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Food Reviews

Pouch Wars: The Best Dehydrated Backpacking Chili

Only one smoky bean bowl earned top marks.

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Welcome to Pouch Wars, a monthly taste-test of dehydrated backpacking meals. We’ve surveyed the market, sampling both big, corporate brands and tiny cottage operations in our search for the very best. While we certainly take note of caloric value, food weight, and the use of unhealthy dyes and stabilizers, this is first-and-foremost about taste. Is it delicious? Does it have texture? Would you happily eat this rehydrated pouch if you weren’t starving in the backcountry? 

Who’s judging: Backpacker editor Benjamin Tepler spent nearly a decade as a food editor at a major city magazine testing recipes and reviewing restaurants before joining the BP team and holds two actual culinary degrees. That said, taste is completely subjective: one hiker’s Proustian ideal might not make the cut for the next person. Our goal, as always, is to point you towards the tastiest backcountry experience possible. Bon Appétit!

First up? Chili—the quintessential backcountry rib-sticker. We looked at both vegetarian and carnivorous versions of the hearty stew, so long as it included beans and chili seasoning (typically a dried blend including cumin, chile peppers, and garlic/onion powder.) Note: All caloric values and weights are per pouch.

Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili package
Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili (Photo: courtesy)

First Place: Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili

Score: 5/5

It’s no surprise that the winning entry comes from Austin, Texas-based Packit Gourmet, where good chili is a birthright. The base of this chili, which includes big crumbles of ground beef, beef stock, and chunky kidney and red beans, gives it a meaty, umami-rich undertone that lends more depth than most of the meals we tried. But what pushes this chili over the top is an included toppings packet with corn chips (which add salt and crunch), Monterey jack cheese, and a pouch of Texas Pete hot sauce that lends it the elusive tangy zing of a truly exceptional bowl. Bonus: it was the most calorie-rich of the bunch. 680 calories; 5.6 oz.; 10-minute cook time 

$13; Buy Now

Heather’s Choice Grass-Fed Bison Chili
Heather’s Choice Grass-Fed Bison Chili (Photo: courtesy)

Runner Up: Heather’s Choice Grass-Fed Bison Chili

Score: 4.5/5

This chili quite nearly inched out Packit with its well-rounded flavor profile. It derives sweetness from sweet potatoes, a gamey-beefy flavor from The Honest Bison stew meat, and a whole lotta complexity from the clever addition of unsweetened cocoa powder and espresso. Its minimal ingredient, paleo- and gluten-friendly recipe left us feeling full and satisfied without the regretful after effects of highly-processed backpacking chili. 550 calories; 4 oz.; 20-minute cook time 

$15; Buy Now

Patagonia Organic Spicy Red Bean Chili
Patagonia Organic Spicy Red Bean Chili (Photo: courtesy)

Best Vegetarian Option: Patagonia Organic Spicy Red Bean Chili

Score: 4/5

The coveted apparel brand’s take on chili is an admirable effort: It’s got a great tang, with the tomato really shining through, a nice, medium heat from chipotle, and a good range of textures from red and pinto beans. Honestly, though, we expected a bit more nuance and complexity of flavor to this chili, considering Patagonia’s curated use of organic Argentine aji molido and chipotle peppers. Anyone who’s chowed down on earthy New Mexico chiles or fruity habaneros knows the range of potential. Note: this was the only dehydrated chili in our taste-test that you could not cook in its pouch. 600 calories; 6.1 oz.; 10-minute cook time 

$7; Buy Now

The Rest:

Backpacker’s Pantry Wild West Chili & Beans
Backpacker’s Pantry Wild West Chili & Beans (Photo: courtesy)

Backpacker’s Pantry Wild West Chili & Beans

Score: 3.5/5

Tasting Notes: Big, chunky bites of onion and bean with a good spice level. Texturally diverse. Some strange, strong flavors going on here, potentially from the use of hickory smoke powder and Worcestershire sauce. Never thrilled with the use of palm oil, which is responsible for a lot of deforestation. 530 calories; 5.2 oz.; 15-minute cook time 

Available in 2022

Mary Jane’s Organic Kettle Chili
Mary Jane’s Organic Kettle Chili (Photo: courtesy)

Mary Jane’s Organic Kettle Chili

Score: 3/5

Tasting Notes: Lentils make for a nice, hearty bite, but black and pinto bean flakes give it a gruel-like texture. Garlic powder comes through a bit too strong. 380 calories; 3.8 oz. 7-minute cook time 

$6; Buy Now

Good-to-Go Smoked Three Bean Chili
Good-to-Go Smoked Three Bean Chili (Photo: courtesy)

Good To-Go Smoked Three Bean Chili

Score: 2.5/5

Tasting Notes: Surprisingly low marks from a Backpacker brand favorite (we’ve given Good To-Go two Editors’ Choice awards over the years). A good level of acid and big chunks of tomato, corn, and smokey chile were a plus, but it was under-salted and soupy, even after its 20 -minute soak time. (Yes, we measured exactly). 340 calories; 3.5 oz.; 20-minute cook time 

$14; Buy Now

Alpineaire Mountain Chili
Alpineaire Mountain Chili (Photo: courtesy)

Alpineaire Mountain Chili

Score: 1/5

Tasting Notes: Bottom marks to this gritty, flavorless mush. Not a single distinct flavor came through during our taste test. The “caramel-colored textured vegetable protein” probably doesn’t help. If you threw a bunch of MREs into a blender, this would be the result. 580 calories; 6 oz.; 10-12-minute cook time 

$6.50; Buy Now