Most foods taste better when eaten on a backpacking trip. After an exhausting day on the trail, nothing is better than a good meal, and many things that I would think twice about eating at home suddenly sound delicious.
That said, there are also some things that never taste good. Everyone has their own list; mine includes certain energy bars that trigger week-long indigestion and some dehydrated meals that just don't seem to rehydrate very well.
On a backpacking trip with my dad many years ago, I remember trying a package of powder that claimed to be "dehydrated scrambled eggs." When rehydrated, the result was something like mushy bits of yellow cardboard -- beyond even the worst soggy goo that has ever passed for scrambled eggs in a summer camp cafeteria. Not only are many dehydrated meals not very tasty, they can also be expensive, as much as $7 a serving.
If you're willing to be a bit creative, there are a lot of easy alternatives. The key factors to consider in planning a good backpacking meal are minimal weight, few ingredients required, nutritional value, cooking time, price, ability to cook the meal in a single pot, and taste. This summer I looked for meal ideas at all the major local grocery stores and found by far the best selection at SuperTarget, largely due to the fact that their Archer Farms brand offers more lightweight but hearty "just-add-water" foods than any other locally available brand.
In addition to the recommended meal options listed below, you can make your own lightweight dinner combos by combining a small amount of meat with any "just-add-water" pasta, rice, bean, or soup. Look for 7-ounce foil packs of chicken from Valley Fresh. Foil packs have less water than cans, meaning a higher meat to water ratio. Beef and ham are not easily available in foil packs, but you can get Hormel Smoked Ham in easy to carry 5-ounce cans. Whatever you plan to bring, it's always a good idea to try it first at home. That way you'll know if you'll be able to enjoy it on the trail and you'll be prepared to cook it without any surprises.
Below you can find 6 delicious, inexpensive, lightweight, hearty, and fast-cooking one-pot meals to file away for your next backpacking adventure. Pre-cooked weights per person are listed at the end of each description.
Tortellini: Cook a 12-ounce bag of Barilla Three Cheese or Spinach Tortellini and add an 8-ounce can of Hunt's Basil, Garlic, and Oregano Tomato Sauce. You'll have a delicious and filling Italian meal for three people. If you bring some grated parmesan cheese in a plastic bag, you'll "wow" the rest of the people on the trip. The weight is 6½ ounces per person.
Penne Carbonara with Ham: Two 4¾-ounce boxes of Archer Farms Penne Carbonara and a 5-ounce can of Hormel Smoked Ham will satisfy two backpackers. Carbonara dishes typically include bacon, but smoked ham substitutes nicely. Drain the water from the ham while the pasta is cooking and add to the pot 2 minutes before the meal is fully cooked. The weight is 7.25 ounces per person.
Red Pepper Risotto with Salmon: Archer Farms' Red Pepper Risotto can be enhanced with some foil-packaged salmon. On a recent trip,
two boxes of risotto (6 ounces each) with two packages of Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon (2½ ounces each) satisfied two backpackers with hearty appetites. The weight is 8½ ounces per person.
Bean Burritos: For each hiker, seal two flour tortillas per person in a plastic bag and pack ¼ to 1/3 of a package of Santa Fe Instant Southwestern Refried Beans (from Raley's). Round up some extra hot sauce packets from your favorite drive-through Mexican restaurant and you're ready to go. All you have to do is to rehydrate the beans, heat the tortillas over your stove, and roll the beans and sauce into the warm tortillas. The weight is 5-6 ounces per person.
Macaroni and Cheese: Easiest of the meals on this list, Archer Farms produces several varieties of "just add water" macaroni and cheese meals. Each box is 11 ounce -- two probably will satisfy three people, especially if you add a few crackers. The weight is 7½ ounces per person.
Chicken Curry with Rice: Two 7-ounce packages of Valley Fresh White Chicken, one package of Kitchens of India Paste for Chicken Curry, and one package of Uncle Ben's Ready Rice are what you need to satisfy three people. Cook the sauce and chicken first, then heat the rice with two tablespoons water for 2 minutes. Serve the chicken and sauce over the rice. The weight is 9 ounces per person.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org