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Are you planning a backpacking trip and wondering how to lighten your load? Dehydrating food is a great way to do just that. In this beginner’s guide, I’ll walk you through the basics of dehydrating food for backpacking, from choosing the right foods to storing your dehydrated meals.
When I’m out on the trail, I always make sure to pack some of my backpacking dehydrated meals to keep me fueled and energized throughout my adventures. Not only are they lightweight and easy to prepare, but they also taste great and can be customized to fit my dietary needs. So whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or just getting started, read on for all the info you need to dehydrate your own food like a pro. In this guide, I’ll share my top tips and tricks for dehydrating food for backpacking.
Backpacking is challenging when it comes to meal preparation. Carrying enough food and water for several days of hiking can be difficult. That is because you have to carry all the weight on your back.
In addition, you only have so much room in your backpack. This is most definitely the case with week-long backpacking adventures. Hence, the art of dehydrating food for backpacking is a valuable skill to learn.
In this article, we will discuss the art of dehydrating food for backpacking meals:
- Benefits of dehydrating backpacking meals
- Understanding food dehydration
- Equipment required
- Food safety considerations
- What foods to dehydrate
- How to prepare foods for dehydrating
- How to know when foods are dehydrated
- Proper storage of dehydrated meals
- Tips for creating backpacking meals
Benefits of Dehydrating Food for Backpacking
Dehydrating food for backpacking at home has many benefits, not the least of which is cost. Trail food for an extended backpacking trip can be quite expensive, especially when purchased at a sporting goods outlet or online.
The following list of benefits makes dehydrating your own food something to seriously consider:
- Lightweight: Dehydrated meals are significantly lighter than their fresh counterparts since most of the water weight has been removed. This allows backpackers to carry more food without adding excessive weight to their packs.
- Longer Shelf Life: Dehydration increases the shelf life of food, making it an excellent option for long backpacking trips. Dehydrated meals can last for months or even years if stored properly, ensuring that you have nourishing food available whenever you need it.
- Nutritional Value: Contrary to popular belief, dehydrated meals retain a high level of nutritional value. The dehydration process primarily affects the water content of the food while preserving essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. By carefully selecting and dehydrating nutrient-rich ingredients, you can create meals that provide the energy and sustenance needed for demanding outdoor activities.
- Easy Preparation: Dehydrated meals are incredibly convenient, especially when you’re on the trail. They require minimal preparation and can be rehydrated quickly with boiling water. This saves valuable time and fuel, allowing you to focus on enjoying the great outdoors rather than spending excessive time cooking.
- Tailored To Your Tastes and Dietary Needs: Because you create meals based on your personal preferences and dietary needs, you are not subject to meal ingredients of commercially produced fare. For instance, if you need a low sodium diet you can cook and dehydrate without salt or by using a salt substitute.
- Cost Effective: Dehydrated foods cost less than freeze-dried and dehydrated meals purchased at local sporting goods outlets or over the Internet. Most outdoor enthusiasts have an abundance of meal ingredients at home. You need only purchase what you lack. Once you create a meal plan for your backpacking trip you are ready to start dehydrating.
What is Dehydration of Food for Backpacking
Dehydration is a process that involves removing most of the water content from food lowering its moisture content to below 60% ERH (Equilibrium Relative Humidity).
Above 60% ERH, water is available for the rapid growth of microorganisms which are always present in food. Thus, food spoilage or food poisoning can occur if your food is not properly dehydrated. Warm dry air is circulated through the food until its ERH is below 60%.
By removing water, the food becomes smaller, lighter, and therefore easier to pack and carry. In addition, shelf life is extended. The growth of microorganisms such as E.coli is stopped. Food spoilage, the most common being mold, is eliminated.
When done correctly, dehydration preserves the nutritional value, flavor, and texture of the food. This makes it an ideal method for creating backpacking meals that are convenient, easy to prepare, and delicious.
Equipment Required for Dehydrating Food for Backpacking Meals
Food can be dehydrated in a number of ways. Grapes are dried naturally using nothing more than the summer sun to turn them into raisins. Shredded cheddar cheese, spinach leaves, and various herbs dry naturally when placed on parchment paper on the kitchen counter.
Similarly, foods such as fruit slices and beef jerky can be dehydrated using a homemade drying cage and sitting it outside in the summer heat. However, unlike an electric dehydrator, it may take a few days to fully dehydrate the foods.
When I first started backpacking 50 years ago, I dehydrated my meals in the oven. I would set aluminum window screen material over the oven rack so food wouldn’t fall through.
By turning the oven to its lowest heat setting and placing a fan on a stool next to the partially open oven door, I created a makeshift dehydrator. That was in my younger days! Now I use a NESCO FD-79 Snackmaster Pro Food dehydrator.
There are many different brands of home dehydrators available. The more expensive ones have digital controls and shut-off timers.
You don’t really need to go to that expense, as ones with manual temperature controls work just fine. Also, I find it easy to unplug the dehydrator when the food is finished instead of the unit turning off automatically.
The one feature you do not want to leave off is temperature control.
Different foods dehydrate at different temperatures. Dehydrators without temperature control may not be hot enough for meats or too hot for fruits and vegetables. Too hot and you will have a burnt taste. Too cool and food pathogens may continue to grow unabated.
Safety Considerations When Dehydrating Food for Backpacking
All food, if not properly processed and stored, spoils. Organisms that cause food spoilage (mold, yeast, bacteria, and other microorganisms) are always present in the air, water, and soil. Enzymes, chemicals whose primary purpose is to cause foods to ripen, are present in all fruits and vegetables. Left unchecked they cause foods to spoil.
Dehydrating will preserve food by lowering the amount of water (i.e.: moisture content) in the food. Microbial growth and chemical reactions can occur in foods only when they contain enough water or moisture for the processes to continue.
- Prior to dehydrating, clean all surfaces which come in contact with food. This includes the dehydrator trays prior to placing food on them. Kitchen counters and prep areas must be cleaned to lessen the chance of food contamination. Vegetables and fruits should be given a bath to remove any residual dirt and pesticides on the skin.
- Soap and water are typically used to clean surfaces. They may be wiped down with chlorine bleach afterward to disinfect them. However, chlorine has the distinct disadvantage of smell and taste. A better option is acetic acid.
- Acetic acid can be created on demand by a spritz (i.e.: a fine spray or mist) of white vinegar followed by a spritz of 3% food-grade hydrogen peroxide. You will need two spray bottles because you cannot mix the two liquids in the same bottle.
- Acetic acid kills virtually all pathogens on heavily contaminated surfaces. According to the EPA, it effectively kills E. coli, salmonella, listeria, staphylococcus aureus, shigella, candida, and many viruses, including the flu.
- The beauty of this disinfectant is that you can even spray it on fresh vegetables and fruits. It quickly becomes non-toxic, breaking back down to its original components, and afterward to water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Therefore, it leaves no residual taste or smell on your food.
What Foods to Dehydrate For Backpacking Meals
Although Almost any food can be dehydrated, albeit some not effectively. For instance, high water-content foods such as lettuce and watermelon will dehydrate but lose all texture and semblance of their original state when rehydrated. Other foods. like steak, may dehydrate but be impossible to eat once rehydrated because it is no longer tender.
When it comes to dehydrating foods for backpacking, you want to choose foods that are lightweight, nutrient-dense, and easy to rehydrate. When in doubt, dehydrate a small amount and see how well it dehydrates. Then rehydrate that same food and observe both its taste and texture when eaten. You may find it just isn’t worth dehydrating a particular food.
Some of the best foods to dehydrate for backpacking include fruits like apples, peaches, bananas, and berries. Also, try vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, corn, green peas, and peppers. Meats such as ground beef, chicken, and turkey are staple items on my backpacking food list.
Dehydrating food for backpacking allows you to create your own treats and snack items. Trail mix, beef jerky, and fruit leathers complement backpacking meals and are great for quick energy boosts on the trail.
Dehydrating Food for Backpacking: How to Prepare Meals
Experience has taught me that what is tender before dehydrating is generally tender after being rehydrated. This holds true for most meats, rice dishes, pasta, and vegetables. It is not by accident that I dehydrate fully cooked foods and canned foods, and cook most of my meats in a crock pot.
Fruits and vegetables must be ripe, yet not overly ripe. All darkened and bruised spots need to be cut out before dehydrating or cooking. I have found that it is best to remove the skin on most items because skin tends to be tough when rehydrated.
Certain chemical reactions caused by enzymes can still occur even when foods are properly dehydrated. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain chemical enzymes that cause changes in color and flavor as well as loss of nutrients when dried. Enzymes must be inactivated prior to dehydrating to prevent such changes from taking place.
- Vegetables must be either blanched or cooked before dehydrating to kill enzyme activity. Extra care must be taken to ensure that they remain firm, yet not mushy after cooking. High water-content vegetables such as zucchini and yellow crook neck squash dehydrate best if shredded and stir-fried until just barely tender before dehydrating.
- Fruits benefit from dipping in a bath of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) before dehydration. You may also dip slices in lemon juice or sprinkle Fruit-Fresh Produce Protector on them to inactivate enzymes.
- Meats require little in the way of preparation. I cook most meats in a crock pot with seasonings. The entire cut of meat can be slow-cooked to perfection and will not require additional seasonings on the trail. Obvious fat, gristle, and meat juices must be removed prior to dehydrating.
How to Cook Tips
A frying pan works best for cooking ground meats such as hamburger, sausage, and chicken. After these meats are cooked, remove as much of the grease as possible. While the meat is still hot, place it on paper towels to absorb any additional grease before dehydrating.
Pasta noodles cooked “al dente” dehydrate perfectly. Rinse the noodles in hot water to remove excess starches and prevent the pasta from sticking together.
However, I do not cook spaghetti or linguini pasta. Those noodles curl and take up too much room in my backpack when dehydrated. Instead, I cold soak them for an hour prior to putting them in my pot with the sauce. Then all I have to do is bring the pot to a boil for a minute and the noodles are cooked.
In addition, rice takes too long to cook on the trail, even Minute® brand rice. Dehydrating cooked rice before your trip eliminates cooking on the trail.
First, place the rice in a strainer and thoroughly rinse it. Most importantly, this step removes the excess starch. Then, cook the rice. Once it is cooked, place it in the dehydrator. After the rice is dehydrated, use a wooden kitchen mallet to break up any large chunks.
How To Know When Foods Are Dehydrated
Dehydration removes the water content from food. But, how do you know when it is fully dehydrated? Food that is not properly dehydrated is susceptible to spoilage. Mold or other more serious pathogens make poorly dehydrated food dangerous to eat. In addition, your meals are unlikely to last the duration of your backpacking adventure if not fully dehydrated.
The best way to tell if a food is dry is by touch. It will feel sticky, moist, leathery, featherweight, or hard when touching it. When testing foods in this manner, remember that they will feel softer when still warm in the dehydrator. You will want to remove a test piece and let it cool before judging its dryness.
Each food’s drying personality is different. Determining when food is properly dehydrated is relatively easy to master. This is because food groups respond similarly to the dehydration process. That is, they have a similar look and feel when dehydrated.
- Most dehydrated fruits (e.g.: apples, peaches, apricots, etc.) retain about 20% of their original moisture. They are semi-soft and pliable when fully dehydrated. You don’t want to dehydrate them to the point of being brittle. There should be no visible moisture and you shouldn’t see any moisture if you squeeze a piece between your fingers. If you fold it in half, it should not stick together. Berries (e.g.: strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, etc.) should be dehydrated to the point that, when placed in a container and shaken, they rattle.
- Vegetables, on the other hand, are dehydrated to the point where they are brittle and easily snapped when pressure is applied. This aspect of dehydrated vegetables makes them easy to identify when fully dehydrated. For best results make sure your pieces are small, uniform in size, and peelings removed.
- Meats are obvious to the naked eye when fully dehydrated. There is so little residual moisture left in dehydrated meats that you will instinctively know they are properly dehydrated by their appearance and feel. Individual pieces are featherweight and care must be taken to prevent them from crumbling. Dehydrated pieces of canned water-packed tuna, previously cooked poultry, beef, and pork have the feel of rough balsa wood or smooth pumice stone. Ground meats like hamburger look like little dark pebbles and will rattle together if shaken in a container.
- Homemade Jerky is determined by bending one of the strips. You know if it is done dehydrating, it will crack but not break when it is bent.
- Fruit leathers dehydrate from the outer edges to the center. When fully dehydrated, the application of slight pressure with your finger on the center of the leather will no longer make an indentation.
- Herbs such as cilantro, basil, thyme, spinach, parsley, etc. dry best at room temperature. When fully dehydrated, the leaves will be brittle and break easily.
- Fully cooked rice and pasta noodles, after being dehydrated, look like they did before they were cooked. In addition, they weigh about the same.
- Grated cheese must be dried at room temperature or it will melt together. When fully dehydrated, the individual gratings will be brittle, have little beads of oil on them, and snap easily when pressure is applied.
Proper Storage of Dehydrated Foods
Once your meals are dehydrated, proper packaging and storage are essential. To maintain freshness, use airtight containers or vacuum-sealed bags. Most importantly, prevents moisture from reentering fully dehydrated food and compromising it.
Bacteria and mold can once more grow and spoil dehydrated food if moisture is reintroduced.
Store your dehydrated meals in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. I store dehydrated meat in airtight containers in the freezer until my next backpacking trip. That isn’t required, but I don’t want to take a chance of fats in the meat turning rancid.
5 Tips for Dehydrating Food for Backpacking
- Choose the Right Ingredients: Selecting the right ingredients is crucial for creating flavorful and nutritious dehydrated meals. Opt for whole grains, lean proteins, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Avoid ingredients that are high in fat or have a high water content, as they can lead to spoilage and decreased shelf life.
- Pre-Cook and Season: Before dehydrating your meals, it’s best to pre-cook them and season them well. This ensures that the flavors are fully developed and evenly distributed throughout the food. Consider using spices, herbs, and sauces to enhance the taste of your meals.
- Meal leftovers from last night’s dinner can often be dehydrated for quick, easy backpacking meals. The only caveat is meals with chunks of meat may not be the best to dehydrate. Meat takes much longer to rehydrate than the other ingredients in the meal. Your leftover casserole or rice dish may suffer from hard, only partially rehydrated chunks of meat.
- Do not, I repeat, do not take dehydrated meals on your backpacking trip that you have not tried at home. If they don’t rehydrate properly or taste terrible you can’t just run to the store to buy something else.
- Don’t be afraid to purchase some dehydrated foods to save time and energy. For example, you can purchase tomato powder online for making tomato sauce. Dehydrating canned tomato sauce takes a lot of time and the sauce leather after dehydration must be put in a food processor to create a powder. Otherwise, it will take forever to rehydrate.
How long does dehydrated food last?
The shelf life of dehydrated food can vary depending on factors such as the type of food, how it was prepared, and how it is stored. Generally, dehydrated food prepared, conditioned and stored the right way should last anywhere between a year and two years. However, different types of food have their own estimated shelf lives.
How should dehydrated food be stored to extend its shelf life?
Dehydrated food should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry area. If your goal with dehydrating is to make foods last a very long time, you must store them correctly. This will help to prevent moisture and oxygen from getting in, which can cause spoilage.
Can dehydrated food go bad?
Yes, dehydrated food can go bad. However, dehydrated food that is dry and free of odors is generally okay to eat. If the food is moldy, has a sour smell, or looks moist, it should be discarded.
Dehydrating food for backpacking meals is increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a beginner, dehydrating food is a great option for your next adventure. Because you save weight, without sacrificing nutrition or flavor, it makes perfect sense.
For that reason, the art of dehydration is an essential skill to learn. By dehydrating your food, you can reduce its weight, its volume, and extend its shelf life. Pack lightweight, nutritious, and delicious meals on your next outdoor adventure by dehydrating your own meals. You will be thankful you learned how.
To learn more about dehydrating backpacking meals check out my book Forking Good – A Backpacker’s Guide to the Art of Dehydration and Gourmet Meal Creation. It is available in paperback and Kindle. Here is a link to the book’s resource guide. It has all the items I use for dehydrating. Hopefully, it will be useful to you.