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How to Cook Backpacking Food in the Rain

Rain and Cooking in Rainy Weather adds a whole new dimension to your backpacking experience.
Rain and Cooking in Rainy Weather adds a whole new dimension to your backpacking experience.

I had a reader contact me recently asking me how he could cook dinner in the rain, inside a double walled tent with an MSR Whisperlite stove. He wanted to know whether he should get rid of his tent and replace it with a tarp that could be pitched higher and had better air flow.

My answer:

You really don’t want to cook in any kind of tent with a Whisperlite, which is a liquid fuel stove designed to burn Coleman white gas. The danger of a fuel flare up and burning your tent down, actually melting it around you is simply too high. There’s also the very real danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is usually possible to cook in rain outside of a tent with a liquid fuel or canister gas backpacking stove because the cook pot covers the stove burner and protects the flame from going out. You just can’t rely on lighting your stove with matches and it’s best to use some kind of sparking tool like a Light My Fire or a Bic lighter if your stove doesn’t have a built in piezo igniter.

I also make a point of packing cold dinners in my food bag or enough food that doesn’t have to be cooked to eat well even if it is raining outside. Cheese, tortillas, nutella, peanut butter, granola, fast cake, etc. can easily substitute for a hot dinner.

There’s really no need to replace your tent.

While I have cooked under a tarp in the rain, I’ve only done so in places that don’t have any animals that would be attracted to lingering food scents and only with a canister gas stove (like a Jetboil), where the flame height has been very easy to control. When doing so, I was very careful to make sure my tarp was extremely well ventilated so I wouldn’t pass out and suffocate from carbon monoxide, although I’ve also spent nights under that same shelter eating cold food quite happily in the rain.

You just need to plan for rain when you pack your food bag.

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27 comments

  1. I hate to be the contrarian here but for the last 35 years I have cooked in my tents with a variety of stoves including the MSR Dragonfly, Coleman Apex, Coleman 442, Coleman Basic Camp Propane screw on stove, several butane stoves like the Optimus Crux Lite and Alcohol stoves. I have only had a problem once in all those thousands of meals and that was with the MSR Dragonfly. The fuel warmed up too quickly and a flash of fumes spread over my sleeping mat. It went out instantly but I did give that stove away to someone who never used a tent.
    I cooked in my tent so much because in summer the mosquitoes in Alaska can be mind bendingly unbelievable. Also when the rains pour down with windy conditions it is so much kinder to your harmony to listen to the maelstrom outside while the stove helps warm you from the cold rain. In winter, the warming effect from the stove heating your food while the temp is -40F is a blessing only those who have experienced can appreciate. When the snow decides to make trekking even more difficult and the winds howl and scream around the ridges, cooking in a tent is a no brainer. I always leave several inches of door and screen open to allow for greater ventilation except in summer when the vents were all open and screen remained closed for obvious skeeter reasons. I am still alive and kicking after 35 years and thousands of meals cooked in tents. In Alaska, the principle of common sense overrides the mamby pampy East Coast Liberalism that turns hikers and campers into politically correct automatons. Sorry Phillip but I think you are just being a little too cautious and enduring somethings you don’t have to because the PC Nazis say to do it their way.

    • No need to be insulting about it.

      • Ever been a spectator at a tent fire? I have – not a pretty thing, but it is over very quickly. So quickly that your heart is in your throat as you do a head count – or at least that’s what the Scoutmaster of that group told me. I was glad no one was hurt, but more glad it wasn’t my group.

        I have successfully cooked in the vestibule of my tent a number of times, and will do so if conditions require it. But overall, I’m with Phillip on this one – and I’m nowhere near either coast.

      • One of my favorite lines is “just because it didn’t kill you last time doesn’t mean it is a good idea”. I don’t cook in my tent because of level of risk if something goes wrong, not the probability.

      • I disagree with Predbeau. Based on his last two sentences, I think he did want to be contrarian.

    • Phil is not being politically correct or an environmental nazi. He never said never, just that he recommends against the idea. Nowhere did he insinuate “my way or the highway”.

      Many experienced woodsmen and expeditioners don’t advise cooking inside the tent if it can be avoided. For instance, when Lars Monsen got stuck in the high winds of Nunavut in -40, -60 conditions, he had to stay in his tent for days using his Primus as a source of heat. To the camera, he said it’s a bad, risky and dangerous idea,, but he had no choice.

      And that guy has more miles than the most of us, and has a very conservative approach to backpacking and camping.

    • It was only a small flash fire, nothing to be worried about.

    • Lol! What does using or not using stoves in your tent have to do with the East Coast, liberalism, or Nazis? Ha ha! Maybe social skills are a little harder to come by in Alaska (no offense to any well-mannered Alaskans!)

  2. I agree with Philip about the safety hazards.
    1) Carbon Monoxide – builds up and can be dangerous
    2) Carbon Dioxide – replaces oxygen in a tent and can make you pass out with the stove running (not a good scenario.)
    3) Some other hydrocarbon compounds that can be toxic and noxious.
    4) Heat can destroy most synthetics – nylon, poly, etc. – besides the nasty burns the melted plastics can inflict on you.
    5) Not recommended, but, you do what is necessary. USE YOUR HEAD.

    Now that we have the cautions, yes, you can cook under a tent provided you use your head.

    Make sure all vents are open fully.

    Always start a stove out of the tent. WG flares up always and sometimes canister’s do too.

    Maintain as much room as possible between side walls, roof, doors and vents. More above, less below. The distance will vary depending on how high you have the flame. Some stoves are light and tip easily. DO NOT use this type or anchor it down to something solid. Roger Caffin recommends a small piece of plywood with some hooks around the base of the stove to make it less tippy.

    Most tents have a vestibule. Put your stove there, even if it gets wet from rain. Like Philip says, the pot will pretty much protect the flame/stove. Place a flat rock or or group of sticks (at odd angles) under the stove to avoid scorching the floor, if you have one, under the stove.

    ALL clutter (sleeping bags, clothing, socks, pads, pack, etc) should be well away from the cook area…like the other side of the tent. Be extremely careful not to kick or otherwise tip the stove when the pot is on it. Some manufacturers make a hang kit for stoves to hang them from the ridge line. Use these if available.

    Cook by the OPEN DOOR or in the vestibule. Keep the door open at the top and bottom a few inches. The vents should be open. Many tents allow rain to come in with a door open (example: dome style tents.) These are NOT suitable for cooking in. Your door needs two zippers (top and bottom,) minimally, to let air in and to let combustion gasses/byproducts out. CO2 & CO can puddle near the bottom of tents so you need to let it out.

    Minimize cook time as much as possible. A boil and dump meal (4-5 minutes to boil) is much safer than cooking a stew or soup(15-20 minutes to boil.) You would likely be safe with no more than 10 minutes of cook time. I can usually bring 4 cups of water to a boil in that time.
    For example, rice sides are easy. Boil a cup and a half, or two cups of water(4min,) dump the contents in, return to a boil and turn the stove off. Then place the the pot in your hat and cover with a bandanna. Wait about 15-20 min and it should be cooked.

    I use a tarp and set it up to allow me to cook under. I plan on it. But, tarps allow MUCH MORE ventilation. I always cook on low. In winter or cold weather, this is SOP. But, BE CAREFUL!

  3. Excellent reply, jimmarco – I second everything you said.

    My own response, if I know we’re headed into rain, is to carry my solo tent (2 pounds) and a small tarp (current favorite: MSR E-Wing) to cook under. I usually hike with one or two friends, so it’s also a good place to sit and talk. The tarp weighs a pound, so even with the tarp and tent, I’m at 3 pounds – the same weight as the two-person tent my friend carries, and so much more versatile.

  4. If necessary, I will cook in either vestibule of my tent, but not inside. The vestibules are well ventilated so they should be OK. I don’t backpack or camp in extreme cold so that’s not a concern for me. :)

  5. I agree with Phillip that there are risks that you do not need to take to have a nice hot meal in the back country, and one of them is cooking inside a tent. Having said that, I have noticed that expedition climbers (Everest, K2, etc.) routinely cook in their small tents. I’m sure they do it carefully, and I bet there are occasional tent fire disasters.

    My own experiences are that I can almost always sit protected from rain under my tarp (I rarely use a tent, but if I did, it would work the same way) while my stove and pot are cooking away within my reach just outside. If it were really pouring buckets, I might even move the stove under the edge of the tarp to provide some rain protection. Tarps or tent vestibules are nice because the stove can be on the ground rather than on a flammable tent floor in case of spills (fuel or food spills). In mosquito country, I still cook outside my shelter (wearing a head net, etc) but may eat inside my shelter’s netting to be more comfortable and enjoy my meal in relative peace.

  6. on another note- many backpacking meals can be cold-rehydrated, so even under adverse conditions you can still have a great tasting meal. My son never takes a stove while backpacking and I make several meals for him that are easily cold-rehydrated. There’s no reason NOT to have great food while backpacking and it tastes even better under the conditions discussed :)

  7. Thanks for the article on cooking in the rain. My grandson and I recently took a section hike on the AT looping from Standing Indian Campground over Standing Indian Mountain and Albert Mountain and back to campground. Great loop hike. Major thunderstorm first night out so we cook and ate with a tarp, which was a last minute purchase, over our head which worked fine. I never thought of the residual smell from cooked food being attached to the tarp. Might take a different approach next time.
    As always, I enjoy your posts and “glean” something from them.

  8. Safety and precaution–they’re liberal East Coast namby-pamby principles !!!

  9. Jon Krakauer relates how he tried to climb Devil’s Thumb in Alaska when he was young and impetus. He failed and afterwards decided to smoke a marijuana cigar in his tent…and burned down the tent! Worse, it belonged to his father. The tent, not the cigar.

    Lesson: don’t smoke pot while cooking inside your tent. LOL

  10. Being a hammock camper I can usually cook under my tarp as long as it is not raining too hard. I set up in porch mode and that provides plenty of ventilation. I do worry about food odors, though. As far as cooking in a tent, make sure you have a sharp knife handy since you may need to make a rear door pretty quick!

  11. I have been on the ground for 40 plus years . Then slept in a hammock two years ago and my life has changed ,and I can backpack twice as long because of the sleep and the relaxing seat it gives you almost like my recliner at home.
    But yes just cook on the corner in porch mode . I am so light I carry a fold out stool to sit and cook when the weather calling for rain. As far as odors I am only boiling water so no problems. But if the weather report is good the menu will change.

  12. I have and do cook in my tent ( though it has been a long time since I resided in a traditional tent). I am a single wall shelter guy – tarp, pyramid, or trailstar. I use a wood stove in my pyramid in wet, cold, or winter situations and I have cooked meals and boiled water using my hanging stove.

    All that being said, white gas is too volatile and too unpredictable a fuel for me to mess with inside. Once upon a time my white gas stove flared up on me (and partially melted the fuel bottle )under my tarp on a platform at Avery Col which made for a very thrilling few minutes! Thank goodness I was not Ina tent!

    The concerns about CO and the flammability of the structure are very real and very valid. Negligence, carelessness, or Murphy’s Law can have real consequences and always have to be weighed and evaluated. I would never consider using something in my shelter I wasn’t thoroughly familiar with, and then I would only do it with a couple of bail out options ( in doorway, under a corner, etc as mentioned above).

  13. I cook in my vestibule (closed flaps) on my Copper Spur UL2 but never inside.
    This is with canister type stoves, I would not use an alcohol stove or a white gas stove in my vestibule.

    “Just use common sense”, is easier said than done, a lot of folks might not have this thing called common sense.

    However, with that said, there are things I do but would not suggest others do it.

    I wont waste any more space because jimmarco summed it up rather nicely, well done.

  14. How to cook in the rain.

    Find a nice rock to sit on deploy sit pad and sit in comfort.

    Deploy umbrella and cook, simple.

  15. 2nd on colin’s way of cooking

  16. Phil – Sorry, but on a separate note: I’ve been looking for trekking poles with handles that are aggressively tilted forward, like the ones you seem to be holding in the photo above. What are the poles you’re using in that photo? And are you using some sort of handle pad? (it looks like you have padding between your hands and the handles, but I could be mistaken.)

    Thanks!

  17. When I bought my first liquid fuel stove (Optimus 11), I read the instructions on what not to do, went out on the parking lot and did those things. After having created the fireball that a cold liquid fuel stove makes, I knew what to avoid.

    I think that not cooking inside your tent is a good advice for those who need to ask. But in reality many of us do it. So it becomes a matter or risk management. Arctic travellers use a stove box that can be shut and tossed out of the tent speedily. On my winter trips we have dug a trench in the vestibule of the tent and thus kept the flame low (on a Nordic style extended tunnel tent the trench is handy otherwise, too). And is summertime I open and secure the door of my paddling dome to cook, exposing the stove to rain (rain just means that there will be more soup).

    Other people have already listed above the things that can go wrong. To me it is a matter of understanding these things and making sure that none of them happen, or there will be no consequences if they do.

    BTW: so far I have managed to make liquid stoves to fireball by omitting the pre-heat, gas stoves to fireball by upending the cannister and alcohol Trangia to fireball by using the winter burner in summer. But I have never exploded a gas cannister, even my stupidity has limits (and luck, there was this one time…)

    kiravuo

    • I boggles my mind why backpackers do not use a simple device like a chimney so they can cook inside. A simple chimney can be hooked to any stove, weighs 12 ounces, wood or solid fuel is the safest. It is stupid to cook out in the wind and cold using a wind screen. Put a wind screen around you and your stove plus a roof over your head, like inside tarp or tent.

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