When I first started with DIY dehydrator backpacking food, it was mostly out of necessity; pre-packaged backpacking meals simply aren’t available where I live. Even if I could buy pre-made meals though, I would still dehydrate my own meals. Yes, it does take a bit of work and planning, but it’s all worth it when you are eating a delicious, healthy meal on the trail. It also doesn’t hurt that it only costs a fraction of the price of those Mountain House meals!
It’s been 8 years since I first started experimenting with dehydrating food for backpacking. I went from basic things like dried fruit for trail mix to dehydrating entire gourmet meals. Pasta with sunflower seed bolognese anyone? Dehydrated red pepper and pumpkin seed crackers for lunch break during a hike? This guide will tell you what you need to know about dehydrating your own backpacking meals so you can get started too.
- Why dehydrate your own backpacking meals?
- How to dehydrate backpacking meals
- Dehydrating whole meals
- Recipe ideas
- Best foods for dehydrating
- Packaging meals for the trail
- Shelf life
Why Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Meals?
- Save money. Even the cheapest brands of backpacking food still cost a lot per portion. Dehydrating your own meals saves money and helps dispel the myth that backpacking is expensive.
- Healthier. I add lots of vegetables, greens, nuts, seeds and other nutrient-dense foods to my meals. This helps my body recover after a long day of hiking.
- Many more meal options. You won’t get bored eating the same slop on the trail!
- Special dietary needs. If you are vegan, gluten-free, or have other dietary restrictions, you might not have many options with pre-made backpacking food.
- Lower sodium. Most backpacking meals are loaded with sodium, which can cause problems like feet swelling and inflammation. With DIY dehydrator meals, you control the sodium amount.
- Lightweight: Many DIY dehydrator meals pack in more than 130 calories per ounce. That’s a lot lighter than supermarket backpacking foods and even lighter than many freeze-dried backpacking meals! Read these ultralight backpacking tips for beginners.
How to Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Meals
The easiest way to get started with dehydrating your own backpacking meals is to dehydrate “add-ins” or sauces. These can then be mixed in with carbs like pasta, instant rice, or potato flakes to make a healthy, complete meal.
Here are some examples dehydrator meals for backpacking using this method:
- Dehydrated bananas and strawberries added to oats
- Dehydrated garlicky tomato sauce added to pasta
- Dehydrated hot dogs added to instant mashed potatoes
- Dehydrated beans and salsa added to couscous
- Dehydrated cauliflower–tomato-walnut “meat” served on tortillas (see the recipe here)
Can I dehydrate without a dehydrator?
Many people are able to successfully dehydrate food in their oven by keeping it at a very low temperature. However, dehydrating can take a very long time (8+ hours for some meals). It would waste a lot of electricity to keep your oven on for this long. It could also become very unsafe if you forgot about the food drying in your oven. For these reasons, it isn’t recommended that you dehydrate food without a dehydrator.
You don’t need a fancy or expensive dehydrator though. My first dehydrator only cost about $30 and lasted over 5 years. Eventually the trays did start to crack though, especially as I began making more meals which had to be spread out on parchment paper (which trapped heat and could cause the plastic trays to overheat). If you can afford it, get a good dehydrator with metal trays and preferably features like a timer and automatic shutoff. This dehydrator by Magic Mill has all of those features and is very affordable.
How to Prepare Dehydrated Meals on the Trail
The problem with DIY dehydrator meals is some ingredients take longer to cook than others. For example, dehydrated hot dogs usually need to be cooked for 5 minutes whereas mashed potato flakes are instant. If you were to add the hot dogs and potato flakes to the pot at the same time, the potatoes would end up getting burnt and the hot dogs would still be tough and chewy. Yuck!
The solution is to make the meals in two steps:
- Keep dehydrated ingredients in a separate baggie. Add the dehydrated ingredients to the pot first. Boil or soak until soft.
- Then add the carb (pasta, rice, etc.) to the pot and cook. Alternatively, remove the rehydrated ingredients and then cook the carb separately. Drain any excess water and mix in the add-ins or sauce.
The downside of this method is you need to pack meals in two (or more!) baggies, which means more stuff to organize in your pack. You also spend a bit more time on food prep. If you’d rather keep things simpler, you can experiment with dehydrating entire backpacking meals. More on that next.
Can You Dehydrate Whole Meals?
Yes, it is possible to dehydrate whole meals for backpacking. However, not all dehydrated meals will rehydrate well. You risk ending up with some ingredients turning to mush while other ingredients remain crunchy.
Because of this, most of my backpacking dehydrated meals are made with the two-step method above. After a lot of trial and error though, I did manage to find some meals which work great. The key is using ingredients which rehydrate at the same speed.
Dehydrator Backpacking Meal Recipes:
Pumpkin quinoa chili
I normally don’t like chili but this one made from quinoa, pumpkin puree, red beans, and lots of spices was an exception. It can be rehydrated by cold-soaking even.
Barley Walnut Risotto
This isn’t the prettiest backpacking meal but it is delicious and filling. It is also really calorie-dense at 172 calories/ounce dry weight.
Moroccan Chickpea Tagine
Chickpeas take about 6-9 minutes of cooking to rehydrate, though you can eat them while they are still a bit chewy. I love this recipe on cold nights because the spices really warm you up. It has 133 calories/oz dry weight and can be eaten by itself or served over couscous.
Corn Chowder with Coconut Milk
I particularly love eating this chowder with crackers. You can even use less water when rehydrating so it turns into a dip or spread instead of a chowder.
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Best Foods to Dehydrate for Backpacking
- Fruits: Bananas, strawberries, peaches, apricots, apples, and pears work particularly well.
- Cooked vegetables: If you don’t pre-cook the vegetables before dehydrating, they will take forever to rehydrate on the trail. Note that some dehydrated vegetables don’t work for backpacking meals.
- Leafy greens: These don’t need to be cooked before dehydrating.
- Beans and lentils: These work are insanely calorie-dense and healthy when dehydrated. They also rehydrate almost instantly.
- Bean-based sauces and spreads: Such as hummus and refried beans.
- Salsa: Just make sure it is cooked and not raw salsa.
- Hot dogs: Veggie hot dogs also work.
- Condiments: Like sriracha sauce, ketchup, or mustard. Fatty ones like mayo won’t work.
- Meats: Aim for lean meats as fat goes rancid quickly.
Dehydrated Foods which Do NOT Work Well for Backpacking
- Fatty foods: Dehydrators only dry out water and not oil. So fatty foods like avocados and peanut butter cannot be dehydrated. I have had lots of success dehydrating nut and seed butters though, but only when they are mixed with other ingredients like tomato sauce.
- Mushrooms: While you can dehydrate mushrooms, they take forever to rehydrate on the trail. Even after 20 minutes of boiling, they will still be chewy and tough to digest.
- Brown rice: I experimented with dehydrating brown rice. It takes around 20-30 minutes of boiling to completely rehydrate, which is way too long of a cooking time for backpacking.
- Peas and corn: Foods which hard “shells” around them turn into hard rocks when dehydrated and will remain hard even after boiling for a long time. Some people like Backpacking Chef apparently have success with these, but I haven’t and don’t want to blow through fuel to boil peas for 45 minutes!
- Eggs: Dehydrated eggs reconstitute into a gross tough mess. If you want to eat eggs on the trail you should get freeze-dried eggs. These are made with a completely different process.
Can you dehydrate pasta?
It is possible to cook pasta and then dehydrate it. This will reduce the cooking time required on the trail. You could even prepare the dehydrated pasta by cold-soaking it. However, I’ve found that dehydrated pasta often turns into a gross starchy glob when rehydrated. So, while it is possible to dehydrate cooked pasta, I don’t recommend it. I’d rather eat polenta or grits instead of a glob of pasta mush.
Can you dehydrate meat?
Yes, you can dehydrate meat for backpacking. However, to kill bacteria like E. Coli the meat must first be heated to at least 160°F and then kept at a temperature of at least 140°F while dehydrating. Most cheap dehydrators aren’t capable of reaching this temperature. Even if they claim to reach this temperature, it’s possible the top racks are much cooler. To play it safe, only dehydrate meat if you have a very good dehydrator (preferably a horizontal-flow dehydrator). Put a meat thermometer on the top rack so you can monitor the temperature.
Alternatively, just buy freeze-dried meat to add to your meals instead (read about DIY freeze-dried backpacking meals here). Or use veggie proteins like beans, which rehydrate really well.
Can you dehydrate soup for backpacking?
Lots of homemade and store-bought cans of soup can be dehydrated for backpacking. When rehydrating the soup though, some ingredients might remain chewy and hard whereas others get mushy. Generally creamy soups, like tomato soup, provide the best results. For best results, grind the dehydrated soup into a powder. It will rehydrate faster and without any clumps forming!
Packaging Dehydrated Meals for Backpacking
Most dehydrated foods and meals can last for several weeks without any special packaging. For short trips of up to two weeks, you can probably just put the dehydrated foods into regular baggies. Packaging becomes more of an issue when you are going on long backpacking trips. In these cases, you’ll probably want to get a vacuum sealer to package your meals.
How Long Do Dehydrated Backpacking Foods Last?
Most DIY dehydrated backpacking meals will last for at least 4 weeks without any special packaging. However, fatty meals have a much shorter shelf-life. Heat and humidity can also make dehydrated meals go bad much faster.
To make dehydrated meals last longer while backpacking you can:
- Make sure foods are very dry: They should snap or break and not bend. This means most of the moisture is out of the food and it will last longer. However, it will also take longer to rehydrate.
- Add oil separately: When making dehydrator meals, cook the meal without any oil. The oil will make the meal go rancid faster. Instead, bring a little bottle of oil with you on the trail and add it to the meal when you rehydrate it.
- Also add milk separately: Milk contains a lot of fat which will cause the food to go bad faster. For recipes like cream soups which call for milk, make the meal without the milk and dehydrate it. Then bring some powdered milk with you on the trail and add it to the meal when rehydrating.
- Get a vacuum sealer: Vacuum sealing will remove oxygen so the food stays good for much longer.
Tips for Dehydrating Your Own Backpacking Meals
Blend Dehydrated Ingredients into a Powder
The biggest problem with dehydrating your own backpacking meals is some ingredients remain chewy, even after soaking or boiling for a long time. A workaround is this: use a coffee mill or high-speed blender (like this one) to grind the dried foods into a powder. These foods will rehydrate almost instantly and give you a uniform texture.
Test Meals before Hitting the Trail!
Especially if you plan on eating the same dehydrated meal multiple times on the trail, test it before setting out! You don’t want to discover that your meal won’t rehydrate when you are tired, hungry, and have no other options. For example, I learned the hard way that certain brands of tofu can’t be rehydrated whereas others rehydrate without a problem.
Vegetables Must Be Pre-Cooked
One of the biggest mistakes when dehydrating backpacking food is not pre-cooking vegetables. For example, you might dehydrate slices of raw carrot to add to a stew. Here’s the problem with that:
Raw dehydrated vegetables must be rehydrated and cooked. Because raw veggies have tough fibers (cooking softens them), they take a very long time to rehydrate. You also need to factor in the cooking time for carrots (which is about 8 minutes of boiling). You will blow through 40+ minutes of fuel before the dry carrots ever get soft!
There are some veggies which don’t need to be pre-cooked, such as leafy greens like kale. However, make sure you pre-cook all other veggies before dehydrating.
Soups = Dips, Bars = Porridge
By adding more or less water to a dehydrated meal, you will change the consistency. This means you can eat soup as a dip, or vice versa. Likewise, I’ve discovered dehydrated bars can also be rehydrated into breakfast porridge. While the taste is the same, the texture is very different and thus will feel like a completely new meal.
Some meals look almost identical when dehydrated. If you are bringing lots of dehydrated meals on a trip, label the baggies with the contents! Otherwise you might end up putting soup on your pasta instead of sauce.
In addition to dehydrating backpacking meals, you can also dehydrate lots of great hiking foods. Experiment making things like your own trail mix, protein bars, and even crackers. Not all recipes will work out but you are sure to discover some delicious snacks and meals if you experiment.
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Do you dehydrate your own backpacking meals? Let us know your favorite recipes in the comments section below.