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ROAD TEST

Take-in takeout

June 17, 2007|Vani Rangachar

What backpacker doesn't dream of a hot gourmet meal at the end of a long day? But rarely is a chef awaiting you after you've conquered that 9,000-foot pass. And when you're carrying all of your grub on your back, every gram spared is precious. Enter prepared meals. They're lightweight and easy to make, but do they taste good? My stepson, husband and I tried five types, chili or close-enough variations, found in local outdoor-gear stores.

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HIGH ON CONVENIENCE

First look: Mountain House's Chili Mac with Beef is lower in calories (280) than the others we tested (they were about 300 and up). It was easy to prepare and lightweight. It came with a pre-moistened towelette.

Likes and yikes: We thought the meat texture was good for freeze-dried, but I thought the chili was soupy. My stepson, Jann, liked it: "I could eat this for lunch."

Info: $5.50 at REI, (800) 426-4840, www.rei.com; or Mountain House, (877) 366-3877, www.mountainhouse.com.

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SPARED THE BEEF

First look: Alpine Aire Foods Mountain Chili is meat-free and low-fat (3 grams per serving) and cholesterol-free, with no artificial flavors and preservatives.

Likes and yikes: If you are a chili lover, this won't be spicy enough. The corn kernels stayed hard. "This tastes cardboard-like," husband Barry said.

Info: $6.25 at REI, (800) 426-4840, www.rei.com; or the manufacturer, TyRy Inc., (800) 322-6325, www.aa-foods.com.

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CATCH OF THE DAY

First look: Backpacker's Pantry Southwestern Smoked Salmon Pasta contained a separate foil package with smoked salmon. It's vitamin-fortified, but had the highest fat and sugar content.

Likes and yikes: I liked the pasta and the fact it had salmon in a pouch. But it came out soupy. Though Jann did not like it, he said it's probably "the best one for you."

Info: $12.95 at Adventure 16, (310) 473-4574, www.adventure16.com or the manufacturer, American Outdoor Products Inc., (800) 641-0500, www.backpackerspantry.com.

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PACKIN' SOME HEAT

First look: The Alpine Aire Mountain Chili is meat-free and self-heating. It weighs 12 ounces and serves one. You won't need to fumble for matches or carry a camp stove to get a hot meal. It even comes with a plastic spoon.

Likes and yikes: It's even easier to prepare than the freeze-dried meals. Just pull a plastic tab, and after a few minutes you will hear a small rumbling coming from the box. Fifteen minutes later it's a tasty, hot chili. But the package gets too hot to handle comfortably, and if you are schlepping long distances with a pack, it may be too heavy to carry.

Info: $7.95 at REI, (800) 426-4840, www.rei.com; or the manufacturer, TyRy Inc., (800) 322-6325, www.aa-foods.com.

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TROPICS ON A PLATE

Natural High, Caribbean Black Beans & Rice

First look: Its bright blue and sage green package is light -- 5 3/4 ounces. The package boasts "all natural" ingredients, with "no preservatives, no artificial flavors or additives." It serves two medium appetites.

Likes and yikes: Like the other meals tested, it was easy to make: Add 2 cups of boiling water, stir and wait 10 to 12 minutes. It took a bit of stirring to get the lumps out. We all thought it had a little hint of sweetness and tasted freeze-dried.

Info: $5.50 at REI, (800) 426-4840, www.rei.com; or the manufacturer, Richmoor Corp., (800) 423-3170, www.richmoor.com.

-- Vani Rangachar

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