You don’t need to sacrifice nutrition or taste when eating out of a bag. Here’s how
At the end of a long day in the field or on the water, there’s nothing more satisfying than a piping hot meal. If you’re confident in your wild food procurement skills, a crispy fish fry, seared venison tenderloin or grilled duck breast are a few options. But such meals aren’t always possible or practical on backcountry adventures, when you’re carrying everything on your back. Instead, dehydrated or freeze-dried foods are a convenient way to stay nourished, while minimizing weight. But you don’t need to sacrifice nutrition or taste just because you’re eating out of a bag. Here’s how.
Set your goal
Estimating how much food to pack for an outdoor excursion can be difficult. To start, you’ll need to know how many calories your body needs just to function normally, without any physical activity. This is known as your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which takes into account your height, weight, age and gender. There are numerous websites for calculating your BMR, such as www.calculator.net/bmr.
Once you’ve established your BMR, you need to factor in your activity level. Again, online calculators are a good resource. They multiply your BMR accordingly based on how strenuous your planned activity will be, telling you how many calories you should consume. Hiking a kilometre to a treestand or fishing for the afternoon, for example, would be considered light activity. Pursuing elk up a mountainside or moose through the muskeg, on the other hand, will require more fuel in your tank.
Backcountry hunting and fishing definitely burn up a lot of calories. Typically, I more than double the number of calories I need when compared to working around home. Even then, I lose weight each day I spend in the bush. On one backcountry hunt, for example, I finished 10 pounds leaner than when I hiked in eight days earlier—even though I couldn’t have eaten any more. Elevation, fitness level and hydration all play into how efficiently your body uses food and burns calories.
When you purchase dehydrated meals for the backcountry, the number of calories is listed on the label. But be sure to check the caloric allocations per portion size, as some meal packets are considered two servings—eat both and you’ll have doubled the number of calories listed. For me, 800 to 1,000 calories per meal is just about right, as I feel too full after a 1,200-calorie serving.
Calculating calories for home-cooked meals is easy, although it requires a little research. You’ll need to know the number of calories in each ingredient in order to derive the total for the entire dish. Then you can apportion servings from the dish accordingly, based on how many calories you need per serving. A lasagne with 8,000 calories, for example, would provide me with ten 800-calorie servings, or eight 1,000-calorie servings.
Make the meals
There are two types of do-it-yourself dehydrated meals that work well in the field: either dry individual ingredients to use in sauces, soups or stews out in the field, or dehydrated complete meals. The downside to the first option is that you’ll need one or more pots and a stove or fire to rehydrate and cook the ingredients.
Dehydrating complete meals, on the other hand, is simple. Just prepare and cook your favourite casserole-type meal, remembering to calculate the total number of calories. Once it has cooled, cut the meal into cubes approximately one inch per side and place in a dehydrator. Depending on the make and model of your dehydrator, and the amount of food being processed, the drying process will take between six and 18 hours.
Divvy up the dried cubes into separate meals according to how many calories you require per meal, storing each meal in a separate, medium-size sealable freezer bag. Be sure to label the bags with the meal type and number of calories. Dehydrated food can be stored in a freezer to extend its shelf life, but it’s a good practice to make the meals just before your trip.
Use extra caution when dehydrating meals with meat and fish to avoid the risk of food poisoning. If any water remains, bacterial growth is possible, although the risk is low. It’s worth noting that canned meat dehydrates better than fresh. Also keep in mind that although high-fat meals have lots of energy, they can be difficult to dehydrate, because as the water evaporates, liquid fat pools on the surface. Cheese can also be difficult to rehydrate, so use pre-dried cheese, such as Parmesan, for better results.
Preparing a meal at camp is easy. Just pour about two cups of boiling water into the sealable freezer bag or store-bought meal packet and wait. I use an insulated meal cozy to maintain internal temperatures, which speeds rehydration and protects my fingers from scalding. The wait time will vary with elevation, but 12 to 15 minutes should suffice for most meals. I’m often so hungry that even if the food has not yet reached the perfect consistency, I gobble it down after 15 minutes anyway—ready or not!
Simpson, Saskatchewan’s Lowell Strauss uses an old, but reliable, 10-rack Equi-Flow dehydrator to prepare his backcountry eats.
Hard-core backpack anglers and hunters are strict about how much their food weighs, but if weight isn’t an issue, you can also consider heavier Meals Ready to Eat, better known as MREs. They can be heated, or eaten cold right out of the package. Some brands can be warmed with the included water-activated chemical heater pack.