It’s easy enough to pick up some freeze dried backpacking meals and call it day. But why not save weight, bulk, and money by making your own supper? Welcome to Homemade Backpacking Dinner 101! In this article, we’ll cover some dinner bases, seasoning strategies, fat, protein, vegetable additives, and ways to package it all up for fast, clean, and easy devouring.
But first, what do I mean by dinner bases and what is ideal? Typically, this is a large, carb-centric dish that can be fully prepared by simply adding boiling water, not by boiling the food itself in water, like spaghetti. This distinction is important because it saves weight on fuel, allows you to eat sooner, and doesn’t require food to be cooked or eaten in the pot you’re boiling with (one less cleanup step). The following five simple, grocery-store-available foods comprise the overwhelming majority of all of my backcountry dinners: couscous, ramen-style noodle packets, instant rice and beans, instant mashed potatoes, stovetop stuffing.
While all of them work and taste great as dinner bases when spruced up, I will call out couscous as the most malleable, and best overall. With it, you can make dishes and flavor pallets from Africa, Asia, and Europe. A true jack of all trades!
So once you’ve picked a base, the next task is to add seasoning to it. With the exception of ramen-style noodle packets, which come with their own seasoning, all of these dishes are a little bland, so I like to spice them up with a blend of any of the following to add massive amounts of variety and flavor: pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, ginger powder, cayenne, smoked paprika, curry, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, coriander, cinnamon, cajun seasoning, italian seasoning, adobo powder, chili powder, new mexican chili powder, or sriracha (in packet form).
The sky's the limit with combinations, but be careful not to overspice, it can make the last 10% of your dinner flavorfully overwhelming, as dry spices inevitably settle to the bottom of a dried food bag. Last thing to keep in mind, all of these foods are salty enough as is, so I would caution against adding in extra, unless you know that you will otherwise be way short on electrolytes.
As delicious and important as spices are, they don’t add one iota of heartiness, so next, let’s talk about fats and proteins. For starters, I add olive oil to all of my dinners (conveniently available in packets), and cheese to everything but ramen-style soups. An ounce of oil and a serving of cheese is about 350 calories, a great energy boost for the hungry hiker. Really, any non-creamy cheese you have around the house can be cut up, bagged, and added in before you pour boiling water into the mix. It stores surprisingly well! I personally dig pepper jack as a good all purpose option for short-to-mid-sized trips, cheese sticks or sharp cheddars for mid-late trip, and aged italian-style cheeses for the tail end of longer trips.
As far as proteins, many options abound, especially if you enjoy preserved meats. The easiest, longest lasting options are typically hard salamis, peperoni, landjaeger, or summer sausage. You can also find freeze dried meats; chicken is a popular option. But don’t write off sea food either. Salmon jerky, and smoked salmon are both wonderful treats, and I love me some tuna packets. Stay away from canned options though, it’s not worth the weight/garbage. Vegetarians needn’t feel hosed here, though they obviously have less options. Many impeccably flavored, surprisingly delicious textured soy/vegetable proteins exist if you look online, and will give your dinner a huge nutrition and texture boost. Finally, bacon. Yeah, just cook some bacon the night before your trip and I promise you’ll thank yourself for adding it to any meal.
And last but not least, don’t forget to eat your vegetables! I can’t stress it enough. Vegetables add exciting flavors, textures, and nutrition, and are the single most commonly overlooked dietary group in all of backpacking food. Why? You can’t find many dried veggies at the grocery store. So be sure to stock up online! At all times, I keep a bag of Just Veggies in my pantry. A handful of this blend of dried tomatoes, corn, carrots, peppers, and peas goes in all of my dinners. But that’s only the beginning. I also enjoy freeze dried broccoli and mushrooms immensely, and dried kale chips can be a fun topping as well. If you like a fruit or vegetable, you can almost certainly find it available in freeze dried condition somewhere on the internet.
So now that you have this beautifully customized backcountry dinner, how do you store it and what do you eat it out of? Same answer to both questions: a freezer grade, quart sized Ziploc bag. Many hikers, myself included, have found great success packing their dinners in and eating them out of this miracle piece of gear. It saves you the effort of cleaning out your pot, a true hassle on cold nights around camp. And no, the plasticy-ness does not leach into the food. Just make sure you don’t eat with a fork, so as not to puncture the bag.
Food is super important, and I’m at my happiest when I like what I eat. Doubly so when it saves weight, bulk, and money (compared to freeze dried options). Best of all is if it’s so simple that you can cook it while hanging out in a hammock. Cooking up fancy dinners in the backcountry sounds fun and exciting in principle, but I’ve never once regretted doing all of the work in advance and having something simple all bagged up and ready to go the minute I get hungry. So go shopping, get epicurious, get creative, and find what you like to make. Bon appetit, and happy hiking!