As a professional thru-hiker (an athlete who hikes thousands of miles at a time in a given season), some years I find that a quarter of my meals are dehydrated camping food. While many modern pre-made camp dinners taste great, I don’t like that they only come in single-use packaging. Plus, the costs of store-bought camp meals add up over a multi-month backpacking trip.
I’ve learned that some of the I make myself at home. When I make my own camp dinners, I can tailor salt and spice levels to my personal preference. I also can add more vegetables than most commercial camp meals.
Making my own dehydrated meals from ingredients purchased in bulk also reduces the waste of individual packaging. For those who prefer the convenience of pre-made camping food but don’t like the waste, it’s often possible to buy dehydrated or freeze dried meals in bulk or #10 cans. Repackaging these meals into single-dinner servings can help save money and reduce waste.
How to make dehydrated food for camping
The best way to make your own dehydrated food is to use a home food dehydrator. Some campers and backpackers prefer to dehydrate vegetables when they’re in season, gathering from their garden or a farmer’s market. Then, before a trip, they’ll mix those dried vegetables with spices, pasta, couscous, instant rice, or dehydrated beans from the bulk section of a grocery store.
Some gourmet chefs even cook a whole meal at home and then dehydrate leftovers in a home food dehydrator. This method tends to capture more flavor, but can be messier during the dehydration process.
How to store dehydrated food for camping
However you make your own dehydrated camp dinners, you’ll need an airtight storage mechanism to keep them fresh and safe to eat. For bulk storage, I’ve found the wide-mouthed Mega Stasher bag is easier to load from a dehydrator tray than narrower mouths on quart-sized mason jars. Whatever method you use, squeeze out excess air to prevent your food from going stale or accumulating moisture.
Make sure to store your dehydrated food somewhere dry and cool away from UV light. Although my backpacking food never sits around for more than a season, other campers have told me this method will keep camp food fresh for up to a year. However, some meals with oil, dairy, or meat may have a shorter shelf life.
Tips for camping with dehydrated food
While many campers have no qualms about washing pots and dishes, I go into nature to get away from chores! For many years now, my favorite way of backcountry “cooking” involves adding boiling water to a bag and eating straight from the bag. This bag version of the “one pot meal” means all that needs washing is the bag. On lazier nights, after I finish the meal, I’ll add more water to the bag to rinse it out, drink the water, and call it “clean enough.”
The beauty of this method is that the only thing that goes into my cookpot is water to boil, so it doesn’t need washing.
The trick for rehydrating meals like this is to have a bag that can withstand boiling water. All the Stasher bags are made with silicone, which can go into an 400 ºF oven so boiling 212 ºF degree water isn’t going to melt it. If you’re at altitude, the boiling point is lower, so you especially don’t have to worry about melting. The silicone also offers some insulation, so I’ve found I don’t need a potholder to hold the bag even when the contents are warm.
Since dehydrated food takes 15 minutes to rehydrate, I like to use the stand up bags because I know they won’t spill. When I’m not camping in bear country (so I don’t need to defend my food from critters), I’ll let the food soak up hot water while I do other camp chores, like setting up my tent.
Another camp food trick: On cold nights, I’ll wrap an insulating layer around the base of the bag. This makes it so the contents won’t cool from being exposed to the night air.
How to measure water for dehydrated food while camping
Getting the right ratio of water to dehydrated food is important to ensure your food has the right consistency. Too little water, and your rice will be crunchy. Too much water, and it turns to mush or rice soup.
Many camping cook pots have notches on the side to measure water. That’s an easy way to make sure you only boil what you need for dinner, which reduces fuel consumption.
When I cook at night, sometimes the notches on cookpots can be difficult to see with the light of a headlamp. One trick I like is to pre-measure out lines directly on your bag with a paint pen. The contrast against the color of the bag is easier to see at night than notches on a pot.
Whether you’re camping, backpacking, or road tripping, making and eating your own backpacking meals can be easier than you think!