Gone are the days when hikers need to 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 it 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 Thai this evening.
For quick recommendations, check out our roundup below, or scroll down for in-depth reviews.
Best Sweet Breakfast: Heather's Choice: Apple Pie Breakfast
Best Savory Breakfast: PEAK REFUEL Breakfast Skillet
Best Trail Lunch: Patagonia Provisions Wild Pink Salmon
Best Appetizer: Patagonia Provisions Mussels
Best Vegetarian Backpacking Meal: Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai Veggie
Best Hearty Backpacking Meal: Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings
Best Pasta Backpacking Meal: Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Kids’ Choice Backpacking Meal: Backpacker’s Pantry Three Cheese Mac and Cheese
- Best All-Around Backpacking Meal: GOOD TO-GO Thai Curry
- Best Dessert: AlpineAire Foods Cinnamon Apple Crisp
Note: All nutrition specs are listed per serving
Donut eaters, unite. This breakfast dessert should please even the most insatiable sweet tooth the morning after shouldering a hefty pack. The Apple Pie Breakfast from Heather’s Choice combines buckwheat with cinnamon, dried apples and nutmeg into a hot cereal that warms you from the inside out on chilly mornings. (It's also available in blueberry cinnamon and banana nutmeg). And yes, it includes more sugar than a glazed donut—a happy surprise for folks looking for a cloyingly sweet boost before hitting the trail. Plus, the brand’s signature superfood trifecta of chia seeds, shredded coconut and hemp seeds sticks to the ribs while packing a nutritious punch to jumpstart your day.
Note: Check the reviews. Though our testers dug the taste, flavors and caloric heft of this hot breakfast, some customers didn't care for the texture or sweetness. Another caveat: Nearly $7 for a single serving is pricey. Buy here.
Eggs for breakfast without the cleanup? Yes, please. This PEAK REFUEL Breakfast Skillet mixes scrambled eggs and pork sausage for a whopping 40 grams of protein per bag (two servings) so your muscles are primed and ready to tackle the day’s objective. A smattering of red and green bell peppers, onions and potatoes add flavors and texture to your breakfast. A gloppy meal, this is not. Pro tip: Pack a few tortillas and stuff the Breakfast Skillet contents into a gut-pleasing burrito that’s sure to tide you over until well after lunch. Buy here.
Patagonia Provisions Wild Pink Salmon - Package of 2
Best Trail Lunc$14 from REI Co-op
- Servings: 4
- Calories: 90
- Protein: 12 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Fat: 4 grams
- Dietary notes: Kosher, certified non-GMO
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 Patagonia’s Wild Pink Salmon instead. One box contains two pouches, each filled with a couple of 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 needed. Bonus: No rehydration is needed. The fish is ready to eat. Buy here.
In need of a quick energy boost? You don’t even need to break stride with the delectable coconut tidbits from Heather’s Choice. The brand’s on-the-go cookies are made with coconut butter, which is a medium-chain fatty acid—in other words, they’re easy for the body to metabolize into energy. They’re also tasty. The Packaroons (available in four flavors, including lemon lavender, sweet coconut, blueberry almond and cherry almond) use minimal ingredients and masquerade as a small dessert. Three cheers for trail sweets! Buy here.
Turn your dinner into a multi-course affair with these flavor bombs from Patagonia Provisions. They’re ready to eat out of the tin, serving up salty, oily goodness to famished hikers. We like cracking open a tin while waiting for our dehydrated backpacking meals to reconstitute or adding them to soup or noodle dishes (cough, Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai, cough) for a protein boost. Or pack some crackers and down the Spanish mollusks (they are cultivated and sourced in Galicia) tapas-style—just don’t forget the wine.
Patagonia Provisions Mussels are available in an array of flavors like smoked, lemon herb and savory sofrito). “Our family loved these because they feel like a special treat,” noted one co-op member after a weekend trip in the Adirondacks. Bummer: Environmentally conscious sourcing costs money—these aren’t cheap. Buy here.
If you can’t go to a Thai restaurant, this dinner may be the next best thing. The moderately spicy noodle blend from Backpacker’s Pantry uses real peanut butter and peanuts for a mouth-watering experience that one REI Co-op member called “my all-time favorite backpacking meal.” It’s packed full of bell peppers and green onions for a little crunch, but the other veggies are jammed into an indecipherable mush of delicious veggie soup. (Note: It’s also available with chicken.) At nearly 1,000 calories and 40 grams of protein per bag, the veggie Pad Thai can make for a stomach-filling dinner for one or a solid first course if split between two. One complaint: The peanut butter and peanuts are individually wrapped inside the pouch, which makes for more packaging. Buy here.
There is no better reward than dipping into this hearty, meaty meal at the end of a long, grueling day. Thankfully, only nine minutes of rehydration time stand between you and Mountain House's bowl full of chicken meat, buttermilk biscuits, peas, carrots and onions. Though the chicken chunks tend to disintegrate into the mush, the biscuits maintain some bite, so much that our tester proclaimed the consistency to be “thicker than porridge that sticks to your ribs.” For two servings, the calorie count is a bit low (especially after a long day of hiking) and the sodium is sky-high (890 mg), but the price point is the cheapest in our lineup. We’ll call it a draw. Buy here.
Mountain House Classic Spaghetti with Meat Sauce - 2 Servings
Best Pasta Backpacking Meal$9.50 from REI Co-op
- Servings: 2
- Calories: 250
- Protein: 10 grams
- Carbohydrates: 43 grams
- Fat: 3.5 grams
The simple truth: It’s hard to screw up good old-fashioned spaghetti. This classic from Mountain House is crammed with beef, tomato sauce and enriched noodles, and a hint of garlic and onion that might have you thinking your backcountry digs are a trattoria. Still, the spaghetti is exceedingly light on calories, coming in at 250 per serving. You won’t want to split this one. Buy here.
Backpacker's Pantry Three Cheese Mac and Cheese - 2 Servings
Kids' Choice Backpacking Meal$9.95 from REI Co-op
- Servings: 2
- Calories: 430
- Protein: 19 grams
- Carbohydrates: 56 grams
- Fat: 14 grams
- Dietary notes: Vegetarian
Any parent will tell you: Getting little ones to eat at camp is more difficult than 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 and 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 20 grams of protein, parents won’t mind it either. Buy here.
This backpacking rendition of Thai curry dials it up a notch by providing restaurant-quality cuisine with the ambient sounds of Mother Nature. Jennifer Scism, co-founder and head chef of GOOD TO-GO, uses her experience as a New York City chef and Iron Chef competitor to bring gourmet flavor to the backcountry.
She uses the standard rice and spicy yellow curry sauce but mixes a rainbow of veggies (onion, broccoli, cauliflower and peas) along with a kitchen-tested blend of spices including ginger, turmeric powder, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, yellow mustard seed, pepper, fennel, clove, bay leaf—and more. It hits the spot, even if it is a touch light on calories. Thanks to the chilies, this meal has a kick, but it’s the good kind. Caveat: A 20-minute rehydration time feels like an eternity, but this one is worth it. Buy here.
AlpineAire Foods Cinnamon Apple Crisp - 2 Servings
Best Dessert$4.95 from REI Co-op
- Servings: 2
- Calories: 210
- Protein: 1 gram
- Carbohydrates: 57 grams
- Fat: 1 gram
- Dietary notes: Vegetarian
S’mores are so yesterday. Instead, satisfy your post-dinner sweet tooth by noshing on AlpineAire Foods’ camp-ready apple pie. “It has the right amount of sweetness, tartness and spice,” says a co-op member. Sure, a slice of fruity wonder won’t actually roll out of the bag. Instead, the consistency is reminiscent of thick oatmeal topped with diced apples—you’ll definitely need a spoon. Buy here.
While ready-to-eat backpacking meals can be pricier than the food you find in grocery aisles, they are convenient, require little clean up and have a place on many backpacking excursions. Add hot water and wait for the food to rehydrate. The variety of nutritious, tasty choices has expanded over the years and delivers above-average taste and sustenance for the weight. With many more brands making backcountry food, you can also find a lot of delicious options to suit your dietary needs, even gluten-free and vegan backpacking food.
When buying backpacking food, consider these three factors: calories and serving size, cooking time and, if you’re looking to keep your pack on the lighter side, weight and volume.
Calories and serving size
A common question people ask is: How much food should you take on a trip? Consider the activities you’re going to be doing and when you’re doing them. The exact number of calories you’ll need will depend on factors such as the length and intensity of your activity and your body type. A larger person will likely need more calories per hour than a smaller person. A reasonable goal is about 1½ to 2½ lbs. of food (or 2,500 to 4,500 calories) per person per day. A person hiking 10 miles with a strenuous 4,000-foot climb will obviously burn more calories—and need a lot more food and calories—than someone covering a few miles of flat trail who plans to chill at the campsite.
When buying dehydrated or freeze-dried meals, pay attention to the serving size and calorie count on the package. Some pouches like Heather’s Choice: Apple Pie Breakfast or Patagonia Provisions Mussels contain 1 serving while the others in this guide contain 2 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 you enough calories. On the higher calorie range, Backpacker’s Pantry Three Cheese Mac and Cheese and Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai Veggie each exceed 400 calories per serving, while Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce provides 250 calories per serving. You’ll also want to note other nutrients like sodium, protein and carbohydrates.
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 everyone thinks 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. Everyone is different and each body needs different nutrients. But, to get started, try to consume 30-50% of your calories from carbohydrates, 35-50% from fat and 15-20% from protein. You may tweak those numbers as you discover what works best for your body.
Cooking and preparation time
The time it takes to rehydrate your meals can range widely depending on the brand and specific meal. Some trail treats like Heather’s Choice Packaroons and Patagonia Provisions Wild Pink Salmon are ready to snack on immediately, no cooking needed, so they work great for eating while on the go. For other meals, you fill it with hot water and wait—from several minutes to 20 minutes. Some meals like the Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai Veggie may take a little prep work (opening and combining separate pouches of ingredients).
Weight/volume per total calories
Most backpackers need anywhere from 3,300-3,800 calories per day, which amounts to 1½ to 2½ of food (day hikers need substantially less). 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. If you want to do the math, aim for 100-125 calories per ounce of weight. You can adjust your needs as you experiment and learn more about what works better for you!
For more tips on how to plan meals for backpacking, read our meal planning guide.
We asked REI Co-op staff, members and other testers to share their favorite backpacking food available at REI. They shared their top choices for breakfast, trail snacks, vegetarian and other backpacking meals.
Article by Heather Balogh Rochfort. Heather is a freelance writer and author specializing in the outdoors and adventure travel, particularly as they apply to women and families. She is the co-founder of WildKind, an organization educating and empowering families to find their wild. As a lifelong Colorado resident, Heather loves Type-II fun above treeline where the sun is hot and the oxygen depleted. Thing she does not like: rock climbing. REI member since 2008.
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.