Trail Food Hacks, Part 2: More work, more taste
Life after noodles
So Ramen and Knorr sides were never your thing, but Mountain House dinners, at $8 a pop, are just too expensive for what, in the end, is unimaginative food (Chili Mac and Cheese, blah). What are the options for eating well on the trail?
First, buy or borrow a dehydrator. A word on this: Yes, an Excalibur is top of the line. But I’m guessing you’ve never held back from making margaritas or smoothies in a cheap shit blender because you can’t afford a Vitamix. Same deal with dehydrators. The Excalibur can do it all forwards, backwards, and probably even in high heels, but your basic round $50 model can get it done at a fraction of the cost. And if you can’t afford or can’t borrow a dehydrator, you can dehydrate most things at the lowest setting in your oven with the door cracked open to keep the temperature at 150 degrees. So what can you dehydrate that will make great backpacking meals? Just about anything.
Meat and fish
If you’re a carnivore, canned chicken dehydrates and rehydrates beautifully. Don’t try it with fresh chicken; the pressure cooking step in making canned chicken is what renders it palatable. Fresh chicken thighs or breasts may dehydrate, but trust me, you’ll long since have died of hunger before you can rehydrate them to an edible state. Costco’s brand works best for me. Ground beef is another good choice. You need to select lean meat, cook it up until it’s cooked enough to be crumbly, and then dehydrate it until it’s the consistency of gravel. But it will taste like hamburger when you use it I recipes. My favorite: smoked pork shoulder. If you think about the consistency of pulled pork or pulled brisket, you’ll have an idea of the sorts of meat that dehydrate well: cooked until falling apart and breaking into shreds. I haven’t tried dehydrating fake crab, but I’ve heard it works well. And even, surprisingly, shrimp. Cooked shrimp cut in half and then into small pieces dry up in no time in the dehydrator, and turn into flavor bombs in recipes.
The next step in making great food is dehydrating sauce. Yes indeed, you can dehydrate your favorite low-fat sauce or gravy by spreading it thinly on a fruit leather sheet or parchment paper. When it’s dry but pliable, it’s recipe-ready, or you can dry it to the stage that running a rolling pin over it (or pulverizing it in a food processor) turns it into dust. For example, I dehydrate Chile Verde and barbecue sauce to go along with my smoked pork, red wine/mushroom sauce to turn my burger into Shepherd’s Pie, and if I liked marinara, I’d be drying that to use with pasta.
Vegetables will be your biggest challenge. The “seasoning vegetables,” onions, garlic, shallots, even celery will dehydrate just fine if you chop them small, but you can also buy them in the bulk section of the health food store. Most vegetables will dehydrate, but rehydrating is the problem. While your meat and sauces will reconstitute with boiling water in 15-20 minutes, you need to soak vegetables for a couple of hours, especially root vegetables like carrots and parsnips, or starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or squash. My solution to this was to buy these things freeze-dried. I open a special Yahoo email account every year which I use to sign up for coupons and special sales on online sites, like free shipping or 20% off. There are a bunch of these sites, some advertising under “backpacking food,” but most under “emergency food supplies.” For my hike, I spent about $130 to buy freeze-dried broccoli, kale, peas, corn, butternut squash, raspberries, blueberries, and peaches.
What to do with the results
The food I dehydrated, plus a can of Nido, some stove-top stuffing, minute rice, quinoa that I cooked and dehydrated, a couple of pounds of feta cheese, a pound of cheese powder and a can of Parmesan, probably cost me another $70. After Here’s what I ended up with, 8 meals each of the following, all vacuum packed (although I could have used regular zip-locks) and stored in the freezer to maintain freshness:
- Pasta with broccoli cheese sauce
- Butternut squash, apple and chick pea stew
- Quinoa with kale, apple and chicken
- Smoked pork, corn and peas with cornbread dressing
- Shepherd’s pie with sweet potatoes
- Thai chicken coconut curry with squash and kale
- African squash stew
- Lamb tagine with apricots and almonds
- Garlic noodles with mushroom and cheese sauce
- Chicken saag with rice
- Barbecue pork with potatoes
- Couscous with chicken curry
- Chile verde with smoked pork
- Pasta with kale, sun-dried tomatoes and feta
- Shrimp and grits
Recipes and ideas
Obviously I’m not a rank amateur cook, which works in my favor, but a little internet searching will yield you all sorts of resources for dehydrating food and preparing good trail meals. My favorite sites are these three: http://www.backpackingchef.com, which will teach you everything you need to know about dehydrating almost anything; http://www.trailcooking.com, for one-pot/freezer bag recipes; and for six easy and delicious recipes (you can substitute dehydrated chicken for the freeze-dried): http://www.theyummylife.com/Instant_Meals_On_The_Go .
Most of my meals include meat, but almost all can be adapted for a vegetarian diet. In that case I would probably buy more freeze-dried vegetables, add nuts instead of meat, and focus more on whole grains. Grains like quinoa and barley take too long to cook from scratch on the trail, but you can cook them in advance and dehydrate them, and they’ll be ready 10 minutes after you pour boiling water on the dehydrated grains and set them aside in a cozy. Lentil soup and black bean soup, made thick, both dehydrate well, and you can use different flavor profiles and freeze-dried vegetable ingredients to make a wide array of vegetarian and vegan meals. For example, my Shepherd’s pie uses ground beef, but it would be every bit as flavorful with a lentil and mushroom base instead. The chicken saag (saag is an Indian spinach recipe) could be made with dehydrated chickpeas (again, use chick peas from a can, or pressure cook homemade chick peas to get them to a consistency that will reconstitute quickly.
In the real life of long-distance backpacking, food is both a big deal and a big pain in the ass. Sometimes you’re so exhausted that you don’t much care if you’re eating yet another tortilla with peanut butter for dinner because all you want to do is crawl into your sleeping bag and conk out. But other days, the prospect of a really good dinner before you call it a day is the thing that keeps you going those last couple of miles. Hopefully, this post will open up some new food avenues for you to explore, and help you eat well without breaking the bank.
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Hey everyone! I'm Linda, a 65-year old research ecologist who had a plan to retire and trade field work for hiking. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.... So instead, I'll be starting a flip flop the first week in April, and then will take a little time off after Maine to collect baseline data on fire-affected wetlands in Montana. I know, it's a tough life. I'm looking forward to the Trail, but sometimes I wonder exactly why I need to spend so much of my life sleeping on the ground.
I may have to find some freeze-dried peaches, those sound like they would be a real treat on the trail!
I have had good luck with rehydrating carrots, sweet potatoes and squash, but they are definitely some of the more challenging vegetables. I have found that they work best shredded rather than chopped. I am making whole meals together, though, so they are cooked thoroughly before dehydrating.