Heading off on a wild camping, backpacking or thru-hiking adventure doesn’t mean you have to eat tasteless food. You aren’t limited to cheap instant noodles or bland cup-a-soups. There are, in fact, a huge range of specialist expedition and camping meals available that are both nutritious and tasty, meaning the best backpacking food is easier to find than you might think.
There are two main types of lightweight backpacking meals: ready to eat and freeze-dried/dehydrated. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages and we’re here to unravel the secrets.
Ready to eat meals can be eaten hot or cold, do not require you to carry or add water, are well-priced and easy to cook, and – for some – taste better than freeze-dried/dehydrated meals. But they are generally heavier and have a lower calorie count.
Conversely, freeze-dried/dehydrated meals are super-lightweight and compact, easy to pack in your bag, have a long shelf-life, and often provide a higher calorie content. But there are cons too. You have to carry and boil water to rehydrate them – and the big question is, will you like the taste?
Without getting too technical, it is also worth noting the two different ways of taking water out of food to render it lightweight and preservable: freeze-drying and dehydration.
Freeze-drying involves freezing food to a very low temperature and drying it in a vacuum; dehydration involves passing warm over the surface of the food inside a commercial dehydrator. Different brands use each approach – but the end results are very similar. BeWell Expedition Food and Bla Band make freeze-dried meals, for example, while Adventure Food and Firepot supply dehydrated backpacking food.
"What is the most important consideration for you – taste, weight, calories, or price?"
So which type should you go for: ready to eat or freeze-dried/dehydrated? This will really depend on the type of camping adventure you’re going on and what your priorities are. If minimising the weight and size of your backpack is the most important consideration, then freeze-dried/dehydrated meals will be your best bet. Why? Because the lightest freeze-dried/dehydrated main meal reviewed below is just 102g, which is three times lighter than each of the two ready to eat meals we have tested.
If you’re undertaking an intense physical challenge, such as an ultra, calorie in-take is likely to be more important to you. In that case, again freeze-dried/dehydrated is the right choice, with specialist high-energy meals providing up to 800kcal per portion.
But if taste is the most crucial factor for you – or the hassle-free option to eat a meal cold without boiling up water – then ready-to-eat is probably your best choice.
And, finally, if price is your biggest factor, then sadly you might just have to go for that 40p pack of bland instant noodles.
Best Backpacking Food: Meals on Test
Outdoors Magic have teamed up with Base Camp Food – a website with a huge selection of lightweight, freeze-dried and dehydrated expedition meals, all available with free delivery in the UK – to review the best backpacking food for 2018. Here are 12 of our recommended brands and 22 of our favourite meals.
Adventure Food: Chicken Curry / Mousse au Chocolat
Set up by adventurer Hans van der Meulen, the first Dutchman to climb Everest without additional oxygen, Adventure Food specialises in dehydrated expedition food “for intensive outdoor activities”. The Netherlands-based company opts for a classic approach: self-standing pouches that you add boiling water to, seal for 8 minutes, and then eat out of. It is a quick and simple approach, with no washing up to do at the end – always a bonus.
The meals are well-priced compared to others, lightweight but not the lightest on test, and serve up a good calorie-content-to-weight ratio. But how do they taste? The chicken curry is well-spiced and relatively filling, rehydrating out nicely into a biryani-style texture with small squares of chicken. The gooey mousse au chocolate meanwhile has a bubbly texture, added chocolate swirls, and, unlike others, isn’t too sickly. In terms of taste, I’d describe them both as enjoyable but nothing to write home about.
Chicken curry: £5.50 / 145g / 600kcal / 8 mins
Chocolate mousse: £4.50 / 69g / 300kcal / 8 mins
The Adventure Food range also includes Expedition Breakfast, Pasta al Salmone, Vanilla Dessert and many more.
BeWell Expedition Food: Vegetarian Chilli Con Carne / Strawberries with Custard
Used and endorsed by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, British-based company BeWell Expedition Food supplies a range of free-dried meals, ready to eat wet meals, 24-hour ration packs and energy products – all emblazoned with a headshot of the legendary explorer looking suitably rugged and adventurous. The freeze-dried meals on test here use the standard approach of rip open pouch, add water, stir, seal, wait, and eat – and serve up a high-calorie content to fuel your adventures. The vegetarian chilli con carne is a hearty hot meal with a slightly spicy kick to it, an excellent helping of kidney beans and rice, and a large portion size that is guaranteed to fill a hole, while the strawberries with custard pouch provides a similarly massive portion of very sweet dessert with a whopping 784kcal. They aren’t the tastiest on test, but if you’ve got a big appetite they might just be the right option for you.
Vegetarian Chilli Con Carne: £5.99 / 180g / 696kcal / 7-9 mins
Strawberries with Custard: £5.85 / 180g / 784kcal / 8 mins
The BeWell Expedition Food range also includes Healthy Fruit Muesli, Beef Curry with Rice, Custard with Apple and many more.
Beyond The Beaten Track: All Day Breakfast / Chicken Tikka Masala, Chickpeas & Rice
Billed as the only camping meals recommended for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, Beyond The Beaten Track supplies ready to eat meals that can be eaten hot or cold (although hot is way better). The pouches are, obviously, significantly heavier than freeze-dried options, but they can be cooked without water. Simply empty the contents into your pan, heat up and enjoy. Other cooking options include placing the unopened foil pouch into boiling water or using flameless ration heaters, two approaches that both mean you can eat out of the pouch and thus avoid any dirty pans to wash. The Beyond the Beaten Track meals are easily the cheapest options on test, saving you a couple of pounds per meal, but they are also amongst the heaviest and least calorific. The big pro, however, is that they taste good. The expedition breakfast is an appetising and filling combination of sausage, bacon and omelette in a juicy tomato and baked bean sauce, while the chicken tikka masala is spicy with a creamy, indulgent sauce and large chunks of chicken. Both meals were up there as my favourites on test.
All Day Breakfast: £3.49 / 300g / 405kcal / 7-8 mins
Chicken Tikka Masala, Chickpeas & Rice: £4.00 / 300g / 453kcal / 7-8 mins
The Beyond the Beaten Track range also includes Vegetarian All Day Breakfast, Sausage Casserole, Rice Pudding and many more.
Bla Band: Tropical Breakfast with Cereal Flakes / Indian Chicken Stew
Bla Band offers a mid-range selection of free-dried expedition meals that perform solidly across all criteria: they are lightweight, quick and easy to make, not too expensive, deliver a good calories-to-weight ratio, and taste pretty decent too. Their unique selling point is the shallow pouch shape, which is really useful and also features a handy internal fill-line telling you exactly how much water to pour in. The internal line is far easier to use than the external lines used by some rival brands. The tropical breakfast with cereal flakes is a good-sized portion of porridge, with the pieces of mango, pineapple and passion fruit a creating a distinctive flavour reminiscent of a tropical fruits juice drink. The Indian chicken stew, meanwhile, is a curry-style dish with chunks of chicken, rice, a healthy portion of tomato, green beans, red pepper and onion, and a fragrant flavour. For me, in terms of taste the meals were pretty good but not spectacular – perhaps 6/10 for the breakfast and 7/10 for the dinner.
Tropical Breakfast with Cereal Flakes: £5.75 / 139g / 572kcal / 5 mins
Indian Chicken Stew: £6.75 / 146g / 645kcal / 10 mins
The Bla Bland range also includes Apple Cinnamon Porridge, Creamy Pasta with Chicken, Rice Pudding with Strawberries and many more.
Expedition Foods: Porridge with Strawberries / Chicken Tikka with Rice
According to its bright orange packaging, Expedition Foods has been providing “top quality freeze-dried meals to expeditions, rowers and sailors, endurance athletes, mountaineers, film crews and disaster recovery teams all over the world since 1995”. Clearly, the British company is positioned to supply more intensive adventures, and this is reflected in its high-energy range which serves up the highest calorie content of the meals on test. The chicken tikka with rice, for example, provides 809kcal but weighs only 140g, almost a 6:1 kcal to gram ratio. In comparison the Bla Band Indian chicken stew weights a similar 146g but provides only 645kcal. The taste of the Expedition Foods pouches, however, can’t match its high performance in the calorie category. The porridge with strawberries is filling and sweet, with a decent texture, while the chicken tikka with rice is reasonably spicy and creamy and complemented by small squares of chicken – but I’d describe both as “good” rather than “great”.
Porridge with Strawberries: £6.89 / 165g / 805kcal / 5-8 mins
Chicken Tikka with Rice: £6.89 / 140g / 809kcal / 5-8 mins
The Expedition Foods range also includes Granola with Raspberries, Spicy Vegetable Noodles, Macaroni and Cheese and many more.
Extreme Food: Chicken and Pesto Pasta / Chocolate Chip Pudding
Extreme Food claims to offer “specially formulated and nutritionally balanced meals with the highest energy vs the lowest pack weight and volume on the market” – food that will “power you to achieve your goals”. It is difficult to disagree. The small, flat pouch size is really easy to pack into your bag and at only 102g for a dinner of 500kcal Extreme Food does provide the lightest main meal in our test. But how do they taste? The chicken and pesto pasta is creamy and spicy, with small, thin tubes of pasta and small bites of chicken, while the chocolate chip pudding is a gooey delight complemented by ample chocolate chips. I really enjoyed them both – definitely two of my favourites on test.
Chicken & Pesto Pasta: £6.00 / 102g / 500kcal / 6-8 mins
Chocolate Chip Pudding: £5.00 / 105g / 500kcal / 6-8 mins
The Extreme Food range also includes Porridge and Maple Syrup, Beef Shepherd’s Pie, Apples and Custard and many more.
Firepot: Orzo Pasta Bolognese
Hand cooked in Dorset, Firepot appears to do things differently. Its meals are made using 100% natural ingredients and created using the dehydration process, which according to the firm leads to far better results than freeze-drying. It says its “food tastes like it should, with plenty of texture and flavour”, partly because each meal is handmade and dehydrated in its entirety without adding anything else, unlike other brands which “buy in freeze-dried ingredients and just mix them together in the packet, hoping the flavours will combine by the time you add water — they don’t.” Whatever it does, Firepot is doing something right. The orzo pasta bolognese is delicious, with nice rice-shaped pasta, a flavoursome tomato and oregano sauce, and filling slow-cooked beef. At 15 minutes, it is the longest pouch meal to prepare – but it is definitely worth the wait.
Orzo Pasta Bolognese: £6.50 / 135g / 635kcal / 15mins
The Firepot range also includes Dal and Rice with Spinach, Posh Pork and Beans, Porcini Mushroom Risotto and many more.
Forestia: Vegan Green Lentil Curry
Spanish company Forestia prides itself on creating ready to eat meals made with 100% natural food, free from trans fats, artificial preservatives and flavourings. It describes its products as “real food” that doesn’t need to be reconstituted with water – all you need to do is open the pouch, empty into a pot, heat, and enjoy. Its range includes numerous vegan and vegetarian options. The vegan green lentil curry is pretty heavy at 350g for just 249kcal, but it is delicious. The dal-like meal tastes like a super-food, very natural and healthy with ample helpings of spinach, baby carrots, poached onion and roasted courgette. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Vegan Green Lentil Curry: £6.25 / 350g / 249kcal / 7-8 mins
The Forestia range also includes Mint Lamb Casserole, Soya Meat Curry, Veggie Meatballs with Pasta and many more.
LYO Expedition: Coconut Porridge / Nettle Curry
LYO Expedition is a multi-award winning range of freeze-dried meals from LYO Food based in Germany. The branding of the pouches is contemporary and cool, they are lightweight and simple to use, and the calorie content is pretty high. But the main attraction is the taste. The experts at Base Camp Food put it like this: “for us, the real standout feature of these meals is the taste - they taste more like a home cooked dish than most other freeze dried meals - the meat rehydrates well and the vegetables taste like real vegetables.” The coconut porridge is a brilliant start to the day, tasting both delicious and healthy with ample blueberries, figs and chia seeds added to the porridge, while the nettle curry is a fragrant, creamy dish with an epic quantity of juicy vegetables. At up to £7.99 for a main, LYO Expedition isn’t the cheapest – but it is definitely one of the tastiest.
Coconut Porridge: £5.50 / 100g / 518kcal / 10 mins
Nettle Curry: £7.99 / 110g / 530kcal / 10 mins
The LYO Expedition range also includes Porridge with Raspberries, Vegan Barley and Lentil Risotto, Wild Berry Mix and many more.
Real Turmat: Fruit Muesli / Pulled Pork with Rice
Norwegian company Real Turmat is one of Base Camp Food’s best-selling ranges – and it’s easy to see why. The freeze-dried pouches look great, are lightweight, quick to cook and hassle-free to use, and provide a decent calorie hit. They are, however, super-expensive at up to £11.99 for a main meal, but sometimes you get what you pay for. The meals on offer are unique, such as reindeer casserole, and they taste great. The blueberry and vanilla muesli, which is made using cold water in just three minutes, is a welcome change to porridge, has a lovely sweet vanilla flavour, and is a filling and scrumptious start to the day. Meanwhile, the pulled pork with rice has a huge amount of succulent pork and a rich flavour – a real treat out in the mountains.
Fruit Muesli: £5.99 / 113g / 416kcal / 3 mins
Pulled Pork with Rice: £9.99 / 121g / 547kcal / 8 mins
The Real Turmat range also includes Chocolate Muesli, Reindeer Soup, Cod in Creamy Curry Sauce and many more.
Summit To Eat: Chicken Fried Rice / Chocolate Mousse with Cherry and Granola
The expedition food brand with the wittiest name, Summit to Eat (somethin’ to eat, get it?) serves up a “lightweight, versatile food source to help fuel any adventure”, according to its excellent website. It is a solid performer across all key areas: its freeze-dried pouches are well-priced, lightweight, simple to use, easy to pack, and high in calories. And, thankfully, they taste good too. The chicken fried rice is a filling meal with a tasty teriyaki sauce, bigger pieces of chicken than many competitors, and a generous supply of vegetables including onion, red peppers, green beans and sweetcorn. The chocolate mousse with cherry and granola is a chocolate gooey mess, like many other expedition desserts, except the addition of crunchy granola clusters and cherries makes it far tastier than most. All-in-all, I would thoroughly recommend Summit to Eat.
Chicken Fried Rice: £5.50 / 121g / 617kcal / 8 mins
Chocolate Mousse with Cherry and Granola: £4.50 / 97g / 416kcal / 8 mins
The Summit to Eat range also includes Scrambled Egg with Cheese, Beef and Potato Stew, Custard Apple Crunch and many more.
TentMeals: Blueberry Burst Breakfast / Almond Jalfrezi Main Meal
TentMeals claims to produce “high energy expedition foods designed for ultimate endurance and recovery”. None of its meals contain meat and instead the company uses “wholesome, healthy ingredients seasoned with a delicious blend of natural herbs and spices”. For complex carbs, it uses either rice, couscous or oats, and to up the calorie count it avoids pouring oil into its meals, unlike some competitors, and instead uses a mix of nuts, seeds and coconut products. Its meals aren’t the lightest, but they do provide a high calorie content (either 500kcal or 800kcal) and at under £5 are amongst the best-priced on test. To cook you simply pour the ingredients into a pan, add boiling water, and cover. The blueberry burst breakfast is very filling, with a nice texture, a lovely sweet and nutty flavour, and an enjoyable taste of coconut, lemon and cranberry. The almond jalfrezi, meanwhile, has a creamy, smooth sauce that is complemented excellently by the crunchy almonds.
Blueberry Burst Breakfast: £4.50 / 202g / 800kcal / 7 mins
Almond Jalfrezi Main Meal: £4.50 / 114g / 500kcal / 10 mins
The TentMeals range also includes Super Seed and Red Berry Breakfast, Moroccan Mango Main Meal, Italian Inspired Main Meal and many more.