Meal Idea: Chili

WILD_movie_posterFirst things first:  This aspiring PCT thru-hiker got to see Wild last night!  Before I write about what I thought of the movie, I feel I should explain my thoughts on the Wild phenomenon.  I like to think I read Cheryl Strayed’s book “before it was cool,” and I definitely was planning my thru-hike (and had already hiked the AT) before the book came out.  Nonetheless, I have no complaints about the attention the book and, now, the movie are bringing to the trail.  (In fact, it bothers me how elitist and sexist some of the criticism of the book from within the hiker community has been.)  If, in years to come, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir brings more passionate, idealistic hikers to the trail hoping to use their time in the wilderness to overcome past wounds and become the people they want to be, I think that would be a beautiful thing.

Anyway, I sincerely enjoyed the movie.  I didn’t love it as much as I loved the book, but that’s kind of typical for me.  In my opinion, curling up with a book is just a more moving, intimate experience than watching a movie ever is.  I was amazed at how well Reese Witherspoon embodied my imagined Cheryl Strayed.  There were lots of little details that I loved — from the retro Clif Bar wrapper to Strayed’s ragged breathing in her spoken thoughts.  The movie wasn’t an account of Strayed’s hike, but neither was the book; both depicted her journey, in the larger sense.  I thought that it was a beautiful movie.  (If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

So, anyway, chili.

I grew up terrified of beans.  My best guess as to why that is, is my mother’s rigid avoidance of them.  It wasn’t until I’d been a vegetarian for more than a decade that I finally ate them — and found that, not only could I tolerate them, I really liked them.  As a whole new world opened up to me, it was only a matter of time before I’d discover the wonders of chili and appreciate it as the perfect cold-weather meal.

Eating rehydrated chili on the trail begins with making normal chili at home.  If you’re more familiar with the dish than 20-year-old Rainbow Dash had been, you probably have a favorite chili recipe.  (If you don’t, you could go to the Trail’s End Festival in Millinocket, ME, and taste-test your way around the chili cook-off.)

When I’m making chili for the trail, I begin with just a few ingredients:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes (cans of diced and pureed tomatoes provide easy shortcuts)
  • Beans (cans of kidney, black, and even garbanzo beans)
  • TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein, either of a generic brand or the flavored “crumbles” that Morningstar makes)
  • Chili powder and any other complimentary spices I’m fond of at the moment

Cooking chili is a simple as sautéing the onions, garlic, and peppers, stirring in the remaining ingredients, and then adding salt and pepper and other flavors until it tastes the way you like it.  Because dehydrating food sometimes seems to diminish the food’s flavor, it’s generally a good idea to over-spice and over-season foods for a backpacking trip.  And, unless you are proficient in dehydrating corn, I recommend leaving it out of your chili; that’s one of those foods that tends to give novice dehydrators some issues.

After you’ve got a nice pot of chili, just spoon it thinly onto lined dehydrator trays and put it in your dehydrator for 8 hours or so at a medium setting.  When the food is dry inside and out, divide it among Ziploc freezer bags and stick it in your pack or resupply box.  All you’ll need to do when you get to camp is add boiling water to the bag and let the food rehydrate for 5-10 minutes.

When I’m backpacking, I like to add rice to my chili (which I add cook, dehydrate, and add to the bags before I pack them) or serve it burrito-style in tortillas — or both.  However I serve it, it’s a great way to warm up on a chilly evening or after a rainy day hiking in Maine.

Meal Idea: Backpacking Dinner Staples

Because my backpacking trips are often multi-month endeavors, I tend to know about them quite awhile in advance.  As a result, I usually get a chance to plan out my dehydrated meals carefully and cook big batches of each dish, which I then divvy up among the weeks of the trek.  However, most hikers and backpackers take shorter trips and might decide to head into the woods on a whim, when vacation days pile up and inspiration strikes.  This meal idea is for those hikers.

Preparing a delicious, rehydrateable meal — or a week’s worth of the same — after work on Thursday night before heading out for a trip on the weekend is simple.  You just need to spend a bit of time in the supermarket and utilize some very-American microwaveable packaging.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A packet (or two or three or five) of Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice — Feel free to experiment with flavors and spices.  My favorite used to be Thai-style rice, but I haven’t found that packet for a year or so.  I think I prefer Spanish-style and teriyaki these days.
  • A packet (or two or three or five) of microwaveable vegetable mixes — Again, it’s fun to experiment with combinations and flavors.  I have a soft spot for the Asian Medley by Bird’s Eye, but I can’t really think of one that I don’t like.  It’s hard to go wrong with vegetables.  (Except water chestnuts.)
  • A can (or two or three or five) of beans — I tend to go for black beans, dark red kidney beans, or garbanzos, and I select the variety by considering what might pair well with the rice and veggies I’ve selected.  As a vegan, I also love using strip-style meat substitutes (or vegetarian steak tips) for this category.
  • Tortillas

Shopping for ingredients is actually the most difficult part of the process.  Once you’ve gathered all your supplies, simply microwave the rice and veggies (and meat substitutes, if that’s the route you chose to go).  Then, chop any large vegetables into small pieces to ensure that they will dehydrate quickly and completely; drain and rinse the beans; spread the rice, veggies, and protein onto dehydrating trays; and let them dry for 5-8 hours.

Once your food has dehydrated, assemble quart-size Ziploc freezer bags with a serving or two each of rice, vegetables, and protein and toss them, along with several tortillas, into your pack.  Then, you’re ready to hit the trail!  After each day of hiking, just rehydrate the mixture in a bag, wrap it in a tortilla, and enjoy a warm dinner burrito.

Meal Idea: Lentils, Veggies, and Couscous

One of my favorite meals of this past backpacking season is also wonderfully simple.  If you’re looking for a meal that’s easy to prepare, quick to dehydrate, faster to rehydrate, and satisfyingly filling, this might be a good choice for you.

What you’ll need:

  • Your favorite lentils — I’m partial to green or brown lentils in this dish because I appreciate their texture.
  • Couscous — The last time I made this recipe, I was being cautious around salt because of an upcoming kidney surgery, so I just used plain couscous.  However, if you, like me, enjoy and need extra salt while you’re on the trail, you might consider either liberally adding salt and spices to plain couscous or using pre-seasoned couscous.
  • Vegetables — Choose your favorites.  I definitely recommend the addition of broccoli, and cauliflower, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and onions are also good choices.
  • Spices: curry powder, cumin, garam masala, cayenne pepper

1)  Cook lentils according to package directions.  Again, I’m of the opinion that it’s always a good choice to err on the side of over-flavoring trail food, so use salt, pepper, and spices freely.

2)  Cut vegetables into smallish pieces and steam them or saute them in a bit of oil long enough to soften them slightly.  I know, I know:  “Smallish” isn’t very precise.  What you’re looking for is pieces that will cook quickly.  Before you stick the veggies in the dehydrator, you can slice any veggies that are large enough that they’ll slow down the dehydrating process.  And, obviously, firmer veggies should be thrown in the pan before softer veggies, onions should be allowed to brown slightly, etc.; standard cooking practices apply to backpacking food, too.

3)  Add spices to the veggies.  This is the fun part!  You’ll probably want quite a bit of curry powder on the veggies, a fair bit of cumin and garam masala, and a pinch of cayenne.  Toss the veggies thoroughly to coat them, let them cook in the seasonings, taste them, and then adjust the flavors as necessary.

4)  Dehydrate the lentils and the veggies for 6+ hours or until they are completely hard and dry, both to the eye and to the touch.  Taste test some of the larger pieces to ensure that they’re dehydrated all the way through.

5)  Get out couscous and divide it among as many quart-size Ziploc freezer bags as you’ll be using for the veggies and the lentils.  I generally use two “normal-person” servings of every ingredient in any backpacking dinner I’m making.  Divide the lentils and couscous among the bags, as well.

When you get to camp, just boil water and add enough to the freezer bag to cover the dehydrated food.  Let the bag sit for a few minutes, stirring/squishing occasionally and adding more water if necessary.  Then, get out your spork and enjoy!

Meal Idea: Lunches on the Trail

In many ways, hiking the Appalachian Trail is a six-month vacation.  In many ways, it isn’t.

A month or so ago, the Appalachian Mountain Club published an article about a family who thru-hiked the AT.  Many of the things the family said were really insightful, and the article is a short, good read.  One of the comments that I most enjoyed was the mother’s saying that she was constantly busy on the trail.

When it comes to lunch on the trail, the thru-hikers who carve out the necessary time to prepare a cooked meal are few and far between.  Lunch is generally viewed as one of the five to seven, non-dinner, eating periods of the day, and it often consists of energy bars and/or granola bars and/or trail mix.*

However, in my experience, just a little extra effort turns lunch into a fifteen-minute break (rather than a five- to ten-minute break) that my body is thankful for at the end of the day.  Here are some of my favorite lunches to have on the trail.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Tortilla Sandwiches

These taste so much better than they sound like they would, and they tasted downright decadent by the time I got to Maine.  I tend to treat the jelly like an unnecessary extra, but I shouldn’t; it adds so much flavor.  You can get jelly packets by asking for some at a fast food restaurant or by ordering them from  Or, you can be a total hiking hipster and carry a glass jar with jam from your family’s hobby farm.  (Yeah, I’m cool like that sometimes.)

Hummus and Crackers

I’m convinced that hummus is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.  This spread of chickpea goodness is great on the trail.  If you’re out on a relatively short trip (or short resupply cycle) or if the weather cooperates, it’s easy to just bring a small plastic tub in your pack.  If that’s not practical, dehydrating hummus is a great way to bring it on the trail.  I’ve been told that Fantastic Foods makes an awesome hummus mix, but I’ve never found it in stores.


This is probably my favorite lunch, but I almost never have the willpower to wait until lunch time to eat it!  If you cook breakfast, just heat some extra water and rehydrate one of your dinners, preferably one that is well-suited to wrapping, since lunch burritos are trendy.  If you only cook dinner, rehydrate an extra meal at that time to enjoy the next day.  (If you’re not in bear country, I recommend double bagging it and sticking it in your sleeping bag for warmth.)  My favorite dinners to have lukewarm or cold and wrapped for lunch are chana masala and unstuffed peppers.

What are your favorite trail lunches?  I’m always looking for meal ideas.  Bonus points if your suggestions are vegan!  (Summer sausage and cheese are out!)

Meal Idea: Pasta with Marinara Sauce

Something that was difficult for me while I was thru-hiking and that I hadn’t really prepared for was the feeling of being constantly on the move.  I had mixed emotions about my extremely nomadic lifestyle; sometimes, I appreciated it for its simplicity and for the independence it gave me, but other times I just longed to sleep in the same place two nights in a row.

When my feelings tended toward the latter, I would rehydrate some comfort food.  Since I was a child, my family has been big pasta eaters, and our default meals at home always involve pasta noodles.  As a result, when I wanted to feel like I was safe or home on the trail, I would reach for pasta with marinara sauce.

This freezer-bag dinner is only slightly more difficult to prepare than the trail mix I wrote about last week.  (We’ll get to the more complicated and fun stuff in time, I promise!)

1) Choose your favorite variety of noodles.  Spaghetti noodles tend to break in a backpack — or, worse, poke holes in the freezer bag.  If you’re as hungry and impatient at the end of the day as I am, you might prefer something with a lot of surface area, since those noodles seem to rehydrate faster.  Rotini was my noodle of choice on the trail.

2) Choose your favorite variety of prepared pasta sauce.  (You could make your own, but it’s far more economical to just purchase one of those huge plastic jars at the grocery store, since you’ll be consuming hiker-sized portions of it.)  I’d recommend something with lots of vegetables, like Ragu’s Garden Combination.

3) At home, prepare pasta according to package directions.

4) Dehydrate pasta for 6+ hours or until completely hard and dry, both to the eye and to the touch.  I always taste test whatever it is I’m dehydrating to ensure that it’s dry all the way through.

5) Pour pasta sauce on lined dehydrating trays, spread it very thinly, and set the dehydrator to the “fruit leather” setting — somewhere around 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit.  (If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can dehydrate food on a low setting in the oven, but I’m not really familiar with how to do that — and I love my dehydrator.)  The variety of the sauce and the thinness with which it was spread on the trays will influence how long this step takes, but you’ll want to let the sauce dehydrate until the thinnest parts are brittle and flaky and the thicker parts are leathery.  Midway through the process, I always peel the sauce off the sheet, turn it over, and break it up a bit to speed the drying.

6) In a pint-size Ziploc freezer bag, add 1/4 lb. of pasta.  (Who ever ate just one serving of pasta?!)  Since I put the noodles into the sauce bag in the end, this wouldn’t need to be a freezer bag, but freezer bags are just less likely to rip or leak.

7) In another pint-size Ziploc freezer bag, add roughly three or four servings of sauce.  You’ll appreciate the flavoring of more sauce than you’d eat at home.

8) When you get to camp, just add the noodles to the sauce bag and boil some water.  Add enough water to the bag to cover the pasta and sauce.  (At this point, I never measure out my water anymore; I just eyeball it.  You’ll get the hang of it!  You want the food to be comfortably submerged but not drowning, if that helps at all.  Trial and error are good teachers here, since the worse case scenarios are that you have soup or that you need to add more water.)  Keep the bag warm until the pasta rehydrates in about five minutes.  Enjoy, and think of home!