- Valerie Ross
"Hunger Is The Best Sauce"
I remember laughing the first time I heard this old adage – nothing sums up a backpacker’s appetite better than the idea that we’ll eat the most dubious food simply because we’re ravenously hungry after a long day’s route.
Indeed, I spent too many years eating under the Food Is Fuel banner – lots of Top Ramen and quesadillas (jazzed up with a serrano chili) or choosing selections from the altar of freeze-dried foods at REI.
It wasn’t until one of my Girl Scouts told me how her uncle dehydrated curry that my curiosity was piqued, and I decided to dust off my old dehydrator and branch out a little. Dehydrating my own food revolutionized my eating habits and gave me an entirely new outlook on backpacking food – my dinners evolved into tasty meals I genuinely enjoyed.
Dehydrating backpacking food is deeply satisfying. Not only are you preparing flavors and recipes you already enjoy at home, but you can also control the ingredients and accommodate various dietary needs within your cook group.
Drying food is easy, and quite a selection of dehydrators are available on the market. I use a small (5-shelf) Excalibur dehydrator; Girl Scouts San Diego owns five Nesco dehydrators that were donated by the company, and they work well, too. Don’t spend too much time worrying over which dehydrator to purchase – even my cheap Del Mar Fair drier cranked out good food for about 20 years.
Tips and instructions for dehydrating are easily found on websites and from dehydrator manufacturers. Most important to understand:
Use very little oil (or none). Oil doesn’t dehydrate and your food will go rancid over time.
Drying times and temperatures will differ by dehydrator model. Experience, too, will help you determine how long and how high a temperature it takes to dry different foods.
If condensation appears inside your containers of dried food, it needs to be dried again. Inspect all dried foods before eating them, and if in doubt, throw it out.
Store dehydrated food in air-tight containers or freezer bags. Vacuum sealing will give you the best shelf life as it removes air.
Oxygen absorbers will absorb free oxygen, helping the food last longer.
Fruits and herbs can be stored up to a year; dried veggies and meats can be stored for up to six months. Storing in the freezer extends the shelf life.
Mark each package with the contents, number of servings, and processing date.
Allow enough time before your backpack trip to experiment with your recipes and sample/refine the product. You want to have enough time to dry all your food, too.
I like to dry similar foods/flavors at the same time. For example, I will dehydrate all my Mexican food dishes in one batch, figuring the salsa can imbue some flavor to the rice and it’s not the end of the world. Spicy strawberries though, might not be too appetizing, so they don’t share dehydrator time.
On the trail, re-hydrate your food in a cozy or put the bags of rehydrating food in your bear canister to stay warm for the ten minutes it takes to rehydrate.
Here are 5 of my favorite meals that use dehydrated ingredients. Each accommodates vegetarians and can be lactose-free. Bon appetit!
Strawberry Shortcake (Gotta have dessert!) Valerie is the founder of CAGS Backpackers and a Lead Backpacking Trainer for Girl Scouts San Diego. She has backpacked for over 40 years and spent the last 20 years guiding Girl Scouts on wilderness trips.