If you’ve ever been backpacking you more than likely carried a portable stove, but have you ever thought about leaving that at home? 2 years ago I did, and since then never looked back. The benefits of not carrying a camping stove in this guys opinion outweigh the cons, especially for those who like to travel fast, light, and free.
While looking for ways to lose weight from my backpacking set up I tried all kinds of different stoves, and just as many different pots. Much like everyone else I started with a very bulky canister stove, although it was the least hassle of the bunch the sheer amount of space it took up in my pack, and the overall weight led me looking for something smaller, and lighter. I tried a cat food can alcohol stove, and I enjoyed the small size, but after a few accidents involving setting things on fire that shouldn’t be on fire, and crushing the stove itself on more than one occasion, I was still longing for something more fool proof. Even if you’re very careful with an alcohol stove, as many are, the weight of the fuel you need for an extended trip, and the hassle of finding the fuel in towns(much like canister stoves,) leaves much to be desired. The fuel was now my biggest problem, as an alcohol stove by itself is very light. So I bought a wood burning stove, and I won’t lie I love that thing. Its more or less a titanium cone that you feed little sticks into, making a small very concentrated fire underneath your cook pot. This is a great novelty, and I would love to use it on a much longer backpacking trip like a thru hike, but the unreliability becomes an issue quick. Having to make a fire in the rain, or in an area without much material to ignite would be a real bummer, not to mention fire bans, and leave no trace ethics.
I burned through a few different iterations of the above mentioned stoves, and in the end I was still not pleased. Somewhere in the midst of researching I came across the idea of no cook meals, and an article talking about the method of stove-less cooking, a soaking, and re-hydrating of sorts. All that is required is a small plastic bowl with a lid that screws on securely, your spoon, and some water. No fuel, no heavy metals, no bulk, and extremely light weight! Now this is something I could finally get down with.
Stove-less coking is also known as the soaking method. To re-hydrate my food I add it to a container with a screw top, put in a little bit of water, and let it soak for an hour or two while I hike. When I’m ready to eat my meal it has absorbed all of the water, and is at the ambient temperature of my surroundings. These screw top containers can be found anywhere, I use one made by Ziploc but I’ve also seen powdered sport drink, and gelato containers used, as well as simply re-hydrating meals in gallon Ziploc bags. That’s right, a ziploc bag. You don’t even have to carry a pot if you don’t want to.
When hiking with local groups people get the impression that I don’t enjoy food, or happiness, or that maybe I’m a masochist. In reality I’m eating better now than I ever was when I used any sort of stove. That’s mostly due in part to the research I’ve done since, but I truly believe that there isn’t much left to be desired with a stove-less setup. Contrary to what you may think.
Without further delay here are some pros, and cons to the stove-less lifestyle. Keep in mind that back in the day of thru hiking this was probably more popular in regards to the percentage of people using this cooking method due to the weight of camping stoves at the time. Although stoves are now lighter they are still not necessary.
First and foremost this began for me in an effort to reduce my backpacks overall weight. Instead of carrying fuel, stove, windscreen, and a titanium cook pot. Now all you’re carrying is a small plastic container. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist… but lets break that down with a canister stove for example, being more people use these than anything else. Specifically the most popular stove, the MSR Pocket Rocket.
Typical lightweight Cookset
- Pocket Rocket Stove: 3oz
- Fuel Canister: 8.2oz
- Windscreen: 0.2oz
- Titanium Cook-pot: 5oz
- Titanium Spoon: 0.6oz
- Plastic Bowl: 1.4oz
- Titanium Spoon: 0.6oz
TOTAL SAVINGS: 15oz
This demonstration is using a fairly light weight stove system already, not considering some of the heavier cooking setups(like the JetBoil) where the savings would be far more pronounced, potentially 2 or even 3 pounds off the top.When it comes to the ability to drop 1-2 pounds from your backpack you won’t find an easier way to lose a considerable amount of weight on the cheap than going stove-less.
Now a lot of people say that no cook systems are actually heavier because the required food for such a cooking method is heavier by default. I’ve found this to be untrue, and probably a justification for not trying it. I use the same food you do, but in a different way. Most backpacking foods that have to be cooked, can also be served in this manner.
In addition to being extremely light weight you probably noticed a stove-less setup is far simpler than its brethren, requiring only a quarter of the gear. That’s less you have to lug around, less space used in your bag, and less overall clutter. Personally I like less clutter while backpacking, even more so than I like ultralight gear. There’s something magical about picking up your things in the morning, or setting up at night, and not having a whole mess of gear to organize, and sort through. The less stuff I am carrying the happier I am, not only for the comfort of a lighter pack, but also the efficiency of having less to deal with. Not having an entire cook kit that I need to set up, clean up, and keep organized is a very big positive for me.
The experience as a whole is very hassle free, and I very much like that. After a long day on my feet, rolling into camp, the last thing I want to do is sit there and wait another 10+ minutes for food to cook. I just want to eat! After some time of using a stove while hiking I found the whole process to feel much like a chore. I enjoyed the food of course, but the act of preparing it lost it’s touch very quickly. I’m sure a lot of you have witnessed the look of despair on someones face when it comes to not-so-patiently waiting for water to boil and food to reconstitute while backpacking. Especially on longer trips where you’re so hungry others watch you go cross eyed while staring at your stove.
The shorter the trip the less noticeable this is, but while on a thru hike or backpacking trips of excess of 2 weeks hiker hunger kicks in. Suddenly you are helpless to your stomachs need to consume food, you want it, and you want it now. Maybe you too will find that on an extended trip cooking no longer has the allure it once did. If you find yourself dreaming about a simpler life… why not try stove-less cooking!
Cooking takes time, twice or three times a day heating up, and tending to a meal is time that could be spent doing other things. With a no cook system on the other hand I roll into camp at the end of the day my food has already been soaking, and is ready to eat immediately, or whenever I so please. Leaving me time to do the things that are either important for the morning and next day, or things that I want to do for entertainment. Freedom to do some bird watching, exploring, setting up camp, taking care of my feet, collecting water, reading or blogging on my phone, watching the sunset, tending to personal hygiene, and most importantly… sleeping! I’m not tied to my stove for 20 minutes, and thus that time is now open for more rewarding tasks.
While hiking solo I often don’t eat at camp, I’ll soak my food while I walk, and a few miles before camp is when I’ll have my dinner. This reduces the smell of food at the campsite I eventually do pick, and allows me to use that extra energy from my meal to get in a few more bonus miles. With a stove-less setup this process is super quick, and easy. Food is ready, and I can be in, and out without any extra chores to tend to. Just eat and go go go.
By having some extra time around camp there’s the added incentive of collecting wood, and making a relaxing fire to sit around while you eat your no cook creation. Maybe you even packed in some vegetables wrapped in tinfoil, a luxury very much worth having on occasion. Now the fire is a necessity to cook your delicious meal, and you didn’t even need a stove!
Less Accident Prone
You don’t want to be the one setting that campsite table, wooden shelter, or forest ablaze. Same goes for cooking inside your tent, I think the dangers of burning all of your camping gear should go without saying. Yet a lot of people still do it. Maybe to stay warm, if only for a very brief fiery second.
Next time you’re on the AT go in one of the shelters, and take a closer look at the flooring, or the skinny tables some of them have. You’ll notice black rings burned into the wood, probably in every single shelter up and down the AT. This is from stoves setting fire to those shelters, most likely alcohol stoves. Don’t be that guy. Knocking over a canister stove wouldn’t be that big of deal in a lot of cases, but it is like a miniature torch, with boiling hot water sitting vicariously atop. Take it from me you don’t want boiling water falling in your lap, and although I don’t have experience with a stove falling on my crotch you probably don’t want that either. An alcohol stove in comparison to a canister stove is much more dangerous. When tipped over accidentally you then have fiery liquid spreading on the ground, on you, or your gear. Forest fires have been started in this way.
When it comes to alcohol stoves, I’ve crushed mine, rendering it useless, and I’ve had others crush it for me, as if I couldn’t do it myself. Left with food that must be cooked, and no means to cook it. In otherwords, stoves can fail. Even if you’re careful there may be a systems failure. I’ve been there, and yes I still tried eating the extremely crunchy meal that refused to reconstitute in water. It was less than enjoyable.
I’ve heard a story from a trail I frequent where I’m not sure if the canister of fuel wasn’t screwed on fully, or the seal was really old, but the end result of this was the canister more or less exploding, flying through the air, hitting some poor man in the crotch! I don’t often hear or read stories of this nature, but that did happen. Probably not something to worry about, but remember that for some folks their first time using a backpacking stove is on the first night of their 2,000 mile backpacking trip.
I don’t mean to scare you as these dangers can mostly be avoided, but what if your stove breaks or malfunctions? Problems that the stove-less hiker doesn’t ever have to think about. What can fail in regards to a plastic cup?
In a lot of western states there are frequent fire bans, in which case no cook meals may become one of the few options you have.
Some of these are very extreme situations, and you may likely never experience any of them, but it’s something to be mindful of. Even if you’re very careful accidents happen. Be safe, and don’t leave your things unattended. Or go stove-less, and feel free to kick around your plastic cup all you’d like.
- The logistics are really easy as you won’t have to find fuel in town.
- No cook meals often use a little bit less water to reconstitute, making the option of camping away from a water source more appealing.
- No worrying about your stove not working in the cold, or fiddling with it in the wind.
- It’s better for the environment!!!
- Less odors are produced when you don’t have a flame to disperse the smell while cooking at your campsite. You’re “cooking” while you walk dispersing any smell in small amounts over a great deal of time.
- You save money! That cash you were going to put towards a stove, and the never ending need to buy fuel for it, can now go to a nice hostel, or a few big meals in town.
Regardless of how much I like it, there are downsides. In an effort to be objective I’ll mention some things that not everyone can get down with. Sometimes, a stove is easier.
It’s no secret that I research the crap out of everything. It’s in my bones to do so. Stove-less meals, and recipes are no different. Unfortunately this is a downside as the information isn’t readily available as to whats possible. The options are truly endless, but not many present the information forward, and those that do often haven’t been doing this for a long time. This leads to a lot of trial and error, as well as uncomfortable amounts of searching through other peoples food choices. That is, if you really want to explore the depths of the soaking method.
I’m not sure if I love to research or hate it, being very obsessive about learning every facet of backpacking, it is still something I must do. On the other hand I know quite a lot of people who downright refuse to do any research at all regarding thru hiking. They can still be just as successful without all the hair pulling, mind numbing, reading about various topics. It’s certainly not for everyone, and if you don’t want to explore no cook meals beyond what I will provide then maybe this isn’t the best option for you.
There is a plethora of food that can be prepared with a stove without any prior thought, this is not the case with stove-less cooking. The advantage of carrying a stove comes in the form of ease. Walking into a grocery store and knowing that almost nothing is off limits as to what you can make. This is similar for no cook meals but it definitely takes much more thought, research, or experience. Then again it’s often not very easy finding fuel for your stove.
No Hot Meals
There’s no denying that a hot meal while hiking can be a huge moral booster. Giving this up for most is difficult. After a very long day hiking sometimes what you want is a warm meal, and I won’t deny this.
When Pepper set the Colorado Trail unsupported speed record his base pack weight was stupid low. Yet he still carried a stove. Why? He had all the lightest gear and only the bare essentials, and then a stove. He figured if he was doing 40-50 miles a day, day after day, a big moral booster for him to keep going would be a hot meal at the end of the day. His luxury item was a stove. For him the extra weight and hassle was worth it on that particular trip.
For a lot of people not having hot coffee in the morning is a big deal, and would prevent them from going stove-less. Did you know both Folgers, and Starbucks makes instant coffee? No heat required. Yeah, you can have your cake, and eat it too. For those that think it’s not strong enough, double up a package! Add sugar, add cream. I don’t care, it’s super delish. Starbucks happens to have many different flavors to boot. It’s still not hot, but it is coffee.
There’s this myth that circulates everywhere during winter or on cold days. That hot food helps to warm you up and possibly prevent hypothermia. This is not true. It is the act of your body digesting the fuel, the calories, that warms you up. Not the temperature of the meal. So please don’t tell me that’s why you need hot food.
- There’s no lying that this style of cooking most benefits a more go go go attitude. Some very much enjoy the time spent cooking, and this would be a con.
- The food isn’t always lighter. People who are new to stove-less cooking often wind up carry heavier foods, like canned food, and instead of having real meals just snack all day long.
- As mentioned above you can’t cook everything that you want. Some items, without a dehydrator, are off limits.
- Sometimes your stove-less creations come out less favorable than planned, vs meals you know right off the bat will be great.
- You may be an outcast during dinner time being you don’t have anything to cook along with the others. Assuming you haven’t packed out something to cook in the fire.
- Not everyone gives a damn about how much their backpack weighs. That’s cool too!
Now that we’ve gone over some pros and cons here are some tips, and two simple meals that are thru hiker friendly. As in you can buy these ingredients at a grocery store.
Tips and Tricks
- Keep everything clean. Boiling water kills any bacteria growing in your cook pot, since you won’t be doing this you need to make sure you wash your plastic cup frequently.
- Add less water than you think you need until you know what works best for you. You can always add more later! A soupy, watery creation is not always desirable.
- Don’t want to be an outcast at camp without anything to cook? Pack in some veggies in tinfoil, and cook it over the fire! Now you’ll be envied by all of those eating their one thousandth packet of Ramen. I do this all the time, and it’s wonderful
- Re-hydrate your food as you walk. A few miles before camp or an hour before when you want to be eating dinner add your food and water to your bowl. When it comes to be dinner time your food will be ready to eat! Same goes for breakfast. Have a snack when you wake up, and prepare your breakfast in your plastic container for a few miles up the trail.
- Check out stores with bulk bins like Whole Foods, as these stores often have dehydrated foods ready for your no-cook meals.
- Pack out fresh produce from the store. You’ll be happy you did. Not only for the nutrients but for the enjoyment of fresh food. Instead of that second(or third) package of cookies try bananas, or a couple avocados, your body will thank you. Often you can add these fresh foods to your stove-less creations
- Try your recipes at home before you try them on the trail if possible.
- If you can get your hands on a dehydrator, anything that can be dehydrated can be re-hydrated by simply adding water.
- Get creative, and have fun!!!!!
There will be more of these to come but here are two that you can give a go on your next backpacking trip! Here’s two really simple options to try. These are the first two recipes I In the near future I’ll do separate posts for more elaborate meals.
Breakfast – A tasty cereal of sorts
What you need:
- Granola of your choosing. I like the ones that aren’t doused in sugar. Sometimes the ones with dehydrated fruit already in them.
- Dehydrated coconut milk is my favorite and I encourage you to try it, but any dehydrated milk will do.
- Cranberries and dried blueberries!
Dinner – Couscous with everything
What you need:
- Near East brand couscous(it re-hydrates the best) I always seem to go for the “toasted pine nut” flavoring. Usually I only use half the box for one meal.
- Sunflower seeds
- Pine nuts
- Raisins, you can never add to many raisins.
- At some grocery stores you can find dehydrated vegetables in the produce section(sometimes called dried veggie chips, but not always.) Also in the soup section there are often dehydrated veggies made to be added to soups.
- Olive oil!! The fuel of thru hikers.
- Spice of your choice, but it’s still good without! I frequently go without. Curry powder, garlic powder, etc.
- Tuna packet on top. I went vegan 8 months ago, but this is another option for the carnivores out there.
If this isn’t for you, it isn’t for you. That’s totally fine, but I encourage you to try it sometime. Hopefully after reading through this post you’ll be more inclined to try it on your next trip, and maybe even embrace it yourself!
I hope that this was informative, and serves as a solid resource for those interested in stove-less cooking.
In the coming months I’ll do a big posts containing more of my meal recipes in detail. I’ll link to it here when completed.
If you have any comments or concerns about this that maybe I could address, feel free to leave them below in the comments. This may not be the end all be all of eating on the trail for most, but it is for me.
Do I sound bias? Maybe so! I’ve tried all options, and this is what has been the most enjoyable for me.
If you’re looking to go lighter, be more efficient, and live simpler while on trail this is for you.