Backpacking requires you to carry all your food—and everything else you need—so keeping your pack weight low is crucial. Recently, an avid backpacker told me he brings only jerky and dehydrated fruit, eschewing even the most lightweight camp stove in order to keep his load light. That sounds like a great idea, but I love cooking too much to stop doing it just because I'm not in my kitchen.
The first time I went backpacking with my husband—a man who, as a youth, subsisted entirely on tortillas and peanut butter while backpacking in the mountains of Colorado—I insisted on carrying a cast-iron skillet, because clearly I was a naive asshole. Over the years spent backpacking together, we have found a middle ground: I eat instant oatmeal for breakfast, and my husband cooks sardines and spaghetti for dinner.
I've long had an ongoing fascination with the freeze-dried and dehydrated food section at REI—rows and rows of shiny, resealable, space-age-looking pouches filled with dishes such as chili mac 'n' cheese, grilled chicken breasts with mashed potatoes, cheese enchiladas, beef lasagna, and cinnamon apple crisp. How exactly are these things made? Is it really possible to pour boiling water into a bag and then have grilled chicken breast?
Backpacking meals are either freeze- dried—a process that involves rapidly freezing food and then subjecting it to a powerful vacuum that removes moisture by sublimation—or dehydrated, in which the food is heated, removing moisture by evaporation. I grew up loving Hamburger Helper, Mrs. Grass chicken noodle soup packets, and other products whose main cooking instructions are to simply add water. Could the culinary offerings of companies like Backpacker's Pantry and Mountain House be all that different?
I decided to go backpacking with two days' worth of dried-out meals in order to find out.
After setting up camp late on a Friday night, my husband and I got to "cooking" Backpacker's Pantry's vegetarian pad thai ($7.50). The instructions on all these meals are essentially the same: Remove the oxygen absorber (scary), add boiling water, seal the pouch, let sit for 15 minutes, stir, and serve.
The pad thai, which came with the added excitement of squeezing a small packet of creamy peanut butter into the pouch and topping the dish off with a little bag of roasted peanuts, 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. The meal is vegan and has unfortunate bits of textured soy protein. (Why not just use tofu?) Overall, I enjoyed the pad thai, despite the fact it wasn't actually pad thai.
Another meal I found quite satisfying was Mountain House's beef Stroganoff ($8): chunks of beef, slices of cremini mushroom, and bright-yellow egg noodles. (It must be said that no meat I tried ever achieved a texture beyond weird and chewy.) The sauce, while quite salty, had the distinct tang of sour cream. I even lifted the silver pouch up to drink some of the sauce after the noodles were gone. Mountain House's version is far better than Backpacker's Pantry's Stroganoff sauce with beef and noodles ($11), which is basically fusilli pasta dotted with tiny, dog-food-like cubes of beef and mushroom.
My favorite of all the backpacking meals was Backpacker's Pantry's shepherd's potato stew with beef ($11)—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.
But here's what you really need to know: The breakfast offerings from both brands I tried were terrible. Mountain House's breakfast skillet ($7.50)—scrambled eggs with shredded potatoes, pork sausage, peppers, and onion—was, in a word, gross. The eggs were the texture of a kitchen sponge and tasted (faintly, disturbingly) of cherry-flavored medicine. The least-offensive component of the dish were the pieces of "crumbled pork patty," which have the same, familiar, peppery flavor of every sausage patty ever to grace an Egg McMuffin, except these were pale gray and looked like animal toes. (Also worth noting: Each serving of the breakfast skillet accounts for 82 percent of your suggested daily intake of cholesterol.)
The huevos rancheros ($5)—eggs mixed with green and red bell peppers, cheese, onion, and red beans—from Backpacker's Pantry were difficult to eat. While the flavor was decent, the texture was a nightmare: a gritty, sandy slop. I have never been inclined to bring eggs on a backpacking trip, but if you must, I would recommend packing them in one of those special egg-shaped protector cases. Whatever you need to do; just don't buy the egg dishes.
The good news is that you'll eat anything when you're physically exhausted and out in the wilderness. In the wise words of one of the online reviewers of Backpacker's Pantry's pad thai: "This is great when you're really hungry."
Our packs may have been lighter on this last trip, but when I got home, I was still craving a meal I had actually cooked. I set a pot of water on the stove, pulled a can of sardines out of the pantry, and made us the dinner we'd been missing.
Serves two hungry backpackers
.5 lb. of dried spaghetti
1 tin of sardines in olive oil (make sure they are packed in olive oil, because you're going to use it for cooking)
1 large shallot (or 1 small onion), diced
2 to 3 tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 bunch chard (or kale, or whatever you like or happen to have around), both leaves and stems, chopped
1 to 2 packets of Parmesan cheese and red chili flakes (the kind that come with your pizza delivery) (optional)
Bring a pot of water to boil on your camping stove and cook the spaghetti. Cover and set aside.
Heat a small pan, then strain the oil from the sardines into the pan. Sauté the shallots and the chard stems until they are tender, even a little bit caramelized. Add the greens and let them wilt. Add the tomatoes and cook until they start to break down and form a sauce. Lower the heat and let simmer for a few minutes.
Add the tomato sauce to the pot of spaghetti. Add the sardines, breaking them up into a few big chunks, then stir the whole thing to combine. Sprinkle the dish with Parmesan and chili flakes.
This tastes best eaten straight out of the pot.