In the United States, we generally recognize that the first modern, organized leisure camp was set up by Frederick and Abigail Gunn, who ran a school for boys in Connecticut, in 1861. The Gunns and their students spent two weeks traipsing around in the woods, fishing, and learning about nature, and the couple continued to put on these trips for the next twelve years. It’s no coincidence that the trip happened while the country was in the midst of the Civil War: the industrialization of the Union’s food supply gave them a huge advantage in the conflict, since soldiers were able to march with more dry food than ever before. Thanks to advances in technology, hardtack, the dense, high-calorie wheat biscuit favored by British sailors, became the backbone of army rations in this period, sustaining soldiers for longer and cheaper than rations could before. This kind of innovation made it much easier for people like the Gunns to imagine camping for sport: it took a lot of stress out of providing food for an army, let alone a group of schoolkids.
In the 1950s, the advent of industrial freeze-drying, also known as cryodesiccation, changed everything about the way we ate food out in the warzones and camping grounds. By combining freeze-dried ingredients with water, campers and astronauts alike could enjoy “homier” food like applesauce and chili con carne without having to lug around heavy cans and bags. This kind of technology is more expensive, however, which is why that freeze-dried bag of pho is $4.50 per serving and your average cup of air-dried instant ramen is $.35.
Commercially available MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat, are also popular among hikers, campers, and, famously, survivalists. Made by the Department of Defense to provide service members with hot meals out in the field, MREs are packaged individually and are easy to heat up in a pot of boiling water. Ever have a Tasty Bite, those wonderful little packets full of pre-made vegetarian Indian stews? They’re basically that! Newer MREs even have their own flame-free heating elements, which boil the contents in their package when exposed to water, making them really handy for burn-ban periods, when campfires are not legal. Like the camp food at REI, MREs have evolved with the times, reflecting the more diverse palates of their user base. Whereas they were once all about hot dogs, turkey in gravy, and BBQ beans, now they provide shelf-stable tortillas, fried rice, and ratatouille.