After dealing with over-processed foods on the trail for too long, I’ve decided to give home dehydrating a go and create my own backpacking meals. Here’s the low down on the equipment I’m using, some hiker nutrition and why I’m abandoning my old ways.
On my recent return from a backpacking trip, I’ve decided to give up on eating and trying to like Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides. This was my go to for easy meals after crushing 20 mile plus days on some long distance trails, including the PCT and JMT. They’re quite appealing to thru-hikers: cheap, full of calories and carbs, large selection of flavors and easy to find at large supermarkets and small grocers in trail towns. Add a packet of tuna for protein, and you have a meal that leaves you full after you manage choke it down.
But I simply cannot do it anymore.
(Warning, rant ahead)
For starters, Knorr Sides contain a ton of sodium, and I’m not talking about good old-fashioned table salt here. Table salt, also known as sodium chloride, is made up of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. It is necessary for the body to function as it’s an electrolyte; it plays a vital role in nerve and muscle function, as well as keeps your water and pH levels balanced. When you’re cooking wholesome foods at home, you’re likely using salt to flavor your foods, such as Kosher salt, sea salt or just table salt. This is a good thing, cause you’re unlikely to overdo it with your sodium consumption.
Processed foods, however, contain enormous amounts of just sodium. Knorr Sides, for example, don’t even get around to using salt. They skip to just using straight up sodium, which is labeled as disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate. These two sodiums are often derived from meat or fish, but according to Knorr’s website, theirs are plant-based and therefore likely derived from yeast. They also like to add other fun stuff that’s hard to pronounce to the ingredient list, including corn and potato maltodextrin (types of highly processed sugars), sulphites used as a preservative and a seriously gross ingredient knows as hydrolyzed soy protein, which is essentially soy that’s been processed using caustic chemicals to produce MSG. One package contains around 800mg or more of sodium per serving, with there being 2.5 servings in a package. If you can eat an entire package, which is easy to do when hiking, this puts you at over 80% of your daily sodium intake. Yikes, take mercy on your heart!
(Ingredients are based off of what is published on the Knorr website and using the Beef Flavor Rice and Butter and Herb Pasta sides as examples.)
Nearly every night I was on the PCT, I ate one of these horrible things for dinner and ultimately woke up with a raging thirst in the middle of the night. This was in addition to the constant and uncomfortable bloating, sluggish feelings and MSG fueled gas I got from them too. (Fun fact: freeze-dried meals such as Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry aren’t much better. They also cost much more, usually somewhere between 7 to 10 dollars. Also on my shit list is Idahoan Mashed Potatoes, which are chock full of preservatives and artificial flavors.)
So what’s my point?
I like to eat whole foods, cooked at home by my own hands and using fresh, sometimes seasonal and local ingredients. It tastes better. I already have a food dehydrator, and it’s pretty sweet. I also really like my kitchen, and I have access to an amazing shared garden and several farmers markets. Why wouldn’t I just make my own backpacking meals? There’s a few reasons, but the main one is this: it’s time-consuming. Food prep such as trimming, peeling, cooking and blanching all take loads of time. My plan of action, to make this backpacking meal thing happen, is to devote a few minutes every night when I’m cooking my dinner to prepping and dehydrating one or two ingredients. Hopefully it will go well and I can get into a groove of doing this. Backpacking is basically my life, and it only makes sense that I create the food to fuel this passion.
Nutrition for Hiking
I’m a fast paced hiker, covering sometimes 20 miles or more per day. This means I burn upwards of 3500 calories per day, based on my weight and height. Now, most people wouldn’t have a problem consuming that amount of calories in a single day; a visit to a fast food chain and a pint of ice cream could make it happen in no time. But this is not possible in the wilderness, of course, and I would prefer to get my calories from nutritious food instead of a meal deal from McDonald’s.
When I was on the PCT last year, I had lost a crazy amount of weight once I reached the halfway point in Northern California. This was the case for some of my trail companions as well, and we found ourselves trying to find the most calorie dense foods possible when we resupplied in town. This meant high levels of sugar and fat from easy, over-processed foods. As we were hiking up to 30 miles a day sometimes, we burned it off pretty quickly, so it wasn’t a big deal.
There was a turning point when my friend Bear Bait was eating a Hostess apple pie and he gagged from how disgusting it was. The product was everything we were looking for in hiker food; it was high in fat and calories, and light to carry. We laughed as he buried the half chewed monstrosity in a cathole, and then read the ingredients. That’s when we found it, the secret to the fat content: tallow. The same shit that’s used to make candles and soap. From then on, we carried sticks of butter and bits of cheese to add to our dinners, as well as the occasional bottle of olive oil.
Fat is a challenge for long distance hiking; it’s heavy in comparison to sugar. Fat is more nutritious though, despite what we were taught in the 80’s and 90’s thanks to clever villainizing by the sugar industry. I don’t mind consuming more sugar when I’m hiking long miles, especially if it’s raw and not over-processed, but I’d prefer to get more fat in my diet from healthy sources like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and ghee. Fat is also more calorie dense, with 243 calories in coconut oil per ounce, versus 90 calories in an ounce of sugar.
Another problem with fat and backpacking is it can’t be dehydrated. In fact, foods that are high in fats, such as pork sausage, chicken thighs, avocado and cheese, can’t be dehydrated at home. They’re too oily and won’t dry out completely, and if you decide to go for it anyway, you risk eating spoiled food.
I’ve somewhat remedied the problem by packing in a small plastic container of olive oil and packets of coconut oil, and then adding them to my dinners. This is a heavy option for someone who wants to hike lighter, but in the long run I’m getting more nutrition and calories from this instead of carrying and eating multiple candy bars. (I still love my Little Debbies and chocolate though).
My goal with this project is to create nutritious, calorie dense foods that will get me through my typical hiking day of twenty miles. I’ve already been busy dehydrating some veggies that I’ve harvested from the garden, as well as some bulk rice and quinoa a family member gave me because they’re doing some low carb diet thing. I’ve also done some frozen veggies too because they were on special at the supermarket and come pre-cut for convenience.
As for ingredients that I can’t dehydrate, I ordered them bulk on Amazon. These include: coconut milk powder, packets of coconut oil, packets of natural peanut butter, powdered eggs and Nido whole milk powder (I highly recommend this brand because it tastes amazing and is high in fat). My Costco membership has come in handy too, allowing me to buy the ingredients I need in large quantities. It’s much more cost-effective this way, and dehydrating a large amount of one ingredient in one go is much easier than trying to do several different things that require separate drying times.
The Dehydrator and Other Equipment I’m Using
First off, let’s talk about the star of the show, the dehydrator. I’m using an Excalibur Economy Dehydrator, and it’s a beast. It has 9 square mesh trays that holds huge amounts of food, temperature control and an adjustable thermostat from 95 to 155 degrees farenheit. It does not have special trays for making fruit or sauce leathers, but I simply use parchment paper and it’s fine. The downside is that it is big and bulky, and takes up a lot of counter space. It’s also a bit loud, sounding kind of like a microwave running for several hours on end. It’s easy to clean up and I’ve never ruined any food in it. I love it.
For food preservation, I store individual dried ingredients in reusable Mason Jars that I’ve sanitized, labeled and dated. As for my backpacking meals, I’ll be using a vacuum sealer called the FoodSaver FM2435-ECR. Not the sexiest name, but it works brilliantly. I use various sizes of the FoodSaver pre-cut bags with this, as well as their own cut-to-size bags to reduce waste. It sucks all the air out of the bag containing your meal, and preserves it. Great stuff.
For prepping, I use the Borner V-Prep mandolin slicer by Swissmar. This is for slicing fruits and vegetables evenly, which is vital to successfully dehydrating ingredients.
I’m using a cookbook as a bit of a guide for my drying times and temperatures. It’s called “The Dehydrator Bible” and it’s written by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt and Don Mercer. I’m honestly not a huge fan of the book as it seems a little outdated, and it really only covers a limited amount of ingredients and techniques. It’s a little too heavy on the recipes you can make using some of the ingredients, and relies on a lot on fresh ingredients alongside dehydrated ones in the recipes; not ideal for backpacking.
Other things I use include are really just the basics: large boiling pots, mixing bowls, a colander, a digital scale, sharp knives and a food thermometer for meats. I have decent enough knife skills from working as a fish monger and butcher for a few years, and I can say with absolute certainty that having good, sharp knives will decrease chopping injuries and make prep work much easier. Get your knives sharpened or learn how to use a steel. Also, it’s helpful to have some knowledge regarding food safety so you don’t make yourself ill.
Let’s Get Cooking, Good Looking
I consider myself a fairly good cook, and a lot of my friends would agree. I am, however, by no means an expert. I have no formal culinary training and all of my skills are either self-taught or were learned from my time working in a seafood market and then a butcher shop. I’m also not a dietician, and all the knowledge that I have of nutrition was read and then tested on myself.
Some more information to consider: I’m a 5′ 7″ female who weighs around 125 pounds. I have a fairly healthy appetite when I’m hiking, but it seems that I do eat far less than some people. My friend Bear Bait can easily consume twice the amount I can, even when hiking the same amount of miles. If a recipe seems too small for you, try doubling it up or adjusting it as best as possible. Like I mentioned before, I put in long miles. If you’re doing 10 or so miles, then the quantities might be just right. You’ll have to find out for yourself.
All recipes will be tested on myself and my friends, and hopefully in the field (any excuse to get out).
Also, something else I’ll do my best to avoid is the novel length description of a the recipe I’ve just posted. One thing that kind of irritates me is having to scroll down through hundreds of paragraphs of why “the spices used in this recipe reminds me of my time backpacking through India when I was 19” and other nonsense just to get to the actual recipe. It’s true that my travels have inspired me to learn new recipes, but I’ll try to spare you an account of why I find coriander so therapeutic and soul freeing.
Now that the disclaimer is taken care of, let’s start creating delicious backpacking meals! Stay tuned, and thanks for stopping by.