Eating well on the trail: Hikers dehydrate home-cooked meals

When she sets up camp at the end of a long day of hiking in the Rocky Mountains, the last thing Renee Botta wants to do is cook.

So she doesn't.

Instead, Botta pulls out a collection of plastic freezer bags, chooses that night's fare, then boils water.

Her fellow backpackers – often in the wilderness together for a week or more – couldn't be more pleased. Instead of another round of peanut butter on tortillas or handfuls of mixed nuts and chocolate – two backcountry staples – Botta, of Evergreen, Colorado, will make a pot of curry sweet potato stew, red curry lentil stew, homemade guacamole or backcountry burritos.

All it takes is adding hot water and waiting.

"Basically any food out there can be dehydrated," she says.

Botta has been dehydrating fruits and vegetables – later moving into entire meals – for 30 years. The process of removing the liquid from food is simple enough, and can be done in the oven or with a dehydration machine, which ranges in price from $40 to more than $100.

"There are really fancy dehydrators out there, but I don't have one," says Botta. "You don't need it."

As a vegetarian, she doesn't dehydrate meat. While that's doable, Botta buys packets of freeze-dried chicken or beef from online sites such as Packit Gourmet for her hiking friends to add to their meals. The University of Denver professor of health communication turns to favorite websites – Backpacking Chef is one, Dirty Gourmet is another – for recipes. She recommends those sites for beginners interested in learning about dehydrating meals.

Glenn McAllister, who divides his time between Zurich, Switzerland, and Waleska, Georgia, launched the Backpacking Chef a decade ago to share his passion for dehydrating food. He lists recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and desserts, and shares three- to eight-day menus for long camping trips.

McAllister came to his vocation as Botta did: He needed lightweight, good-tasting fuel for long backpacking trips. He tries to include vegetables, a starch such as rice, and a meat or other protein in each meal, tying them together with "bark": a starchy vegetable such as potatoes or beans that dehydrate into brittle chunks. When reconstituted, the bark becomes a flavorful sauce.

"It flows through and connects all the meat, rice and vegetables in the meal," he says. (He makes one with pumpkin that reconstitutes as a pudding and tastes like pie, McAllister says.)

He has one hard-and-fast safety rule: Avoid fatty foods, such as pork, sausage and cheese. Use lean beef; avoid the fatty ground chuck.

"It's the fat that doesn't really dry," McAllister says. "If you have too much in there, it could go rancid on you."

His recipes are on his website and in his self-published book, "Recipes for Adventure: Healthy, Hearty and Homemade Backpacking Recipes" (2013). They include beef chili, stuffed green peppers, and macaroni and cheese.

"I do a nice ratatouille and a very good risotto," McAllister says.

For longer backpacking trips, Botta recommends starting to dehydrate early – it can take 24 hours – and testing a new recipe first on an overnighter.

While she prefers her own dehydrated meals, she says smaller companies such as Packit Gourmet of Austin, Texas, and Harmony House Foods Inc. of Franklin, North Carolina, make excellent prepackaged meals.

Packit Gourmet grew out of Debbie and Jeff Mullins' desire to keep a healthy diet during years of backpacking and canoeing trips with their two daughters. They started dehydrating food on screens set out in the sun at their Ontario, Canada, wilderness cabin in the late 1970s.

Debbie Mullins recommends starting simple. "If you have failure in the beginning, it ruins your experience," she says.

For instance, don't start by attempting a stew. Instead, she recommends, dehydrate some vegetables – onions, peppers, squash and mushrooms because of their lesser water content – and then throw them into soups and sauces.

"When you get comfortable with dehydrated foods, you will begin to embrace them in your day-to-day cooking," she says.

And get used to ugly food.

"That's the thing with the dehydrated food. It's not pretty to look at," Mullins says, noting the difference between a grape and its desiccated cousin, the raisin. "That's true especially when you make stews."

Taste your dehydrated food in its odd form. A tomato will have four times the intensity, she says. "I think, just play with the food and don't be afraid of it," Mullins says. "Just enjoy it. Experiment."

While Botta is pleased with the meals she dehydrates for the trail, she admits that it helps they're being eaten after a long day's hike.

"I will say, everything tastes better in the wilderness, so the bar is a little lower," she says.