Freeze-dried or dehydrated? That is the question. When making your own backpacking meals, is it nobler to buy freeze-dried ingredients or dehydrate them yourself in a food dehydrator?
I think it really comes down to how you want to spend your time and how complicated your meals are. I spent one winter dehydrating fruit and big pots of food in order to make home-cooked backpacking meals. It never tasted the same when rehydrated in freezer bags and required an enormous time investment which I found onerous. (My wife also hated the fact that I took over “her” kitchen.) I soon switched back to buying commercial one-pot backpacking meals and quick cooking grains and pastas, adding freeze-dried ingredients to them in order to enhance their taste and nutritional value.
I’ve since found that freeze-dried food (especially Harmony House Freeze Dried Berries) is a lot more convenient to store and use for backpacking than dehydrated ingredients, since they have a much longer shelf-life and reconstitute more easily when added to water. But both types of food are good for different purposes and it’s useful to understand the pros and cons of each.
What’s the difference between Freeze-Dried Food and Dehydrated Food?
Freeze-drying removes 98% of the water in foods while dehydration removes about 80% giving freeze-dried products a much longer shelf-life. Freeze-dried food is flash frozen and then exposed to a vacuum, which causes all the water in it to vaporize. This requires expensive equipment and isn’t something you can do at home, but it makes it possible to store freeze-dried foods for 20 to 30 years, compared to dehydrated ones, which typically last one to five years.
But the biggest difference between freeze-dried and dehydrated foods is nutritional. Freeze-dried foods retain all of taste, smell, texture, and nutritional value they has in their original form before the freeze-drying process. Dehydrated foods lose about 50% of their nutritional value because they’re subject to heating during the drying process and can become somewhat chewier, since the heating process “cooks” them over a long period of time as they dry.
Freeze-dried foods also rehydrate more quickly, usually in 5 minutes or less (dried berries, almost instantly), in hot or cold water. Dehydrated foods usually take 10-20 minutes to rehydrate, provided you use boiling water, requiring a longer wait and more stove fuel, which are both anathemas for backpackers!
Mix and Match
I don’t dehydrate my own meals anymore, but I still eat commercial dehydrated backpacking meals (mainly dinners) made by Outdoor Herbivore because they taste good and are easy to prepare, even though I’m not a vegetarian. If you have the ability to make meals that taste as good as theirs, more power to you. But dehydrating and making my own dinners at home before each trip is not how I want to spend my free time. Being dehydrated, they do go off after about two years though, so I make a point to eat them all up in the calendar year that I buy them.
I still pack up my own ingredients on trips, but mainly as additives to the one pot breakfasts and some dinners I make myself, based around quick cooking grains and pasta like wheat cereal, oatmeal, ramen noodles, and angel hair spaghetti. But I’ve switched to freeze-dried ingredients out of convenience because they last longer without requiring refrigeration or going bad in our pantry if they’re not used promptly. I really hate throwing out food that’s expired and hasn’t been eaten, so the longer it can be stored and remain fresh, the better.
Disclosure: The author has received samples from Outdoor Herbivore and Harmony House Foods previously, but is also a very happy repeat customer of both brands.
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Thanks, Philip. Thanks for a good overview. Note that some nutritional value can be lost, even with freeze dried foods, especially vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin E.
Often fats and oils are removed or reduced to single percents (which accounts for the loss of vitamin E.) They do well to hit 100-110C/oz. Carrying oils, olive oil, cooking oil, coconut oil, clarified butter (ghee), etc will add a lot of calories.
Phil, do you have a good source of freeze dried ingredients, things like tomatoes, onions, carrots,…?
I don’t dehydrate meals, but I use dehydrated ingredients to make meals. Harmony House Vegetable Soup mix is a great combination of dehydrated vegetables, it goes in almost every dinner I eat on the trail. I also really like their Tomato Powder, that plus dehydrated tomato pieces and soup mix on ramen makes a very credible spaghetti and pasta dinner, it I am really hungry, I add a pack of oil-packed tuna.
Pmags has recipes in each issue of TrailGroove that mostly use dehydrated ingredients, like beans and cheese powder and coconut milk (not all in the same recipe).
If you know how to cook at home, then dehydrated ingredients can make delicious backpacking meals.
Harmony house sells a gazillion freeze dried veggies too. Good stuff.
I was wondering how I had missed that in the past, but I just looked at their website. They have FD peas, corn, mushrooms, celery and soybeans. I’ll have to stick with the dehydrated veggies and the FD fruits.
Check out Thrive Life freeze dried foods as well. We use their products mixed with knorr sides for tasty meals on the trail. We pkg them in ziplock bags. They are light and convenient.
It is good to hear the experience of someone else with dehydrating food. After spending many hours getting food ready for an AT hike last year, I have also decided that I did not want to spend that amount of time trying to completely furnish my own meals. There were a meals that we make at home for dinner that de/rehydrate well and really hit the spot while hiking. So when we make those at home now, I just make sure we have some left overs and then put those in the dehydrator the next morning. I have had good luck with the Harmony House freeze dried products and use them where I need some vegetables or fruit as part of a meal. At this point I use a combination of the few meals I still dehydrate, the Harmony House products and some of the commercially packaged dehydrated meals. At this time it seems to keep the meal choices interesting and minimizes the time up front spent getting food ready.
Time and shelf life. Freeze dried food just lasts a lot longer in my food cubbard, so much less is wasted if it does get used quickly.
I’m reading this as I eat my backpacking breakfast of oatmeal mixed with cream of wheat and whey protein, topped with generous amounts of chopped nuts, freeze dried strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and mango. I love freeze dried food!
I’m not backpacking right now, although I plan to take the grandkids and one of ther friends camping this afternoon. The kiddos will be roaring around the campground on their bicycles while Grandpa fixes tomorrow’s breakfast of the car camping variety–eggs, bacon and pancakes.
I’ve been getting my freeze dried items at Trader Joe’s for around $3.50 to $4.00 per bag. The bags are about the size of a quart Ziplock. Once I deplete my current stash, I’ll deplete my current cash on some online replacements.
Living in Europe, we don’t have anything like Harmony House here – if we did, I would dehydrate less for sure. Time is money too.
As it is, I usually do a mix of dehydrating complete meals ans dehydrating components and mixing on the trail. I also use what sensible easy cook items I can from the supermarket.
Mostly, I do this because I don’t like the flavours of the “just add water” meals available here, not even after a day on the trail + they are too expensive here.
Good article. I like to make my own backpacking meals, but never considered freeze-dried food before, always preferring to dehydrate my own. This has definitely provided me some food for thought. I’m curious, what one-pot recipes do you use? Do you have any you could share with us as some examples? Also, do you just eat out of the pot Shug style, or do you so freezer bag cooking?
Side question — what pot are you using? It looks like it has some decent capacity.
The pot is an evernew titanium pasta pot (size medium) I’ve been using since 2010. Has drain holes in the lid. Love it.
I just eat out of the pot.
Perfect! Thanks for the recipe suggestions, Philip. Those will get the gear turning on how I can take some of the Harmony House and Trader Joe’s freeze dried ingredients, and add them to other backpacking staples.
The basic pattern is: instant oatmeal, wheat cereal,quick cooking grains or pasta, etc. Then add other stuff for taste, mouthfeel, nutrition. Super fast to cook. Less pre-trip prep. Easy to clean because the meals are “glop.”
I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time in the past dehydraing all kinds of food. I’ve found that I can buy beef jerky at a wholesale club quite a bit cheaper than I can make it, but I did like mine more–just not enough more.
Sliced potatoes stayed tough and rubbery, although I overdid it, trying to turn them into a sort of spiced thick chip. I think my product might be endorsed by the American Dental Association if it ever accidentally got to market… unless it’s promoted as a doggie chew toy!
Pineapple dehydrates into sweet candy chunks. Mango clearly wasn’t worth the effort, not when I can buy bags of dried mango, which is way better. Dehydrated strawberries reconstitute well in oatmeal. I saw a frozen bag of mixed fruit at the store that I’m going to try to dehydrate–I must have recently fallen on my head!
Frozen green beans and broccoli dehydrate and reconstitute very well. The frozen versions were cheaper and did better than fresh. Squash was meh. Sliced dehydrated jalapeños add a kick to a meal. My dehydrated veggies often go into ramen to bulk up the meal. I keep my dehydrated fare in the freezer when it’s not being used.
A problem I’ve had in the past with the freeze dried is that it’s so snackable when I leave it in sight. There’s no telling how many barely notoced calories I’ve consumed from those bags!
“This requires expensive equipment and isn’t something you can do at home…”
Actually, you CAN do this at home, though the equipment is still quite cost-prohibitive for some (including me at this time). Check out Harvest Right Freeze Dryers if you’re interested (no, I’m not affiliated whatsoever, but find this stuff interesting). If you’re interested in freeze drying at home, check out Epicenter Bryan on YouTube. Most of his recent videos deal with freeze drying various things (both successes and failures), since his business recently acquired one of the freeze dryers. Maybe someday…
I looked into buying a freeze dryer. Unless your goal is to preserve your own home grown produce, the costs of purchase and of running the equipment is so high, it’s close to the costs of purchasing the prepared products. Add to that the time involved and it is just not worth it in my opinion.
After the Beginning Backpack, I have found the joy of rice noodle. Not all are created equal, but they rehydrate quickly. This year I am bringing an alternative to our heavy meal made with freeze dried veggies. Maybe meat sticks for the sausage. I am the queen of freezer bag meals. I even made an edible satay with peanut butter powder and coconut milk powder. You can get some stuff at Super 88 or HMart, even TJs and Market Basket. But Harmony House is the jackpot.
Hmmm. Recipe…let me get some measurement thingies (yeah, I’m that lazy). Maybe I can make something good, not just edible.
Philip just curious, not a fan freezer bag cooking or do you find the one pot method easier.
I sleep outside about 100-120 nights per year, about the same as doing a thru-hike per year, although broken up into 3-4 days trips so I can go home, visit my wife, and write. I eat one pot meals because they take almost zero prep at home. I just throw ingredients into my food bag and go. Simplicity itself. Boil. Add ingredients. Eat. Cleanup is simple. I’m not a fan of complicated meals on trips and I never get tired of this simple pattern, which has lots of variations depending on the ingredients I happen to have around or resupply.
Pre-bagging recipes is a chore. No thanks.
Thanks Philip just starting out and wanted to know your opinion.
I have been dehydrating my own backcountry food since the 70’s. In 1980 I was a member of an expedition to the Alaska Range. We spent 80 days in the range, and had 9 climbers and a basecamp cook to feed. Do the math, and that is 800 man/days of food!
We spent half of our days traveling through the range on skis, and made all the meals for those days ourselves. We devised a 7-day meal plan and dehydrated almost all the ingredients of those meals. One of our team members was working on an archeological dig, and got us a 6-foot tall artifact drying rack. We put the rack over the furnace outlet in the kitchen, set the oil furnace on high and spent two months preparing and drying all the ingredients for our meals.
We made our own because we were poor dirtbag climbers and couldn’t afford freeze dried food. The expense of freeze dried is still an issue for me today, with a typical FD meal for two running between $8 – $12. My home-made freezer-bag meals cost a fraction of that (discounting the time involved in making your own).
I also like that I am in complete control of the ingredients, portion size, weight, packaging, and the caloric output of every meal.
Cool story! I love veggie-heavy meals, don’t like additives and colorings and am allergic to onion, so the only bought-meals I could use are probably oatmeal. (But I make that, too.) I store dehydrated foods in separate ziplocs in the freezer and only combine to create baggie meals when I’m ready to head out. Like you said, lots cheaper if you don’t mind the time, and I really enjoy the process.
I am not affiliated with these folks in any way, have ordered a lot of freeze-dried fruits and veggies from them with great results. Customer service, the one time there was a shipping error, was *exactly* what you’d hope to get: a real person, instantly reacting, great communication, and quickly resolving. HIGHLY recommended.
Thanks for the tip, Kate. I’m going to give them a try.
Hmmm… I don’t find dehydrating so difficult. My wife is an excellent cook and tends to make double batches of meat sauce or chili to freeze so I’ll occasionally steal a portion and put it in the dehydrator and do… well… nothing but wait. Then seal it in a bag and toss it in the freezer. I like home cooked meals on the trail and flavors/ingredients my body is accustomed to. I have had too many crappy mornings/days burping up the chemicals in Mountain House meals (ugh). I have never made chips or jerky so maybe that is a pain. Otherwise, I love my own food on the trail :)
It just depends on how comfortable you are with cooking. And how you choose to time rehydrating and eating while on the trek. Me, I live to cook and eat outdoors. I have dehydrated 50 meals for a my upcoming section hike on the AT – including meals like duck pastrami, brown rice, green lentils, pistachios, prunes, and a pinch of curry. I have a sealed plastic container to put the food and boiling water while I set up camp and take pictures during the golden hour. It will not suck! And it is way cheaper than purchasing freeze dried. But like everyone says, hike your own hike.
How about one of your raffles be a thread dedicated to readers posting their best dehydrated or free-dry meal recipes?
I’d love to add some new ones to my list.
Just wanted to add for those of us who do like to dehydrate, I freaking love backpackingchef.com! Lots of instructions and recipes. (no affiliation, just a fan)
Thanks for the nutrition and freeze-dried info! I’m going to have to look at replacing some of that sticky, sugary dried fruit with freeze dried…
I second that about backpackingchef.com, also I have found some great recipes on trail cooking, I believe it is Sarah kirkconnell’s website
It’s not. Her’s is Trailcooking.com.
Here’s my review of the backpacking chef cookbook, “Recipes for Adventure.” It really is the best reference available on dehydrated backpacking food.
Hello. I live in Calgary Alberta and I am an avid hiker. I love to prepare my own dehydrated meals. Knowing I have the ability to control what goes into each and everyone of my meals is important to me. I am a big fan of the “one-pot-meals. Easy to prepare, dehydrate and rehydrate. While setting up camp, boil some water, add to a reusable bag and enjoy. For the most part, my trips last about ten days. I take about four to five days worth of dehydrated food and live with the land (berries, plants, shrooms, fish etc) for the remainder of meals. Although FD is much lighter (but expensive in Calgary) than dehydrated, and everyone can appreciate that after long days on the trail, I love sitting by the isolated lake that took me ten hours to get to and rehydrating and enjoying a delishious meal.
I have never heard before that dehydrated food loses half of its nutritional value. Can you reference that so I can review the data? Also, I will dehydrate some regular meals that require very little extra work. The main thing necessary is to run it through a food processor to make the pieces smaller to facilitate dehydrating and subsequent rehydrating. Afterward I store my dehydrated meals in a chest freezer. Do you think that extends the shelf life beyond the one to two years you mention?
Can’t remember the exact reference, but just google “dehydration nutrition loss” and this is the first result.
Chest freezer – the nutrition loss is the result of heating the foods during drying, so the freezing phase is irrelevant.
It’s important not to confuse nutrient-loss from commercial dehydration systems and home systems. As noted on the World’s Healthiest Foods site:
“With the home dehydrating of fruit, however, it’s a different story. A home dehydrator does nothing more than blow warm air up through the fresh fruit, and it’s not nearly as harsh on the nutrients. The fruit is still “dried” and lasts longer than fresh fruit, but using a home dehydrator is gentler on the fruit than commercial processing.”
In the home process, there will be some loss of nutrients, but not necessarily the 50% that can occur from commercial operations.
For me, the choice is largely a function of cost. I can grow potatoes organically for less than a nickel per pound and carrots, beets, turnips, tomatoes, etc. for much less. Given the choice between spending time (which I have plenty of) or money (which I have very little of), the choice becomes obvious.
A book from the 70s that i found not long after i started hiking that broke my dependence on expensive, pre-packed — and, at the time, not particularly good — trail food is Claudia Axcell’s Simple Foods for the Pack. I think it’s been updated since the original 1976 edition. It offers recipes and advice for assembling meals from scratch. Some items were prepared ahead of time and were ready to eat, other meals are cooked in camp with pre-assembled ingredients.
In addition to the sources already mentioned, some other online suppliers i found for bulk, freeze-dried ingredients are Packit Gourmet, Pack Lite Foods, Mary Jane’s Farm, My Spicer, and DutchWare Gear. I have no affiliation with any of them.
For my own outings, i tend to bring a combination of commercial, just-add-hot-water packets; some meals i assemble at home with dried ingredients that require minimal preparation and cooking time; and ready-to-eat snacks and desserts that i make ahead of time at home. Being a non-meateater and having allergies to certain nuts, having such a wide range of options makes it possible to eat real, tasty food on the trail.
I came across that same book a few years ago..I think in a used book store..and experimented with a bunch of the recipes in it. Unfortunately, the original was written at a time when people used liquid fuel stoves and were willing to actually cook/simmer, not like today. Still it has a bunch of recipes that I was able to adapt to make the one-pot meals I like to eat when I backpack. Basically glop and slop! :-)
With my trusty Svea 123, i’m still a simmerer, and sometimes a cooker, depending on the nature of the hike, time of year, etc., though generally, i tend more now toward heat and eat. It’s been a while, but i have fond memories of adding blueberries freshly picked off of bushes growing along ridges to morning pancakes on late-summer hikes.
Even for packaged commercial freeze-dried meals that supposedly are ready after adding boiling water and waiting a few minutes, i find that some of the ingredients end up being a bit too crunchy, and i end up simmering and stirring these for a few minutes. I generally don’t mind the time it takes. It gives me a moment to contemplate and be grateful for the food, and in cooler weather, i can soak up a bit of the heat given off by the stove.
I was wondering. What specifically does it mean when you say that dehydrated foods loose 50% of their nutritional value? Does that mean that 50% of calories go away? Are carbos destroyed? Is protein destroyed? Are vitamins and other trace nutrients destroyed? Just saying that 50% of nutritional value is lost is a vague statement.
If you are referring to things like vitamins, then how significant is a 50% reduction? Most of us get way more vitamins than we need. So, if we loose a bit by eating dehydrated food, does that make a difference? Thanks, Gary
Vitamins and enzymes. The carbs and protein stick around. Different prep methods result in different loss rates, but a 40%-80% loss can occur. The point is that the losses are considerably less with freeze dried.
Philip, thanks for the answer. I can see how vitamins might be destroyed. Enzymes are proteins. Their structure may change be cooking, but the individual amino acids should be fine for the most part. Two comments: Ringo (below) makes an excellent point. In addition, most of us in the US get way more vitamins than we need and so much of what is taken in is wasted. Because of these two reasons, I suspect that any losses during dehydrating are irrelevant and we should not be considering this issue when we make food decisions.
The more important point (question) with regard to nutritional content is whether it seems reasonable to apply a more rigorous standard to the food we consume while on the trail than at home.
Most people cook most of the food they consume most of the time. Minus a few exceptions, cooking reduces the nutrient content of food. But if one is willing to accept in our daily lives the nutrient loss associated with, say, roasting or stir frying vegetables or otherwise exposing them to heat, why would it become a concern when hiking?
Additionally, if nutrient content is a concern, some consideration needs to be given to the source of vegetables. A carrot (or broccoli or beet, etc.) grown in a garden with nutrient-rich humus will have multiples of key nutrients than the “same” vegetables available in grocery stores, whether organically grown or not. Somehow I doubt companies, whether they specialize in freeze-drying or dehydration, are sourcing comparably nutrient-dense vegetables.
Bottom line: if nutrient content is truly a concern, grow your vegetables or buy them from a reputable farmer at the local market and dehydrate them using a low temperature. The nutrient loss relative to freeze-drying will be inconsequential and the higher quality input will provide many multiples of nutrients that can be obtained from a commercial processor.
My wife prepared and dehydrated all the meals for a 10 day canoe trip for 12 paddlers for the Bowron Lake Provincial Park “circuit.” 85 water miles and 15 portage miles. It took her several months and came in under 100 lbs! There was no Ramen noodles (nothing against them) and oatmeal only 3 days. My favorite meal was the corned beef and cabbage. The mid-pinot dinner was spaghetti with meat sauce, peas, garlic bread and no-bake cheesecake with cherry topping. She made and dehydrated her own hummus, salsa and breakfast “porridge” consisting of couscous and pie filling. We even had special meals for one person that was gluten intolerant. Now my dietary requirements have changed due to health issues, I’m happy to know that we can adjust accordingly with our dehydrators. I would love to own a Harvest Right freeze dryer but, I can’t justify the expense.
Vitamin, protein damage have been discussed, As I mentioned earlier, fat soluble vitamins and their calories are often removed from dehydrated food. Some of this damage is asymmetric. To continue the example above, some vitamins are fat soluble and can only be carried in a fat or oil (vitamin E as one example.) By removing the fats from dehydrated food, we also remove most of the vitamins associated with it. So, there is a clear bias against fat soluble vitamins. Some vitamins are clearly water soluble and are destroyed if dried out (vitamin C for example.). Again there is a clear bias against some water soluable vitamins. Other vitamins and minerals simply pass through the dehydration/hydration process; drying these causes no chemical changes or changes to food composition. As you can see, dehydrated foods can be lacking in some nutrients, or, have a excess of others. (Generally this is the same with any processed food. some processing is necessary for canned goods for example. Cooking alone often causes some nutrients to break down.) Balancing your diet can be a problem even if you get 200% of vitamins in one category, just as there is no one perfect food.
A very interesting article and comment thread, with much food for thought ;) I have always steered clear of the backpacking freeze dried meals because of cost and not generally liking their taste, but I think I need to revisit some of them as a category.
What I have relied on for some years now are some of the dehydrated soups I get at my local natural grocery, either in bulk or packaged. Typically the soups are black bean, lentil curry, split peas, corn chowder. I also like to buy Dr McDougall’s cups of soup, which I take them out of their cups and store in ziplocks and prepare in my pot. They say you only need to soak in boiling water 5 minutes or so, but I usually simmer :) them for a minute. These meals are not really high in calories by themselves, but I add a little olive oil or ghee, some cheese or nuts, depending on the flavor I’m trying to get. I also add either dried veggies or (if weight is not a big concern and I have them, like on day 1 or 2) a bit of fresh veggies. Also I may mix in couscous: it’s good especially for the bean soups…constipation on the trails is NOT an issue with lentils, split peas, black beans! All these options are really cheap and easy to pack, easy to cook, and I like the taste fine. Lots of ways to alter the taste some as one sees fit.
But I’m going to look up those brand options you mentioned in the article for some new options.