Backcountry Grub: DIY, Freeze-Dried or Dehydrated Meals?
November 08, 2016
An army marches on its stomach. So said Napoleon. The same principle can be applied to the hunter who spends the season well past the parking lot.
An extended backcountry hunt requires much advance planning, and a lot of that forethought should go into what kind of sustenance will keep the hunter going, especially on extremely difficult hunts for elk, sheep, caribou, and bear.
Without proper nutrition, a hunter could crash in the backcountry and end up eating nothing but tag soup.
No doubt about it: A hunter is going to lose weight on a backcountry hunt, but maintaining enough energy to climb that mountain day after day requires maximum caloric intake.
The most common option comes in the form of foil pouches prepackaged with freeze-dried meals. They offer simple, just-add-water preparation and high calories, if not always the best in nutrition. Cheaper alternatives include making your own dehydrated meals and relying on those classic foods that have kept hunters going for decades.
In my opinion, the best backcountry meal plan incorporates all three. By mixing-and-matching pieces from each category, hunters can create a healthy and tasty meal plan that's sure to satisfy. Done right, a hunter increases the odds of coming back from a hunt with a full belly and heavy pack.
Off The Shelf
There has been an explosion of freeze-dried food-makers in recent years (thanks, preppers!), and a quick search on Google will bring up dozens of companies offering hundreds of different backcountry-eating options.
If you're willing to spring for foreign shipping charges, a virtual hop across the pond to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where camping and overlanding is big business, will source you even more.
Among all of these offerings are a few major players, several promising startups, and a whole pack of also-rans. The companies that have been in the business for decades, and take up the most shelf space in big-box sporting goods stores, offer proven appeal, while the fresh players bring a modern nod to healthful nutrition and international taste. Together, they create a selection large enough that even the pickiest hunter is sure to find something he likes.
The biggest name in freeze-dried foods got its start with a military contract to feed soldiers during Vietnam. After the conflict, a burgeoning backpacking movement made them the popular choice for eating far from the trailhead. That half-century history, along with home-cooked flavors, makes them the proven leader, but don't expect anything fancy.
Pros: Easy. Calorie dense. Nuclear-winter shelf life.
Cons: Basic recipes. High sodium content. Not inexpensive.
Favorites: Beef Stroganoff, Sweet & Sour Pork, Biscuits & Gravy
Founded in 1979, the company has fostered a younger, hipper following in recent years with several rebranding efforts. Don't let all that flash sway you, however, as they make some pretty mean meals, combining both freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients into each stand-and-fill pouch. A wide range of products include meals that are all natural, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, and, for the hunter who is really confused, vegan.
Pros: Slim packaging. Wide selection. Healthy (relatively).
Cons: Bland. Vegan options.
Favorites: Black Bart Chili, Beef Burrito Bowl, Cinnamon Apple Crisp
The old lady of the bunch, Backpacker's Pantry started its life feeding Girl Scouts in 1951. Now a dominant player in the freeze-dried food category, it caters to those who demand lightweight, flavorful food options. Among the Big 3, they come in a solid third place in terms of taste, with problems when it comes
to cooking time and rehydration. Also, they have donated to Defenders of Wildlife in the past, and company statements
regarding support of hunting are noncommittal. Be warned.
Pros: Lightweight. Interesting recipes. Bold flavors.
Cons: Inconsistent rehydration. Sketchy support for hunters.
Favorites: Coconut Beans & Rice, Chicken Vindaloo, CrÃ¨me BrÃ»lée
New Kids on the Block
As an evolutionary sports nutritionist and certified psychology of eating coach, founder Heather Kelly knows a few things about food. Lucky for us, she's also an adventurer and turned that knowledge into a company producing some of the most innovative grub for the backcountry. Killer ingredients include quail, wild sockeye salmon, and nilgai, giving these delicious meals some real-world street cred. The portions are a bit smaller, especially for hunters who spend all day on the trail of an elk herd.
Pros: Wild-game options. Quality ingredients. Lightweight packaging.
Cons: Smallish servings. Pricey.
Favorites: Smoked Sockeye Chowder, Mom's Pasghetti, Five-Spice Packaroons
When a four-star chef decides to go backpacking, the results are probably the closest you'll come to made-at-home flavors and consistency on a backcountry hunt. They're made from all fresh ingredients that have been dehydrated (not freeze-dried) with quality herbs and spices. Lower in sodium than most other options on the market with no additives or preservatives. A small kitchen does limit choices to just a few.
Pros: Best tasting. Excellent consistency. Fresh flavors.
Cons: Long rehydration time. Limited selections. Expensive.
Favorites: Thai Curry, Smoked Three-Bean Chili
Paleo Meals To Go
Today, the backcountry is awash with hunter-athletes, who spend the off-season doing CrossFit, eating paleo, and preaching the benefit of both to everyone within earshot. Now they've got something new to brag about: an entire line of dehydrated meals designed around the paleo diet. Heavy on protein and good fat, low in carbs and sugar, these are perfect for fitness fanatics or anyone who wants and needs to eat clean on hunts far from the trailhead.
Pros: Ingredients you can pronounce. Real food texture. Paleo.
Cons: Expensive. Slim portions. Paleo.
Favorites: Summit Savory Chicken, Cliffside Coconut Berry
The Rest of the Best
There are at least a dozen other food companies hunters might come across in their search for healthy, filling, and flavorful meals for hunts deep in the woods. MaryJanesFarm, Patagonia Provisions, and Packit Gourmet are three brands with niche popularity. Sandwich lovers might stash a few of the scary-looking, but not horrible, options from Bridgford, and, of course, there's always the standard mil-spec MREs for those operators who miss the taste of the sandbox.
DIY Dinner, Breakfast & Lunch
For short-term hunts beyond the trailhead, grabbing a few freeze-dried packages off the shelf is often an easy option. On longer hunts, those from four to fourteen days, buying a packload of Mountain House meals gets expensive. The thing is, making your own backcountry meals is simpler than you think and doesn't require a lot of extra equipment. They do take time, but the benefits — in terms of both cost and health — are worth it, as is the satisfaction of doing it yourself.
When it comes to what kinds of meals to make at home, the only limit is your imagination. Sure, a grilled steak dinner complete with baked potato might be tough, but you'll have a close approximation by mixing some sliced-up elk jerky with a pack of potato flakes.
Since you'll typically be adding boiling water to rehydrate your ingredients, it helps to think in terms of soups, stews, and other moist dishes. From there, memorable backcountry meals just require a trip to the grocery store and some time to dehydrate and package everything together.
Drying food doesn't require special equipment, and most meals can be made in a standard home oven. Hunters who plan to get serious about making backcountry meals at home should invest in a high-quality dehydrator.
Commercial-grade models, such as those sold by Cabela's, allow hunters to dry food in large batches and are mostly hassle-free. Cheaper models work, but they could require rotating trays to ensure everything dries evenly and take some babysitting to prevent under- or overcooking.
Don't overlook the grocery store when planning a backcountry hunt. You'll find meal ideas in almost every aisle, from quick-cooking rice and noodle dishes to spice packets and packable condiments (which you can also pilfer from fast-food joints).
Specialty stores and natural food grocers often sell dried fruits, vegetables, and other ingredients in bulk, lowering the cost and saving time for those who don't want to dehydrate their own food. Tuna, salmon, and chicken are available in slim, vacuum-sealed packs that weigh very little. Don't overlook instant breakfasts, powdered milk, butter, and, yes, even ramen as go-to foods for your hunts.
Some meals can be made first then dehydrated together, but because moisture content is different for every ingredient, the results are often lackluster. It makes more sense to dry everything separately and then assemble the meals after, which also gives you more options in terms of recipes. During the off-season, dehydrate diced or minced vegetables and cooked meat in big batches and then store them in airtight jars.
When hunting season rolls around, spend a day or two putting together individual meals from these ingredients and prepackaging them in vacuum-sealed or zip-top bags.
Freeze-Dried vs. Dehydrated
Making food lightweight, packable, and shelf-stable means removing the bulk of its moisture. There are two ways to go about that: freeze-drying and dehydrating. Each has benefits and downsides. Here's a quick and dirty look at the difference.
Food is placed under vacuum and subjected to super-cold temperatures, where the water turns to vapor and dissipates. It requires special, expensive equipment, which often translates to the high price of the end product. However, the process removes up to 98 percent of the water, resulting in lighter overall weight, and preserves most vitamins and nutrients. Freeze-dried foods also reconstitute much quicker and, according to most hunters, taste better.
Done by exposing food to low to moderate heat and, typically, moving air. Dehydration can be done at home in an oven or commercial dehydrator or under the sun, making it a less expensive option than freeze-dried foods. Most dehydrated food tends to shrink or shrivel when moisture is removed, resulting in a smaller end product. Some nutrients are lost due to heat exposure, and rehydration times are often much longer.
Make-at-Home Meal Tips
1. Have fun experimenting with recipes, but sample everything before the hunt. Five miles from the trailhead isn't the time to find out your concoction is inedible or, worse yet, causes explosive diarrhea.
2. Count calories. A hard day of hunting burns up to 6,000 calories that you'll need to replace. Opt for carbs and fats that are calorie-dense. Aim for 100 calories per ounce.
3. When planning a make-at-home meal, start with a carbohydrate base and build around it with vegetables, fats, and spices.
4. Cut fruits and vegetables into equal-size pieces before dehydration. Smaller pieces will dry faster and rehydrate faster.
5. Blanching vegetables before drying preserves flavor, texture, and color.
6. For drying small or wet ingredients, buy tray liners or use parchment paper to keep everything in place.
7. Cook ground or shredded meat using a moist method, such as in a sauce, before dehydrating.
8. Fat or oil from meat can turn rancid in the field. Be sure to blot it off as it dehydrates.
9. Moisture not only adds weight, but also is a breeding ground for bacteria. Make sure all of your ingredients are as dry
10. Don't forget to label your bags and include cooking directions, serving size, and calorie count.
1. Jerky — Humans have been living on dried meat for centuries, and nothing beats fueling up on the flesh of the game you're after. Skip the store-bought stuff and make your own.
2. Peanut Butter — High in fat and calories, it's the original energy goo. Fill squeezable tubes at home or find single-serving packets at the grocery. Justin's Nut Butters are a favorite.
3. GORP — Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts. A fistful of trail mix will power you up that last incline. Create a personalized batch with M&Ms, coconut flakes, and other adds.
4. Energy Gels — Too bad no one really knows what's in these, but they're fast fuel for hunters on the go.
5. Sports Bars — PowerBar, Clif Bar, Luna. Whatever name they go by, sports bars are a must-have for hunters, even if one just lives in the bottom of your pack for several seasons.
6. Powdered Drinks — From hot cocoa to Gatorade, some type of drink flavoring is a welcome taste after drinking nothing but creek water for a week.
7. Hard Candy — Say sorry to your elk guide after whiffing that shot with a token gift of a cinnamon disk or a butterscotch.
8. Cheese — Hard cheeses, such as manchego, cheddar, and pecorino wrapped in wax paper, will last a lot longer than you think.
9. Pemmican — Made from pounded, dried meat, nuts, and berries, it's the original granola bar.
10. Bourbon — Whether for celebrating success or drowning sorrows, a small flask is worth the extra weight.