Ever since I started backpack hunting in 2012, something I have struggled with consistently is food and nutrition. I never eat everything I bring with me and I end up losing quite a few pounds over the course of a hunt. I am not sure if it’s the drastic change in altitude (I currently live at 36’), dehydration, lack of excitement for what food I have in my pack, or a combination of it all. I am far from an expert in nutrition or analyzing nutritional facts, and have always been a big proponent of bringing food that you know you will eat. This usually consists of some not so healthy options for high exertion activity for 5+ days. My daily food usually consists of an apple or cold oatmeal and instant coffee for breakfast from the morning glassing spot. Lunch is a few pinches of trail mix, a PB&J Bagel that was made at the trailhead so it’s nice and squished in the baggie, some dehydrated mangos you get in bulk at Costco, and a short euphoric moment while enjoying a delicious fruit cup. Dinner is the one meal I slightly look forward to and where this article is going to focus.
Since the birth of my son has detoured my priorities from constant physical preparation, and my body is starting to feel all of the abuse I have put it through over the years, it’s time to maximize my nutrition since I can no longer solely rely on the vitality of youth to help me get over the next ridge. So begins the endeavor of revamping my food strategy, beginning with the search for the best backpacking meals that not only taste good, but help me ensure I receive the nutritional criteria to help boost energy and recovery, while not contributing to dehydration, fatigue, or leaving me feeling plain old gross. There is a certain flavor from a certain brand that will make the inside of my sleeping bag smell “wonderful”.
After a few hours of Google searches, I narrowed it down to eight brands that I have either heard of but not tried, eaten on a hunt, or new options that looked intriguing to try. My goodness there is a plethora of options when it comes to dehydrated/ freeze dried meals! Most are easy to find, and can be purchased online from multiple retailers. The ones I decided to go with were strictly chosen by the flavors available and what I thought sounded good at the time. This isn’t normally how I would go about it, but wanted to see what I would get strictly choosing by flavor.
The Brands and flavors I ended up with are:
- Mountain House – Chili Mac with Beef
- Peak Refuel – Chicken Pesto Pasta
- AlpineAire – Sweet Potato Chicken and Rice
- Backpackers Pantry – Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken
- Good To Go – Marinara with Penne
- Heather’s Choice – Mom’s Spaghetti with Beef and Marinara Sauce
- Next Mile Meals – Italian Meatball
- PackitGormet – Dotties Chicken and Dumpling
In September, a group of us are heading into the woods for a 5-day backpack hunt for Colombian Blacktail where I am going to be eating these meals to give them a real world taste test comparison. Part two of this article will happen right after that hunt and will focus on how each one tastes, the finished texture (no one wants crunchy or soupy), and how it makes me feel that night and the day after. Since this is a backpack hunt into an area where water is scarce, temps are high, and there will no doubt be a lot of walking, part one is going to focus on all the different weights, packaging, and nutritional facts that should be the minimum of what you look for when selecting your meals.
Packaging & Weight
When all of your gear is loaded into your pack, weight and volume of your food is important to make sure you have plenty of space for the rest of your gear. If the packaging is too bulky or full of air it will take up unnecessary space and add unwanted weight to your pack. Trimming the packaging can sometimes help, but it never really makes that much of a difference. Something that gives a good indication of the ratio of weight to nutrition is calories per ounce. This compares the total weight of the meal to calories, and gives a strong indication of the “worth” of the meal.
Like I had mentioned before, I am no expert in nutrition, but even knowledge of the basics here can save you in the field. The biggest culprits here I am paying attention to are sodium, calories, and protein. On a lot of hunts, water can be hard to come by or require a trek to get to. Watching your sodium level will help prevent any further dehydration than you will already have. Excessive salt levels will leave you feeling thirsty and the last thing you want to have to do is go get more water and divert your attention away from the hunt. You do need some sodium but excess can lead to cramping, fatigue, and chugging all of your precious water.
Calories are king when energy levels need to remain high. At any point of a hunt, the stalk can start and the hard work begins. I have done it to myself plenty of times and not eaten enough to sustain energy during a grueling packout. Make sure your meals have plenty of calories to help refill your tank at the end of every day. Hit the tent with a full belly and be ready to go hard the next day.
Protein helps your muscles recover which is something you definitely need on a backpack hunt. Constant hiking with a heavy pack in unstable terrain can leave your muscles craving protein, so the more you can provide the better. It’s also harder to digest so it will give you longer lasting energy and a prolonged full feeling.
There is obviously a huge difference in these meals between 1 – 2 servings. Do you really need a 2 serving meal every night? Absolutely not. A day of glassing will burn a lot less calories than the pack in, or a day full of hiking. Some brands offer 1 and 2 servings where others only offer one or the other. I always bring a combo of 1 and 2 serving meals.
There is a big price difference, but sometimes you get what you pay for.
Variety of Flavors and Ease of Purchasing
The last thing I want to do is sit down in camp after a tough day and eat something I’m not excited about or something new I’m unsure I will like. Luckily, most of the brands I am trying out are available to be purchased online. REI is a great place to purchase a variety of different flavors and brands.
The below chart is a quick breakdown of each meal and how it fares for each of the criteria I am paying attention to. As you can see there is a big difference between each brand. Some excel in areas where others fall short. At minimum paying attention to these aspects can prevent you from heading into the field with food that will do more harm than good.
|Brand and Flavor||Servings||Calories||Sodium||Protein||Total Weight||Calories Per oz||Price|
|Heather’s Choice – Mom’s Spaghetti with Beef and Marinara Sauce||1||620||520mg||36g||4.5oz||137.8 cal/oz||$14.95|
|Next Mile Meals – Italian Meatball||1||570||1460mg||42g||4.1oz||139 cal/oz||$14.00|
|Packit Gourmet – Dotties Chicken and Dumpling||1||370||1420mg||44g||4.6oz||80.4 cal/oz||$11.99|
|Mountain House – Chili Mac with Beef||2||460||1520mg||24g||4.7oz||97.9 cal/oz||$9.50|
|Peak Refuel – Chicken Pesto Pasta||2||920||900mg||43g||6.7oz||137.3 cal/oz||$12.95|
|AlpineAire – Sweet Potato Chicken and Rice||2||480||600mg||20g||5.9oz||81.3 cal/oz||$7.00|
|Backpackers Pantry – Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken||2||720||1740mg||44g||8.0oz||90 cal/oz||$10.95|
|Good To Go – Marinara with Penne||2||850||600mg||22g||7.7oz||110.4 cal/oz||$13.95|
This new Mountain House packaging is pretty minimal and wouldn’t need much trimming if any to save some weight and volume. Plus only weighing 4.7 oz makes it the lightest 2-serving meal I chose. With that being said, it definitely leaves a lot to be desired in the nutritional category. Low calories and protein combined with a pretty high sodium content isn’t helping me improve my quality of food in the field. I think the best thing Mountain House has going for themselves is that they can be found everywhere, even Walmart, and $9.50 is on the lower end for price.
Peak Refuel is definitely taking the hunting industry by storm and can be found fairly easily. They are even channeling their inner Wheaties marketing by releasing two “Chad Mendez” signature meals. A medium sodium level and high calories and protein makes this meal exactly what I am looking for. At 137.3 calories per ounce I won’t bat an eye putting this one in my pack.
Backpackers Pantry seems to have the packaging down. They have a good vacuum seal on the contents which is nice. Not a lot of air to contend with, and not a ton of extra packaging to trim off. What they do have is an exorbitant amount of sodium. Between the eight different meals I have, this one makes me want to camp near a lake and bring extra chapstick. The protein is good and the calories are average. I do love Fettuccini Alfredo though.
This is a new one for me, I had never heard of Good To-Go. The calories and sodium are looking good, but the protein is low. I’ll take it though. The packaging size is perfect, short and light, but the ingredients are loose, and I feel like if I crushed this in my pack I would be eating a marinara and pasta paste. I’ll slot this one early in the hunt so I don’t completely pulverize it.
Heather’s Choice is one that I have wanted to try for a while. They are only offered in single servings per package, but are packing plenty of calories and protein to where I wouldn’t miss eating another complete packet. Sodium is a little on the higher side but not an amount that throws a red flag. It will really be a home run if it tastes better than my mom’s spaghetti, but that won’t be too hard, sorry mom.
Another new one for me. If there is a perfect packaging size, this has it. There is nothing excessive about it…. except the sodium. For a single meal I would say this is too much. It has more than some of the 2-servings meals. It makes up some with a healthy amount of protein and calories, but make sure your bladder is full and you have more water to replace it.
I am excited to try because I love chicken and dumplings. This is one that popped up on the google search that I could only find directly from them. It is low on the calories, high on the sodium, and offers a good amount of protein. The packaging is simple and light and I don’t feel like I will turn the ingredients into powder. I am crossing my fingers that the flavor on this one will be worth it.
When I chose these meals I made the decision strictly based on flavors. I didn’t look at the weight or nutritional facts, and that obviously left me with a few that normally wouldn’t make it in my pack. If you pay attention to the above information while buying your meals for the hunt you should be able to get exactly what you’re looking for. Peak Refuel and Heather’s Choice seem to be the strongest contenders on this list, but the taste test will determine the real winners.
Like I had mentioned before, I am taking these meals on a backpack hunt in September to see how they all compare in taste, texture, and how they affect my body. I will put together part two article since I know you are all dying to hear about the BMs they produce.