by Alan Kesselheim
originally appeared in the May issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine
Twenty years ago, when Marypat and I took on our first trans-Canada canoe expedition, we were operating on a financial shoestring. The plan was to head off for 14 months in the wilderness, but we couldn’t afford expensive processed camping food. Nor could we afford fly-in resupplies. We needed light, compact, and inexpensive food. A lot of it.
We bought our first food dehydrator at a sale, started drying everything we could think of, and never looked back. That food drier hummed nonstop for the next year, at which point we packed the canoe and set off down the Athabasca River. We’re still drying food today, for the same reasons, along with a few more we’ve discovered.
In the case of that first expedition, drying our food literally made the adventure possible. We saved hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on our supplies. We were able to fit food for 60 days into our canoe. We didn’t have a lot of freeboard to work with, and we made very sure that there weren’t any portages in the first couple of weeks. What came as a surprise was that we could also develop a menu with variety, taste, and home-cooked quality.
Suddenly, we were enjoying Dutch-oven quiche, homemade chili, our favorite spaghetti sauce, scrambled eggs, and our original-recipe jerky. For the first time in the wilderness, food fantasies weren’t a central topic of conversation-no small feat during a yearlong journey.
Sound intriguing? Here’s how to enter the dried universe.
- My advice is to buy a dehydrator rather than build one. For $75 to $200, you can get a drier that will last years and pay back your investment many times over. The best models are round, with an electric fan and thermostat, and the capacity to expand by adding trays.
- When you buy the drier, pick up some solid tray inserts for drying liquids, along with some clean-a-screen inserts that make the job of removing foods and cleaning up much easier.
- A food processor, or even one of those slicing/dicing/chopping gizmos, will be a big help.
- Keep an eye out for five-gallon plastic buckets with snap-on lids (cafeterias are a good source). They are great for storing dried food.
- A heat-sealing vacuum-bagging kit is ideal for packaging dried foods, although double bagging works fine, too.
- Cost: Entire dehydrated meals often cost less than a single component of a packaged entree’. Drying your vittles stands the adage “You get what you pay for” on its head.
- Weight and Space Savings:Most food is 50% to 90% water. Drying reduces both weight and bulk to an astonishing degree.
- Tailor the menu: Drying your food puts you in charge of the variety, the ingredients, and the freshness of your food supplies. You are the one who dictates the menu choices and nutrional balance in response to your appetite and desires. Meals becom a satisfying part of the wilderness routine rather than survival glop out of a pouch.
- Dry when the time is right: Put up food any time of the year. Stored properly, dried supplies can last for years. When you’re ready to go , the food is,too.
Dry, Dry, Dry
When peaches are in season, buy crates of them; when you have more zucchini than you thought possible, throw it on a tray; when you get a deer, go into jerky mode. We’ve dried canned and frozen vegetables, along with fresh, every variety of fruits and berries, refried beans, salsa, and eggs.
With some prep, you can take on fruit leathers, tomato sauces, homemade chili, marinated jerky, and entire meals that require only water to reconstitute.
Before our long expedition, we developed a relationship with the manager at a local grocery store, who would give us a call if they had unsalable produce. Flats of mushrooms, cartons of tomatoes, squash, apples, and pears, all were perfectly good fodder for the drier, and we picked it up for next to nothing.
Many fruits and vegetables require no prep. Just cut them up and lay them on the trays. Some, like broccoli or cabbage, need blanching, and you can choose to pre-treat fruits like apples with a simple vitamin C or lemon wash to prevent discoloration.
The dehydrator will come with basic directions for common foods, including recommended temperatures, drying times, and tips for preparation. In general, dry herbs at 95 degrees F, fruits and vegetables at 135, sauces and fruit leathers at 130, and meat or dairy (eggs) at 145-155.
Dry similar foods together to keep strong flavors like mushrooms from pervading an entire batch. Remember to dry thoroughly but not overdry. Excessive heat robs nutrients and vitamins. Use drying charts as a guideline, but altitude, climate, and other factors will cause your times to vary.
When you think food is done, remove one piece and let it cool. Fruits should be leathery and free of moist pockets. Vegetables will feel brittle and crisp. Meat and dairy items should be very dry, with no moisture pockets.
Your enemies are sunlight, open air, moisture, and heat. Consequently, the best storage spots are cool, dark, and dry. Airtight packages/containers are a must.
As soon as you finish drying, place food in sealed bags. Divide it into portions or meal-sized packages and use double bags, freezer-lock bags, or heat-sealed vacuum bags. It helps to label each one with the date and contents. Store the bags in airtight containers like plastic buckets.
Stockpile food in a cool, dark corner of the basement or in the back of a closet. Meats and eggs should be stored in a freezer if you want to keep them fresh for more than a month or two. Every 10 degrees you lower the storage temperature adds months to shelf life.
Just like that, you’re on your way to satisfying and remarkably tasteful backcountry cuisine. No looking back now.
Alan S. Kesselheim is the author of Trail Food: Drying and Cooking Food for Backpackers and Paddlers, published by Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw Hill ($9.95).