Eating well in the backcountry is trickier than when you’re car camping in front country, but with some foresight you can avoid endless days of granola bars. The key is to plan all meals ahead and prep everything at home so that when you’re on the trail, all you have to do is pop a meal into a pot with some water and and add heat.
The first step is to buy a food dehydrator. If you’re serious about backcountry camping, you absolutely need to invest in one, unless you’ve got the load-bearing capacity of a Clydesdale—or a bottomless bank account to splurge on those overpriced, over-packaged, sodium-heavy freeze-dried food packs.
Technically, you can use an oven on very low heat to dehydrate food, but the results are much more consistent and easier to accomplish with a proper dehydrator. There are many models available; be sure to pick one that heats to various temperatures and isn’t a fan-only model that just circulates air, as different foods require different levels of heat in order to dehydrate properly and safely. You’ll also want to invest in a couple rolls of parchment paper to line the trays.
Your first step is to plan all your meals ahead of time: while this is a good tip for any camping trip, it’s vital when backcountry camping; you need to make sure you have just enough food, plus a little extra—not way too much or way too little. Hearty, one-pot meals are your best bet for easy trail food: stews, chilies, soups or risottos.
The key to dehydrating food properly is to cut or slice it into very small, uniform pieces. Bigger chunks take longer to dry, plus they tend to be tough and leathery when reconstituted. Vegetables, fruits and meat can be dried simply by chopping them up into tiny bites and then spreading in a thin layer on the dehydrator. The manual will come with guidelines for the proper drying time and temperature for different types of food; generally, fruits and vegetables should be dried at 130F to 140F and meat should be dried at 160F. Canned meats are actually the best for rehydration; to make jerky, choose the leanest cut possible as high fat content will cause it to go rancid faster.
Drying times vary wildly, so you’ll need to experiment a bit to get a feel for it.
When properly dried, fruits should be pliable and leathery with no spots of moisture: tear a piece in half, pinch it and watch for moisture drops along the tear. Vegetables should be crisp, fruit rolls and tomato sauce should be leathery with no sticky spots, and jerky and meat should be tough but not brittle. Once the food is properly dry, package it in Ziploc bags or airtight containers and store in the freezer until you hit the trail: even though dehydrating food extends its shelf life for quite a while, it will still eventually spoil if left at room temperature. If you have a vacuum sealer, even better.
You can also dehydrate a finished stew or chili rather than all the individual components, so long as all the ingredients were chopped up finely. Simply cook up a pot and then spread it in a thin layer on parchment paper or a dehydrator tray designed for wet foods. Dry for about eight hours at 135F, flipping halfway through, until it is leathery or tough with no sticky spots.
It might seem redundant to dehydrate grains, but rice, barley and quinoa should all be precooked and dried so as to reduce cooking time on the trail by well over half: raw rice takes anywhere from 15 minutes to almost an hour on the stove—you’d have to double or triple the amount of fuel you’re carrying, and that stuff is heavy. To dehydrate rice and other grains, cook according to the package directions, then spread it on dehydrator trays and dry for about five hours at 125F until crisp.
Bark is a secret weapon of backpacking food, and I’m not talking about eating trees: dehydrated bark is made from starchy foods like potatoes, beans, pasta and corn. To make it, boil these foods until done (or use canned versions) and then run through a food processor with some liquid (either the cooking or can liquid, or a sauce) to make a creamy paste, then dehydrate. Spread the paste in a thin layer on the dehydrator tray and dry for about eight hours at 135F, flipping halfway through. When done, dried bark will be brittle and snap easily into chunks. On the trail, you can rehydrate it with a mix of other dried foods for one-pot trail meals akin to a stew, thick soup or chili—the possibilities are endless.
Soup makes a comforting meal on the trail, especially if the weather has been crappy and you need to warm up. Portion quick-cooking noodles (vermicelli or ramen are good choices) into a Ziploc bag, then add a bouillon cube and a mixture of dehydrated vegetables like carrots, corn, peas and onions. Feel free to get creative: it’s pretty hard to screw up veggie soup. You can also add dehydrated meat and/or various barks.
Some dehydrated foods can be eaten as is, in their dry form: fruit slices and beef jerky, for example. The rest of it will need to be rehydrated by boiling on a camp stove for a few minutes and then allowing it to sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add about a cup of water per cup of dried food, stir constantly when boiling, and top up with more water as needed.
One final tip: not all foods reconstitute well—eggs and fish become tough and rubbery, so I recommend skipping meals with those ingredients.
Turkey & Bean Trail Chili
1 lb lean ground turkey*
½ cup bread crumbs, finely ground
1 large onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, finely diced
3 Tbsp chili powder
1 can (15 oz) red kidney beans
1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
1 small can (4 oz) jalapeños, finely diced (optional)
*substitute an extra can of beans for turkey to make a vegetarian version
Work bread crumbs, onion and garlic into the meat, then sauté until meat is browned, breaking into very small pieces. (Skip the meat and bread crumbs and just sauté the onions and garlic if making a vegetarian version.) Add the bell pepper and sauté for another five minutes, then add the chili powder and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes, beans and jalapeños and simmer for about one hour. Refrigerate overnight.
Spread chili on dehydrator trays lined with parchment and dry at 125F for eight to 10 hours. After four hours, break up any big clumps with your fingers or a spoon. Divide dehydrated chili into one-cup portions and package in Ziploc bags.
Combine a one-cup portion of chili with one cup of water and let sit for five minutes. Bring to a boil and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Remove from stove and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.