Eat your own ‘real’ food on the trail. There are plenty of fresh, lightweight options that taste great and cut back on sodium.

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IT MIGHT BE TRUE that everything tastes better in the woods, but some foods are arguably better than others.

Last summer, when my family was preparing for a backpacking trip in the Sawtooths, I had a last-minute change of heart as I was standing in front of a row of packaged freeze-dried meals, contemplating a $15 pouch of beef stroganoff. One brand packed a whopping 1,710 milligrams of sodium per serving. There must be a better way, I thought.

I had read online comments from backpackers who freeze a homemade stew to eat the first night, reasoning it should stay cold enough not to spoil but thaw in time for dinner. So I passed on the beef stroganoff, made a beef stew and froze it flat in a gallon plastic bag. The next morning, I placed it in the pack, along with some good wine in a water bottle. The pack was heavy on the way in, but a long hike provided ample time for the stew to thaw, and after heating it on our camp stove, we had a fantastic meal lakeside at 8,000 feet. The rest of the nights, we resorted to sodium-laden packages.

Eager to bring more “real” food on the trail in the future, I wanted to discover lightweight, high-calorie options that taste great. I turned to REI Outdoor School for advice.

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Julia Trippel teaches classes at REI on backpacking and camp cooking. She suggests going big on the first night by packing in a home-cooked frozen meal or marinated frozen meat. To reduce weight for subsequent meals, she recommends dehydrating your own food at home and rehydrating it with water in the wilderness. Soups, beans, stews, casseroles or other one-pot meals can all be made in advance and dehydrated in an oven or dehydrator. “That gives you the autonomy to make whatever you want,” she says.

DIY dehydrated one-pot meals, jerky and fruit are also tastier and cheaper than prepackaged fare, with no unwanted ingredients.

Vacuum-sealed dishes and veggies taste good in the woods, without a lot of extra weight (or unwanted ingredients). (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
Vacuum-sealed dishes and veggies taste good in the woods, without a lot of extra weight (or unwanted ingredients). (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

When she uses prepared foods, Trippel likes to add freshness by bringing chard, arugula or a cucumber. Adding veggies reduces the concentration of sodium, she says. Lacinato kale, in particular, is hearty and holds up well. “One fresh ingredient can make all the difference.”

Other ideas for snacks and lunches include tortillas (ideal for burritos, wraps or PBJ), salami and other cured meats, hard cheeses, small packets of nut butter, and tuna or salmon in foil packets. Add spice to meals with lightweight dried seasonings or garlic cloves.

For another opinion, I turned to Jeremy Faber, who owns Foraged & Found Edibles and works as a private chef in Seattle. When he backpacks in the summer and backcountry skis in the winter, Faber eats much the same food he does at home by preparing it in advance. At home, he will make a braised meat dish or beans and reduce it to remove as much liquid as possible, then he seals it in a cryovac machine (vacuum sealer) for ease of transport.

In the backcountry, Faber adds the necessary water to make a broth or soup and brings couscous, quinoa or another quick-cooking starch. “The amount of extra weight compared to taste is so worth it,” he says.

Faber says he’d ditch heavy photography gear and gizmos in order to eat quality food. “Food and water are all we need to survive, and that’s paramount in my decisions. The woods, pictures never will do it justice, anyhow. Think what a good SLR weighs while you slurp on some insipid pseudo-Thai meal.” Or beef stroganoff.