How to Never Eat Crappy Freeze-dried Backpacking Meals Again (Or: How to Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Food)




Hiking is my 'thing.' I love seeing amazing things that I couldn't possibly have seen from inside a car. Having a one-year-old to cart around hasn't stopped me yet either - so far our major trips have included the Tour du Mont Blanc (when she was eight weeks old) and most of the Dingle Way in Ireland when she was 10 months. Here she on a humid day on the Kalalau trail on Kauai at six months old.

I realized I was 'done' with conventional freeze-dried meals when I was backpacking with a friend in Haleakala about a decade ago now. We had traveled separately and each brought our own food. At the end of a long day of hiking we prepared our meals - a freeze-dried meal from a major manufacturer for me, and an MRE for him, as he was in the Marines at the time. MREs are not widely reknowned for their nuanced flavor palettes, but I kid you not - his meal was better than mine.

I started brainstorming potential solutions and realized I could dehydrate my own prepared meals. The main benefits are that I can control the flavorings (I like assertive flavor/spice, but not heat) and salt (most freeze-dried meals are almost inedibly salty). I can also easily include vegetables for nutritional value. Last but not least - they taste good!

11/2/15 Update: A belated thanks for voting for my Instructable in the Camping Food contest - I won a runner-up prize! If you're interested, the trip report for the Breckenridge to Aspen hike - for which I made these meals, is up on my blog. (Sadly Wordpress won't let me put them in chronological order, so start reading at the bottom...)

4/19/18 Update: If you're interested in backpacking with children, you might like to check out a couple of related podcast episodes I recently released on this topic on the benefits of outdoor play, and on How to Raise a Wild Child - these look at the scientific research behind the benefits of being outdoors for children.

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Step 1: Choose Your Recipe

A key lesson I learned early on is that chunks of meat do not dry very well; they get hard on the outside before they dry out in the middle. Best case scenario is that your meal tastes nasty; worst case is that you get salmonella or E. coli while you're on a backpacking trip, potentially days away from help. So pick a recipe that will be OK with ground meat, even if it's not conventionally served that way (example: chicken tikka masala). Any kind of meat (or textured vegetable protein, if you like) in sauce is a good bet. I tried tofu once a long time ago, and I think it didn't come out well. I seem to recall chewy pieces of tofu that didn't really rehydrate properly.

I like recipes that have a protein 'base' with a carb side or topping of some kind. If you're on a multi-day trip and all your base meals are ground meat in different kinds of sauce, it's nice to have more variety in toppings. I try to pick a selection of meals that go with rice, mashed potatoes, noodles, biscuits, etc.

I also add vegetables to the base even if the meal wouldn't normally have them there as a way to make sure I get enough fiber to keep things moving through the system. An alternate approach would be to use individually packed freeze-dried vegetables, although I think they're expensive and I haven't tried them so I can't vouch for the taste.

Step 2: Prepare the Base Meal

The base is the protein component. Here I'm cooking the base for the English classic Shepherd's Pie. There are lots of versions of this recipe; here is a good one:

A key step in every recipe you make occurs after you brown the meat: you must then drain the fat. Excess fat in a dehydrated meal will go rancid. I pour the whole lot into a colander (over a bowl, the contents of which are then thrown in the trash - you don't want all that fat solidifying in your drains), and press down on it to extract more fat. After putting it back in the pan, I "wipe" the food and the base of the pan with 2-3 paper towels to absorb as much fat as possible.

If your recipe does not start by browning aromatics and then meat you'll need to reorganize it so it does, or plan to drain the meat at some other point in the process before you start adding flavorings and spices.

Once you think the dish is ready, taste it in the pan and add salt/pepper/more seasonings as needed. In general you want the food to be slightly over-seasoned as it seems to lose a bit of flavor in the dehydrating process. Make sure it tastes good. If you don't like it now, you won't like it when it's been dehydrated and rehydrated.

Step 3: Blend

Put 1/3 to 1/2 of the food in a blender. When I prepared these photos some years back for a little tutorial (pre-Instructables!) for a friend we had a crappy old blender so I could only blend small quantities at a time. Now we have a Vitamix that could technically do the whole lot at once but I still only do half batches. The key here is that you want the pieces of meat and vegetables to be evenly sized so they dry at the same rate, but not so small that they essentially become a slurry (which is not good to eat...I know from experience). Packing the whole meal into the Vitamix at once would yield pieces at the bottom that were too small while the stuff floating on top wouldn't be small enough. You can add quite a lot of water if your meal is dry to help things move in the blender - maybe a cup or more per batch.

PULSE for just a second, stop and evaluate, and pulse again as needed. I can't over-state how little you will likely need to process the food. I usually do 2-3 one-second pulses.

Step 4: Dehydrate

You could probably do this step in the oven, but I haven't tried it.

I have an American Harvest FD-50 dehydrator, which I like, but other brands/models will do the job just as well. I got a couple of extra trays for it (the four trays it comes with may not be enough for a full meal) and you will also need one fruit roll sheet per tray.

Place a fruit roll sheet onto each tray, and divide the meal evenly among the sheets. Spread it so it just covers the fruit roll sheet; if you spread it too thick it won't dry properly.

Turn the dial to the appropriate temperature setting for meat. Mine is pictured in the laundry room so I can close the door because I find the fan annoying.

Step 5: Come Back in 12 Hours

(Go and watch a season of Game of Thrones or something.)

Step 6: Remove the Meal From the Dehydrator Trays

Prise the meal off the trays with your fingers and put the pieces in a bowl. It's important to use your fingers as this allows you to feel and check that the food is properly dehydrated. It should feel and sound crispy. If it feels damp at all, remove any crispy pieces and spread out the damp pieces on the tray, turning them over so the damp sides face up. Dehydrate for several more hours, until everything coming out of the dehydrator feels and sounds crispy.

Step 7: Package

Break up the pieces in a bowl - I sometimes use a large mortar and pestle for this. The crispy pieces are quite pointy and they really do a number on zip lock bags - resulting in pieces of dinner floating around in your backpack. I prefer to put them in vacuum sealed bags, which also saves space in your pack. I do all my sealing at once, so I do put the meal I just made in a zip lock while I prepare and dehydrate the next one. Make sure you label the bags as you go; it's shocking how similar Shepherds Pie and Chicken Tikka Masala look once they're dehydrated.

Weigh into individual servings if you're traveling alone (I use about 3oz per meal for a 135lb woman) or if you made a full meal for a group, just package it all together.

Also package your side dish (separately from the base) - instant mashed potatoes, in this case. Over-estimate the serving size from what's listed on the mashed potato box (i.e. perhaps double) as you'll have burned a lot of calories when you sit down to eat this.

Package the food with rehydration instructions, and make them especially clear if you're traveling with a group. That way anyone can prepare dinner each night without detailed input from you. In general my instruction is to cover the base component with sufficient water to cover and then simmer until rehydrated, adding more water as necessary to achieve the desired consistency. If you're trying to save fuel, the fastest fuel-saving way to get to dinner is to heat the dinner in the water until hot, and then turn off the stove and let it sit for a while before heating again. If you have time, you can also give it a head start by soaking the meal in cold water before you start heating.

Also include instructions for the side dish, including how much measured liquid to add. I like to print these (for readability) and slip them inside the pouches before vacuum sealing, so there's no way they can get lost. I title each one "Shepherds Pie - Bag 1 of 2" so the camp cook knows they're working with all of the components.

Step 8: Go on Your Trip!

Here are a week's worth of dinners for a backpacking trip I'm doing with my one year-old daughter and two friends in two weeks - we plan to hike from Breckenridge to Aspen, staying in the 10th Mountain Division huts. I took this photo to show my friends, which is why it also shows the compostable diapers we will carry - the meals have since been shipped to various points along the trail so we don't have to carry them all. Each meal for 3 1/2 people weighs about 1 1/2 lbs. You can also see the instant soup I like to bring as a pre-meal snack.

Our full menu includes:

1. Shepherd's pie and (instant) mashed potatoes

2. Chili and (instant) rice with powdered sour cream

3. Chicken Pot Pie with a Bisquick topping (recipe from Lipsmackin' Backpackin' by Tim and Christine Connors)

4. Chicken Tikka Masala with (instant) rice (do NOT add the cream to the sauce; just make the tomato sauce and take powdered cream with you)

5. Tamale Pie (a bit like chili but with different spices and a topping that's a cross between polenta and biscuit) (Recipe from Lipsmackin' Backpackin')

6. Bolognese with angel hair pasta - I use the Weeknight Pasta Bolognese behind Cooks Illustrated's pay-wall

7. Beef Stroganoff with egg noodles (again, don't add the cream - take powdered cream with you)

I hope this is helpful! It's my first I'ble so let me know if anything isn't clear and I will try to clarify...

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    54 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I do a lot of these and I have used TVP ( textured vegetable protein) instead of meat as a substitute with a beef boluion added in for the beff flavour .. My meaty friends did not know the difference and worked great cuz there are already dehydrated !

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    Thanks for the thought, Raszberry. I've done TVP + bouillon (or English-style beef flavored gravy granules work very well to add a meat flavor, and - rather disturbingly - they contain no meat products) as well. The main reason I usually stick to meat is because I find the TVP doesn't have enough calories to sustain me after a long day of hiking so if anyone's considering doing this, be sure to bump up your food volume (or add oil to the rehydrated product) rather than assuming a 1:1 substitution will be satisfying.


    3 years ago

    I had a thought that could help with meat issues, and add more texture. You could probably leave the meat out at the beginning of a lot of recipes and instead make some sort of jerky to add to it later. You could package multiple different types of meats that way and mix and match them with the sauce type portions, wouldn't have to worry as much about fat or moisture inside the meat, and you get the texture of the meat. It might be a little tough if you don't cook it for long enough, though.

    1 reply

    Thanks for the thought, Sunshine - I actually tried some of these meals with chunks of meat before arriving at the ground meat versions - unfortunately they were truly terrible. It seems as though once you jerk-ify a piece of meat it does not want to become easily unjerkified - the chunks refused to rehydrate and from what I remember (it was a long time ago) I ended up with chunks of awfulness in my meal. Maybe if you kept it separate like you suggest then you could boil it for a while to try to get it rehydrated without totally burning your sauce to the bottom of the pan.

    Another alternative would be to make a vegetarian dinner and serve it alongside jerky, although personally I find most jerky to be excessively salty and not something I want to eat in sufficient portions as to have it make up a reasonable amount of my daily calories. If weight was less of an issue (e.g. if you were kayaking) then you could take canned meat.

    Happy camping!


    3 years ago

    Hi, I have dehydrated food and found a good step to include is sterilization. Once your meals are ready to pack or ship, put them in your freezer for 24 hours. They're tightly sealed, so don't worry about them picking up moisture in the freezer. Remove from freezer and Spread them on a towel. Once they are room temperature, dry off any condensate, pack and ship. These also will keep for a year, maybe more in a cool, dry, dark place (think potato storage)

    1 reply

    Hi hiskingdominme - thanks for the comment. I had thought that freezing did not sterilize:

    • Freezing stops the growth of microorganisms; however, it does not sterilize foods or destroy the organisms that cause spoilage. A few organisms may die, but once thawed to warmer temperatures, these organisms can quickly multiply. (Source:

    Freezing will aid preservation for as long as the food remains frozen, but I don't think it will sterilize the food.

    Mark A L

    4 years ago on Introduction

    NOTE: rapeseed oil, aka 'canola oil' may be good for your heart but it is a carcinogen (can cause cancer) it has been genetically modified to produce it's own insecticide so farmers won't have to buy insecticide increasing their profits and it can't be washed off because it is in the plant instead of on it.

    it is promoted as healthy so people will buy it watch the video

    "The world according to Monsanto",

    I would suggest an organic vegetable oil of your choice.

    8 replies
    nwonharpMark A L

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Try using olive oil , it is very healthy ( although , being more expensive than canola or or other oils ) It kind of adds it's own flavor ( which I like ) After all, what is your health worth ? Take olive oil with you , it " keeps " well in a bottle .

    Cheers , take care , and have a good day !


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    A little humor here , if Popeye the Sailor found out that I was eating Olive Oyl , he would probably reach for a can of spinach ......oh well ....

    wolfkeeperMark A L

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    No, there's absolutely no evidence that any food-type rapeseed oil of any description is carcinogenic, nor has it been genetically modified to produce *insecticides*.

    Some rapeseed has been genetically modified to be herbicide (specifically glyphosate) resistant, but that's quite different; it doesn't produce any herbicide itself (the regulators would never, ever allow that on the market, nor one that makes insecticides and no faintly reputable company would make it either), instead it doesn't die when herbicide is sprayed; and in fact the GM plant actively destroys the herbicide within it.

    Anyway, if you're going to add an oil, add whatever oil you prefer- although I would recommend against the use of very easily oxidised, perishable oils; they at least really can be carcinogenic.


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    There is some canola that is engineered to produce the BT derived cry1Ac protein, which indeed is an insecticide. There is also a sprayable version of the BT, which is used more like a classic pesticide. In this case, the engineered version does contain the protein and it cannot be washed off. This BT canola has also been approved in numerous countries for widespread use, such as indicated by the EPA here:

    Great point though, choosing an oil that is not oxidized is the right way to go.


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Typical oil from the grocery has been "washed" with a solvent courtesy of the petrochemical industry, typically hexane. Then the hexane is recovered in a distillation process, so that very little hexane is left in the consumer product. No proteins are dissolved with the hexane wash, only oils are. As such, a person with a soy sensitivity can eat soy oil - this is because there is no soy protein in a soy oil.

    Canola oil (from the rapeseed plant) does not contain proteins, of a bug-killing variety or any other. The claim that the insecticide cannot be washed off is assuming that we are rinsing the exterior of the plant with water. We do not eat the canola plant, we do not get oil from the canola plant. We get oil from the canola seed.

    To avoid the hexane wash, a consumer must spend the extra $$$ to buy "cold-pressed" oils; a much more expensive mechanical process is used for these oils. Hexane solvents are not involved with cold-pressed oils.


    4 years ago on Step 8

    It would be well worth taking (rapeseed) cooking oil with you, reducing the portion size, somewhat and then adding a little oil during cooking.

    That helps because you've defatted the meal during the dehydration process, also calorie for calorie the oil is lighter to carry, and the meal will be more satisfying and the rapeseed is high in omega-3 and monounsaturates.

    It's also cheaper.

    3 replies

    Reply 4 years ago on Step 8

    I have never heard of "rapeseed" cooking oil before. Did you mean "GRAPESEED" cooking oil?


    Reply 4 years ago on Step 8

    No, rapeseed oil, often known as 'canola oil' in North America. It's oil derived from rapeseed. It's pretty healthy, has lots of omega-3 etc. but it's not very exciting tastewise, but if added to food that isn't a problem, and it's very inexpensive and stores well.

    Alternatively you could use something like extra virgin olive oil,