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Pre-prepared camping meals versus self-cooked feasts

(Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

When you’re camping – whether you have just pitched up after a hard day’s hike through the hills during a backpacking escapade, or pulled up in the car and put the tent up for a family break – the evenings tend to be defined by what you put in your belly. 

Well away from digital distractions, entertainment is provided by the elements, the practicalities of preparing a meal, and the company you’re keeping on your adventure, whether that’s a party of fellow humans or the wildlife around your chosen campsite. And, like any party, most of the action happens in the kitchen.

Once the tent is up and camping mats and sleeping bags have been unfurled, the first thing most people do is get cracking on the evening’s menu. If you’re lucky enough to be camping in a spot where it’s safe and appropriate to spark up a campfire, that needs to be done post haste, so you can get enough embers to cook over.

But if not – if you’re overnighting somewhere that makes starting a fire impractical or ill-advised, perhaps on the bare fuel-free flanks of a hill or while wild camping in a fragile or forested area, where there’s a risk of contagion from naked flames, or simply somewhere that doesn’t permit open fires – then it’s great to have a one-pot meal option you can prepare on a stove.

Of course, there are plenty of recipes out there for making meals with easily sourced and packable ingredients, which can be thrown together after a bit of chopping and prep, and cooked on a Trangia or your stove of choice. 

But there is also a huge (and ever growing) range of pre-prepared, lightweight and tidily packaged camping meals out there, which can be turned into a nutritious feast by simply adding some boiled water, stirring and waiting a few minutes.  

These pre-assembled dishes are typically dehydrated or freeze dried, take up little room in your pack and supply most of your basic nutrition requirements. Good brands include Back Country Cuisine (made in New Zealand), Backpackers Pantry (based in Boulder, Colorado), Firepot (UK made), Real Turmat (from Norway), Expedition Foods (based in Britain), Summit to Eat (also British) and LYO Food (prepared in Poland).

But, how do such readymade meals compare with the culinary campsite creations you can plan and cook yourself in those post-pitch hours at the end of a day of wild adventuring? Come with us into the camp kitchen as we compare them head-to-head.

Convenience

A pretty easy win for the pre-prepared meals here – so long as you pop into a camping store or have access to a computer and the internet, you can source a range of just-add-water dishes to cover every meal break from breakfast to supper, including deserts. Many brands even offer full English breakfasts, and various flavours of ice cream.

You do have to be organised enough to order what you need a few days in advance of leaving, but you can also stock up with enough meals to cater for multiple trips, and then keep them at-the-ready in your pantry at home, because they have a long shelf life and take up little cupboard space.  

By comparison, to do a DIY menu you’re going to need to think long and hard about what meals you will need to keep your energy levels up during your adventure, be that backpacking, canoeing or climbing. The ingredients need to be varied and pack a carbohydrate and protein punch, but also have to remain lightweight enough to carry – you can’t be lugging potatoes up peaks.

Pasta, lentils, noodles and oats are good options as a base – or you could use packets of dehydrated mashed spuds…or is that cheating? On the upside, much of the time investment is in the planning stage (which can be fun), and the ingredients are easily sourced. They do take a bit more time to prepare and cook in the campsite too, but many people enjoy this element of camping.

If you’re in more extreme conditions – climbing a peak, for example – or if you’ve just been caught out by the rain and need to get some hot food into you quickly, then preprepared meals are very useful to have to hand.

Self-made meals are a cost effective option

Self-made meals are a cost effective option (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Cost

By contrast, this round should be a quick win for the self-made meals. Prepackaged camping meals are very handy for all the reasons stated above, but you do have to pay for this convenience. Camping meals can seem expensive – not least because they look small and feel lightweight, but obviously that is by design, and you’ll appreciate this minimalism when it comes to packing and carrying your gear.

Plenty of thought and preparation also goes into their creation, too, and the best brands use really good quality ingredients, which isn’t cheap to source. If you’re planning to do DIY dishes, the base ingredients are typically very cheap to buy, and you can then choose flavours and flourishes to suit your budget. 

Nutrition and portion sizes

Purpose-made preprepared camping meals for outdoor adventurers made by good brands will take into consideration all your requirements in terms of calorie and vitamin intake – the ingredients used will supply protein, carbs, fats and fibre, and feed your need for energy out on the trail, crag, river or ocean.

Whether they feel sufficient when consumed is a more subjective matter – some people might easily scoff a supposed two-person meal all by themselves, especially after a hard day’s hiking in the hills. 

If you’re putting together your own meals, you can make them as massive or modest as you like, but you will need to invest some serious thought into the ingredients to ensure you cover off all your body’s requirements.

Taste, variety and presentation

Preprepared meals have improved a lot in recent years – there are now hundreds of tasty dishes out there, from Pad Thai to Beef Stroganoff, via Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken and strawberry ice-cream.

There are also many vegetarian and vegan options, and some brands will cater for allergies too (always carefully check the ingredients, and contact the company directly if in any doubt, because a nasty allergic reaction in the wilderness is a truly nightmarish scenario – if you have severe allergies, it’s best to make your own food). In truth, no amount of innovation is likely to make these meals look like anything other than a dog’s dinner, though – they’re typically mushy in terms of texture and aesthetics, although some vegetables can provide a bit of bite and colour.

One good tip when using preprepared meals is to take a ziplock bag full of herbs, or even a little bottle of Tabasco or similar if you can afford the extra weight, as a few little flavour-bomb additions can really spice up an otherwise fairly unappealing looking plate of food (this is especially true when adventuring at altitude, when taste and appetite can be adversely affected).

If you know what you’re doing, you can also supplement meals with foraged herbs such as wild garlic. (Obviously, if you’re in any doubt whatsoever about what something is, don’t even think about eating it.)

The tastiness and look of DIY camp meals is limited only by your own imagination and culinary ability. There are some superb recipes out there, which can be thrown together and cooked in one pot, or rustled up on a campfire. The downside, as always, is the comparative weight, bulk and perishability of the ingredients.

Watch out: rehydrated food can be hard to digest

Watch out: rehydrated food can be hard to digest (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

After effects

Having once spent weeks tested out scores of preprepared camping meals, we can testify that living on a diet of rehydrated food can, after a few days, lead to uncomfortable constipation issues.

You really need to keep your fluid intake up with these meals, as they seem to absorb the moisture from your gut (especially if you don’t add enough water in the first place, or fail to leave them for long enough for the rehydration process to take full effect).

One additional benefit about purpose-made camping meals, however, is that they often come in packaging that can be sealed (for use during the rehydration process), which can be repurposed as a trusty trash bag to pack out any leftover food scraps and other waste.

Verdict

It’s very hard to argue with the convenience, lightweight and packable attributes, and pre-thought-through nutritional benefits of purpose-made camping meals, so we would suggest always having a few of these in your kit bag to use when you need to cook something quickly.

Unless you’re scaling enormous peaks, crossing a massive expanse of wilderness, rowing an ocean or undertaking some other extended expedition where every ounce of weight and inch of space is crucial, however, relying solely on such food for every single meal can make mealtimes a bit boring (and bung you up).

We suggest mixing things up, putting some thought into your meals, and creating some dishes yourself in addition to having the easy option to hand when required.