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Reviews > Food > Packaged Meals > Cache Lake Foods - 2007 > Test Report by Curt Peterson

Cache Lake Camping Foods
Report Series by Curt Peterson

Initial Report - September 2007
Field Report - February 2008


Below you will find:

Initial Report Contents
     Tester Background and Contact Info
     Product Specifications
     Initial Impressions
     Test Plan
     Initial Report Summary

Field Report Contents

     Field Conditions
     Field Report

Final Test Thoughts

   BreakfastLunchesDinnersDesserts





Initial Report

1)Tester Background and Contact Information


Name: Curt Peterson
Age: 36
Gender: Male
Height: 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight: 270 lb (122 kg)
Email address: curt<at>boopants<dot>com
Location: North Bend, Washington, USA

I live in the Cascade foothills, just 20 mi (32 km) from the Pacific Crest Trail via trails leading right from my backyard. My outdoor time in Washington is spent dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing everywhere from the Olympic coast to rainforests to Cascade volcanoes to dry steppe.  I played football in college and often evaluate products from a big guy perspective. My typical pack load ranges from 11 - 20 lbs (5 - 9 kg) and usually includes plenty of wet weather gear.


2) Cache Lake Camping Food Specifications

Main Courses
  • Beef, Veg., & Gravy w/Mashed Potatoes*, 2 Servings, 274 Calories per Serving, 5.6 oz (158 gm) Listed, 6.5 oz (185 gm) Actual, $5.95 US
  • Sloppy Joes with Fryin' Pan Buns*, 2 Servings, 332 Calories per Serving, 6.4 oz (181 gm) Listed, 10.9 oz (311 gm) Actual, $6.30 US
  • Chicken Ala King w/Rice*, 2 Servings, 200 Calories per Serving, 7.0 oz (199 gm) Listed, 8.4 oz (240 gm) Actual, $6.75 US
  • Chicken Noodle Casserole w/Veg.*, 2 Servings, 277 Calories per Serving, 6.6 oz (187 gm) Listed, 7.0 oz (199 gm) Actual, $6.75 US
  • Beef Stroganoff*, 2 Servings, 331 Calories per Serving, 5.8 oz (164 gm) Listed, 6.5 oz (186 gm) Actual, $6.50 US
  • Really Tasty Chicken Stew, 2 Servings, 211 Calories per Serving, 5.0 oz (142 gm) Listed, 6.2 oz (178 gm) Actual, $5.75 US

Sides or Lunches

  • Cheesy Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon, 2 Servings, 370 Calories per Serving, 6.4 oz (182 gm) Listed, 6.3 oz (182 gm) Actual, $5.50 US
  • Curried Sweet Potato Latke, 2 Servings, 374 Calories per Serving, 6.4 oz (182 gm) Listed, 5.2 oz (148 gm) Actual, $3.75 US
  • Wild Rice Veg. Salad w/Ranch Dressing, 2 Servings, 112 Calories per Serving, 3.5 oz (100 gm) Listed, 6.1 oz (176 gm) Actual, $5.50 US
  • Peas and Carrots*, 2 Servings, 17 Calories per Serving, 1.5 oz (42 gm) Listed, 2.2 oz (65 gm) Actual, $2.65 US
  • Sweet Potato Corn Bread, 4 Servings, 150 Calories per Serving, 6.5 oz (190 gm) Listed, 7.0 oz (198 gm) Actual, $3.95 US
  • Really Tasty Dumplings, 2 Servings, 220 Calories per Serving, 3.2 oz (90 gm) Listed, 3.0 oz (86 gm) Actual, $2.95 US
Breakfasts
  • Wild Rice Pancakes w/Blueberries, 2 Servings, 216 Calories per Serving, 6.0 oz (180 gm) Listed, 8.6 oz (244 gm) Actual, $5.95 US
  • Hash Brown Egg Scramble*, 2 Servings, 224 Calories per Serving, 6.7 oz (190 gm) Listed, 6.6 oz (191 gm) Actual, $4.75 US
Desserts
  • Lemon Cream Pudding, 2 Servings, 159 Calories per Serving, 4 oz (120 gm) Listed, 4.2 oz (119 gm) Actual, $1.95 US
  • Vanilla Pudding, 2 Servings, 208 Calories per Serving, 4 oz (120 gm) Listed, 4.2 oz (119 gm) Actual, $1.95 US
  • Banana Cream Pie*, 2 Servings, 252 Calories per Serving, 4 oz (113 gm) Listed, 4.9 oz (139 gm) Actual, $3.50 US
  • Chocolate Pie*, 2 Servings, 247 Calories per Serving, 4 oz (113 gm) Listed, 5.3 oz (151 gm) Actual, $3.25 US
*Denotes Cache Lake's Outfitter's Choice line of camping foods

3) Cache Lake Camping Food Initial Impressions

I like food. I definitely prefer quality food and am spoiled to have a wife who is a fantastic cook, but I have been known to happily eat some pretty questionable stuff as well. When I'm on the trail I eat like I have a license to put whatever I want into my body, figuring I'll burn it off quickly. Don't get me wrong – I like good stuff out there as well. One of my recent trips was fresh trout, a nice Shiraz-Cab, a fresh salad, and a coconut milk soup. There's pretty much nothing I won't try, however, and if I faced horrible mystery food or nothing, it's the mystery food for me!

I was a non-cheating vegetarian for 2 years at one point, so I definitely appreciate quality meatless foods – an area Cache Lake appears to know. I do value easy-to-make foods - ideally one pot - so this will be an area of focus in my testing.

The Cache Lake camping food arrived at my home safe and sound in a box containing 18 Items.  Nine of the items are labeled with the Cache Lake logo and appear designed for the backpacker.  The other nine items were apparently designed with Boundary Waters Canoe Area trips in mind and carry Cache Lake's Outfitter's Choice label.  At this point serving sizes and quality don't appear to be any different - only the labels differ.  I'm curious to try the meals and see if there is a difference between the two lines of food.

The individual item weights vary quite a bit.  A couple were very close to accurate - accounting for a little packaging weight - but some were quite a bit different from the listed weights.  I'm assuming that an increased weight simply means that more of the product is in the packaging than the original designation and that there would be a proportional increase in calories.  All but one were heavier than stated, so I'll count this as Cache Lake being generous to its customers.

I have had some bad experiences with freeze dried food.  It appears as though Cache Lakes food is all dehydrated and not freeze dried.  Finding out how it rehydrates and if it is all dehydrated or a mix of dehydrated and freeze dried will be a focus during field reporting.  Initially, at least, the product looks much more appealing to me than freeze dried food.

Other areas I will include in the field reporting include caloric density and some of the key ingredients of the items.
 

4) Cache Lake Camping Food Test Plan

I will test here in the Northwest as we enter into the fall. It will get used for subalpine mountain backpacking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and hopefully higher cross-country routes in the Alpine Lakes if I can beat the big snows. I will have long weekends every other week, so I should be able to get plenty of trail time in. Specifically I plan on hitting the ridges above the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and the area above Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes.

I will report on:

1) Nutrition: What's in them? I like foods with just a few ingredients that I understand. Are there are a lot of preservatives and additives?

2) Taste: Obviously. This is hugely subjective, but I'll give my opinions as descriptively as possible.

3) Servings: Is a "Two Serving" meal actually made for two? I find most backpacking meals are under-sized – is this so with Cache Lake?

4) Effects: Kind of a weird test subject, but I've had some less-than-pleasant experiences with some food.  I've had buddies puke their guts out and more than a few sprints to the outhouse. Does the Cache Lakes food cause any unwanted memories?

5) Packaging: Easy to use? Light? Able to boil right in the bags? Easy to dispose of?

6) Energy: Does it do the job for hiking/backpacking? Do I find myself getting hungry or feeling like I only ate half a meal?

7) Preparation: Easy to make? Involved? Do they use a lot of fuel or require special kitchen pots or utensils? I have an Outback Oven and just about everything that can be taken in the backcountry, but I prefer my tiny pot and simple burner – is that enough?


5) Initial Report Summary
Initially the Cache Lake foods look appealing.  They are light, very compact, and contain meals that I think would go down well in the backcountry.  I will rely exclusively on the Cache Lake food until it is gone.  The only thing that will possibly supplement the items would be fresh fish.

I'd like to thank Cache Lake and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to try out these interesting meals!


Field Report

1) Field Conditions

The Cache Lakes foods were consumed over about four months as fall transitioned to winter here in the Pacific Northwest.  About 2/3 of it was used up in fall conditions early in the test window - October and November.  The last 1/3 of it was used up a little slower, in part due to a minor injury that kept me off of snowshoes and longer trips for the last month or two.  
Two overnight hikes and 3 or 4 dayhikes made up my trail time during this test window.  All but one trip was on the west slope of the Cascades.  I was primarily on forested trails that led to lakes between 3,000 and 4,000 feet (900-1200 m).   Temperatures were mild - typically in the 40s or 50s (~4-12 C) during the day and mid 30s (1-2 C) at night.  I had plenty of drizzle to accompany me and a couple of times that turned to snow as I cooked in the evening or early morning.  I did fish on a few of the trips and planned to supplement the Cache Lakes food with fresh trout, but it was very late in the season and I had no luck catching something that was big enough to cook up for dinner.


2) Field Report

A lot of time testing the Cache Lakes foods involved the packing and sorting of the food at home.  My goal was to pack a day's food that was 100% Cache Lakes and not supplemented with anything else.  I packed the various items in groups that made sense to me: a breakfast, lunch items, dinners with sides, and a dessert for each day.  This would require cooking a hot meal for lunch, but that was fine for the trips I had planned. After sorting this way, I put them in larger Ziplocs and noted the servings and calories.  This gave me 3 full days of food plus an extra meal or two for emergencies or hearty appetites.  The initial groups are seen in the picture
below.

Packed Cache Foods
Cache Lake Foods Packed for Complete Days

The first thing I noticed after sorting them and doing the math on the calories was the disconnect between the servings and the calories.  All of the items in the daily food bags were listed as two servings.  The amount of food in each two-serving portion did in fact seem to be pretty generous and I had no difficulty imaging them being plenty for two people.  When I totaled the calories, however, the number was relatively low for two people backpacking.  None of the the days' caloric total was over 3000 calories for two people.  They averaged a little over 2500 calories each day, or about 1250 calories per person.  Even small folks can burn 2-4 times that amount during a day of backpacking so I was concerned about the calories right from the beginning.  They were light, however, averaging only about 1 lb (.45 kg) per person per day.

After using them on a couple of trips my worries proved unfounded.  There is a LOT of food in these packages.  They are very filling even if the calories aren't there. I figure this is the result of low calorie density foods like vegetables and some of the starches.  They definitely fill the hole after a day on the trail.  I would speculate that the low calorie totals would eventually catch up to a backpacker after many days on the trail, but for an overnighter or even a weekend trip this probably wouldn't be much of a factor.  There is a lot of bulk even if it's not particularly dense.

While the calories didn't end up being a real concern after all, I did have some problems with the preparation of the meals.  The directions are clear and work exactly as they are written - my problem was entirely due to my own expectations of backpacking food.  Essentially, these meals are a lot more work than the food I normally take on a trip.  I try to make each meal I eat on the trail involve boiling water only.  I like to take only a small pot and use it to boil water only.  I eat directly from the packaging the food comes in or will carry a very light titanium bowl with me, but I do not like to cook food in my pot at all.  The Cache Lakes foods involve a lot of cooking in the pot, in addition to basically requiring extra cookware and often extra ingredients that aren't included in the food packages.  

I found this out the hard way on my first trip.  Assuming that each meal was self-contained I took a couple of meals that needed a fry pan and oil to cook properly.  I didn't have a fry pan and I don't carry oil normally, so this was a bit of a problem for me.  I made do on that trip (the food tasted fine but it was UGLY) and ended up re-sorting my packages after that trip based on cooking directions and supplies needed.  The meals that result from following the directions are definitely better than most boil-only meals I've had, but the extras required more than doubled the weight of my kitchen set.  I didn't mind this when I was eating curried sweet potato latkes in the middle of the woods, but it did make me grumble when I was packing gear, adding weight to my pack, and having to do oily messy dishes with near-freezing water.  Backpacking food is most definitely a personal preference and how involved people want to make their meals is absolutely individual in nature, but for my style of backpacking this was a lot more work than I would like.  The results, I must admit, were pretty impressive however.  A few of the meals from some of my trips:

Chicken Noodle
Chicken Noodle Casserole on a Gas Cartridge Stove
Peas and Carrots
Peas and Carrots on an Esbit Stove


Joe Bun
Sloppy Joe Bun - Cooked on a Pan, not Baked
Sloppy Joe
Sloppy Joe Read to Eat

Overall, every meal that is listed in my Initial Report is quality backpacking food in my opinion.  Some are much better than others, but taste is completely subjective.  Here are some of my personal thoughts and very opinionated quick notes on the meal packs:

Main Courses
  • Beef, Veg., & Gravy w/Mashed Potatoes: Very filling.  Wish it had more beef and wish I had a lot of pepper to go with it.
  • Sloppy Joes w/ Fryin' Pan Buns: Definitely unique.  Makes a LOT. Buns were really cool (see picture) but the TVP-based sauce was disappointing.  Very laborious to make.
  • Chicken Ala King w/Rice: Needed a bit of salt, but otherwise fine. Straightforward cooking was nice.
  • Chicken Noodle Casserole w/Veg: One of the more bland meals. Very starchy. Less flavor than most other meals.
  • Beef Stroganoff: Easy to cook. I like my stroganoff with lots of sour cream flavor - this doesn't have much at all.
  • Really Tasty Chicken Stew: Super easy to cook. Not sure there was chicken in there - maybe soy chunks instead?

Sides or Lunches

  • Cheesy Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon: The sweet potato products are awesome!  I'll be buying these in the future.
  • Curried Sweet Potato Latke: Requires a frying pan and oil, but probably my favorite of everything I tried.  Spicy and just plain good!
  • Wild Rice Veg. Salad w/Ranch Dressing: I tried the soaking directions - about 10 hours - but it was still crunchy.  Good flavor, though.
  • Peas and Carrots: Nothing fancy, but without a doubt the best texture of rehydrated veggies I've ever had.  Just like it had never been dehydrated!
  • Sweet Potato Corn Bread: Again, the sweet potato products are Cache Lakes' best in my opinion.  Tedious to make and I'd leave the corn out next time, but really good flavor.
  • Really Tasty Dumplings: Really simple and works with any of the stews.  This is one that would be easy to add to lot of different meals.
Breakfasts
  • Wild Rice Pancakes w/Blueberries: Need extra gear to make, but good.  I added some wild huckleberries, too.  A mini syrup pack would be a nice addition.
  • Hash Brown Egg Scramble: I completely destroyed these, so I don't have much to say.  User-error for sure!  Think gooey charcoal :)
Desserts
  • Lemon Cream Pudding: Very good, and I don't usually like lemon desserts. Not the fake "Pine Sol" flavor at all.  
  • Vanilla Pudding: Also very good.  The puddings are super easy to make and taste just like major brand versions at home.
  • Banana Cream Pie: Another good one.  It's hard to make an actual piece of pie that looks like one, but I didn't care if it looked good as long as it tasted good - which it definitely did.
  • Chocolate Pie: Best of the desserts.  I'd buy this one, too.  Chocolate crust with chocolate pudding - what's not to like?

Chocolate Pudding
Chocolate Pudding Pie - No Cooking Needed

Final Test Thoughts

The Cache Lakes foods are surely unique. Instead of simply making the easiest, fastest, saltiest food they can stick in a pouch, they seem to really try hard to make authentic food for backcountry use.  It is obvious to me that they have a background in canoe camping, since many of the recipes require more kitchen tools and more involved directions than many backpacking foods.  For my preferred style of backpacking, the extra gear and effort was a little bit too much.  I most definitely found some recipes that I will be ordering in the future and that are unique (love the sweet potato stuff!), but for me most of the foods would fit my car camping style more than my backpacking style.

The actual food quality is top-notch.  I would eat anything they make in the backcountry again.  My only hesitation is on the preparation.  For backpackers who really enjoy cooking in the woods, Cache Lakes is definitely something to consider.  I had no ill-effects from anything I had.  I don't typically digest TVP particularly well, but even that went down fine.

The caloric density appears to be relatively low - most likely due to a lack of fat.  There are a lot of vegetables and starches in the meals.  Many recipes need oil, so generous use of some olive oil would be an easy way to boost calories on longer trips.

My only recommendations would be to maybe categorize the meals by cooking directions and perhaps re-package those in bags that can handle boiling water.  If there was a list of meals that only required boiling water and it could be eaten right from the bag, backpackers that focus on small kitchens and simple cooking would have a source for high-quality tasty food that meets their cooking style.

My thanks to BackpackGearTest.org and Cache Lakes foods for the opportunity to test these meals.  This was definitely one of the most fun tests I've done!



Read more reviews of Cache Lake Foods gear
Read more gear reviews by Curt Peterson

Reviews > Food > Packaged Meals > Cache Lake Foods - 2007 > Test Report by Curt Peterson



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