8 Tips to Using a Dehydrator to make tasty hiking food!

One of the questions I get asked most is what do I eat in the bush? It might also explain why my Basic Food for Hiking Video is the 2nd most popular on the channel. Us hikers love our food! Here’s my simple 8 tips for using a dehydrator to make tasty and nutritious food for the outdoors.

With all that fresh air and exercise, we sure build up healthy appetites and I’m not convinced that all of it is about ensuring correct nutrition (see A Little Tipple in the Bush). So how do we guarantee tasty, healthy food, whilst keeping pack weights to a minimum? How do we enjoy such treats as Mussaman Lamb or Spag Bol in the middle of the wilderness?… The answer is dehydrating!

If alchemy is the art of turning lead into gold, then dehydrating is like some strange kind of bushwalking alchemy. Here’s some tips to get you started!

  1. The Dehydrator

    Dehydrators - like a series of trays with a hairdryer!

    Dehydrators – like a series of trays with a hairdryer!

    Dehydrators are made up of a number of trays.  In this example there are 5 trays sitting on the base tray. The bottom of each tray is grids which allow for air to flow freely throughout the various trays and around the food. There are also inlay sheets which sit inside the trays and allow you to dry liquids, sauces or fruit leathers. The dry air is generated in the lid section, which is very similar to a low voltage hair dryer. There are quite a few options out there on the market, this one (Sunbeam Healthy Food Dryer) is one of the cheapest at around AUD$100 new. You can pay up to $400+ depending on the model and the functions available. For instance, this model doesn’t have a timer, which would be a helpful thing.  However, you can get around this by using a basic electrical timer that you use between the powerpoint and the plug of the dryer.

  2. Preparation

    Broccoli keeps it's colour if it's blanched first!

    Broccoli keeps it’s colour if it’s blanched first!

    Before placing your food in the dehydrator, you will need to do some preparation.  At the easy end of the spectrum is simply slicing fruit or veggies into small pieces, whereas at the other end of things, is cooking and preparing a full meal. Check your instruction manual which contains loads of helpful advice and tables about the necessary preparation.  Some veggies or fruit need prep such as dipping in lemon juice or blanching in hot water first.  From experience, these simple steps certainly enhance the end product – so if possible, don’t skip this step.

  3. Choosing what to dehydrate

    When choosing meat to dehydrate, the best way to get the most effective drying (and let’s face it, we don’t want to get sick out in the bush) is to use mince meat.  Thankfully, there are lots of options available at your local supermarket – beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, pork and for us Aussies, kangaroo.  (If you ask your butcher nicely, he will mince almost anything for you. Tripe anyone?) Almost everything that goes into the dryer will need to be sliced small to ensure that you get the most surface area, allowing the warm dry air to circulate around as much of the food as possible.

    Butter Chicken after drying

    Butter Chicken after drying

  4. Cook it up!

    For this example, I cooked up a big pot of lamb mince and used a packet sauce mix of Mussaman Lamb.  I followed the recipe on the packet (except for using mince instead of pieces of meat), but also added a stack of my own (small cut) vegetables and fresh herbs.

    Just make a normal meal - but use mince!

    Just make a normal meal – but use mince!

  5. Drying

    Slice things thinly and uniformly for best results

    Slice things thinly and uniformly for best results

    Once the preparation or cooking is done, place the food onto the trays in a single layer.  Again, this is to ensure maximum space around the food to aid drying.
    Dishes with sauce or liquid need to sit on the inlay tray and obviously not onto the normal hole covered trays.  With my dehydrator, I can use the base tray for saucy dishes also.  Note that this base tray dries food quicker than any other area in the dryer. Check the manual that came with the appliance for estimated drying times.  There are no definitive drying times for each type of food as times depend on not only the size of each piece of food, but also the humidity and outside temperature.

    For example:  I once dried Mussaman Lamb in December (Aussie Summer) and it took 14 hrs to dry.  Then, in April (Aussie Autumn) I also dried Mussaman Lamb and it took 8hrs 15mins.

    To make the most of your drying time, don’t just fill one or two trays.  Put a meat dish into two trays, then fill the others with veggies and fruit.  As each type of food will dry at different times, it is important to keep checking on them throughout the process. Each person will find a way that works for them in this, however I tend to check after 6 hrs which will give me an idea of what the overall time is going to be. If you’re doing this overnight, your alarm clock will become your noisy partner in the dehydrating process. The finished product will differ for each type of food. Your instruction manual will give you a description of what to expect and how to know that it is done. The best description I’ve heard for correctly dried mince meat, is kitty litter. Meow!

    Dried Mince looking a bit like kitty litter!

    Dried Mince looking a bit like kitty litter!

  6. Storing the dehydrated food

    Once the food has finished drying, store them in portion sized Ziploc bags. You’ll find that when it is dried, it’s hard to figure out how much a portion is. So make this calculation before you dry. Look at your cooking pot and decide that how many dinners it will cover. Then divide the dried food into this many Ziploc bags.
    Write the date and contents on the bag with indelible pen and place in the freezer.

    Keep notes on your dehydrating efforts

    Keep notes on your dehydrating efforts

    Check your instruction manual for details on storage life. Keep a record of your dehydrating history, rating the humidity on the day and the start/finish times, along with any pre-treatment needed.  This is how you can learn and tweak for your next time.

  7. Out on the track 

    To make it easier for yourself, you may wish to add your other dry ingredients to the Ziploc bag before you head off on your trip.   For example:  Add in other dehydrated veggies such as Surprise Peas or Beans or rice noodles.  This way you have a full meal in a bag. When you arrive at camp, simply pop all the contents of the bag into a billy and cover with cold water.  Put the lid on (to keep the craw


    Meal in a bag!

    lies out) and set aside for an hour.  Perfect time to light the fire and have happy hour! After an hour, simply place the billy over the heat.  Check by tasting the meat.  If it’s still chewy, continue to heat through – leave the lid on and simmer.  Stir frequently. Bon Appetit!

  8. What not to dry

    Being a regular eater of tofu at home, I thought I’d give this a go for the track as well.  Yes, it dried quite successfully, however (thankfully) I gave it a test rehydrate at home before risking taking it out into the bush.

    Whatever you do... don't dehydrate tofu!

    Whatever you do… don’t dehydrate tofu!

    This photo shows the slice of tofu after sitting in water for 24hrs. The best way to describe the texture of it at this stage would be like the bicycle inner tube that I take as an emergency fire lighting tool. Sorry vegetarians… I tried.

  • HOT TIP! Mince represents the major tip in choosing what to dry – Good things come in small packages!
  • HOT TIP!  If you’re a busy person (who isn’t these days?) and you are trying to get a stack of dehydrating done for an upcoming extended trip, I suggest cooking up enough for dinner that night, and then putting all the leftovers into the dehydrator and letting it run through the night.

Goodluck with your dehydrating efforts. I’d love to hear your experiences, recipes and other tips!

Thanks to Swantje and her lovely family (from http://textileshed.wordpress.com) I met at Kanangra Walls over Easter for the inspiration for this post!

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  1. David says

    Aldi had a dehydrator a few months ago for $35. I bought one, and have used it a bit. It does work, but seems a bit slow. It also does not have a tray for drying liquids.

    One problem I had was that it seems to overheat regularly and switch itself off until it cools down. So you end up with 10 minutes on and ten minutes off.

    • says

      Oh dear David. That doesn’t sound like a very good experience at all. I’d hesitate to eat any meat that had been dried by that as it may not be dried properly inside.
      If you’re keen to give it another go on a budget, maybe check out eBay for a second hand one?

      • says

        Great article. Thanks for posting it, lotsafreshair, I picked up a few tips myself.

        David, you can try dehydrating in your oven in the kitchen. You can dehydrate sloppy stuff like salsas, stews and curries in the oven as well as rice, jerky, mince, cooked veggies, etc..

        To do sloppy stuff, simply line a shallow oven tray with baking paper and spoon on your slop then spread thinly. Supermarket-bought tomato salsa will take approx. 6 hrs to dehydrate.

        To do more solid food items such as diced carrot, peas or corn, pour onto the same baking tray sans the paper. 7-8 hrs later your cooked mince or your veggies will be done.

        Set your oven to between 75-85 degrees C and chock the door open a little to allow the critical airflow.

        I use both an oven and a dehydrator and have found that the oven is quicker and tastes better.

        Once you make your first batch of banana chips, wasabi peas or beef jerky you’ll be hooked

  2. says

    Dear Santa, please get me a dehydrator for Christmas, I’ve been good, promise. Don’t get the one from Aldi. And while you are at it – get me some rubber booties to use with my full length wet suit, my feet are falling off canyoning…
    And thanks for this great post – I think Santa is definitely now convinced that the dehydrator is a MUST addition of tech gadgets…

    • says

      I’ll definitely have a chat with Santa and tell him that you’ve been a good little elf all year. In fact, I’m sure that your latest red creation would go well as part of the North Pole corporate wardrobe… kinda like the new Qantas one. Oh… and rubber booties too… a must!

      • says

        And here I am preparing for another trip at Easter… referring back to this wonderful post for meal ideas! BTW – santa did not get me that dehydrator, nor the rubber booties, never mind. We are off to Monolith Valley in the Budawangs this time. Hope you are well!

  3. Bernadette says

    I have tried quite a few things in the dehydrator. Pineapple is fabulous and great to rehydrate when you get to camp and have with custard, yum! Also dehydrating hommus is fabulous. I made my own from scratch, it dehydrates to a crumbly mixture and when rehydrated is about the same texture, great for lunch to replace the fats and moisture we tend to miss out on when hiking, no more dry lunches. One last thing, if you want rice, cook it, dehydrate it, it will look and seem like raw rice again, then rehydrate as you would anything else, saves lots of fuel and gives you another carbohydrate for camping. Thanks for the post, always enjoy reading them.

    • says

      Great ideas Bernadette. Definitely going to try the hummus. You could pop it into individual ziploc bags for each lunch and simply rehydrate in the bag each day. Brilliant! Now you’ve got me thinking about things like White Bean Dip and even PESTO!… although with the oil content I’m not sure.

      • Bernadette says

        I did do individual bags of hummus for each day, but I vacuum seal little packets and used a small plastic container to rehydrate which takes a while, start in the morning before you walk. I think pesto is a bit oily. I have a recipe for a capsicum spread a friend has dehydrated which apparently works, watch this space. Also another friend has dehydrated egg very successfully. I could go on and on………….but I won’t.

  4. Deb says

    Hi and thanks for your tips on dehydrating food for camping trips. I am definitely going to give it a go but my question is how long can these meals be stored for? I am going to Tasmania and looking at being there for a few months, so I’d like to prepare them before I go.

    • says

      A trip to Tassie will be wonderful and to be there for a few months – what a treat! Regarding the shelf life of the dehydes, that’s a tricky one.

      I would recommend asking the manufacturer of your particular dehydrator what they recommend. I can only speak from my personal experience (without any scientific testing whatsoever… except for how my tastebuds and tummy react!) that I’ve kept dehydrated meals (including those with minced meat) in the freezer for over a year and still been able to re-hydrate and eat them successfully afterwards. I would imagine that storing them outside of the freezer would dramatically reduce their shelf life, but I think it would depend on the heat/humidity and quality of your dehyde that would give you an accurate shelf life.

      I’d love to hear how you go with this, so please pop back later to let us know!

      • Lucinda says

        I intend to give it a shot. I’m vegetarian so I’m keen to find more ideas for hiking food! Just bought my first dehydrator, so I will try it out at some stage and let you know.

  5. James says

    Such a treasure trove of hiking knowledge you have, thank you.

    I have a question about dehydrating meals,
    I have never done it before, but wanting to now, as I’m sick of lugging heavy food on expeditions.

    What do you think about there being olive oil present in a meal that is to be dehydrated?

    I read at a website called the DryStore that all foods except oil and raw eggs can be dehydrated.

    I have perfected much Indian cuisine of curry dahls that usually have two or so tablespoons of olive oil to fry all the spices in before they are mixed into the curry. I’d love to then dehydrate these meals to boil back up when out on the trail.

    Do you have any experience with dehydrating olive oil? Yea or nay?

    Thanks heaps

    • says

      Thanks James, I’m glad you’re finding it useful! Great idea to get into dehydrating as it certainly cuts down on the weight issue. I reckon that you’ll be fine if you use your 2 tbs of oil in your curry dahl. Generally, these dehydrate really well as the pieces are all really small (lentils). I’ve never had a problem with mine and I use a small amount (probably only 1 tbs of olive oil) to fry off my curry pastes. Perhaps see if you can do it with 1 tbs as a test first to avoid it becoming over oily once it’s dried… drop us a line back here and let us know how it went!

  6. brenda stubbings says

    Hi I have bought an excellent dehydrator for $117 delivered, they are on ebay called 5-star chef, I have successfully made and dehydrated my fav dish laksa – and my beef jerky is the workshop floors number one favourite, now all I need do is find an overnight hike to partake in and im there , happy hikes all :)


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