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?
Mac ‘n’ cheese is a common sight on the trail: There are few off-the-shelf comfort foods as accessible and ubiquitous as a box o’ Kraft or Annie’s macaroni. But their complexity and caloric value leave much to be desired. That’s where these upgraded takes on the classic come in.
Unlike most dehydrated food categories, which are often freeze-dried interpretations of meals containing meat and vegetables, the trail-ready versions of mac ‘n’ cheese aren’t that different from what you’d cook at home: It’s basically just powdered cheddar, powdered butter or milk, and annatto extract (for color). The only thing that sets dehydrated mac apart from regular mac is that the pasta is par-cooked or “instant,”meaning you don’t have to waste 10 minutes and several cups of precious water on boiling noodles. (Microwaveable versions of Kraft and other big brands use the same shortcut, which makes them suitable for backpacking).
Pasta type, ratio of calorie-rich cheese and dairy to noodles, and flavor-boosting extras are what set a stellar backcountry mac apart from the Blue Box. Six cheese delivery services went head-to-head. Only one earned our top slot.
First Place: Right On Trek Bechamel Style Mac and Cheese
This mac is like a from-scratch Kraft with the volume turned up to 11. Right on Trek, a meal- and trip-planning operation based out of Montana, is serious about its culinary offerings. For starters, we love the ridged elbow mac, which holds onto sauce better than regular pasta. A hacky sack-sized pouch containing cheddar, whey, buttermilk, and whole milk powders makes for a traffic cone orange, uber-gooey and luxuriant cheese sauce that positively epitomizes what this dish is all about. An optional seasoning packet containing dried onion and parsley, black pepper, and mustard seed powder adds a nice level of heat and Funyuny goodness to the equation. As a bonus, Right on Trek offers discounted pouches for larger group sizes. The only downside? It’s not a true cook-in-pouch meal, although no draining or straining is required, and it has a very short cook time.
1080 calories for a 2-person pouch; 8.7 oz; 3-5 minute cook time
$14; Buy Now
Runner Up: Farm to Summit Green Chile Mac
Farm to Summit’s chile-spiked mac is the freshest we tried. The fire-roasted green chiles (also known as Hatch chile or New Mexico chile to Southwesterners) have terrific crunch, even heat, and a smoky, blackened edge. Bites of fresh tomato, onion, and garlic are also integral to this pouch. The combination of spiral egg noodles and dehydrated sweet cream butter made this dish rich without making us feel ill, as we often do after too much mac. It does, however, take a full 20 minutes to rehydrate. Farm to Summit also sells a Garden Mac & Cheese with white cheddar, zucchini, squash, kale, chard, and spinach for those hoping to get a full dose of greenery.
890 calories; 6.1 oz; 20 minute cook time
$13.50; Buy Now
Backpacker’s Pantry Hatch Green Chile Mac & Cheese
After Farm to Summit’s take on green chile mac, Backpacker Pantry’s entry felt a bit like the poor man’s version, but it certainly held its own in our taste test. We appreciate the diversity of powdered cheeses (cheddar, parmesan, romano) and buttery (dehydrated butter sauce) flavor. It’s a good deal spicier than our other macs, thanks not only to powdered smoked Hatch chile, but also jalapeño powder. The extra-long elbow pasta is a bit gummy and overcooked.
450 calories; 3.7 oz; 15 minute cook time
$7; Buy Now
Mountain House Creamy Macaroni & Cheese
As much as we tout Mountain House as our preferred budget brand, its mac is not a banner example. The nearly flavorless cheese sauce has an odd, airy texture, almost like marshmallow fluff. That, in combination with extra-thick elbow noodles, reminded us strongly of cafeteria mac straight from the chafing dish. If that type of macaroni gives you the nostalgic feel-goods, this pouch might be worth consideration. One upshot: It packs a whopping 138 calories per ounce—the highest in this test.
620 calories; 4.5 oz.; 9 minute cook time
$9.25; Buy Now
AlpineAire Forever Young Mac & Cheese
These noodles do not, in fact, live up to the 80s synth-pop quality we hoped for given the name. Just barely a hint of cheesiness adorns this overcooked fusilli pasta. Random flecks of carrot, corn, and pea make this pouch taste like a sad macaroni salad at your aunt’s weekly bridge game.
400 calories; 7 oz.; 10-12 minute cook time
$9; Buy Now
Outdoor Herbivore “Cheddar” Mac
We rarely dole out a ranking like this, but Outdoor Herbivore’s gluten-free, dairy-free “mac” is borderline inedible. We’re not sure if it’s the nutritional yeast, turmeric, or quinoa-corn flour-based pasta, but the otherwise flavorless pouch has a slight ammonia aftertaste. Vegans deserve better.
530 calories; 4.8 oz.; 10 minute cook time
$9; Buy Now