The Best Food Dehydrators of 2019
Dehydrating your own backpacking food is a great way to add flavor, nutrition, and variety to your backcountry meals. It can also save a lot of money compared to commercially prepared meals. But, there are so many food dehydrators on the market, how do you pick?
In our search for the best food dehydrator models for outdoor adventures, we scoured hundreds of customer reviews on Amazon, Google and professional comparative reviews by Wirecutter, Spruce Eats, and Foodal. Then we quizzed backcountry chefs about which dehydrator features they thought were essential.
From twelve promising models, we whittled our list to the top three dehydrators for most backcountry foodies: The Nesco Gardenmaster FD-1040 Pro is our top pick for most users, with a great balance of features vs. price. If you are confident you want the best dehydrator at any price, we think the Excalibur 3926T is a good investment as an Upgrade Pick. If you want quality but don’t need extra features, we suggest the reasonably-priced Nesco FD-75 Snackmaster Pro.
How We Identified Our Top Dehydrators
In our search for the best dehydrator models for outdoor adventures, we scoured hundreds of customer reviews on Amazon and Google and compared professional reviews from Wirecutter, Spruce Eats, and Foodal. To learn more about dehydrator accessories, we checked the Self Reliant School. Using that information, we identified the top 12 dehydrator models. Then, we picked the brains of three backcountry chefs to discover what criteria was most important in picking a dehydrator. Using that criteria, we whittled it down to our top 3.
In addition to information from professional reviews, I drew on over a decade of experience dehydrating my own backcountry food. I have made hundreds of dehydrated meals for over 13 multi-week backpacking trips and run a blog where I share dehydrated food recipes with backcountry adventurers. I’ve spoken at meetings organized by national organizations about topics including dehydrating backpacking food at REI stores, and for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and American Long Distance Hiking Association.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health and I previously worked for eight years as a health inspector, six of which were spent inspecting restaurants for compliance with state and county health codes. I’ve used what I learned from that job to inform how to safely prepare food in my home dehydrator.
I originally started dehydrating my own backpacking food after my first hike of the 2,600+-mile long Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. I got sick of the eating the same boxed pastas every night and, as a result, wasn’t eating enough food to sustain the amount of exercise I was doing.
After that, I started dehydrating my own meats, cheeses, beans, and veggies to add enough variety and flavor into my meals that I could get excited enough to eat.
Estimated number of backcountry meals enhanced by my own home-dried ingredients: 1,116
My favorite meal to dehydrate: tamales with green sauce.
To develop our list of Top 12 dehydrators, we identified the top criteria that you should look for in a dehydrator. Using this criteria, we narrowed that list down to the Best Dehydrator for Most Backpackers, the Best Upgrade Pick, and the Best Budget Pick.
“Value” was something reviewers and the experts we interviewed agreed was important. Outdoorspeople should consider how much use it will take to make up for the initial cost of the dehydrator. If you make all your own meals instead of buying freeze dried meals at the outdoor store, how much can you save per trip? As an example, freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce goes for $7-8 per person at the store. If you dried your own homemade spaghetti and meat sauce, $8 might feed the whole family. On one long weekend backpacking trip with a family of 4, you could potentially save enough to pay for a Snackmaster! But, if you often go solo and you don’t think you will make every meal or you only get out once a year, it will take you longer to make up that upfront cost.
Durability plays into value in that if your dehydrator breaks after only a few uses, it was not money well spent. The most common failures we found mentioned by reviewers are broken trays and burned out motors. Broken trays can often be replaced, but we eliminated models that had too many of complaints about durability. Excalibur’s 5-year warranty eases our minds about durability.
Because the most common complaint in the reviews seemed to be food getting into the fan and either causing a mess or damaging the motor, we only chose dehydrators with rear or top mounted fans. We identified a few dehydrators that had good reviews, but they ultimately didn’t make the cut because of their negative reviews related to bottom-mounted fans.
Temperature range and control is important for food safety, especially if you will dehydrate meat or products with meat in them (like pre-made tamales). We considered dehydrators that go from 90 F to 160 F.
After ten years working as a food health inspector, I think that a thermostat is important for both quality and safety of the food.
Though not enough to disqualify a model, we considered expandability. Depending on what you are dehydrating and the length of your trip, the number of trays for the job will change. For one trip, you might just want to make some fruit leather, which only requires one tray. On another trip, you might decide you want to make all your meals at once, necessitating 5-6 trays. Or for an extended trip, you may wish you had 20 trays. Sliding tray dehydrators do not have the option to expand the number of trays.
Stacking tray dehydrators usually come with 4-5 trays. Nesco sells more trays that fit their dehydrators, as well as extra accessory trays like those for dehydrating liquids. Expandability also goes hand-in-hand with motor size. A 1000W motor--like that on the Gardenmaster--can handle up to 20 trays. A 600W motor--like the Excalibur and Snackmaster--can only handle 9-12 trays.
We read what reviewers had to say about size and weight. All dehydrators are bulky, but some are more space-efficient. Square dehydrators without a hole in the trays, like the Excalibur, maximize the drying area available with the least counter space. Some dehydrators, like the Presto Dehydro (which we considered but didn’t make it to the top of our list), can nest the trays for storage. Stainless steel dehydrators are attractive and durable, but they weigh more than twice that of their competition. They’re often more expensive, too. So, we included a small consideration for space and weight in making our choices and all our Picks fall somewhere in the mid-range.
We also considered whether a dehydrator has a timer function. Some reviewers love it, especially people who load up their entire dehydrator with jerky. They like that they can set the timer and go to bed or take off for work and not worry about over-drying their food. But our experts didn’t think it was a function that alone was worth paying extra for. For use for backpacking, where you might be drying several different kinds of food at once (all with different drying times), a timer may not be as helpful. So, we took timers into consideration, but didn’t make this feature critical in our decision-making.
Because some customer reviewers commented about how loud or quiet various models were, we made sure to include noise level as a consideration. Dehydrating experts Melissa Erkel and Whitney LaRuffa reported that they put their dehydrator in a far corner while dehydrating. But, for users who don’t have far corners, this may be something to think about.
Our experts mentioned that the ease of getting accessories is important to allow for dehydrating variety. All of our Picks have accessories for sale in places like Amazon.
Finally, some reviewers commented that they liked things that were made in the USA. Although this was not a deal-breaker criteria, we were pleased to find out that all three of our Picks are made in the USA.
Other Experts we Consulted
While preparing this article, we interviewed a few veteran backpackers about their use of dehydrators. One question we asked was why they chose to incorporate a food dehydrator into their repertoire for backcountry food. We discovered many reasons why people get into it.
Melissa “Go-Go” Erkel created every meal for her and her husband in advance of her 2600-mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. She did it because she is vegan and it was hard to find vegan options in every town along the trail where she would want to resupply. Favorite dehydrator: 15-year old Nesco Snackmaster Pro. Her favorite food to dehydrate is tofu jerky.
Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, an experienced long distance backpacker and foodie said, “When I first started dehydrating it was because there was limited commercially available food... [By] dehydrating, I was able to create meals I preferred to eat, save money, and add more variety into my trail diet.” His favorite food to dehydrate is black bean and quinoa salad.
Should I get a Freeze-Drier or a Food Dehydrator?
In this article, we mention some of the benefits to dehydrating your own food for outdoor pursuits. But what about freeze drying? The reasons we gloss over freeze-drying is that most backpackers opt not go that route. It is far more expensive and complex than dehydrating.
Freeze-drying is a process for removing the moisture from foods that involves quickly freezing food in a vacuum, lowering air pressure, and reintroducing heat to get the water vapor out. If you want to read more about the physics freeze-drying vs. dehydrating, click here.
Freeze dried food is, in many ways, superior to dehydrated food. The process results in a food that retains its structure unlike dehydrating--which causes food to shrink. It better retains its color, shape, and many of its nutrients. More water vapor is removed in the freeze-drying process, so freeze-dried foods can often last longer than dehydrated food. And, freeze-dried food also rehydrates quicker.
The problem is that freeze dryers cost over $2000 (up to $100,000!) to buy. They are also very large, maintenance is extensive and expensive, they are loud, and they create nasty fumes. It is far more cost effective for a solo or even family of backpackers to buy, pre-made freeze dried meals from the store than to invest in a freeze-drier.
Another option, which is what I do, is a hybrid of dehydrating and freeze-drying. I have not had great luck dehydrating certain things, such as cooked potatoes, bell peppers, or sour cream.
For recipes with these items in them, I buy them in bulk online at sites such as Packit Gourmet or BePrepared.com [Sometimes you can also find freeze-dried bulk items like tomatoes, ground beef, and avocados at outdoor retailers from companies like Just Tomatoes, Mountain House, or Alpine Aire.]
Then, I dehydrate the rest of the ingredients myself to make an affordable meal with the ingredients that I want.
Best Food dehydrator for most backpackers
The Nesco Gardenmaster Pro models have been on the market for years and have consistently been considered the best dehydrator by multiple reviewers. On Google and Amazon, this the Nesco Gardenmaster Pro FD-1040 gets high customer ratings (4.6 and 4.4 out of 5 stars with over 600 reviews) for ease of use and durability. It’s an Amazon’s #1 Seller and #1 Most Wished For dehydrator. Wirecutter selected its older model, the FD-1010, as their “Best dehydrator for home use.” We think the Gardenmaster Pro FD-1040 is the best dehydrator for most outdoor enthusiasts who want to make their own food. This Made in the US dehydrator excels in balancing features and middle price point.
The Gardenmaster’s vertically-stacked trays can be expanded up to 20 trays—more than double the capacity of most dehydrators on the market. The ability to handle that many trays at once is due to the large 1000W fan motor.
The only dehydrator we noted that has a larger motor is the STX International Dehydra 1200, a dehydrator that costs twice as much as the Gardenmaster. While 20 trays is probably overkill for most backpackers, we like the ability to expand our tray number when planning food for a long trip or a big group. Also, a larger motor dries even small amounts of food more quickly, saving you time and money (on your power bill).
The Gardenmaster’s wide, adjustable temperature range of 90-160F allows users to dehydrate a variety of foods. The low end of 90F allows you to dehydrate shredded cheese without melting or changing flavor by cooking it. And 150F+ protects against bacterial growth when drying up some taco meat.
Both the experts we interviewed, backpackers Melissa Erkel and Whitney LaRuffa, agreed that an adjustable thermostat with a wide temperature range is especially important for backpackers due to the variety of foods they may want to dehydrate.
Amazon reviewers really liked that with the Gardenmaster, they don’t have to fuss over rotating trays to allow for even drying. Nesco‘s proprietary airflow system does the job for you by circulating the air evenly throughout. Having owned other brands of dehydrators in the past that dry the food closest to the fan quicker, I can appreciate the saved effort of good airflow.
We also like that the Gardenmaster has dishwasher safe trays. It makes it easy to clean up sticky foods that backpackers might make like sauces or fruit leather (though that’s easier done with the fruit roll-up trays than the trays that come with the dehydrator). Our research showed that not all dehydrators’ trays can be put in the dishwasher.
Nesco recently added a digital timer to the Gardenmaster, which is usually only found on more expensive models of dehydrators. This feature allows you to set the timer and go to work or bed and not worry about over-drying your food. Erkel and LaRuffa thought this was a nice feature, but consider it non-essential because they often dry several things at a time, necessitating checking on them every couple of hours anyway.
Nesco also addressed a common complaint of dehydrator users and moved the new Gardenmaster’s heating element/fan to the top. That means you won’t burn out the fan’s motor when a little salsa slips between the cracks.
All the dehydrators with fans located at the bottom have customer complaints about motor failure when food falls or drips into it.
I’ve also had a personal experience with a dehydrator heating element failing from dripped food. For this reason, we disqualified any dehydrator models that didn't place the motor on the top or back of the device. A heating element on the top also makes cleanup easier having a cleanable pan at the bottom instead of a non-submersible motor.
There are a few cons of this model. One is that, even though it is expandable, it only comes with 4 trays out of the box.
In our experience, 4 trays would not even be enough to do a long weekend backpack for 2 people in one dehydrating session. This means that even though the Gardenmaster’s large motor can accommodate dehydrating a huge batch, you’ll have to buy the extra trays.
So while the 4-tray version of the Gardenmaster is a deal compared to our upgrade pick, the Excalibur, if you want all 20 trays, their prices start to look similar. But, as we said above, 20 trays is likely more than you’ll need unless you’re making meals for the entire scout troop.
Also, due to its large fan motor, some reviewers complain that the Gardenmaster is loud. We suggest dehydrating your food in a laundry room or far corner where the noise won’t bother you. But if you live in a smaller space, like an apartment, you may want to consider a quieter model.
Best Upgrade Food Dehydrator
The Excalibur 3926T is an excellent dehydrator for amateur chefs, people who have graduated to the next level of dehydrating, or those who know they want a well-made unit that promises to last a long time. Foodal.com rated the Excalibur 3926T the “Best dehydrator on the market” and it earns a rating of 4.5/5 stars on both Google and Amazon with 5-star ratings making up 82% of the reviews. But it’s also almost twice the price of our Pick, the Nesco Gardenmaster Pro, making it a great choice only if you’re willing to spend more for extra features. If you think you will really get into dehydrating or you want to upgrade your current model, we think it is worth the extra money to invest in this Made in the US dehydrator that sports a ten year warranty.
The Excalibur 3926T is among the most beloved dehydrators on the market and is our Upgrade Pick. It’s a favorite due to its large list of features, which really allow you to dial in your timing and temperatures, and make checking on food simple.
Among the features of the Excalibur 3926T are a rear-mounted heating element with 9 drawer-style trays. This configuration makes it the easiest of our three picks to check on all four courses while they are drying. Since this is something that you will need to do with any dehydrator, it’s nice that the Excalibur makes this process easier. Also, having the heating element in the rear means that errant drips and crumbs will not fall into it, causing the motor to burn out. This is one of the more common causes of dehydrator failure.
Reviewers frequently comment about the Excalibur's well-made trays, which have a tighter mesh than most dehydrators. This means you don’t have to buy special liners or add parchment (which reduces airflow) to keep your mushrooms out of your chocolate mousse. They also like the Excalibur’s quiet motor, meaning you can have it out on the counter without it being a distraction.
I agree with reviewers and really like that Excalibur trays are square and lack the center hole found in other dehydrator models we considered. Food dehydrators are all bulky. The Excalibur’s design maximizes the drying area while minimizing counter and closet space.
But the stand-out feature on the Excalibur is that it has the industry’s longest warranty: 5 years. This is in stark contrast to the one year industry norm.
While 9 trays is a smaller capacity than the other dehydrators we considered, we personally don’t see it as a downside on the Excalibur 3926T. Why? Because 9 trays is a lot of food. Chances are that when you are drying 9 trays worth of food, it is several different kinds of meals. Because flavors blend when dehydrating, we would rather have fewer trays in our dehydrators as to only dehydrate one type of food at once. This keeps our macaroni from tasting like apples.
Although the Excalibur 3926T has many great design features, it does have some drawbacks. First, the difference in price between this model and the Gardenmaster is enough to buy yourself a new backpack. Prospective buyers will have to consider how often they will be using it and how much money they will save in the long run making their own meals.
We were disappointed that for the extra price, the Excalibur 3926T uses a 600W motor compared to the Gardenmaster’s 1000W motor. Lower-powered motors can draw out the drying process. However, many reviewers thought the Excalibur was efficient, so this was not enough to take it off of our short list.
Also for the extra price, the Excalibur 3926T does not come with any fruit roll trays. They do sell silicone mats that can be used to make your own fruit leather, but some reviewers, such as Self Reliant School preferred the Nesco accessory trays to the ones sold by Excalibur. Because the Nesco’s accessory trays have a lip around the edge, they can accommodate liquids like salsa and spaghetti sauce better than Excalibur’s accessory trays. But we don’t think the accessory trays should sway your decision. Self Reliant School noted that the Nesco fruit roll trays do fit in the Excalibur.
Although “drawer-style” models like the Excalibur 3926T increase ease of use, you can’t increase the number of trays to accommodate larger projects. If you want more drying space, you will have to buy a whole new dehydrator.
The Excalibur 3926T is a great dehydrator with nice features and a slick design. If you think you will really get into dehydrating or you want to upgrade your current model, we think our Upgrade Pick is worth the extra money to invest in this Made in the US dehydrator that sports a ten year warranty.
(Editor’s note: We discovered that this model is available used on Amazon for about 2/3rd the price of a new unit. The main drawback of a refurbished unit is the warranty doesn’t extend to second owners, although Amazon provide its own shorter warranty.)
Best Budget food Dehydrator
The Nesco FD-75 Snackmaster Pro is a solid budget pick that has all the must-have features and none of the bells and whistles that add to the price of the other dehydrators. Amazon reviewers agree, making this Made in the US dehydrator their #1 best seller with a rating of 4.4/5 stars out of 5 among nearly 2000 reviews.
This dehydrator stands out as one of the least expensive dehydrators on the market that has both a top heating element and an ample 600W motor. At only about $90, you’ll make back your investment after a couple trips.
Despite being the budget pick, the Snackmaster Pro has all the features that our experts agreed were crucial. Among these, it has a wide range of temperatures: from 95 to 160 degrees.
While there are budget dehydrators on the market that don’t have an adjustable thermostat (like the Presto Dehydro 06300), after ten years working as a food health inspector, I think that a thermostat is important for both quality and safety of the food.
We like that the Snackmaster can can be set below 100 degrees to dehydrate things like hummus and herbs without cooking them and changing their flavor. The Snackmaster’s wide temperature range is within 5 degrees of our other, more expensive Picks. Temperatures above 150 are important when drying meats to prevent bacterial growth.
As if this budget dehydrator didn’t offer enough value, the Nesco Snackmaster Pro comes with two mesh screens and two fruit roll sheets-more than both of our other Picks. In my experience, both of these accessories are key for adding to the variety of foods you can dehydrate and you will want at least two of each for most jobs. One of the most common complaints about dehydrators is motor failure due to crumbs or liquids falling into the fan motor. In other dehydrators of this price, the fan is usually on the bottom, leaving it vulnerable.
But like all our final Picks, the Snackmaster’s heating element and fan are mounted out of harm's way (in this case, stacked on top of the food trays). And the bottom of the dehydrator, which all of the dehydrating trays stack on, is a removable pan. With no moving parts or electronics, this bottom piece is easily cleanable.
The only downside of the Nesco FD-75 Snackmaster Pro, as with all units with stacking trays, is that it is harder to peek in on individual trays while it is running than dehydrators with sliding trays like the Excalibur. The user has to unstack all the trays that are above the one they want to look at. While this isn’t a huge deal for people who use a dehydrator only occasionally, this could get annoying for people dehydrating on a regular basis.
With the Nesco FD-75 Snackmaster Pro, you won’t get a digital timer or the most powerful fan, but you will get a well-made dehydrator capable of drying variety of food at a budget price.
Didn’t Make the Cut
We identified 9 other dehydrator models that looked promising and were highly rated by customers and professional reviewers. To get to our top 3 models, we stacked the 12 models side-by-side in a comparison table laying out the criteria that we considered important like watts, size, number of trays, and temperature range. We also noted when other professional reviews had positive things to say about a particular model.
Based on that analysis, we eliminated these models from our top picks because of the following reasons:
Nesco FD-1018 Gardenmaster: This is an older model of the 10-series Gardenmaster Pro FD-1040 that we recommend. Although this is a much beloved dehydrator, it lacks the digital thermometer that is found in the FD-1040. We think most people will prefer the digital version, even if it costs a little more.
Aroma Housewares Professional: This dehydrator has neat functionality, but has an underpowered motor compared to others we considered.
STX International Dehydra 1200: This unit is made of stainless steel and weighs twice as much as many of the other dehydrators we considered. It’s also almost twice the price.
Nesco FD-80: This is the square version of the Snackmaster that we recommend as a Budget Pick. Although it is more compact than our Budget Pick, it costs more and reviewers noted that it has minimal additional drying space.
Presto Dehydro 06300: Although this is the #2 dehydrator on Amazon and is relatively inexpensive, reviewers complain a lot that it doesn’t come with an adjustable thermostat. We think it’s worth paying a little bit more to control your temperature reliably.
Samson Silent: Although reviewers found this dehydrator to be (as advertised) quiet, they also complained that it is hard to use and clean.
Cuisinart DHR 20: Reviewers complained that this unit is loud.
L’Equip 528: Amazon reviews for this dehydrator were not as positive as our top three models.