While it may not be the highlight of your trip, your backpacking meals on the trail play an integral role in your happiness and energy levels while hiking. Knowing which foods sit well with your body is one thing, but there are numerous other factors to consider.
That’s why there are backpack and freeze-dried food companies that have designed your favorite campfire foods to be backpacker-friendly. They’re light, easy to cook, and these days, most of them taste pretty decent.
The only thing is that they can be a bit expensive, especially if you’re looking for tasty flavors and real, organic ingredients.
Another popular option among hikers is dehydrating the food to design your meals. However, this process can be a daunting task, especially to a novice backpacker. Still, some outdoor enthusiasts argue that putting a bit of extra effort into making homemade backpacking food far outweighs the convenience of prepackaged pouch meals.
In this article, we will dig deep into our experiences with both homemade and prepackaged backpacking foods to weigh in on the pros and cons.
And then provide our comparison of the two options based on cost, taste, and effort. We will also sprinkle in some tips on easy meal prep, a dash of cost-saving ideas, and a pinch of the best prepackaged options. After that, we will breakdown the key considerations for packing food for your trip.
Finally, to learn more about cooking while backpacking, check out our Guide on the Best Backpacking Cook Sets.
Pros & Cons of Homemade Backpacking Meals
Easier to personalize
Takes more planning
Ingredients are fresh
Takes longer to prepare
Can portion to the desired weight
Need to provide packaging
Pros & Cons of Prepackaged Backpacking Meals
Quick cooking time
Not always tasty
Minimized packages in the food bag
Both prepackaged (freeze-dried and dehydrated) and homemade backpacking meals have their pros and cons. Each person has different dietary requirements and time to invest in prep projects like these.
Whatever the case may be, you know your life, budget, and abilities better than anyone. It may take some trial and error to find the right backpacking meal company you like, or some extra planning to get a homemade meal plan that works for your schedule. In the sections below, we are going to help you out whichever way you decide to go.
Are Homemade Backpacking Meals Cheaper than Prepackaged?
If you’re to ask most backpackers this question, they will likely stand firmly on the ground that homemade meals are always cheaper. That is if you follow our cost-saving tips below.
Tips for Making Backpacking Meals on a Budget
Homemade backpacking meals tend to be more cost-effective if you have a dehydrator or choose to buy in bulk. Using an oven is possible to dehydrate food, but takes far more energy to run your oven than a dehydrator.
Dehydrators don’t have to be expensive either. You can buy them used at most thrift stores, some garage sales, or on local online marketplaces. In some cases, you’ll find one that works well within the $10-15 price range. If you invest in a used dehydrator, making meals for backpacking trips just got a lot easier and possibly cheaper.
If you don’t want to go the dehydrator route, you can always choose to buy dehydrated food in bulk. Depending on the brand or your location (you may have to buy online), this may or may not save you money.
The next hurdle to overcome is if you are buying seasonal foods or not. Seasonal fruits and vegetables will always be a more affordable option. If you are dehydrating your meals, you could take advantage of produce that is on sales because it will spoil soon, but drying them will give it a second life.
Choosing your carbs and proteins are the next most essential price points. Having a carb of rice, pasta, or potatoes will be very affordable. Then, vegetarian/vegan protein options will be cheaper than animal proteins. They will also be safer to dehydrate yourself. Choosing to use legumes as your trail protein can be very cost-effective.
Pro Meal Prep Tip: If you aren’t a fan of beans, consider using TVP (textured vegetable protein) as a ground meat replacement. It is lightweight, affordable, and takes on flavors well.
Do Homemade Backpacking Meals Taste Better than Prepackaged?
Not all backpacking meal companies taste the same. And, not everyone has the same knowledge of abilities in the kitchen. As you improve your skills in the kitchen and around your camp stove, your homemade meals will almost always win a taste test when paired with packaged food.
Best Tasting Prepackaged Backpacking Meals
Although, not as tasty as homemade, many pre-made backpacking meals are quite delicious. Some popular brands are Mountain House, Patagonia, Good-To Go, OMeals, and PackIt Gourmet. They all have diverse options that are almost good enough that you’d consider making them at home.
Some brands, like Good-To Go, offers bold flavors that many hikers crave. For example, their Thai Curry packs a flavorful punch that will get you coming back for more. However, it is somewhat spicy and may not sit well with everyone. Therefore, be mindful of what you can handle.
Although PackIt Gourmet does not have a ton of vegan options (only three), they do have a few vegetarian and regular meal choices. The vegan options that they do have are not the plain old rice and beans you think of though! They have delectable vegan ramen and a vegetarian pasta that will have any meat-eater thinking twice about their meal.
Check out our guide to Choosing Vegan Outdoor Gear.
There are tons of prepackaged backpacking meals out there now. Our advice is to try a few, see if you like them and if the price is justifiable to you. If it is, then we recommend going for it. If you’re not overly satisfied with the flavor, try your hand at making meals catered to your flavor preferences at home.
Do Homemade Backpacking Meals Take More Effort to Make than Prepackaged?
The biggest downside to making your backpacking meals at home is that it will take more forethought and effort. However, the good news is that once you get a few “go-to” recipes under your belt, preparing and making your meals becomes much more convenient.
Tips for Easier Backpacking Meal Prep
When you make your backpacking meals, a common misconception is that you have to make and dehydrate everything from scratch. While this is one standard method, there are three main ways you can prep your meals:
- Buy bulk dehydrated or freeze-dried food and combine them with spices. This method requires no home cooking.
- Dehydrating individual ingredients to combine into backpacking meals of your choice. This method requires cooking and drying.
- Cook entire meals and then dehydrate them as a batch.
The first option may be the easiest route if you are new to prepping your backpacking meals.
Buying foods in bulk is usually a cost-effective option, and you’ll have plenty of food ready for a few future trips. The quality of the food itself is the only thing in question here. It will not be as fresh, but you can spice it up the way you like, and you have the added benefit of weighing out your food before you go.
The second and third options are somewhat more advanced and more time-consuming. However, they can be a great way to use up fruits and vegetables that are about to spoil. Dehydrating individual ingredients makes it easier to portion food out. It gives more awareness to the nutritional aspects of your meal, but making whole meals will be more manageable to flavor and whip up in a more timely manner.
What to Consider When Packing Food for a Backpacking Trip
Beyond deciding whether or not you are going to prepare your meals for backpacking, you will need to consider 3 things. The calories you’re consuming, how much your food weights, and how easy it is to pack.
The calories you need on your trip will vary according to your size, the terrain, and how far you plan to travel each day. You want to make sure you’re hitting 2000 calories per day. Remember that the determined calories do not include the strenuous physical activity of hiking. Most hikers can feel good about planning more calories than this.
Keep in mind that you don’t want only to be getting your calories from fat. It is tempting to want a hearty meal at night, but meals that are too heavy or contain too much fat can weigh you down more and make you feel groggy. Try to stick to lighter proteins like legumes, whole grains (not refined carbs), and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
You should also calculate your trail snacks in your calorie count for the day, not just your meals.
When you are backpacking, you have to carry everything you need in your pack. This includes the food you eat as well. Carrying weight is why planning is a big part of a backpacking trip. If you know how much you need to eat, then you don’t have to worry about caring too much weight or running out of food.
Additionally, try to avoid carrying too many liquid-based foods. You may notice that there is a heavy emphasis on freeze-dried or dehydrated foods in this article. This is because liquids weigh more, and most liquid foods are packaged in containers like cans, adding more weight with less nutritional density. For example, packing a can of chili or a can of soup will weigh far more than packing a bag of dehydrated soup or chili mix.
Another often overlooked point is the packaging. If you are buying prepackaged meals, you will want to take note of whether the packaging can be burnt in a campfire safely or if you’ll have to pack it in and out. You should also see how it packs down. Does it lay flat? Is there a lot of air in the bag? These are all things that will influence how it fits with your gear.
If you are prepping your meals, it can be tempting to go right for disposable plastic bags. When you’re a frequent backpacker, though, investing in some silicone reusable bags may save you money and help keep things more organized in your pack. Silicone reusable bags keep their shape, unlike Ziploc bags that will collapse and morph around food.
Everything boils down to price, time, and taste. As stated above, there are pros and cons to both buying prepackaged meals and making it yourself at home.
Food is an essential part of a backpacking journey as a delicious meal gives tired hikers something to look forward to after a long day of adventuring.
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