how to make your own trail food (pemmican)

JELLY-filled donuts,  a bag of Doritos and a case of soda  pop will  usually  get you through an easy  weekend  over-nighter  of rabbit  hunting or target shooting – and that’s if the  weather’s mild.   Long  expeditions to remote areas of  the  each  however, usually require dehydrated or freeze dried food that are as light as air but came heavily spiced to overcome the cardboard factor. The  first few days of eating commercial backpacking  foods aren’t  bad.  You’re tired,  hungry and anything  tastes  good. It’s  the same principle with outdoor furniture.  Any  flat  rock will  do when you’re dog tired.  Just being outside  in  gorgeous surroundings  tends  to block out the  negative.   Yet  something happens  to  backpacking foods after the third,  or at  the  very latest,   the fourth day – everything begins to taste  the  same. The Turkey Tetrazzini tastes just like the Beef Stroganoff,   and the Stroganoff just like the Alpine Minestrone.  Is it the  plas­ tic/foil  cook-in-their-own pouches,  the infamous spice  concoc­ tions  or something about the butane cook stove that causes  this taste-the-same syndrome? On one lengthy backpacking trip I can remember drooling  as I watched a fellow hiker plop sections of real navel orange  into her  mouth while I sat there munching on gorp (peanuts, M&Ms  and salty  raisins),  and swilling down warm Tang.  After a  week  of living  on dehydrated meals you’ll give just about  anything  for some “real” food.

Our early U. S.  astronauts experienced somewhat the same prob­ lem.  Space  food consisted of pureed gunk  packaged  in  plastic squeeze  tubes  along  with their  famous  orange- flavored  Tang. Meanwhile,   Soviet  cosmonauts  were dining  on  caviar,   black breads, salami and other delicacies.  Today shuttle crews are fa­vored  with shrimp cocktail,  teriyaki chicken,   tomato  egglant casserole  (one of their favorites), and many natural foods  like fruits,  tortillas and peanut butter. If today’s astronauts can eat more normally,  certainly  modern backpackers can enjoy eating foods that taste good,  won’t spoil, and are easy to prepare.  The key to this is pre-trip planing and proper  packaging.  Before getting into making your  own  gourmet hiking meals,  it’s a good idea to learn how our predecessors did it.

Jerky,   Pemmican – The very first backpackers on this  continent were the Indians and they developed some of the best trail  foods known to man.  Dried meat,  known as jerky,  is today a  favorite snack found in most convenience stores.  Store bought beef  jerky contains  lots of salt,  seasonings and extra chemicals that  can make you sick on the trail.  It’s better to make your own so that you can control the flavor and ingredients. Jerky can be made from venison,  elk or Buffalo,  but is gener­ ally made from beef.  A good lean round steak or flank steak will work great.  Cut the meat in long thin strips against the  grain. If  there’s  any fat or gristle,  remove it and  throw  it  away. Cowboys used to sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper,  a  small amount of chili powder, and then simply hang it on wire lines  in the sun to dry. For  more flavorful jerky,  marinate the meat in a  solution  of two  tablespoons  of soy sauce,  two drops of  Tabasco  sauce  or cayenne pepper to taste, 1/4 teaspoon of salt,  ground pepper and one fresh clove of garlic,  minced.  Place meat and marinade in a Ziploc plastic bag in the refrigerator overnight. Then drain  the meat and place on the oven racks to dry.  The oven should be  set at 140 degrees with the oven door partially open.  Dry for  about six  to  eight hours or until the meat turns  dark  and  brittle. Other  marinade ingredients that add a unique taste to  the  meat are red wine,  red wine vinegar,  Worchestershire sauce,   minced onion,  a pinch of thyme,  oregano and marjoram. One  of the best known survival foods in the history  of  North America is pemmican.  Invented by the Indians as rations for long hunting trips,  pemmican was used on the Lewis and Clark  Expedi­ tion as trail food and by Admiral Peary’s group as a staple  food during their successful journey to the North Pole.

Pemmican  was made using equal parts of jerky,   wild  berries,and  boiled  fat from animals.  A modern day  recipe  substitutes peanut butter for the fat.   The ingredients to be mixed include:

  • eight  ounces of jerky pounded into powder;
  • eight ounces of  rai­ sins  or  dried apricots,
  • eight ounces of unroasted  peanuts  or pecans.

Heat up two tablespoons of honey and four tablespoons of peanut butter until softened and then blend together with a pinch of cayenne pepper.  Add to the jerky/nuts/raisin mixture and work thoroughly through the mixture.  Stored in plastic bags  pemmican will keep indefinitely in a cool,  dry place. Before you attempt to make your own trail foods and meals  you will need to build or acquire an important piece of equipment – a food dryer.   Commercial food dryers are available for about $100 but  you can make your own for about $30.  Buy the  drying  racks first  –  they will determine the width and depth  of  your  food dryer.    Metal cake cooling racks work great.   Buy  the  square ones with dimensions of about 10 x 10 inches. You  want the dryer to be shaped more like a tall  square  tower rather than a low wide rectangle.  Because this unit doesn’t have a fan to keep air circulating it uses the principle of “warm  air rises”  to  create the circulation.   A 100 to 500 watt  bulb  is located  at  the  base of the dryer.  Air enters  at  the  bottom vents,   heats up,  rises through the dryer racks and  exits  out the  top  vents.  The temperature inside should be at  least  100 degrees for proper food drying.  Build the dryer frame using 1  x 2s and use Masonite for the sides.   Screw eyes are used to  hold the  door closed.  Don’t paint or varnish the dryer  once  you’ve built it.

When planning a menu for a wilderness outing it’s best to plan for  one or two small meals and one main meal at the end  of  the day.   Trail  snacks should also be provide  for  in-between-meal energy replenishment.  On a piece of paper list the days you will be gone on the left-hand side and on the top of the page – break­ fast,   lunch and dinner.  If you draw lines separating the  days and  each  meal category,  you should have a page of  boxes  with each  box representing a particular meal of the day.

The  basic principle of packing food for the trail is  keep  it simple and light.   For quick,  trouble-free meals that keep well n  the  trail,   pack hard salami,  small tins of  fish  –  tuna, shrimp,  sardines – and chicken.  Don’t forget crackers,  cheese, peanut butter,  dried fruit and granola for no cook/cleanup  eat- as-you-go meals.  Small cans of evaporated milk can be used  full strength  for  coffee creamer or cut 50/50 with water to  use  as whole  milk.  Yogurt is ideal for shorter trips.  It will  holdup for about 48 hours.  And of course cheeses will just continue  to age. Black breads,  pumpernickel and dense whole-wheat breads travel well  on the trail.  Make them at home or buy them at your  local bakery.  Don’t slice them until you’re out on the trail or you’ll end up with a bag of crumbs.   Bagels travel very well in a back­ pack.

Food Packaging – When preparing meals on the trail many times you can get out of pot cleaning duty by mixing ingredients in  sturdy self-locking  bags  like  the Ziploc  brand.   Rehydrating  dried fruits  and  vegetables can be done in these bags too.   Use  the large gallon size bags to pack each individual meal.   Label  the bag with a wide swatch of masking tape and mark on the tape using a   waterproof   marker   the  day   and   the   meal   (example: Saturday/Dinner).   Remove unnecessary packing from grocery store bought  foods (cardboard boxes,  etc. ) but don’t forget to  clip the instructions from the box and include it with the food. If  you have one of those Seal-a-Meal machines you  can  pre- measure mixes and powders at home,  include a slip of paper  with instructions,   and  then seal the bag from the  elements.   This saves  time  on the trail when mixing up  your  favorite  pancake recipe or your favorite dehydrated gourmet spaghetti sauce. Be  sure to wrap individual portions of baked goods  such  as cookies,   chews  and muffins in plastic food wrap.   Then  place them  in a plastic bag or container.  When packing your  pack  be sure to protect your food from spoilage or contamination by other items  in the pack,  such as soap,  toiletries and liquid  fuels. You  never  know when your sunscreen or insect  repellent  bottle will burst due to high altitude.  The weight of food to pack for each hiker varies from one to two and  a  half pounds per day.  Of course the colder  the  weather, the more calories you are going to need to stoke the fires.   The following  are ten ways to cut down on the weight of your  provi­sions:

  1. Eat less (If you can afford to be eating less you may not be in  the best shape for heavy duty exercise.  Your best bet is  to get in shape before you go,  and then eat heartily).
  2. Use re­cipes  with only the shortest cooking times to cut down on  fuel.
  3. Save fuel by undercooking foods slightly and letting them sit for  a few moments,  covered,  to finish cooking.
  4. Eat  heavy meals  first,   like canned goods,  fresh eggs,   and  rice.
  5. Pack only one pot meals.
  6. Use dried soups and dumplings  for dinner.
  7. Pack make-ahead meals to save  cooking  time.
  8. Substitute fruit leathers for gorp, Potato Buds for rice,  pasta for rice,  Butter Buds for butter or margarine.
  9. Keep strict­ ly to the pounds-per-person limit that you decide on.
  10. Save water – use the one pot method in trail directions if it’s  of­ fered as an alternate method.

Use  your dehydrator to dry fresh fruit and vegetables.   Some of  the  best  foods to dehydrate are  eggplant,   bell  peppers, mushrooms,  carrots,  tomatoes,  zucchini and Gravenstein apples.

I’ve  had great luck drying vegetables out of the can.  Corn  and green  beans dry up really nice.  Avoid canned vegetables  packed with heavy sodium concentrations. We’ve already talked about making beef jerky.  It can be added to  stews and such for extra flavor.  You can also  bring  ground beef  for your meals if you dry it in your oven at  home.  Brown the meat in a fry pan the way you normally do and then drain  off the  fat.  Dry it on a cookie sheet in the oven for six to  eight hours at 140 degrees with the door slightly ajar.   One pound  of ground  beef  dries to six ounces,  about one and a  third  cups. Store  the dried ground beef in a Ziploc bag in the  refrigerator until you’re ready to go. Meals really stand  out when you use the following fresh  ingre­dients: onions, cloves of garlic and salted butter.  Fresh  onion and garlic sauteed in butter will marry the flavors of  anything. You can pack garlic cloves in left over 35mm film cans.  In  fact you  can use plastic film cans for other important items such  as salt  and  pepper,   herbs and cooking oils.   If  you  want  see through  film  containers,  buy Fuji film.   Fresh  cheeses  make boring  meals come alive.   Parmesan,  Reggiano,  aged Gouda  and dry  Jack can be carried in wide mouth plastic bottles  and  will last for days. If  you plan activities in the fall and winter months,   super­ charge  your  meals with extra calories,  so that  the  body  has enough  fuel  to fight off  hypothermia and exhaustion.   To  whet your appetite for some cold weather camping here are two  recipes from the Hungry Hiker’s Book of Good Cooking.

Russian Black Bread:

1 square unsweetened chocolate

2 cups water

1 cup bran flakes

1 cup cornmeal

2 envelopes dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water

1/4 cup oil

1/2 cup molasses

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon instant coffee

1 teaspoon crushed fennel seed

2 1/2 to 3 cups white flour

2 cups rye flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

Glaze: 1 egg white mixed with

1 tablespoon water

Melt  chocolate in 2 cups water and pour this over the bran  and cornmeal  in a large bowl.  Let cool.  Meanwhile,   dissolve  the yeast  in 1/2 cup warm water.  To the cooled bran  and  cornmeal, add  the  oil,  molasses,  yeast,  brown sugar,   salt,   coffee, fennel,  add 2 1/2 cups of white flour.  Mix well.   Add the  rye and whole-wheat flours,  then add more white flour until you  can knead the dough (It will be sticky).   Knead it for five minutes, adding more flour if necessary,  then put it into a greased bowl, turn,   and cover with a damp towel.  Let it rise  until  double. Punch the dough down.  Divide it in half and form each half  into  a  ball.   Set these on greased cookie sheets,  cover,   and  let rise  until nearly double,  about 30 minutes.  Brush  the  loaves with a mixture of egg white and water.   Bake at 375 degrees  for 50 to 60 minutes,  until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped – the crust should be very dark.  Cool on racks.

For winter meals when you need to pack as many calories into your  meals  as possible,  make up a soup that  positively  brims with  delicious  nutrients.    As well as  containing  plenty  of vitamins,  carbohydrates, fats,  and protein,  Super Soup has the advantage of using up the odds and ends of dried vegetables  that you have left over from making more refined recipes.  And a  very tasty soup it is,  too! Dumplings make it a complete meal.  Note: milk  does not boil well – it froths and boils over and  makes  a general  nuisance  of  itself,  so add it only in  the  last  few minutes of cooking.

Super Soup

1/3 cup barley

1/3 cup lentils

1/3 cup Potato Buds,  or 1/4 cup

instant potato powder

2 beef bouillon cubes

1 cup dried sliced vegetables

1 tablespoon dried meat

A pinch each of thyme and marjoram

1/2 cup dry milk

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/4 cup grated or cut cheese

(optional) 1 cup biscuit mix packed in its own bag for dumplings

Put  into one bag everything except the milk – butter or  marga­ rine  –  and grated cheese.  Trail directions:

  1. Put the  soup into  a pot with 4 1/2 cups water.  Bring to boil,   then  simmer for 1/2 hour.  2.  During the last five minutes,  stir in 1/2 cup dry  milk  and  3 tablespoons butter or margarine.   Add  cut  or grated cheese.
  2. To make dumplings add 1/4 cup water to 1 cup biscuit  mix and make a stiff batter.  Form into balls about  the size  of  ping-pong balls,  and float them on top  of  the  soup. Cover  so  they steam and cook until done,  during  the  last  20 minutes’ cooking time.
Reprinted with permission:


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