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Tips for Dehydrating Your Own Backpacking Meals

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Preparing your own lightweight meals for the trail is a great way to improve the nutrition and taste of your camp food.

By Whitney Chandler Posted May 12, 2017

Food outdoors
The number one thing most hikers think about after putting down their packs after a long trek is a delicious meal. With the evolution of ultra light backpacking, many hikers feel that eating pre-packaged, dehydrated meals is the way to go—to save their backs and fill their bellies. However, there is no reason that you should skimp on quality while saving yourself the burden of heavy foods.

Dehydrating your own meals for the trail is an easy way to create food that is both lightweight and delicious, and prepared to your personal taste. The moisture in fresh foods is responsible for 60 to 90 percent of the weight. That moisture is also the perfect environment for bacteria that causes your food to spoil.

The key to preparing dehydrated food is removing the weight of this liquid while not removing flavor or jeopardizing texture. This requires dehydrating your fresh foods at a temperature that is high enough to remove water, but not high enough to cook your food. Dehydration times vary according the weight, size, and density of the food you’re working with, and the model of dehydrator you’re using. It’s a delicate balance learned through time, as well as simple trial and error.

It’s also worth noting that dehydrators with fans and temperature controls are better at drying a variety of foods evenly and quickly. This helps preserve nutrients and flavour—and helps you create tasty meals.

Benefits of Dehydrating Your Own Backpacking Meals

Preserve a seasonal harvest

Anyone with a backyard garden has experienced a seasonal vegetable harvest that leaves you with more than your share of fresh zucchini. Integrating your garden’s goods into your recipes will allow you to use your entire crop, with long-lasting benefits. It can be very satisfying to reflect on last fall’s harvest while on your first big spring trip the following year. But even if you don’t have a garden, preparing meals while certain ingredients are in-season means you’ll capture the most nutrients at the right time, and usually for the right price, too.

Dehydrating tomatoes

Reduce packaging

By packaging your own food, you’ll eliminate the added waste and weight of pre-packaged camp meals. (Consider using reusable food bags to further reduce the amount of waste that you contribute to the landfill.) You can also vacuum seal your foods, since this process uses minimal materials. Storing dried meals this way is very beneficial if you’re going to freeze your meals to prolong their shelf life. A valuable tip to remember: let the foods come to room temperature and completely thaw before breaking the seal or putting them in your pack. This will avoid condensation, which can lead to spoiling your food.

Enjoy healthier meals

Dehydrating your own meals means you’ll sidestep the long list of preservatives added to store-bought foods. There’s a reason they have a long shelf life! Additionally, most pre-packaged foods are starch heavy, with few vegetables. While starch can fill you up and provide the energy to keep you moving, your body needs nutrient-rich foods, too. Dehydrating your own meals for backpacking means adding the ingredients you want, in the quantities you want.

Dehydration Times and Methods

Meat

Precooked, hydrated meats are an amazing additive to any meal. High in protein, fat, and calories, meat dries best at or above 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Any reduction in fat will help prevent meat from spoiling. Trim away excess fat and blot meat after cooking. To help with rehydration, you can choose to mix in a ½ cup for every pound of meat.

Dehydrated meat

Vegetables

When dehydrated, vegetables weigh nearly nothing. To get the best flavor and texture upon rehydration, flash boil (blanch) your fresh vegetables or steam frozen veggies before dehydrating at 125-130 degrees. Avoid using lima beans in your recipes, since they tend to rehydrate very slowly, and sometimes not at all. Veggies will feel very brittle when dry.

Tofu

Tofu, unless marinated, is a flavorless, easily available protein. It is best dried at 160 degrees until it is easily snapped and broken.

Sauces

Sauces are an easy way to add flavor to any meal with very little effort or weight. You can make your own sauces by covering your tray with aluminum foil and spreading it out in a thin layer. Avoid using dairy or having large pieces of fresh food in your sauces to reduce chances of spoiling. Use a tablespoon to make sauce “pucks” to add to your meals. Use three parts water to one part sauce when rehydrating.

Fruit

Fruit will feel leathery when it’s done, with a texture similar to jerky. For best results, slice fruit very thin, about ⅛” thick, and lay in single layers at 135 degrees. You can reduce most drying times by setting the temperature to 145 degrees for the first two hours. Keep in mind that fruit has a tendency to stick together when packaged before completely cooled.

Rice

Many types of instant rice are depleted of nutrients. To retain the integrity of rice and pasta, buy whole grain varieties, prepare as directed, and then dehydrate on your own. It will reduce cook time and water use while giving you the minerals that you’re looking for in your grains. Rice should be dried at 125 degrees, until all moisture is gone. One cup of raw rice equals 3½ cups cooked, which equates to just short of two cups of dried rice.

Beans

It’s easiest to use canned beans in your prepared, dried meals. Dry beans do not rehydrate quickly, and it can be a lengthy process to rehydrate, cook, and then dry to yield the same results as canned beans. Beans should be dried at 125 degrees and will likely crack when they are done.

Practice Makes Perfect

It’s wise to try your prepared meals before setting off into the backcountry. Different foods have different cooking times, and you’ll want to make sure your homemade stroganoff doesn’t leave you with uncooked noodles but overdone mushrooms when heated for the same amount of time. Practising ahead of time will also help you make any adjustments in flavor that might be necessary.

Recipes for Backcountry Favorites

Girl camping outdoors

Curry Stew

Backcountry curry is one of the more simple, yet flavorful, meals to prepare on a backpacking stove.
Ingredients:

  • 1 coconut milk and red curry paste sauce puck
  • ½ cup dried rice
  • ½ cup dried vegetables and/or meat of your choice

Combine three cups of boiling water with your sauce puck, veggies and/or meat of choice, and rice in one pot. Cover and wait 15 minutes or until ingredients are fully rehydrated.

Unstuffed Peppers

It tastes just like what you would make at home, minus the fresh juicy pepper.
Ingredients:

  • ¾ cup dried rice
  • 1⁄3 cup dried ground beef
  • 1⁄3 cup dried bell peppers
  • 1⁄3 cup tomato sauce puck
  • ⅓ cup dried spinach or other greens

Rehydrate with two cups of boiling water and let stand for 15 minutes until ingredients are fully dehydrated.

Don’t Forget Dessert!

Although weight may be one of your highest concerns, you don’t want to miss out on the staple of camping, s’mores. Think outside the box and compliment your rich homemade foods with better than traditional s’mores. A bar of chocolate will weigh the same whether it is a rich, decadent, dark chocolate bar or a traditional Hershey’s bar. Bring along dehydrated fruit, like strawberries and bananas, and some toasted coconut to create a real treat.

Preparation and Clean Up

The best part of cooking one pot meals with dehydrated foods is the easy clean up. To keep your food hot, and to rehydrate your meals more quickly, consider purchasing or making an insulated pouch that works like a tea cozy. This will help insulate and retain the heat of the boiling water.

Don’t Wait, Dehydrate

With a rising number of food intolerances, such as wheat, dairy and sugar, it’s best to avoid pre-packaged foods. Preparing your own allows you to dodge foods that may cause you harm, and avoid eating processed foods with large numbers of preservatives. Feel a sense of self pride in not adding more waste to the landfill with excess packaging, eat healthy at a lower price, and prepare the foods you love while doing the things you love outdoors. Dehydrate your own meals today!

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Tips for Dehydrating your Own Backpacking Meals

Author photo
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W.M. Chandler is a Colorado native and works best with her head in the clouds. She is an avid researcher who writes passionately about nature and the outdoors, human connections and relationships, and nutrition and politics. You can find her on Twitter at @wmchandler1212.
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