Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Backpacking Meals: the art of the dehydrator

Mountain House meals good, but homemade is better!

Some of the things I have been doing over the years as an avid hiker/camper is making my own dehydrated meals. Now I started out many years ago with a food "box". You know the kind. The huge bin filled with meals such as ramen noodles, mac & cheese, soup cans etc. All these heavy items mixed with pots, Coleman stove, utensils galore and totally unnecessary gear. It was my car camping food box and I thought that was what one does when they are packing food for a camping trip. Then I would stuff in my large cooler for things such as milk, eggs, yogurt, deli meats, pre-made foods in tupperware...and the list goes on. Finally in would go my super heavy weight synthetic sleeping bag mixed with my bed pillow, a battery pump air mattress, extra D batteries, a 5 gallon collapsable water bag, 6 person tent, six changes of clothes, a cotton towel (or two), lantern, my huge toiletry bag, and oh my goodness look at all this crap.

Seriously, it's kind of embarrassing to recall all the stuff I took camping with me that I was convinced I "needed" in order to camp comfortably. I started getting more serious about this whole "ultra-light" camping world and found myself joining a handful of friends who fit the bill. I allowed one of my friends to help me pack for a trip. It wasn't pretty and there were a lot of "are you sure? but I need those! what if..."

Fast forward a few years:
I did some heavy research and purchased myself an Excalibur Food Dehydrator. With the motto of "go big or go home" I selected the 9-Tray model #3900 shown here:

Love It.

Excalibur now offers a newer model that has a built in 26hr timer. At the time of purchase they didn't offer this, so I simply drove to my local Home Depot and purchased an individual timer for the dehydrator to plug into. Honestly I rarely use the timer, but it is nice to have.

As soon as the dehydrator arrived in the mail I did yet another online search for stuff to dehydrate and how. I worked furiously in the kitchen chopping bananas, carrots, tomatoes, and all kinds of fruits/veggies I could find. I loaded them up in the dehydrator, set the temp, and walked away. Pretty soon I had leathery bits of food that I packed into bags and set aside for camping.

A few weeks later, a hiking trip was planned. I packed my bags of food and headed out. Mid hike I fished out one of my little baggies of fruit and started chomping, quite proud of myself. The flavor was, well, bland and everything was so chewy that I felt like I needed to drink a gallon of water after. It wasn't bad, per se, but just average. I can do better, I thought.

Fast forward to 2011:

Note a slew of newly found products now in my repertoire such as Smartwool, IceBreaker, Under Armour, Gregory, Osprey, Camelbak, Western Mountaineering, Thermarest, Katadyn, etc.

I don't really consider myself an ultra-light camper quite yet but I am very close. I find that ultras tend to skimp in serious ways to the point of sawing off their toothbrush to save ounces. I don't think I will ever be there. I do, however, consider myself a very practical and light-weight camper. I pack for necessity and then a touch more. I do think of "what ifs" when it comes to food, medical, clothing, and on occasion water depending on the situation. 

In terms of dehydrated meals I can honestly say I have come a long way. Through my trials and errors I stumbled upon a book that changed my dehydrating life from there on out.  Folks, I present you:

In Yaffe's book, she gives you one main simple concept: Cook meals all together at home, eat half, dehydrate the rest. What an idea! All the other books I had read to that point had me chopping things in little bits individually and then dehydrating them. Once I was to get to camp, and starving after a long trek I might add, I was to pull out my individual packets of food and toss them all together in water to make a meal. The problem I found with that method is that everything tasted blah. Like a frozen meal nuked with too many carrots and red bell peppers. You know what I mean. Gross.

With the Backpack Gourmet you would make a meal in it's entirety: lets take chicken enchiladas, for example. You would make the meal right out of your everyday recipe book. Then sit down at a cozy home cooked meal at home. The leftovers would get spread right onto the dehydrator trays and put into the Excalibur. Once they were dry, the food pieces were broken up and stored in a bag. At camp I would pull out my lovely Jet-Boil, drop the dry food bits into it and barely cover it with some water. In a few minutes I would have hot steamy chicken enchiladas in my squishy bowl (I absolutely love these little bowls from Guyot along with my spork. When you are done you can flip them inside out and lick the bowl!) that tasted like I had just made them! Now granted, like pretty much every dehydrated meal out there, you aren't going to have the long cylinder shaped enchiladas to fork into, it will be more like a broken up pile of them, but they taste the same and will make your camping buddies or neighbors jealous. 

As a side note: I purchased a Vacuum Sealer from Costco which worked great to store the meals in. Occasionally I added in an oxygen absorber for those food pieces that were too sharp to vacuum seal. Using the vacuum sealer bags also proved to be great for a to-go meal. I would boil the water in the jet boil (no clean up because it is just water), then pour the hot water into the vacuum sealer bag and clip closed. If I was worried about spillage, I would first pour the dried bits into a Nalgene and then pour the boiling water into the bottle. During snowshoeing I could hold the bottle or stuff it in my clothes for a quick heat up! 

Pretty soon, I was the talk of the campsite with all my delicious foods. I began to dehydrate EVERYTHING. A few times I even dehydrated my left over take-out Lo Mein- holy cow this was amazing in camp!

With this I leave you with a great meal:

Cowboy's One Pot Meal

2 cans canned green beans, undrained
2 cans sliced new potatoes, undrained
1-2 packages sliced (or diced) smoked sausage

Put all in a stockpot. Bring to a boil then cover and let simmer about an hour (can let simmer uncovered a few more hours if you have the time). Eat some for dinner then chill the rest in the fridge. When cooled, spoon off the fat and discard. Then dice up the beans, meat, and potatoes. Spread onto Paraflexx drying sheets (they come with the Excalibur. If you don't have any then you can put plastic wrap down on top of the grid sheets). Drizzle a little of the broth over the food bits and place into dehydrator. Let dry overnight then store appropriately. 

This meal is so delicious and stupid simple. After it is dehydrated Cowboy and I were addicted to snacking on it dry as if it were a salty trail mix. I still use Yaffe's book for recipes and reference but I have since learned that all Yaffe was trying to get me to realize is that normal, every day recipes can be dehydrated and made into a backpacking meal. 


Feel free to pm me or ask me any questions.


  1. Happy New Year!
    I used to make jerky all the time. I discovered, without fancy dehydrating equipment, the secret was a fork - in the oven door. Lowest heat setting and all the moisture steams off. Jerky from the leanest hamburger means no chewy problem. Lay strips of seasoned hamburger out on foil.
    Been a long time. I'll have to start doing this again.

  2. Fascinating. I am a horrible camper with no experience and no sense. My first real camping experience was this past summer on the North Slope of Alaska, I was there for three months. I learned A LOT, mostly the hard way, and am still learning for the next time I get to camp. Thank you for sharing. I love the squishy bowl, I may have to buy a few of those, my dog drinks from a squirty bottle when we hike, but sometimes it would be nice to have a bowl for her.

  3. You can also use the yogurt drops in trail mixes and ice cream. For those who enjoy making their own beef jerky there are products that will allow you to make your own. You can make up as much as you want at one time and it will be ready for the next trip, the next game or the next time everyone wants a great healthy snack. dehydrator drying times for fruit & veg

  4. I love jerky.. It is one of the must have backpacking items for me. I do carry with other dehydrated recipes as well.

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