You are excited about your upcoming backpacking trip, but struggling with the food preparation. You would rather be planning the route instead of the food.
Backpacking food calls for considerable preparation. A menu must be decided, the food purchased, ingredients dehydrated, quantities carefully measured, the meals rationed, sealed into plastic bags, and labeled with cooking instructions. Then, there is the concern if you have packed enough food or too much. How will it taste – pleasant, dreadful, bland, salty…? Will you have enough calories, protein, fat or carbs? Clearly, food planning can become a complex and time-consuming part of trip preparation.
What can you do about it? Here are a few options and tips.
1. DIY: Assemble your Own
If you have the time, inclination, and know-how to pair ingredients to prepare a good meal at home, then you can make your own backpacking meals using dried ingredients. Dry foods are light and take up minimal space in your pack. We recommend purchasing a variety of dried ingredients in bulk to save money from the bulk bins at local co-ops, health food stores, and grocery stores. You can also purchase a few dried ingredients from online suppliers such as Outdoor Herbivore.
Grocery Store Staples to Look for –
- Instant Rice (not parboiled). Parboiled rice is a fuel hog as it can take upwards of 20 minutes to fully cook. That is because the parboiling process steams the rice, leaving it mostly uncooked. Instant rice is fully cooked and dehydrated. Instant rice will allow you to bring to a boil for a minute then rest for 10 minutes to fully rehydrate. Instant Brown Rice is the best choice as it contains the most nutrients per ounce.
- Dry Pastas. Packaged pasta from the shelf is already dehydrated and will cook up fast. Pay attention to the thickness of the pasta. Thinner-walled pasta will reconstitute quicker than thicker/dense pasta. Look for unrefined (non-enriched) pasta made with whole grain or whole wheat (durum) flours for the greatest nutrient and calorie content per ounce. Noodles are a popular item because they are fast cooking and lightweight, but they are a poor source of nutrients.
- Couscous (Instant Semolina) is a type of pasta made from crushed durum wheat. Most packaged couscous found in the U.S. is the North African variety, which looks like yellow cornmeal, and has been pre-steamed and dried to allow for quick preparation. The couscous swells and fluffs up after 5 minutes when covered with boiled water.
For a different flavor, try Israeli “pearled” or maftoul style couscous, a larger grain made from cracked wheat. This style is pre-toasted instead of pre-steamed, lending a nutty flavor reminiscent of tabouli in texture and taste.
- Quinoa (cooked, and dehydrated). I have never seen quinoa sold in the stores this way. My guess is because quinoa is considered a fast cooking “grain” (technically a seed) with its 15 minute preparation time, but this is too long for hikers that need to preserve fuel. Outdoor Herbivore is the only source for Dehydrated Instant Organic Quinoa. Our quinoa is rinsed, partially cooked, and dehydrated at 130 degrees. The result? A seed that hydrates in 5-10 minutes when covered with boiled water. Another option to consider is flaked quinoa, which resembles instant oats in texture when cooked (i.e. paste-like unlike dehydrated quinoa left intact).
- Oats (regular rolled). Most people don’t realize that rolled oats are pre-steamed and dried and therefore, do not require cooking. You can eat it raw as a cold cereal (muesli) or heat it up as oatmeal. You can also add oatmeal to thicken and supplement calories in lighter meals such as soups. We do not recommend purchasing “instant” oats because they often contain unhealthy additives.
- Corn Grits (quick cook). Grits have a mild flavor and complement nicely with sweet and savory toppings. For breakfast, try adding cinnamon, sugar, and nuts. As an entree, make a savory polenta-type meal by adding dried cheese, Italian spices, garlic, and sundried tomato. Crank up the calories with olive oil, if needed.
- Dried Vegetables and Herbs. If you like flavor and texture in your food, make sure you keep a variety of dried herbs and vegetables on hand. Our favorites are onion, dried tomato, potato flakes, parsley, bell pepper, chili pepper, garlic, basil, cumin/coriander, powdered mustard, lemon peel, oregano, rosemary, wasabi, ginger, allspice, clove, and cracked pepper. Outdoor Herbivore uses a multitude of herbs in each dish to add flavor, aroma and healing properties. You will be amazed how seasoning (versus the boring salt & pepper) transforms a meal!
- Soup Mixes. These are pretty easy to find in stores. You can also use soup mixes as a gravy for noodles, rice, and potatoes.
- Dried Fruits and Nuts. Add fruit, seeds, and nuts to your backpacking meals for more calories, texture, and flavor. Look for unsulphured fruit (preferably organic) and unsalted nuts.
Why Unsulphated? Sulfuring is a preservative and bleaching agent. It is used on fruit to retain its color and to preserve vitamins A & C. In process, it destroys thiamine, an essential B vitamin and causes health effects in many people. The long-term safety is questionable at best. Outdoor Herbivore does not sulfur any fruits or purchase any sulfated fruit. If you buy organic, it can NOT contain sulfites.
2. Make & Dry your Own
Purchase raw food ingredients and dehydrate the foods yourself. Use as to add flavor to the staple food items above. Drying requires the use of a dehydrator, oven or sun.
- Dehydrator – Drying your own food requires the use of a food dehydrator, a device composed of stackable vented trays, a fan, and heat element. If you don’t own a dehydrator, you can use your oven; however, the drying time will take a considerable amount of time, making it costly. Dehydrating does require some practice and is time-consuming, but it is not difficult. When buying a dehydrator, look for those that have a fan placement in the back of the unit (versus the top or bottom) to allow for consistent drying.
- Sun – Drying outside takes patience and luck. You’ll have to keep a constant watch to make sure the weather stays favorable and keep insects away. If you live in a hot, dry climate, you may be able to easily dry with the heat of the sun. We can attest that humid climates do not work very, especially here in North Carolina – as the food develops water beads and becomes sticky. The presence of water on food will cause it to spoil / mold very quickly.
3. Purchase Freeze-Dried/Dehydrated Backpacking Meals
Freeze Dried & Dehydrated meals are great options for packing out, but watch out! Many of these foods are lightweight, but often highly processed, nutrient poor, and loaded with sodium. Look for meals that contain whole food ingredients, a variety of seasonings, and at least 100 calories per ounce. Look closely at the ingredients and serving portions to determine if it will suit your needs (see Outdoor Herbivore’s tips on comparing backpacking foods). Also, notice the packaging weight. Many of these meals are packaged in laminated, gusseted bags meant for pouring boiling water into and eating from. The health risk from eating food boiled inside of a plastic bag is questionable. See our article about Cook in Bag meals and a Comparison of the Packaging for more information.
Freeze-Dried versus Dehydrated
Freeze dry and dehydration are two different processes to preserve food by removing water. Since bacteria and mold can only grow in the presence of moisture, drying is a great way to preserve food. Both methods provide a long storage life and perform well for camping. The main differences are Cost, Texture, and Space.
- Cost. You will get the biggest bang for your buck with dehydrated ingredients. Dehydrated food costs less then freeze dried food because the process of freeze drying requires specialized industrial grade equipment.
- Texture. The texture of dehydrated and freeze-dried is different. Dehydrated ingredients usually have a dense, pliable texture, while freeze-dried tends to be airy and crispy.
- Space.Dehydrated is more densely compacted. Freeze dried is lighter in weight, but takes up more space.
Beyond that, it is preference. Personally, we find most ingredients taste better when dehydrated.
Save yourself from kitchen duty and have Outdoor Herbivore provide you the meals you need! See our Camping Meals. There many other choices to consider as well.
What foods will you take on your next outdoor trip?
If you found this article helpful, you may also enjoy our eBook “Superfoods for Backpacking.”