Katy researches healthy foods to build the best meal plans for her family using science-backed studies.
Make Your Own Backpacking Food
Can you make backpacking meals yourself? Yes, you can make light, nutritious meals at home with this guide.
Pre-made freeze dried meals like Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry are perfect for backpacking. They’re super light, a complete meal, you just need to add boiling water and there’s no clean up. It’s a solid solution for a beginner. But at $6-$8 each it really adds up when you backpack often.
Just learn a few dehydrating basics and know how to look for the right products and you can build your own for a tenth of the cost.
Backpacking can become an expensive hobby. But experienced hikers know how to keep costs low by buying from discount gear sites like Enwild and making supplies at home when they can.
Cheap Backpacking Food
I've tried a lot of different options for food while backpacking. I've talked to friends, family and almost everyone I've met on the trail. I've scoured online forums and articles to see how other people do it.
There's a lot of creative solutions out there but essentially they boil down to a few options for packing light meals:
- Buy pre-made meals
- Buy a freeze dryer ($2,500+), which can handle nearly any food
- Buy a dehydrator ($50-$150) for select foods
- Buy freeze dried foods individually and combine to make your own meals
- Bring dry goods that require cooking, and therefore more cookware, fuel, and skill
Pre-made meals are self-explanatory: go to REI and buy one for every meal. So we can skip #1. Next up is the freeze drier, which is insanely cool but also insanely expensive so we'll skip that too.
That leaves us with options 3, 4 and 5. So this guide focuses on how to combine DIY dehydrated foods with some store-bought freeze dried foods with a tiny bit of dry goods, which you can adjust based on your preferences.
Freeze-Dried vs. Dehydrated
Since the freeze-dried vs. dehydrated distinction matters a lot in cost, let’s make sure we grasp the difference. When a food is freeze-dried, 1-4% of the moisture remains. Compare that to 10% to even 20% of moisture left in the food after dehydrating it. And that’s for foods that dehydrate the best (fruits and vegetables).
More moisture left means more weight. Up to 4% might not seem that much better than 20%, but when you’re carrying a week’s worth of food on your back there is a difference. And speaking of long trips, simply dehydrating some foods isn’t enough to keep them fresh as long as freeze dried foods. For example, thoroughly dehydrated meat can only be stored without refrigeration for 2 weeks.
What Foods Can You Dehydrate?
- Fruits (except melons)
- Non-Fatty Meats
In general, you can dehydrate anything that doesn't have a lot of fat. The fat keeps too much moisture and will go rancid quickly. Beef that isn't lean is challenging to dehydrate at home.
Foods That Do Not Dehydrate Well
These foods don’t dehydrate well and you’re better off buying the freeze-dried version if you want to take a lot on the trail:
- Dairy (Egg, Cheese, Butter)
Purchasing Freeze Dried Foods
Since freezer driers are so expensive but some foods are only practical for backpacking when freeze dried I end up buying freeze dried foods individually. Then I combine them with dehydrated foods to make my own meals.
If you want to try this, check out the prices on Augason Farm's foods. I use them a lot because they have awesome variety and I've been impressed by the quality.
Dehydrators can run anywhere from $50 to $200. Since we expected to use ours a lot and sometimes need to dehydrate quite a lot with short notice we chose a solid middle of the line model.
Using a Dehydrator
A dehydrator is essentially a fan and a heat source. Your machine should come with instructions about how much food can be placed on the trays at once.
Prepare the food by cutting in into small, uniform pieces. Some food, especially fruit, will benefit from being soaked in lime or lemon juice before dehydrating.
How long you dehydrate differs for each food. Look up the recommended length for the food you're dehydrating and monitor regularly for the last hour or so. Durations will differ based on the size you cut them in and your dehydrator.
Why Use a Dehydrator to Make Backpacking Food
Making your own backpacking food with a dehydrator has some great perks. For one thing it is one of the cheapest ways to feed yourself on a camping trip.
Dehydrating food right before a trip is a great way to preserve food that would otherwise go bad. Take a look around your kitchen and fridge and take the veggies and fruit that will go bad while you’re gone. Throw them in the dehydrator and plan meals with them.
Also, you know exactly what is going into the food you’re eating on the trail.
Cooking Your Food
Okay so you have all your fancy, ultra-light food ready and packed. But how are you going to cook it when you get to camp? All meat should already be cooked before it’s freeze dried or dehydrated so you’re really focusing on reconstituting the meal.
Reconstituting Dried/Dehydrating Meals
"Reconstituting" is just a fancy way of saying letting your food absorb enough water to get back to its original water content. The closer you can get to the original content, the better the texture, taste and the easier it is for your body to digest it.
Water absorption happens faster when the water is hot, hence why dehydrated meals have you pour in boiling water.
The key to cooking dehydrated or freeze dried meals on the trail is to store them in foil lined bags. They can be Mylar or aluminum foil lined bags. We've been super happy with these 8 oz Mylar Lined Pouches and also got some 4 oz bags from the same company. They’re safe to pour hot water in and can reseal.
Some snacks like fruit don’t need to be reconstituted at all. Thought you may want to go through the trouble of reconstituting fruits if you’re body is having trouble adjusting to dehydrated foods.
DIY Backpacking Food Tips
- If you don’t like it at home you’re not going to like it reconstituted on the trail
- Label everything
- Have everyone on the trip involved in meal planning
- If you’re trying a new approach, test it on your stove in your backyard first
What are your tips for preparing your own backpacking meals?
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