Preserved meats are high in protein and rich in calories, a perfect on-the-go food. But which meats are best for the rigors of hiking and backpacking? This list is written to make sure you know your options and to help you optimize your backcountry snacking. For simplicity, I’ve chosen to exclude fresh meat and meat alternatives, and the comparison of each meat listed assumes average grocery store quality.
#8 Freeze Dried Meats are a classic ingredient in pouch-based backcountry dinners. But because rehydration is required, they’re really only useful as a meal mix-in and lack the snackability offered by every other meat on this list. What’s more, the freeze drying process is best with leaner meats, so they’re usually not very calorically dense. An easy eighth place/last place ranking from my perspective.
#7 Meat Energy Bars are a relatively new contender to the field. When it comes down to it, they’re basically just an energy bar like what you might see from Clif, only with a more savory flavor pallet and preserved ground meat added in. They’re super easy to eat on the go, and surprisingly delicious if you can get over the weirdness. I ding them slightly for being expensive ($2 for one small bar), and having a low caloric density relative to other meats. Hence the second-to-last-place rank.
#6 Tuna, Salmon, or Meat Pouches offer some much needed variety to a hiker’s protein consumption. This is the only practical way to eat tuna (never pack cans!), but you can also find chicken salad, pulled pork, and other delicious options. Mind you, this is wet food so it’s strictly not the best option when it comes to maximizing calories per ounce. Even when preserved in olive oil, it’s not as rich as more highly ranked meats. However, the foil packets are very portable, and I think one per day is a good lunchtime supplement and earns its sixth place rank.
#5 Jerky is the most commonly overrated trail meat, simply because of how beloved and iconic it is among hikers. People assume it to be the single best option, but it most definitely is not. That said, it’s a delicious source of protein and salty electrolytes. But ounce for ounce, it has less calories than every option I’ve ranked higher, and it’s surprisingly expensive. All said and done, it gets a middle-of-the-pack fifth place ranking from me.
#4 Pre-Sliced Salami or Pepperoni is great for snacking, requires zero prep work, has powerful flavor, and is awesome to add to most meals. It’s high in calories and in protein and is dense and low volume. My biggest functional issue with thinly sliced meats is that they are more susceptible to meat sweats and will spoil faster than a full sized log. Though on day hikes or shorter/cooler backpacking trips, I do find that slices are preferable. At fourth of eight, it might be the worst of the best options, but the bottom line is that it’s still one of the best options.
#3 Summer Sausage is the most economical of all meats on this list, offering the best volume for your dollar, with excellent caloric density and high protein. While it’s not the fanciest meat (in fact it’s probably the least fancy) it’s nonetheless hearty and satisfying after a long day on the trail. Unopened, it lasts a really long time, even when unrefrigerated, so no need to stress about it going bad. I will ding slightly for being susceptible to meat sweats, and also for the rigamarole of unpeeling the wrapping and cutting it slices. I’ve eaten a lot of summer sausage in my day, and I’m not ashamed to give it the bronze medal for third place.
#2 Whole Dry Salami is the densest and most delicious meat option available to hikers. Opened or unopened, it holds up incredibly well on the trail, even in heat and mostly without sweating. The protein and calories per ounce are unmatched. The taste is excellent, and high quality options are readily available in a wide variety of flavors. I generally prefer salamis whole rather than pre-sliced because they’re a better value, longer lasting, and higher quality. It’s probably the meat I’ve carried the most of in my day, the only downside is that it requires slicing. An easy number two pick silver medal in my power rankings.
#1 Smoked Sausage, AKA Meat Sticks offer the best of all worlds. They’re dense in protein and calories, affordable, long lasting even when refrigerated, and don’t suffer much meat sweats. They’re snackable directly out of the bag, requiring zero prep work, or can be cut up and added into meals. Much like salami, they come in a wide array of price points and qualities for all budgets and they’re commonly available, even at gas stations. Cheers to you, meat sticks. You earn a well-deserved, gold medal number one spot on the power rankings!