Friday, October 19, 2012

Reducing Weight of Backcountry Meals

Exploring the Adirondack backcountry is hard work. Vaulting over downed logs, crossing streams on beaver dams, pushing through dense vegetation and constantly swatting away hordes of biting flies requires a massive amount of energy. Since this energy derives from food carried into the backcountry, it is important to maximize calories while simultaneously reducing its weight in the backpack.

Food connoisseurs may insist on a fresh and/or extravagant menu, even in the backcountry. These food snobs go to outlandish lengths to carry the oddest foodstuffs regardless of weight or practicality. In my many years of backpacking, I witnessed numerous strange selections in the wilderness, such as pounds of sandwich meat, jars of spaghetti sauce, bags full of raw carrots, cans of oysters and even a square egg maker (although no square eggs ever emerged). Most backcountry adventurers are practical folk, and thus avoid carrying a heavy food load, if possible.

Food should meet several crucial criteria for optimal use in the backcountry. It needs to be easy to prepare, require little clean up, convenient to pack and contain a high calorie to weight ratio. If avoiding bears and other wildlife is important, the foods should refrain from being odoriferous too. In other words, leave the cans of oysters at home, or better yet, on the grocery store’s shelf.

Typically, a single stove with imprecise temperature control is all that is available on most backpacking trips. Subsequently, backcountry foods need to be easy to prepare; meals requiring multiple pans and many steps are not welcome. After a long day spent hiking along trails or bushwhacking through dense forests, the last thing anyone wants is to spend hours over a stove preparing multiple course meals.

Easy cleanup is another important criterion for backcountry meals. Cleaning multiple pans with over-cooked or burnt leftovers is never fun, especially without running water or dish detergent. Although, non-stick pans can help in this regard, meals requiring just boiling water are the ideal.

Finally, one of the most important food criteria is a high calorie to weight ratio. Longer trips over many days require a large amount of foodstuffs, where the weight literally becomes backbreaking if one is not careful. Removing water content from foods, whether through freeze-drying or dehydration, is the best way to decrease the weight, while only minimally affecting the calorie content or taste.

Processed freeze-dried meals, such as those produced by Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry, are easy to prepare, require little cleanup and provide plentiful calories for minimal weight. Some of them are even delicious. The freeze-drying process removes the water from the food by freezing and then reducing the surrounding air pressure, allowing the water to sublimate directly into a gaseous state. Many outdoor enthusiasts find these meals cost prohibitive, as the freeze-drying process does not come cheaply. In addition, there is no way to produce freeze-dried food at home, at least to my knowledge.

Typically, I use freeze-dried foods as an emergency meal, just in case I unexpectantly end up out in the backcountry an extra day. One such meal, I carried on numerous trips over the years, to the point where the entire label wore off and its content remained a mystery. I use freeze-dried meals more extensively during long trips of a week or more, since they help to reduce my total food weight.

An alternative to freeze-drying is dehydration by direct drying. This method of dehydration involves removing the water from fruits, vegetables and animal protein using evaporation. Removing the water inhibits microorganismic activity, thus preserving foodstuffs for extended trips into the backcountry. The evaporation is achieved by air, wind or sun drying, smoking or using an electric drier manufactured for this purpose.

Although cheaper than freeze-drying, the quality of the dried food is not as great and the resulting product is not as lightweight. Despite these drawbacks, dehydration can actually be performed at home, thus reducing the cost. Electric dryers are relatively inexpensive and highly effective, but often require an extensive amount of time, so be ready for a higher electrical bill. In my experience, dried foods tend to rehydrate easier than the freeze-dried variety too.

Pre-packaged dehydrated foods are also available, although they are not as widely available as those of the freeze-dried variety.

I perform most of my own dehydrating during the winter months, when the extra heat is especially welcome. All the dehydrated foods are stored in the freezer, either in resealable plastic bags or in old yogurt containers. After the hiking season is over, I usually discard any unused foods, before they spoil or lose their taste. It is possible to dry almost any fruit or vegetable, and I have tried many different ones, but I always purchase my dried meats in the supermarket, or health-food store.

MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) are another option for backcountry meals. These meals are conveniently packaged, chock-full of calories and often tasty, if not especially attractive looking. Unlike freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, these meals are not lightweight; many of them contain copious amounts of water. These meals used to be more readily available in backpacking stores, although they are still available via mail order.

The best backcountry meals are easy to prepare, require little clean-up and possess a high calorie to weight ratio. Freeze-dried and other dehydrated foods meet all three of these criteria, and often are delicious and nutritious. Combining these different methods can control costs and provide a great variety of tasty foods at a fraction of the weight.

Photos: Wolf Pond lean-to in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

11 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve liked instant rice and noodle dishes, cheap on store shelves and very lightweight, that usually only required 4-8 minutes of simmering, with a small can of boned chicken or ham thrown on (can avoid the meat to keep it ultralight). Low cost, easy to prepare and cleanup and filling, and use a minimum of fuel.

    • Dan Crane says:

      Sometimes it is possible to find pouches of chicken and/or ham in the supermarket to avoid the extra weight of cans. I often bring a pouch of salmon and mix it in with my rice. It is quite tasty, and the bears love it!

  2. Matt says:

    I tend to buy everything at a supermarket, then, if on a long trip, you can easily re-supply. Freeze-dried is convenient, but not as satisfying, and may lead to dehydration, indigestion and flavor boredom. I’m looking at getting a dehydrator and maybe a smoker to increase the options.

  3. Jonathan Bouman says:

    tortillas, hard cheeses, beef jerky, tuna in the packet, rice, hard boiled egg (day 1), clif bars, avocado, dried fruit, peanuts, chocolate, instant oatmeal, coffee, drink mix, whiskey.

  4. Curt Austin says:

    Two numbers to keep in mind: carbohydrates (e.g., sugar, flour) provide 5 Cal/gram, fat provides 9 Cal/gram. Fat is not so good when you need the energy right away, but otherwise gives the greatest miles/pound. You can do a calculation: if you go 2 mph at a rate of 500 Cal/mile (well-short of huffing and puffing), it works out to 14 miles per pound of cheese.

    Notwithstanding the above, I can’t begin a day without a brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tart and maple instant oatmeal when hiking.

    • Curt Austin says:

      Correction: where I wrote 500 Cal/mile, I meant Cal/hour.

    • Dan Crane says:

      I never get that technical where I analyze Calories ofr a backpacking trip. Instead, I just play it by ear. Typically, I bring way too much, but after a couple decades of doing it, I’m getting much better at judging how much food I need.

  5. Bill Colucci says:

    My favorite b’packing meal is in a one quart freezer bag: Dried Barilla tortellini, throw in some dehydrated porcini mushrooms, pour boiling water in and let steep for 5-8 minutes. Throw in some olive oil (yeah heavy but not as bad as my 8oz of Bourbon), and a bit of parmesean…eat in a bowl or out of the baggie.

    Curt Austin has the same dietary habits as my wife in the morning!!

  6. Geoff says:

    Ziplock bags are your friend. One of our favorites is Thanksgiving dinner. Stove-top stuffing in one bag, potato flakes in another, turkey gravy mix in another. Add hot water to all three bags, maybe throw in a can or pouch of turkey and serve (or eat) from the bags. Cheap and easy to clean up.

  7. Alex Belensz says:

    No matter what I’ve brought for dinner, I always pack some instant mashed potatoes – instantly thickens any soupy meal and makes it more satisfying. Super lightweight and the extra carbs are great.

  8. Marco says:

    Food, while packing, is always difficult. Throughout the ADK’s, blackbears, ‘coons, and other minibears are a problem. Bear proof canisters can also add to the weight carried. Jerky, dried beef, pepperoni, salami, raw bacon, olive oil, parafied butter, dehydrated veggies, powdered potatoes, cocoa, oatmeal, bisquick, coffee, chocolate bars, etc are staples. They keep well for a week or so, are high in calories for the weight(‘cept coffee.) At about 130C/oz, they will supply about 3000C/day for about 1.5lb, easily.

    As mentioned, getting this stuff cooked in a single pan can be a problem. For myself, I use a small SVEA 123r stove and a small fuel bottle capible of simmering a pot pie (with the lid on) or steaming a fresh trout bedded on rice and veggies. Always cook on low for the best heat transfers, greatest fuel efficiencies.

    Hiking through the Eastern High Peaks, a canister is required. Don’t dispair of carrying it. It works as a stool, table, as well as storage for food. I can get about 1 week in a BV450 as an example, and, it lets me drop the rock sak, and line I use for bear bagging. Besides the safety of carrying the bear ball, it works well for late arrivals at camp and organiziation of your food (keeping odiferous stuff out of your bedding.)

    Unlike, Dan, I purchase everything at a grocery. Lipton sides (about 5oz,) Mrs Grass, etc are couple others. That and a vitamin/mineral pill.

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