by Shannon Cunningham
Backpacking season is here — and maybe it’s time to start making your own meals for your trips. Preparing your own food is healthier and rewarding — not to mention cheaper. And it is not nearly as difficult or time consuming as you might think.
These basic techniques will put you on the path to backcountry culinary independence.
Removing moisture from foods reduces their volume and weight and helps prevent spoilage. A dehydrator can pay for itself quickly, since you’ll be saving money on pre-made meals. Watch for dehydrators at secondhand stores or online gear swaps. Look for models with adjustable temperature settings and four or more trays.
To get started, follow principles for safe food preparation, including keeping working surfaces clean, washing hands and heating food to the proper temperature. Some good rules for dehydrating:
- Lay the food, thinly cut and with space in between, so air can circulate to allow for even drying. Don’t crowd the trays.
- Be aware that drying times vary depending on humidity, moisture in the food and the size of the food pieces.
- Choose the correct temperature (90–100 degrees for herbs and nuts, 125–135 for fruits and vegetables, 145–155 for meats). Meat should reach a temperature of 165 degrees, so 10 minutes in an oven at 275 degrees after drying is recommended.
- Avoid foods with oil and fat if you want your meal to last more than a few weeks without refrigeration.
- Add almond flour or cornstarch to ground meat before dehydrating for better rehydrating and to avoid a “gravelly” texture.
- Blanch fruits and vegetables by steaming or boiling for a few minutes to lock in color and flavor. This is also important for foods like berries and peas to break the skin to allow foods to dry faster.
- Check on your food during the drying process and rotate, flip and break up pieces as needed to ensure they dry evenly.
- Ensure food is brittle and lacks stickiness when done.
- Let your items cool completely before storing to avoid the build-up of condensation.
Love What You Make
When backpacking or hiking, taking foods you haven’t tried can lead to a disappointing trip and hangry campers. When planning, think about the dishes that you love and eat often and choose those. Flavorful and spicy entrees are often more appetizing as well.
Meals that you serve at home (even take-out) can be dehydrated and eaten on trail if broken into small enough pieces to allow for rehydration. Soups, chilis and other one-pot dishes work well if the contents are fully cooked and have uniformly small pieces. To dehydrate such foods, set the dehydrator to the recommended drying temperature of the highest-risk food (meat or starches) and stir during the drying process. The next time you have delicious leftovers, don’t be afraid to experiment.
Store Your Food Well
Once you have dehydrated your meals, they need to be stored properly to ensure they are safe and tasty. Foods without oil can be stored without refrigeration longer than those with fats. Dried foods are best kept in the refrigerator, freezer, or a cool, dark location. Some backpackers keep their ingredients separate (such as spaghetti sauce and ground beef) until they are ready to head out. That way, if one item goes bad, it can be replaced without having to toss a whole meal.
You can either package your creations individually, which is easier, or in one package to be measured out on trail, which reduces packaging. Some hikers store their meals in resealable freezer bags they can add hot water to, while others invest in a food sealer that removes air and allows for longer storage. Just remember, the more airtight your container, the longer the food will last.
Experiment at Home First
As you prepare your meals, think about how you plan to prepare them on trail. There are three common ways: cook or boil them in a pot, boil water and add it to the food to soak, or add cold water to your meal and let it soak for longer. Some dehydrated foods work better than others with each method. A test run at home is recommended.
Most meals need enough water to sufficiently cover the ingredients in order to rehydrate. Foods like meat often take longer than vegetables to rehydrate. A few minutes in the food processor to make pieces smaller can improve rehydration times. Using an insulated cozy or another method of insulating a food bag can make rehydrating more successful.
Put it All Together
One of the easiest ways to add flavor and variety to your backpacking meals is with individual packets of condiments or spices. Because you want to avoid oil in your meal during preparation and storage, adding it on trail is a good solution. Individual packets of coconut oil and green olives can be found at Trader Joe’s, for example. Minimus.biz is another resource, where you can find nut butters, olive oil and other additions in small packets. You can also save small containers for trips.
When you head out with your homemade backpacking meals, not everything has to be dehydrated. Fresh items add texture and bursts of flavor to make your meals more appetizing. Consider adding cilantro, cheese and corn chips to chili, for example.
Washington Trails Association: wta.org/backcountrykitchen
Dirty Gourmet: dirtygourmet.com
Trail Cooking: trailcooking.com
Must Hike Must Eat: musthikemusteat.com
Happy Tramper: happytramper.wordpress.com
Wilderness Cooking: wildernesscooking.com
Backcountry Paleo: backcountrypaleo.com