Going Stoveless: Cold food for thought


Stove Options

There are many options for cooking systems when backpacking.

Choices that work depending on what your needs and goals are for outdoor use:

  •  Alcohol stoves and Esbit systems seem the favorite of those who want a minimalist and light system to do “boil and eat” type meals.
  • Canister stoves of various types are the workhorse of the outdoor world being easy to use and are very efficient.
  • Wood stoves still have their fans esp in the heavily wooded Pacific Northwest and the Appalachians
  • ..and white gas stoves still serve a niche for winter backpacking or large group use

But there is an option that is often overlooked or dismissed outright: Going stoveless.

Gorp…the quick breakfast of choice when you know a town stop is 5 miles down the trail. 🙂


Why go stoveless?

There are some valid reasons why going stoveless could be an option for more backpackers:

  •  Simplicity:  No need to cook food or set up a stove, cook pot, measure fuel and so on. Just quickly hydrate some food or even just eat.  When your fellow backpackers are out in the rain or snow futzing with a stove, you are munching away on a filling and nutritious meal
  • Logistics: No need to worry about procuring fuel during town stops if on a long hike. You also eliminate the need to dispose of empty canisters. Even a weekend backpacking trip can be easy without a stove. Some cold leftover chicken and rehydrated couscous on a hot day in the Lost Creek Wilderness was one of my favorite backpacking meals. Flying with a stove can also be problematic. No stove?  –POOF- the problem no longer exists. 🙂
  • Burn Bans:  In recent years in the American West, there have been bans on open flames and stoves without on/off valves. While there is quibbling online, most people come to the logical conclusion that wood stoves, Esbit and alcohol stoves are a no-go under this ban. Since white gas stoves are heavy and canister stoves aren’t always a good choice for everyone, the “no stove” option can be an attractive tool in a backpacker’s kit
  • Hot and Dry Weather:  Usually goes along with the burn bans. Sometimes a simple meal of cold couscous and chicken from a pouch is really satisfying when It is hot and dry
  • Less need for water: Depending on your meal choices, less water is needed for camp. Dry camping becomes more of an option and you have more flexibility as to where to camp.
  • Weight Savings:  This one is a “maybe” if I were to be honest. You do eliminate the stove, cook pot, and fuel. However, if you do not use easily re-hydrated food (such as the dry camping above), the weight savings is not as pronounced. Ends up being a wash overall. The above factors still make the “no stove” option an attractive one, however
  • Environmentally sound: The ultimate  “green friendly stove” is no stove at all. 🙂

No water by the campsite? No problem. And the view will be great too…

Some common concerns about going stoveless

When bringing up the stove-less option, there is often some pushback.   Many outdoors people are so used to a system that they start thinking it is the only system.  It is good to look at different options and try them out once in a while.

  •  I need a hot meal in case of hypothermia: A classic question from Wilderness First Aid classes is Which is better?  Hot black tea or cold Gatorade for treating hypothermia?  The answer is cold Gatorade.  The fluids and sugar give the body some quick energy and hydration needed to help your body heat up. In other words, the fuel is what is needed to prevent hypothermia. Not the temperature of said fuel (food).  Besides, I’d rather be warm and dry in my sleeping bag while munching on pita and hummus than fiddling with a stove in cold rain (which, rumor has it, can help lead to hypothermia 🙂 )
  • I like my morning coffee:  Hey, I understand…I’m addicted myself. 😉  However, Starbucks Via (or any very finely ground coffee for that matter) rehydrates just fine cold.  I once made ice coffee with snow and Starbucks Via one hot and dry backpacking trip in the Ptarmigan Wilderness. The drink was awesome! Seriously.
  • I like my hot meals:  Not going to argue that point.  If you like your hot meal at the end of the day, that’s great.  Again, not arguing if going stove-less is the best option (as that is silly), but rather pointing out another option that may work for you
  • You can’t discount the psychological benefit of a hot meal or drink on a cold day at times:  No I can’t. Which is why I say going stoveless is an option and not the final answer.  Just another tool in the outdoor person’s kit to use. I would not want to go stove-less all the time .  During shoulder season.  a hot drink, a good meal, and good company can be wonderful while taking in the fine, chill air of Autumn.   During drought conditions in the middle of summer? I’ll leave the stove at home.

Note going stoveless is not an either/or proposition. Sometimes I’ll do a cold breakfast so I can “get up and go“, but will do a hot meal at night especially when there are limited daylight hours.  Again, going stoveless is just another tool in the experienced backpackers’ kit.

Not quite Dunkies…but it sure tastes fine.


Some food choices for going stovelesss

After all this talk about the benefits of going stoveless, the question is naturally asked:  What food should I bring?

Luckily your decent-sized grocery store has plenty of options for the average backpacker. No need for fancy food.

Some food ideas used by myself or others:

  • Dehydrated beans in bulk: Dehydrated black beans, lentils and hummus (chic peas) can all be found in the bulk section of many grocery stores. Add water and add to a starch and you have a filling meal that “cooks” in minutes.
  • Instant mashed potatoes:  Cold mashed potatoes mixed with a protein (pepperoni for example) actually hits the spot for me
  • Couscous:  I find that the Near East brand rehydrates quite well in a zip-lock bag after ~15 minutes.
  • Ramen: If you have time in camp, let it sit for a bit (30 minutes +/-) and the noodle re-hydrate fine
  • Tortilla wraps with cheese or peanut butter or beans and so on:  A tortilla is almost miraculous in its versatility!
  • Pita chips: Yummy and great for dipping in the rehydrated beans
  • Tuna or Chicken packs, jerky, salami, pepperoni sticks: Even with hot meals, the protein often has to be packed in non-dehydrated. I often mix and match my protein with some of the above… be it eating cold or using a stove
  • Typical backpacking snacks:  GORP or fig bars with peanut butter makes a good breakfast; some jerky, tortillas and cheese make perfectly fine meals.  After a while, you stop thinking of meals and just think of food.  Need a power lunch to fuel for the last half of the day? Have the couscous and hummus for a mid-day meal.

You normally would not carry in fried chicken..but you could! 😀


Should I go stoveless?

Is going stoveless for everyone and every situation? No, it is not. However, I think it as an option that could work well for many people.  The simplicity, versatility and easy logistics make it a good tool to have in any backpacker’s kit.  Give the stoveless option a try. You just may like it!


26 Replies to “Going Stoveless: Cold food for thought”

  1. I’ve just started going stoveless for short trips in fine weather and it’s quite a revelation. Meal times are so quick and clutter-free 🙂

    The deal-breaker for me was my morning coffee but I when I discovered the mountain frappuccino (Starbucks Via, hot chocolate sachet, snow and water mixed in my drinking bottle) I knew I didn’t need hot water, in the mornings at least. Then I did some trips carrying a stove but not using, just to wean myself off it.

    Still just a quick, summer trip option for me but it’s certainly something most backpackers should try.

    1. An Italian-American from Rhode Island actually. 🙂 Millions of people from Greece, North Africa and the Near East take umbrage at thinking this food comes from California BTW. 😉

  2. Good article. For the type of backpacking I do which tend to be shorter trips (max 2-3 nights). Cold is just fine. I love the Packit Gourmet Smoothies. Nutritionally and Calorie dense, they taste great, mix with cold water in their own container.

  3. Great tips. Instant potatoes are certainly one of my favorite hot trail foods mixed with dehydrated onion, red pepper flakes, and shelf stable bacon pieces. Never thought of going cold but I will give it a try. Although, I suddenly have a craving for cold fried chicken! Instead of tortillas I enjoy ‘middle eastern’ flat bread which is thicker, filling, and delicious.

      1. Sounds good. I’ll have to check out some dehydrated hummus recipes.
        By the way, any idea how I can change the default avatar?

  4. Just for thought, it may sound odd but your body heat is a good way to warm up food. Put your mashed potatoes, soup mix, etc in an inside pocket or tuck in in your front waistline or up against your rucksack. After a few hours of hiking, wonderfully hot food!

    Under a hat also works, but that can be uncomfortable.

  5. Any chance the crew would want to discuss this topic on an upcoming Trail Show? It would certainly be useful to this year’s PCT hikers. With the conditions in CA being what they are, I’m strongly considering going stoveless at least in SoCal, if not other sections. Thanks!

  6. Great article… just curious– do you happen to know your average daily weight in food, when going stoveless?

    Thanks 😉

  7. To me, stoveless seems quick and easy and something I would like to try for sure when I get out there. But, I’ll admit, I really don’t like the thought of eating food that should be warm, cold (like the ramen, etc).

    And the ‘quickie’ stuff, like the gorp and Clif bars and whatnot, they just seem like you’re perhaps living on sugary junk food? I dunno. I don’t have any experience with it, but it seems like a slightly stretched way to camp for me 🙂

    (not that I disagree on the point that stoves are a pain in the bottom!)

      1. How do you keep cold fried chicken cold enough on a backpacking trip to keep bacteria from multiplying and making you sick?

  8. Stoveless all the way! I’ve found the best way to enjoy my food on the trail is to modify my normal diet to one that is more trail friendly but still super-healthy – the more similar my trail food is to what I eat every day, the happier I am.

    Dried fruits are one of my mainstays backpacking. Simple sugars give me the quick energy and digestion I need to hike fast. Dates, figs, mango, papaya are probably my faves. If you get tired of chewing or feel they taste too sweet, you can rehydrate them in a wide-mouth plastic bottle. Then drink the water and eat the softened fruit. I haven’t tried them yet, but Trader Joe’s flattened bananas (raw dehydrated and chewy, not like the fried banana chips) and dried whole pineapple rings are supposed to be awesome when rehydrated. Fresh fruit like apples and oranges are great for Day 1 and 2 as well.

    Sprouts are another great option. I’m growing lots of lentil sprouts now at home really simply. Just soak the seeds over night in an open jar. Rinse and drain in the morning (you can put on a lid with screen and invert at an angle in a bowl, but it’s really not necessary). I usually eat a handful with my breakfast and then for dinner I rinse and drain again and eat them in a salad – by then their roots have just started to poke out. I’m planning to try this same method out next backpacking trip.

  9. I attempted a yo-yo of the Northville-Lake placid trail in 2010 planned for 8 days averaging 30+/day (didn’t complete when my toenails were bleeding – stupid me for changing to new shoes). Anyways, my wife and I sorted out a lot of great no-cook options I could eat on go. I had cached several resupplies along the way. My favorite was soaking couscous in spicy V8 in a locking lid container. And my favorite bar – the original rebar from Canada, which had been a stable on my PCT 1000+ section in ’08, was with me each day too. A lot of “One Pan Wonders” could be soaked in a locking lid plastic container. Also Fly Brians Triple Crown Couscous is good gold (IMHO). Lunch on PCT and N-LP yo-yo attempt, I made peanut butter, raisin, flax seed (insert seed of choice), honey wraps which last between most resupplies fine (I still pack these for lunch in street life). By making them ahead of time, I’m able to save time on trail and stay a bit cleaner. …. hmm what else do I enjoy no-cook?….

  10. I know this is an old thread but it seems the right place to ask. Have there been bans that include alcohol stoves (or that any rangers would interpret to include alcohol stoves) at some point on the CT every summer in recent years? Asked from the opposite perspective, has it been possible in any recent year to hike the CT in the summer with an alcohol stove and not be in violation at any point?

    1. Last year was a great year for alchie stoves in Colorado. I suspect this year as well *IF* it continues to be a wet spring. 2014 and 2013 OTOH, there were active stove bans.

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