The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Sunday, 20 January 2013

PCT Food: Part 1 (The Evening Meals)

Geoff got in touch with me last week to ask how our food strategy on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) had worked out, which has chivvied me, rather belatedly, to gather my thoughts on the subject*. It may have seemed like a simple question, and Geoff was probably expecting a brief answer, but I have once again demonstrated a complete inability to be succinct, and have therefore written three posts around the subjects of food and resupply on our PCT trip.

Background: For our backpacking trips in the UK, we always cook and dehydrate our evening meals before we set out, but buy most of our breakfasts and lunches as we go along. That approach wouldn’t work for an American trip due to food import restrictions (although there are some things you can take). Had we been walking a route with easy buy-as-you-go resupply opportunities, then we probably would have just bought as we went. However, the section of the PCT we chose is one of the more remote parts and the PCT Handbook told us that the places that could be relied on to provide resupply were few and far between.

I vacillated at length between buying commercial processed packet food in a supermarket on arrival in the US, or buying dehydrated ingredients. Either way it was going to be posted ahead.

Harmony House Foods: Eventually, having decided that I wanted both a bit of variety and a bit of nutrition over the course of our five weeks of walking, I came down on the side of dehydrated ingredients, and considered a number of suppliers. After much perusal of their websites, Harmony House Foods was selected as they offered almost all of the ingredients that I wanted in air-dried (rather than freeze-dried) form.

Deciding how much we wanted of each ingredient was tricky. We didn’t have the ability to experiment, so I took my knowledge that each of my home dehydrated meals come in at around about 100g in dry weight, except for pasta sauce which (being mainly tomato based) comes in at nearer 75g, I listed the ingredients for each meal that I wanted to create (a spread sheet was involved, as you’ll see below, but no graphs, I promise!), and made an educated guess as to the proportions of each ingredient.



In the absence of meat, I also bought various flavours of fake meat to add to Mick’s meals, but that didn’t make it onto the ingredient list

On arrival in LA, our food was all waiting – and there was masses of it. Even after splitting it out and mixing it up into bagged meals (tricky without implements, measurers or scales), we could have no idea how the quantities would work out.


Evening meals for 4 weeks.

The two pieces of paper on the top left of the table were my print outs of the spread sheet, so that I knew what I was doing with all of those ingredients!

More worrying, however, was whether the meals would prove to be palatable. Once they were all bagged up, we couldn’t help but notice that there was an awful smell of ‘dried vegetables’ emanating from the parcels, and if they tasted like they smelt then it was going to be a culinary disaster of a holiday. Another worry on the palatability issue was something that hadn’t occurred to me until we got to LA: when we dehydrate meals at home all of the ingredients are cooked first; the bought pulses were cooked, but the vegetables were all raw.


I divvied up the tomatoes first…

It was with great relief that we mixed up our meal on the first day and found that it was edible. Admittedly not what you might choose to eat if you were at home, but it was tasty enough. I wouldn’t call that first meal a real success though, as it was rather crunchy and the later intense intestinal discomfort added to what had already been a very challenging first day.

That first meal taught us two things:

1) Even if the meal looks to be rehydrated after fifteen minutes, it’s best left for far longer; and

2) Some dehydrated raw ingredients work better than others.

From Day 2 our meals became more successful. The routine became that we would in a shady spot for lunch (lunch during the first 3 weeks being a break of between 3 and 5 hours, depending on how unbearably hot it was), pop up the tent as insect protection, boil up some water and put the food on to rehydrate. We would then kip/read/blog/watch the world go by from the comfort of the tent for an hour or so, then I would venture back out to the stove and bring the meal back up to boiling point, add the rice/pasta/cous cous, and leave it for another ten minutes (if we were having smash, that was added when we were ready to eat). That didn’t get around the fact that the leeks, peppers and celery were still crunchily raw, but all of the other ingredients had softened up enough to give a decent meal.

Day 18_2

Leave the rehydrating meal unattended at your peril! This one wasn’t unattended though, as I was sitting a couple of feet away as this cheeky fella tried to remove the lid from the pot!

Some meals worked better than others. We were so put off by the under-cooked pasta sauce experience of the first day that I don’t believe that we ate another one during the entire trip. As it turned out, commercially dried foods weigh a lot less than hour home dehydrated meals and thus we had way more food than we needed. In the case of our favourite meals (lentil stew, chilli and curry) that meant that on receiving our parcels we re-sized the portions, also taking the opportunity to pick out as many of the ingredients that didn’t soften up as we could. In the case of pasta sauce, we just binned them.

In hindsight, would I call our main meals a success, and would I choose dehydrated ingredients over supermarket dried ready meals in future? I think that’s a subject for a different post, as in answering that question it’s worth considering the wider subject of resupply.

(* If anyone would like to ask me about our tent, our water filters, our Personal Locator Beacon or my waterproof jacket, then maybe I would finally get around to writing those reviews too. I didn’t intend to comment on many bits of kit, but those are the ones that struck me as noteworthy.)


  1. Hi Gayle,

    I think this is a very interesting topic. I've thought about trying out this approach for shorter trips just to try it out.

    Do you think that if you'd had the option of playing with the ingredients ahead of time that you'd have had more success with the meals?
    I wonder if starting to rehydrate some of the ingredients the day before, then adding ingredients with shorter re-hydration time as you approach cooking time might give you a better result?

    My main concern with these meals as you point out is that usually they are cooked together to combine their flavours into the final product over some time, rather than just being a bunch of components being re-hydrated in the same pot.

    Tor Magnus

    1. If we had had the opportunity to play with the ingredients in advance then we definitely would have done things a little differently (see Part 2...). The meals were far from disasterous, and were (to me) definitely better than the dried supermarket meals, but a bit of pre-knowledge and tweaking would have made them better.

      Starting to rehydrate the meals sooner would have shortened the soaking time, but I've never got on with putting meals to soak in advance when walking. As it goes, our lunch breaks were so long for the first few weeks that leaving the food to soak in boiling water for over an hour wasn't a problem. It became more of an issue in the last week or so, when we switched our main meal to the evening. The meals would have been even better if we'd frittered away gas on simmering, thus achieving cooking of the veg and more mingling of the flavours, but we decided we'd rather have crunchy veg than finding ourselves fretting about dwindling gas supplies.

      You're completely right about the lack of flavour-mingling. It made me glad for the supply of stock cubes which helped with the flavours.

  2. Hey Gayle, could you tell me about your tent, Personal Locater Beacon, water filter and waterproof jacket please? I'm really interested to know how you got on with them on this trip ;-)

    1. (hmmm, wonder if this comment will appear twice - the first attempt seems to have disappeared)

      And you sounded so sincere in making that request!

    2. Okay, Doubting Thomas, ahem.
      You did prompt a few wonderings. I gathered you got on well with the tent (a tarptent? But I can't remember which one, I'd been looking myself pre-superlite) it provided shelter during the day with bug protection. Will it be used in british conditions? Do you have any plans to adventure with it?
      I am a paranoid water panicker. I treat, even if I am then going on to boil it for hot drinks or food. Don't anyone try to change my mind on that. I've previously tried a filter bottle but found it difficult to manage alone because of the cold and being feak and weeble I couldn't squeeze the water through unless the bottle was between my knees and the water then squeezed into a pot at my feet, practical not. How was yours?
      I have no experience of a Personal Locator Beacon, so am a little curious, although I'm unlikely to ever be in the real back of beyond.
      And your waterproof jacket. Waterproofs are always interesting. There's such a variety and differing conditions to cope with, not to mention individual preferences.
      So go on, indulge me.

  3. That's interesting (the combining of dried ingredients...) as that is the way I do it. I carry basic bags of couscous, dehydrated cooked quinoa or brown rice, also potato flakes, along with soy protein, cooked and dried lentils, then combine them using a choice from small bags of different home dried vegetables according to how I'm feeling! I've stopped home drying actual stews etc. and cooked beans NEVER seem to re-hydrate.....cherry tomatoes are good!

    1. Your way of doing it is how I would do it in future (see Part 2). In fact, your name and method of meal-making did crop up somewhere in the Sierra Nevada when we were discussing food.

      On this trip we pre-mixed the meals, thus we didn't have the ability to completely avoid the ingredients that we didn't like so much.

      I'm pleased to say that all of the beans rehydrated well (probably thanks to the >1 hour soak time). I usually find that they rehydrate well (bear in mind that we usually soak in hot water for at least 20 minutes if not half an hour), with the exception of chick peas - I usually lose patience with those and end up eating them with 'crunch' remaining.