ScoutingOctober 2002

Outdoor Smarts
Dinner's On!

By Karen Berger
Photographs By John R. Fulton Jr.

Freeze-dried foods are popular with backpackers, especially for feeding large groups on long expeditions and in difficult conditions.

Shop smart when buying freeze-dried meals. Buy in bulk and only those items that aren't easily available from a grocery store. These meals offer convenience and variety for planning dinners.

Some Richmoor and Backpacker's Pantry items may be ordered from the BSA Supply Catalog

MEALTIME! No word sounds as welcome at the end of a hike. Just about anything seems to taste better when you cook it (and eat it) under an open sky.

Shopping for a group backpacking trip can be an expedition in itself. You have to plan meals everyone will like and get the quantities and ingredients just right.

Most hikers use a variety of foods in their meal planning, including favorite recipes using foods available at the supermarket. But for convenience in lightweight packages, nothing beats freeze-dried food produced for backpackers. They're especially popular for large groups, long expeditions, and difficult conditions. Here's why:

Large groups: Freeze-dried meals come in pre-measured quantities, so you won't run out of food.

Long expeditions: Freeze-dried foods are lightweight. They're also packaged to last (sometimes for years).

Difficult conditions: When rain is falling sideways and eight hungry teens are clamoring for dinner, do you really want to be messing around with chopping this and sautŽing that?

What about the taste?

Freeze-dried foods have been available since the early days of NASA. They've gone to the moon, been used by the military, and fueled climbers on Mount Everest.

Old-timers might tell you that the meals used to taste like cardboard and shoe leather, but do yourself a favor and put the new generation of foods to the test. I guarantee that you'll find some of them quite tasty.

Shopping smart

Convenience comes at a price, and these meals can be expensive. However, a few tricks will help you get the most out of your food-buying dollars.

Rule 1: Buy in bulk. Instead of spending full retail price on a large order, surf the Web for discounts from Internet companies and mail-order houses.

Rule 2: Buy only what you need. Some companies offer bulk packages that contain all your food for a week, and it is convenient to have everything bought, measured, and packed. But some items (like imitation maple syrup, dried whole milk, and peanut butter) can be less expensive when bought at a supermarket.

Rule 3: Spend your dollars where they count. There are lots of different types of inexpensive breakfast and lunch foods available elsewhere. Dinner is where freeze-dried meals shine in convenience and variety.

Rule 4: Use a calculator to figure out and compare the cost-per-ounce of bulk foods like cartons of vegetables.

Rule 5: Choose wisely. There's little advantage to buying freeze-dried macaroni-and-cheese or spaghetti-and-sauce, which can easily be assembled with supermarket ingredients. Instead, spend your money on sweet and sour Chinese shrimp or vegetarian chili—meals you probably couldn't make yourself on a camping trip.

Calculating quantities

Freeze-dried foods come in pre-measured sizes, but you do need to calculate the right quantities. Each company packages its products slightly differently.

Mountain House, for example, offers small single-serving meals that make about 1 1/2 cups of cooked food. That can be enough for lunch, but probably not enough for dinner, when most hikers (especially hungry teens) easily wolf down the company's double package of two 10-ounce servings. Plan for about 2 1/2 cups of cooked food as a dinner serving for one person.

Consider your prep time

Note that "freeze-dried" is not necessarily a synonym for "no-cook." Backpacker's Pantry offers a chicken and dumpling mix that requires you to mix the dumpling powder with water, cook up the stew, spoon dollops of dumplings into the sauce, then stir. The result is a great meal that's actually fun to prepare—but it's hardly "no-cook."

Think twice about meals that require simmering. It's not a process you want to be doing in foul weather—plus some backpacking stoves do not simmer very well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are no-cook meals that stew in their own pouches. You simply mix the ingredients together, add boiling water, stir, then let the pouch sit while the meal rehydrates.

Hint: I usually set the pouch in a bowl during this last step, because the pouches are too easy to knock over.


Hikers need a variety of foods to provide energy and nutritional balance. If you're using freeze-dried foods for dinners, try something different for other meals: whole grain cereals for breakfast, cheese for lunch, and lots of nuts and fruits.

And why not throw in a novelty dessert or two? Freeze-dried ice cream (Mountain House makes an ice cream sandwich) isn't exactly the real thing, but at the end of the day, you're bound to get applause for pulling that trail treat out of your pack!

In her newest book, More Everyday Wisdom (Mountaineers Books, scheduled for publication this month), Karen Berger answers questions on everything from planning to packing to pounding out the miles. Visit her at

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