DIY Backpacking Meals

Whether you’re just getting started with your backpacking hobby or have already explored the great backpacking routes of the world, you may have realized that something is lacking in the world of packaged backpacking food. Either they’re too expensive, too bland, or too artificial. The good news is that making your own DIY dehydrated backpacking meals is not as complicated as it seems! Read on for all the pointers you need. Plus, we’ll provide you with a few DIY backpacking recipes to get you started.

Method #1: Dehydrate a Home-Cooked Recipe

There are generally 2 approaches to assembling a DIY dehydrated backpacking meal. You either prepare a meal at home, dehydrate it and then rehydrate on the trail. Or, you assemble a meal made from individual dehydrated or freeze-dried ingredients. Both have their pros and cons, so we usually bring a combination of meal types on the trail with us.

Dehydrating a recipe that you can make at home is generally the most fool-proof and inexpensive way to go. It doesn’t require you to buy individual dehydrated or freeze-dried ingredients, it just requires your own kitchen equipment plus a good food dehydrator. And you can control the taste of the recipe before your trip, so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised when you’re ravenous on the trail.

Dehydrating Your own Home-Cooked Meals

Dehydrating Your own Home-Cooked Food for Backpacking

The simplest way to get started with DIY dehydrated backpacking meals is to brainstorm a few of your favorite dishes that you can fully cook at home which you can dehydrate using a food dehydrator. To rehydrate on the trail, all you need is a lightweight camping stove, water, and a cooking vessel!

Since the rehydration process will require adding boiling water back to the mix, you’ll want to prepare a dish that is sauce-based and full of hearty ingredients. Stews, pasta, and casseroles work best for this method. 

Cooking your own food at home is the easiest method in terms of simplicity, but it’s by far a more time-consuming option. Not only do you have to cook everything at home first, but dehydrating the final mixture at home can take up to half a day per portion. 

For a week-long trip, you might need to start weeks before you embark on your trip, depending on how many meals you plan to bring with you. If you have the time, we say go for it! 

The Guide to Preparing and Dehydrating Full Meals at Home

The good news for those interested in DIY dehydrated backpacking meals, is that it’s really not rocket science. Some of our favorite dehydrated backpacking recipes that we prepare ahead of time are spaghetti with meat sauce, chili, curry vegetables, but you can generally cook your favorite stew, sauce, and casserole recipes, dehydrate it, crumble it up so that it’s uniformly small, and throw it in your pack to cook on the trail.

While you can generally use your food dehydrator to prepare just about any meal, there are a few crucial adjustments you should make to ensure your meals dehydrate and rehydrate properly.

  1. Don’t use butter or oil when cooking! Doing so will cause problems during the dehydration process. Cook with a little bit of water in the pan only. If you really want, you can bring olive oil packets or powdered butter and add it to the recipe on the trail when you rehydrate the meal.
  2. Use plenty of seasoning. Dehydration will reduce the flavor, so add more seasoning than you normally would to give the food a robust flavor on the trail.
  3. If the recipe includes ground meat, combine it first with plenty of breadcrumbs and seasoning before adding it to the overall recipe. This will help with the rehydration and help prevent the dreaded crunchy or grainy rehydrated meat. 
  4. If the recipe includes noodles, chop them up after cooking, this will help with the dehydration and rehydration process
  5. Let your finished recipe sit overnight in the fridge, will give let the flavors combine, and will allow mixins like pasta or rice to absorb the sauce and flavors.

At-Home Equipment for DIY Dehydrated Backpacking Meals: A Food Dehydrator

The only extra equipment you’ll need for this method is a food dehydrator. There are plenty of low-cost dehydrators available on amazon which will certainly do the trick. If you’re going on a longer trip or know that you’ll be using the food dehydrator many times in the future, you might want to invest in a larger, more high-quality machine. We have this food dehydrator from Cosori and consider it essential backpacker equipment.

Method #2: Assembling Meals using Dehydrated or Freeze-Dried Ingredients

DIY Backpacking Meals

DIY dehydrated backpacking meals

With this method, you can combine various dehydrated or freeze-dried ingredients, and rehydrate them together on the trail to make a complete meal. If you have a variety of freeze-dried or dehydrated ingredients on hand, the combinations are endless! You can still go the full DIY route by dehydrating individual ingredients using a food dehydrator, or you can purchase the dehydrated ingredients in most grocery stores and camping supply stores.

If you plan to make a variety of backpacking meals, you can even purchase sampler kits that include a variety of ingredients. This food sampler from Harmony House includes a variety of beans, dehydrated veggies, and meatless options for vegetarian meals. Another option is this freeze-dried fruit and veggie kit that comes with freeze-dried strawberries, bananas, peas, broccoli, and corn. There are 120 servings in the kit, and you just need to add water to rehydrate. 

At-Home Equipment for DIY Dehydrated Backpacking Meals

Food Dehydrator

Most of the dry ingredients required for these cold soak meals can be found at camping supply stores. However, specialized dehydrated ingredients can be pricey. Investing in a low-cost dehydrator will help you save money in the long run and will allow you to get creative with your ingredients and DIY dehydrated backpacking meals. This food dehydrator comes highly recommended by fellow backpackers and can be found on Amazon for around $50. Or if you know you’ll be relying on dehydrated backpacking food and want to get a more robust machine, this food dehydrator from Cosori comes highly recommended.

Freeze-Dried ingredient sampler pack or a dehydrated ingredient sampler pack

To get started with a variety of meal options, you can start with this food sampler from Harmony House.  It comes with a variety of beans, dehydrated veggies, and meatless options for vegetarian meals. For freeze-dried ingredients, start with this freeze-dried fruit and veggie kit. There are 120 servings in the kit, so you’re bound to be able to come up with some exciting backpacking recipes.

DIY Recipes Using Dehydrated or Freeze-Dried Ingredients

The staple of DIY backpacking food is a good sampling of freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients. After you assemble a good collection of ingredients, you can basically throw things together as you would when cooking your typical dinner at home!

Start with a Base:

  • Dehydrated meat
  • Dehydrated meat-free alternative (tempeh, tofu)
  • Dehydrated beans, lentils, or starchy vegetables (black beans, pinto beans, lentils, potatoes
  • Dehydrated pasta or grains (pasta, couscous, semolina)
    • The smaller the pasta pieces, the better they will rehydrate.
  • Dehydrated rice (Knorr Minute Rice sides are a staple for all backpackers)

Throw in Some Nutrition with:

  • Dehydrated vegetables

Add Flavor

For creating a variety of flavors, there are a few versatile ingredients that will come in handy for your DIY backpacking food

DIY Dehydrated Backpacking Meal Recipes

If you’ll be mixing dry ingredients in a bag to later combine on the trail, you’ll need to give some thought into the recipe. Luckily there are gourmet-loving backpackers out there who have come up with lots of delicious options.

When preparing the mixture, it’s best if you stick to either dehydrated or freeze-dried components within 1 recipe. It is possible to mix and match, but then you’ll have keep an eye on the rehydration time for each ingredient. As a general rule of thumb, freeze-dried ingredients take around 5 minutes to rehydrate, while dehydrated ingredients can take between 10-20 minutes.

Chili con Carne

  • Freeze-dried or dehydrated meat of choice
  • Freeze-dried or dehydrated veggies of choice 
  • Your favorite chili seasoning
  • Knorr’s minute rice
  • Bring cheese on the trail to add to the mixture

Curry with different types of meat

  • Freeze-dried or dehydrated meat of choice
  • Freeze-dried or dehydrated veggies of choice 
  • Knorr’s minute rice
  • Curry, Coriander, and Cumin powder

Chicken Fajitas

Thanksgiving Meal

Pad Thai

Dehydrated vs. Freeze-Dried Ingredients

The starting point for any DIY dehydrated backpacking meal is a selection of freeze-dried or dehydrated ingredients. Both of these methods remove the water weight from your food supply, helping ensure the lightest weight in your pack, and transforming perishable ingredients into a long-lasting food supply. 

Cooking Time

The cooking time varies significantly for dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients. Freeze-dried ingredients are actually much easier to rehydrate than dehydrated ingredients. While the method is generally the same (just add boiling water), the time to cook varies between the two. If you’re planning to combine freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients, keep in mind that freeze-dried ingredients will rehydrate pretty quickly, taking an average of 5 minutes or less. On the other hand, dehydrate ingredients can take closer to 10-20 minutes to fully rehydrate. 

Shelf Life

The shelf life of your meals may also be a concern, which is more relevant if you plan to keep the meals as part of a survival pack in your home. If you intend to consume the food within a couple of months, dehydration should be sufficient. However, if you’re thinking much longer term, you will want to go with freeze-drying. 

Nutritional Value

The other tradeoff between dehydrated backpacking meals and freeze-dried food is the nutritional value. Freeze-dried ingredients retain more of the nutrition compared to DIY dehydrating. Luckily there are plenty of options for freeze-dried food from Trader Joe’s Amazon, and even Costco. We have tried dehydrating canned chicken and it just wasn’t for us. Once we took the plunge and bought a supply of freeze-dried chicken we were much more excited about our DIY backpacking concoctions.

Cost of Dehydrated vs. Freeze-Dried Ingredients

Store-bought freeze-dried ingredients are also significantly more expensive than dehydrated ingredients. If you can afford a home freeze-dryer, you save money in the long run. Dehydrators for DIY backpacking meals are a much more affordable option, but unfortunately, dehydrating cooks out many nutrients. If you’re worried about this, you can always buy bulk freeze-dried meat, vegetables, and fruits in bulk off of amazon. Then all it takes is coming up with a few different combinations, adding flavor, seasoning, and some sauce options. 

So which is better? Freeze-Dried or Dehydrated?

As you can see, if you have the budget, freeze-dried meals are superior to dehydrated meals in terms of nutritional value, shelf life, and time needed to rehydrate (which translates into fuel and water costs). You can read more about the differences between freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients here. It might be all about finding the balance between freeze-dried ingredients that you can buy online, dehydrating some of your own food.

How to Cook your DIY Dehydrated Backpacking Meals on the Trail

How to cook DIY Backpacking Meals on the Trail

How to cook DIY Dehydrated Backpacking Meals on the Trail

Whether you’re bringing a dehydrated stew that you prepared at home, or will be adding a combination of ingredients, cooking your meals on the trail is super easy. Since these are all ‘just add water’ dehydrated backpacking meals, the only cooking equipment you really need is a device to boil water and a cooking vessel. 

Lightweight Camping Stove

The most popular camping stove among backpackers is the Jetboil Stove. We don’t go backpacking without it. It’s lightweight, compact, and simple. It comes with a simple burner and a vessel for preparing boiling water. Another option is this lightweight backpacking stove is under $20 and is popular among the Ultralight Backpacker community. It’s compact and weighs just .96 ounces (25 grams), but don’t forget to factor in the weight of fuel and a cooking vessel.

A Cooking Vessel

Once it’s boiling, you will then just add water to your dehydrated meals or freeze-dried food in a heat-tolerate cooking vessel that you can reseal. The ultralight backpacking option is the prepare the meals in individual bags, which you can later use as the cooking vessel. Of course, you could always cook them over a campfire in a camping pot or a pan, but this would use more fuel. It’s much more energy efficient to boil the water, add it to your mixture, and then let the mixture sit to rehydrate.

You’ll want to prepare your meals in a heat-tolerant vessel, that will retain as much heat as possible during the rehydration process. Each option has pros and cons, so you’ll have to decide based on your preference.

  1. Mylar bags with moisture-absorbing packs Mylar bags are heat tolerant, so you can store your meal in the bags and then just add boiling water directly to the ingredients when on the trail. These bags can tolerate boiling water, are resealable, washable, and reusable. Since rehydration usually takes at least 20 minutes, the Mylar bags are great at retaining the heat during this time.
    • Pros: affordable, convenient, and good for ultralight backpacking.
    • Cons: Plastic, difficult to wash and reuse
  2. Resealable silicone bags, be sure to add oxygen-absorbing moisture packets to each bag. These are reusable, easy to clean and their closure is very durable so it can last you multiple backpacking trips.
    • Pros: Reusable, sustainable option.
    • Cons: Expensive, not the most lightweight option
  3. Freezer bags with an insulating bag to retain heat during rehydration –  Some people transport their mixtures in freezer bags and just add boiling water directly to the freezer bags. If you go the freezer bag route it’s important that you have an insulated bag that you can put it in while it rehydrates to retain the heat while you wait for it to rehydrate. Some make a DIY coozie out of a car windshield shield! Pro: The lightest weight option for those concerned about their pack weight.
    • Pros: Cheap and easy to find in the grocery store, lightweight
    • Cons: Not as sturdy, difficult to eat out of. Plus, conflicting opinions about how safe it is to heat plastic for food consumption
  4. Stainless steel camping pot with lid
    • Pros: Environmentally friendly option, healthier than cooking in Ziplock bags, gives the feeling of really cooking on the trail
    • Cons: Added weight

The cook time will vary depending on the type of ingredient. The general rule of thumb is that freeze-dried meals take around 5 minutes to rehydrate, while dehydrated meals will take 10-20 minutes.

About the author

Monica Wörner, Owner of The Backpacking Site
Monica Wörner
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Monica is an avid traveler and backpacker who seeks to inspire others to embark on great adventures off the beaten path. Originally from California, she has travelled to over 60 countries, most of which she explored while backpacking or camping. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany with her husband, who she met in Costa Rica while they were both solo-backpacking!

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