Looking to dehydrate food for your backpacking trips? Here are the results and learnings of my adventures with dehydrating my own backpacking meals!
I recently got motivated to begin testing with dehydrating foods for camping and backpacking. It really is a very efficient way to eat, especially in the backcountry. You can buy store bought dehydrated food or freeze-dried meals, but the problem with those is that you don’t always know what’s going into them. Making them myself, I’m more in control of the ingredients.
I started out testing individual items to see the best way to dehydrate them, and then I moved into meals. I did some small taste tests at home, but the real test happened on my latest backpacking trip with some friends.
First, I had to think through logistics – there would be 5 of us (1 with a gluten allergy), and all we would have is a few small backpacking stoves. So, what to cook in? I decided to try those small foil squares that you make brownies in, figuring we’d pour the pasta in first, add hot water to hydrate, and cover with foil. Then we’d add the sauce mixture, add more hot water, and cover with foil. We had two sets of pasta – one with gluten and one without, so we couldn’t mix the two. We also had two sauces to try out, although we ended up just mixing them together. Here is what I learned…
Dehydrated food: Lessons Learned
Dehydrated food prep and vacuum sealing
- After dehydrating my sauce, I broke it into little pieces to be vacuum sealed. When I went to wrap it in the vacuum sealer bags, I found that the ends of the sauce pieces were sharp enough to poke through the bag, losing the vacuum seal. After some googling, I found that people said they would wrap their food in paper towel before putting them in the vacuum sealed bags.
- While this worked for storing the food, since there were still oils in the sauces, the paper towel adhered itself to the sauce making it hard to break it apart from the paper in the dark, in the woods.
- After multiple rounds of testing, I’ve learned it’s best to break the sauce down into a powder (or as small as you can get it). It rehydrates much more easily and doesn’t break through the vacuum sealed bag. When I dehydrate food, I break it into small pieces and then put it in the freezer for a bit. This makes it easier to break down into a powder before vacuum sealing.
Hydrating your dehydrated food in the backcountry
- The pasta hydrated nicely, but the sauces were a bit more difficult to hydrate in chunks. We ended up holding the foil squares with the food over a backpacking stove to help evaporate some of the water more quickly.
- In the end, we got tired of waiting and ended up leaving some chunks of pasta sauce still dehydrated, and ate them anyway. This proved to not be a great idea. You always want to make sure to fully re-hydrated the food, and/or drink lots of water, otherwise you’ll become dehydrated…and that means lots of stomach gurgling!
- Covering with foil also wasn’t ideal since foil tears.
- After the foil failed, I tried these bags from Amazon. We’d add the pasta and the sauce, add boiling water, seal and let it sit. It worked okay, but they’re kind of small and inefficient for a group.
- On another trip we tried these bags. They definitely worked better, and can handle the heat of the boiling water, but the process was still inefficient (and some of the bags broke at the seal). We would add the boiling water, let it sit for 15 minutes, then we’d have to add more boiling water because the first round would be absorbed, but the food wouldn’t be hydrated. And, repeat.
- Finally, we’ve found a perfect solution! After some more research, I read that what most people do is put the food in a bowl, like this one from Sea to Summit, add cold/room temperature water, and let it sit for 30-60 minutes. Then, you simply heat the bowl over a stove while mixing for about 15 minutes (depending on group size/how much food), and it hydrates and cooks perfectly. Be careful not to add too much water or you’ll be eating soup rather than pasta – which really isn’t all that bad! I generally add enough water just to cover the food to start, and then add little by little as I heat it, as needed.
- Chili cheese pasta
- If you want to dehydrate food and are looking for a good starter recipe, this is about as easy as it gets. For the Phase I dehydrating test, I went the lazy route. I bought a box of Kraft Mac n Cheese, cooked the pasta, and then dehydrated it for quick cooking in the backcountry. I also used their pre-packaged cheese as I found that trying to dehydrate cheese is more work than it’s worth. Since then, I’ve bought noodles from trader joes (both regular and they have a great gluten-free variety of fusili and others) and they work great. I also bought a package of cheese from Amazon and it was far less salty than the boxed mac n cheese stuff. As you’ll hear in the video above, my first round of chili cheese pasta came out pretty salty because of that cheese,but it was still tasty!
- For the chili, I let it cook in a crock pot, then added it to a food processor so that it broke down into more of a chunky sauce, and then dehydrated it. I’m not great at following other people’s recipes, so I used a mix of a few. You really can’t go wrong, and in the backcountry, it’s all delicious. Plus, once you dehydrated the sauce, the flavors really blend together so do be careful of how much seasoning you use. The dehydrating makes it like 10x as potent!
- Results: We cooked the pasta, then added the dehydrated chili and cheese, mixed, and let it sit. It really came out quite delicious – big hit with my crew! Just need to make sure everything is fully hydrated.
- White pasta sauce
- If you want to get more creative in your adventures to dehydrate food, this is a great option to play around with. I made a white sauce with spices, goat cheese, half-n-half, mushrooms, spinach and sun dried tomatoes. I cooked it like I normally would a pasta dish like this, but then I added it to the food processor to break it down to a sauce, and let it dehydrate overnight.
- Results: Flavor was delicious! You can’t really break out the individual flavors much since it all gets processed together, but it’s a great meal full of nutrients.
- I’ve made similar varieties of this since the first test and I found that using milk mixed with cream cheese over a roux dehydrates much better than half-n-half. You have to be careful of the fat content of any creams as they won’t dehydrated nearly as well, which means they’ll spoil more quickly.
- Red Meat Sauce
- I make my own red meat sauce – usually in big batches – and then freeze it for easy use as I need it for meals. The only difference I did here was to add some (gluten free) bread crumbs to the meat before I added any of the tomato sauce. I read on BackpackingChef.com that adding bread crumbs helps the meat absorb water when hydrating.
- Results: Flavor was great mixed with the white pasta sauce (above), but the meat always comes out chewy. Since the first few tests, I’ve stopped adding meat and instead overcompensate with veggies and beans for protein and fiber. If you really want meat, you can buy a bag of sealed, cooked chicken to dump in with the food while you heat it up, it just adds some weight for your backpack.
- I’ve made a few kinds of jerky so far – I bought liquid smoke, looked up some examples of how people dehydrated their jerky, made a few different marinades, and tested them out. I let them marinate overnight, then dry them off and dehydrated overnight.
- Results: Everyone LOVED the jerky!! Again, be careful how much salt you use because dehydrating it makes it much more salty. For the most part, this isn’t my favorite food to dehydrate because, well, I just don’t LOVE jerky, so we’ve generally gone the route of buying jerky, but if you’re a fan, go for it!
- Yogurts and dried fruit
- So many options, and so easy to do. You can read up on the how in V1 of my learning to dehydrate food post. These are delicious and since we had already eaten these on a previous trip, I knew they’d be a hit. I may have gone a little crazy, though, and made far too much, so just be realistic about what you might eat so you don’t have to carry food out.
Dehydrated Food: Additional testing
The Phase I dehydrating test went great, but I definitely learned a lot. Here’s what I’ve done since:
- Recipes – There is really so much that you can do. I’ve tested numerous pasta sauces, and they give us all the nutrition we need for our backpacking trips – and they’re delicious. It’s like eating an Italian home-cooked meal, but with the best views you could imagine. I’ve added things like sun dried tomatoes, lentils, walnuts – the possibilities are bountiful!
- Hydration Apparatus – Go for the Sea to Summit pot. Seriously. It packs down so compact, cleans easily, cooks great over a backpacking stove…it’s wonderful. The large pot that I bought it more than big enough for a group of 8 people, so if you have a smaller group, you can easily go with one of the smaller pots. When we get to camp, I always start with this first – take the pot out, get the pasta and sauce in the pot, add water, and let it sit (covered, so you don’t get bugs) while we setup camp. By the time our tents are up and everything is good to go, it leaves us with 15 minutes to heat it up, and then we have a delicious dinner!
- Hydration Process – Sadly, a few of us ended up the first time with some funky stomach troubles throughout the night. We believe it’s because we didn’t fully hydrate all of the sauce, so we essentially dehydrated our bodies by adding more food than could be comfortably absorbed. To avoid this, I now break the sauce into a powder so that it hydrates very quickly and easily, and letting it sit for 30-60 minutes in the pot before heating really makes it fail-proof. to be extra cautious, we also make sure to drink lots of water – which you should do anyway when backpacking, especially at altitude!
- Uses – These really are so practical and delicious, and have so many uses. We’ll be going to New Zealand next March and it will be great to be able to have these on hand. I think they would be great if you’re going camping with kids and don’t want to spend a lot of time or money cooking, or if you’re going backpacking through Europe for a few weeks and don’t want to spend a ton on eating out. I’m considering turning this into a side-business, so I’ll keep you all updated if you’re interested in skipping the learning and dehydrating and want to buy some great, packaged Italian meals!