As backpackers, backwoods campers, and overall outdoor enthusiasts, how to pack, store and carry food is one of the things we spend the most time planning. Especially if you're like me and like to be out more than a few days at a time, how do we overcome the challenge of having sufficient food? Dehydrated food is great for anyone who doesn't carry a cooler into the wilderness. Additionally, making it as home can save a ton of money!
Dehydrating food is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Long before refrigeration, people were drying food, with the techniques being passed down over generations. Today we can make use of these old traditional methods, or go with modern techniques. However you choose to do it, dehydrating your own food for your camping or backpacking trip is satisfying and has many benefits.
Health and Nutrition:
As with any preservation or cooking method, dehydrating food does cause the food to lose some vitamins, mostly vitamins A and C. However the loss is minimal, and there is another thing to consider. Pound for pound, dried food is more densely packed with vitamins, minerals and calories than other foods (Keep in mind, out in the wilderness, calories is a GOOD thing, and in fact, required). If you carry a half a pound of fresh apples and get 50 calories, or a half pound of dried apples and get 250 calories, which sounds like the better way to go? And let's not forget the increased concentration of vitamins and minerals.
Dried food also has the benefit of longer term storage without refrigeration. Wetness attracts mold growth, yeast growth and bacteria growth. Without this moisture, dried food will keep longer without spoiling; a clear benefit out on the trails or at your remote backwoods camp.
Benefits to making dehydrated food for hiking, backpacking and camping:
- It's light weight which makes it easy to pack and carry.
- Home made dehydrated foods are much cheaper than store bought
- You can use your favorite foods and seasonings and make it however want
- You can add whatever amount of meats, vegetables and starches that you like
- Dried foods have no preservatives
- They store well and stay fresh for a long time
- Light weight and easy to pack, and takes up much less space
- Easy to prepare
- Packed full of the nutrients and calories needed to keep you going out in the backwoods
- Did I mention, your own home made dehydrated food Tastes darn good?
Some Tips and Considerations
Think about this. Often we're out on the trails eating ramen or some other easy to prepare, pre-packaged food loaded with salt or other preservatives. But if you make your own dehydrated foods, you can dry just about anything and choose the foods you have with you. Meats, chicken, fruits, veggies, all of these things dry just fine. Some guys even dehydrate tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, and things like this. The only limit seems to be your imagination and ingenuity!
I like to make my meals an all in one deal. For dinner, throw some rice, some dried meat and veggies all in a zipper top bag, toss in your favorite seasonings and you have a one package, one pot meal for the camp or backpack trail. Just add some boiling water and you're set! How about adding your own dried fruit to some oatmeal for breakfast in the morning? The boiling water will rehydrate the fruit and make it tender and tasty. Not to mention, less chemicals and preservatives and more healthy vitamins than the store bought stuff, and at a lower price.
Methods of Dehydrating food
Foods are usually dried using one of three common methods. You can use an electric food dehydrator like the highly recommended Excalibur Food Dehydrators. These are probably the easiest and most efficient to use as far as time goes.
Solar dehydrating is another option. Some people will put there foods out on trays in the sunlight, but bugs and such can be a problem. The solution is to build a solar dehydrator or buy a commercially available unit. The biggest and most obvious advantage to using solar energy is that it's free! This can save considerably over running an electric dehydrator or an oven for hours on end. The down side is that if you live in an area with inconsistent sunshine and temperatures, your food will probably mold before it dries.
Drying food can also be done in a conventional oven, which most of you have already right in your kitchen. The fact that you already have the equipment makes this the most practical way of getting started experimenting with food dehydrating. Over time, however, an oven is much less efficient to run than an electric dehydrator, and an oven is more difficult to keep in the low temperature range needed for dehydrating. Use an oven thermometer to test and see if you can keep your oven in ranges as low as 120 degrees up to 200 degrees.
Tips for Dehydrating Food at Home
An electric food dehydrator is a self contained unit with a heating element and ventilation to let the moisture out. This method of drying has the highest initial investment, but it provides the nicest end product in the least amount of time. After all, unlike an oven, this is the job it was designed to do, and do well if you select the right one. Again the Excalibur Dehydrators consistently get rave reviews and in fact is what I use along with my home made solar unit.
Drying times can vary greatly, no matter what method you use. Humidity in the air, amount of food, moisture content of food and air circulation can all have an influence. Using too low of a temperature can let the food dry too slowly, allowing microbes to start growing, possibly resulting in food spoiling. Starting with too high a temperature can dry the outside of the food too quickly, trapping moisture on the inside of the food. Also too high a temperature near the end of the drying period can lead to scorching.
I recommend starting around 140-150 degrees F, then adjusting the temperature downward at the food dries, finishing around 120 degrees. But again, each situation, and even each day can be different, so practice and experiment and you'll soon be an expert. It sounds a lot harder than it is.
Whether using trays in an oven, our outside in the solar dehydrator or sunlight, or in your electric dehydrator, remember that air circulation is key. Space the food out evenly on the trays. Use wire racks so air can circulate underneath the food. In an oven, make sure there are gaps between the edges of the tray and the oven walls to allow air to move around.
Use wire racks of some kind, and use a non stick spray or an oil to keep the dried food from sticking. Only dry up to 5 pounds of food at a time in an oven. More will introduce too much moisture into the environment. Move food around every few hours because different areas may dry at different rates.
After Your Food is Dried
Experience will teach you when food is dried enough, and it's better to over dry than under dry.
Fruits are dry when they get leathery and no moisture can be squeezed from them.
Vegetables are dry when either brittle or leathery. Leathery vegetables will flex and spring back into shape. Corn and beans and such will shatter if hit with something hard like a rock.
Meats should be very dry. They should have a little flex, but will break, and when broken it will form sharp points.
After dehydrating, condition the food by taking the following steps: Allow your food to cool on racks. Place the food in food grade non-pourous containers, about !54 of the way full. Store this way for about two weeks, shaking the contents on a daily basis. Check the inside of the lid for condensation. If there is any, return the food to the dehydrator immediately. During this whole process, check for spoilage or mold. If you find any, destroy the product!
Store your dried foods in airtight food quality containers. Vacuum sealed plastic food grade bags work well also. Package the food in small quantities, so that a whole batch won't become contaminated if something happens. Store in a cool, dry and dark area, as exposure to light or humidity will decrease the shelf life of the product.
These final steps will ensure you have safe, yummy and healthy meals for your camping and backpacking trips.