Food is pretty important. I think we can all agree on that. But for those who spend a significant amount of time in the backcountry, there are specific factors that must be considered when it comes to food. One cannot just grab a few sandwiches and throw them into his or her pack and think that will cover all of his or her nutritional needs. Weight, nutrition, price, and taste are all factors that play a role in the food that you pack for your time in the backcountry.
The most common form of backcountry food is freeze-dried or dehydrated food. Light and compact, simply add water and you have a meal in a bag. There are tons of different meals available from lasagna, to chili, to shepherd’s pie, the list goes on. But how can you know which is best? Taste alone cannot be the deciding factor. With this in mind, this article will be comparing some of the top backpacking meal brands available today with the hopes of crowning a winner at the end as the most well-rounded backcountry meal.
Here’s How it Works
There will be four categories: Cost per serving, Weight per serving, Nutrition per serving, and Taste. Since a serving size is intended to function as a meal for the average person, all metrics will be based on serving size. In each category, each respective meal will be awarded points (4 points for first place, 3 points for second, 2 points for third, and 1 point for 4th). Since nutrition is the most important factor in backcountry eating, points awarded for nutrition will be doubled as a bonus (except for 4th place – 4th place will still only be worth 1 point). The meal with the most points at the end will be the winner.
This test is 100% unbiased. I have not in any way been compensated by any of these companies. I purchased these meals with my money just as any other consumer would. I have zero ulterior motives and only want to provide you with the most information possible so that you can make an informed decision for your backcountry nutrition needs. The meals used are all chili-based meals so that there would be a fair basis for taste comparisons.
AlpineAire is a very affordable option for backcountry meals. They have a variety of meals options, as well as quite a few vegetarian options for those who prefer this.
Backpacker’s Pantry is a pretty well known company in the backpacking industry. They have a variety of meals and are also very affordable.
Mountain House is a giant in the backpacking meals world. They have the widest variety of meals and are very visible in the backpacking industry.
Heather’s Choice is a small company from all the way up in Alaska. Heather’s meals contain only the highest quality ingredients including Texas quail, elk, and antelope.
Each meals costs $5.99 and contains 2 servings = $2.99/serving
Nutrition per serving (3rd place – 4 points)
Calories: 270, Fat: 2g, Carbs: 47g (13g fiber, 9g sugar), Protein: 21g
Low caloric value, low fat content, decent protein and carb levels. Although the caloric level is low, the quality and balance of the calories plus a decent amount of fiber makes this an acceptable option.
Weight per serving (2nd place – 3 points)
85g which is a good middle ground based on serving size
Taste (3rd place – 2 points)
Balanced, but very salty.
Pro: Lowest cost, decent nutrition, decent taste – Pretty well-rounded though not outstanding in any category.
Con: Limited fat and protein due to being vegetarian.
Cost per serving (3rd place – 2 points)
Each meals costs $6.99 and contains 2 servings = $3.49/serving
Nutrition per serving (2nd place – 6 points)
Calories: 360, Fat: 8g, Carbs: 55g (28g fiber, 16g sugar), Protein: 23g
Decent caloric value, high carbs will help provide energy and high fiber will help stave off hunger. High sugar content hurts the nutritional value of this meal though.
Weight per serving (3rd place – 2 points)
96g, but still not heavy by any means
Taste (4th place – 1 point)
Bland, mixed flavors are difficult to distinguish. Very salty and overpowering spice flavor.
Pro: Decent cost, decent nutrition.
Con: Poor, salty, overpowering taste.
Cost per serving (2nd place – 3 points)
Each meals costs $8.49 and contains 2.5 servings = $3.39/serving
Nutrition per serving (4th place – 1 point)
Calories: 230, Fat: 5g, Carbs: 25g (9g fiber, 5g sugar), Protein: 20g
Low caloric value, low fiber content, low protein… Not going to stick with you very long. There is substantial risk of having to snack more as a result of the low nutritional value of these meals so the nutrition per serving value is very low.
Weight per serving (1st place – 4 points)
58g per serving, but the tradeoff is lower nutritional value.
Taste (1st place – 4 points)
Not too salty. Good mixture of flavors. Easy to distinguish ingredients.
Pro: Great flavor
Con: Low nutritional value
Cost per serving (4th place – 1 points)
Each meals costs $15 and contains 1 servings = $15/serving
Nutrition per serving (1st Place – 8 points)
Calories: 570, Fat: 14g, Carbs: 57g (11g fiber, 0g sugar), Protein: 35g
High caloric value, high protein content, lots of fiber with zero sugar. A very well-balanced meal.
Weight per serving (4th place – 1 point)
115g due to high nutritional value and only one serving per pack. If you tend to eat a little less, then the weight isn’t as big of a deal because these meals will stretch farther.
Taste (2nd Place – 3 points)
Very unique taste due to the main ingredient being quail. Spice and sweet are a good contrast. If you like tradition meals, this might be too unique of a taste. If you like the taste of wild game, you will be very pleased and satisfied.
Pro: Highest quality, natural ingredients.
Con: High price. However, if the quality of the ingredients is what is most important to you then the high cost likely won’t keep you from purchasing Heather’s Choice products.
AlpineAire and Heather’s Choice both scored 13 points, standing out in very different ways. AlpineAire’s Mountain Chili scored high in cost and weight, with decent marks in nutrition as well. Heather’s choice was far and away the nutritional value winner. It is also worth noting that had Mountain House not come in last in nutrition, it would have been the far and away winner as opposed to coming in at a close 2nd.
If cost and weight are your biggest concern, then AlpineAire is a good option for you.
If quality ingredients and nutrition are most important to you, then Heather’s Choice deserves a hard look. While the biggest detractors from Heather’s Choice are cost and weight, if you do not need the entire bag for a meal then the cost per serving and weight per serving metrics level out.
Ultimately, it is up to you which meal you choose to keep in your pack on your long hunts. Using the information and metrics from this comparison should help you to decide which meals will serve you best and fuel your body properly during those long backcountry hunts.