You know the feeling when you were a kid and you’d been outside playing all day and then ran inside and gulped down a big glass of milk because it was the best thing in the world and it was exactly what your little body knew it needed right then? Well, you will never know that feeling when you are eating backpacking food. You just choke the stuff down because you have to eat.
Sure, you might be on the trail for a couple of hours and know you need to eat something, do a mental inventory of the different snacks you have readily accessible in various pockets—dried apricots, no; another trail mix energy bar, blech, no; beef jerky!–but at the end of the day when the tent is pitched and you think about those pouches of freeze-dried entrees you have to choose from, all I can come up with is a mental image of my choking one down with a long-handled spoon.
Most experienced backpackers have a favorite brand of prepared meals, and if they’re like me they all used the following process to come to their conclusion:
- Go to www.rei.com and pull up a list of all the backpacking foods REI sells. REI is the Amazon of the outdoors, and if a brand is not sold there it does not exist.
- Eliminate all the brands from the list you’ve tried over the years that are disgusting.
- If you’re lucky enough to have one remaining, that is your favorite.
I have my go-to brand, which has never really let me down over the years, except I only buy the ones with noodles, never rice (like the stuff in the picture above). The rice just never re-hydrates completely, and there’s not much you could do to make a backpacking meal worse than to eat it with uncooked rice.
I was buying supplies for a trip this year and a hiking buddy said something like “I can’t gag down another mouthful of (your favorite brand here), I’m trying a new product from Maine,” which reminded me that I have received multiple word-of-mouth recommendations of Austin-based http://www.packitgourmet.com brand trail food, which you cannot find at REI. You just have to know about it. I first heard of it through Paula McCoy, a crazy-creative and industrious mother, entrepreneur, dyslexia therapist, and karate black belt who had tried it at an outdoor entrepreneurial exposition. Then I met two guys up near Boulder Pass in Glacier NP who wouldn’t stop talking about PackitGourmet once they knew I was from Austin. “Oh, you’ve really got to try the Cajun Gumbo” they must have told me five times.
So I gave it a shot, and let me start by sharing a secret: I hate okra. There is no creature in the animal kingdom that eats okra as part of its natural diet, and I don’t see why I should either. Occasionally my wife will announce that she is making gumbo, and because I love her and want her to know it I’ll say “ok, but you know I really hate okra.” But she truly loves okra, so she is sure I must be lying, sarcastically suggesting in my irritating way that I would actually like to eat nothing but okra all week and she’ll go out and buy 20 pounds of it, serving okra in all its possible forms for days that never seem to end.
I had forced down a bag of “Chili Mac With Beef” of my preferred brand the night before, so I was surprised to find myself getting excited at the prospect of eating something new my second night. The instructions said “Add Tabasco Hot Sauce to your taste,” and I thought “I would if I had any,” so opening the bag and finding the Tabasco actually included in the bag was like discovering a note from my wife in my backpack saying “have a great trip, I love you!”
There’s another packet in there labeled “broth concentrate,” and a drop spilled out as I added it to the mix. I dabbed it with my fingertip off of the log it fell on , and when it touched the tip of my tongue my body instantly remember what it was like to salivate.
Look at that stuff! It really does look like Debbie prepared it using “ingredients dehydrated from the family garden,” rather than the glop prepared by ConAgra in my Chili Mac With Beef. I enjoyed the okra–I think the key is chopping it small so us okra haters don’t feel like we’re putting slime in our mouths. I hope my wife reads this. Also, the rice rehydrated perfectly!
The only negative to PackitGourmet I can come up with is the cost. My REI-bought meals sell for an average of perhaps $11 each. If I buy 10 or more I get a 10% discount and get free shipping or can pick them up at the store, and if I buy them with my REI credit card that’s another 5% cash back, which brings the cost down to $8.50 or so each. The PackitGourmet meals I bought for this trip average $12 each, plus $7.64 shipping. They do offer free shipping for orders over $150. But let’s face it, this stuff is way better–you can feel and taste the quality of the ingredients. There are some slight differences in “Nutrition Facts” data, but generally in PackitGourmet’s favor (lower saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, for example). But perhaps most importantly, this is exactly the kind of business I want to patronize, particularly because it belongs to real people with a real connection to the outdoors. That is worth $4.50 extra a meal for a week. I want to be sure they’ll be around to supply my next trip.
Which reminds me, I need to order some more. I always have a reserve for spur-of-the-moment trips, but this will not be enough for next month’s Rob/Ed/George Deathmarch Redux. And I’m out of Cajun Gumbo.