I once climbed Mt. Whitney with a guy who had licked the problem of what to eat in the
wild by falling off a bicycle and losing all sense of taste. While the rest of us grappled
with cans of anchovies, tomato sauce, and olives, and later subjected our good taste to
the indignities of commercial freeze-dried cuisine, he was happy to subsist on energy
bars. Given the 4,000-foot vertical climb, we almost envied him.
I have since been happy to learn that it isn't necessary to check your taste buds at
the trailhead. You can eat nearly anything you like; you just have to dry it first.
Dehydrating reduces the weight of most foods by at least half, simultaneously preserving
them safely for the length of your backpacking expedition. Cheapskates will appreciate the
contrast in price with commercially dried products; after an initial investment of about
$70 for a good-quality dryer (i.e., one with a thermostat), your additional costs are only
the pittance for the electricity. Real misers can build their own dryers, or even dry food
in their ovens at a low setting with the door partly open.
But it's far more convenient to use a standard food dryer: basically a small heater and
fan circulating air through a number of stacking circular trays. In the simplest case, you
peel fruits and vegetables, slice them very thin, lay them out on the trays, and dry until
they reach the desired texture. (Some items profit by a preliminary dip in lemon juice,
others from blanching. See our list of reliable reference books.)
Don't be limited by the dried items you've seen for sale. You can dry almost anything
except citrus fruits, and I have friends who swear you can do that. In addition to the
quotidian apples, apricots, and bananas, try strawberries, pears, mangoes, kiwis,
cherries. Dried pineapple tastes like candy, and melons are altogether wonderful: take
away the water from a watermelon and all that's left is super-concentrated melon essence.
For your protein needs, make your own jerky. Consult a recipe book, or experiment with
your own marinades. Just remember to trim off as much fat as possible before drying. Beef
is the most common, but turkey and chicken can also be successfully jerked, as can fish.
My favorite is salmon cut into thin strips, marinated briefly in soy sauce, sesame oil,
garlic, and pepper, and dried until it is chewy but not brittle. Take care, however, if
you are traveling in bear country; this salmon will smell even better to Bruin than it
does to you.
And don't stop with finger food. Entire meals, including pre-cooked grains or beans,
can be dried in advance. Sauces and stews are spread on solid trays to dry, then rolled up
like fruit leather. You'll need an extra 15 minutes before dinner to rehydrate them, but
your patience will be well rewarded.
Green Plate Special: Jerky Stew
Since the dried ingredients for this hearty backpacking stew weigh only 4 ounces, you
can afford to bring along a fresh carrot for crunch.
4 cups water
1 cup dried tomato pieces (about 20 slices)
1 cup beef jerky pieces (in 1/2-inch chunks)
1 cup dried peeled potato slices
1 tablespoon dried bell pepper pieces
1 tablespoon dried onion pieces
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 fresh carrot, sliced (optional)
1 cup cooked and dried short-grain rice
In a large saucepan, combine 3 cups of the water and all ingredients except carrot and
rice. Let sit for 30 minutes to rehydrate.
Place pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Add carrot, if using. Simmer for 30
minutes to an hour, until jerky is tender. Meanwhile, combine rice with remaining water
and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes to rehydrate.
Return to boil, partially cover and simmer until rice is tender, about 15 to 30 minutes.
Serve hot stew over rice. Serves 2 to 4, depending on how far you hiked. from Mary
Bell's Complete Dehydrator Cookbook.
The food dryer's bible is Mary Bell's Complete Dehydrator Cookbook (William Morrow, 1994).
The Lightweight Gourmet: Drying and Cooking Food for the Outdoor Life by Alan Kesselheim
(Ragged Mountain Press, 1994), is full of recipes, menu planning tips, and even build-your-own
Most books on backcountry cookery have sections on food dehydration; see, for example, Good Food
for Camp & Trail by Dorcas S. Miller (Pruett, 1993); Camper's Companion by Rick
Greenspan and Hal Kahn (Foghorn Press, 1993), and The Well-Fed Backpacker by June Fleming
(Vintage Books, 1985).