Backpacking is the best way to see the natural beauty of the environment from a unique perspective. Too often, we look at the world as it whisks by our car window just out of reach. When you start backpacking and hiking, you can immerse yourself in nature and you learn to appreciate the nuances of areas that you might never have thought could be beautiful before.
One of the first things people learn when they start backpacking is that you must make choices about how much gear and equipment you actually need. Every ounce counts and one of the things that can take up lots of space is meals. Dehydrated meals are a great way to have the important nutrition you need on hand while taking up very little space and not weighing your pack down. Choosing the right dehydrated food items is essential to making sure you have the proper energy for your backpacking adventures.
Nutrition, Calories, and Staying Energized While Hiking
We know how tempting it can be to just grab a bag of jerky and some roasted nuts to toss in your bag before setting out on a hike. For a short trip, these items might get you through, but if you are planning on an all-day hike or an overnight backpacking adventure, you'll want to plan on having the best dehydrated meals possible. You need to know the nutrition, calories, and how much protein you'll get from your meals to replace what your body uses. Staying energized while hiking is vitally important. Your body will start to shut down and you can find yourself in a dangerous situation quickly without the proper nutrition on hand.
Knowing Your Body's Nutritional Needs
Just like any time you plan a dietary meal, you'll want to have the proper balance of nutrition for your backpacking meal. Understanding what the different nutritional values mean for your body will help you make good decisions for choosing the right meals.
This is one of the more misunderstood nutritional units in part because there are more than one definition. In nutrition, you'll most often see the term kCal to denote kilo-calorie. This is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. This differs from the calorie unit used in science that denotes the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius. US labeling requirements state that food producers must use the kCal on packages to indicate the caloric content of the product.
How Many Calories Do You Need?
The calories your body will require to maintain energy levels will depend on the type of exercise you are doing. Harder workouts will require more calories, so you'll need to plan ahead if you are setting off on a strenuous hike. Generally, you should plan on having 200 to 400 calories per hour for hiking and backpacking adventures. Calorie-dense items like jerky and nuts are a great way to get the proper nutrition.
Carbohydrates are often looked at as sugars, which is partially correct. Carbs are essential for your body to make energy which is vital when you are strenuously exerting yourself. Even under the most physical of activities, your body won't be able to process more than about 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
Types of Carbs
There are three types of carbs you need to understand in order to make smart decisions about the meals you make for your outing. Carbs are defined as Complex or Simple and are either starches, fiber, or sugars. Complex carbs like starches take longer to break down so they provide sustained energy. Starches are found in things like nuts, beans, and some fruit.
Fiber is also a complex carb that your body doesn't break down. Instead, fiber stimulates the digestive system to work correctly which is vital when you are hiking or backpacking. Too little fiber in your diet can lead to numerous digestive issues including constipation and diarrhea.
Sugars are broken down into naturally-occurring and added sugars. Natural sugars are found in fruit and milk, while added sugars are typically processed products made from cane, beets, or other sources and then refined. You'll want to limit sugars to a certain extent, particularly with added sugars that don't provide nutritional benefits.
Protein is essential for long-term energy building and helps prevent damage to your muscles. You'll want to find meal items that are dense in protein for your hiking or backpacking kit. Things like jerky, nuts, and cheese are good sources of protein for hiking.
Fat is used by the body to create energy. Some fat is essential, but too much will cause your body to build energy in an unhealthy way. You should regulate the amount of fat you consume while hiking, but don't eliminate it completely.
Sodium – often thought of as salt – gets a bad rap in nutritional circles, but it is essential to burning carbohydrates. When sodium is referred to as electrolytes, the impression of this essential nutrient is considered differently. You want to make sure you have the proper amount of electrolytes in your meals to replace those that your body uses. Too little salts in your meal can lead to muscle cramps and low energy levels. Potassium is also an electrolyte that is essential for proper muscle function.
What You Need to Know About Freeze-Dried Food
One of the most common food items you'll find in stores that sell survival and camping equipment is freeze-dried food. These meal replacements are made by freezing foods then sealing them with a vacuum pouch. Freeze drying gives your food an outstanding shelf-life of 25 to 30 years with minimal degradation of nutritional value. But, you should know a few things before running out and stockpiling freeze-dried food.
Many products use lots of salt to aid in preservation. All that salt can add up quickly. Some freeze-dried foods will contain 30 to 40 percent of your daily sodium intake, so you'll want to have other options available to prevent getting too much salt in your diet.
Many people have a hard time digesting freeze-dried food. This can be caused by not using hot enough water to rehydrate the food or not waiting long enough before consuming it. For some people, no matter how well made the item is, their stomach is going to hurt and they may have problems passing food waste which isn't a great way to spend a backpacking trip.
What are the Best Dehydrated Meals for Backpacking?
Just as you would when planning a meal at home, you'll want to plan your dehydrated meals accordingly so you get a balanced meal. You want to get an appropriate mix of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and calories to provide the proper sustenance for your adventure. Making smart choices about what food to bring with you will reduce the amount of items you carry and give you the nutrition you need.
Reviewers consistently rate the products from Mountain House at the top of the list. They tend to offer basic food items that have a distinct flavor like that you'd find in a can. Other popular brands of freeze dried backpacking meals are Backpacker's Pantry, MaryJaneFarms, and OMEALS that are available at many outdoor equipment stores like REI. Choose items that you would enjoy at home for the best results for backcountry meals. Shop around and you'll even find vegetarian options, vegan options, and paleo meals that you can take camping.
How do You Pack Dehydrated Food for Backpacking?
The best thing about meal replacements is that you can simply stuff them in your pack and on you go. Keep in mind that you will need something to heat water in for most brands. The rehydration process requires hot or even boiling water so keep in mind that you'll need a can or pot to heat up water with.
If you are planning on eating nothing but freeze-dried meals on your trip, pack enough so that you'll have 2,500-3,000 calories per day with a decent amount of protein. Keep the sodium levels in mind as you pack though because it's easy to over do it with salt and you'll need extra water to stay hydrated.
Troubleshooting Before You Go
We don't think that freeze-dried foods are the best way to go when backpacking. They work great for a single meal or to add a little extra nutrients, but the high sodium levels and possibility of stomach discomfort as a result of the products mean that you should plan on having other items to augment your nutritional needs. Pack things like dried fruit, trail mix, beef jerky, and dry-roasted nuts with your backpacking food for healthy snacks that don't require rehydration. These items also help give you the ideal nutrient levels that you need.
One good trick is to pack a few cans of food, like canned chicken and tomato sauce which can be useful for making an otherwise gross freeze dried meal rather palatable. Plus, one or two cans gives you cooking instruments in a pinch.
Always pack more food than you will need, but not so much that you are forced to lug around a monstrous backpack on your hike for no real reason. If there is a good chance you'll have access to fresh food, like if you plan on hunting or fishing on your adventure, you may not need to pack quite as much food. Even in the most desolate environments, a well-prepared person can find sustenance.
Water is much more important than food. In an emergency situation, you'll need lots more water than food since your body will be capable of surviving for several days with nothing to eat at all, but you might not make it more than a few hours in the wilderness without water. A portable water filtration system is a great thing to bring with you rather than packing in a bunch of plastic water bottles if you'll have access to fresh water.
Making the Best Freeze Dried Meals at Home
If you don't want to buy freeze dried meals you can make many of the best foods at home. There are a couple ways to do it. You can buy a machine that freeze dries food, you can arrange food on a tray and place it in the freezer for two or three weeks, or you can use a dehydrator for many food items. We like to use our dehydrator to make dehydrated vegetables and fruit that helps to limit pack weight. Instant rice and instant mashed potatoes make for excellent choices that you can buy in bulk and package just enough for your needs. We also like to pack instant coffee to make getting started in the morning more pleasant.
You can also pack things that don't require refrigeration like peanut butter. You'll find that high-fat items like nut butter, chocolate, and many types of raw meat won't dehydrate well. Many types of nut butter don't require refrigeration and offer a great source of protein and fat essential for survival. They can also be easily packed and help to add flavor to other meal items.
A vacuum sealer is essential for freeze drying meals at home. This device removes air from the bag and seals it to preserve the contents. We use vacuum sealers all the time when we freeze raw meat. It's a great food preservation technique that you can use for everyday meals, too.
The Most Important Part About Backpacking Meals
The best dehydrated backpacking meals offer you the nutrition you need for survival without taking up a bunch of space and overloading your pack weight. Backpacking meals should include a mixture of freeze dried foods, dehydrated foods, and natural products. Making your own meals at home is a great way to have your favorite backpacking food on hand any time you are ready to get out of town.
One thing that we always caution people about is to try these products at home before planning on taking them on your backpacking adventures. That way, you'll know if the amount of food is enough and how your body reacts to the freeze dried meal. Augment your meals with trail mix, jerky, and condiments like peanut butter or olive oil that don't require refrigeration. You can use these items to make bland meals into tasty food.
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