Best Backpacking Food of 2021

2021, backpacking, best, food, outdoor - 14 minutes to read


Packing smart and light for the backcountry doesn’t have to mean “roughing it” on quality. In fact, my goal for every trip is to actually do the opposite. It’s great to be as comfortable as possible, and you can do that without bringing your whole fridge with you. And sometimes that comfort can come in a shockingly light package. The best backpacking food is lightweight, crammed with calories and nutrients, and yes, actually tastes good. Your meals’ quality, the waste you’ll need to pack out, and the length of your trip are all critical to consider before heading into the backcountry. Poor planning can could leave you hungry at best, and at worst, it could get you killed.

You might be surprised by the price tags of a dehydrated meal, but it’s usually worth spending a little extra. You will never be stronger than the mountain—or wherever you are—and you surely won’t need less calories than a regular day at home. 

While fresh produce and some perishable items are healthy and delicious additions to your backpacking cuisine, it’s crucial to have shelf-stable items and meals you can rely on during your trip.

You can pack for a backpacking trip with everything from freeze-dried “space” ice cream, to simple rice and canned beans. While backcountry cooking doesn’t have to break the bank, there are some great options over a variety of price points and diets. Here are my top picks for the best backpacking foods, from gourmet dinners to how to make your own backcountry meals.

For any backpacking food to qualify to make this list, it—above all—had to be as simple as possible to prepare. Combining smaller packets is OK, but any more preparation beyond combining ingredients, seal, and stir disqualified a meal. So, to test all of these meals, I boiled water using a backpacking stove, waited the packaging’s suggested time, and ate straight from the bag (with the exception of coffee). 

Testing food comes down to some very subjective measurements like taste and fullness, but along with my general likes or dislikes of a certain backpacking food, here are the ways I evaluated each meal:

Quality of ingredients (Is the meal made from organic or locally-, ethically- sourced ingredients? Is it plant-based?)Waste produced (How much do you have to pack out after consumption?)Nutrient density (What is the calorie and protein content? Will it keep you full and energized?)

I then developed a sustainability rating system where each product would earn a star based on the following:

Free-range, wild-caught meat ingredients or plant-based mealsLocally- and/or ethically-sourced ingredientsMinimal to no waste packed out  Packed out packaging is recyclable Brand commitment to environment and conservation causes

Best Backpacking Food Brand Overall: Good To-Go

Key Features

Single and double serving packetsDouble serving packets can contain over 1,000 calories   Vegan, carnivore, vegetarian, and pescatrian optionsGluten-freeSustainability rating: ★★★1/2

Why it Made the Cut

You can’t miss with any of Good To-Go’s dehydrated meals. From spicy, Asian-inspired dinners to oatmeal and granola, I highly recommend any of their wide range of products.

Pros

Flavorful, diverse meal optionsSingle serving, double serving, bulk orders, and “weekender” packsSpicier options than most dehydrated food brands

Cons

Expensive for someone needing a double servingOnly two pescatarian and two chicken meals for meat eaters

Product Description

Based in Maine, Good To-Go is my pick for best backpacking food brand because you can taste it was co-founded by a professional chef. This is not only the best dehydrated food I’ve ever tasted, but it is also both filling and light.

The Pad Thai and Cuban Rice Bowl are among my favorites, but my winner has to be the Thai Curry. Each entree packet has a spice thermometer on the back, and with two out of three levels, it’s the perfect amount of spice to keep food interesting without being overpowering. These backing meals were clearly made by experts and are my new go-tos for future trips. Next on my list to try is the Kale & White Bean Stew and Indian Korma. If that doesn’t show range, then I don’t know what does.

Additionally, one of the best things about Good To-Go as a brand is their commitment to sustainability. While there is currently not a recyclable or compostable package on the market that is strong, can keep food, and can hold boiling water, Good To-Go produces zero food waste in their production process.

Key Features

Calories/serving size: One serving of 530 calories, high in healthy fatsReusable packaging  Vegan and gluten-freeSustainability Rating: ★★★1/2

Why it Made the Cut

I personally can’t take another backcountry morning of plain oats and peanut butter.  Heather’s Choice’s Apple Pie Breakfast is nutrient dense, filling, and tastes better than some meals I cook in my own kitchen. 

Pros

DeliciousQuick to rehydrateHearty and filling

Cons

DenseExpensive compared to standard oats

Product Description

Based in Alaska, Heather’s Choice makes dehydrated backpacking meals and their signature “packaroons”  that are all guten-, soy-, and dairy-free. Their food is packed with nutrients designed for backcountry adventures, and their meals are diverse and all natural. 

Their Apple Pie Breakfast, specifically, is fantastic, sweet, energizing, and the best backpacking breakfast. There’s something to be said about being excited for a meal, especially after a long and potentially very wet day on the trail. I fully believe that backpacking food isn’t just food. It’s about morale, too. I’ll pay extra to start my day well.  

Albeit, for a single breakfast, it isn’t cheap—retailing around $7—but I will personally be heading to their website for at least one meal of my next trip instead of begrudgingly opting for another instant oats packet. Treat yourself to a day, or two, or three of an exciting breakfast. However long you’re out there, you deserve it.

Key Features

Calories/serving size: One serving 490 calories, high in healthy fats and proteinReusable packaging  Gluten-, soy-, and dairy-freeWild-caught salmonSustainability rating: ★★★1/2

Pros

39g of proteinCalorie and nutrient rich Delicious Alaskan salmon meal

Cons

Product Description

This is Heather’s Choice’s favorite backpacking food. Heather’s Choice is the best backpacking dinner because of how unique their meals are, and this one definitely hits. Their Salmon Sockeye Salmon Chowder includes smoked wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon, potatoes, coconut milk, carrots, celery, and spices. It’s a great meal, whether you’re in the backcountry or not. 

Its high-quality ingredients really shine, and it’s super filling. The only drawback is how expensive salmon is, but I would highly recommend purchasing one for each member of your group for the hardest and longest day of your trip.

Honorable Mention: Heather’s Choice Grass-Fed Bison Chili 

Key Features

Calories/serving size: One serving of approximately 250-290 caloriesFour flavors including Tex-Mex, Thai, Garam Masala, and Tomato and HerbVegan and gluten-freeSustainability rating: ★★★★

Why It Made The Cut

Jackfruit is an incredibly versatile and sustainable plant-based meat alternative. The Jackfruit Company prepares jackfruit in a variety of styles that are ideal for a quick backpacking meal.

Pros

Vegan, gluten-free, and nutrient-richConvenientMultiple versatile flavors

Cons

Low calorie count despite being filling Packaging is not recyclable 

Product Description

This vegan, single-serve meal is by far the best backpacking vegan meal. Jackfruit is an incredibly versatile and savory fruit, and The Jackfruit Company does a great job of preparing it in a range of ways. Their coconut, vegetable, and thai green chile is my favorite flavor because it is filling and high in protein and other nutrients. Additionally, the meal comes in a convenient—although non-recyclable—bag that makes it easy to throw in a pot of hot water to heat up without any dirty dishes (the bag is also easy to eat out of without using a bowl). 

I have brought this meal on multi-day backpacking trips in its various flavors, including tomato/herb, chickpea/garam masala, and a southwest-inspired mix. Even after long days on the trail, I feel very satisfied after one bag due to its high fat and fiber content, although I am not a particularly large person.  

Even if your diet isn’t solely plant based, bringing meat into the backcountry (that isn’t jerky), can be a tossup, and I would rather eat a jackfruit meal over canned chicken any day of the week. Additionally, The Jackfruit Company is committed to reducing negative environmental impacts, and is a natural, whole-food option to other meat-alternative products.

National Parks Coffee Co’s single serve ground coffee comes in four flavors: Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Joshua Tree. National Parks Coffee Co

Key Features

Serving size: 1 cup of coffee per pouchPouches are compostable and biodegradable in a recyclable, reusable bagPouches can be used to clean dishes, and can be packed out or put in campfireSustainability rating: ★★★1/2  

Why it Made the Cut

National Parks Coffee Company makes small, single-use coffee pouches that come in multiple flavors, produce minimal waste, and a portion of proceeds go to supporting national parks.

National Parks Coffee’s single-serve pouches are convenient and fully compostable. Samantha Silverman

Pros

Convenient, single-serve tea bag-like pouchesSustainable packagingA wide variety of flavors 

Cons

Needs to seep longer than its recommended 4 minutes and may lose heat in the meantime Less rich than instant coffee packets 

Product Description

A pouch of National Parks Coffee Co’s Ground Single Serve is essentially coffee in a tea bag. It’s quick and easy to make, comes in a variety of flavors named after different national parks, and produces minimal waste. I opt for National Parks Coffee every backpacking trip or camping trip where I don’t want to bother bringing an AeroPress or French press because of how convenient their coffee is to make. Just boil water, put the pouch in, and wait. After, you can use the pouch to clean your breakfast bowl, put it in your campfire, or pack it out. Remember, just because something is compostable, doesn’t mean you should introduce it to a new habitat. Still pack it out if you aren’t burning it. 

Key Features

Six stainless steel trays with a mesh and fruit roll tray Temperature range of 95-167 degreesAutomatically turns off at the end of the timerSustainability rating: ★★★★★

Why it Made the Cut

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in pre-packaged dehydrated meals, or want to save money and reduce your waste, make your backpacking food at home from recipes online, or get creative and make your own.  

Pros

Convenient and customizable mealsDehydrator turns off automaticallyProducts have a long shelf lifeZero waste from dehydrating and storing in reusable packaging

Cons

Takes a lot of foresight and prepThe manual is very vague about cook times, so experiment with cook times and temperaturesNeeds a well-ventilated area or your home will smell like whatever you’re dehydrating

Product Description

Investing in a dehydrator means you can create any meal, snack, or jerky you want. It’s the ultimate creative control over your backcountry cuisine, and not only is it fun to experiment in your kitchen as you look forward to your next trip, but you also could save a ton of money and waste. 

The Meat! 6-Tray Dehydrator is easy to use, with six chrome-plated trays, a mesh tray (for smaller, sticky items), and a fruit roll tray. At 5,000+ feet of elevation, I find apple slices take about seven hours to be as crispy as I like, and bananas around 11 hours. While I put like fruits together for their initial hours of dehydrating (blueberries have been taking over 20 hours), make sure you’re OK with some smells crossing. Because these dehydrated foods have ample shelf life, please take the time you have. Even in a pinch, I would never throw in my 7-hour salmon jerky with my 7-hour apples and risk ruining both with the other’s flavor. Schedule your prepping up to weeks in advance. 

Once you spend the time learning your recipes and getting your menu dialed, you have an opportunity to take a huge step in becoming a minimal- to zero-waste outdoors person. I personally use Stasher Reusable Food Storage Bags, Losak Opsak bags, or reusable Bee’s Wrap to put in my Ursak bear hang or BearValut Bear Canister to keep things separated and smell-free.

FAQs

Preparing for a backcountry trip can be overwhelming. These questions are a good place to start when planning your meals.

Q: What kind of food is good for backpacking?

As I said before, the backcountry is not the place to try new food. You want to make sure you know you like it, it’ll make you feel full, and it won’t disagree with you in any way.

While all of the foods on this list are either freeze-dried or non-perishable, I like to make a peanut butter sandwich for my first day, and bring some fresh apples for snacks and veggies for my first dinner or two. If I am not in a particularly hot environment, I feel comfortable bringing perishable foods like those for the initial leg of my trip (I eat plant-based on the trail besides jerky I’ve made or eaten before).

Q: How much does backpacking food cost?

Backpacking food truly costs as much as you’re willing to pay and what your priorities are. If you’re new to backpacking and can pay to take some of the stress of planning off, buy a dehydrated breakfast and dinner for each day (~$7-15 each), and only focus on planning your trail lunches and snacks. But if you’re going the DIY route, your backpacking meals don’t have to cost any more than a standard grocery trip. 

Q: How do you store your food while backpacking?

This is one of the most important things to consider when heading into the backcountry. Some wilderness areas will mandate a bear bag or bear canister, but even if they don’t, you still need a way to protect your food from wildlife. If you have any specific questions about where you’re going, call the ranger station and they will walk you through what you need to know and how to get prepared. I, personally, err on the side of caution and always carry a bear canister with me unless every site I am visiting has a food locker. Carrying the extra weight is worth the increased danger of an animal visiting your site and, worse, eating your food. 

Final Thoughts on the best backpacking food

Choosing and preparing your backcountry meals start with planning your trip. Once you know your route, length, and gear, then it’s time to start thinking about the food you need. What stove do you have? How many people are in your group? It’s crucial everyone is on the same page about what they want to eat, how much they need, and how many extra meals you are going to bring, just in case. There’s a fine line between packing efficiently and having extra food in case of an emergency situation. 

While I fully recommend any of the packaged meals on this list, check the ingredients and try every food before you take it with you into the backcountry. You never want to be in a situation where you don’t like the food that is supposed to fuel your next day, or worse, contains an allergen. 

I am taking this winter to really hone in on my dehydrated recipes to commit to Leave No Trace principles this spring and summer on my treks, climbs, and other outdoor activities. But that being said, sometimes, whether I’m in a time crunch or finally admit I’m not quite the chef I think I am, I’ll be happily packing one of the meals on this list.

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