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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Skills - Cooking

One couple takes mealtime from grungy to gourmet.

Green chili with chicken (Andrew Bydlon)
Green chili with chicken (Andrew Bydlon)


Larissa and Robert Bengtson
Orangevale, CA

These newbies’ dinners ranged from uninspired (energy bars?) to just plain gross (instant stuffing with butter).

Learn how to dehydrate delicious meals and upgrade kitchen gear

Larissa (43) and Robert (42) Bengtson, who discovered backpacking about a year ago, loved every minute of their adventures… except mealtime. The couple’s ideal meals set the bar high: tasty, nutritious, affordable, lightweight, and easy to prepare.

The Makeover
The Bengtsons connected with Gear Editor Kristin Hostetter for menu-planning, technique, and kitchen gear advice. Her first tip: Invest in a dehydrator (our pick: NESCO/American Harvest models; $48 and up; Next, we replaced their cooking system and hooked them up with kitchen accessories (details below) to mix and match depending on the trip and the menu. Finally, we started the Bengtsons off with a bunch of recipe ideas and tips—and within days, they were experimenting with recipes of their own.

Outfit Your Camp Kitchen
The Bengtsons loved their Jetboil Zip Stove, but were cooking with the included .8-liter cup—insufficient for two hungry campers hell-bent on going gourmet. With the Zip as a starting point, we built them a more versatile kitchen.

 Cookset A 1.5-liter pot ($60; 12 oz.; cooks up entrees and hot drinks for two; we added the Coffee Press to use with their .8-liter pot ($15; .8 oz.).

Accessories The GSI Outdoors nFORM Crossover Kitchen has it all—a four-way spice bottle, spatula, serving spoon with etched measurements on the side, oil and soap bottles, a mini cutting board, pot scraper, and towel—and fits in most cookpots ($38; 9.6 oz.;

Personal The Bengtsons upgraded with Sea to Summit’s hard nylon Delta Bowls ($8; 2.8 oz.;, which come with a loop for clipping to a pack, measuring tick marks, and a raised pattern on the bottom to prevent lap burns; sturdy, 8.5-inch-long Alpha Lite Long Spoons reach to the farthest corners of a freezer bag ($9; .4 oz.). We rounded it out with a pair of Editors’ Choice-winning Snow Peak Double Wall Ti 450 Mugs ($50; 4.2 oz.;

Cleanup The Sea to Summit Folding Bucket (10 liters) makes hauling water to camp and washing dishes easier ($30; 2.8 oz.;

Dry Your Own Meals
Dehydrating doesn’t stop at fruit and jerky. Drying entire meals makes for an endless variety of economical, lightweight recipe possibilities—all with ultrasimple prep and cleanup. Your favorite meals at home can also be adapted to the trail. Dry each ingredient separately, then mix them in a bowl and scoop out individual meals (about 1 cup per person) into quart-size freezer bags. In camp, add hot water in each bag to cover (add more if the dish seems dry), stir, let sit 15 to 25 minutes, then dig in with a long-handled spoon. Here’s how to dial in each ingredient.

 Precooked grains cook faster than the regular stuff in camp, which also saves fuel. 
Pasta: Choose small, thin shapes (they dry faster) and cook until al dente. Dry until brittle. Rice and quinoa: Prepare according to package directions (experiment with jasmine, wild, or basmati rice varieties). Line dehydrator trays with a fine mesh screen or parchment paper; dry grains for two to three hours. 

Proteins Add flavor and calories with precooked proteins. Meats: Fat inhibits drying, so start with the leanest steak or ground turkey, beef, or chicken possible and trim visible fat. Brown in a skillet with your favorite spices. Rinse to remove residual grease, then dry until very hard (ground meat) or soft and chewy (jerky). Beans and lentils: Cook dried varieties (or rinse canned beans). Dry until brittle.

Sauces Prepare your favorite sauce and spread it very thin on plastic tray liners. Dry until it resembles fruit leather (8-10 hours). Break it into pieces and store in a bag.

Veggies Carrots, peppers, onions, corn, and celery are easy flavor boosters. Chop into small pieces and dry until hard. Tip: Empty a bag of frozen veggies directly onto your tray and let ’er rip (no defrosting necessary).

The Trip
The Bengtsons refined their drying and cooking skills all summer on trips in Yosemite, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and Point Reyes National Seashore. “Dehydrating your own ingredients opens up a whole new world of food for backpacking,” says Larissa. “It’s intimidating at first, but once we realized how easy it is, and what a vast difference it makes in the quality and variety of our meals, we became kind of addicted to it. We try out something new on every trip.”

Winner Wisdom
Here are three of the Bengtsons’ favorite creations.

Fruity Nutty Couscous

Serves 1
1/2 cup couscous
1 Tbsp powdered milk
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1-2  pouches Justin’s Nut Butter (any variety)
Handful dried fruits (we like blueberries and bananas)
1 Tbsp chopped, roasted nuts

At home
 Pack first three ingredients in a freezer bag; carry the others separately.   

In camp Add nut butter and fruit to the freezer bag. Add just enough hot water to barely cover the couscous; set aside (wrapped in a jacket or bag koozie for insulation) for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir well and top with nuts.

Egg Scramble

Serves 4-6
12 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 lb. ground sausage
1 1-lb. bag frozen shredded hash browns, no oil added
1 packet country- style white gravy
Salt and pepper to taste

At home Dehydrate hash browns from frozen (about 3 hours). Whisk eggs with milk, plus salt and pepper. Scramble the eggs (don’t overdo it, or they’ll be rubbery or crunchy after rehydration). Brown and cook the sausage. Drain well, rinse with water, and pat dry with paper towels to remove as much fat as possible. Dehydrate eggs and sausage on separate trays. Once everything is dried, mix ingredients in a bowl and add the dry gravy mix, tossing to coat.  Pack portions into freezer bags (one cup makes a very hearty breakfast or dinner).  

In camp Add enough hot water to bag to generously cover the ingredients, plus a little more. Wrap in something insulating and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes.

Green Chili with Chicken

Serves 4
4 cups instant rice
2 cups enchilada verde sauce
1 can white beans
1 lb. ground chicken
1 cup salsa verde
1 12-oz. can fire- roasted tomatoes
1 lb. frozen corn 
2 bell peppers, diced 
1 pasilla chili, diced
1 banana pepper, diced

At home Coat the rice with the enchilada verde sauce and dehydrate on a solid tray liner. Dehydrate beans, corn, peppers, and chili separately. Mix salsa verde, roasted tomatoes, and chicken, cook thoroughly in a big skillet, then dehydrate. Combine all dehydrated ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Scoop individual servings into freezer bags (one cup per person). 

In camp Add enough hot water to generously cover the ingredients, plus another inch or so. Knead the bag a bit before wrapping it in an insulating layer or bag koozie. Let bag sit 20 to 30 minutes.

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May 13, 2014

Those sound great! Especially the chili.

We have some tips and recipes at

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Trunk Slamchest
Feb 21, 2014

That chili sounds pretty good. It's good to see some practical prep skills getting a little limelight, thanks for the post!

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Trunk Slamchest
Feb 21, 2014

That chili sounds pretty good. It's good to see some practical prep skills getting a little limelight, thanks for the post!


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