Open Air Camp Kitchen: Dried Meals and Camping Food

In our first few posts in the camp kitchen series, we gave an overview of camping stoves and types of fuel, and an in-depth look at gas stoves. In this post, we turn our attention to the exciting part: food!

If you’re camping on a campsite, or able to restock with food each day, then you’ve got plenty of options for cooking. We’ll share some of our favourite camping recipes in some future blog posts which might inspire you for your next trip!

If, however, you’re carrying everything in your pack for several days, cooking fresh food from scratch every night might not be the best option. Taking dried food with you is a great way to save weight and avoid it spoiling in your pack. There’s also the added bonus of making cooking and washing up in camp much simpler. Here is a quick guide to dried food, and some of our top tips on how to dry your own food for the trail.

Why dried food?

Most fruit and vegetables are 70%-90% water, pasta is around 60% water, and even minced beef is around 50% water. Drying removes up to 98% of the water from your food – just think of the weight savings of carrying that much weight over several days! Each dried meal might save you half a kilo – compare that with the cost of saving the same weight by splashing out on new lightweight kit. Removing the water from food also inhibits the ability for bacteria to multiply and reduces the chance of food going off, even with storing it out of the fridge in your pack – think of the shelf life of things like jerky, or dried versus fresh pasta. However, you shouldn’t rely on storing dehydrated foods forever, as they can go off if moisture gets back into the container. If you think some moisture has got in, but the food is still ok, you can always dehydrate the food again.

Ready-made meals

The simplest option is to go with ready-made dried food pouches, like those we stock from Expedition Foods or Trek’n’Eat. They work well, are quick and really convenient, as you just have to add hot water to the pouch, stir and wait. Expedition Foods meals are freeze-dried, which tends to retain more nutrients and flavour compared to other methods of drying food. If you’re using them a lot, the cost can add up, but as backup food on trips such as Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, for gram-counters or just more occasional campers, they are hard to beat.

Some ready-made meals can be a little on the small side, so take a note of the calories inside and make sure you take enough – Expedition Foods meals all contain the same calories to make it easy! Unfortunately, most supermarket dry food packets tend to be aimed at people who want as few calories as possible, rather than hungry hikers and campers who want something energy-rich to fuel their adventures! 

Make sure you have a long spoon to reach into the freeze-dried packets!
Image: Angus Whitby

Top tip: before your trip, find a couple of meals that you like the sound of and test them out at home to make sure they are tasty and rehydrate well!

Make your own

First and foremost, drying your own meals means you get to pick what’s in them, so you can tailor them to your tastes. Over time, you can also save a fair bit of money if you’re a frequent camper. Using reusable poly bags also cuts down on the waste compared with store bought foil packs.

DIY – components of a hike meal, dehydrated at home before the journey.
Image: Angus Whitby

You can dry things on a very low heat in an oven, but it’s quite tricky to get it right. Dehydrator models come at a wide range of price points, but basic models can be picked up fairly cheaply, and can soon save you the cost of the initial outlay if you’re camping frequently. You don’t have to just use it for camping meals either, as you can make your own dried fruit crisps or other snacks. As a minimum you need a temperature control dial, as different foods dry best at different temperatures, but it’s also very helpful to have an on/off timer control switch as drying takes several hours.

DIY trail mix with dried apple and orange. Yum!
Image: Angus Whitby

Top five tips for drying your own food:

  1. Flavours get diluted in the drying process, so use stronger flavours (ie. herbs and spices) than you normally would – and add extra back in once it’s rehydrated
  2. Slicing things into small/thin pieces and spreading them out on trays speeds up and improves the effectiveness of both the dehydrating and rehydrating processes
  3. Fat has low water content and dehydrates really badly, so avoid it where possible: use only very lean meat (e.g. chicken breast or the leanest mince beef you can find); avoid cheese, butter and oil (if you need some oil for frying, use as little as you possibly can)
  4. For wet things like sauces, baking paper can be put on the trays, but be careful not to block too much heat from circulating and getting to the other racks
  5. Dehydrating something that comes dried like pasta or rice may not sound obvious, but it can save you a lot of time and fuel when camping. Cook the pasta/rice in salted water first (but no oil) as you normally would, then drain and rinse with cold water to stop it cooking any further. Spread it out on your dehydrator trays and dry.
Courgette, pea and broad bean risotto rehydrating at a camp high above Glen Affric.
Image: Jonathan Middleton

There you have it! We hope that provides some inspiration and useful tips for your next trip!

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