Many years ago, backpacking food was primitive by today’s standards. On the way to an outing, Scouts stopped at the grocery store and loaded up on enough canned chili and beef stew for the entire trip. At dinnertime, partially opened cans were set directly onto the coals of a camp fire. After a few minutes, we wrapped a dirty shirt around our hand and grabbed the bubbling food out of the fire, then took metal spoons and ate right out of the can. Later the cans were smashed and buried away from the campsite.
Wilderness meals have changed a lot since those days. Today, a Scout group can choose from an amazing variety or dehydrated or freeze-dried foods that are easily to make, easy to eat, and create zero dirty pots to clean. As a result, the market for freeze-dried food is booming, not only for backpacking meals, but also to supply families who are planning ahead in case an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or tsunami hits their city.
Despite the benefits, many groups pass on freeze-dried food either because of the expense or because they have had bad experiences in the past. Some backpackers find it difficult to get the food completely rehydrated in the back country. Others say that the packaging creates waste that can’t be burned and the size of the packages makes it difficult to fit enough meals into a bear canister. Probably the most common complaint is that sometimes a two-person package of prepared food is not enough to feed two hungry hikers.
Backpacker’s Pantry is one of the largest suppliers of food for Scout backpacking trips and they have loads of experience with wilderness dining. When asked about potential problems, they offer the following advice to make sure that hikers get the most out of their meals.
• Backpackers need to consume about 3,000 calories a day in most conditions. To meet this goal and increase the volume of the meal (to satisfy two hungry Scouts) add things to the bag before or after you pour in the boiling water. For example adding turkey jerky and Gouda cheese to Backpacker’s Pantry Louisiana Red Beans and Rice adds flavor and calories. You could also eat Santa Fe Rice w/ Chicken in a warm tortilla with any kind of cheese. Packaged protein like chicken cubes, canned shrimp, salami, or freeze dried beef are easy accompaniments. In fact, any leftover food in your backpack can probably be thrown into the bag during the rehydration process.
• Rehydration can be a problem when hikers are rushed and clean water is in short supply. Like any good meal, it takes some time to do it right. Heat the water to boiling and beyond before adding it to the contents of the package. At 7,500 feet water boils at 198 degrees instead of 212 degrees, so keep the water over the flame even after you see the first bubbles. Adding a little salt to the water will raise the boiling temperature at any altitude.
• Repackage the meals to minimize space. After getting home from the store, open the silver cooking pouches and pour the contents into a plastic baggie. Cut the directions off the label and include in the baggie before sealing. You can’t put boiling water into the baggie, but you can rehydrate the meal in a small pot with a lid. (You will have to wash the pot!)
Freeze dried and dehydrated food is an excellent choice for Scout backpackers because it is precooked, maintains the consistency and nutritional value of fresh food, and usually tastes great. It is also significantly lighter than other foods (like canned chili), easier to carry, and lasts a very long time (years or even decades) without spoiling.
People going on a high-adventure trip can select from a huge variety of tasty freeze-dried meals: Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and even American. Organic, vegetarian, or gluten free are also becoming popular. Many packages now have include an “easy to read” allergen chart to highlight potential problem ingredients (helping prevent peanut boys from going into anaphylactic shock by the campfire).
Skip the canned chili and other old-fashioned meals. Today’s hikers can dine on Organic Peanut Butter Oatmeal, Organic Yakisoba Noodles, Chicken Vindaloo, Pad Thai, Stroganoff w/ Beef & Wild Mushrooms, or Louisiana Red Beans & Rice very soon after they get some water boiling. Its definately the way to go.