DIY Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals: Pros & Cons of Freeze-Dried Food + DIY Menu Ideas

The countdown for our summer trip is on! Adding to our excitement, we recently learned that we were granted a 4-night permit to backpack 41-mile Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. After visiting Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite in 2014, we’d hoped to return to explore the beauty of the High Sierra someday. We’re thrilled to finally have the opportunity to backpack both Rae Lakes and a 31-mile segment of the John Muir Trail this summer! Wilderness permits were even more competitive than I’d anticipated: with only 40 people allowed to enter the trail per day, we emailed our application in one second after the 12 am opening for permit applications for the season and didn’t receive our first choice route. It’ll mean hiking Glen Pass and Rae Lakes in a steeper counter-clockwise direction, but I have no doubt that the achy quads will be well worth the pain.

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Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point 2014
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View from atop Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park–can’t wait to explore Kings Canyon’s beautiful backcountry this summer!

With wilderness permits and campsite reservations out of the way, our focus has shifted to food. Namely, how do we plan and execute meals for a 7,000-mile road trip with 20 nights of backpacking and 20 nights of car camping? Factor in 1) flying in from Hawaii with backpacking gear and 2) renting a compact car, and the challenge becomes clear. Space and weight are at a premium, as are time and money. Throw in food preferences and dietary sensitivities, and the challenge compounds. Your food considerations may differ, and that’s okay. My intent is not to push some personal agenda, but rather to consider the factors driving our decision and share some food ideas that I hope you might find useful wherever your travels may lead you.  

Space: With backpacks holding our clothes, tents, and camping gear, any remaining items must fit into 2 carry-on suitcases when we fly. Are additional or larger suitcases options? Sure. But each additional suitcase means less space in an already compact trunk and more luggage to keep track of at the airport and on the road. In an effort to keep our packs manageable, we’ve streamlined our travel wardrobes: 3 short-sleeved tech/merino tops, 1 long-sleeved performance top, 2 pairs hiking pants, 2 pairs of sock liners, 3 pairs of socks, 1 thermal base layer set, 1 fleece pullover, 1 rain jacket, and 1 puffy per person. I realize this list may sound austere for 45 days, but handwashing clothes nightly saves us space and weight, enabling us to dedicate 2 carry-on suitcases to food…which brings us to factor #2. 

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The view from Glacier Point, Yosemite…this time from a slightly different angle. We’re excited to hike to Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness this year!

Whole Food/Dietary Preferences: Could we exclusively purchase fresh whole food on the road and keep everything chilled in a cooler? In theory, yes. But experience has taught us (and again, this is just us) that buying a hard-sided cooler upon arrival means spending inordinate amounts of time and money on ice maintenance. Our itinerary has us in the desert for three weeks, and keeping raw chicken and eggs cold in triple-digit heat is a tough proposition without a Yeti (it’s on our wish list, though!). Entirely possible–but not something I’m keen on focusing my energy on.

Without refrigeration, our food options are limited. There’s processed/canned food, oft vilified but not without its merits: shelf-stable, convenient, and imminently available. This is not insignificant considering that the bulk of our itinerary will take us through small towns with limited grocery availability. But while I’m not opposed to an occasional processed meal (I crave junk with the best of ‘em!), I know from experience that extended junk consumption affects my mood, performance, and morale. Similarly, our standard salami and cheese hiking fare tends to weigh me down after 2 weeks. For an extended 45-day trip, I wanted to stick closer to our everyday protein staples–nuts, beans, hummus, chicken, fish, and tofu. I also wanted to maintain our veggie and fruit intake and limit MSG and processed items.  

But how to circumvent the lack of refrigeration? DIY dehydrated meals sounded ideal, but with zero backpacking opportunities here on Oahu, the investment vs. return in terms of startup costs (dehydrator, vacuum sealer, O2 absorbers, mylar bags, etc) would leave us in the red for a few years. Freeze-dried food began to pique my interest.

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Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park 2014

Time and Money: For better or worse, being a compulsive itinerary-crammer means we’re often scrambling to find grocery stores and shopping under the gun in order to maximize time at destinations. And while I’ve mentioned that it’s important for us to limit expenses by cooking meals on vacation, what I didn’t mention is this: I enjoy cooking at home, but I don’t love cooking on vacation, especially after a long day of hiking. I love that other people enjoy gourmet experiences in the backcountry, but I’m not fond of fiddling with ingredients and spices on the trail. Chopping and cooking when tired is a surefire recipe for one hangry mom!

Fortunately, companies like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry offer delicious freeze-dried meals with just-add-boiling-water convenience and significant time and fuel savings. They’re shelf-stable, lightweight, and compressible, making them ideal for bear canister storage as well. However, that convenience comes with a hefty price tag. At over $6 per person, I couldn’t justify the cost for 20 nights, let alone 45. I wasn’t keen on the high sodium content and additives, either. DIY freeze-dried meals started sounding like a more viable option for us.           

Backpack Space and Weight: Finally, we have several 3-5 day treks that require bear canisters (space). Given the base weight of packs and gear (20 lbs for adults, 10 for kids), we anticipate 20-35 pounds per person with food. With the kids under 90 lbs each, we wanted to keep our food as light as possible. DIY freeze-dried meals seemed to offer the best opportunity for lightweight, shelf-stable, mostly healthy food with time and money savings.

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We absolutely loved Yosemite Valley and can’t wait to hike a portion of the JMT near Tuolumne Meadows!

Luckily for us, there’s a wealth of DIY freeze-dried meal information to be found online! Most sites recommend assembling freeze-dried/powdered ingredients in freezer bags for ease of “cooking” (add boiling water and seal for 5-10 mins), so we’ll likely be going that route in addition to simply rehydrating meals in a communal pot.

Are there drawbacks to freeze-dried food? Absolutely. For one, freeze-dried ingredients are not readily available in retail stores. For us, this meant having to plan and order 6.5 weeks worth of food months in advance. The upside, however, is that I was able to scour Amazon and wait on the best deals. Ordering food in advance also gave me an accurate handle on our food costs–a budget area that’s generally grayer than I’d like for trips. Also, there’s no denying that freeze-drying is a type of processing in and of itself, and natural/organic options are limited. The whole grains and fiber we crave don’t always translate, either, but I’m okay with these tradeoffs. Will we still be stopping to pick up fresh fruits and veggies weekly? Definitely. Will we break down and buy a cooler at some point? Very probably. Does our menu include processed food? Some. But I feel satisfied knowing that the bulk of our food needs are covered in a way I’m mostly comfortable with.

Road Trip 2017 includes menu items like: (* indicates freeze-dried/powdered items)

  • BREAKFAST
    • Granola, blueberries, and powdered milk/soy milk*
    • Oatmeal with blueberries, walnuts, and chia seeds*
    • Scrambled eggs*
    • Tortillas with eggs, bacon and cheese*
    • KIND bars, Larabars, ProBars and the like

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      A sample of our breakfast items: cheese powder, egg powder, peanut butter powder, powdered milk, freeze-dried blueberries, single-serve SPAM and Nature’s Path Oatmeal. We also ordered powdered soy milk and will buy granola once we arrive.
  • LUNCH (we prefer not to cook at lunch; when we’re not backpacking, lunch also includes whole fruit)
    • Whole wheat/spinach tortillas or bagels with pouch tuna or chicken
    • Seeded crackers with pouch tuna or chicken
    • Pita and hummus with cucumber, carrots, bell peppers
    • Whole banana rolled in PB whole wheat tortilla
    • PB with seeded crackers/pita/tortilla* and veggie sticks
    • Hummus and seeded crackers with veggie sticks
    • Bagel with pouch salmon and cream cheese
    • Pita with tomato paste, pepperoni, and cheese
    • Trail mix alone or eaten with PB, Honey Stinger waffles

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      Some lunch protein options: dehydrated refried beans, peanut butter powder, shelf-stable hummus, PB/almond butter packets. We’ll pick up seeded crackers, tortillas, and tuna/chicken/pepperoni after we land
  • DINNER (based on personal taste preferences)
    • Parmesan couscous or cheesy polenta with chicken and veggies*
    • Refried beans, rice, and cheese (with/without tortillas)*
    • Angel hair pesto pasta with chicken and veggies*
    • Soba/udon noodles in miso broth with shiitake, shelf-stable tofu and wakame*
    • Mock fried rice with veggies and chicken*
    • Peanut rice noodles with chicken and veggies*
    • Jambalaya with chicken, rice, and summer sausage*
    • Curry couscous with chicken and veggies*
    • Thai/Japanese curry with shelf-stable tofu, veggies, and rice noodles*
    • Orzo n cheese with broccoli and tuna*
    • Chili chicken rice with veggies*
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      A sampling of our dinner ingredients: freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried veggies, udon noodles, natural chicken base, freeze-dried cilantro, Sriracha, soy sauce, peanut butter, non-MSG fried rice seasoning blend, tonkatsu sauce for flavor

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      Also on the dinner menu are: refried beans, wakame, miso paste, and spring roll rice wrappers or rice noodles (whichever is available once we land). All starches, shelf-stable tofu, and summer sausage will also be purchased after we land

We’ll supplement daily with hardier veggies and fruits that can withstand backpack and car wear-and-tear sans refrigeration. Thankfully, carrots, sugar snap peas, celery, cucumbers, bell peppers, apples, oranges, pears, and bananas all fit the bill here. We’ll buy yogurt where available to keep our digestive tracts humming. Also, gross as it may seem, you know the menu has to include at least a little SPAM as an homage to our island roots. 😀 Fresh shrimp/sausage/corn hobo packets on market days and Idahoan Loaded Potatoes in the backcountry are also likely to make a dinner appearance or two. All things in moderation, right?

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We love fresh fruit on day hikes. Apples, pears, and oranges are especially hardy and do well without refrigeration. Bananas and grapes are a little more delicate but always appreciated.
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We stocked up on four bags each of these freeze-dried fruits and veggies as fresh produce is generally weight-prohibitive on multi-day treks. Freeze-dried produce is lightweight and fits easily into bear canisters if repackaged into Ziploc bags 

Many of our dinner recipes were inspired by freeze-dried meal recipes found on Pinterest. If you decide to go the DIY route, I highly recommend testing recipes at home first. Some ingredients and recipes took much longer to rehydrate than advertised–a definite problem at altitude with limited canister fuel. Others required flavor tweaking (again, just a matter of personal preference) or involved fiddly steps like mixing and frying dough (not my jam, but I bet a lot of people love it!). Testing recipes was also a tasty and fun solution for gauging proper portion sizes for our family. And for those who’d prefer to forgo freeze-dried ingredients altogether, substituting tuna or chicken pouches in place of freeze dried chicken is always an option, as is substituting pre-flavored sides, such as Near East Couscous, Annie’s Mac n Cheese, or Thai Kitchen noodles for any of the starches.     

My biggest food tip? Save condiment packets! They’re lightweight, easily packable, shelf-stable, and add infinite variety to your backpacking and camping meals. Here’s a short list to get you started:

Condiment Ideas:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Relish
  • Salt and pepper (Available at diners, movie theaters, and gas station food marts)
  • Mayonnaise (Less readily available–I found these at theaters and gas station food marts)
  • Soy sauce (Chinese/Japanese takeout)
  • Hot sauce (Sriracha, Tapatio, Tabasco, etc.; I found Sriracha on Amazon, and minimus.biz is another good resource for condiments)
  • Taco sauce (think Taco Bell or Jack in the Box)
  • Salsa (sometimes served with breakfast burritos)
  • Tonkatsu sauce (sometimes available in Japanese bento)
  • Jam/jelly (many diners carry these; my sister found them consistently at Denny’s)
  • Honey (this one’s harder to find in packet form except for places like KFC or Popeye’s, but it’s readily available in organic straws off Amazon)
  • Sweet and sour sauce/ BBQ sauce/Ranch/Honey Mustard/Sweet Chili containers (this one’s pretty specific to McDonald’s and other fast food places that serve chicken nuggets)
  • Olive Oil (I ordered these off Amazon to boost calories as needed)
  • Syrup (fast food breakfast chains are your best bet)
  • Red pepper packets/parmesan cheese (pizza/Italian takeout)
  • Hot mustard (Chinese takeout; Panda Express has a lot of these)
  • Wasabi (from sushi or poke takeout)

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    Small sample of seasonings and condiments: non-MSG dashi powder, Creole seasoning, natural chicken base, tomato powder, freeze-dried cilantro, Sriracha, hot mustard, yellow mustard, jelly, ketchup, relish, soy sauce, mayo, and taco sauce. 

With the help of family and friends, we’ve been lucky to amass a nice condiment haul over the last few months. Fortunately, freeze dried food compacts well, leaving plenty of space for condiments in our 2 carry-ons. And anything that helps us stay on track for cooking our own meals helps to save time and money in the long run. For example, even though we’re fried rice fanatics, the mock fried rice we tested left us less than wowed. We found ourselves craving the oyster sauce umami punch that soy sauce alone lacks. Down the line, this might lead to abandoning the meal altogether for costlier restaurant fare or processed items. Adding hot mustard and soy sauce to the mix, however, instantly made the rice more interesting. And a packet of sriracha changed the flavor profile completely! With a few condiment packets and a little imagination, it’s possible to elevate any meal from ho-hum to crave-worthy. So, save those condiment packets–they definitely come in handy!
Do you have a favorite camping or backpacking meal? I’m always looking for new food ideas…I’d love to hear about your favorite food strategies and tips for camping and/or road trips!

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21 thoughts on “DIY Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals: Pros & Cons of Freeze-Dried Food + DIY Menu Ideas”

  1. A deconstructed stuffed pepper meal is really good. I used dehydrated and freeze dried things to make it and it’s basically meat, beans, rice, bell pepper, onion, tomatoes and spices. Backpackingchef.com has some really good ideas and is probably where I got the stuffed pepper recipe. On our latest backpacking trip we used tin foil folded into several layers so it would be thick enough stand on edge on its own. We put it around our stove as a wind shield when boiling water for meals. It really cut down on our fuel consumption so we could carry less fuel, weighed next to nothing and took up no additional space.

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    1. Your deconstructed stuffed peppers sound delicious! I’m thinking that bell peppers are light enough that maybe we could even smuggle fresh ones along for a first night meal …thank you for the suggestion! We adapted several recipes from the Backpackingchef website, too. I agree–it’s such a great resource for ideas and flavor combos. Great tip about the DIY tinfoil windscreen! We’ve used our packs as makeshift windscreens, but foil sounds so much more effective. I’ll definitely be stealing that idea, thank you! 🙂

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  2. Looks like I’m going to some of the same parks you are this summer, although I’ll be staying in much more luxury; I’m strictly a day hiker. When is your trip? Thank you also for reminding me to get back on the horn with my blog posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fun that we’ll be in the same parks this summer! We leave HI in June but won’t be in the Sierra Nevadas until early August. If you should happen to see us, please give us a holler. 😀 When is your trip? So much to love about day hiking–access to “facilities,” included, lol!

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  3. I’ve always wondered about what backpackers eat since all the food has to be lugged everywhere for days. I didn’t realize you could actually have such variety and delicious sounding foods. I’m actually very impressed!! So much planning ahead and thinking creatively to manage the food for so many days. We always have some kind of hobo packets on our “camping” trips as well. Your trip sounds amazing and I am so happy for you guys to have gotten those coveted permits! 😄👏🏻

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    1. You’re so sweet…thank you, we’re so happy the permits went through, too! I love that hobo packets are fast, zero work, easy cleanup–are you sensing the L-A-Z-Y theme here? 😀 I give you so much credit; I totally admire the way you cook from scratch at camp. I remember your homemade gyoza and cake (!! How even, lol??) posts. So inspiring–it makes me wish I wasn’t so grouchy about camp cooking, but…I am, haha! I definitely know who to seek out for tasty camp eats, though! 😀

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  4. I admire you and your family for being able to do those super long backpacking hikes and for all this planning you have to do. Wow! I never thought about how much work goes into all that food planning! Hmm, I think I’ll stick to day hikes and my RV, lol! 😉 We were just at Sequoia last week and are going to Yosemite this week. Or sounds like you’ll be going to do many of the same places we are this year, just not at the same time. I really can’t wait to read about all of your adventures!

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    1. How fun that you were just at Sequoia! I didn’t realize that you were already in California; I’m excited for you just thinking about your Yosemite visit! I think you’re right–it sounds like we’ll be in some of the same places but at different times this year, shucks. It would’ve been so fun to connect…and admire your RV, lol! We’ve been dying to “tour” an RV and watch every RV show we can on Travel Channel. 😀 We don’t have RVs here, so we’re obsessed–hope we’re able to rent one someday! (and drive/park it, yikes!) 😀

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  5. Lots of work going into meal planning. Your husband and children had better not let hangry mom happen. Congratulations for securing the permit. I have heard nice thing about Rae Lakes Loop. It made me wonder if bots are being used to snap up these permits.

    Can’t wait to read about your trip. I’m too addicted to comfort (read fear of dying in a cold wilderness) so I have to stick to day-hiking.

    I wonder if you can freeze-dry oyster sauce. 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re not kidding about hangry mom–she’s one scary, crazy lady! Ask me how I know, lol. I never even considered that we might be competing against bots, though now that I think about it, I don’t know which is worse–bots or crazy hikers all frantically hitting ‘send’ at 12 am on the dot. I’d buy powdered oyster sauce in a heartbeat! Weirdly enough, I saw a recipe for dehydrated Sriracha ground into a powder (Overachievers!) 😀 so I bet you could do the same with oyster sauce .

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  6. Well, this is just solid gold (and a pleasure to read, as with all your posts). I’m not this ambitious yet, but I sure like hearing an expert POV. Apropos of inspiration, Jennifer Hanson thoughtfully included detailed food discussions in her book about backpacking the Continental Divide Trail. She’s a fan of freeze-dried too and organized the trek with re-supply shipping boxes: https://www.amazon.com/Hiking-Continental-Divide-Trail-Journey-ebook/dp/B0052ZBJJ4/

    Thanks for an amazing post and the time and care you invested in creating it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your generous words mean so much to me–thank you! Thank you for the link as well; I will definitely check that out. As with RVs, I’m not-so-mildly obsessed with thru-hiker stories, and Hanson’s CDT chronicle sounds right up my alley. Backpacking the CDT sounds like an amazing experience. I’d love to thru-hike the JMT someday but am unsure whether it’s in the cards for me–the spirit is willing, but the menopausal flesh is weak, lol. 😀

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  7. We arrived at some of the same conclusions about food for a trip a couple of summers ago. Unfortunately I did not find The Backpacking Chef until afterward, but we made do.

    Some of the recipes here were good: http://www.theyummylife.com/Instant_Meals_On_The_Go The Thai Peanut Noodle was our favorite.

    We had mixed results with rehydration. “Cooking” in a thermos worked the best to fully rehydrate everything, but if I remember correctly it took about 20 minutes. Of course, we were a party of two, not five, and we weren’t backpacking.

    I continued experimenting with the freeze dried and dehydrated food we had left after our trip. Definitely takes some getting used to, but having healthy shelf-stable ingredients around for substitutions or even whole meals is great when you don’t want to go to the grocery store (which for me is always).

    Side note: If you really want to get adventurous you could make yogurt with that Nido.

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    1. Thank you for the great suggesstions, Teresa! I love the Thai Peanut Noodle from Yummy Life, too; we swapped rice noodles for the pasta as it seemed to rehydrate faster that way. We adapted several of her couscous recipes, too, and are looking forward to seeing how they hold up on the trail. Such a great resource! Good to know about rehydrating in a thermos; I’ve read good reviews about that and should really give it a try before we leave, so thank you for reminding me. Hmm, interesting suggestion about the Nido–I’m not sure I’m that adventurous, though, lol. I experimented with making yogurt a few times when the kids were younger but haven’t dabbled in it recently. And I’m totally with you on grocery store dread! 😀

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  8. Ok, so you get the Wonder Woman award. How do you manage to organize this massive trip, source all these excellent menu items and then still have time to write an amazingly detailed and informative blog post? Do you sleep? I’m very impressed. I’m afraid I can’t give you any suggestions because I usually take the easy (expensive) route with Mountain House etc. I will be gratefully taking some of your snack/lunch ideas for an upcoming 7-day backpacking trip on The West Coast Trail (Vancouver Island).
    Congrats on getting the permits…very exciting! I’ve been really busy so just starting to get caught up on posts I’ve missed. Btw, we ended up doing a week in Mexico. Logistics and costs were better, but we will make it to Hawaii!

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    1. The West Coast Trail, wow! What an epic adventure–I’m thrilled for you! The photos I’ve seen are beautiful, but what I recall most (if I’m thinking of the right trail) are those hairy-looking ladders. I love Mountain House, too; in fact, if you have Amazon Prime, MH #10 cans are on sale right now. I picked up a can of chili for $16, and I’m guessing one can could probably last you all 6 nights if you’re interested. Glad to hear that Mexico worked out; I’d wondered if you were here and thought I might bump into you on a trail somewhere. :-D. Any (seeming) organization on my part is really just work procrastination in disguise. Plenty of time to organize and blog, but that manuscript I owe? Nada!

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      1. I hope we’ll bump into each other on a trail one of these days!
        Yup, you’ve got the right trail. I’m starting to have nightmares about the ladders, the rain, cold, cougars…We could only get permits for early June and that’s not typically a dry time (but is there ever really a dry time on the Wet Coast!) Thanks for the Amazon tip.

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      2. Ack, those ladders looked daunting! You are a brave soul. The Wet Coast–love it, lol. I’m having Third Beach nightmare flashbacks for you (and throwing a couple of cougars and crazy ladders into the fray for good measure). 😉 In all seriousness, I know you’ll do/be amazing…can’t wait to read all about your incredible trek!

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