Freeze-dried foods are awesome for trail meals. They are lightweight, cook very quickly, and retain their flavors. The only problem is that those freeze-dried meals can be really expensive. A way around this is to buy bulk freeze dried foods and assemble your own trail meals.
- How to make your own freeze-dried meals
- Calculating calories and nutrients
- Shelf life and packaging methods
- Where to buy bulk freeze-dried foods
- Combining freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients
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What DIY Meals Work Well as Trail Food?
As a general rule, “wet” meals like stews, chili, or pasta work best for DIY backpacking meals. These meals are meanty to be wet so it won’t matter too much if you add too much water when rehydrating the ingredients.
While you can make things like scrambled eggs from freeze-dried ingredients, it usually doesn’t work well on the trail. You’ll end up with soggy eggs. Or you’ll burn the hell out of your pan and won’t be able to clean it.
An easy way to come up with meal ideas is this: Look at what the backpacking meal companies offer. Then just replicate them.
Tip: Start with your breakfast
If you aren’t sure how to get started with DIY backpacking meals, start with breakfast. Those bags of Mountain House oatmeal are really expensive (especially considering how cheap oats are!). You are paying a premium price for what essential is some oats and a few freeze-dried fruits in fancy packaging.
To make your own, just combine some freeze-dried fruits with oats, nuts, and some sugar. You can also add freeze-dried milk powder to make it creamier. I like to add superfoods like chia seeds to my trail oatmeal too.
How to Assemble Your Own Freeze Dried Meals
You will basically just be adding each of the ingredients into trail-friendly packaging. However, you will need to do a lot of math. You should tally the calories/fat/protein of each ingredient you add, and also consider your micronutrient needs (more on this below).
But the basic steps of making your own trail meals from freeze dried ingredients is easy. Just follow these steps.
Step 1: Choose a Carb
These you will probably be getting in the supermarket. Choose carbs which cook fast, such as instant rice, couscous, or thin pastas (spaghetti). If you aren’t too worried about conserving fuel, then any pasta will do.
Tip: Some carbs like couscous and instant mashed potatoes cook very fast. You’ll need to package these separately from other ingredients. Otherwise the carb will cook before your freeze dried ingredients have time to rehydrate.
Step 2: Add a Protein
Most freeze-dried backpacking meals suck in terms of protein. One of the benefits of going the DIY approach is that you can really load up on the protein. I’m vegan so my protein is usually beans, lentils, or TVP. Unfortunately, there aren’t many options for veggie freeze-dried proteins. I generally just dehydrate beans instead. Carnivores can buy freeze-dried chicken or beef in bulk.
Step 3: Add Veggies and Fruits
This is where making your own freeze-dried meals really pays off. You can omit any veggies that you hate and put in the veggies you actually like.
Don’t skimp on the fruits and veggies! I know that they don’t have a lot of calories per weight, but they are crucial for antioxidants and vitamins. How are you supposed to recover from a long day of hiking if you don’t have nutrients???
Step 4: Add a Healthy Fat
Without fat, your meals will taste boring and you won’t feel satiated. Ideally, about 50% of your calories should come from fat.
What fat to add to your DIY meals?
- Cheese powder: Most store-bought backpacking meals are loaded with freeze-dried cheese or dairy. It’s kind of hard for a meal to taste bad whe it is covered in cheese! To replicate this, just buy freeze-dried cheese powder in bulk. You can buy freeze-dried cheese powder in bulk.
- Olive oil: Bring a bottle of olive oil with you on the trail. Olive oil has a great calorie/weight ratio and is almost pure fat. Add it to meals after they rehdyrate.
- Nuts and seeds: Preferably in nut/seed butter form as your body will absorb it better. Here are some backpacking meal ideas with peanut butter.
Step 5: Add Flavor
Now add flavors like herbs and spices. The more flavor you add, the less salt you will need. Note that your sense of taste changes at high altitudes so you’ll probably need more salt and flavoring than you normally would.
Calculating Calories and Nutrients
Most backpackers and thru-hikers I know focus solely on calories when doing their meal planning. Hence why Pringles are so damn popular as a trail food!
I’d encourage you to think beyond calories. Without protein and fiber, all those calories will rush into your bloodstream too quickly. This will cause your blood sugar to skyrocket, and subsequently crash. And when it crashes, you will feel tired and very hungry.
There isn’t too much research on thru-hiking nutrition. Most macronutrient recommendations are based on Brenda L. Braaten’s info. She recommends:
- 50% fat
- 35% carbs
- 15% protein (you’ll need about 0.8 to 1g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight)
But don’t forget about micronutrients too. Fruits and vegetables might not deliver much in terms of calories/ounce, but they are crucial for muscle repair, immune response, and mental clarity.
If you really can’t be bothered to get 6 servings each of fruits and veggies into your backpacking meals, at least carry a veggie-based supplement powder. Navitas Superfood blend is popular with thru-hikers. The brand MTS Ops makes some supplements specifically for hikers.
Shelf-Life of DIY Freeze Dried Meals
The freeze-dried meals you buy can last for years…until you open them. Once the package is open, the shelf life shrinks drastically. Some companies recommend eating opened packages of freeze-dried foods within 1-3 weeks!
So long as you keep the contents of your DIY meals dry (which also means out of humidity), they should still last for months. But any amount of humidity can drastically shorten shelf life. Something to think about if you are mail-dropping yourself food to a humid area!
Storage Bags for DIY Trail Meals
Backpacking meals like those from Mountain House are in foil-lined bags. These are sealed to keep out oxygen and humidity. However, you can probably get by with using regular zip bags for packaging your DIY meals.
For longer trips, or high-humidity situations, you’ll want to seal your meals. Consider getting a vacuum sealer like this one. Alternatively, you can get foil-lined Ziplock bags. They aren’t air-tight, but should be okay for most trips of 4+ weeks.
*Many hikers like to put each meal in its own pouch. This makes it easy to portion out meals and prevents you from overeating. But you can also store your meals in bulk and just measure them out before preparing on the trail.
Where to Buy Freeze-Dried Foods in Bulk
There are a lot of brands which offer freeze-dried foods in bulk containers. Your best option is to shop at Amazon. They have all the major brands, often have sales and you’ll save money on shipping. See bulk freeze dried foods at Amazon here.
Below are some other brands and places where you can buy bulk freeze dried foods for your DIY backpacking meals.
Bulk Freeze-Dried Meat
*Note that many companies put fillers like flour in their freeze-dried meat. These options are for 100% meat without fillers.
- The Ready Store: They have a big selection of freeze-dried meats including beef, chicken, sausage, turkey, and bacon.
- Valley Food Storage: They have chicken, beef, sausage and lots of freeze-dried cheese too.
- Augason Farms: Chicken, beef, and variety packs available
- Nutristore: Available on Amazon, they have chicken and beef in bulk.
- Mountain House: They have chicken and beef cans.
Freeze-Dried Vegetarian Proteins
You are pretty limited here. Most products are dehydrated and not freeze-dried. It’s pretty easy to dehydrate your own beans though.
- Valley Food Storage: They have freeze-dried peanut butter, cheese, and some other vegetarian proteins.
- Augason Farms: Freeze-dried peanut butter, taco mix, black bean burger mix, “bacon” bits, egg powder, and variety packs.
Bulk Freeze-Dried Fruits and Veggies
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many options when it comes to freeze dried veggies. For this reason, you might need to combine some dehydrated ingredients with your freeze-dried bulk ingredients. It will take some experimentation to get the ratios and cook times right. But, I think it is worth it in the long run – you’ll save money on backpacking meals plus be able to customize them for your nutritional and taste needs. 🙂
*I love mushrooms, but they are really difficult to rehydrate. They almost always end up chewy. So keep that in mind if you try to make trail meals with freeze dried mushrooms.
- Augason Farms: They have the most options when it comes to bulk freeze-dried fruits and veggies.
- The Ready Store: They also have a good selection which includes fruit and veggie buckets that include a variety of different products.
- Emergency Essentials: They have some interesting veggies like freeze-dried yams and cauliflower, as well as the standard selection of corn, peas, and freeze-dried fruits.
- Mother Earth: Has freeze-dried berries, bananas, broccoli, and some other fruits
- Karen’s Naturals Freeze Dried variety pack (fruits)
- Natierra: They have a good variety of products, especially fruits like pomegranate and tropical fruits.
- Nutristore: They have variety packs, which is a good deal when planning shorter backpacking trips.
Bulk Freeze-Dried Sauces and Cheese
- Augason Farms: Four different freeze-dried cheeses
- The Ready Store: Three different cheeses and lots of other freeze-dried dairy products (like butter) too
- Backpacker’s Pantry freeze dried whole milk
- Provident Pantry freeze dried shredded mozzarella cheese
- Nutristore freeze dried cheddar
- Future Essentials freeze dried marina sauce
- Future Essentials freeze dried Bolognese meat sauce
Combining Dehydrated and Freeze-Dried Ingredients
Even with the DIY approach, freeze-dried foods are expensive and you don’t have too many options.
For this reason, I dehydrate my own meals instead. It’s also possible to combine dehydrated and freeze-dried foods in the same meal.
Some things to keep in mind when combining dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients:
- Dehydrated foods contain moisture. If you mix them with your freeze-dried foods, some moisture will get into the freeze-dried ingredients. This will reduce shelf life.
- Rehydration times may vary. If you boil all the ingredients together, some ingredients might end up mushy. The only solution to this is to store some ingredients in separate bags. The ingredients with the longest cooking times go in the pot first. Dealing with a zillion bags can be a pain on the trail.
Below are some of the dehydrator meals I’ve made. You can find all of these in my Trail Recipes eBook. Buy it here.
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Do you make your own backpacking meals with freeze-dried ingredients? What’s your favorite recipe? Let us know in the comments.
Resources for this article include:
“IMG_1449-DxO-” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Element58
DaelMay 21, 2019 at 1:58 am
These are great for backpacking and super cheap if you buy the bulk box:
I add these to Dr. McDougall’s meal cups. I aim for 500 calories per meal so I’ll use two cups if it’s low-calorie. All I need to do is add boiling water.
SIL HikerAugust 1, 2020 at 4:20 pm
OK, some people are going to think I’m crazy, but here goes. I make my own version of “Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy”. It goes like this….. I buy freeze dried sausage crumbles, powdered sausage gravy, and frozen biscuits. I bake the biscuits, crumble them up, dry them in a dehydrator. I put the sausage and gravy powder in the freezer bag or mylar bag, then put the dried biscuit chunks in a separate baggie and place it inside the first bag and seal it. When I’m ready to use it, I add the appropriate amount of water to the gravy/sausage mix, stir it up, wait 5 minutes, then dump in the biscuits , stir gently, wait another minute or two and eat. If you wait too long, the biscuits get soggy. You can make this in any portion/proportion you like.