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You Are (Carrying) What You Eat
By Steve Mann

Only water is more essential than food to the success of your outdoor adventures. And outdoor foods are available in many forms to suit the specific requirements of the activity. In this month's Field Test, I'll take you through two categories of foods: backpacking and self-heating meals. Given the diversity of food products available in the Outdoor Industry, this review can only include a few products in each category.

The first category is backpacking meals. The keys to backpacking foods are weight, convenience, and selection. Because the meals need to be so lightweight, they tend to be more expensive. When considering a meal's weight, remember the packaging. It is important to remind customers that once the food is eaten, the packaging still needs to be carried out. Remember the backpacker's credo is "the less packaging the better" applies to foods, too.

The Field Test crew sampled five brands of backpacking meals from Alpine Aire, Backpacker's Pantry, Richmoor, Natural High, and Adventure Foods. The first four are freeze-dried foods, the fifth is dehydrated. Freeze-dried foods retain their shape and texture, dehydrated foods are often powdery.

We reviewed the following foods:
Mountain House
Alpine Aire
Backpackers Pantry
Richmoor and Natural High
Adventure Foods

Mountain HouseMountain House packets have lower convenience in preparation and higher convenience in eating/serving. The preparation is slightly more difficult, in that you rehydrate the food in a clear plastic bag that you remove from the food pouch. The packet has a cardboard ring on the bottom, which you remove, using the ring to slip over the bunched up plastic at the opening of the plastic bag after adding boiling water to the bag. It might sound hard, but it's actually fairly easy.

The rectangular card-stock base of the bag helps to give shape to the packet. Once you get past sliding the ring over the bag opening, the bag has advantages in heating and serving. When heating, the clear plastic bag makes it easier to mix the water and dried food, as there are no corners for food to get stuck in, and you can see through the bag and find dry spots. The biggest advantage becomes apparent when you start to eat your Mountain House meal. Removing the ring, the pouch opens wide allowing you to dish out your meal without getting food on your hands or on your utensils. This also means no clean up.

Because of the extra packaging, the Mountain House meals leave slightly more weight in trash-the combined weight of the packaging and the plastic bag.

Contact Mountain House Foods at 800-547-0244 or www.ofd.com/mh


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Alpine AireAlpine Aire meals are easy to prepare. Simply tear open the package and pour boiling water in. The packet is reseal-able with a zip-lock-style top. The advantages and disadvantages of this system are the inverse of the Mountain House. The pouch is easier to prepare, but slightly less convenient to serve. Once heated, you reopen the pouch and eat straight from it. This minimizes weight and waste, but fishing your food out of the pouch can be tricky. First, the corners of the pouch can protect dry powder from the hydrating effects of the water, making for dry rice, or highly concentrated dry spots in your meal. Also, as you eat more and more of the food, you have to reach farther into the pouch, causing you to get food onto either the upper parts of your utensil or on your hands.

My solution to this problem has been to cut the bag to a level just above the food level, allowing the bag to open farther and requiring less distance to reach the food. With some meals, it may be more convenient to cut the bag down again after eating some of the food. (I found this to be the case with the Cream of Broccoli soup.)

Contact Alpine Aire Foods at 800-322-6325 or www.alpineairefoods.com


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Backpacker's PantryBackpackers Pantry's package combines some of the advantages of Alpine Aire with the convenience of Mountain House. The pouch features a zip-lock top and a novel, gusseted bottom, which allows the package to stand upright. The gusset allows the bottom to open to an oval shape almost eliminating corners, and reducing the possibility of dry food pockets. It also allows the pouch to open wider for easier access. Despite the wider opening, you will still likely cut the bag down to food level when eating.

Contact Backpacker's Pantry at 800-641-0500 or www.backpackerspantry.com


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Richmoor and Natural High Foods are nearly identical to the Alpine Aire in terms of packaging and preparation. The only difference is that Richmoor and Natural High lack the zip-lock feature on the pouch. With these packets, you fold over the packet top instead of resealing it.

Richmoor is a price point product, retailing for $4 to $6 dollars. Natural Foods is the company's high-end gourmet line, featuring more novel selections at a higher price, comparable to the other brands in this review.

Contact Richmoor Corporation (Richmoor and Natural High Foods) at 800-423-3170 or www.richmoor.com


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Adventure Foods offers different types of meals. For example, the cold prep chickenless salad requires only cold water, making it a quick and easy meal when you don't want to break out a stove. The no-cook Greek pasta salad and Cranberry Walnut Chicken are other unique offerings. The salad meals are meatless, so they are great for vegetarians. Adventure Foods selection is smaller. The dehyrated foods require more preparation, i.e. mixing and heating in a pot, but the resultant meals are worth the extra effort.


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Taste

Taste is subjective and different for each individual. We found meals that we liked from all of these manufactures-and a few we didn't care for. Usually the taste preference was for a particular meal, not a particular brand. For example, Jeff ooh-ed and aah-ed over the Mountain House Sweet and Sour Pork and Rhett the loved the Alpine Aire Turkey Tetrazzini.

The best selling meals are usually the old traditional favorites-the same meals you used to make camping out with your family or scout group. Consequently, beef meals tend to dominate sales, but newer selections, such as vegetarian, gourmet, and ethnic entrees, are coming on strong.

Summary

After comparing selection, price (most range from $6 to $8 for a two-person entr»e), and taste, our test was still pretty much a draw. You wouldn't go wrong with any of these products. But when you added ease of preparation and serving, the crew started to develop favorites. Mountain House and Backpacker's Pantry each had several first and second place votes, primarily for their separate bag and gusseted pouch respectively.

A few of Alpine Aire's foods ranked first in taste, but didn't emerge as a clear first choice overall. Richmoor and Natural High consistently ranked high, but rarely rated first in any of our test categories. Natural High offered tasty, unique meals not carried by other lines, such as Chicken Fajitas, Beef Burgundy, and Thai Chicken.

Self-Heating Meals

Self-heating meals are not for backpacking, but are great for car camping or food storage-a popular commodity in these pre-Y2K times.

The principle drawback to self-heating meals is their bulk. They are large and leave lots of trash - the box, bag, heating pouch, and heating element.

Our crew tested two brands of self-heaters: the recently released Alpine Aire meals and Hot Pack Meals. Both come with a serving tray, a spoon-fork combination utensil and a napkin. The Alpine Aire foods also include salt and pepper packets.

Alpine Aire's self-heating meals are simpler to prepare. To start the heating process, you pull the string protruding from the package and wait about 15 minutes. Opening the package, you slide the food tray out, remove the sealed top, and begin your meal. Alpine Aire offers four entrees: Chicken Parmesan, Turkey Chili, Vegetarian Five Bean Casserole, and Vegetable Stew with Beef retailing for $6.98 apiece. Entrees average about 340 grams, enough to serve one person.

The Hot Pack Meals come in four varieties of traditional camping meals, such as Ranch Breakfast, Chicken and Vegetable Casserole, Shepherd's Delight, and Rotini Bolognese. Hot Pack requires you to place the meal in a pouch on top of the heating element, then add water from a small bag to the pouch. Finally, replace the pouch in the box and wait 12 minutes for your meal to completely heat. Reading and following the instructions took a few minutes the first time, in contrast to just pulling the string on the Alpine Aire meals, but Hot Packs instructions are easy to follow. Hot Pack meal retail for between $6.50 and $6.99 per 265-gram package.

Alpine Aire meals are more convenient and offer more food per package. They also leave more trash to dispose of. The Hot Pack meals come in a lighter weight box, resulting from less packaging and a slightly smaller meal. The Hot Pack boxes are rectangular, allowing you to stack or stand them more easily for display or storage. Our testers preferred the taste and menu of the Alpine Aire meals to the Hot Pack meals.

Contact Hot Pack Meals at 819-425-7241

Eating for two?

Serving size is one of the key elements about which retailers need to educate their customers. Anyone who backpacks all day then expects to be properly nourished by a single serving entr»e will be seriously disappointed, and over time dangerously undernourished. Experienced retailers and outdoor enthusiasts already know that serving sizes are bunk. So why do manufacturers continue to use inaccurate portions? Turns out that the FDA regulates the "servings", defining one serving as one cup. The definition disregards whether the person is an 85-pound youth or a 250 pound 6'6" man. It also ignores activity level. Are you are sitting at a desk all day long or strapping 50 pounds to you back and carrying it for 10 miles up the Sierra Nevada?

An average person on an average day burns around 2500 calories. A backpacker carrying 50 pounds for 6 hours over level terrain may burn 4000 to 5000 calories. Add elevation gain and a few more hours and the count raises to 6000 to 8000 calories.

During one of our field tests for backpacking foods, three average male backpackers day hiked with 25 pound packs for about 12 miles over seven hours, with moderate elevation gain. At day's end, we settled down for our meals. We took out three two-person entrees and figured that should be adequate. We hydrated the meals and split each package three ways. Still hungry, we added a Cream of Broccoli soup for two and some garden vegetables. Even that didn't do the trick, so we heated up three more two-person meals and scarfed them down. Then we topped it all off with the Outback Oven's Double Chocolate Cake for four. Using the FDA rules the three of us had just eaten enough food for fourteen people!

Steve Mann is a contributing editor for GearReview.com.


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