Ahhh, food… That obsessive four-letter word that all dream about whilst on the PCT. I’ve said it before, and now again; food is truly what hikers live for.
If you may not know, I am a vegan. Now don’t let that scare you away! I’m not here to persecute you or viciously shove kale down my gullet while making an uncomfortable amount of eye contact. I simply mention it to help other vegan or dietary-restricted hopeful thru-hikers and for those who are interested in making their own healthy trail meals! When I was first planning my hike two years ago, I wasn’t even vegan. When I did become vegan, I decided that I would shoot for ‘mostly vegan’, maybe even just vegetarian. I wasn’t about to turn down kind trail magic just because of my veganism. However, about a year ago, I decided that I would hike 100% vegan, regardless of trail magic (a huge shout out to all trail angels anyway!).
So does being a vegan hiker require any more effort than being a standard-eating hiker? Well, no, not exactly. Most of the places you will resupply in will have at least something vegan. Oreos, peanut butter, Clif bars, and Sour Patch Kids can usually be found even at the most austere of gas stations. But I wouldn’t want to live solely off of peanut butter for five days straight. I don’t think anyone else, vegan or otherwise, would either. So what is a vegan trail hiker to do? Well plant-based backpacking meals are an option! They are often price prohibitive, however, usually pushing 12 bucks a package! My answer? Make your own!
The Dehydrator, AKA Your New Best Friend
If you have decided to make your own trail food rather than shell out for the expensive packaged stuff, bravo! I promise you that making test recipes for the trail is going to be your favorite part of trail preparation. So what does one need to make their own trail meals? The only thing you really need is a dehydrator and maybe some silicone tray liners (though parchment paper will do). When I first started experimented with making my own trail meals, I thought to myself, “Why buy a dehydrator? I have a perfectly good oven that can stand in for a dehydrator, no problem.” After a few failed experiments, I broke down and bought a Gourmia Six-Tray Dehydrator. Boy howdy, does that thing do work!
After nearly a year of use and experimentation, it has become my new best friend. If you get one, it will quickly become yours too. Found a recipe for a fantastic soup that you think would go well with some Sierra views? No problem, throw it in the dehydrator! Made a really good curry sauce that would be great over rice in the desert? Dehydrate it, baby! Made some cake that you want to turn into a sumptuous trail decadence? The dehydrator is there to make your dreams a reality.
Rules of Dehydration
How do you determine whether or not your favorite recipe will turn into a trail meal that will make all the other hikers envious? Here are my ‘rules’ that I go by when making a new trail recipe!
How much oil a recipe contains is the first thing I look at when seeking a new trail recipe. Oil is your biggest obstacle when dehydrating food because oil doesn’t dehydrate. This means that the recipe can spoil much faster. This is not really a problem when it’s just going to be in your pack for a few days. If you are like me, though, and are making all of your food well in advance, it needs to be shelf stable. You can usually replace a fair amount of oil in recipes by simply sauteeing any veggies it calls for in broth. If there is a recipe you really can’t do without that has lots of oil in it, simply store the dehydrated recipe in an airtight Ziploc bag in the freezer until you are ready to send it out.
2. Simplicity is Key
I recently made a recipe that I was testing for the trail, and before I was even done with it, I knew it was going to fail my trail test. Why? The recipe just had too many moving parts! It had rice, a curry sauce, tofu, and sauteed greens! Now, all of these individual components can easily be de- and re-hydrated on their own. But on the trail, you only have one pot to rehydrate your food in. Not to mention that all of those parts rehydrate at drastically different rates!
When I look for a recipe, I look for something that can be rehydrated quickly and easily; in two steps- tops. My favorite trail food trick is to make a pasta dish with a nice serving sauce. All you have to do is boil the noodles, and pour in the sauce powder into the pot after they’re cooked (think like Easy Mac at home). Voila, pasta alfredo on trail with no muss, no fuss!
3. Like with Like
This rule is one of the most important. When dehydrating, you want to make sure that you are dehydrating similar items at one time, with only one tray per food type (only noodles on one tray, only sauce on another, etc.). This ensures consistency, and that your food will be dehydrated at relatively the same time. I will usually make a big batch of a recipe and fill all six of the dehydrator trays with that one recipe. The most important part of this rule is that you dehydrate foods that taste good together with one another. I learned this the hard way when I was dehydrating a bunch onions and also fiddling around with a banana chip recipe. Suffice to say, onion-flavored banana chips are NOT going to be coming with me on the trail.
4. Test It Out
There is nothing more disappointing than making a recipe that you love, figuring out that it dehydrates beautifully, and then learn out on the trail that it takes eons to rehydrate. This happened to me when I made a tofu scramble recipe with sauteed peppers and kale. I threw it all in the pot on trail and was quickly left with mushy, overcooked peppers and rubbery, under cooked tofu scramble. If I had taken the time to experiment with it at home, I would have known that the tofu needed to cold-soak before being thrown into a pot with the peppers and greens.
The meal was still edible, but for the whole day it felt like I had eaten a rock. Sometimes a recipe that does really well at home just doesn’t translate to the trail. Testing it out with your trail kitchen at home before going out for the real thing is always a good idea.
These last few tidbits are things that I don’t consider ‘rules’, per-say, but are important things that I try and keep in mind when making trail food.
Keep it Clean
The first, is that I try and make my home made trail meals as nutritionally and calorically dense as I can. I am aiming to try and eat as healthy as possible while on trail. This is so I can minimize the post-trail weight gain, as well as truly fuel my body. Hiking is hard, demanding work and I want to provide my muscles with good, clean food so I can feel and hike my best.
Blended is Better
The second thing I always do when dehydrating trail food is to make sure that the food is at least somewhat blended. What do I mean by this? Well, if you make a bean and broccoli soup that has big chunks of broccoli and whole beans in it, it is going to take a long time to dehydrate. The broccoli chunks may not even dehydrate fully, leaving you with spoiled trail food. What I do instead is throw it all in the blender for maybe a just a second or two to make sure all the bits are more consistent in size. This means that the recipe will dehydrate better, but will also cook faster on trail, conserving your fuel.
The third thing I try to remember is that I don’t need to have a different meal every day. I am only going to be out hiking for between five and six months. This means that I will only need between 150 and 180 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. How many times in six months do you usually eat the same food? Every month? Every week? I am trying to keep my list of recipes pretty small to make it not only easier to mass produce, but easier for my husband to send out.
I am shooting to only have between 25-35 breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes for the entire trail. Even now, I feel that this number is still excessive, and I am trying to pare down the list to the foods I really love. The upside to having so many meals in my repertoire is that it will definitely keep be from getting bored with my food. Food boredom is a common problem with pre-fabricated meal-drops, making trail towns seem all the more alluring.
Cook it All
The last note I have is to cook and dehydrate ALL your food. Can uncooked noodles pack out perfectly well on the trail? You bet. Can they cook just as well at camp? Sure. Will they cook nearly as fast and use less water? Not even close. Having all of your food pre-cooked means that you can conserve the fuel in your cans more easily. Not to mention, spend less money buying fuel in town, and carry less water in the desert. It’s a win-win-win!
I hope that my foray into homemade trail food can help those with food restrictions, or those simply wanting to eat more healthfully on the trail realize that it is possible! If I can do it, you certainly can too!
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