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Backpacking Foods- Commercial Meals, Traveling Light, and Making Your
Own Dehydrated Meals

Page 1: Commercial Meals and Making Your Own
Page 2: Resources
Page 3: Recipes- Breakfast, Side Dishes
Page 4: Recipes- Dinners and Main Dishes
Page 5: Recipes- Single Pot Meals
Page 6: A New Look at Snacks and Backpack Meals


There are a number of ways I approach meals for the wilderness. They are discussed below, and on the next few pages. First, there are commercially available meals. While I rarely use them any more, I do have a method for making them more adaptable to my needs. Next, I provide information and resources for ingredients for the various recipes. On the Recipes Pages you can see some of the meals I create for myself from dehydrated ingredients. Some of these meals are designed to be rehydrated in Ziplock bags. These meals can also be cooked in a single pot of water. Next, there are recipes that require some cooking, single pot meals such as Chili Mac for example. I am currently working on this section.

Commercial Meals

Most people are familiar with commercially available, freeze-dried backpacking meals such as those made by Mountain House and Richmoor. These meals are available at REI and many outdoor stores. While these meals are good tasting and quite nourishing, I often find them to be either lacking in size or just too much of the same thing, and I definitely find them to be expensive, considering the number of nights I spend in the wilderness each year.

At the end of a long day of walking, which for me could be 10, 15, even 20 miles, I am ready for a MEAL. At times one big bag of food is enough, and if a prepackaged meal does not provide enough food, it is easy enough to heat more water and make another meal. But then you may be left with more food than you want to eat. A quick way around this problem is to repackage the meals in storage or freezer grade Ziplock bags. Storage and freezer grade Ziplock bags are strong enough to accept boiling water. Not only does this get rid of a bit of weight and bulk from the packaged meals, but it allows you to split the meals in half if you like and add variety to your dinner, or make the meals larger by doubling them up. Repackage the meals just before you head out on your trip. Keep the meals in their sealed pouches till the last minute to keep them fresh.

Creating My Own Meals and Traveling Light

I have been making my own dehydrated meals for years now. Making my own meals allows me to control the size of my meals, the ingredients, the weight of the meals, it cuts down on the amount of packaging and thus the amount of trash I carry, and in the end, with my method, I have no dishes to wash. An added bonus is that making my own meals cuts down considerably on costs.

A note on my methods and equipment- I travel ultralight. If you have not read our Desert Gear Pages, please take a look at them. Specifically look at the Cooking section of our Ultralight Packing List Explained. There you will see that my cooking equipment consists of a homemade alcohol stove with accessories, a 600 milliliter titanium pot, and a plastic spoon- nothing more. Food never goes into my pot, I use it only for boiling water which is poured into my Ziplock bags of food, and for making tea or coffee. I create my meals with this system in mind.

Typically my goal is to keep my food weight at about one pound, or less, per day. This may not seem like a difficult task if you look at the recipes I use. A breakfast meal, a dinner meal, maybe a lunch meal, and a couple of tea bags will usually meet the weight requirement. But I rarely stop for a lunch meal, eating hot meals only at breakfast and dinner. Instead of a lunch meal I usually carry snacks to eat as I walk. This is where the weight begins to add up. Snacks such as Clif Bars or Shots, Power Bars, raisins, peanuts, and some dried fruits can get quite heavy when you put together six or seven days worth of them. Be careful when you start tossing the snacks in your food bag.

I recommend getting your main meals together- I usually lay them out by day- and then adding snacks as you feel you will need them. If you really want to watch your weight, this might be a good time to visit the local post office and take advantage of their digital scale- they usually have one in the lobby where you can easily weigh your food. Remember to add a meal or two for a safety margin. I pack a couple of the lighter meals as extras just in case I decide to stay out an additional night.


Planning drinks for the backcountry may not seem like a big deal, unless you are trying to travel light. Five or six days of beverages can really add to the overall weight. If you drink coffee in the morning, and add sugar and milk powder, if you like to add flavor to your water- lemonade powder, Gatorade powder, or another energy drink, and then have a cup of cocoa in the evening, you could potentially add 1 to 2 pounds in drinks alone! I usually forego the flavors in the water completely, I drink tea in the morning and evening (I do carry a minimal amount of sugar and milk powder for it), and I pack cocoa for a night nestle Nido imageor two as a compromise to enjoying it every night. If I bring coffee on my trips I bring instant. Nescafe Classico is actually not bad. Make sure you get it from the Latin foods section of your supermarket, the real stuff that is dark and strong is the Nescafe Classico from Mexico. You can even pre-mix it at home with sugar and milk powder if you like. I sometimes add hot chocolate mix or cocoa powder to create my own backpacking mocha mix.

Regarding milk powders, I have tried them all over the years, everything from Carnation powdered milk to organic soy milk powder. I have finally found one that is acceptable- Nido. I discovered it on one of my extended trips in Belize and have since found it available in the U.S. Nido milk powder has been around for about 75 years, originating in Switzerland, and is available all around the world. You should be able to find it at your local grocery store without any problem. Look for it in the Latin foods section. It disolves quickly in hot liquid, is thick not watery, and tastes great. Be sure to get the Nido Clasica; there are many versions of it with various additives for use as a baby formula. Read more about it at the Nestle website.

Continuing with the coffee discussion, one of my latest discoveries at the local Asian market is 3 in1 coffee. There are about 10 different kinds to choose from at our market, but I prefer the one from Vietnam, Vinacafe. It comes in a bag of 20 or so individual packets containing premixed coffee, milk and sugar. I have found that a single packet tastes good in as little as 200 ml. of water or as much as 500 ml. The packets can get a little heavy on longer trips when you are carrying a bunch of them, especially if you are trying to go ultralight. Be sure to try them at home first before packing a bunch of them along with you. Some people might find them too sweet, or simply not strong enough.

Making Your Own Backpack Meals

If you are so inclined- if you have the time and motivation- great tasting, fairly healthy, dehydrated meals can be made using ingredients found at most natural food stores and regular grocery stores. The initial investment in purchasing all the ingredients, and especially the dehydrator if you choose to go that route, can be a little steep. But if you spend enough time in the backcountry and use enough of the meals it is well worth the investment in the long run. For a great resource on this subject, take a look at the book titled The Back Country Kitchen: Camp Cooking for Canoeists, Hikers and Anglers by Teresa Marrone. The book has enough recipes that I have not been through them all yet in 6 years of using it. Some of the recipes are designed for car camping, or in situations where refrigeration is available. But even some of these can be easily adapted for backpacking. The book gives information on dehydrating your own ingredients, on finding them at regular grocery stores and online. Best of all, once you get the basic ingredients together, start making meals, and become comfortable with the ingredients you will find it simple enough to move on to the more complex dishes and start creating your own. If you are interested in making your own meals, in taking the time to make some really good dishes, and a good variety of them, then this book is a must. A few other titles that I have not reviewed but that seem to be worthwhile are Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple, Trail Food: Drying and Cooking Food for Backpacking and Paddling, and Backpack Gourmet.

rehydrating home made backpack meal
The photo above shows one of my home made, dehydrated meals almost ready for eating. Note that I date and label them well. This particular meal, sour cream vegetable ramen (yes, it is hard to get away from ramen as a backpack meal), one of my own creations, was a large one.

Over the years I have experimented with many different recipes of my own, most of them based on packaged, dry foods right off the shelf at the local grocery store. I still use some of these as a source for ingredients. Marrone in her book uses some of the same items. Examples are boxed, dehydrated au gratin potatoes, dry soup mixes, ramen noodles and of course instant rice. I package all of the meals I make in storage or freezer grade, one quart Ziplock bags. When I am in the field I only need to heat water, pour the boiling water in the bag, mix, and let it stand for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the meal. With some of the meals, especially if the weather is cooler, I wrap the bag of food in my pile vest for insulation once the water has been added.

american harvest dehydrater image In recent years I have been dehydrating my own ingredients, many of them from my garden. While this takes more time and effort on my part, it allows me to select my ingredients carefully and to experiment with new ingredients that may not be commercially available. I use an American Harvest "Snackmaster Pro" Dehydrator, pictured to the left, to dehydrate everything. The model I have can have more trays added. If you plan on producing lots of deydrated ingredients, be sure you can expand the model you buy.

Test the Meals Before Heading to the Bush

If you do give the recipes from the book a try, and obviously if you are changing them or creating your own, you will want to test them at home first. Make sure you try the meals at home first! This is not only important for planning purposes, i.e.- how much water you will need and determining the size of your meals, but also for the simple fact that you may find something unpalatable. Depending on the ingredients that are called for, and those that you may add, you might find that a particular meal might need more water, or more time to stand while rehydrating.

Avoiding Crunchy Ingredients

Beware that some ingredients, especially those you may dehydrate at home, may remain a bit crunchy in the end, and some may completely disintegrate. I have had problems with my green beans and corn being crunchy, a friend dehydrated broccoli that turned to mush after rehydrating. This is something that I am still working out in my recipes. I have found that many of the meals are better if I add more boiling water after about five minutes of rehydration, sort of recharging the rehydration process with heat. I usually make a cup of tea after the meal has been prepared and have more boiling water on hand, so this is easy for me to do. Although it seems helpful with most all the recipes, it is noted in the recipe section with those dishes that I find it absolutely necessary.

Another way around the crunchy vegetables is to package them separately in a snack size Ziplock and put that inside the main bag. When you are ready to rehydrate the meal, start by adding water to the small bag (even thin, snack size Ziplocks seem to be strong enough to withstand the heat of boiling water.) Add this bag of ingredients to your main bag once both are sufficiently rehydrated. If you find that you have a problem with meals rehydrating enough for your taste, remember that all of them can be added to a pot of boiling water and cooked to rehydrate.

One of the greatest advantages in making my own meals, besides the cost, is that I can make the meals as large as I want. I usually make some of them rather large and mark them as such ("big meal"). These I reserve for days that I know I will be walking a long way and will be very hungry. I make smaller meals as well, which allows me to pack two bags, a main course and a side dish, when I want variety. Best of all there are usually no dishes to wash, nothing to clean up, making them perfect for ultralight desert backpacking where water and weight are so important.

Back to Top
Page 1: Commercial Meals and Making Your Own
Page 2: Resources
Page 3: Recipes- Breakfast, Side Dishes
Page 4: Recipes- Dinners and Main Dishes
Page 5: Recipes- Single Pot Meals
Page 6: A New Look at Snacks and Backpack Meals

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