The Best Backpacking Meals of 2021

Purely for the altruistic sake of this gear round-up, I’ve eaten a lot of delicious food this year. My already mammoth appetite is only exacerbated in the outdoors, and the thought of hot dinners is pretty much the only reason I don’t break down on my last two miles to camp. It’s already been duly noted that I always carry a stove and simply won’t go without morning coffee. Though I’m trying to expand my tastes to include some cheaper DIY meals, I’m a sucker for pre-made freeze-dried food. Nothing gets me going like seeing gorgeous, ready-made deliciousness in my food bag before a trip, which is why I consider myself something of an expert on the best backpacking meals.

In the past few years, options for freeze-dried backpacking meals have exploded. A market previously dominated by a few delicious staples like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry now includes more than a handful of small names, like Heather’s Choice, Food for the Sole, and PackIt Gourmet. When I first started backpacking, I never could have imagined the day I would be eating Smoked Sockeye Salmon with my dirty belongings strewn around me.

Not a meal, but I’ve recently been introduced to these “Packaroons,” and I’m SMITTEN.

I’ve broken this guide down by brand and compared each with a few key specs. These are price range, calorie range, and calories per dollar range. I always check how many calories are in each dinner, and if it’s less than 700, I usually plan to supplement it with something else at camp. Many brands market their larger meals as “two servings,” but usually, those are perfectly sized for a single meal after a day of backpacking.

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Best Backpacking Meals of 2021

My Top Three All-Time Favorite Meals

So I’m not saying that my taste buds are superior, but I *will* say that I’ve had to share lots of bites throughout the years because of my excellent meal choices. Something about chowing down on warm, flavorful food while my buddies choke down cold quinoa just doesn’t sit right with me. These three meals are all in my stockpile of freeze-dried food at all times. In a pinch, I would eat one of these on a typical night without any hesitation. If you try one of these and don’t like it, please let me know so I can figure out where you went wrong in life.

#1. Backpacker’s Pantry Cuban Coconut Beans and Rice

  • MSRP: $7.95
  • Calories: 960
  • Calories per dollar: 120
  • Weight: 8.7 oz
  • Calories per ounce: 110

I cannot get enough of this meal. My diet preferences on an average day can be described as “fancy rice and beans,” and this takes it to a class of its own. The calorie count is on point. I frequently save this meal for my longest days when I need to shovel food into my mouth. The rice and beans have hints of banana and coconut flavoring, which makes eating almost 1,000 calories of rice and beans feel much more exciting than it sounds. I seriously cannot recommend this meal enough; I have and will continue to eat it even when off-trail.

#2. Peak Refuel Chicken Alfredo Pasta 

  • MSRP: $12.95
  • Calories: 870
  • Calories per dollar: 67
  • Weight: 5 oz
  • Calories per ounce: 174

With 53 grams of protein, I can practically feel my poor thigh muscles rebuilding when I eat this meal. It hits my creamy pasta craving perfectly, with real cheese and chicken. I honestly can’t tell the difference between this and restaurant pasta. It has enough calories to satisfy me after a long day of hiking, and on a shorter trip, I *might* be convinced into actually splitting it into two servings. Peak Refuel slays the game when it comes to high-calorie and high-protein meals.

#3. Good to Go Smoked Three Bean Chili

  • MSRP: $13.50
  • Calories: 680
  • Calories per dollar: 50
  • Weight: 7 oz
  • Calories per ounce: 97

Coming from someone who’s not generally a big chili fan, this meal is friggin delicious. I tried it for the first time while backpacking with my dad, and I had the urge to swap him meals. The smoky flavors and sweet tomatoes mix perfectly. It tastes like it just came out of your grandma’s pot. Plus, Good to Go meals are made with extremely fresh ingredients; this meal is just beans, vegetables, and spices.

Now that I’ve subjected you to my personal preferences, let’s dig in. The following round-up reflects both my thoughts and those of fellow hungry hikers. We’ve ranked some of the most popular backpacking meals according to a few objective categories (and a bit of subjective “wow” factor).

Backpacker’s Pantry: All-Around Best / Most Affordable Backpacking Meals

Best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Backpacker’s Pantry. My final night on the JMT (circa 2019), still happily eating Pad Thai.

Backpacker’s Pantry Meals at a Glance

best backpacking meals

Why We Love These Meals

So I don’t really want to talk about how much I spent on Backpacker’s Pantry meals for the John Muir Trail. I also don’t want to talk about eating Risotto for lunch before a steep uphill in the heat of the day. However, despite these mistakes, I still miraculously have an undying fondness for Backpacker’s Pantry meals. Each package’s calorie count is exceptionally well-suited for long days on trail, hitting nearly 1,000 for some options. I highly recommend the Mac n Cheese or Pad Thai for trips where you’re pumping out miles and want a meal that will knock you in a happy, full-bellied coma. Their meals are reasonably priced, and the price range more or less corresponds to the calorie range.

I’m not the only one who is obsessed with Backpacker’s Pantry. Owen Eigenbrot, another fantastic Trek writer, sings the praises of their Pad Thai as well. “This pad thai from a pouch is as yummy as the real thing. The spices are just hot enough to warm my belly, and the lime crystals offer a bright kick to cut through the fantastic peanut buttery gooeyness. Rice noodles and crunched peanuts add some texture variety that is usually lacking in pouch meals. It’s also vegan and packs a ton of calories.”

Pro tip: The Pad Thai comes with a packet of powder sriracha for flavor. Save half of it, and use it in another meal. Spicy Mac n Cheese is one of my best on-trail creations.

If I Had to be Picky…

Backpacker’s Pantry uses a few more unpronounceable ingredients than competitors like Heather’s Choice or Good-to-Go. Also, I’ve been somewhat unimpressed with their dessert options. I had high hopes for the Mango Sticky Rice, and it was a wee bit of a letdown.

Shop Backpacker’s Pantry Here

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Heather’s Choice: Best Backpacking Breakfasts

Best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Heather’s Choice. Give me all the hints of banana please.

Heather’s Choice Meals at a Glance

best backpacking meals

Why We Love These Meals

All of the Heather’s Choice meals are creative, made with whole ingredients in Alaska, and tasty as hell. However, their breakfasts take the cake in terms of value and flavor. I definitely have a bit of a sweet tooth in the morning, and their Banana Nutmeg Breakfast was filling, warm, and scrumptious. I really enjoy their dinner entrees; they’re honestly more gourmet than what I typically eat at home. The African Peanut Stew is an excellent “treat yourself” meal on trail and is ideal for birthdays or crossing state lines. Also, their snack bites are friggin delicious.

If I Had to be Picky…

Their high-end entrees have a steep price tag. Sure, Smoked Sockeye Salmon Chowder brought to my tent from Alaska is pretty incredible, but for $14.95, I might opt for a larger burger and fries instead. Also, their dinners are all around the 500 calorie range, so on trail I supplement with extra snacks.

Shop Heather’s Choice Here

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Peak Refuel: Best High-Calorie Backpacking Meals

Best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Peak Refuel. Photo via Peak Refuel.

Peak Refuel Meals at a Glance

best  backpacking meals

Why We Love These Meals

Peak Refuel hits those decadent cravings we all have on trail like none other. I remember quite fondly a heavenly plate of alfredo pasta I had after the JMT, and their freeze-dried version comes pretty darn close. These meals are perfect for a special occasion day on trail, such as a post-Mt. Whitney summit or a double pass day. Also, they’re jam-packed with protein to at least mitigate some of the damage we do to our bodies. Their dinners range between 600 – 1040 calories, and all of them have more than 30 grams of protein.

If I Had to be Picky…

While I absolutely love these meals, they’re not suitable for all types of diets. All of their dinners except for the Three Bean Chili contain meat, and only two of their dinners are gluten-free. They are great at what they do, which is provide high-calorie and drool-worthy meals, but unfortunately, there’s not a wide range of options for everyone. Also, I usually like a vegetable or two at some point throughout my day.

Shop Peak Refuel Here

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Good To-Go: Best Flavors

Best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Good To-Go. Pictures of my face will simply not happen before I’ve been sufficiently caffeinated.

Good To-Go Meals at a Glance

best backpacking meals

Why We Love These Meals

Every time I try a new one of these meals, I have to take breaks in between each bite to say, “Oh, my god.” Their flavors are seriously SO good, and I thoroughly enjoy each bite. Furthermore, their ingredient lists are top-notch. Meals like their Thai Curry have broccoli, cauliflower, and peas wrapped up into each delicious morsel. Good to Go is a fantastic option for backpackers who still want to eat a vegetable or two and enjoy doing it.

Eloise Robbins, triple-crowner and Trek writer, is especially fond of the Good To-Go Pad Thai. “Pad Thai is always great dehydrated, regardless of the brand, but Good to Go’s version is a cut above the rest. It’s slightly more complicated to make (you have to open and add multiple packets at different stages) but it’s completely worth it.”

The Trek’s founder, Zach “Badger” Davis, is a Good To-Go fanatic.  “In my advanced age, the quality of my backcountry sustenance has become a growing emphasis.  The fact that Good To-Go doesn’t rely on a slew of artificial preservatives is why it’s my go-to. And I have yet to try any dehydrated dinner that can rival their Herbed Mushroom Risotto.  Add a small block of cheese to thicken this up and some sodium, and you will enter slumber with a full belly and a smile.”

If I Had to be Picky…

The single-serving meals are simply not enough calories for me. Good To-Go offers single or double-serving portions, and the singles are in the 350-450 calorie range. This isn’t enough for me on a weeknight, let alone in the backcountry. However, these meals all do well wrapped in tortillas or topped off with Oreos and peanut butter, so I’ve found tasty ways to supplement.  Also, some of the meals could benefit from a salt packet or three.  Backpackers lose a lot of sodium over the course of the day, and many of these meals are lacking.  A simple fix for a quality product.

Shop Good To-Go Here

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Mountain House: Best Classic Comfort Food

Best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Mountain House. I have no qualms in admitting this was my breakfast on a particularly snowy morning. It absolutely hit the spot.

Mountain House Meals at a Glance

Why We Love These Meals

Mountain House’s classic Chili Mac is a backcountry favorite, as is the Chicken and Dumplings. Their meals are incredibly flavorful and are my go-to for cold nights or mornings when I know I want something that will remind me of classic home cooking. They also have bulk meal options, which would be great for car camping in a big group. Additionally, Mountain House meals have a 30-year shelf life, and they sell emergency kits which are great for long-term storage.

If I Had to be Picky…

Mountain House recently updated its meals, which scaled down the calorie count for most options. What’s up with that? Although, this also made a lot of them tastier and made with fresher ingredients. These also aren’t the most nutritionally dense meals compared to some of these other brands, but I do love how some meals like the Chicken and Rice or the Chicken Noodle Casserole have some fresh veggies.

Shop Mountain House Here

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Pack-It Gourmet: Widest Selection of Food for Everyone

Best backpacking meals: Pack-it Gourmet. All smiles with cold soak lunches 🙂

Pack-It Gourmet Meals at a Glance

Why We Love These Meals

Pack-It Gourmet doesn’t just make delicious freeze-dried meals. They also have an entire grocery section on their website, including freeze-dried apples, broccoli, and grain packs. These simple additions are great when packing resupplies and trying to find ingredients to compliment instant mashed potatoes. I’m particularly interested in getting my hands on some of their powdered cheese.

In addition to their massive grocery selection, they make delicious and unique meals. Cold water lunches like their Herb Roasted Turkey Wrap or Curry Mango Chicken Salad are fresh, delicious, and make me feel like I’m sitting outside of an adorable bistro and not with my butt in the dirt. I also really like their meals that are “BYOT” (bring your own tortilla) style, like the Pizza Margherita or All-American Works Burger.

My friends (and bonafide dirtbags) Alex and Carl tried the Southwest Corn and Black Bean salad and absolutely loved it. Alex noted that this meal is especially unique in the flavoring it uses. “Malt vinegar was in the seasonings packet, and it adds the essence of ‘salad’ to a delicious cold-soaked meal. Pair this with a tortilla, and I’d be a HAPPY girl on trail.” – Alex Kereszti (JMT ’19). Carl also beautifully compared this meal to a fan favorite multitool. “It’s much like a Swiss Army knife, it can be used in many ways: on a salad, as a wrap, or a chunky salsa.”

If I Had to be Picky…

I genuinely don’t have any major gripe with this brand. They’re a bit on the expensive side, but it’s well worth it, in my opinion, to splurge and pack one of their meals as a treat in each resupply. Their cold soak meals take roughly 90 minutes to rehydrate fully, so you have to plan ahead to stave off serious hanger.

Shop Packit Gourmet Here

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Food for the Sole: Best Vegan Backpacking Meals

Best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Food for the Sole. Nate is with me on the “no pictures until coffee” vibe.

Food for the Sole Meals at a Glance

Why We Love These Meals

The packaging of these meals makes you want to dig into one right away. A clear window to the inside shows you the colorful, varied, and vegan ingredients Food for the Sole is known for. On their website, you can also decide between lunch-sized and dinner-sized options. I normally steer clear of freeze-dried foods for lunch, but they have cold soak salads that hit the midday spot. Their Triple Peanut Slaw and brand-new Curried Cauliflower no stove meals are so good on hot days when all I want to do is stick my feet in a cold stream and chow down. Also, their energy oatmeals are delicious. They come with little baggies of fresh and crunchy toppings like pecans or dried fruit, which put them above the competition.

If I Had to be Picky…

For vegan meals, these do a pretty darn good job of still packing in protein. However, I prefer eating these meals for lunch over dinner because I try to get more protein at nighttime. I also wish these meals had a *few* more calories in them (the ~650 – 700 range is usually a sweet spot for me). But, this makes them perfect for people who don’t shovel as much food into their mouths as I do.

Shop Food for the Sole Here

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Bushka’s Kitchen: Most Creative Backpacking Meals

best backpacking meals

Best backpacking meals: Bushka’s Kitchen. Cold soak lunches are clutch in the desert.

Why We Love These Meals

I love how many small brands are starting to offer cold-soak meals. Warm, heavy meals are great for cold nights, but for trips like the Southern California Desert or Utah in the summer, I am eternally grateful for lighter entrees like their Lentil Lunch, which can be prepared cold. Also, their hot meals are absolutely delicious. The Unstuffed Pepper with Ground Bison is the perfect mix of flavorful, crunchy, and satisfying. Their meals all have a healthy amount of protein,  fresh vegetables, and grains.

If I Had to Be Picky…

To be honest, I just want to see what they come up with next. Bushka’s Kitchen is still very small, so they don’t have a wide range of options available. Also, the timing instructions on the package weren’t super realistic. It took about 10 minutes for the lentils to actually soften in their Lentil Lunch, whereas the package said it would only take three.

Shop Bushka’s Kitchen Here

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Fan Favorites: Best Backpacking Meals I Haven’t Tried (Yet)

Outdoor Herbivore

  • MSRP Range: $7.00 – $9.00
  • Calorie Range: 300 – 650
  • Calories per dollar Range: 55 – 70
  • Weight range: 2.9 – 5.4 oz
  • Calories per ounce range: 110 – 130

Outdoor Herbivore is a vegetarian company, and most of their entrees are vegan as well. They specialize in shipping resupply to thru-hikers: by creating an account on their site, you can preload shipping info for planned resupply stops, making it easy to order treats directly to the trail. In addition to meals like Chickpea Sesame Penne and Sunny Sunflower Salad, they have fun freeze-dried sides. Kelly Floro, Trek lead writer and AT thru-hiker, notes that their hummus is especially delicious.

“If it weren’t $6 for just a half cup of prepared hummus, I would stock up on this stuff and serve it at home, too, because I think it tastes better than standard grocery store hummus. It’s instant gratification (just add water, and not much of it) and provides 138 calories per ounce of solid nutrition. It’s great with crackers, tortillas, veggies, or mixed into a larger meal.”

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Evergreen Adventure Foods

  • MSRP Range: $12.00 – $13.00
  • Calorie Range: 380 – 760
  • Calories per dollar Range: 30 – 60
  • Weight range: 6 – 7 oz
  • Calories per ounce range: 65 – 110

Evergreen Adventure Foods makes 100% vegan meals that also all include a gluten-free option. They’re also partners with LNT, and their packaging is all compostable. Furthermore, they sell compostable re-packaging bags, which are a super-easy way to make your resupplies more sustainable. Elise Ott, PCT thru-hiker and backpacker radio production assistant, shared why she loves this brand.

“The chili mac from Evergreen Adventure Foods is SO tasty and filling. It’s vegan, the packaging is compostable and for every sale a portion of their proceeds go to the AT. While the sustainability of this brand inspires me, I wouldn’t confidently recommend it if it didn’t taste good. But it’s really incredible and so nice after a long day of hiking.” 

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More of the Best Backpacking Gear of 2021

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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Comments 10

  • Avatar
    Robin : Mar 26th

    How about meals for carnivores? I like noodles but as soon as they get smothered in veggies, I’m shopping elsewhere. I can’t tolerate any of the nightshade plants (if I wish to hike the next day) and I know of others that usually avoid them. Yet more and more things are being covered with condiments.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kate C : Mar 27th

    My big problem with the majority of these types of meals is that most of them contain garlic which I detest, and most of the rest are full of various spices. I’ve gone back to cooking and dehydrating my own as a result.

    Reply
  • Katie Houston
    Katie Houston : Mar 29th

    I’m SUPER into Outdoor Pantry as well!!!! They’re really sweet people and are a smaller brand. I’ve never had a problem with orders and even though I usually cold-soak/just stick with snacks they have plenty of delicious (and nutritious) options for me. My partner always brings a stove and any time he does it is a treat to have such incredible and creative meals.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Brian : Mar 29th

    Great article, Katie! I haven’t heard of most of these brands, so it will be fun to try them!

    One other brand you may want to try is Hawk Vittles. Love their food…I take it on every one of my trips 🙂

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sgt. Sparty : Mar 30th

    This is a great article but I do feel extremely offended that the Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy didn’t even get an honorable mention as it is probably the only reason my partner still is willing to go on the occasional weekend trip.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Christine : Mar 31st

    My favorites are from a company here in Quebec called Happy Yak. Chicken orzo soup and their mandarin beef is the bomb. Check them out.

    Reply

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