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Dehydrating Food
For A Backpacking Trip

Dehydrating food is a handy skill to have if you're planning a backpacking trip.

hikers with backpacks

When you have to carry all of your food on your back, you want that food to weigh as little as possible.

You can buy packages of dehydrated food at your local camping store or online. Some varieties are quite tasty.

Buying dehydrated food is expensive, though.

If you're on a budget, why not dehydrate your own? Dehydrating food is easier than I thought!

Dehydrating food

Get a food dehydrator

If you're lucky enough to have a friend with a dehydrator, see if you can borrow it. It's nice to try out a new skill before investing in the equipment!

I borrowed a dehydrator similar to this one from my neighbor.

Prepare your ingredients

This might involve slicing or chopping.

Place the ingredients on a dehydrator tray.

If your pieces are very small, put a mesh screen on the dehydrator tray before adding the ingredients. (The screen should be included with the dehydrator.)

If you are drying a liquid, put a plastic sheet on the tray. (It's part of the package, too.)

Put the trays in the dehydrator and turn it on.

Adjust the temperature setting.

dehydrator temperature dial

Some dehydrators have a setting for fruits and vegetables, and one for meats. On others, you can set the exact temperature you want. (Read the manual for instructions.)

Wait until all of the moisture has been removed.

This will take many hours.

My first try at dehydrating food:

I first learned about dehydrating food one summer when we planned a backpacking trip with three other families. There were 12 people in total, and we decided to do potluck meals. I was assigned a dinner.  I decided to make chili.

Now, there's no way I could carry chili for 12 people unless I dehydrated the ingredients. I was a bit intimidated, having never done this before, but I decided to give it a try.

I borrowed a dehydrator from my neighbor, did some research, and set to work. It was surprisingly easy to do!

How To Make Backpacking Chili

Choose a recipe and make a list of the ingredients to dry.

I didn't use a recipe. I've made chili often enough that I know what I like to put into it.

Here's what I used:

  • ground beef
  • onions
  • carrots
  • beans
  • tomatoes
  • tomato sauce
  • chili powder

Calculate the amount of ingredients you'll need.

I figured out how much I'd need to make a batch of chili for each family, multiplied that by four, and set to work.

Dehydrate each ingredient.

Ground beef

Dehydrating the ground beef was the trickiest part, since every speck of grease needed to be removed.

cooked ground beef in dehydrator

I did it, though! Click here to read about dehydrating the meat.


I'd read that onions should be sliced for dehydrating.  I wondered why "slice" and not "mince" or "chop" the way I usually do for chili. Once they were dried, I understood. The slices of onions had turned into tiny slivers.  If I had minced the onions, they would have been much too tiny and would have fallen through the cracks in the dehydrator tray.


I chopped the carrots and placed them in the dehydrator.

food dehydrator tray with carrots

They dried beautifully.

Here's what they looked like when they were done.

dehydrated carrots


I had planned to soak and cook my own beans, but I ran out of time. I used canned pinto beans instead. I just drained them and spread them on the dehydrator.

food dehydrator tray with beans

They dried easily. Here is the finished batch.

food dehydrator tray with mesh screen and dried beans


Here's where it got tricky.

I used canned diced tomatoes. I drained them and spread them on the dehydrator's plastic sheet attachment.

They took a very long time to dry. Actually, they never did completely dry. When some were nicely dehydrated, others were still moist.

food dehydrator plastic sheet with diced tomatoes

It was difficult to scrape the tomatoes off the plastic sheet. I discarded the moist parts and packed just the dry bits.

Tomato sauce

This didn't work very well either.

The trick with tomato sauce is to spread it out completely evenly.  As you can see, I didn't do that.

food dehydrator plastic sheet with tomato sauce

Of course, the thicker parts were still damp when the rest was dry. I didn't have time to wait for the thick bits, so I discarded them.

It was easy to tell when the sauce was ready.

dried tomato sauce in dehydrator

The dry pieces snapped when I bent them -  just like a potato chip.

Since I had to throw some out, I worried that the chili wouldn't be tomatoey enough and decided to pack a can of tomato paste too.

Pack the remaining ingredients

Don't forget the chili powder!

I like to sprinkle cheese on my chili. I didn't dehydrate the cheese. (I wonder if that's possible?) I grated it at home and packed it in a ziplock bag.

Packing the ingredients

I put each element in a ziplock bag.

ziploc bags with chili ingredients

I placed the bags in a small stuff sack.

The stuff sack weighed only 800 grams!

I was a bit worried. Would this really make enough food to satisfy a group of 12 people?

Cooking the Chili

When dehydrating food and then cooking it, it's important to completely rehydrate everything. No one wants to find crunchy or indigestible bits in their supper!

I wanted to use as little fuel as possible, so I planned to soak the chili ingredients in hot water for an hour before beginning to cook.

ziploc bags with chili ingredients at camp

However, we got back late from our hike that day, and everyone was hungry - so I just boiled a pot of water, added the ingredients and let it simmer.

chili in a pot

To my surprise and relief, it quickly began to look like chili!

And it was delicious!

Lessons learned about dehydrating food

Don't try to dehydrate tomato sauce.

The tomato sauce took forever to dry, it didn't dry evenly, and it smelled up the house! I began feeling ill after 10 hours or so of smelling its aroma.

In the future, I'll just carry a can or two of tomato paste.

Perhaps with more experience I'd learn to dry tomato sauce correctly - but I don't think I'll bother. Canned tomato paste isn't that heavy!

Don't try to dehydrate canned tomatoes.

I am going to do some more experimenting with tomatoes. Perhaps I'll slice fresh tomatoes and put the slices in the dehydrator. That way I can be sure that the slices are uniform and will dry evenly.

Put the dehydrator somewhere away from the main living area.

A dehydrator is noisy. It generates heat. The ingredients will smell. I got tired of it after just a few hours.

If you have a basement or a garage, put the dehydrator there.

Make more than you think you'll need.

We were all hungry from the fresh air and exercise, and there wasn't quite enough chili to satisfy everyone. I'm not sure exactly why.

Did I discard more of the tomatoes than I thought I did?

Does dried food not rehydrate to its original volume?

Maybe we were just extra hungry.

chili in a bowl

Either way, my new rule is to bring more than I think we'll need. When you are backpacking, you eat a lot!

Next time, I would increase the amounts by one third. The ingredients were so light that carrying more would have been easy.

Plan ahead.

It took several days to dry all of these ingredients! This is not something you can do at the last minute.

If you discover that you love dehydrating food, and you plan to do a lot of it, you may want to invest in a really good dehydrator. This model gets excellent reviews on Amazon. People appreciate that it has a timer, that it is quieter than other models, that it is easy to clean, that it has a 10 year warranty - and, of course, that it is easy to use and works really well!

The bottom line

Dehydrating food is not as hard as I thought it would be.

Dehydrating the ingredients for chili took a long time, since there are so many ingredients.

Carrying the dried ingredients was delightful. They were so very light!

The chili was delicious. It was the perfect meal on a chilly day.

Now that you know about dehydrating food, check out all of my camping food ideas.

You'll find loads of information about planning a camping trip on The Camping Family home page.

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