Rethinking Backpack Cuisine

by Eve Chenu

Year after year, my husband Tobin and I leave our home in central Austin to enjoy a peculiar form of slow-motion extreme sport: walking in the wilderness with all we need to survive tucked into our backpacks.

We’ve counted blissful days, even weeks, in remote areas of Colorado, Alaska and California, as well as the French Alps, Corsica and the Pyrenees. 

Preparation for these trips is intense and involves poring over topographic maps, applying for permits, assembling the necessary camping gear and running up and down the steps at Mount Bonnell to get in shape. Most important, though, is planning the food. Tasty, lightweight, nutritious food makes for happy campers. 

As Tobin and I recently prepared for a nine-day backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon, we vowed to steer clear of the commercially freeze-dried dinners we had eaten in the past. Commercial rations offer the convenience of easy preparation, but they’re highly processed, high in sodium and often the flavor is passable at best. Also, my cousin Marc from Paris was joining us for this trip and we wanted to provide food that was special and tasty!

While planning dinners, we kept in mind specific requirements. First, the food needed to be lightweight—every ounce matters if you have to carry it on your back. The food needed to stay fresh—when backpacking for one or two weeks, especially in hot weather conditions, preservation is critical. Meals must be easy to prepare, quick to cook, only require water to reconstitute and be easy to clean up—at the end of a long day of hiking, tired backpackers want to keep it simple. The food shouldn’t require more than one pot and spoon to cook it. We actually travel with two pots, one for water only and one for cooking, but ultra-light backpackers can use a single pot. And, of course, we wanted the food to taste great as well as be nutritious and filling.

While researching a food plan, much of the information I encountered was problematic. Many of the campsite recipes were better suited for car camping or trips lasting only two or three days—not for nine days in the wilderness. Some involved too many steps, required multiple pots or used heavy ingredients, such as canned food, or fresh ingredients that would spoil easily; and many could be best described as mush that would keep a person from starving but not qualify as a recognizable dinner for the discerning palate. Ramen noodles with freeze-dried peas and textured vegetable protein? No, thank you.


Finally, I stumbled upon some excellent information and tips from the Houston-based Hungry Hammock Hanger website, and it opened my eyes to the possibility of food dehydration as a refined art. The only specialized piece of equipment needed was a dehydrator with enough trays and plastic inserts to prevent liquids from falling through the mesh.

Armed with new ideas and techniques, our menu plan eventually evolved into hearty bean burritos with peach salsa and cheddar cheese (first night), pasta with tangy homemade tomato bell-pepper sauce and topped with toasted pine nuts and grated parmesan (three nights), earthy mushroom and bison stroganoff with brown rice and sweet peas (two nights) and satisfying chili-mac made with gluten-free macaroni (two nights). We chose all-natural, organic and locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and every dinner was a huge success. Each even included a delicious cranberry-pistachio white-chocolate biscotti for dessert. 

Hit the trail and enjoy these dinners!

Author’s note: 
Our dehydrator has six trays. We were able to fit all of the servings for each recipe in the dehydrator at one time, per meal, except for the pasta and tomato sauce; we dehydrated them separately and combined them in the ziplock (one bag per dinner) after dehydration. We allocated a weekend to make, dehydrate and pack each recipe, so we started several weeks before the trip; it sounds like a lot, but overall planning for this kind of trip is a long process. Dehydrated food should be shelf-stable at room temperature, but for an abundance of caution, we stored the prepared meals in the freezer until the start of the trip. For cooking in the field, we use a one-burner MSR Dragonfly stove.



Dehydrating 101

  • Avoid dehydrating dairy products—leave that to the professionals. Commercially dehydrated milk, cream, eggs, sour cream and butter are available for purchase if a recipe calls for them. Hard, aged cheeses last well without dehydration. Avoid soft cheeses.
  • Use lean ground meat rather than chunks of meat. Brown the meat, then rinse it under boiling water before continuing with the recipe. This reduces the fat content, which helps prevent the food from becoming rancid. Fat does not dehydrate.
  • Cut vegetables into small, evenly sized pieces so that they rehydrate easily.
  • Precook grains and pasta to the desired doneness and add to the recipe mix—creating a one-pot meal that will rehydrate all at once.
  • The dehydration process does not noticeably change a food's flavor or texture. If it tastes good in your kitchen, it will taste good in the field.
  • Measure portions by volume before dehydrating. A visual estimate of how much you will want to eat is the easiest way to do it—we found that 1½ to 2 cups of food per serving is about right for us. This may vary based on individual appetite. Keep in mind that leftovers are undesirable because they must be packed out.

What We're Cooking

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