Stirring a pot of chowder

When it comes to menu planning and preparation for backcountry trips, I’m all about using a chart. It really helps me stay organized, and saves a ton of time and effort when prepping for a trip.

Being that I’m on the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), I don’t have the option of using store-bought meals for my backcountry adventures (thus this blog…), so most of my trail food is home-made. In this post, I’ll guide you through how I use a chart to plan, orchestrate, and complete my food planning for multi-day trips.

When you are making all your own food for multiple backcountry days, there can be a lot of moving parts:

  • knowing exactly how much of each ingredient you need for multiple days’ meals
  • coordinating the grocery shopping for ingredients
  • wrangling dehydration projects at different temperatures (meats at 155°F, veggies at 125°, fruits at 135°)
  • timing the different elements of preparation for more involved meals
  • non-dehydrated food prep tasks such as baking or freezing ahead of time
  • keeping your preparation efforts efficient

… things can get a wee bit crazy in the kitchen, and having a chart to keep it all organized makes it loads easier and worlds faster.

A menu planning chart is your friend!

For backcountry trips that are longer than a couple days, I like to use a basic template and customize it for each trip.

As an example, below is part of the food plan I used for a recent 4-day trip. On the chart, you’ll notice I’ve added large numbers highlighted with pink background as a key for readers. Below it is a key to those numbers.

Click on the image to view in larger format:

The left side of a menu planning chart

The left side of a menu planning chart

1. Type of travel day:  on some trips, I note the nature of the day, as it may affect my food planning. For example, days 1, 2 and 4 here are long hiking days with a chance to cook breakfast, but on day 3 (summit day), it’s a 2:00 a.m. start. An alpine start means you’re getting up before the ass-crack of dawn to get a move on before the sun warms the snow too much, or the afternoon thunderstorms roll in. It’s not time-efficient to cook breakfast for an alpine start, and it’s kind of hard to stomach a full breaky at 2:15 a.m., so I pack a cold breakfast that I can put in a pocket and eat on the trail later as I hike.

2. Type of meal: columns for each meal, with the dishes outlined.

3. Lunches are the same: my lunches all look pretty similar, so I don’t outline them separately in the “Lunch” column at the left. Instead, I make a single column of lunchy items, and determine planning needs based on that.

4. Other: miscellaneous items I need for my camp kitchen. I always include my vitamins and thyroid meds here, so I don’t forget them in the potential chaos of packing.

5. Servings: to determine servings, I look back over the menu, and tally servings for each item. This then gets translated into an ingredients list, shopping list, and dehydration/prep plan.

6. Shopping list: once I have the servings tallied, I look at the recipes for each, and tally the shopping list (or note which items I already have in-house). This makes my shopping efficient and accurate.

For longer trips where I do multiple food prep projects on different days, I might do multiple food shopping trips to assure having the freshest ingredients; dehydrating your food as fresh as possible is key for assuring long shelf-life. For veggies that go bad quickly in the fridge, and for meats, I’m willing to go to the store more than once during prep week.
TIP: I tend to make large batches when I dry food, to have lots left over for future trips.

7. Condiment servings: note the ’s’ in the ‘oil 5s’ and ‘salt 5s’ cells; the ‘s’ represents ‘servings’. When I pack up each item, I multiply the servings by the number, and put it in the appropriate container. I plan on about 1tsp of coconut oil per serving, and 1/2 tsp of salt per day. My coconut oil goes in a little wide-mouthed plastic jar that seals really well—I learned the messy way to never bring coconut oil on a trip in just a plastic bag… even when you think it will be cold outside.

8. The color key: to keep my head on straight, as I finish preparing an item, it gets a colored background to help me keep track of what’s done and not done. For example, when I finish a dehydration item, it gets a dark green background; to my eye, this means “ignore it, already completed”. This helps reduce the amount of reviewing the chart and wondering where I left off and what still needs doing.

In this chart, you can see I’ve already color coded the items in the “4 Lunches” column—that’s to help me plan what to put on my “dehydrate” list (sage green), and what to put on my “buy” (yellow) or “have already” (light green) lists.

9. Car food: Don’t forget the trip to and from the trailhead! This trip had a 4.5 hour drive both ways, so I needed a full meal for each way. The day before the trip, I prepped some stuff for the ride up to fuel me for the start of the hike (fried plantains, cassava tortillas, turkey slices and an apple), and brought simple non-refrigerated packaged items for the drive home.
TIP: always leave yourself some tasty, high-calorie snacks in the car for the ride home! You will thank yourself.

10. Extra food production: In this column you’ll see “(make extra)”; any time I dehydrate foods, I try to make extra of items I know I’ll use again soon, and items that take a lot of prep. Might as well do the prep once, and get it all done!

The image above shows the left half of my chart. Below is the right half.


11. Recipe ingredients list: Having a central list of the recipe ingredients makes it easier to come up with a grocery list to cover the entire trip. Not entirely necessary, but I like to have all my info in one place.

12. Prep schedule: What I’m going to prep on each day during the week or two before the trip, so I don’t get behind. This keeps me on track: very important!

The two images are from one single chart; in the live software, you can scroll the entire chart left to right. I like to use Excel, but you could use any spreadsheet software to do this.

Coordinate your dehydration sessions based on temperature, not meals!

What might not be obvious on this chart is a feature I use regularly and highly recommend: coordinate your dehydration sessions based on food category (ie: drying temperature), not by meal.

Scenario: Imagine you have six meals planned that use dried carrots, onions, and zucchini. Three of the meals use dried beef, two use dried salmon, and one uses ground turkey. In one, you want dried cherries. For two, you need a soup base made from sweet potatoes and leeks.

You have three different food categories represented, and for ideal food quality and safety, each category needs to be dried at a different temperature:

  • meats at 155°+F
  • veggies at 125°F
  • fruits at 135°F

You could focus on one meal at a time, which would result in a separate drying session each for the beef, salmon, and various veg/fruit for each meal. Can you say, “Major time suck“?

Ideally, you would coordinate the dehydration for all meals at once: plan a dedicated drying session for all the veggies; all the fruits; and all the meats, each in their respective categories. This will save a ton of time and effort not only in drying time, but in all your prep and cleanup.

Coordinating your food prep this way is one area where this chart comes in really handy. Try this, and you might even change your mind about me being totally OCD (wink).

How to wrangle the drying sessions

Let’s go back to that imaginary scenario of multiple meals with different items.

Meats at 155°+F: We know all meats can be dried at the same temperature, so go ahead and dry your beef, salmon, and turkey together in one session, and properly store it until the rest of the items are ready to be combined and packaged for the trail.

Veggies at 125°F: Will the veggies take more than one dehydrator run? Depends on how many meals you’re prepping for, and the volume of your unit.

For all meals, tally your measurements for each veggie: for example, say you need a total of 1 cup diced carrots for your stew, 1 cup shredded carrots for your salmon chowder, and you want some carrot bits for your lunches. Wash and prep them together, and dehydrate them at the same time. The diced carrots will take longer to dry than the shredded, but you will still save time and energy doing them together.

But wait—got more room in the dehydrator? Fill it with some or all of the other veggie items. They call for the same temp, and likely similar drying times if cut/diced/shredded to similar sizes.

Semi-liquid items take longer than solid: Even though it’s veggie-based, you know the soup/stew base will take much longer to dry than the cut and shredded veggies, because it’s semi-liquid. But for a single recipe, it certainly won’t fill the dehydrator.

If you have room left in the veggie load, start the soup at the same time, and simply take the other veggies out when they are dry, leaving the soup base in until dry. If the other veggies take up the whole space, then plan a separate drying session for the soup base.

Soup base can be a bit labor-intensive to make, but it makes a tasty, energy-laden base for meals. I love my soups and stews, so when it comes time to make some, I make multiple batches to fill the dehydrator. It stores fine in the freezer, and when it’s time to prep more stew, I’m already done with the soup base part.

Fruits at 135°F: In our scenario, you only need some dried cherries for your meals. Can you buy them at the store? If so, do it. If not, plan ahead and dry those cherries along with a slew of your favorite seasonal fruits for some tasty snacks on the trail for the rest of the summer.

Or… my go-to is a horde of plantain chips! You’ll be really happy to have them; a great carb source, and chewy or crunchy depending on how ripe they are when you dry them. Careful, though: they tend to disappear mysteriously right off the dehydrator trays.

Rule of thumb: any time you can, fill your dehydrator. Having a full dehydrator not only reduces the number of drying sessions, it also helps the items dry more evenly. And not that most dehydrators add much to the electric bill, but reducing drying time will help minimize that, too.

Get the big picture and make a plan

How you organize your food prep and drying sessions will depend on the meals you choose and what ingredients you need to prepare. If you look at your menu planning chart with an eye for the big picture, you can do a heckuva lot of food prep in much less time than if you do it all in parts.

As you do it more and more, you’ll become more creative, more efficient, and learn which items you want to increase production on for future trips. Making double or triple batches is ‘time in the bank’ when you start to prepare for your next adventure!

Yes, wrapping your head around the timing and coordination can be time-consuming and mind-boggling (when you’re a newbie), but if you do it, you’ll save time on the back end. A lot of it.

Here are links to five resources right here on Backcountry Paleo that will help you coordinate your dehydration game plan:

  1. Food Drying 101 – a general guide to drying fruits and veggies; contains info on food safety and storage
  2. Jerky 101 – written about jerky but in principle applies to most dried meats; contains info on food safety and storage
  3. Fruit Drying Chart – an item-specific chart for drying many common fruits
  4. Vegetable Drying Chart – an item-specific chart for drying many common veggies
  5. Choosing a Dehydrator – I’m a proponent of Excalibur, but this post covers the bases no matter the brand.

Keeping your head on straight, and being ready to launch on time

For a weekend jaunt, all of this might not be necessary, but for a longer trip, I find it saves me a lot of time and effort. The payoff: you have fabulous food, and enough of it, on the trail.

If you are on a full Autoimmune Protocol, if you fail on food prep, you don’t have the option to run to the local outdoor shop (at this point in history!) for some last-minute freeze-dried meals or cheese-n-crackers. Absolutely everything has to be done in a timely manner, or you’re out of luck when it’s time to get on the trail.

By using my food prep chart, I have everything in front of me in one location. I can plan my menu and make my shopping list lickety-split, as well as keep my head wrapped around what needs to happen today, tomorrow, or right before I leave for my trip. I save time by coordinating different parts of prep, and know when I’ve missed some important piece of the picture—before my boots hit the ground.

That’s how I plan, organize, and make my food for backcountry trips. I hope it helps you in your trip preparations! Happy hiking and eating!