Backpackers are always looking for ways to save pack weight. Some continuously upgrade to the latest lightweight gear, while others remain solely focused on eliminating all but the necessities. Regardless of the motivation, the objective is the same – to lessen the load so that hiking is easier and more enjoyable.
Thus, a common reaction is to leave the backpacking stove and fuel at home. This is no surprise because cooking equipment can weigh from 1 to 2.5 lbs depending on the stove type, weight of the fuel, and the cookpot.
Simplifying the Trail Experience
Weight is not the only benefit to going stoveless. Not having a stove also means you won’t have to deal with the frustration of refilling stove fuel. For one, finding a sizeable town that is close to the trail is not always possible. Second, traveling to and from town to the trail can be a real hassle, as well as the store being open and stocked with the fuel that you need. Plus, empty fuel canisters can be difficult to dispose of, and carrying empty cans or fuel bottles is dead weight.
If pack weight or simplicity are not enough reasons to convince you to try backpacking without a stove, you might think that nothing beats retiring the day like a warm meal, plus a stove can always be used to boil water for water purification. Well, not always.
Stove fuel can run out, leak, or spill by accident; stoves can malfunction and parts can break. You might think the solution is to carry a wood stove, or just build a campfire. That is not always possible though. You might be hiking in a fire restricted area or in an arid climate with almost nothing to burn in sight. Inclement weather can also be a factor. No one wants to tinker with a stove or wood fire during a bad rainstorm when every stick and leaf is damp to the core. If all you have are meals that require boiling water, your experience is not going to be a good one.
Going stoveless also means meal preparation just became simpler. Preparing an actual meal doesn’t get any simpler than adding cold water to the ingredients and waiting a few minutes for the water to reconstitute the food.
Cold Backpacking Food versus Hot Backpacking Food
Since we humans discovered fire, we’ve experimented with how heat transformed food, made it edible, improved its appeal, and heightened its texture. Not long after, the person charged with making the food was elevated in status, earning the “chef” role.
However, you don’t have to be a “chef” or even a “cook” in order to eat good food on the trail. The commercial one-pot dried meals make preparation easy. One must only need to add water to the prepared ingredients by simply knowing:
- how much water to add
- the temperature of the water
The temperature of the water is an important one because it can mean a satisfied stomach or an aching one. If cold water is used when boiling water is needed, the meal will not only taste bad, but the ingredients will not be properly reconstituted. This can lead to bloating and aching.
Now that you’ve opted to backpack without a stove, you may wonder what options you have.
No-Cook Backpacking Foods
What does your backpacking meal plan look like when you opt to eat cold meals? Besides the obvious snackable ready-to-eat foods, such as GORP, trail mix, packaged sweets, hard cheese, crackers, energy bars, and nut butter/tortilla, you probably can’t think of too many traditional meals to eat by just adding cold water. Cold cereal, pudding, or fruit smoothies may come to mind.
That might work for a short weekend trip, however, for longer section hikes or thru-hikes, you are going to get bored with your food very quickly.
To stay healthy during long trips, it is vital to eat a variety of foods, which includes mixing up the common snack foods with meals that have a “fresh” component, as well as those that contain adequate moisture by the addition of water.
This is important for several reasons:
- Eating dried food has a dehydrating effect on the body. Whether the food is naturally dry, such as nuts or seeds, or purposefully dried for a longer shelf-life, it requires water from your body to digest it. This means you must drink more water to compensate. Most backpackers aren’t drinking enough water, so a good solution is to eat your water with cold-water meals!
- Eating dried food is nutritionally less superior than eating fresh foods, in most cases. The drying & cooking process depletes certain vitamins. For instance, vitamin C is depleted from 30 to 80% when exposed to heat during drying or cooking. A medium-sized fresh red bell pepper (3 oz) contains 118 mg Vitamin C or 157% of DV. When that pepper is freeze-dried (0.1 oz after water is removed) the Vitamin C content drops to 60 mg. Source: USDA Nutrient Database
- Hikers can resolve the Vitamin C deficit by packing in fresh fruits; including citrus, apples, and avocados. Packing fresh fruit is easier than fresh greens and vegetables on the trail. Fruit can keep for several days and is easy to find in town. During the spring, fresh berries can be found and picked on many of the trails.
- Greens are more difficult to take on the trail because they are more perishable. For this reason, most long-distance backpackers eat almost no fresh vegetables and salad greens. However, it is important for maintaining optimal health because greens are loaded in nutrients. Try packing in vegetables such as carrots, which offer an excellent source of Vitamin A. This is another nutrient hikers are not getting enough of because it is depleted during the drying process. Growing sprouts while hiking is another solution to the problem. Sprouts are easy to grow and take little effort. They make an excellent side salad and satisfy the craving for fresh greens. For the dressing, use an olive oil packet and salt & pepper.
- Make no-cook puddings using chia seeds. When added to water, these calcium-rich seeds transform into an instant pudding. Chia seeds are flavorless, so try dried fruit, coconut flakes, or cocoa for flavor.
- Pre-cooked and dehydrated beans can be ground into flour for use as “instant” dips and sandwich fillings. Chickpea hummus is commonly prepared this way.
- Some instant grain foods can be reconstituted in cold water. Fine-grind couscous and instant 5-minute rice rehydrate in cold water within 15 minutes.
- Breakfast cereals, such as muesli or rolled oats and granola don’t have to be limited to the morning. They can also make a fine lunch or dinner.
Simplification in meal prep, weight savings, and access to tasty and nutritious cold meals are all good reasons why cold meals have become a popular choice for backpackers. One last argument against going stoveless is the thought of giving up hot meals. Many backpackers can’t imagine being without a warm meal on a cold day or starting the day without a hot cup of coffee. I enjoy my 1 – 2 cups of hot coffee in the morning, and a cold cup absolutely won’t do the trick. However, I can tell you this:
- We don’t need “hot meals” to stay warm in the cold. It is true that we feel more content eating hot meals in the colder months. Hot foods warm us temporarily from the inside. But, cold meals also warm us. In fact, all foods, as long as it contains calories, warm us. When we “burn” calories, our bodies experience a slight elevation in temperature.
- Hot meals don’t necessarily keep us full. Hot foods tend to include heavier ingredients such as complex carbohydrate grains, which take longer to digest, thus making us feel full for a longer period of time. However, pre-cooking and drying these grains beforehand can allow you to reconstitute them in cold water.
- If you don’t mind cold coffee, any instant or freeze-dried coffee will dissolve in cold water after a good stir. Starbucks makes an instant VIA version marketed for cold water, but the only difference is that it adds powdered sugar.
Ready to try going stoveless? A short weekend trip or section hike during the warm months might be ideal to test your stoveless backpacking experience. Outdoor Herbivore is continuously introducing cold meals to the product line-up to make it easier for you.
Finally, if you want to experiment with your own recipes at home, here are a few tips:
Tips for Reconstituting Dried Foods
Blanch vegetables & cut them into thin, short pieces prior to drying to shorten rehydration time.
Do not sweeten dried fruits with added sugar. Fruit with added sugar takes longer to reconstitute.
If rehydrating several different kinds of foods together, make sure that sizes are uniform so that they will rehydrate at the same rate
Salt increases rehydration time. Do not add salt packets until after rehydration is complete.
Freeze-dried fruits & vegetables reconstitute much faster in cold water than dehydrated ones.
Keep everything clean. Boiling water is beneficial because it kills potentially harmful microorganisms that are present in the water as well as the food. Ensure you are using purified water and keep food sanitary.
About the Author
Kim Safdy is the founder of Outdoor Herbivore, an independent backpacking food producer specializing in one-pot vegetarian meals made with organic, whole-food ingredients. An avid backpacker and cyclist, Kim enjoys hiking several days through remote wilderness areas and dining on gourmet cuisine at her campsite. Frustrated by the lack of wholesome vegetarian camping foods available on the market, she decided to address this need with her own products. While Kim is not a nutritionist, her engineering background allows her to analyze food and devise recipe combinations suited for long-term storage and wilderness travel. Kim has put her mastery to work in order to combine whole grains, vegetables, spices, and herbs to impart tasty, distinct flavors with influences from around the globe. She is a strong supporter of the organic food movement and local farming practices. Therefore, the ingredients are organic and sourced locally whenever possible. As a health and wilderness advocate, Kim resolves to promote healthy eating and compassionate living both on and off the trail.
Disclosure: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) has no business relationship with Outdoor Herbivore, other than being a happy customer.