Campers have always needed the bare essentials. But those “bare essentials” aren’t what they used to be. Modern innovation has advanced the pursuit of ultralight gear; the contents of hiking packs have been trimmed down to their skeletons, including traditional outdoor cooking gear. The grub itself didn’t escape the trimming, either: dehydrated ready-to-eat meals have replaced ice-filled coolers and bagged pb&js. They’re lightweight, simple to make and sold at every outdoor retailer. All that’s required is hot water.
But the innovations of these ready-to-eat pouches aren’t without red flags. History’s taught us that convenience and quality usually have inverse relationships. Could adding hot water to dry food result in chicken teriyaki with rice, a burrito or lasagna that didn’t taste like mush? We sampled the top dehydrated pouch brands to see if an easy, delicious fireside meal was a marketing ploy or a reality.
Note: When eating dehydrated meals, it’s important to manage expectations. They are camping meals, not restaurant entrees. If you want the latter, consider an all-expenses paid glamping package and turn in your man card.
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Hailing from the Oregon northwest, Mountain House’s parent company, Oregon Freeze Dry, started developing preservative foods for our military over 50 years ago. They’re a world leader in freeze drying and, pertaining to entree pouches, these guys are pros: alongside their wide spectrum of dishes, they’ve also got gluten free, low sodium and vegetarian options.
Tasting Notes: We sampled the mac & cheese ($7, serves three). Quick suggestion: pour it into something. The finished pouch contained some excess water, but when we dumped it into a second container it looked more appetizing. Bottom line, the mac & cheese tasted quite good, much better than its “instant” relatives. Maybe it could’ve used some pepper.
Another titan in the dehydrated pouch game, these guys manufacture in the foothills of Boulder, CO. Their nutrient-rich lightweight meals are specifically designed for those crashing in sleeping bags. Advertised as gourmet food for adventurers, it lives up to the billing.
Tasting Notes: The sweet and sour chicken ($11, serves two) had a nice medley of colors and smelled appetizing. Again, it was a pretty wet dish, but otherwise there was little to complain about; its small bits of chicken and pineapple were reminiscent of passable high school cafeteria food, and we ate it all.
We also tried their freeze-dried cookies & cream ice cream sandwich ($3), which is definitely bizarre and more cookie than ice cream. One percent of its sales are donated to Defenders of Wildlife and their Polar Bear Adoption program.
Relatively new to the dehydrated meal scene, Good To-Go was founded in Maine by husband and wife duo Jennifer Scism and David Koorits. Camping and cooking were the pillars of their relationship, and now they’re spreading the love. Jennifer, as an accomplished chef (she beat Mario Batalia on Iron Chef and is the co-owner of the Greenwich Village-based restaurant Annisa), knows what she’s doing.
Tasting Notes: We tried their Herbed Mushroom Risotto ($11, serves two). Risotto’s texture is notoriously hard to replicate, and this version, unsurprisingly, struggled to match the homemade stuff. But the flavors were rich, and it was obvious the company uses quality ingredients. After a long day of hiking and camping, you’d be happy to eat it.
An organic farmer for nearly 30 years, MaryJane Butters fell in love with the outdoors after serving as a forest fire lookout in Idaho. Paradise Farm, her Idaho sanctuary, was featured in a 1995 National Geographic issue about organic farming. Her backpacking pouches are an organic alternative to mainstream other mainstream options.
Tasting Notes: The Kettle Chili ($6, serves two) tasted more like lentil soup — but it was damn good, tasting more homecooked than anything else we tried, perfectly spiced and filled with healthy ingredients.
Alpine Aire Foods
“Hike far. Breathe deep. Eat well.” says the bottom of Alpine Aire Foods’s pouches. The company’s been around since the late ‘70s and offers meatless, beef, chicken, turkey, vegan and gluten free entrees straight from Rocklin, California.
Tasting Notes: Out of all the pouches, Alpine Aire definitely had the most upmarket packaging. Their chicken gumbo ($7, serves two), besides needing a stir in a bad way, was spicy with large vegetable chucks. On a whole, all the ingredients were tasty and recognizable — no over-processed minces.