It seems like the entire backpacking world has gone to boiled water only cooking systems. No doubt freeze dried meals are convenient. Pour boiling water in a bag, squish it around, let it set and eat it. Easy isn’t it. I’ve heard so many people say, “I hate to do dishes so this way I only have to wash a spoon or spork. True, but what do you do with the stinky bag? Or many bags if you go out for longer hikes like I do. Do you “wash” it out, or just carry it and enjoy the odors along the way?
Most of the freeze dried meals are also very expensive and bulky. It isn’t uncommon to pay $6-8 per meal. That adds up pretty quick if you are doing this twice a day or more. Most of the meals are fairly light at about 5-7 ounces each but they have a lot of air in the bags which takes up more of the limited space most of us have in a backpack. They are light compared to say a can of Campbell soup, although with both you have to carry out the containers.
Some of these meals even taste pretty good but have you ever read the nutrition labels? I did and was shocked. I had been thinking that foods made for backpackers would be healthy and nutritious as well as fast and WHAM, it hits you right in the clogged arteries. The recommended daily intake of sodium for a healthy young adult should not exceed 2,400 Mg. per day. That’s roughly one teaspoon of pure salt. Now when was the last time you put a whole teaspoon of salt on one meal? It probably wouldn’t taste too good, right? Well if you are starving after a long hard day backpacking and you sit down to a bag of say Beef Stew from a major freeze dried food manufacturer. Well it contains 2,160 Mg. of salt. OK so they say that’s actually TWO servings. Hmm, after a long hard day of backpacking I would find it hard not to eat the whole bag of two servings. In fact, I may still be hungry even then. Not to mention I wouldn’t want to save the rest for breakfast.
Other freeze dried meals by the same manufacturer have huge amounts of sodium in them. For example; Beef Stroganoff has 2,020 Mg., Beef Teriyaki has 1,880 Mg., Mac and Cheese has 2,520 Mg. Now I’ll grant you that they also produce foods with less salt such as; Chili Mac and Beef at only 1,620 Mg. or Jamaican Style Chicken and Rice at a mere 1,180 Mg. Good for them! That one is only about half a days maximum intake. Now don’t get me wrong, I think these meals are OK if you don’t mind the salt and garbage issues. I even use them as my backup food sometimes, but I have an alternative plan.
I don’t have a huge and expensive freeze drier, but I do have a dehydrator. This is a simple and inexpensive device that can save you hundreds of dollars in food costs, reduce waste and take up far less space in your pack than other alternatives and may even be lighter. I have experimented with different combinations of foods I can dry and rehydrate at camp. Some have turned out great while others need more refinement. However, I can always continue trying new foods and tweaking the way I prepare the ones that may need help. I am also better able to take along more of the foods I really like instead of limited varieties you can buy.
Let me begin with the basic machine. It is a simple electric heater with a fan below a series of stackable ventilated trays. I bought mine online for about $50. I know it will pay for itself in just a few hikes.
The heat controls couldn’t be much more simple . Just set the temperature you want and plug it in.
Now, here comes the hard part. What foods do I like that I want to eat out in the woods? Well, I like hamburger and it works well in lots of meals. I use very lean hamburger at 95% meat and only 5% fat. I fry the meat (about half a pound) and crumble it to a very fine consistency. This makes drying it faster and more evenly dried. With all meats you need to make sure they are completely cooked before drying. It takes about 2-5 hours of drying depending on what foods you are doing and what temperature you choose. Since I have several trays, I can do several different foods at once.
I also like real vegetables for dinner. I make green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, onions, potatoes and carrots. With these vegetables I cut them up in fine or thin pieces and blanch them. That means partially cook them in boiling water or in the microwave. Don’t overcook them as you will lose the vitamins and minerals. The blanching opens the pores of the vegetables and facilitates the drying.
I am also partial to teriyaki beef or turkey jerky or even salmon. In your dehydrator you can also make your own special and lower salt jerky. Yashidas Gourmet, or any good sauce can be used to marinate the meat for a day or so before you dry it. Making it yourself allows you to make it as soft or dry as you like as well as experimenting with many flavors.
Since sauces are a great way to add flavor to any good meal, I like to make a sauce and dehydrate it to something like fruit leather and add it to the mix in camp. Once again you can be creative. Spaghetti, Brown Gravy, Sweet and Sour, Chow Mein, Fried Rice, and many more sauces can be added to whatever meal you decide to create. If you don’t want to dehydrate your own sauces, just look in the grocery store dried sauces section. I like the fried rice mix.
When I am done dehydrating my foods, I store them in ziplock or sandwich bags in the freezer. They will keep for years his way. I try to keep a variety of foods available and select what I want for each meal combination just before each hike.
Obviously I use some foods that are not dehydrated. Most of the carbohydrates I use are already dry. Some of my favorites are Ramen noodles, either with or without the salty soup mix. Minute rice can be used for a great fried rice dinner, Couscous is very useful and easy to make. Note that all the carbs I have mentioned don’t require long cook times. I don’t want to have to carry a lot of extra fuel.
Okay so now let’s say you have several meals planned with your dehydrated foods. The first thing you need to do in your campsite meal prep is to rehydrate the foods. Generally what I do is put them in my cook pot, a real pot, and pour boiling water over them. Cover them with a tight lid and surround the pot with a spare coat, vest or anything to insulate the pot. Let it sit and rehydrate for about a half hour. This is often the tough part. It takes some patience. Then add the remaining ingredients like say Ramen noodles and cook as directed. What you have for dinner may be a casserole, pasta or stir fry. How creative are you? I am even toying with dehydrating already prepared meals such as Marie Callenders TV dinners. This way it is all prepared with sauces and everything in one small package. I did one with chicken, noodles and broccoli. It reduced from 13 ounces to 4.8 and fills a baggie about half full.
The drawbacks to my system are that you have to wait to rehydrate the foods before you cook and eat them and you need to take some time at home preparing them and dehydrating them. At camp, you also need to wash a cook pot which can double as your plate/bowl. The benefits are better quality foods, less salt, less volume in your pack, more variety of foods, cheaper cost over time, and less stinky garbage to tote out.
Below are a few pictures of items I dehydrated and the weights of them.
9 OZ. of hamburger reduced to .9 OZ. including the baggie and small volume
Here is half a crown of broccoli weighing 1 OZ.
The weights above even include the baggies.
To complete a meal with all the above packages I would add 5 sliced mushrooms (also dried to weigh1.6 oz), half a cup of minute rice at 1.9 OZ., or a Ramen at about 3 OZ. If I want a sauce, I might add a sweet and sour seasoning mix at 1OZ.
So a dinner with hamburger, broccoli, mushrooms, rice and seasoning comes in at 6.4 OZ. including all the packaging. You could reduce the weight a bit if you put all the ingredients in one baggie and save waste to carry out. Note that the packaging is light and clean with very little odor. The good things about this meal is it tastes good and has lots of vitamins, minerals , lower salt and less waste.
There are many other ways to eat well in the backcountry. I am always searching for new ones. If you have suggestions, please let me know your ideas. Bon appetite.