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Whether camping overnight or embarking on a highly anticipated, much-planned backpacking or thru-hiking trip, there are many benefits to freeze-dried or dehydrated backpacking meals. They are lightweight, easy to pack, and make meal planning a breeze. But they are also rather wasteful.
Most backpacking food comes in plastic pouches and bags that once back in civilization wind up in a landfill (best case scenario) potentially adding to the growing issue of plastic pollution, or pollute the backcountry if burned or discarded on the trail (worst case scenario). Good new is, a modest number of specialized backpacking meal manufacturers are taking steps toward packaging their products in recyclable, compostable, or reusable materials, mirroring a larger societal shift away from single-use plastics and toward zero-waste, sustainable packaging.
But there’s still a long way to go as sustainable technology tries to catch up to the ideology. As we all travel down that road together, how does a well-meaning consumer who just wants to do right by the environment avoid greenwashing marketing and support outdoor meal companies that are transparent and dedicated while still using the best materials available to be as eco-friendly as possible with their packaging?
[Editor's Note: Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our choices matter, but the concept of "individual footprints" literally exists to shift blame from polluting corporations. Change must happen at corporate and government levels if we hope to survive the climate crisis.]
To address these questions, and others, we’ve put together the following what-to-know guide to the small but growing world of responsibly-packaged backpacking meals, which covers important topics and terms as well as recommending which businesses are using recyclable, compostable, or reusable packaging for their meals.
One of the main reasons premade backpacking meals are lagging behind the zero-waste call is because of food safety and longevity. Food needs to be preserved away from air and moisture to prevent bacterial growth or contamination, which can lead to illness. For example, Good To-Go, the Maine-based backpacking meal maker that practices zero-waste production and leans heavily on sustainable food sourcing, says their packaging needs to keep air and moisture out for five years, while still being durable enough not to puncture in a backpack and be able to hold up to boiling water being added to it. "Trying to do all of that and be compostable or recyclable is just not possible at this time," says Co-Founder David Koorits, "and if someone says otherwise it’s a marketing ploy."
If the packaging fails to extend the shelf life long enough, not only does the material head to the landfill, its contents do too, adding food waste to the trash and pollution problem. One major impact of food waste is the creation of methane, which blows carbon dioxide out of the water when it comes to warming our planet more quickly.
Emerging Technology and Materials of Promise
Alongside food safety, another reason why there is no zero-waste packaging is due to the lack of sustainable packing materials that can be recycled or broken down into non-toxic, natural components through composting. At present, steps are being taken to develop these kinds of packaging and wrapping materials, such as a hotly anticipated compostable plastic from the Israel-based company TIPA.
Some plastics are being developed from plant-based materials like corn. Also known as bioplastics, these are touted as eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum from which most plastic products are derived. But studies and research have shown that oftentimes, lacking the proper environment to fully break down or decompose, bioplastics that become trapped in landfills without access to oxygen (a key ingredient in composting) take just as long to break down as traditional plastics. That’s why these plastics only fully break down in industrial composting facilities. However, many cities lack such facilities, or they can only accept certain types of waste. This helpful map is a solid starting point to find industrial composting facilities in your area.
Instead of using biodegradable or reusable packaging, some companies are opting for the recyclable route. Backpacker Pantry and Mountain House are two examples, partnering with TerraCycle to recycle their wrappers and pouches. You already need to pack out your trash, so now you can collect your left-over meal pouches, request one of Terracycle’s mail-in envelopes, pack everything up, and send it off to be recycled properly. It's also completely free.
It should be noted though that recycling is far from a perfect system, on local, national, and international levels. On the local level, sometimes certain materials or items can’t be recycled in your county or municipality. On a broader scale, recycling plastics is deemed not economically viable in a capitalistic society. And then there’s the fact that, even when recycled materials do find new life as a different product, that creation process still produces some sort of waste, be it energy or something else. So be sure to do your research and go through the proper channels when recycling.
Compostable Vs. Biodegradable
Most backpacking food companies looking to use materials that users can compost or that will biodegrade are turning to a type of packaging called “omni-degradable.” Developed by TekPak Solutions, a Canada-based manufacturer specializing in biodegradable packaging products, omnidegradable packaging is composed of organic compounds that naturally break down and are consumed by microbes in the soil or water in a process that is similar to composting.
The waste products of this process are carbon dioxide, water and a small amount of organic biomass. Omnidegradable bags are FDA compliant and have been independently tested to confirm their effectiveness. All that the bags need to be broken down are naturally-occurring microbes, but the rate of decomposition varies depending on the environment. In general, though, they break down much faster in industrial facilities than at-home composting piles.
But omnidegradable is different from compostable. Items that are compostable are already made of organic materials that decompose and turn into nutrient-rich soil, often over a shorter period of time. Biodegradables are items made from engineered materials with additives that will break down over time, leaving at best some organic waste and at worst microplastics and leaked toxins and chemicals. Biodegradable is a broad term, and includes some plastics, which in time do technically break down. Though it may take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to do so, and will leave behind microplastics.
The challenge then for makers of compostable or biodegradable plastics is to make a food-safe, long-lasting, and ecologically-safe material that, when it breaks down or decomposes, will not leave behind anything harmful and ideally add fresh natural materials to the environment like composting does. Because of this, finding a balance between food preservation and sustainable packing remains something to strive for yet all but impossible to achieve given the current technologies available. Though the following companies are making progress.
5 Sustainable Backpacking Meal Companies to Support
Many of the companies making the biggest leaps in using low-impact packaging materials are small businesses. In addition to using the best responsible packaging available to them, their use of local, organic, or seasonal ingredients is another way to create less waste and reduce the environmental impact of backpacker meals.
The following four companies stand out by delivering flavor-driven, nutrient rich adventure meals in packaging that can either be recycled, composted, or reused.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Fernweh Food Co. is a women-owned and operated enterprise that packages its line of seasonal, plant-based, and gluten free adventure meals in low-impact packaging. Meals—which include options like mushroom pot pie and Southwest Stew—are packaged in omnidegradable paper bags or reusable, food-safe cotton muslin bags.
For the bags, food is prepared by pouring hot water into the bag for immediate cooking, while with the reusable bags, the food needs to be transferred to a different receptacle like a bowl or pot. The muslin bags are machine washable, so you can reuse them for other adventure meals or other uses like shopping. Portland-area orders can also come in reusable glass jars (though be extremely careful not to let these break while in the backcountry, both for your safety and that of the local wildlife), and if you’re ordering the paper/muslin bag options, they are delivered in a compostable mailer.
Operating out of Bozeman, Montana, Sasquatch Fuel uses high-quality, preservative-free ingredients to deliver nutritious meals to avid explorers. Whipping up small-batch hearty meals like Beef Stroganoff and snacky “Yak Bars,” their meals and snacks are packaged in omni-degradable bags that will break down when exposed to natural microbes in the soil and water. At the same time, the bags are sturdy enough to hold boiling water for cooking the meal directly in the bag. Co-founder Andrew Schroeder was inspired to create Sasquatch Meals by encountering trash and left-behind meal pouches while out on backcountry adventures.
From fine dining to backcountry meals, Farm to Summit aims to not only elevate your average backcountry meal, but to help the food system while doing it. This Durango-based company makes dehydrated meals for camping and travel "that give a damn." With their dehydration process and omni-degradable packaging, it allows them to create a preservative-free (and guilt-free) meal. From Thai Red Curry or Green Chili Mac and Cheese, Farm to Summit proves that you don't have to sacrifice flavor for health and sustainability. Even on the side of a mountain, or at a local campground.
For something different than generic stews and pasta dishes, Ottawa, Canada-based Backcountry Wok offers dehydrated and plant-based meals inspired by the diverse flavors and cuisines of Asia, from Korean bibimbap to Thai green curry. The meals come in compostable bags made with a kraft paper exterior lining, interior corn lining and zipper, and corn-based label. They are heat-resistant, so you can cook the meals directly inside the bag as usual, and when done, the bags break down and decompose after about 410 days. The meals have a shelf-life of two years.
The bags are certified for home and industrial composting, so don’t just bury them in the woods. Bring the left-over bags home and bury them in your home composting pile or take them to a local composting facility. If you want to compost the bags at home, Backcountry Wok offers a how-to blog post on the subject. Additionally, a portion of profits goes to supporting outdoor education and sustainability programs for youth.
For a little taste of the gourmet in the great outdoors, Pinnacle Foods offers chef-prepared meals like jalapeno cheddar biscuits & herbed sausage gravy and herb-roasted chicken & white cheddar dumplings for easy backpacking enjoyment. Based in Missoula, Montana, they cook small-batch meals that are then freeze-dried to preserve the flavors and high nutritional value. For their packaging, they use omni-degradable bags that break down wherever there are microbes present in water or soil. But until they go back to the earth and turn into biomass that encourages plant growth, the bags are shelf-stable and sturdy enough to allow the food to be cooked directly in the bag.
It’s important to note that, even with omnidegradable or compostable backpacking meals, all used pouches and wrappers should still be packed out and properly disposed of once home.
Other Ways to Make a Difference
With so many systemic issues blocking the way of zero waste consumption, it can be easy to feel like nothing you do actually makes an impact. But even minor efforts can add up. Spending money on companies that align with your values is key, and apart from supporting the above low-impact backpacking food businesses, there are other ways you can incorporate sustainability into your outdoor meal planning, too.
One way is by buying from backpacking meal companies that only source their ingredients from sustainable food systems. Patagonia Provisions, for example, uses sustainable ingredients and utilizes regenerative organic agriculture in the sourcing of its food, and some of their packaging is recyclable or contained in BPA-free seafood cans.
And finally, the ultimate responsible way to not produce any trash or plastic waste from a backpacking trip is by preparing and packing your own food in your own reusable containers. These can be anything from reusable silicone bags to twist-top containers.
And just because you’re making and packing your own food doesn’t mean you have to forego flavor and nutrition. Website Fresh Off The Grid is one helpful place you can look to find tons of recipes and tips on how to make delicious, high-quality, and healthy meals for camping or backpacking. But there are tons of other resources available online. By taking a little extra time and energy, you can directly help contribute to less waste finding its way into nature.