Is Camp Cooking Better than Dehydrated Meals While Backpacking?

This article originally appeared on Backpacker

There's no reason to cook in the backcountry anymore

By Benjamin Tepler, senior gear editor

I'm a former professional chef and food writer, and I used to agonize over my backcountry meals. How much water-laden fresh produce was I willing to haul into the wild? How many microcontainers of smoked paprika did I dare toss into the jumbled void of my pack? Beyond the weight factor--which included schlepping a proper pot, stove, and skillet--cooking was the last thing I wanted to do after hiking 15 miles, caked in dirt and aching through my lower back.

The calculus used to be simple: Would I rather eat a glorified military ration (and suffer the gastrointestinal consequences), or spend an hour cooking and cleaning up? Some of the dehydrated meals of the past decade weren't that bad, in a guilty, Kraft mac and cheese sort of way. At that point, there was a 50/50 chance I'd bail on a bowl of home-cooked pad Thai for crumbly beef Stroganoff.

But times have changed. With improved freeze-drying technologies and the backpacking world's growing culinary IQ, dehydrated meals have become exponentially more appetizing. They are so good, in fact, that I doubt I could make a better version in the wilderness myself. Take Stowaway Gourmet's Miso Salmon Okayu, a salmon-and-tofu-filled Japanese rice porridge that's as good as any I've had in a restaurant. Nowadays there's no question in my mind: dehydrated meals from top-notch brands like Gastro Gnome and Stowaway Gourmet win every time. I'm unlikely to bring more than a Jetboil on my next backpacking trip, as long as I can sit on my haunches while the Platonic ideal of hominy stew can be reconstituted in under 15 minutes.

Variety and cost savings are worth a few extra ounces

By Adam Roy, executive editor, Backpacker

Here's a hard truth: no one outside of a military lab has figured out how to make a dehydrated pizza. There's no denying that backpacking meals are better than ever before. The pouches of yesteryear contained the kind of glop you'd swallow just to keep your belly full and your legs moving; as Ben rightly points out, today's gourmet options sometimes rival restaurant meals. But for all that improvement, dehydrated entrees are still limited to things you can eat out of a plastic bag with a spoon. If you're willing to cook it yourself, you're limited only by your creativity. It requires less gear than you might think: in 15 minutes, I can cook up a hot, cheesy pizza with nothing more than an eight-ounce frying pan, a canister stove, and some portioned-out ingredients. I've baked cakes in titanium camp mugs and improvised crumbles with wild berries, sugar packets, and leftover oats. Let's see your packaged meal conjure up that kind of magic.

Then there's the price: that Miso Salmon Okayu will set you back $16.95, and some pouches run to a whopping $20. If you're planning a hiking trip for your next vacation, that may seem reasonable--who doesn't indulge in a few fancy meals while traveling? But when the backpacking bug bites, it bites hard, and those "vacations" quickly turn into a lifestyle. When a twice-a-year outing becomes an every-weekend habit, the dollar signs pile up fast.

Yes, dehydrated food makes packing easier. There's no chopping, blending, or Tupperwaring--you just grab and go. But backpacking isn't about getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's about immersing yourself in the experience, with all the mud, sweat, and bacon grease that goes with it. Just like walking, feeding ourselves is an elemental part of being human. Shouldn't we take the time to savor the process instead of looking for a shortcut?

For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.