Everything tastes better when you’re backpacking. But even the hungriest hiker still has standards—and there’s nothing worse than choking down a mediocre dinner after a long day on the trail. Unless, of course, said mediocre dinner is also terrible for you. Yeah, that’d be worse.
Backpackers anxious to avoid this scenario will find a bevy of lightweight dehydrated and freeze-dried dishes that promise both flavor and nutrition. But which ones are actually worth the money? We selected ten just-add-water meals from five different brands—Packit Gourmet, Mountain House, Good To-Go, Peak Refuel, and Backpacker’s Pantry—and asked a professional chef and a registered dietitian to sample, scrutinize, and rank their favorites.
Carrie Baird is a James Beard Award nominee, Top Chef finalist, outdoor enthusiast, and Denver-based owner of Rose’s Classic Americana. Claudia Carberry is a registered dietitian in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a thru-hiker who counsels long-distance backpackers on their nutrition. Baird evaluated all ten meals for taste, noting factors like flavor and mouthfeel. Carberry rated the nutrition profile of each, taking into account total calories, calories per ounce, protein, and fiber levels. Here are the eats that stood above the rest.
Best Meals: Taste
1. Texas State Fair Chili by Packit Gourmet ($ 12)
Hands down Baird’s favorite meal, this chili was comforting and warming with the right amount of salt, texture, and heat. The rehydrated beef “actually tasted like beef” and came in heaping quantities, which means hikers get the perfect bite every time. Also stellar? The mouthfeel is warm, chewy, crispy, and slightly spicy, and the soupy consistency made for a hydrating dish. But what really put this nosh over the edge, Baird says, were the included mix-in toppings. Corn chips, cheese, and Texas Pete hot sauce added texture and fat.
2. Southwest Corn & Black Bean Salad by Packit Gourmet ($ 11)
Baird put off testing this meal until the end—thrown by the word “salad,” she expected something “so gross.” But when she finally willed herself to prepare the packet, which can be cold-soaked or made with hot water, she discovered a delicious and hearty meal with a surprising umami pop. It includes toppings of olive oil, malted vinegar, corn tortilla chips, Monterey Jack cheese, and Cholula hot sauce, which Baird says delivered a ton of texture. The vinegar, in particular, “just hit all of your taste buds.” Though the dish is supposed to be served cold, Baird reduced the hot-water steep time and enjoyed it warm. She surmised the salad would be great mixed into a bowl of rice or pasta or wrapped in a burrito.
3. Pad Thai with Chicken by Backpacker’s Pantry ($ 13)
Thick and creamy with just the right amount of salt, this Thai-inspired meal features peanut butter in the sauce and whole peanuts sprinkled on top. The noodles were chewy and held together unlike other pasta dishes Baird sampled that broke into small pieces when cooked. “You could get a big bite,” she says. “Not like a spoon bite, but like a fork bite.” Moreover, the chicken was generously portioned and had a nice texture. The one downside: the condiment packets were extremely difficult to open—Baird eventually had to cut them open with a knife. If she were out on the trail, in the cold and dark, she says she would have just gone without them.
Honorable Mention: Chicken Alfredo Pasta by Peak Refuel ($ 13)
Loaded with Alfredo sauce, chicken, and a good balance of salt, this meal was well textured and creamy, like stovetop mac and cheese, Baird says. Another plus: the noodles held up. But unlike the other top picks, the overall taste fell a bit flat. “If there was some hot sauce or something in there, it would have been dynamite,” Baird says.
Best Meals: Nutrition
1. Texas State Fair Chili by Packit Gourmet ($ 12)
This meal delivers 121 calories per ounce (680 overall), meeting Carberry’s standard for a filling dinner: containing more than 600 calories, at least 25 grams of protein, and at least 10 grams of fiber. It also packs a good dose of protein (39 grams) to help repair and build muscle; 21 grams of fiber, which is helpful for staying regular on the trail; and 50 percent of daily iron needs, important for preventing anemia, which can lead to extreme fatigue and exhaustion. Iron also helps oxygen flow in the body, “which of course is really important when you’re exercising all day long,” Carberry explains.
2. Pad Thai with Chicken by Backpacker’s Pantry ($ 13)
Loaded with calories (800 total; 115 per ounce) and protein (46g), this well-rounded meal supplies adequate fiber (10 grams) and 30 percent of daily potassium needs. Potassium, an electrolyte lost through sweat, regulates your heartbeat and heart rhythm, Carberry says, so it’s important for backpackers to routinely replenish stores.
3. Three Bean Chili Mac by Peak Refuel ($ 13)
This vegan choice doesn’t offer the most overall calories (600), but it does provide a promising 30 grams of protein, 20 grams of fiber, 30 percent of daily potassium needs, and 127 calories per ounce. “It’s a good idea to look for products that have at least 100 calories per ounce. But if you can get over 120, that’s a higher standard that would be preferable, especially for lightweight backpackers,” Carberry says. The chili is also loaded with beans, which contain lots of magnesium, a mineral that can help fight inflammation in the body after a long day of trekking.
Honorable Mention: Thai Curry by Good To-Go ($ 14.25)
This curry isn’t super high on protein (20 grams), but it does provide a solid 750 calories (115 per ounce) and 14 grams of fiber. The meal also delivers an impressive 80 percent of daily vitamin C needs, which helps repair your connective tissues and ligaments, Carberry explains.
The Texas State Fair Chili by Packit Gourmet is clearly the best in show, nabbing the number one spot for both taste and nutrition. The Pad Thai with Chicken from Backpacker’s Pantry also scored high in both categories—third in taste, second in nutrition. Hungry hikers, take note.