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I love to cook meals in the backcountry and often lean toward the gourmet side of things, at least on short trips. However, I can think of many times when I've slogged through rain or snow, hauled a huge pack over miles of dead fallen trees, or pushed to get off an exposed ridge with the threat of a storm when a meal that required simply adding boiled was the best part of the day. Whether it is the ease and simplicity of preparation, or less mess to clean up afterwards (a major bonus in Griz territories), even the most seasoned backcountry adventurers welcome a "meal-in-a-bag" or "Just Add Water" option to their wilderness cooking repertoire.

Though pre-packaged, freeze-dried meals have reportedly come a long way in the taste department over the past several years, many experienced backcountry enthusiasts aren't impressed. Some find the portion sizes too small, the cuisine options boring, or the cost too high.

Thankfully there are many options to prepare your own "meal-in-a-bag" using high quality ingredients, seasoned to suit your palate, and portioned to meet your individual nutrition needs - all for less money than the average pre-packaged freeze-dried meals.

From a nutritional standpoint, the DIY option allows you to use fresh produce from your garden or Farmer's Market to boost both flavor and nutrient content. You lose some nutrients in the dehydration and cooking processes, but starting with high quality ingredients that didn't have to travel far to your kitchen helps. You can tailor ingredients to boost nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids by using walnuts in pesto, adding Chia seeds to your oatmeal, or salmon jerky to Mac and Cheese. Making your own meals allows you to boost antioxidants with assorted dried vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices where pre-packaged varieties often skimp on the veggies and use salt as the main flavoring. Finally, the DIY option for quick meals is particularly helpful for those with special dietary needs such as food allergies and intolerances, or for picky eaters.

For those with access to a dehydrator, the possibilities for creative meal-in-a-bag (MIB) options are endless. Almost any meal you cook can be dehydrated to take on the trail. In my experience, dehydrating meal ingredients separately works best, such as red sauce, cooked pasta, vegetables and meat, or vegetarian substitutes for meat. Place all of the individually dehydrated components into a zipper-lock bag and rehydrate together for your wilderness meal. There are special baggies available that you can use to pour the boiled water into the ingredients and seal to allow rehydration. For those who prefer to prepare JAW meals in reusable covered pots or bowls here are some tips for easy cleaning.

You can dehydrate foods like raviolis, though the best results seem to be with vegetarian fillings since chicken or meat takes longer to rehydrate and makes the pasta mushy. This applies to dehydrated homemade soups that contain noodles as well. If you use dehydrated meat or poultry chunks and want them to soften, make sure the rest of the meal ingredients can withstand the time it takes for the meat to fully rehydrate. I've used small pieces of jerky (made with chicken, bison, fish, or tempeh) knowing the chunks may still be a bit chewy, yet maintain flavor and not give me a stomach ache like some of the inadequately rehydrated meals can do.

There are many nutritious Just Add Water meal options that don't require a dehydrator. Whole wheat couscous, instant brown rice and oatmeal, brown rice noodles, and bulgur are longtime wilderness staples now available using whole grains. Buckwheat groats, quinoa, and whole wheat Angel Hair pasta that are not pre-cooked and dehydrated ahead are not in the JAW category, but can be cooked in about 10 minutes (or less) then soaked for an additional 5-10 minutes allowing the remainder of the ingredients to be added and still produce a quick, nutritious and easy meal.

As people cook less in their everyday front country lives, those of us seeking to increase our variety of wilderness cooking options benefit from a plethora of interesting ingredients that require no cooking. For those of you who already have some favorite easy backcountry meals looking to add a new twist here are some ideas:

Powdered coconut milk

Add curry spices, peanuts, brown rice or whole wheat ramen noodles noodles

Dried porcini mushrooms

Add to sun-dried tomatoes, instant brown rice, cooked then dehydrated garbanzo beans or Italian-spiced jerky, pesto (powdered if in the baggie or store homemade pesto in a plastic tube to mix in once the rest of the meal is rehydrated)

Kale chips

Add to dehydrated mac and cheese and salmon jerky

Whether you are a die-hard wilderness gourmet or a new backcountry adventurer looking for alternatives to pre-packaged freeze-dried meals, there are many options to make quick, easy, and tasty camping meals. It is always a good idea to try your new creations in the comfort of your home kitchen first though, and adjust portion sizes and seasonings according to your needs and tastes respectively. Researching this article I found several good resources for recipe ideas, planning tools and tips, and people to answer your specific questions about backcountry meal preparation:

Understanding Dried Foods - Packit Gourmet

  • Storage and shelf-life of dried foods
  • Fresh/dry equivalents
  • Rehydration ratios
  • Cook in bags
  • Ask the Chef section of website

Wilderness cooking website (Canadian BC cookbook author Laurie Ann March -A Fork in the Trail and Another Fork in the Trail.)

  • Links to various ingredients for wilderness cooking
  • Recipes with instructions for dehydrating in advance for easy prep in backcountry
  • (NOTE: second book is vegetarian and vegan recipes)
  • Dehydrated ravioli

MaryJane's Outpost

  • A lot of good products in eco-friendly packaging that can be used to mix the food w/boiling or cold water; organic ingredients, "real" food
  • Good for ideas to DIY

Dirty Gourmet

  • Awesome ideas! Very creative.

Trail Cooking (freezer bag cooking)

  • Tips for FBC
  • Tips for dehydrating and buying a dehydrator
  • Food companies

Posted on January 28, 2015

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