For a few years, and many miles, home made beef jerky has served as a substantial portion of our hiking diet. Our friends, Purple and Carnivore (we met them on the AT in 2011), showed us how they make it in the days immediately before we began hiking the Arizona Trail in 2015. Since then, we have made it for several hikes (AZT ’15, PCT ’16, GET ’18, GDT ’18, JMT ’18).
I eat jerky as part of my daily hiking food…eating around 3 ounces or roughly 240 calories a day. From a caloric perspective, this is less than 10% of daily intake, but it is a very enjoyable 10%. The savory, somewhat greasy jerky is quite satisfying on a hike.
Of note – we find a lot of store bought jerky to be pretty blah. Most of it seems really dry and tasteless. There are some good jerkys out there, but they tend to be from pretty small brands and command a high price. For that reason, we continue to prepare our own jerky whenever possible.
What does one need to make beef jerky for thru hiking?
1) Dehydrator. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. We have used the same basic dehydrator for tons of jerky and tons of other backpacking food prep. We have the Nesco Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator. This is the perfect size for a 3lb batch of ground beef.
2) Jerky Gun. There are a few different ways to get the beef from the mixing bowl and onto the dehydrator trays in a form that can be dealt with later. After trying a couple different methods, we have decided that this jerky gun is the best for our needs – JerkySpot Sausage & Jerky Gun. It is simple, very effective and creates a consistent piece of jerky.
3) Mixing Bowl. Most likely you will have something around the house that will work fine for this. We have not bought anything special but have just used large ceramic or glass bowls wherever we have made the jerky. *You’ll see in some of our pictures that we have used a metal bowl – we have discovered that this is not advised.
4) Jerky Seasoning and Cure. Having tried a few different brands, we prefer the one that our friends, Purple and Carnivore, recommended in the first place – Hi Mountain. There are many flavors; Terriyaki, Cracked Pepper & Garlic, Sweet & Spicy, Pepperoni, and Original. We have liked them all. Typically, we will buy multiple flavors so that we have a variety out on the trail.
5) Vacuum Sealer. There is a lot of variety with vacuum sealers, and they seem to change minutely in design every few years but continue to accomplish what you need them to do. We have a Food Saver brand vacuum sealer. We use a vacuum sealer so that the jerky will stay fresh longer.
6) Vacuum Sealer Bags. We get whatever we can find cheap. Walmart’s Mainstay brand is good. These vacuum sealer bags from Amazon work well too. We buy 8” width and a continuous roll. This allows for sizing bags as you need.
7) Beef. Beef that has a low fat content will be the best for this project. Walmart, Costco and other grocers typically stock 93% lean ground beef. We prefer to use ground beef versus steak (whole muscle meat). It is easy to get the seasoning and cure thoroughly mixed and it creates a softer jerky that is easier to chew. Ground beef is frequently sold in batches of 3lb tubes and this is ideal in our opinion. This size works excellent. It is two “fills” of the jerky gun, and 3lbs of ground beef fits the standard pack of trays (5) that come with the Nesco dehydrator mentioned above. If we can’t get that, we just buy 2lb packages. The rule of thumb seems to be this: buy ground beef that is at least 90% lean.
8) Rubber gloves. These are easy to overlook (and not absolutely necessary) but you will appreciate this suggestion. After thoroughly mixing the jerky, it is much easier to clean the gloves than your hands.
9) Kitchen Scale. You may already have one of these. Since we are regularly traveling or on the road before or in between hikes, we purchased this small, sensitive and compact kitchen scale from Amazon as a travel scale – It is also handy for weighing pieces of gear if you are into that.
Calculating your jerky needs
Dehydrating the jerky removes a large amount of the water present in the beef. We use the following calculation. Typically, dehydrating 2-3 lbs of raw beef makes 1lb of jerky (this is a rule-of-thumb we have heard before). This will depend on how dry you make your jerky, which of course, is dependent on how much time the meat is in the dehydrator, as well as the ambient humidity/temperature levels. Our yields have been much closer to the 3:1 ratio.
Here is an example of some calculations:
For our hike of the Grand Enchantment Trail in the spring of 2018, I needed 37 days worth of jerky.
- 37 hiking days x 3 oz jerky/day = 111 oz (6.9 lbs) = Total beef jerky needed
- 111 oz x 3 (applying a simple 3:1 drying ratio) = 333 oz (20.8 lbs) = Total raw ground beef needed.
- For this hike, we bought 21 lbs of beef (we try to buy in 3 lb tubes). This was sufficient to give me the beef jerky that I needed for the hike and a small bit of leftovers for SweetPea.
- Consider how many ounces of jerky you want per day (you can take a look at a package in a store to give you an idea).
- Multiply that weight in ounces by the number of days you will want to eat jerky (I eat it everyday).
- Multiply that total by 3 (the shrinkage ratio).
- Divide that total by 16 to get your raw ground beef purchase amount in pounds.
Following Directions and Additional Process Comments
Regardless of the brand of seasoning+cure you buy (they are packaged together typically), there will be instructions included for the season/cure mix ratio. Follow those very closely and use measuring spoons as required.
If you are using a jerky gun like the one mentioned above, you can basically shoot the jerky out into a spiral onto the trays, leaving a small gap between each concentric ring.
Most instructions will give you a range of time for dehydration. We do 5 hours regardless of climate and get reasonably consistent results. Not all of the instructions will mention the rotation of the dehydration trays, but we highly recommend doing so. After 1 hour in the dehydrator, we shift the top tray to the bottom of the stack. We continue doing this each hour until 5 hours is reached (consider using the timer on your phone).
After your first batch, eat a piece or two. If it is too dry, consider lessening the time in the dehydrator. Leave it in longer if it is too soft. In general, soft jerky will package better as hard jerky will pierce the vacuum sealer bags with its sharp corners.
After a batch has been dehydrated, we will cut the spiral into 3-5inch pieces and put in a paper grocery bag until all of the jerky is dry (no longer than 4-5 days). We leave the jerky in the paper bag for a few days till we have enough to package efficiently with the vacuum sealer.
Jerky everyday of a thru-hike?
Eating jerky every day probably isn’t for everyone…or maybe it is? I don’t know. I can eat it everyday. On the rare occasion that it wasn’t appealing to me, I gave/traded it with another hiker on the trail if we were having lunch together. Most people will find this jerky very tasty.