Most of us who seek out the backpacker’s life have read a million trail-cooking recipes, learned about the freezer bag method and had a myriad of experiences with backpacking meals, many of them too grisly to admit. I’ve run the gamut myself, from carrying fresh fajita-makings with all the trimmings to stirring lovingly hand-crafted concoctions of couscous, vacuum-packed meat and dried fruit in my little camp cookpot, to the opposite extremes of mindlessly spooning Mountain House or Top Ramen into my mouth. It was either too much weight, too much pot-scrubbing, or just so unappealing that I no longer looked forward to dinner while surmounting those last five miles uphill to the next camp. And food that I didn’t enjoy would often go wholly or partially uneaten in my pack because I just couldn’t bear to force in one more bite. Food carried but not eaten is the least efficient weight in the pack and doesn’t stave off the ‘bonk.’
So I set out to find a way to prepare true comfort food for the trail, not some special trail recipe with unusual combinations of grains, pasta and fruit that I would seldom eat at home, but truly favorite dishes that I love eating at my own kitchen table. But I needed to do it in a way that minimized food weight, packed a high calorie density, and required no pot-scrubbing at camp.
Experimentation ensued. Clearly, I’d have to remove the water from the food in order to minimize the weight. Going the dehydrated food route would also enable me to simply boil water and rehydrate food at camp, rather than go through the extended process of stirring and bubbling followed by the inevitable scorching and pot scrubbing. I would need to amp up the fat content to increase calorie density, while ensuring that the recipe could store after drying without going rancid. I needed to preserve the taste of the food even through the re-hydration process at camp – after all, that was the whole point.
I purchased an inexpensive dehydrator and started trying out my favorite home recipes in the dehydrator with various modifications. The experience included humorous and never to be repeated combinations such as stroganoff, which had the distinct appearance of plastic dog vomit, and a red curry with teriyaki-marinated tofu that chewed like a chunk of plastic even after soaking an hour in boiling water. But finally the experiments yielded successes, food that made me say ‘YUM!!’, eat the whole thing and look forward to the next night. I began documenting these successes and sharing them with Mountaineers classes full of other eager backpackers who had struggled with the same challenges. The resulting exchange of ideas helped me refine the methods further and focus on simplicity of preparation for people with little inclination toward cooking their own backpacking meals.
Principles and methods for ultralight backpacking meals
- Use a dehydrator to remove the water from your food. That’s most of the weight without any contribution to calories. An inexpensive Nesco model with stacking plastic trays and both mesh and solid liner trays will do the trick.
- Choose comfort food recipes such as casseroles, stews and sauces that are thick and have strong flavors. Noodles, rice, mashed potatoes or polenta, even sauces and condiments that you would normally serve with the dish can be obtained in small one-serving packets or in instant form to be carried a separate zip-loc bag to complement the dish. Foods that depend on specific structure, textures or large pieces (veggies or meat) do not adapt well to the dehydrator.
- You don’t have to spend a lot of time or even do the cooking yourself. Double the recipe for a favorite dish and put half of it in the dehydrator overnight – before you go to work the next morning it will likely be ready to put away for the trail. Or buy your favorite pre-made backpacking meal from Trader Joes or the deli or freezer case at your local grocery, prepare it according to package directions, and convert it to backpacking food using these principles. The only requirement is that it must be a recipe that you love to eat.
- Pack your recipes with colorful, nutritious veggies. But limit the fiber – it’s weight without any calorie contribution.
- Vary the flavors in your different recipes so that your backpacking meals will keep their interest over an extended trip.
- After preparing the recipe in your kitchen, chop or puree the food to a uniform consistency, with small pieces. The smaller the pieces, the faster the food will rehydrate at camp. At first the pureed version may seem a bit strange (pureed enchiladas?) but the taste will be fabulous and familiar.
- Learn what components rehydrate quickly and which ones rehydrate more slowly. Trust me, no one wants to wait 30 minutes for a slow-to-rehydrate component of a dish to soften at camp after a long day on the trail. Some vegetables, grains, beans and tofu, in my experience, rehydrate very slowly or never. Replace them in your recipe with freeze-dried versions purchased online…freeze-dried foods rehydrate very quickly.
- Be careful with any fatty components – food with surface fat will go rancid quickly. Rinse fat off meat with hot water before dehydrating; limit fat use while cooking and bring a squeeze bottle of olive oil or butter to add back at camp.
- The closer you can get dehydrated sauces to a powder consistency, the more quickly your backpacking meal will be ready on the trail and the richer the sauce will taste when re-hydrated. Pulse the food in a food processor or blender after most of the liquid has evaporated. The chunkier components will not ‘powderize’ but the sauce components will.
- Measure the food into servings before you put it in the dehydrator. I eat 1.5-2C per serving, fully hydrated…always larger servings than I would eat at home. Add the volume of water to recreate the original serving volume.
- Spread the food thinly & uniformly over the dehydrator trays. Use the fruit leather tray for runny sauces, then the mesh tray for drier recipes. Foods dry faster on mesh trays. Can transfer from solid to mesh tray midway.
- Don’t scrimp on the drying time (usually overnight or longer). I have never found that food gets over-dried.
- At camp, use very hot water and buy or make a lightweight insulated ‘cozy’ to nestle your pot or Zip-loc bag in while the food inside rehydrates. The hotter the food stays during re-hydration, the more quickly it will be ready to eat.
Some trail-tested backpacking meal favorites
- Chicken mole over instant rice
- Goat-cheese and roasted red pepper sauce over pasta
- Cheese, chicken and spinach enchiladas served with warm tortillas
- Thai red curry over rice
- Zesty veggie marinara over instant noodles or instant polenta
- Shepherd’s pie (like a beef stew) served over instant mashed potatoes
- Sausage and caramelized onion risotto with kale
- Rich fontina and sharp cheddar mac and cheese
The list will certainly grow as I continue to backpack and experiment. Recipes for many of my favorite backpacking meals can be found on my blog at http://happytramper.wordpress.com/backpacking-skills-planning-and-food-prep/whats-for-dinner-tried-and-true-comfort-foods-for-the-trail/.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a purist in this regard. I often carry dehydrated bean flakes with freeze-dried meat and veggies to eat with tortillas for some of my trail meals. Mary Janes Farm has fabulous and very tasty organic instant bean mixes, and Pack-It Gourmet offers a wide range of freeze dried components. These are reliable and very quick to rehydrate on the trail. Really, whether you prepare it at home on your stove or purchase it dehydrated or freeze-dried, the principles and benefits are the same.
I also discovered ancillary benefits of preparing my own backpacking meals, chief among them being that I now generate very little trash to carry back out with me. At the end of a meal, the only trash I accumulate is a single Zip-loc bag, which can be rinsed and folded into another small bag to carry out. Another benefit is minimum fuel use (you just boil water), which means less fuel to carry with you. And joy of joys, no pot-scrubbing!!
Put a little love into your backpacking meals and you will enhance both your backpacking experience and, over time, your calorie consumption. Get rid of the water weight, trash and cleanup. I predict that you will never go back.