Backpacking meals worth their weight

Steak over the fire on a wood grill with warm pita.

What food do you bring on a backpacking trip?

Are you like me, caught somewhere between pack-weight consciousness and desire for real food? Maybe you’re new to backpacking and aren’t sure.

Hey, you’re going to weigh these issues despite your experience level.  So I won’t stoke your fears with tales of inedible dehydrated eggs (although, I’ve had plenty of those experiences). I’ve developed a hybrid system of fueling my weekend backpacking trips. I’ll carry real food for the first night’s dinner, and for my lunches, then dehydrated meals for the rest of my trip. That way, I get the best of both worlds. I still try to be conscious of the weight of my real food.

Here’s a list of some of the best real and freeze-dried foods I’ve packed along the trail, in no particular order:

Mountain House Breakfast Skillet – Onions, peppers, sausage, potatoes, eggs. Just add boiling water, stir, let it sit for about 10 minutes and eat. I had so many bad experiences with dehydrated eggs that I was skeptical the first time I tried this, but it was easily the best backpacking breakfast. I come back to it every time. Delicious. A close second for breakfast is Mountain House‘s biscuits and gravy. That one was a surprise to me. Not a big fan of biscuits and gravy regularly, but that one was worth it.

Oatmeal – Whether you take the prepackaged stuff or bag your own oats, this is a great staple. Add boiling water, stir, eat. Hot, filling and most certainly will fuel your morning slog up that 1,000-foot mountainside. Plus, its cheap by all other standards.

Lunch: Pita, Asiago cheese and homemade Cajun beef jerky.

Dry sausage, cheese, pita bread – This is one of the heavier meals you could bring on the trail, but it’s packed with calories. That’s especially good on those winter excursions when it’s not only about fueling your day, but also your night. In cold weather, your body is going to use more energy keeping you warm when you’re not active, so you need foods that offer enough calories for both. My preferences: Boar’s Head Italian dry sausage, Kerrygold Dubliner cheese, and whole wheat pita bread. As a variation, sub beef jerky. Dried meats and most hard cheeses will keep for several days without refrigeration. Weight tip: cut the meat and cheese block in half for a three to four-day trek. Then you can ration out for your lunches and likely have some for snack while hanging around camp in the evening. Same with the pita. It’s a heavy, large bread. So don’t take the entire bag, just one pita for each lunch. Maybe an extra to accompany dinner. Then cut it into quarters to make it more compact; that will allow you to ration better too.

Mountain House Beef Stroganoff – Other people rank the chili mac as the best all-around dinner, but if I had a choice between the two, I’ll take the beef stroganoff. The problem with adding pasta to chili is that the two components rehydrate/cook differently. So if the beans and beef rehydrate perfectly, the pasta is almost mushy. For whatever reason, that’s less of an issue with the stroganoff. Maybe that’s all in my head but I know what I like and that’s my go-to for freeze-dried hot meals.

Dinner: pasta with home-dried mushrooms, cheese and dry sausage.

Homemade cheesy pasta meal – I found this cheesy pasta meal on MSR’s blog and it sounded so delicious, I had to try it. But, when I raided my cabinets before a March 2017 hike, I learned I would need to substitute a few things. So I made my own version with home-dehydrated white mushrooms, dried parsley and purple basil from my garden, chunks of dry salami and cheddar cheese. It wasn’t quite like the photos in the blog, but it was still really good. And because it was using lunch stuff I already had, the weight of this meal was less than a pouch of stroganoff.

Bon appetit! Beef barley soup with beans and peas.

Venison, bean and barley soup – This is one of my own design. Start by dicing venison (or beef) into very small cubes (~1 cm, 1/4 inch). Don’t cut up a whole steak; that’s too much. A handful is good. Bag it and freeze. That’ll keep it good until you get to camp on that first day. Then measure about a tablespoon (or less) each of dried split peas, beans and barley. Bag that together. Then measure your dry seasonings: beef bouillon for 2 cups soup, and garlic powder, onion powder, pepper, curry, etc. to taste (~1/8-1/4 teaspoon max); mix together and bag separately from other ingredients. When you set out in the morning, dump the dried beans and barley into your water bottle. That will get it rehydrating and it’ll be ready to cook by dinner; your water will taste like beans and barley, but you’re tough enough to drink it. Dump all ingredients into your cooking pot with water, bring to a boil, then simmer until the beans and barley are tender. This is a light-weight hot meal on a cold day and it’s delicious. Sustainability tip: Admittedly, this uses at least three plastic zip-lock snack bags for one meal. If you’re concerned about that, use small reusable containers, or wash the bags when you get home and reuse another time.

Hot dogs and baked beans – There’s nothing like a hot dog over an open fire with a steaming pile of baked beans. I’m not too particular on hot dogs, but I’m a fan of Bush’s Baked Beans. So if it’s just you, don’t bring the big can of beans, just the little one. Make sure you have a can opener. I’m not big on bringing cans on a backpack. They’re heavy, but if you eat this your first night, you’re getting rid of the water/bean weight and all you have is an empty can. Pack it out. Give a hoot, don’t pollute. Be considerate of the person who comes after you. If you’re tough enough to pack it in, then don’t be a wimp and leave an empty can behind.

Sausage and spring vegetable Cup-a-Soup.

The Extras – Little lightweight comforts can make all the difference on the trail. They’re psychological victories, especially when you’ve been hiking through eight hours of rain. Chocolate bars, hot tea and coffee, Cup-a-Soup packets, granola bars, maybe a little flask of whiskey. I always bring Starbucks Via instant coffee packets (Italian roast) and some tea bags. There’s nothing like a hot cup of dark, rich coffee in the morning or a soothing cup of tea around a camp fire before bed.

If you’re really intent on putting yourself out into wild spaces, you should probably accept a fair amount of experimentation and disappointment in your food choices. You’ve already accepted that with gear and trail beta (maps can be wrong), weekends marred by torrential downpours and soggy sleeping bags. , On or off the trail, food should be an adventure.

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