If you want to level up your hiking game this season, then making the switch to dried foods is the way to go. Need to know how? Read on.
Whether you’re a day hiker or a whole weekender, you’ve probably struggled to find the right food to take on your adventures. Sandwiches are pretty easy, but honestly, how much bread can you eat? Enter dried foods. While cup-of-this or powdered-that may not sound that appealing, dried foods have come on leaps and bounds since you last looked. With entire companies dedicating themselves to the production of healthy, filling, nutrient-rich foods that don’t weigh much, keep for a long time, and taste like, well, actual food, there’s never been a better time to re-educate yourself on the wondrous world of dried food. So, if you’re ready to shed some carry-weight, ditch crushed ham sandwiches, and fill your cup with knowledge, then saddle up, because we’re hitting the trail!
The question of ‘why dried foods?’ is one that comes up a lot. There are a few easy answers to that — ones which aren’t really arguable.
Dried meals are free of water, which means they’re much lighter than wet foods. Think of something like a warming soup on a cold day. It’s mostly liquid. In dehydrated form, it’s a light powder that can be rehydrated at your leisure.
When something spoils or ‘goes off’, that’s shorthand for saying that bacteria has grown to such an extent that the meal is no longer edible or appetising. A refrigerator slows down this process by making it too cold for bacteria to comfortably re-produce. But it’s not just warmth that bacteria need. They need moisture, too. In fact, this is one of the biggest factors. Like any living thing, bacteria require warmth, moisture, food (the thing they’re growing on!), and a suitable pH level to grow. As such, if you remove the moisture, you make it impossible for bacteria to grow. It’s the reason things like dried rice, pasta, oats, dried herbs, and a number of other things keep for such a long time. And dehydrated food is the same. Dried eggs, milk, and even meat — all things which are known to have a short shelf life without refrigeration — all keep for an exceptionally long time when dehydrated.
Dried foods often come in smaller, malleable packages. As you’re removing moisture, you’re removing both weight and volume. If you can vacuum seal the dried food, it’s much easier to stack, pack, transport, and won’t make a mess if it leaks or spills.
These are the three main reasons that dried foods are the ideal companion for hiking, and are the cornerstone of the evolution of this specific industry. Niche and probably not much use for everyday, dried foods come into their own when you lace up your boots. So, with that in mind (and the title of this article reminding us why we’re here!), let’s look a little more in-depth at what dried foods are, how to choose them, and how to get the most out of your next online shopping spree.
When you’re out on the trail, you may or may not want a full meal. Depending on whether you’re just doing a quick hike or you’re looking to really get those steps in, the type of fuel your body needs will differ greatly. While chocolate and nuts are definitely an easy go-to for a quick top-up, with the advent of so many dried options, you can now really tailor your eating to your needs. Carb-loading for a long day, protein-rich for better recovery, sugars for energy, salts and vitamins for balance and performance, you don’t need to eat a lot to get what you need.
As you might imagine, dried meals work by rehydrating your food as and when you’re ready. Some may require boiling water to be added — as with dried noodles or instant rice dishes, for example — while some may simply require water of any temperature. And some meals won’t require any water to be added. Depending on the type of dried food — freeze-dried or dehydrated — you might just be able to eat it right away. Jerkies and dried meats and fruits are great examples of nutrient-rich dried foods that have both a long shelf-life and the sort of accessibility you want when you’re out on the hill.
In most cases, there will be some sort of need for rehydration. But luckily, water should be something you have plenty of, anyway, and if you aren’t carrying a whole lot of it, there may well be a wild source to draw from. We always recommend at least boiling water before using it, and maybe even using a purification tablet if you need to. Then, it’s just a case of adding the water to your dried meal as per the instructions, stirring, and enjoying!
Freeze-drying is a term that’s commonly used but few really know how it works. Freeze-dried foods are not a new thing, and as you might imagine by the name, the process freezes and then dries the food, preserving its structure, and nutritional value, some of which is lost during dehydration, a lengthier process.
Freeze-drying, or lyophilization or cryodesiccation, if you want to get technical, utilises a two-step process of low-temperature freezing and then dehydration via low-pressure sublimation of the moisture held within. Lowering both the temperature and the pressure below the triple-point of water (an amazing temperature and pressure point where a substance exists in three states of matter at once), allows the ice within the food to transition straight to a gas, freeing itself from the food without damaging it. This essentially makes the food much lighter and easier to manage.
Dehydration, on the other hand, is done through the slow process of moisture extraction. A dehydrator works simply by raising the ambient temperature inside the appliance and circulating air over the food. This draws the moisture out, desiccating the food. While this process wouldn’t be appetising for, say, an egg, dehydrating cooked meats into jerkies, or dehydrating fruits into, well, dried fruits, is both a common and delicious practice! Raisins are the all-time classic example of how dehydrated fruits are a great trail snack.
The nutritional value of dried foods is a little different than you might think. Freeze-dried foods will retain almost all of their nutritional value, as the fast-freezing process preserves everything as-is, separating the food from the water, and the drying process just removes the ice. Because of this, everything stays within the food, making it the most nutritious form of drying food out.
Dehydration allows the moisture to escape slowly, and it takes a portion of the nutrients with it. Dehydrated foods, as such, aren’t as nutritionally complete as their freeze-dried cousins, but that isn’t to say that they still don’t pack in lots of nutrients and can’t be a great snack on the road.
Self-drying is becoming a lot more popular, but make no mistake that we’re talking about dehydration here. Freeze-drying requires some sophisticated equipment, so it’s mostly done at an industrial scale. As such, home freeze-drying isn’t really something that can be practically done.
Though dehydration is certainly becoming more and more popular. Dried fruits and vegetables are relatively expensive to buy, whereas dehydrating them yourself is free, and dehydrators themselves aren’t that expensive. Many people say that freshly dehydrated food also tastes better than a lot of store-bought alternatives, and we’d have to agree. Plus, getting the chance to make your own jerkies is pretty fun, too, and can be done without a lot of the additives and salts that large companies use, making them healthier, and less thirst-inducing. Two good things for trail snacking! It’s easy to get into, and you’ll be surprised how many things you can dehydrate. Fruit and vegetable ‘chips’ are a favourite on walks and weigh basically nothing, so they’re always a go-to.
Another interesting addition to the dried foods marketplace is full nutritional mixes and shakes. Many companies are now offering a protein-shake style powder which contains a large mix of nutrients, carbs, protein, fats, and everything else you could need. Branded as complete, balanced meals, they’re also usually vegetarian or even vegan, gluten-free, and free of preservatives and artificial … stuff. As someone who’s used these shake-meals, I can testify to how much energy they pack in. I often drink one before a long day of hiking or biking, and they certainly both fill you up and ensure you’re getting all the goodness you’re liable to miss while you’re on a hike.
There are both complete meals as well as vitamin mixes, protein shakes, and all manner of other types of mixes. And, probably not coincidentally, the way they make them is to freeze-dry all the ingredients, then blitz them into a powder. As such, these also make a great meal to eat for hiking — both during, and before. As they’re easily digestible, too, they’re great to eat on the move or to fuel up for an adventure and keep you light on your feet.
When choosing a dried meal, the important thing to remember is that food is fuel. Your body needs a variety of nutrients to keep it going, and when you’re burning energy faster than usual during a hike, it’s good to bear in mind that you’ll likely need to tailor your meals accordingly. Lots of muscle work means that carbs and proteins are king, while fats, salts, and sugars will help to keep you operating at peak performance.
Most hiking meals tend to have a focus on variety and nutrition, as well as minimising things like gluten, lactose, and unnecessary bad fats, salts, and sugars to ensure the best return on investment while you eat. Calorie rich meals are definitely something to look for, and depending on what activities you’re doing, you may wish to go for something pasta or rice-based for the extra carb load, or for something lighter if you need to stay agile.
We’ve talked a lot about dried foods, but it’s not just whole meals that are dried. We touched on fruits and jerkies and that sort of stuff, but it was all in the context of taking something naturally wet or moist and turning it into dried food. But that’s overlooking all the other goods that are already dried, and therefore light and portable. There’s a whole slew of foods that can be consumed dry or with a little added liquid, and make a great choice for hikes.
Snacking is a great way to top up your energy levels with bursts of carbs and sugar. We already talked a lot about fruit, but which ones are best? Citrus fruits are great choices as they contain lots of healthy vitamins and are generally great for you! Apples contain lots of sugar, and will provide a quick boost of energy. And berries are much the same, and are a brilliant choice to mix together after drying. Cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants … all great choices for an on the go power-up!
Nuts are another great resource for trail-snacking and are packed full of fats and protein, vitamin E, and fibre, making them ideal to consume on the go. And thanks to their light weight, they’re the perfect companion for the road.
Chocolate is definitely better than sweets, but not just because I prefer it! Dark chocolate (75-85% cocoa mass) is a great source of antioxidants (with more per gram than blueberries or acai berries!), as well as fibre. Proven to help with blood circulation and lower bad cholesterol, dark chocolate is best enjoyed in moderation, but is a great choice for trail-side munching.
But here’s where it gets really fun. If you mix together raisins, currants, cranberries, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and then throw in some dark chocolate chips? The ultimate trail mix. I also love to add seeds into the bag as they’re another lightweight food that’s packed full of goodness.
While it’s not a food per say, energy powders that you can mix with water are a great way to top up on things like electrolytes and sugars and salts you’re likely to lose during the day. Some of them are very high in sugar and caffeine, however, so ensure you do your research before buying anything. While sugar and caffeine are a good fix if you’re feeling low, you’re much better off addressing the heart of the issue, and working to replace the things you’ve lost through sweat and exercise. Still, good quality energy powders are not something to overlook if you want to stay at your best across multiple days of walking.
That’s all we have for you on the subject of dried foods, but hopefully, you’ve learned some important things (especially my recipe for the best hiking trail mix), including the difference between freeze-drying and dehydration. So, with that in mind, get prepping, get desiccating, and get packing, because there’s a world out there to explore, and, frankly, it ain’t going to explore itself!