Dehydrating our own camp meals

It’s March.  And although lower elevation trails should be clearing, there is still lots of snow on the ground. As a result, I fully admit being a wee bit twitchy. 

Beyond pouring over maps, checking calendars, and drooling over new gear while planning epic hikes and backcountry adventures, I am putting the indoor time to use by dehydrating our own camping meals so they are ready to go for even a last-minute trip. 

I’ve dehydrated fruits and vegetables for years, primarily for quick snacks or ways to preserve foods that don’t require freezer space or the time it requires to can them. But my eyes opened last year when I spoke with Chef Glenn McAllister, author of Recipes for Adventure and voice behind Backpackingchef. In his decades of experience, he’s learned you can dry just about anything, opening up a world of possibilities for camp cuisine. For another article, I later interviewed Judy “Heartfire” Gross of Lightheart Gear in North Carolina, as I quickly learned there are many ways to end up with fantastic and hearty meals. Besides making spacious and lightweight tents and practical gear and clothing, she is an avid backpacking who creates all of her own meals, often with the leftovers from daily meals. She was gracious enough to share some of her advice with me for another article setting me on the path of no return when it comes to ever buying pre-made trail food again. 

Having control over what we eat is especially important to me since my eldest son, Sam, has food allergies, which preclude us being able to use a lot of the freeze-dried meals on the market. And even those that are supposedly safe are a concern simply because I am fully aware of accidental cross-contamination issues that happen even under the best circumstances. The last thing I want is a reaction miles away from a trailhead or help. He and I (along with 4 other friends) have reservations at Granite Park Chalet this July where we are required to bring our own food, so I want to make sure it’s safe, as well as packed with plenty of energy and nutrition for exploring the area.

Stove at Granite Park

One of the first experiments, especially since it’s also something my picky boy will eat, was to make spaghetti with meat sauce. I used elk burger because it is naturally lean and made the sauce just like normal adding a can of Hunts tomato sauce and dried Italian seasonings. The only special consideration was making sure I chopped up the burger into tiny, tiny pieces. Once it was completely cooked, I spread it in the dehydrator and cranked the temp as high as it would go. My older Nesco reaches 155 degrees F., but a newer one, Snackmaster Express, I recently purchased goes to 160 degrees. As Judy mentioned, if it’s already cooked, it doesn’t matter if you dry it hot. The pasta is cooked like normal, although maybe a little on the al dente side, and is also dried. The one thing I’ll do differently on the trail is to use shells or a some other type of pasta to prevent the pokey edges of spaghetti from potentially puncturing a bag. This goes the same for chili, once again made with venison burger. When it’s time to eat, they can be mixed together and rehydrated with an equal amount of water. 

One of my recent favorites is what I call “Chicken and rice with vegetables.” I used Nature Fresh canned chicken (because it is safe for Sam), and because Chef Glenn told me that canned chicken rehydrates far better than freshly cooked chicken. I sauteed finely chopped (1/4 inch or less) carrots and celery in a little bit of safflower oil from The Oil Barn in Big Sandy, Montana. ( I do love knowing the source! ) Then I add the chicken, breaking up the pieces as small as possible. As it cooks, I add chicken broth and thicken it with a little flour. While the chicken and veggies are cooking, I make a big batch of brown rice then add a few big scoops of the brown rice and stir thoroughly. Spread the whole thing thinly on trays in the dehydrator and dry it on the high heat for 8-9 hours, or until it’s completely dry and brittle. I found mixing it up every couple of hours helps even out the process, although I try to be quick about it as I don’t want it to cool. 

As Judy recommended, I package the dehydrated meals in bags, mark them, and place them in the freezer. This way, I can grab individual meals whenever I’m ready to go.

To rehydrate, most of the meals seem to require roughly an equal amount of boiling water. This can be added directly to the freezer bag to minimize having to clean up any type of cooking pot. I’m also experimenting with using a wide mouth thermos since I’ve heard that it helps keep everything hot while rehydrating the meal. (Plus, another goal of mine with a thermos is to be able to pack in homemade ice cream on day hikes, but that will be a different post some day!) 

While some sort of meat is almost a necessity for Sam, I’m leaning towards vegetarian meals for my own travels. After my butter habit obviously did in my gallbladder this year, I dramatically changed my diet leaning heavily on plant based foods. It’s working beautifully and makes sense to continue on the trail. By dehydrating my own foods, I can make them power-packed with good protein sources and lots of vegetables. So I’m dehydrating quinoa, lentils, and tons of veggies. I never used to be a big lentil person – and I felt bad about that because Montana is the leading producer of pulse crops in the country – but I’m on a kick lately. A bowl of quinoa, lentils, and veggies dressed with a little fresh lemon juice is an excellent way for me to start the day so I’m going to do my best in recreating it for camp.

All food tastes better in camp, especially dessert. Since Sam does have a sweet tooth, I decided to try to make an apple crisp. For the crisp part, I mixed a cup of Wheat Montana oatmeal, 2 T. butter, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and 1 tsp cinnamon together. Then I spread it on parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake it at 350 degrees F. for 10-15, until crisp. For the apples, I used a handful each of dried apples (maybe a cup) and added a tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 tsp. of cinnamon, placing each serving in its own bag. To rehydrate, add 3/4 cup of boiling water to the bag of apples and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. Pour over the crisp and enjoy. This was definitely a hit! 

I truly have plenty to learn and do this winter to prepare for our hiking and camping adventures, and I am grateful for those who were willing to share their wealth of knowledge with me. Now I have to make the best use of my time indoors so we are ready to head for the high country as soon as the weather permits. 

Annual Moms’ Hike: Sperry Chalet 2016

Forget a spa day or a trip to Vegas. My friends are tough mothers. And I do mean this literally. Instead of kicking back in posh accommodations, every year we strap on heavy backpacks to test our mettle hiking into the ruggedly inspiring heart of Glacier National Park.  Our first Moms’ hike was the long way into Grinnell Glacier; last year was the epic (and a bit smokey) journey to Granite Park Chalet, then over the harrowing heights of Swiftcurrent Pass; this year we miraculously secured reservations at the historic Sperry Chalet.

Sperry Chalet dormitory
Sperry Chalet dormitory

Built in 1913 as part of the chalet system created by the Great Northern Railway to encourage upper end tourist travel in the early days of the park, it is one of only 2  remaining. The others have since burned or were torn down by the park service over the years. The Sperry complex includes the large dormitory, dining hall, and very nice toilets which include a sink with running water where you can brush your teeth and wash your face at night.IMG_4558 (1)

After being closed from 1993 to 1999 due to sanitation issues (they were dumping the waste over the side of the cliff), once Granite Park and Sperry Chalets reopened after the hard work of the folks who formed a group called “Save the Chalets”, people understood the importance of these backcountry treasures. As a result, when the reservations open, it takes a considerable amount of computer savvy and patience to snag a spot. Three of us were on the computer as soon as reservation day opened in January, and it took at least 10 minutes continually attempting to submit the from before one of us was able to send in her request. Even so, she was still number 400+ in line, and  was basically told, “We’ll let you know.”

After our confirmation, and paying the $171 a piece, we had 6 months of eager anticipation when we planned to work out, eat well, and be completely prepared for our July 10 trek. But being over- scheduled mothers and queens of procrastination, those plans melted into the realm of fantasy (except for one intrepid soul who managed to run pretty much every day). By the time July rolled around, we pulled our sorry selves together at the last moment, prayed the forecasted snow wouldn’t materialize, and headed to the west side of the hills.

A Wild Rose in Coram
A Wild Rose in Coram

We stayed with my longtime friend and former neighbor, Brenda, who has A Wild Rose in Coram. I was grateful she held rooms for us during this busy time of the year when an empty bed is hard to find anywhere near the park. During the evening we had a wonderful time visiting with her and planning our hike. We also walked down to my old place, formerly Shady Side Herb Farm, where I built 220 raised bed gardens out of stone in what seems like a former life. The house has since burned, but the shop where I sold my handmade dried arrangements, soaps, lotions, and other garden related goodies is now a cute guest cabin called “Mad Betty’s”. I love what Linda, the new owner of part of the property, has done to the place. We checked out the old gardens on the hill, and I’m shocked to see the lavender growing everywhere, as well as the oregano thriving at epic levels. Only the tough survive in these parts!

Hitting the trail
Hitting the trail

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It rained Saturday night, but Sunday could not have been more gorgeous. Cool and damp conditions led us through the forest where everything was clean and crisp. We truly could not have asked for a more perfect day to hike. Brenda and I hung in the back for some time catching up over the years we haven’t seen each other in person while stopping occasionally to take in the incredible beauty of the area.

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Crossing Sperry Creek
Crossing Sperry Creek

The first part of the trail is a pretty good pull that gets your heart pumping, but we took it fairly slow, partly because it was such a great opportunity to take photos. For a short while the trail is rather easy, then the switchbacks begin. I seriously lost count of how many there were. I remember one, then a really long one, then another and another. At one point you can see the chalet, but it dawns on you how far it really is, so it’s best to just keep your eyes ahead of you, which is really not hard to do between the abundant wildflowers and wildlife.

The chalet from a distance
The chalet from a distance

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We saw a marmot and had a friendly mountain goat right along the trail where we were ultimately sandwiched between her and a trio of mule deer bucks. No one seemed bothered by the others’ use of the trail and for some time the goat followed us.

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At one point we did need to step to the side to allow the mule teams to pass us on their way back down the mountain. The wranglers and their mules are the lifeline of Sperry to be able to secure supplies to keep the chalet running throughout the season. They had large plastic trash cans mantied, as well as odd-shaped items such as the propane tanks, to those sure-footed and rugged animals. A good wrangler can pack just about anything.

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The last third of the hike up was slow and steady, and we were thrilled to see the stone buildings up close. Our greeting was warm and friendly with a big pitcher of lemonade to quench our thirst, and since we were famished several of us enjoyed an excellent bowl of chicken soup with homemade bread. Brenda was smart and grabbed a piece of the pie, which sold out in short order that day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking at McDonald Lake
Looking at McDonald Lake
The dormitory
The dormitory

After finding our room, we scattered to read or relax for a few hours before hiking to Lincoln Pass in the late afternoon. This is the way we would’ve arrived if we would have hiked in from Gunsight on the east side, and after seeing the utter beauty of the area, I decided I have to make that trek some day, preferably sooner than later. We saw more goats along the way who were obviously not intimidated one bit by our presence.

The goat had to check her out to see what she was doing
The goat had to check her out to see what she was doing
Lincoln Pass
Lincoln Pass

By the time we returned to the chalets, we were all famished, and I think we were the first ones waiting outside the door of the dining hall for them to call us for dinner. It did not disappoint. We started with a Mediterranean  salad and pumpkin curry soup (which I seriously need to reconstruct), followed by Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, broccoli, cranberries, homemade bread, and ended with apricot cake. Coffee or hot cocoa were the hot drinks, along with water or lemonade. I haven’t eaten that much in ages, but every bite tasted so good, I wasn’t going to worry about the calories I consumed. Everything was amazing, and I am beyond impressed at their cooking and baking skills.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Coffee hour started at 8:30 so we dashed back to the dining hall through the rain to sit by the fire, visit, and read. They had beverages for everyone, and made popcorn for one last snack of the evening. I skipped the cocoa and such since I really didn’t want to have to make a middle of the night trip to the toilets, but the popcorn tasted really good. One surprise we had was a couple of young men in their 20s who arrived right around 8:30. It had started to rain rather hard, and they were terribly ill-equipped wearing only shorts and t-shirts. I didn’t notice any backpacks, bear spray, or even water.  The chalet always keeps a room open for wayward hikers in the case of an emergency, but they didn’t want to stay. With a 3 hour hike back down, in which it would be dark and most likely very wet the entire way, the cook at the chalet pulled trash bags over their heads (cutting a head opening at the end, of course), gave them coffee to warm them up, cookies for the trail, and flashlights for each of them. Being a group of mothers, we were concerned, but relieved that we didn’t find any bodies or hear of a bear incident after it was all said and done. This was the opening day of the chalet, and I have to wonder how many unprepared people the staff sees throughout the summer.  I’m sure these guys were the proverbial tip of the iceberg.Clouds rolling in

One of the greatest treats of the chalet was to be able to sleep on the new mattresses. We were told these were the first new ones in 50-60 years, which is understandable since it’s no small feat to move out the old ones or bring in replacements. It would be tough to do, even on the best of mules, so they had to employ helicopters for the job. Knowing the park service, I can only imagine the heaps of paperwork and environmental impact statements required to accomplish such a task, but I am grateful for whomever took on the project. Although the temperature dropped considerably when the weather moved in, and there is no heat in the dormitory building, we were all completely toasty under the ample blankets of the beds. I think every one of us slept very well.

This wasn't our room, but all were very similar.
This wasn’t our room, but all were very similar.

As is common in the park, the next morning was completely different than the day before. The clouds were so low we could barely see the dining hall from the dorm, and the mountains were completely obscured. Our plans to hike to Comeau Pass were thwarted for this trip, but we have full intention to do it the next time.Low clouds in the morning

You can barely see the dining hall from the dorm.
You can barely see the dining hall from the dorm.

Breakfast was as wonderful as dinner with eggs, bacon, and pancakes all made to order. Lunches with sandwiches and extra goodies were prepacked for us and ready to go whenever we decided to hit the trail. Our hike back was much easier, and it was very comfortable despite the dampness. Once again, everything seemed clean and fresh with the much welcomed moisture.Hiking into the mist

Bear grass in the mistAfter a pit stop at Lake McDonald Lodge, these happy hikers checked in with family and pointed the car east to head back to Great Falls. Of the 3 summers of “Moms’ Hikes” I have to say that this has been my favorite. It was a terrific group of friends, made extra special with Brenda joining us on our hike up (she took a nap and hiked back down – that’s nearly 14 miles – the same afternoon), along with excellent food, historic accommodations, and the incredible beauty of the area to create cherished memories. And now I’m ready to do it again!

Sperry Chalet
Sperry Chalet