How to Prepare Homemade Backpacking Meals

Backpackers.com — Eating in the wilderness is paramount to survival, but it’s also one of the traditions that keeps people from spending long nights in the woods. Most think the food just isn’t that good.

There are two truths:

  1. After hiking 8-plus miles, everything tastes good.
  2. You can prepare homemade backpacking meals to get the exact meal you want.

The below is a guest post from Thomas Freeman, a computer science undergraduate with a penchant for the wilderness. He originally wrote an article on homemade backpacking meals and how to prepare for them. He has since embarked on his journey — below you’ll find his process, reflections, and recipes.

Eating in the Wild: How to Prepare Homemade Backpacking Meals

by Thomas Freeman

When it comes to backpacking, preparing and eating meals can be a bit of a task. While car camping has the conveniences of ice-filled coolers, plates, silverware, and propane grills, backpacking does not have these luxuries.

Eating in the wild includes its own set of requirements, such as food storage without refrigeration, having as little trash and cleanup as possible, and preparation without a full stove top. The most common option is to bring prepackaged freeze dried foods for your meals. There are a number of companies that produce such meals.

While these are very easy to use and handy to have around, there are a few issues with them:

  • Large amount of trash after eating. (Always remember to Leave No Trace!)
  • You are limited to their selection of meals.
  • The extremely sharp edges of the plastic can actually damage the backpacks they are stored in.

In March of 2016 I was fortunate enough to be offered an internship working with a name brand tech company on the west coast. Since I live in Florida, the plan quickly became to drive across the U.S., with its endless opportunities for incredible backpacking through some of the country’s most amazing National Parks and forests. In preparing for this trip one of the main concerns besides picking trails and getting permits was the preparation of food.

While I had originally thought that I would just buy a bulk order of pre-packaged freeze dried meals, the reasons above encouraged me to find an alternative. Enter homemade backpacking meals.

homemade backpacking Meals

Creating these meals has a number of advantages:

  • Different Flavors: There are endless amounts of meal combinations one can come up with, which means a more tasty and varied eating experience.
  • Packaging: While I use Hefty brand ziplock bags, these could be stored in whatever you can fit in your pack.
  • Customization: Gluten free? No Problem! Like it salty? Go for it! Make these meals how you want them.

How to Prepare Homemade Backpacking Meals

Making homemade backpacking meals is easier than it might seem. I’ll break it down into four main parts below, then run a cost analysis of every part.

Base

Any kind of starchy food can work here, including rice, noodles, pasta, etc. The only requirements are that they cook fast and don’t poke holes through your packaging! (More on this later).

I decided on using three different bases in my meals — linguine, Thai rice noodles, and white rice.

homemade backpacking Meals Bases

All of these were relatively cheap as I ended up buying in bulk on Amazon for less than $1 per serving!

Vegetables

Of all the ingredients in this list I was most excited to customize my meals with freeze dried vegetables. I found a company called Harmony House, which specializes in creating packaged freeze dried vegetables for backpackers and campers. Harmony House makes kits that include a variety of vegetables and beans, one of which even won the Editor’s Choice Award from Backpacker Magazine.

While I used them solely for backpacking, I can see how these would be very useful for an office snack, or to spice up a simple meal in the dorm room.

homemade backpacking meals freeze dried Veggies

While I was really excited and pleased to use the freeze dried veggies, to save even more money in the long run I would recommend buying a dehydrator and using fresh veggies in bulk. The dehydrator should pay itself off in no time, as the freeze dried alternatives aren’t that cheap.

Meat

While there are a variety of companies that make different freeze dried and dehydrated meats for backpacking, I decided to go with Mountain House’s large can of diced chicken. My hiker in crime (read, girlfriend) is not a fan of beef and I cannot stand tuna for the life of me, so chicken was our only easy choice.

homemade backpacking Meals Chicken can

If I were to hike alone or go with a different group I would be interested in trying some recipes that called for beef or something even more exotic.

Each recipe I used called for around 1/2 cup of chicken, which made for very easy meal prep.

Spices

While rice and chicken is not so bad by itself, adding a variety of spices really changes things. From cumin seed and pine nuts to cinnamon and ginger root, the list can go on and on. This is where the customization of homemade backpacking meals really shines, and it is here where you have the power to make the meals the way you want.

I was lucky enough to be able to use some of my parent’s spices while I was home prepping for the upcoming trip.

homemade backpacking Meals spices

After combining the base with the meat, vegetables, and spices you’re pretty much ready to go. Just put them in easy to store bags — I used ziplock freezer bags — and do some meal planning.

homemade backpacking Meals Bags

Serving them is as simple as:

  1. Boil water.
  2. Add to bag (or add contents of bag to water, depending on your setup).
  3. Wait 5-10 minutes.
  4. Enjoy!

Homemade Backpacking Meals Price Breakdown

Although saving money was one of the original reasons why I decided to make my own backpacking meals, it was not the only reason. Along with saving weight, having more resourceful packaging, and the sheer fun of making my own food, I was very interested to see how the price difference would turn out.

I posted my initial setup to Reddit, and user /u/cornered_crustacean completed a price breakdown, which can be seen below:

  • $12.99 for rice (72 oz, 44 servings), $14.31 for noodles (6 x 14 oz, 42 servings), $17.35 for linguini (6 x 12 oz, 36 servings).
  • $53 for the box of veggies, 70 servings
  • $40 for the can of chicken (17 oz), 14 servings
  • Spices? You probably have these, but $25 will get a starter set

So with my crappy rounding and estimating:

  • Starch: $0.37 per serving
  • Veggies: $0.75 per serving
  • Chicken: $1.14 per serving
  • Spices: $0.35 per serving (scaled to 70 servings)

A total of  $2.61 per serving.

Pre-made Mountain House meals:

  • Mountain House, Chicken Teriyaki with Rice: $24.36 for 10 servings. Equates to $2.44 per serving.
  • Mountain House, Beef Stroganoff: $23.47 for 10 servings. Equates to $2.23 per serving.
  • Mountain House, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce: $21.51 for 10 servings. Equtes to $2.15 per serving.
  • Mountain House Essential Bucket: $61.51 for 32 servings. Equates to $3.33 per serving.

While I will admit that the actual savings ended up being little compared to the price of buying the prepackaged Mountain House meals, the flexibility of making my own food, the convenience of packaging it how I like, and the fun I had creating them all made it well worth it in the long run.

With the lessons learned from doing this for the first time, I am confident that I would be able to lower the price even more the next time I decide to make these meals.

Post Trip Report

As I mentioned earlier, these meals were created for a trip across the U.S.

Seven National Parks and many homemade backpacking meals later I can say that this was a success. I had very few issues and most of the meals cooked well and tasted amazing! While I am not sure if hiking for 10 miles through mountainous terrain makes everything taste better (it does), I can confidently say that I will be using this method from now on whenever I go backpacking.

While the meals mostly turned out great there were still some issues that came up.

Always assume the base requires more time than it claims

For instance: The Asian rice noodles I used for many of my meals took way longer than I thought they would to cook. I believe it was partially due to the altitude I was at (over 9,000 feet), but even after 20 minutes of cooking in the bag, and with the meal becoming less warm by the minute, I succumbed to eating hard noodles. Luckily this did not happen with the rice or pasta noodles.

More Salt

While I originally thought the combination of spices would make the flavoring sufficient, I found it a common theme that the meals tasted as if they could be significantly improved with another teaspoon or so of salt. Along with being a crucial ingredient in remaining hydrated, the extra sodium would have been a welcome addition.

Less Pokey, More Round-y

I made the mistake of ordering thin, sharp noodles to use as the base for some of my meals. Along with them being hard and unable to cook thoroughly, they also had the property of being incredibly sharp. I discovered this when I went to pour boiling water into the bag and some of it seeped through holes, giving me a delightful surprise on my thighs. A lesson here would be to buy less sharp noodles; luckily I had no issue with the pasta noodles nor the rice.

Your Eyes Are Bigger Than Your Stomach

Seriously. For almost every single meal we had lots of left overs. Even after hiking for 8+ hours a day and having nothing but snacks throughout the hike, we were never able to properly finish a meal. I’m 6’3” and am able to put away a double bacon cheeseburger like nothing, but that big bag of fiesta chicken proved too much for me to handle.

Final Thoughts and Recipes

All and all I think this was an incredible learning opportunity that turned out excellent. Being that this was my first time making these homemade dried meals I still think it was a resounding success

As much as I would like to think I made this all up myself, I stand on the shoulders of giants.

I found a lot of ideas and inspiration from a number of websites, including The Yummy Life, Wild Backpacker, and Trail Recipes.

Below I’ve listed a few of the recipes I used. Note that these are single serving recipes meant for a hot meal after a long day of hiking. Adjust ingredients as necessary.

Combine all dry ingredients into a ziplock or similar plastic bag. When on the trail simply boil the appropriate amount of water and add to bag. Stir thoroughly and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, then enjoy. Alternatively, you can add the contents of the meal to your stove and boiling water if that works better for your setup.

Fiesta Chicken

  • 2/3 cup instant brown rice
  • 1 teaspoon chia seeds or ground flaxseed (optional)
  • 1/3 cup freeze dried chopped chicken
  • 1/2 cup freeze dried corn
  • ¼ cup freeze dried chopped tomatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried minced jalapeno
  • 1 tablespoon freeze dried onions (or 1 teaspoon dried onion flakes)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons powdered chicken flavor base (or boullion granules)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (Mexican preferred)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freeze dried cilantro (or 1/8 teaspoon dried)
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
  • 1-1/2 cups water

Creamy Chicken Alfredo

  • 1 cup pasta broken in 2”pieces (use pasta that normally cooks on stovetop in 4 min. or less—thin egg noodles, angel hair pasta, or quick-cooking artisan pastas)*
  • 1 teaspoon chia seeds or ground flaxseed (optional)
  • ¼ cup freeze dried chopped chicken
  • ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
  • ¼ cup freeze dried chopped mushrooms
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons powdered chicken flavor base (or boullion granules)
  • 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (the dried, unrefrigerated kind in a can)
  • 2 tablespoons instant dried buttermilk powder (or regular powdered milk)
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 2 teaspoons freeze dried Italian herb blend (or 3/4 teaspoon dried Italian herb blend)
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
  • 1-1/4 cups water

Thai Peanut Noodles

  • 1 cup pasta broken in 2”pieces (use pasta that normally cooks on stovetop in 4 min. or less—thin egg noodles, angel hair pasta, or quick-cooking artisan pastas)*
  • 1 teaspoon chia seeds or ground flaxseed (optional)
  • ¼ cup freeze dried chopped chicken
  • ¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts
  • ¼ cup freeze dried mixed vegetables
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons powdered chicken flavor base (or boullion granules)
  • 2 tablespoons PB2 powdered peanut butter
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons freeze dried cilantro (or ½ teaspoon dried cilantro)
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • pinch of ground cayenne pepper (or more if you want it spicier)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
  • 1 cup water

All images courtesy of Thomas Freeman, All Rights Reserved

daniel

Daniel Zweier

Daniel Zweier is Editor-in-Chief of Backpackers.com. Beyond orchestrating the daily flow of Backpackers.com, Daniel writes surrealistic short fiction and novels, adventures into the backcountry and abroad, surfs, reads, drinks tea, and obsesses over gear. A lot of gear. Visit his website if you want to learn more about his authorial pursuits.