Overall, we want our meals to be as whole as possible, without preservatives and chemicals. We want food that is nutritious, devoid of animal products, ethically produced, inexpensive, and readily available. We also want our food to be tasty and meet our desire for variety. But as backpackers, we also seek meals that are lightweight, compact, durable, and unlikely to spoil. By dehydrating our own food, we can easily meet these criteria.
We don't always know exactly what we'd like to take on a trip, but we've always got backpacking meals in the backs of our minds in case inspiration strikes. We'll purposefully make more food than we need for a dinner at home and dehydrate the leftovers after prepping them for dehydration. We look for fruits and vegetables on our market's "death row" (discount rack) or on sale and dehydrate them in batches. Best of all, we dehydrate the wonderful bounty from our household garden and the gardens of our friends. As a result, we always have bags of dehydrated whole meals, various fruits and veggies, and homemade mixes ready to put in our bear canister for an outing.
Not everything we take backpacking is dehydrated from home. Great options include the many suitable and inexpensive foods that can be found at supermarkets, ethnic food markets, and online markets: instant pudding mixes, noodles, soymilk powders, hot chocolate mixes, and spices as well as commercially available freeze-dried foods such as potato flakes and beans that would not otherwise be good candidates for dehydrating.
We prefer to use Ziploc freezer bags. Usually, Snack, Pint and Quart size.For us, they seem to strike the best balance for our needs:
1. reusable and recyclable
4. readily available
We use an Excalibur dehydrator. It's made right here in California, has a great track record, and costs about $120 for a four-shelf model. If you want to start off with a smaller investment, look around Craigslist or at your local secondhand stores for a cheap, used dehydrator. You can easily get started by buying dried or dehydrated components and simply mixing them. Veggie mixes from Just Tomatoes can be combined with ramen packets for a simple, inexpensive, and light meal. Using instant oatmeal combined with dried figs, brown sugar, and a bit of peanut butter is a good way to start getting acquainted with dried foods.
Portions are not always easy to figure out. We started keeping notes on how our meals turned out in the backcountry and whether our portions were too small or too large. When it comes to dehydrating whole meals, we realized that the best way to determine portions was to use our cookset. Our cookset is a dual-use frypan and lid. When we're backpacking, we prepare our meals in the pan and, for a two-person meal, we will fill it up to the bottom lip. That amount of food had been working out well for us, so we started using the cookset to measure portions for dehydrating as well. We just fill up the pan, and that is one meal for two people. From there, it goes right into the dehydrator.
Many whole meals are just fine for backpacking, but there are a few things we try to bear in mind. Not everything rehydrates at the same pace. For instance, Tofurkey is much slower than pasta. So, if we have it in mind to dehydrate a portion of tonight's Tofurkey and pasta with marinara sauce dinner, we'll either cut up the Tofurkey into much smaller chunks, maybe 1/4" diced, or set aside a portion of the Tofurkey to be dehydrated - and rehydrated - separately. Usually, we just cut up two Italian Tofurkey dogs into 1/4" rounds for dehydrating.
In our Tofurkey with pasta and marinara sauce example, we know from previous experience that we use about 1.5 cups of marinara sauce, or 1/2 jar. So, we put the 1/2 jar of marinara sauce on the stove, the rest onto a solid dehydrator tray. We grab the thinly sliced Tofurkey and throw it onto a mesh dehydrator try and, when the pasta is ready, we set our portioned pasta onto two mesh trays, as pasta for two of us doesn't all fit on one tray.
We've never gotten tofu to rehydrate well unless it has been mashed up or broken into smaller than 1/8" pieces, even when added to a Tofu Scramble. Mostly, denser food items are cut into smaller pieces while less dense items can be bigger. We follow this process for couscous, hash browns, and similar food items.
Dehydrating single items
Determining single food items portions is different. For rice, pasta, and similar foods, we use regular portions when we prepare them. For instance, for a regular meal at home, the amount of uncooked rice that we prepare is about 2 cups - 1 cup for dinner, 1 cup for dehydrating. When the rice is done, we'll scoop half of that onto the dehydrator. Your mileage may vary, but you get the idea.
When we're dehydrating veggies, we just chop them up and write down what we're putting in the dehydrator. Two squash and two zucchini? We cut them in half, slice them about 1/4" thick and toss 'em in. Onions, peppers, tomatoes and many vegetables can be prepared this way.
Once the dehydrating is complete, we let the food cool and then place it into bags for easy organization and identification. We write directly on the bag with a Sharpie how much of what is inside. Information we have found to be important to write on the bags include the following:
1) Date dehydrated
2) What is in the bag and number of portions
After dehydrating, or when preparing for a trip add:
3) Other meal components necessary to complete the meal
4) Preparation instructions
We store our dehydrated food in a cool, dry, dark place until we're ready to pack them up for a trip.
Of all the ways to prepare a meal in the backcountry, rehydrating is neither the fastest nor the simplest. But taking some extra time preparing a meal while setting up camp or admiring your environment isn't so bad either. In fact, we find it to be relaxing and meditative. We can also prepare a wider variety of vegan backpacking meals that are tailored to our specific tastes and portion sizes. We don't have to rely on what commercial or ready-made products are available. We've also really enjoyed experimenting. In fact, our wedding cake was a fluke. We had intended to make sweet biscuits, but it rose more than we expected, and we ended up with cake!
Related: Storing Dehydrated Backpacking Food