Not everyone has a dehydrator or even the slightest inclination to buy one. It can be a large investment, financially and physically--they’re not the smallest things in the world. But at the end of the day, you still have to eat!
So how’s a backpacker’s meal plan going to get filled? Well, there’s the obvious pre-made route of Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, AlpineAire, and so on. These prepackaged backpacking meals are awesome. Period. This might be a website about dehydrating and making your own wholesome backpacking food, but I’d be a bold faced liar to offer anything besides praise for these convenient freeze-dried mylar pouches of yum.
They’re awesome if you’re an infrequent backpacker, or even on a lazy weeknight when all the dishes are dirty. I digress. They offer something that really can’t be beat or replicated, convenience. Open the pouch, remove the desiccant, add hot water, stir, and wait. When you’re done eating the only thing to clean is a utensil, and that can be licked clean. No fuss, no muss.
Eventually if you’re spending a lot of nights camping, some predictable things happen: 1) You’ve tried every flavor multiple times. 2) Your food budget starts to grow out of control. 3) You start to wonder if throwing away mylar pouches is good for the environment. 4) You realize variety is the spice of life.
Make no mistake, I still take these out with me on short trips when I’m feeling lazy or don’t have time to prepare something at home. Hell, sometimes I’ll bring them along just because I haven’t had one in while. Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki is too damn good.
But at some point in every backpacker and camper’s evolutionary lifecycle you come to the realization that you can’t quite justify the cost of a dehydrator, but you’re camping so frequently or going out for long stretches that freeze dried meals are costing too much. Don’t worry, there’s a solution!
The grocery store. Imagine that, the grocery store has food that you can eat while camping. There are many things at your local grocer that’s great for building your backpacking menu; it may not be advertised as such, but it’s there. It’s actually surprising how quickly people turn to official “made for backpacking” meals when so much sustenance is available for a fraction of the cost and significantly more variety.
Unfortunately, not all my recommendations will be universally applicable because different grocery stores carry different items in different regions of the country, and some of you might not even be in this country (US). Despite that, the general rules and ideas are the same and you should be able to adapt them to work with what’s available in your local stores to best fit your backpacking itinerary.
I should preface by saying that a lot of food items found in the grocery store that work well for backpacking may not be as nutritious, wholesome, or anywhere near organic. Most of the time they’ll be pretty highly processed, it’s why they last so long on the shelves to begin with. We’re simply leveraging that shelf-stability for backpacking and camping. If it’s any consolation, these things are usually incredibly cheap and affordable.
You’ll have to tailor your grocery choices to your trip length and weather forecast. For example, if you’ll be out for a week in 90℉+ degree weather then a block of cheese would be a bad idea. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re doing some winter camping you might want to bring extra butter or other fats to help boost calories and keep you warm. For all other moderate temperatures, the world is your oyster.
Take a look at some of these examples, in no particular order, and head to your grocery store with an open mind and some creativity and you’re bound to score enough food for at least a week long trip or at least sooth the burn of your wallet.
- Quinoa - there’s an ‘instant’ variety available too, but they’re not as easily found as the regular stuff. These pack very well due to their size and are chock full of protein and potassium.
- Couscous - most couscous available in the store is a quick-cooking variety which just requires adding hot water and letting it sit for 5 minutes. Great for conserving fuel and very quick to make.
- Instant ramen - the ol’ college standby, I needn’t say more.
- Instant rice - this is a great base to add things to, keep reading!
- Spam singles - yes, the questionably delectable canned meat also comes in a single serve pouch. Add it to rice, my Hawaiian hikers know what’s up.
- Pop tarts - good enough for growing adolescent teens, good enough for me. Admittedly these are more indulgent than satiating, but they pack a ton of calories and sugar for those early morning slogs.
- Idahoan mashed potato - these instant mashed potatoes are a backpacking classic. I don’t think there’s a hiker barrel not half filled with every single flavor. Oh yeah, they come in awesome flavors like roasted garlic, four cheese, butter and herb, sour cream and chives, even bacon and cheddar chipotle. Eat these straight up, because you’ll end up doing it anyway.
- Single serve instant oatmeal - if poptarts are too juvenile for you. You don’t have to be boring either though, these come in all sorts of fun flavors.
- Knorr Sides - I know they’re called sides, but these are whole meals. There’s a ton of different flavors, just read the the instructions to make sure it only needs water and not milk. They’re probably the closest grocery store replacement to Mountain House meals. If you want the flavors that requires milk, you can always bring powdered milk.
- Instant soup packets - Usually by Knorr or Lipton. Add a pouch of soup mix to some water and instant rice. Stupid easy and tasty.
- Flour tortillas - if the weather is favorable you can even bring some (hard) cheese for quesadillas. Or just use it as you would bread. It lasts longer and is significantly more durable. Avoid corn tortillas, they dry up and get crumbly.
- Salami, summer sausage, or other cured meats - the original way to preserve meats without refrigeration. These days a lot of cured meats come in plastic wrappers instead of a natural fermented/cured casing. You should follow the manufacturer's recommended handling and storage, but let’s just say it lasts longer without refrigeration than they indicate. I like to make wraps with some slices and tortilla.
- Nut butter packets - these are usually the gourmet/organic types like Justin’s but they come in different flavors, even a chocolate hazelnut (can you say Nutella?). Great on a tortilla or just sucked straight out of the packet.
- Junk food and candy - on particularly long or hard trips, Snickers are a must for me. Live a little, you’ve earned it.
- Sun dried tomatoes (not in oil) - can be added to just about anything, trust me.
- Bulk bin nuts and dried fruit - these seem to be going the way of the dodo, but if you can find one it’s always a great bargain. I’m not a big trail mix fan though. I’ve noticed Whole Foods usually carries a dried bean soup mix and other just add-water things in their bulk bin section.
- Tuna in foil pouches - much like Spam singles, these are servings of tuna in a foil pouch. I add it to just about anything, mac and cheese, ramen, rice, whatever.
- Easy Mac - why pay $6 for dinner when you can pay $0.50 (okay, maybe $2 because hikers can have big appetites). Make sure you get Easy Mac though, the instructions on the back should say it’s microwavable, that’ll save you fuel.
- Cereal - Captain Crunch, anyone? If you’ve got some powdered milk, cereal is a no brainer for breakfast. You’re welcome to have a healthier choice, but I’ll stick to the good stuff.
- Jerky - obviously…
- Powdered hummus - a little difficult to find, but all you need is cold water (I add extra spices) and it’s delicious with crackers or on tortillas.
- Protein bars - these things usually have their own aisles and are lined along the checkout lines. Clif Bars are a popular choice, but get whatever floats your boat.
- Instant grits - if you want a savory breakfast and/or don’t like oatmeal. Super quick cooking and can be a base for additional things.
- Pancakes - if you’re really into pancakes, Bisquick has a Shake ‘n Pour mix that only requires water. It does create a bit of bulky trash though.
- Spices - never forget the spices to season your food with.
This list is by no means exhaustive, so don’t limit yourself. And if you find something interesting at your major grocery store, please share it with us on Facebook!