One of the questions people often ask me when talking about backpacking with kids is about what we eat. I promise, none of us go hungry when out on the trail. In fact, I decided years ago that if I wanted my family to love backpacking as much as I do, I was going to have to make sure to keep their bellies full with food they like to eat. When you carry everything you plan to eat on your back, weight is a top priority. But I don’t like to sacrifice taste while on a trek and the idea of eating ramen or packaged mac and cheese for days on end is hard to take. Packaged dehydrated food is available in many outdoor stores, and I use some of these products to supplement our meals, but they are expensive and my picky side doesn’t like not knowing what the food looks like before I purchase it. Dehydrating your own food to take backpacking is the answer. Not only can you prepare meals like the ones you enjoy at home and have them weigh only a fraction of their pre-dehydrated weight, it is easy to package them in an organized way that makes meal planning simple. It is just so easy to prepare a variety of foods with this method I am always on the lookout for delicious and filling dehydrated meals to take backpacking.
The first time I read about dehydrating food to take backpacking was in a terrific camping recipe book called The Leave-No-Crumbs Camping Cookbook: 150 Delightful, Delicious, and Darn-Near Foolproof Recipes that I received as a gift several years ago. Since we were just starting to backpack I was panicked during meal planning, trying to figure out what the heck I was supposed to feed all of these people. Reading this book changed how I thought about “camping food” and the rest is history. I’ve since discovered new favorite cook books to help inspire backpacking meals including Recipes for Adventure: Healthy, Hearty and Homemade Backpacking Recipes, Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ and Trail Food: Drying and Cooking Food for Backpacking and Paddling, all of which are excellent resources and I know my family is thankful! The opportunities for meals made up of food dehydrated at home are endless. In fact, almost anything can be dehydrated and made in to a tasty breakfast, lunch or dinner.
To start dehydrating food, you need to purchase a dehydrator. While there are many fancy (and expensive) machines out there that I am sure are wonderful, we use a basic Nesco 600-Watt Food Dehydrator that didn’t break the bank and fits all our needs. To add capacity to our machine, I also purchased a couple of sets of Nesco Dehydrator Add a Tray (set of 2) which added four levels to our dehydrator without sacrificing efficiency. The only other equipment you will need are a few Nesco Fruit Roll Sheets for use with liquid foods like sauces, soups or stews and several Nesco Clean-A-Screen Trays to use when dehydrating items small enough to fall through the holes in the main trays, like diced tomatoes, corn or diced peppers. That’s all you need to make any backpacking meal you can come up with! Like I said, dehydrating food is easy.
Dehydrating Food to Take Backpacking: Basic Dehydrator How-To:
–The time it takes to fully dehydrate food depends on many factors- humidity, temperature and consistency of the item you are drying. It’s not rocket science! Turn your machine on and leave it alone. Then check it every so often and stop it when you see it is dry. Many times I have checked things drying and found they have been clearly ready for some time and still everything came out fine. Some items like tomato sauce have taken over a day to dry and I’ve had mushrooms dry in just a few hours. It is practically fool proof.
–The consistency of the dehydrated food varies greatly depending on what it is. Foods with high sugar content like fruits and tomato sauce tend to dry in to leathery pieces. Ground beef dries into a gravel like consistency and beans dry into a crumble. Bean purees, like hummus, dry into powder. By experimenting with your own favorites, you’ll be able to easily determine when foods are fully dehydrated by checking their consistency.
–Once your food has been dehydrated, turn off your machine and let it come to room temperature before you pack it up to prevent condensation which leads to spoilage. I pack items in various size freezer bags to put together as meals and put all the components of any given meal into one gallon size freezer bag with a label of what it is and any special instructions I need to follow during preparation. I then number each bag with a sharpie letting me know what day I plan to make this. This makes packing a snap and I can set off knowing I have everything I need packed.
Dehydrating Food to Take Backpacking: Storage
–I usually store my finished product in our deep freeze to further increase shelf life but any cool, dry place will do.
–Deydrating meat is simple with a little prep. Make sure you use only lean meats as fatty meats can be troublesome to dry. Break up your meat in small pieces to cook and rinse off all fat before placing on the trays. (Read about how to dehydrate ground beef here.) My dehydrator has a higher setting for preparing meats which has always worked well for me.
–My market has a section for reduced price produce that is at peak ripeness. I love to stock up on fruits and veggies in this section since this kind of produce makes the best dehydrated product. I have prepared tray after tray of juicy, ripe tomatoes bought in bulk at reduced prices which have been delicious additions to pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and wraps. Same with overripe peaches, pears and apples all of which dry great.
–When canned veggies or beans are on sale, stock up! Canned corn, tomatoes, chilies, chickpeas and beans are perfect choices. These things dry well and are backcountry staples for our family.
Dehydrating Food to Take Backpacking: What’s next?
–To prepare your dehydrated food, it is as simple as adding back the water you took out. I usually add a little water to the bag the food is stored in about an hour before I am going to start cooking to start the softening/rehydrating process. Once on the stove, I boil water and then add whatever I am preparing. This is the only (slightly) tricky part. Make sure to not add too much water or your tomato sauce will be tomato soup and so on. Add just a little at a time to ensure the consistency you want. You can always add water, but can’t simply take it away so be conservative as you add liquid.
–When dehydrating food, season well as the dehydration/rehydration process can removes some of the flavor in sauces, stews and soups.
Voila! Easy enough, right? Dehydrating food to take backpacking for your own back country meals is tasty, easy and economical. What’s not to love about that?
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Do you have a favorite meal when backpacking?
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