What Are The Best Freeze-Dried Foods For Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking? (Part 1: Popular Brands)

A Beginner’s Guide To Freeze-Dried Food

Before we dig into the review, here are some answers to your most common questions about freeze-dried food:

What Are Freeze-Dried Foods and How Are They Made?

Indigenous South American tribes have actually been “freeze-drying” potatoes since time immemorial, but the process wasn’t scientifically perfected until around World War II, when people started to freeze-dry blood plasma and antibiotics for wounded soldiers. Commercial freeze-drying then moved on to food, which was originally supplied to astronauts and soldiers as rations.

These days, you can find freeze-dried food just about everywhere.

From space missions and to military deployments, freeze-dried foods have now infiltrated the pantries of average joes. People love them for their extra long shelf-life and superior taste compared to traditional MREs (meals ready to eat). Their lightness and portability make them a big hit for many folks, especially hikers, campers, and backpackers who go on long trips without access to a good old home-cooked meal.

How Does Freeze-Drying Work and How Is It Different from Dehydration?

The freeze-drying process is pretty simple.

freeze-dried food, freeze-drying process

Unlike dehydration, freeze-drying takes out the moisture from the product without damaging its structure or changing its nutritional composition. This is why freeze-dried fruits do not share the wrinkly appearance or rubbery consistency of their dehydrated counterparts.

Freeze-dried foods also take a shorter time to rehydrate and are significantly lighter than dehydrated products.

Why Should You Store Freeze-Dried Food?

There’s a ton of good reasons to store freeze-dried food, especially if you’re someone who loves spending time outdoors. Here are a few reasons why you should keep a stash of freeze-dried food:

They have a long shelf-life

Few food products can match the extraordinary shelf-life of freeze-dried food (except raw honey— that stuff can outlast ancient civilizations).

When stored properly, freeze-dried food can last up to 25 to 30 years. This is because freeze-drying takes out all of the moisture from the food. No moisture means no environment for microorganisms to thrive and cause spoilage. Freeze-drying also stops enzyme activities, so products like fruits and vegetables don’t ripen. It’s like hitting one big pause button and suspending your food in time.

When you open a freeze-dried food pouch, however, its shelf life can decrease rapidly from 25 years to a week due to oxygen exposure. Once reconstituted, the freeze-dried food will return to “normal”, so make sure to consume the meal immediately to avoid spoilage.

They’re lightweight

Freeze-dried food products lose as much as 90% of their original weight. They also become more compact and portable. They’re a great choice if you’re an ultralight backpacker or a hiker who wants a hot meal without the bulk.

They’re easy to prepare

Preparing freeze-dried food is crazy simple. In the case of food pouches, you just need to add a couple of cups of boiling water, stir, seal them back up and wait for around 10-15 minutes for the food the rehydrate. Once it’s ready, you can eat it directly from the pouch. No mess, no dirty pots and pans to clean after each meal, no hassle.

peak refuel breakfast skillet

Freeze-drying retains the food’s taste, shape, and nutritional value

Dehydration is well and good, but the process also takes away about half of the food’s nutritional value. The end product can also shrink, look wrinkly and have a tough texture. Freeze-dried foods, on the other hand, don’t suffer the same fate. When food is freeze-dried, they’ll often look and feel dry and crunchy, but when rehydrated properly, they’ll simply return to their original state— texture, taste, and shape included.

They’re tasty!

Sure, even cardboard would taste like a gourmet meal after a long day on the trail, but why suffer when you can pack some freeze-dried comfort food?

Aside from fruits, veggies, and beverages, freeze-dryers are also capable of processing actual meals. Manufacturers often have delicious variants like beef chili with macaroni, freeze-dried lasagna, breakfast skillet, beef stroganoff and the like. You can literally have your favorite comfort food in a few minutes— you just have to add hot water.

You can also buy freeze-dried meals to cater to a certain diet. Some brands have vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, and keto variants available.

How To Store Freeze-Dried Food?

Freeze-dried foods are relatively shelf-stable even when kept in room temperature, so storing them is a no-brainer. They also usually come in tough containers that can withstand punctures, like mylar bags, #10 cans, or food-grade buckets. Still, you can maximize their shelf-life by keeping these guidelines in mind:

how to store freeze-dried food

What To Look For In A Good Freeze-Dried Food Brand?

With hundreds of freeze-dried food brands and variants out there, how do you know which one is the best for you? Here are some factors to consider when choosing a freeze-dried food brand or meal:

Purpose

As always, you have to determine why you’re packing freeze-dried food in the first place. Are you preparing for a long-term bug-in situation, or do you just need to pack a couple of gusseted pouches for that upcoming section hike?

This article focuses on freeze-dried food brands for outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and backpacking, so we’re limiting our review to freeze-dried food pouches from popular brands like Mountain House, Alpine Aire and Wise Foods to name a few. You’ll find out more about them below.

Overall calories and nutritional content

Look into the product’s energy-to-weight ratio. The more calories per ounce, the better. Consider your level of activity as well. As you know, the more rigorous the activity, the more energy and nutrients you need to replenish. You might need to pack a 2-serving pouch for yourself, or bring stuff like olive oil, nuts, chia seeds or tortilla wraps to augment your energy needs.

Freeze-dried food brands typically have high sodium content to help you replenish lost electrolytes. While sodium is great for your tired muscles after a long day of hiking, this could also mean bad news for those with conditions that require a limited salt intake. If you’re unable to tolerate high amounts of sodium, you might be better off with a low-salt freeze-dried food brand or variant.

Preparation

Depending on the brand, freeze-dried foods use about 1 to 2 cups of boiling water to reconstitute. Waiting time can be as short as 8 minutes or as long as 15 minutes. For this review, we wanted a freeze-dried food brand with a stand-up pouch that doesn’t take a lot of time or resources to prepare because let’s face it, you don’t have a lot of both when out on the trail.

freeze-dried food, mountain house chili mac with beef

Taste, flavor, and texture

Hey, it’s food— personal preference is always a factor to consider. You don’t want to be stuck with food you don’t like, so choose a flavor or variant that you personally find appetizing. It’s also a nice trick to keep little spice packets or a small bottle of hot sauce to kick that taste up a notch.

Shelf life

All freeze-dried foods are pretty shelf-stable, so this factor isn’t too high up on our list. Still, different brands have different lifespans, so it’s worth considering. Some brands like Mountain House have an impressive 30-year guarantee, while others last for only about 5-7 years.

Price

One of the biggest downsides to packing freeze-dried foods for camping, hiking or backpacking is the price. These meals aren’t cheap; a 2 or 2.5-serving pack can easily fetch for $8-$15 each.

Cheaper meals can get you by in terms of calories, but they leave a lot to be desired in the taste and nutrition department. Pricier variants, on the other hand, tend to have better taste, texture, and quality of ingredients. They have shorter preparation time, too, so weigh the pros and cons based on your budget and priority.

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