We live in a golden age of trail cuisine. Freeze-dried and dehydrated meals are better-tasting and more nutritious than ever before. Producers have responded to hikers’ needs by filling nearly every food niche and style. You can still get old standbys like chili-mac, but now you can get them vegetarian, vegan, organic, or gluten-free. You can eat American, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Asian, or any other style you like. Best of all, these meals actually taste good.
But not good enough. You can do better.
And I very much mean “you”. My thesis is that the best backcountry meals are the ones you prepare yourself. In this article, I will tell you how to dehydrate food for backpacking.
Individual Taste and Quality Ingredients
The “why” comes down to two factors: individual taste and quality ingredients. Despite the unprecedented variety of backpacking foods available, the chance that any particular meal is made precisely to your preferences is vanishingly small. This isn’t a knock on the freeze-dried food industry. Even within a niche, they must create a flavor profile that is broadly acceptable. They have to sell to many thousands of customers in order to stay in business, and can’t risk offending anyone’s palate.
You, on the other hand, have only to satisfy yourself (and your hiking partners). Do onions give you heartburn? Leave them out. Addicted to that jalapeño burn? Bring it on. Not a vegetarian but want to cut down on meat consumption? Use a third of the meat called for in a recipe. When you tailor your meals to your individual preferences, you have taken a big step on the trail to hiker food heaven.
Ingredients are the other big step. Great ingredients make great food. Every skilled cook knows this. You know it too, which is why you spend time at the market picking out the best tomatoes, apples, and cuts of beef.
Mass food producers can’t do this. They might use the highest grades of food, but that high grade is only an average. They also are restricted to varieties that are amenable to industrial mass production. You won’t find heirloom tomatoes in mass-produced freeze-dried sauce.
But you will in mine. I make my tomato sauce with a variety called Corne de Bouc, a plum tomato that has extremely thin skin. Even though they grow well in Colorado’s challenging climate, their thin skin means they can’t be trucked anywhere. That thin skin also means no bitter flavors even though I don’t peel them. I whir them up in a blender, cook them down with a bit of olive oil, garlic and salt, dry it into fruit leather, and then spend evenings on the trail eating amazing pasta dishes. If you are a gardener or live near a farmer’s market or a good grocery store you don’t have to make any compromises with your trail food.
Hiker food heaven is a real place. But it is not filled with instant mashed potatoes or ramen. Instead, it is full of easily prepared top quality ingredients combined together to make delicious meals.
An Ingredient-centered Approach
My approach is ingredient-centered rather than meal-centered. I build up a pantry full of dehydrated ingredients: onions, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, corn, eggs, chicken, beef, ham, etc. I combine those ingredients into a variety of meals, changing the composition and proportions according to whatever seems tasty (and calorically appropriate) at the time.
But you don’t have to do it that way if you don’t want to. The good news about dehydrating food is that it saves money, improves nutrition, and creates stellar flavors at any scale. Whether you make just a few snacks or prepare dozens of meals for a long hike you will come out ahead.
If you are new to dehydrating food, start with fruit. Dried fruit is crazy expensive at the store, and can be hard to find at any price. Fruits are calorie-dense and are great sources of vitamins, electrolytes, and fiber. They should be a major player in your hiking food game.