Prepare Your Own Meals for the Trail

Preparing your own meals can be very fun! There are so many possibilities!

After the initial question of ‘Why would you want to do that?’ the second question that seems to be asked most is ‘What about food?’ This is a serious dilemma since we cannot go more than three weeks without food. That is in an extreme survival situation, where you are trying to conserve as much energy as possible. Thru-hiking is the complete opposite. We need those calories, carbs, fats, and proteins as fuel for the strenuous trek we are performing. This is an area of preparing for a thru hike or long hike that I really love, meal prep! Below is a “crash course” in how to prepare your own meals for the trail. I am not an expert in nutrition, this is just one perspective on the subject.

Meal Preparation Options

There are plenty of options to get food along the trail. One way to get food is to use town days to resupply your food and gear. This is an easy option, but be prepared to fork over some money to resupply in town. Prices will vary along the trail. At times you will pay a premium for tuna, ramen, and noodle sides at certain convenience stores. Another option is to buy a ton of backpacking meals from companies such as Backpacker’s Pantry, Peak, Mountain House, and stock up. You can buy meals ahead of time and have someone mail them ahead your location along the trail. You can also buy these meals while in town and mail them to yourself at future stopping points on trail. Finally, there is the option that I am choosing, preparing my own meals for the trail.

I love cooking and my family will tell you (not to boast or brag) I am a pretty good cook. I love layering flavors, different techniques, and different ingredients in different ethnic foods. When preparing my own dinners, I can make what I want and I can have a variety of foods. I am more in control of what my caloric, sodium, protein, and carb intake is while hiking. This also makes meal preparations really flexible if you have allergies, need to avoid gluten, and are vegan/vegetarian. If half of your meals are homemade and you purchase the other half, you will have many different, nutrient dense options in your bear canister.

Using a combination of backpacker meals and meals you prepare yourself for the trail at home will give you a lot of options while out in the backcountry.

Prepare your own Meals to get Those much Needed Calories

If I want to average 15 miles a day, I am really going to want to consume AT LEAST 2,500- 5,000 calories per day. Calories, carbs, and protein are the fuels that keep hikers going and help them hit their daily mileage goal. Making sure you will have enough food on trail is going to be key, and having that food be delicious, add variety, and be very nutrient dense is so important. I know a lot of thru hikers may start with that idea, using premade backpacker meals or preparing their own.

Eventually, though, they resort to eating a lot of high sodium, quick, cheap, and easy food once they get on trail. I get it and we all do this on trail at some point. It seems at the end of every section or long hike, Five Guys is screaming my name from afar. With that said, we still can’t deny the money saved and the nutrients gained from preparing our own meals. There are the main meal options, but one big area we will get most of those nutrients is snacks. These are crucial to any meal plan and yes, I feel they have to be planned and considered. We can address snacks in another post because there are so many options. I am going to give an overview how preparing your own meals for the trail is very rewarding, very easy, and can be a lot of fun! 

How to Prepare Your own Meals

When you prepare your own meals, you don't have to over think it! Your favorite recipes can easy be converted to a meal for the trail!

There are a lot of different ways to prepare your own meals, whether that is combining dried ingredients or cooking one pot meals and dehydrating on trays.

When preparing your own meals there are a few avenues a hiker can take. One is to buy dehydrated or freeze-dried ingredients and combine them in a bag to make a meal. If you have access to a dehydrator, you can dehydrate individual ingredients and combine them in a bag the same way. Another is to cook ingredients together into a meal and then dehydrate or freeze dry that meal to pack into bags for the trail. If you do not have access to a dehydrator, that makes it easy on which route to take. The great thing is, you can buy a lot of dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients online and have them shipped to your house. You can also buy some things at big box stores that only require water to cook them such as stuffing mix, instant mashed potatoes, and Minute Rice

My Meal Preparation Setup

There are so many models of dehydrators out there. They range in size and price. My dehydrator is the Nesco American Harvest Dehydrator and Jerky Maker. It is a wonderful home model to use. It came with four trays and 1 fruit leather tray insert. You can purchase more trays and I would suggest buying fruit leather tray inserts for every tray you have. I am using the Bright Kitchen silicone tray inserts. They are so versatile, allowing you to dehydrate more liquid meals such as chili. The trays all have little slits in them, so the tray inserts keep smaller pieces of solid food from slipping through all the way to the dehydrator bottom.

A dehydrator can be a crucial tool when you prepare your own meals.

My Nesco dehydrator with Bright Kitchen tray inserts getting ready to dehydrate some canned chicken. My dehydrator is crucial to me being able to prepare my own meals for the trail.

If you are going on a short section hike, use gallon sized freezer bags or sandwich bags to store your meals. I use mylar bags from Wallaby Goods. These mylar bags are great and are either 5 mil or 7.5 mil in thickness. They are perfect because many ingredients such as pasta become pointy after being dehydrated. The noodles will not poke through the thick mylar, keeping your food safe from outside contamination. Wallaby Goods has mylar bags, oxygen absorbers, and a heat sealer to heat seal the top. My Foodsaver vacuum and sealer did not get hot enough to seal the tops of the mylar. While on the subject, since we are using dehydrated or freeze-dried ingredients, you do not need to vacuum seal your meal bags. Vacuum sealing will cause those pointy ingredients inside to poke through the bag and introduce moisture and contaminants to your food. Place an oxygen absorber in each bag before sealing and you are good to go! For me, these tools are crucial when I prepare my own meals.

Simple Meal Preparation Recipe

Here is one simple recipe I love that uses freeze dried or dehydrated ingredients that you can buy online. For me, I used dehydrated chicken that I dehydrated in my dehydrator. If you do not have access to one, purchasing freeze dried chicken will be your course of action. I also dehydrated the veggies (carrots, peas, corn, and green beans). In the past I have also dehydrated broccoli and cauliflower. A point of note here, if you are dehydrating your own veggies, you must steam them first. I use frozen veggies in the streamer bags. If you are fortunate to have raw vegetables, then the process would start with blanching and then followed steaming, and then dehydrating to go from fresh to dehydrated. Again, if you don’t have access, freeze dried veggies are your best bet. If you have a dehydrator, great!

Drying temperatures and times are all relative. For chicken, dehydrate at 145 degrees for 8 hours. I have also dehydrated chicken at 135 for 10-12 hours. Both will work well for dehydrating chicken to have in your meals.

Once I have all the ingredients dried and ready to go for a couple of meals, I set up an assembly line. Line up all of your ingredients. At the end of the assembly line, I have the oxygen absorbers, heat sealer, and the labels. Go down the line and put the desired amount of ingredients in the bag, put in an oxygen absorber, heat seal, and then finally put that label on. Now your meal is ready for long term storage. I do try to get as much oxygen out of the bag as possible before heat sealing the bag. Again, I am not vacuum pressing it, just squeezing as much air as possible out before sealing.

One Pot Thanksgiving Dinner 2 servings

Inspiration for this comes from the ThruHikers Renee and Tim. Check out their sight and blog for yourself!

  • ¾ cup instant stuffing
  • ½ cup instant mashed potatoes
  • ½ cup dehydrated veggies (green beans, corn, carrots, etc.)
  • ½  cup dehydrated chicken
  • ¼ dried cranberries
  • 2 tsp chicken bullion 
  • 4 tbsp powder gravy mix (poultry gravy)

If you are going to make dehydrated chicken in your recipe, then we need to start this first since it will take 8 hours to dehydrate. Here is how to do it:

  • Drain liquid from the can. If there is any fat adhering to the chicken, rinse away under hot water.
  • Pull chunks apart into smaller pieces and spread out on the dehydrator tray.
  • Dry at 145 degrees for approximately eight hours.

When dehydrating the veggies, frozen vegetables are available year-round and save time in the kitchen because they require no trimming before drying.  Frozen vegetables will hold their color better if you steam them for six to eight minutes first. They will also rehydrate better in dried meals while on the trail. If you have raw vegetables, then the process would start with blanching and then followed by steaming and then dehydrating to go from fresh to dehydrated. Once the vegetables have been steamed, spread the vegetables in a single layer on a dehydrator tray and dehydrate at 125°F (52°C) for approximately six to eight hours or until they are no longer soft at all. Now combine all the ingredients above into a mylar bag, seal, and just add water on the trail! 

Have Fun Creating Your own Recipes!

There is a real sense of accomplishment when you start to cook meals you have prepared yourself.

There are so many possibilities when it comes to preparing your own meals for the trail!

Preparing your own meals for the trail can be very fun! It gives you variety on the trail and allows you to be in complete control of what goes into your body. Now it is time for you try! Get creative! The only real limit you have to creating is yourself. Try different recipes out, use your favorite meal, use favorite ingredients, and so on. I pulled a lot of inspiration from The Backpacking Chef and ThruHikers Renee and Tim. There are a ton of resources online to get you started. The possibilities are endless when you prepare your own meals. Good luck and have fun!

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