Aside from my regular hammock affliction, I also do a fair amount of backpacking (it’s the reason I got into hammock camping, actually). So from time to time I have the opportunity to test non-hammock gear. I was approached by the Outdoor Trail a few months ago to see if I would be willing to give their dehydrated meals a try. It took me a little longer to get through the supply they sent, primarily because some of my trips this season got canceled, but I also prefer to be as thorough as possible when I test gear as conditions on the trail can vastly affect the outcome.
I’m not a professional food critic, and try as I might, I find it a bit awkward to compare food flavors to bouquets of rare flowers or other types of hyperbole. And while I continue to extend my pallet of adjectives, I realize that the most useful review for backpacking food I can provide is what I would be looking for myself: what is unique about these entrees? Does it pack and store well (light and not bulky)? Is it easy to prepare on the trail? Is the food filling (calorie dense)? Is it nutritious?
The toughest thing to talk about for me is what everyone wants to know: how does it taste? The Outdoor Trail’s main assertion is that their dehydrated meals taste better than competing freeze dried meals. Personally, I think that is asking a bit much. Taste is very important, even for me, but one thing I’ve learned about food and backpacking is that taste is subjective and arbitrary for several reasons: individual tastes vary; my appetite changes on a given day; what is palatable often changes after miles or days on a trail (it is common to grow fatigued with certain foods, often a result of repetition); etc. My hope is to detail the objective criteria and then finish with a sampling of the flavor. So, with that caveat, let’s eat!
The Outdoor Trail Meals—What’s Different?
The Outdoor Trail specializes in dehydrated meals that can work for backpacking, emergency, and long-term food storage. They offer an assortment of entrees for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as a few drink mixes and desserts. The folks at the Outdoor Trail were good enough to send me several entree samples including a few desserts. I was able to use the meals on several backpacking trips and I concluded my testing by preparing a few meals at home in a more controlled environment.
The Outdoor Trail is not the only company offering dehydrated meals, but they do prepare and package them different than from most other companies I’ve tried. First off, instead of cooking and dehydrating meals in batches and then packaging, the ingredients are separated where possible to provide a more controlled nutrition balance. For example, pastas are separated from the soup or sauce mix to ensure the meal has the most precise mix to match the nutrition facts. The representatives I spoke with at the Outdoor Trail feel like this is a key selling point because they can guarantee things like carbs, protein, fats, and calories with more accuracy.
The way the Outdoor Trail does this is by placing these different ingredients in separate packages inside the main package. Each meal contains two servings, which translates into as many as four small packets inside the main package depending on the recipe.
Currently, the meals are targeted at a very mainstream market. There are no vegan or vegetarian meals, and nothing that I would consider truly organic or free from additives and processed ingredients (a personal preference). The Stroganoff, for example, includes textured vegetable protein (TVP) but then includes beef stock and beef fat. Here is a full list of the ingredients:
Creamer (corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, nonfat dry milk, sodium casinate, dipotassium phosphate, hexamine phosphate), cornstarch, sour cream powder (sour cream solids, whey, whey protein concentrate, natural flavors, yeast extract, salt), beef stock, hydrolyzed corn protein, rice flour, dehydrated onion, texturized vegetable protein (soy flour, caramel color), mushrooms, potato starch, beef fat, silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), spices, soybean oil, and citric acid.
A nutrition comparison chart is available on the company’s website.
The Outdoor Trail has two styles of meals: instant, and simmer. Instant meals require only boiling water and a little bit of soak time, preferably in an insulated cozy or pocket to retain the heat. Simmer meals typically require more cooking time.
The outer package has a zip-top enclosure and is designed for boil-in-a-bag cooking. The gusseted bottom allows the bag to sit upright in good conditions.
The Outdoor Trail meal packages are slim, no question. For me, this is a point in their favor. Less packaging typically equals less weight, less waste, and less space. This is a plus for backpacking and Leave No Trace ethics. I can fit more Outdoor Trail meals into my bear canister than other brands, meaning more time on the trail using a smaller and lighter canister.
However, the individual packaging inside each Outdoor Trail meal poses somewhat of an issue in opposition: more packaging and more waste. It’s kind of an oxymoron. If you’re taking an Outdoor Trail meal off the shelf and on the trail, you will have to deal with smaller pieces of garbage left over.
There are some tips to efficient pre-trip food preparation, regardless of meal type. My time in the military (along with my Leave No Trace training) taught me a practical meal prepping skill called “field stripping.” Take any pre-packaged meal, for example an MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat), and break down the meal by discarding all the excess packaging and items you don’t want. The primary purpose here was to eliminate weight, but also excess waste. What’s great about an Outdoor Trail meal is that you can also “field strip” the packaging and make them more efficient in weight, bulk, and waste.
Since the individual servings are packaged, you can open the outer container and eliminate the torn top before hitting the trail and remove all excess air inside the package. This allows you to save more space by eliminating dead air. This isn’t possible with other brands without exposing the food. Depending on your metabolism, the packaging can be further reduced by taking the individual meals and combine them (if cooking recipes permit) into a larger bag. The individual servings can also be combined and packaged separately for smaller meals as your metabolism dictates.
The Cooking Experience
One of my first outings with the Outdoor Trail foods was on a backpacking trip up and over Mount Timpanogos in northern Utah. Besides feeding myself, I had my son and nephew along. Our first meal was chicken a-la-King for dinner, but I prepared it like a pauper. My plan was to do a basic boil-in-a-bag meal, but I literally blew up the meal, all over the rocks. My inexperience with the packaging was to blame, and although it was a good experience, it was the wrong time to learn it. The smaller packages proved a little harder to pry open and I ended up with my dry meal all over the rocks. I tried to salvage what I could, but it was obvious much was lost. Thankfully, I wasn’t extremely hungry yet, and my metabolism doesn’t really kick in high gear until a few days on the trail. I ate a few bites but let my son and nephew eat the bulk, watching as they spit out the occasional pebble.
At camp, we cooked up some Chili as a second dinner to make up for what we lost. I was much more careful on this second meal, using my knife to carefully open the inner packages before pouring them into the boiling bag. Unfortunately, I used a bit too much water so the chili didn’t have the consistency I would have preferred, but as I told my companions, the extra water, while less desirable, still helps us hydrate. Getting the right amount of water is always tricky no matter what kind of rehydrated meal you use.
The last meal we had with the Outdoor Trail was in the morning: Italian Breakfast. This last meal was more than enough for all three of us and helped us get going in the morning. The only downside was that the Italian Breakfast was a simmer meal, a distinction I didn’t readily notice on the packaging, so my rehydrating attempts were lackluster. I had only packed a minimal stove that was fueled with denatured alcohol, so anything more than a simple boil was asking too much.
The potatoes and TVP meat were a little tough and not as appetizing but it wasn’t a horrible experience. I later tried cooking the potatoes in a controlled environment that proved more effective. Rehydrating the potatoes took a lot of time and it is one meal I do not recommend for backpacking, but base camp would be fine.
The puddings and drink mixes were simple and required no cooking at all.
The Bottom Line
The Outdoor Trail meals offer a variety of meals that can work as easy-to-prepare backpacking meals. The food is filling and offers a variety of entrees to choose from. The individual serving packaging has its pros and cons and works in some cases but doesn’t in others. Sometimes ease-of-use convenience wins out. Not all the meals I tested were “trail ready” in the sense that I could quickly and easily prepare them. Some “simmer” style foods require significantly more fuel and are best for base camp situations in my opinion.
For my own continued use, there are a few entrees that I will likely buy in the future (indicated below).
In terms of taste, I find that most backpacking meals—including the Outdoor Trail—are improved with a tortilla wrap, some cheese, and some hot sauce. Your pallet may vary. Here is a sampling of some of the foods I tried from the Outdoor Trail to give you a look at what it took to prepare and how I liked it.
Sample Taste Testing
The stroganoff was easy to prepare and I was filled after one serving. I added the noodles first and then added boiling water. Next, I added the sauce mix. This seemed to work better than previous methods of adding all ingredients together and adding water last, which turned into lumpy, unevenly-mixed sauce. I’m typically not a fan of stroganoff, but this version was delicious and creamy. I later added some hot sauce for a little “kick.”
I’ve noticed that all the Outdoor Trail food packets I’ve tried use the same noodles for different meals. The Alfredo was also very creamy and had chicken bits mixed in. I added a little hot sauce for personal taste. Alfredo is also a dish I typically avoid when backpacking because thick, creamy sauces have not always turned out well for me. By mixing the noodles in separately, I was able to get a better consistency in the sauce and it was much more enjoyable. This is one entree I would buy.
Beans and Rice
Probably my favorite meal from the collection, but not something I would eat again all by itself. The meal is simple to prepare on the trail and has the highest calorie count and nutrition value. Added to a tortilla shell with some flavoring (hot sauce) and some cheese and you’ve got a great meal. This is one I would do again.
Mac & Cheese
Surprisingly, very cheesy. The same noodles as the Alfredo and Stroganoff dishes. This is another example where the noodles are packaged separate from the sauce so you end up with four packets. As annoying as the multiple packets can be at times, rehydrating the noodles first and then adding the sauce has proven an effective way to eliminate clumping. Some noodles are very effective at trapping the dry mix that ends up “popping” a dry patch. By mixing the noodles separate, I never had a problem with dry patches.
The vanilla was actually in a package labeled “chocolate” so it was a surprise to see the white powder. Vanilla is one of my favorite flavors so I was okay with the mixup. In my experience, it is a little hard to get pudding to a real creamy consistency using limited utensils, but aside from the little lumps, the flavor was good and the texture was just right. The single serving was filling and hit the spot.
This was one entree where my experience was low because of how little I was able to eat, that and the rock bits. My hiking partners seemed to enjoy it and gobbled it up.
This is one meal that didn’t work with backpacking, at least with my rationed fuel and minimal stove. The prospect was promising, but the flavor and poor rehydration made this meal less appetizing. Cooking at home was better, but this is a meal best reserved for base camp or emergency home storage.
Brown Sugar Oatmeal
There was nothing amazing about the oatmeal. It tasted exactly like every other instant oatmeal packet I’ve tried. I had to eat both servings but still felt a little unsatisfied. This meal could have used some nuts and fruit to really round it out and provide something unique.
Everyone thought the chili was tasty and spicy. We prepared it with a little too much water, but we still gobbled it down well enough. This is a meal I would buy and use in a wrap.
Skillet Hash browns
This is a definite base camp meal. The hash browns are delicious, but they require a lot of rehydrating (~30 minutes) and then cooking/browning. These remind me of the dehydrated hash browns from Nonpareil. There isn’t much else about these potatoes, so expect to add your own seasoning to add any flavor.
The pudding was delicious, either hot or cold. This has a regular milk chocolate flavor. Nothing extra special, but it makes for a good dessert.
This is a great meal and one I would do again. The pancakes were delicious and easy to prepare. Just added some butter and syrup to taste. To take on the trail, I need to bring a skillet and a canister stove that can handle simmering.
Disclosure of material connection: The author (Derek Hansen) was provided with a free sample from the manufacturer for testing and evaluation purposes. The comments in this post (written & spoken) are of my own opinion, which I formed after personally handling the gear.