Like all good ideas, Itacate started in a tent. Martha Y Díaz was on a rainy backpacking trip in the Santa Cruz mountains when a downpour forced her and her friends under their rainfly for several hours, brainstorming business ideas to make backpacking more fun.
“Latin backpacking food kept coming up again and again,” said Díaz. “To the point where I said, ‘Okay, well, we can’t do that. Let’s think about other stuff.’”
But in the end, the idea of bringing Latin food into the backcountry is what stuck. And it’s changed her life in the years since.
“What inspired me to start Itacate was the lack of options,” said Díaz. “Backpacking is a type two activity, right? You’re in an uncomfortable place and then we were eating food that we don’t often eat at home or that we’ve never eaten at home. And so it was kind of like a double whammy of that discomfort.”
So Díaz set out to change that, following through on her backcountry idea to create a Latin backpacking meal brand — Itacate.
Latin Meals for the Backcountry
Started in 2021, Itacate takes its name from a Nahuatl term. It describes food that you can take along for a distance or a parcel of food you might be given as you leave a gathering.
Díaz immigrated to the U.S. from central Mexico when she was just 10 years old. For her, food is intrinsically linked to community.
“I think, to most immigrants, food is just something that you hold on to so much because there’s so much emotion around food. [There’s] so much nostalgia and cultural connections,” she says. “So to me food [is] having that thread of connection to my culture. But also the ability to explore other cultures through food is so special.”
“I thought, ‘How can I do that? What skills do I have to bring forth?’” she says. “And food just seemed like it made the most sense.”
3 Recipes and a Plan to Expand
Itacate Foods currently offers three freeze-dried backpacking meals: Sunset Caldo, Charge-Up Chilaquiles, and Campsite Lentejas.
All three meal flavors are a welcome antidote to the endless parade of bland oatmeals and sloppy rehydrated biscuits and gravies. They might even tempt you to ignore your fridge full of groceries and break an Itacate open for an easy lunch or dinner at home.
Díaz makes each batch herself with the same steps and local ingredients as she would for guests at her home, just in a much larger batch in a food-safe industrial kitchen. She then freeze-dries that and packages it all herself.
If that sounds like a lot of work for one person, it is. But as the business grows, Díaz has plans to expand the process including a larger freeze-dry machine and partnering with an external organization for packaging.
The soul of the food will stay the same: Díaz will continue cooking backpacking meal recipes from her culture with love. But the scale is going to get bigger so more people have the chance to experience her food.
And that’s not the only change afoot. Itacate is in the final stages of packaging materials changes. Going forward, the brand aims to use more sustainable materials for its vibrantly colorful packaging. They’ll be made from post-consumer recycled materials, which will also allow consumers to rehydrate the meals right in the package. Currently, you need a separate pot.
The Power of a Good Meal
Ultimately, for Díaz, making Latin backpacking food is about delight — and not just her own.
“Something I’ve heard from folks, is [that they experience] a moment of joy when they walk into an REI and come across our meals and they see something that’s so culture forward,” said Díaz. “And it’s that moment of delight where they either deeply identify with these meals as something they grew up eating, or as something that they’ve experienced in their travels.”
Where can you find Itacate Foods? Right now you can buy its freeze-dried meals on its website or in some select REI locations in California. But keep an eye out — Itacate’s colorful packaging and community-sourced recipes are coming to 14 more REI stores and a few select National Parks in 2024.
“I really, truly believe that the best ideas come from having a diversity of people just riffing off of each other’s ideas,” said Díaz. “That’s how innovation comes about. And [it’s] why I think it’s so important to have diversity in the outdoor industry.”