 

Any parent will tell you: Getting little ones to eat at camp is as difficult as shouldering an 80-pound pack up the side of Denali. The distractions are bad enough (birds! bugs! dirt! tent!), but most kids simply don’t like backcountry cuisine. Enter Backpacker’s Pantry Three Cheese Mac & Cheese. Packed with cheddar, Parmesan and Romano cheeses and topped with a butter sauce, this ooey-gooey goodness is a child’s culinary nirvana. It’s a bit denser than the at-home stuff in the blue box, but our kids didn’t mind. And, thanks to the 12 grams of protein per serving, parents won’t mind it either. Buy here.

 

Imagine restaurant-quality cuisine with the ambient sounds of Mother Nature: That’s exactly what you get with this backpacking rendition of an Italian classic. Jennifer Scism, cofounder and head chef of GOOD TO-GO, draws on her experience as a New York City chef and Iron Chef winner to bring gourmet flavor to the backcountry. In this risotto dish, she adds cremini mushrooms, onions, walnuts and basil to arborio rice for thick, creamy sustenance that sticks to your ribs. Whether your hiking crew eats vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free—or maybe it’s just meatless Monday on the trail—this mouthwatering meal hits the spot. Buy here.

 

S’mores are so yesterday. Switch up your campsite sweet treat with the Blueberry Peach Crisp by Backpacker’s Pantry. You can enjoy this dehydrated, fruit-filled delicacy year-round—no need to wait for peach season. The combination of blueberries and peaches mixes with the rolled oats and cinnamon for a hearty treat that hits the right balance between tangy and sweet. And thanks to its oatmeal consistency, there is little worry of spilling crumbles at your campsite. It tastes darn good, so don’t forget your spoon. Buy here.

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Buying Advice

While ready-to-eat backpacking meals can be pricier than the food you find in grocery aisles, they are convenient, lightweight, require little cleanup and have a place on many backpacking excursions. In most cases, you just add hot water to the meal pouch and wait for the food to rehydrate. 

The variety of nutritious, tasty choices has expanded over the years. Though you can still find delicious backcountry staples like chili mac, you’re also likely to find dishes you’d order off-trail, like pad Thai, curry and risotto. The flavors and textures of these dehydrated meals have also improved, delivering above-average taste and sustenance in a lightweight package. With more and more brands making backcountry food, you can also find a lot of delicious options to suit your dietary needs, whether you’re gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan.

When buying backpacking food, you should consider three factors: calories per serving size, cooking time and, if you’re looking to keep your pack on the lighter side, weight and volume.

Calories and Serving Size

Knowing what snacks and meals to bring on your backpacking trip largely depends on how many calories you want to consume each day. A reasonable range is about 2,500 to 4,500 calories per person per day. Figuring out where you land on that spectrum depends on a couple factors. 

First, consider the length and intensity of your trek as well as your body type. Generally, a larger person may need more calories per hour than a smaller person. And someone hiking 10 miles with a strenuous 4,000-foot climb will burn more calories—and therefore need more food—than someone covering a few miles of flat trail.  

When buying dehydrated or freeze-dried meals, you should also pay attention to the serving size and calorie count on the package. Some pouches, like the Patagonia Provisions Spanish White Anchovies, contain one serving, while others in this guide, like the Blueberry Peach Crisp from Backpacker’s Pantry, contain two servings. Perhaps more important is the calorie count per serving. If you’re sharing a meal with another person, consider whether the total calories per pouch will provide each of you with enough energy. PEAK REFUEL Biscuits & Sausage with Gravy and GOOD-TO-GO Herbed Mushroom Risotto sit on the higher end of the calorie range, with each exceeding 400 calories per serving. Mountain House Homestyle Chicken Noodle Casserole is on the lower end with 280 calories per serving. You’ll also want to note other ingredients, like sodium. (Related reading: How to Choose Energy Food and Drinks)

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the macronutrients in the meal. In general, you’re looking at three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat and protein. While some people may think that energy is all about carbs, carbs, carbs, finding a good mix of the three is the best way to enjoy sustained energy on the trail (and help your muscles repair themselves after miles on foot). Of course, everyone is different, and each body needs different nutrients. 

Cooking and Preparation Time

The time it takes to rehydrate your meals can range widely depending on the brand and meal. Some trail treats like Patagonia Provisions Spanish White Anchovies or PEAK REFUEL Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Bites are ready to snack on immediately, no cooking needed, so they work great for eating on the go. Other meals require that you fill the package with hot or cold water and wait—from several minutes to 20 minutes or more, depending on the meal and whether you use hot or cold water. Some meals may take a little prep work (like opening and combining separate pouches of ingredients).

Weight and Volume Per Total Calories

Most backpackers need anywhere from 2,500 to 4,500 calories per day, which amounts to 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of food (for more information about what to eat, read Backpacking Food Ideas and Meal Planning). If you hit the trail for multiple days at a time, that food allotment adds up, which is why it’s a good idea to evaluate how many calories you’re getting per ounce of weight you’re carrying. An ounce will always weigh an ounce on your back, but it will feel better if it brings you 125 calories of energy versus 50. A good starting place is to aim for at least 100 to 125 calories per ounce of weight. You can adjust your meals as you experiment and learn more about what works best for you.

 

Methodology

We asked REI Co-op staff, members and others to share their favorite backpacking food available at REI. They shared their top choices for breakfast, trail snacks and vegetarian meals, among others.

Photography by William M. Rochfort, Jr. Will is a freelance writer and photographer based in Carbondale, Colorado. His hobbies include backpacking, bikepacking and skiing with his wife and daughter, but he is mainly known for his rare ability to double-fist milkshakes prior to meals. REI member since 1998.