Our Guide to Backpacking Meals

Backpacking meal (buy)

Core function: It's the end of a long day hiking in the sun. Sometimes hot food can be super comforting. But maybe you don't want to go through the trouble of actually preparing & cooking a full meal, or maybe you're several miles in the backcountry and couldn't have carried in ingredients. This is where the backpacking meal comes in. These lightweight pouches of food can be cooked just by adding water (often right in the pouch) and are designed to replace much needed nutrients when you're on trail (sodium, protein, and carbs). Modern backpacking meals also come in all the trendy flavors you might find at your favorite restaurant

Do you really need it?

Food is essential, but there are many ways to plan food that don't require this (e.g., energy bars or non-perishable foods) .

For more info, read our 'what you really need' protip

What we carry

Dehydrated type
Model Bushka's Kitchen meals
Bushka's Kitchen meals, various flavors
Vegan options available. Meals generally gluten free, but can't be certified as such because they are processed in a shared facility. For detailed ingredients & nutritional information, please visit their site


MSRP with tax

General Notes
  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the following What To Use & How To Choose section
  • Buy prices a grayed out box indicates we don't sell it (we may only rent backpacking meals of this model)
  • Rent prices are the starting prices; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!

When you hire backpacking meals online, you can select from available options or we'll pick out something for you. You can also write-in any preferences on the last page of checkout. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others.

What to use & how to choose

Sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype of something new (over-spending often happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

We highly recommend reviewing Type or Style first, where we review what you can use to address the Core function--a regular item you have at home may work! The other factors are secondary & depend strongly on the Type or Style you've picked; in fact, for other factors data charts are generally only for a specific Type or Style that we carry (e.g., as a gear shop, would be outdoor-specific products).

We've organized the most commonly used items people use to address the Core function below, with example images, characteristics, features, etc.

This is one of the only gear guides where we don't start by talking about all the ways people can address the topic of food. This is because from bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; nothing but trail mix, energy bars; having a steak; or just having backpacking meals, there are endless ways to prepare food, and food planning is outside the scope of this page.

Instead, we focus on the two main types of backpacking meals.

Preservation technique Dehydrated Freeze-dried
Shelf life 1-5 years 20-30 years
Nearly all the water is removed
Nutritional value
Compared to pre-processed food, not raw ingredients
~50% lost
The process subjects food to more heat than freeze-drying
Minimally lost
No heat is involved
Compared to pre-processed food
Not as good
The process subjects food to more heat than freeze-drying
Very similar
No heat is involved
Time to rehydrate 10-20 min
Usually boiling water, needs to be re-cooked
~5 min
May be able to use either hot or cold water
Can be eaten without rehydration Generally no
Can be very chewy or stiff
Think astronaut food for kids
Effect on other factors Weight Heavier Lighter
Since nearly all the water is removed
Price Less expensive
You can do this at home to an extent
More expensive
More technical process

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent
= we sell

While the table above shows the general price difference between dehydrated vs. freeze-dried food, price is more determined by brand, capacity (see below), and by the food itself, such as:

  • All organic tends to be more expensive
  • Vegetarian tends to be less expensive

All backpacking meals tend to be ~$10-15 for a meal.

In this case, we refer to the serving size of the backpacking meal (if you're buying individual packets). Generally for most backpacking meals, a single serving is 300-500 calories. Meals can be pre-packaged into 1, 1.5, or 2 servings. Depending on your food planning, think about how many servings will be enough. If you've never had backpacking meals before, we encourage you to test them at home or trial them on shorter trips before a longer trip.

As you can imagine, as capacity increases, so does price and weight & size.

If you're thru-hiking 20+ miles (32+km) per day, every advantage counts! In this case, size refers to compactness.

Food strategy is out of scope for this post (probably there are people optimizing for which foods are the lightest when dehydrated or freeze-dried!). Generally, the strategy we observe most frequently is buying in bulk. The biggest advantage isn't weight savings*, but size savings in cutting out individual packaging. Bulk food in a single plastic container is more compactable than several individually packaged meals.

*In fact, weight may be increased, since if you bring bulk food, you may need to bring cookware, whereas with many backpacking meals as we described above, you can cook directly in the package

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about other features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • Can you cook directly in the package? This is a great way to optimize weight, since you no longer need to bring cookware. Cook-safe packaging should not leach compounds into your food even when boiling water is poured inside
  • How do you dispose of the package? Everyone knows to pack out their individual waste. Sometimes food packaging, though, can be burned, which can save you some hassle. Be absolute sure that this is safe with your specific packaging; you do not want to expose yourself to toxic fumes!

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 .