MSRP: $6.49 to $12.99 (depending on meal)
We’ve all had those long days in the mountains when all we want is to find a place to set up the tent, curl up in our sleeping bags and choke down some food before falling asleep. Freeze-dried meals have come a long way in the last decade with a broad variety of flavors, as well as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. A few companies even specialize in dehydrated meals.
The main differences between dehydrated and freeze-dried meals are weight, appearance and taste. While dehydrated foods usually retain more of the original flavor and feel of their ingredients once rehydrated, this attribute comes at the cost of weight. Freeze-dried meals are generally lighter than dehydrated meals since 98-99 percent of the moisture is removed (versus about 95 percent of moisture in dehydrated food).
Long ago, I conceded that I couldn’t expect small freeze-dried beef gobs to resemble anything like normal beef. Even though I’d eaten more than my fair share of these meals, I didn’t count myself among the crowd that loves them. To me, they were always just an easy way to cram a hot, high-calorie meal into my belly so I could replenish vital nutrients and have the necessary fuel to make the summit the next day.
After eating hundreds of freeze-dried meals over the last 20 years, however, I’ve found a few from different brands that are not only palatable, but actually quite good. In 2018, after only one spoonful of Chicken Alfredo Pasta, I became convinced that Peak Refuel meals were the best on the market. First, I noticed that the food in the package closely resembled the photo on the outside: once rehydrated, the large chunks of chicken looked like freshly prepared chicken. Likewise, the strawberries in their Strawberry Granola were large slices of actual fruit, not just a few small cubes of some red ingredient with strawberry flavoring. Secondly, the consistency and taste resembled something out of a chef’s kitchen and not a bag. All their meals that contain meat use only 100 percent USDA inspected meat. If you’re a carnivore like me, it’s nice to know that the company never uses TVP in their meat dishes; TVP stands for “textured vegetable protein,” which is a soy protein isolate that is often used as a meat replacement or to make a little meat go a long way. (Those trying to cut down on meat intake might feel differently.)
Mushrooms, green beans, carrots, etc. all are sliced big, leaving no question as to what they are. Every Peak Refuel dinner entree, with the exception of their vegetarian Three Bean Chili, contains at least 40 grams of protein. Most competitor dinners of similar size contain between 11-23 grams, based on my comparisons. The average Peak Refuel meals are between 720-990 calories in the package.
Another distinction of Peak Refuel meals is what’s not in them. The company prides itself on using less sodium in its meals than its competitors, a claim that appeared to be true when I compared their meals to similar ones across different brands. While I am often craving large servings of salt after a day in the mountains, I know this is a big deal for others more conscious of their sodium intake. Peak Refuel also prides itself on requiring less water to rehydrate their meals, a difference that is related to the lower amounts of sodium they contain. Most entrees require only cups of water.
Some of my favorite flavors from other brands are also among the heaviest. Peak Refuel’s heaviest meal, Beef Pasta Marinara, weighs in at only 6.35 ounces and contains a whopping 990 calories.
With a wide array of flavors and many more in development, Peak Refuel meals are like a banquet in the backcountry. Most of their meals retail at $12.99. While this is on the higher end when compared to other brands, I feel that the quality of ingredients, preparation method and taste makes it well worth the price.
Freeze-fried meals used to be a last resort; something I would eat only when weight and preparation time were the main consideration. Nothing will ever beat cold pizza or my own smoked salmon in the backcountry, but on those cold nights after a hard day of climbing, Peak Refuel meals will always be my entree of choice.
Clint Helander made the first ascent of Mt. Huntington’s South Ridge (aka “Gauntlet Ridge“) with Jess Roskelley in 2017. Their ascent is featured on the cover of Alpinist 59. You can find more of Helander’s writing and photography at ClintHelander.com as well as Alpinist.com.
Uses only premium ingredients and processing methods
Meals are cooked all together as opposed to combining pre-freeze-dried ingredients
High protein, low sodium, fantastic calorie-to-weight ratio
Currently nine dinner options and three breakfast options
Full flavor, large cuts of meat, veggies and fruits, good texture
Currently only one vegetarian/vegan dinner (Three Bean Chili Mac) and two vegetarian/vegan breakfasts (Mountain Berry Granola and Strawberry Granola).
A little more expensive than other brands