10 Best Backpacker’s Pantry Meals of 2018—Ranked!
|Backpacker’s Pantry Meal||Score||MSRP||No. of Servings||Calories per Serving||Preparation Time||Protein|
|Top Pick & Backpacker’s Choice: Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken||
|$10.90||2||270||15-20 min||18 g|
|Best Breakfast & Backpacker’s Choice Runner-up: Huevos Rancheros||
|$6.50||2||210||10 min||16 g|
|Camper’s Choice: Organic Blueberry Walnut Oats & Quinoa||
|$5.90||1||360||5 min||11 g|
|Camper’s Choice Runner-up: Granola with Bananas, Almonds & Milk||
|$7.90||2||620||0 min||16 g|
|Three Sisters Stew||
|$10.50||2||450||15-20 min||17 g|
|Three Cheese Mac & Cheese||
|$9.50||2||430||15-20 min||19 g|
|Louisiana Red Beans and Rice||
|$4.50||2||300||15-20 min||12 g|
|Shepherd’s Potato Stew with Beef||
|$10.90||2||300||15-20 min||18 g|
|$6.50||2||410||15-20 min||14 g|
|$7.50||2||440||15-20 min||18 g|
After kicking my hiking boots off at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is eat crappy food.
I don’t want anything salty, mushy, bland, stinky or soupy when it’s not supposed to be. What I do want is something simple, nutritious, delicious, and as lightweight as possible.
That may sound like a lot to ask for when you’re carrying your entire kitchen on your back, but there is a solution to low-maintenance backcountry cuisine:
MREs, also known as Meals Ready to Eat or freeze-dried meals.
To get a sense for which MREs are worth the money, we challenged Backpacker’s Pantry, a popular brand, to send us their 10 bestselling freeze-dried meals, and they accepted!
Using a focus group with five very different individuals (and two hungry doggies), we then taste tested these meals extensively. Here are the results of our experiment.
Table of Contents
- How We Tested
- Top Pick & Backpacker’s Choice
- Best Breakfast Pick & Backpacker’s Choice Runner-up
- Camper’s Choice
- Camper’s Choice Runner-up
- Reviews of the Other 6 Backpacker’s Pantry Meals We Tested
- How to Choose the Best Backpacker’s Pantry Meals for Your Needs
- The Backpacker’s Pantry Meals Other Experts Prefer
How We Tested
Our testing process was two-fold. It included:
- A side-by-side taste test of all 10 meals
- Research into the important product specs of each meal
Part 1: The Taste Test
For the first part of our testing process, we assessed the actual taste and flavor profile of each meal. We focused on three specific criteria:
- Visual appeal and smell
- Flavor and aftertaste
But here’s the thing — you don’t need to be a hardcore backpacker to judge things like your journey to flavortown.
In fact, what I’ve learned over the years is that most hardcore backpackers will eat pretty much anything. As a general group, we’re not that picky.
That’s why we wanted to set up a focus group for our taste test. We brought in five very different individuals with very different palates and forced them to study, smell, taste, and judge MREs until the sun went down. (Don’t worry, we rewarded them all with beer.)
The personalities of our focus group testers were critical to this step in the study, and we hope that, by understanding the individuals involved, we can provide some relatability to you as a reader and future MRE consumer. The personalities of our five focus group participants are as follows:
- Little Dirtbag: Female, age 22. Willing to eat anything with calories, but patient enough to cook and prepare her own backcountry meals. Generally avoids MREs because she thinks she can do it better. Weirdly proud of her record of 18 days without showering. Often found in mountains and on rivers.
- Kale Eater: Female, age 31. Fitness fanatic who judges everything on its nutritional benefit. Will not go camping unless an air mattress and Airstream is involved. Requires beauty sleep and protein shakes. Finds the smell of a campfire to be unpleasant. (???)
- River Rat: Male, age 30. Likes the outdoors and recreational activity but generally goes with the flow. Served as our neutral, most unbiased judge.
- Mountain Man: Male, age 52. Long time backpacker and backcountry adventurer, with very seasoned and particular food opinions. Relies heavily on MREs while adventuring, but always carries his spice kit to dress them up. Attempted to force all other participants to only sample MREs with hot sauce. That’s not how this works, Mountain Man.
- Den Mother: Female, age 51. Highly averse to backcountry hiking, climbing, and salt. Has supported a family of backpackers for years. Always makes the best from-scratch frontcountry meals and works magic on a Coleman stove. Expert glamper.
Little Dirtbag and Mountain Man served as our backpacking professionals and their opinions on the meals helped us develop the Backpacker’s Choice award. The Backpacker’s Choice award was awarded to the meal we believed to be best suited for the backcountry adventurer.
Kale Eater and Den Mother served as our camping/glamping professionals and their opinions on the meals helped us develop the Camper’s Choice award. The Camper’s Choice award was awarded to the meal we believed to be best suited for camping and frontcountry activities.
River Rat served as our most neutral judge, with the least bias invested into the process. His opinions supported equally both the Backpacker’s Choice and the Camper’s Choice awards.
Once our taste testers were all together, we:
- Followed the preparation instructions found on the back of each MRE precisely and waited exactly the recommended cook time before sampling the meals.*
- Analyzed how successfully cooked the meals were based on the instructions. Meals that were undercooked, too soupy or overcooked ranked lower than those we found to be cooked properly.
- Rated each meal on its initial appearance, smell, texture and flavor profile, as well as “how close to the real deal” it actually tasted.
- Ranked the meals on a scale of 1-5. Then we opened the floor to discussion and debate regarding our rankings and opinions. Never before have we worked with a more quotable group.
* Editor’s Note: Elevation, ambient temperature, water temperature, and specific food profile all influence preparation time. Backpacker’s Pantry’s preparation instructions are designed for as wide a range of scenarios as possible, but you should always adjust them to your specific circumstances. For the sake of uniformity in our taste test, we followed the preparation instructions on each package to a tee. Our taste test took place at 6,500 feet during a warm summer night in Colorado.
Part 2: Product Specs Research
The second section of our testing was less fun and involved researching the product specs for each meal. We focused on:
- Amount of water needed
- Preparation time
- Nutritional content
- Number of servings
We then developed a ranking system to support our awards process.
The Backpacker’s Choice award was more highly influenced by specs than our Camper’s Choice award. Meals high in protein and calories that required less water and preparation time ranked more highly for backpacking than they did for camping. Meals that ranked highest in smell, taste, and texture, regardless of weight and water required, scored higher for the Camper’s Choice award.
Top Pick & Backpacker’s Choice: Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken
Never before have I seen or tasted Fettuccini Alfredo with so many vitamins.
With 180% of your daily value of Vitamin C and 90% of your daily value of Vitamin A, Backpacker’s Pantry has managed to make comfort food nutritional. The meal starts with a delicious smell, followed by an even more delicious and creamy bite of Fettuccini, the kind of stuff your mom made when you were sick as a kid.
The silky first bite, however, is followed by a wonky aftertaste — a common occurrence for any freeze-dried meal with milk in it. Yet, the Fettuccini Alfredo has the best overall flavor of all the Backpacker’s Pantry meals we tasted.
While we were concerned that the chicken may turn out gummy — or worse, rubbery — all testers were delightfully surprised and could totally see carrying this on the trail. However, Den Mother thought the meal was too salty to eat in its entirety. With 35% of your daily value of sodium, that is definitely something to consider.
Why is this meal our Backpacker’s Choice?
Besides earning high marks for taste from our backpacking professionals, the fettuccini is extremely high in nutritional value, an important factor on the trail. When you are sweating all day, it doesn’t hurt to replenish your body of salts with a warm and gooey scoop of carbs.
When prepared according to the instructions, the fettuccini cooks just the right amount, and you are left with only a bit of soupiness, not something we would ever complain about. It is a savory meal that is sure to replenish and warm you up from the inside out.
Best Breakfast & Backpacker’s Choice Runner-up: Huevos Rancheros
It was a difficult decision to grant Huevos Rancheros the honor of Backpacker’s Choice Runner-up.
The cooking instructions are more involved than most MREs, something that you don’t want to deal with all the time on the trail (especially in the morning). Most MREs simply require you to measure, boil water, pour, stir and wait. Because of the beans in this dish, though, there is a sixth step of cooking the dish over a low flame to ensure total rehydration.
Dirty pots and pans in the backcountry? I brought an MRE so I could avoid that! However, the flavor profile and nutritional value cannot be ignored in this savory breakfast dish.
The dish has a great texture because of the onions, and when cooked correctly, tastes extremely close to the real deal. Plus, the meal should never come out watery because of the extra step of cooking.
The Huevos Rancheros received exceptionally high ratings from our older tasters. A coincidence? We aren’t sure. What we are sure of, though, is that this is the best Backpacker’s Pantry breakfast available, at least in our eyes.
Camper’s Choice: Organic Blueberry Walnut Oats & Quinoa
If you’re looking for something more sweet to indulge in during the morning, this is it. Some of our camping testers remarked that they would keep a bag or two of the Blueberry Walnut Oats and Quinoa in their car or pantry. It’s a meal you could eat anytime, in or out of the backcountry.
However, I hope you have an active day planned if you eat this meal. There are 14 grams of sugar per serving, something that you will appreciate preceding a long day of hiking. For an MRE, there is very little sodium in this dish and an incredibly high level of iron, 140% of your daily value. On a nutritional level, this meal will serve you anywhere.
The texture of the quinoa is fantastic and adds a boost of protein to your everyday morning oatmeal routine. This meal ranked more highly with our women testers than our males, though most everyone claimed to prefer a savory breakfast over a sweet one.
What do we not like about this dish?
It’s essentially glorified oatmeal, something you could make a lot more of yourself for way less than $5.90 per serving. At 360 calories per serving and only one serving per container, we couldn’t support this as a backpacking meal. You would be starving again before lunchtime.
It is certain to warm you up on a cold morning, but those who will be burning lots of calories should view it as more of a snack than a full meal.
Camper’s Choice Runner-up: Granola with Bananas, Almonds & Milk
This is the only freeze-dried meal we tested — and the only one I know of — that does not require hot or boiling water. As a result, it is one of the easiest meals to prepare. Just add 2 cups of hot or cold water (your choice), and your meal is ready to serve.
It is an awesomely high-calorie meal, especially for breakfast. The bag offers 2 servings, each at 620 calories. That would make it a fantastic backcountry dish, whether you are backpacking or camping.
The sugar content is even higher than the blueberry oats dish, at 64 grams per bag. If you’re really burning energy throughout the day, you’ll want to indulge in this breakfast.
For consistency’s sake with our sampled breakfasts, we used hot water to rehydrate the dish. As the Kale Eater noted, it “looks like somebody blew chunks in this bag.” Well, yeah. We rehydrated milk, granola, bananas and almonds so it doesn’t have a pleasant appearance to it.
The instructions say to use 2 cups of water, but that created more of a granola soup. Likewise, evaporated milk usually stinks, especially when heated up. If you can get yourself past these two initial reviews, the taste isn’t that bad.
Of course, with 32 grams of sugar per serving, the flavor is definitely sweet. The nutritional stats alone would suggest that this is the perfect backpacking meal, but the flavor just didn’t do it for us. Remember that the ingredients are very simple. We say, if you can, make your own granola for cheaper.
Reviews of the Other 6 Backpacker’s Pantry Meals We Tested
The great thing about stew is that you can’t really make it too soupy or watery. This dish tastes healthy but could use some dressing up. For cold-weather hiking, we could see packing this dish.
However, it is a meal that you would procrastinate eating until you had no other choices. Our focus group argued about if the dish tasted bland or flavorful. We’d say it was somewhere in the middle.
It smells good and has a nice texture, despite the rice being very lightly undercooked. It scored more highly with our younger testers than our older ones, and, with a little dressing up, may be worth a shot.
As far as a macaroni and cheese dish goes, we will always be firm believers that you can do better yourself. Don’t waste money on fancy packaging or vacuum seals when it’s as simple as noodles and powdered cheese.
The use of three cheeses just made the meal weirdly gooey and all of us thirsty. However, the men in the focus group enjoyed this much more than the women. Mountain Man said he could “totally pack this. It’s a good, hearty meal.”
Very true, but I have digestive concerns for anyone who eats a block of cheese for dinner.
Our focus group participants originated from all across the country, from California to New Mexico to Colorado to Texas and the Deep South. When the thought of red beans and rice came up, our southern participants were skeptical, with very particular ideas about what a good red beans and rice is.
Sampling this dish, all agreed that it fell short. It was simply bland. The presentation was fair, but there was very little to this meal.
We stirred the bag up repeatedly, hoping to mix up seasonings at the bottom, but to no avail. There are only six ingredients in the dish, not counting the basic spices like cumin and oregano, and it’s not enough. The beans are flavorless, as is the rice.
This meal could be fixed up, however, if you carry your own spices.
None of our testers had ever indulged in shepherd’s pie, so it was difficult to compare this rehydrated dish to the real deal. However, we do know what good flavor is.
This meal was simply okay. The general consensus was that “if this was the last thing in my pack, I would eat it.” It has a pleasant tomato taste, but you better like tomatoes because that is the extent of this flavor profile. The texture and smell certainly won’t turn you away, but it won’t draw you in either. We just can’t get passionate about this dish.
“This is probably what wallpaper paste tastes like.”
“Can I rate it a zero?”
“Is it possible for curry to taste bad?”
As an ethnic dish, our testers were all excited to try this new spin. After all, you don’t see dishes like Chana Masala very often in the world of freeze-dried meals.
However, the taste was just weird and unpleasant. After an exhausting day of backpacking, you probably wouldn’t notice the bad flavor, but don’t take it camping unless you want to dress it up.
Chana Masala is an Indian dish, and after further research, we learned that it can be dressed up with fresh ingredients like jalapeños and red onion. It’s made with chickpeas, onions and tomatoes, so the texture is not half-bad. However, it is seasoned with coriander, garlic and ginger, so if you enjoy those flavors, perhaps it’s worth a go.
This was probably the grossest of all 10 Backpacker’s Pantry meals we tested. Online reviews, though, especially those found on the Backpacker’s Pantry website, are predominantly positive, so take our review with a grain of salt.
The Pad Thai comes with a packet of peanuts and peanut butter, bringing the freeze-dried weight up to 8 ounces. The instructions say to add the peanut butter, then boiling water, and wait up to 20 minutes before stirring and adding the peanuts on the top as a garnish.
We couldn’t get past the gooey peanut butter taste, despite the cooking. For lack of a better word, the flavor felt off. It certainly isn’t a Pad Thai, and — with the gooey peanut butter texture — it’s not worth finishing.
(We didn’t try this but it might be worth substituting the included peanut butter with powdered peanut butter or peanut butter from a pouch. You could also repackage regular peanut butter in a lightweight, leakproof container.)
This meal is gluten-free and vegan. It has been a bestselling meal for 9 years in a row according to Backpacker’s Pantry, but we simply can’t get on board.
How to Choose the Best Backpacker’s Pantry Meals for Your Needs
There are lots of different reasons why you may be purchasing a Backpacker’s Pantry meal: backpacking, taking a weekend camping trip, living out of your vehicle, starting a road trip or simply taking a break from cooking.
Here are the important things to consider before choosing which ones to buy.
What flavors do you love? What seasonings do you most often cook with?
Don’t overlook your real-world taste preferences when deciding which of the 50+ Backpacker’s Pantry meals to purchase. Think of what meals and flavors are important to you in your everyday life.
Try a few of these meals for yourself and see what you think. You may have a very different palate than our five taste testers. Either way, I bet you can find a Backpacker’s Pantry meal that you will enjoy. If not, though, then check out our list of backpacking food ideas or our favorite Mountain House or Good To-Go meals instead.
For car campers and glampers, this is by far the most important consideration. For backpackers and other backcountry explorers, though, there are other things besides taste that you should take into account.
When meal planning for a backcountry trip, you’ll want to ensure you’re properly nourishing your body. Before purchasing an MRE, take a gander at the Nutrition Facts label and note the amounts of:
- Macros (fat, carbs, and protein)
- Calories per serving and per bag
- Vitamins & minerals
Compare these numbers to your daily calorie goals, sensitivity to salt, and other nutritional needs.
Of course, weight is always an important consideration for anything you carry with you in your pack. For any backcountry food, calories per ounce is a good measure to pay attention to here.
Calculating the calories per ounce of any food can be done easily by dividing total calories by overall weight of the package in ounces. (When calculating total calories, don’t forget that many MREs contain multiple servings.)
Calories per ounce = Total Calories / Overall Weight (oz.)
Lightweight backpacking foods tend to be in the range of 120-130 calories per ounce.
Backpacker’s Pantry meals need water to rehydrate — often 2 cups or more. When deciding which MRE to buy, consider whether you’ll be able to carry or have access to enough water to prep your meal.
Some locations have scant amounts of water and ask backpackers to filter only as much water as they need. In locations like these, it’s better to bring along foods that don’t call for lots of water to prepare.
Like most packaged foods, many freeze-dried meals have more ingredients than you’d expect if you simply read the name of the meal. Double-check the ingredients list to make sure a meal meets your dietary requirements before buying.
Backpacker’s Pantry does a good job of accommodating for special diets. On their site you can see lists of their meals which are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, and more.
The Backpacker’s Pantry Meals Other Experts Prefer
We found a hilarious comparison between Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals, written by professional foodie Angela Garbes. She isn’t a backpacker but we must share it with you. Interestingly enough, she liked both the Pad Thai and Shepherd’s Potato Stew with Beef:
“The pad thai tasted surprisingly good: bright with lime, earthy and sweet from the peanut butter. But the sauce base is primarily tomato, so there’s an undeniable whiff of spaghetti sauce to the whole thing. Every fifth bite tasted like pad thai, so I kept eating, trying to chase down flavors of fish sauce and tamarind, but never actually getting there…
My favorite of all the backpacking meals was Backpacker’s Pantry’s shepherd’s potato stew with beef—a rich, tomato-based stew thick with potatoes and cheddar cheese and studded with beef, peas, and corn. The broth had a real depth of flavor, with plenty of black pepper and thyme. In its own strange way, it most closely resembled the sort of simple, comforting one-pot meal I would make at home on a cold, drizzly night.”
We didn’t catch any thyme in our taste test — I warned you that backpackers aren’t exactly culinary artists.
But we were right about one thing: Fettuccini Alfredo. The folks over at ITS Tactical raved about the Fettuccini Alfredo (because how can you not?) giving it a score of 95 out of 100. Likewise, the Austin Kayak blog had this to say about the dish:
“It’s a great combination of creamy and spicy and there’s just so much to eat. The bell peppers definitely stand out too and in a good way.”
Ultimately, we think Backpacker’s Pantry meals are worth a shot if you are a fan of MREs. The nutritional value of their offerings is pretty significant for freeze-dried meals. The flavor isn’t always there, but their meals are certainly worth trying.
Dig in and happy hiking!