Thursday, February 26, 2015

Beginner's Guide to Going Stoveless

I’ve been backpacking stoveless for several years (including not carrying a stove on 1500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail last year).  I love the simplicity and speed of no-cook meals.  Many people have asked me how they can go stoveless if they don't have a dehydrator.  This article provides the basics for the weekend backpacker, and focuses on simple meals that use products readily found in supermarkets. 
A cold lunch is easy and can be satisfying even on a cold day.
Basic Principles and How to Start:

(1) Transition gradually.  Use a stove for dinner, but skip a hot breakfast.  Try going totally stoveless in summer first to see if it works for you. 

(2) Think about what foods taste good at room temperature.  What do you eat for lunch or at a picnic?  Sandwiches, pasta salad, couscous, wraps are all stoveless staples.

(3) Many backpacking meals rehydrate with cold water given enough time.  Add cold water to meals you already like, only add it 2-3 hours before meal time.  Ramen, soups, chowders, stews, re-fried beans are easy options.

(4) Find substitutes for the ritual of having that hot beverage or spending time cooking.  Try drinking cold flavored drinks like Gatorade or packaged ice tea, or eating something slow that you can savor like instant pudding.
Watching others with their steaming hot beverages can be the biggest challenge. 
Types of no-cook foods
Different no-cook food require a different technique to prepare on the trail.  Carry a mix of these three categories of food: 

(1) Food that can be eaten dry (i.e. that don’t require added water) provide easy and quick calories.  The downside is they can be heavier because of their higher water content.  Still, it is handy to have these in case you are low on water or need to eat immediately.
Examples: tortilla, wraps, cheese, peanut butter, fresh fruits and veggies.
Peanut butter mixed with nutella can be spread on a tortilla, or eaten by the spoonful.
(2) Food that can be eaten instantly after adding water.  The higher water content in these foods keeps you hydrated and tastes filling.  These are lightweight, but can be prepared fast if you are hungry and need to eat quickly.
Examples: cereal with powdered milk, powdered hummus, instant pudding with powdered milk, instant cheesecake.
Mix instant pudding with nido powdered milk at home.  In camp, just add cold water.
(3) Food which requires adding water 2-3 hours before eating.  Most dinners are in this category.
Examples: ramen, instant rice, instant black beans, couscous.

What to do on the trail:
That third category of food can be rehydrated either in either plastic jars with screw top lids (like peanut butter jars) or in ziplock freezer bags (double bagged).  Try both methods and see which works for you.  Plastic jars can be easier to eat out of, but are more bulky.

Package food that requires additional water into individual, pint sized ziplock freezer bags.  Add water directly to the food, double bag it in case the bag leaks, and carry it for 2-4 hours.  An hour before eating, give it a stir to see if it needs more water.
A long spoon helps for eating out of plastic bags.
One trick for cold weather- carry your rehydrating food in your pocket so it gets body heat.  Takes the chill off and seems to rehydrate faster.
The lump below my waist belt is a bag of food rehydrating in the pouch of my hoodie
How do you know if a food will rehydrate in cold water?
Many freeze dried or dehydrated foods that you find in a grocery store will rehydrate in cold water, even if the directions say add boiling water.   Get a selection of pre-packaged foods from the pasta or ethnic section of the grocery store—Fantastic Food brand food (like tabouli and black beans), couscous, ramen, instant rice, and instant potatoes.  Try a small sample of choices at home or work-- add water in the morning, and to find out how they taste at lunchtime.  If they are crunchy or unappealing, you can rescue them in the microwave, and note which ones to bring on your trip.

To make a complete meal- repackage pasta or grains into single-sized serving ziplock bags with any additions like powdered milk, shelf-stable Parmesan cheese, chips, nuts, or dehydrated veggies (which can be found in some grocery stores). On the trail, add cheese, pouch of tuna or chicken, deli meat/ pepperoni, or other toppings.
Salty crackers or chips add crunch to creamy soups.
Easy no-cook meal ideas:

     - granola with powdered milk (nido brand is found in the ethnic isle of walmart)
     - cereal (like special k, grape nuts, shredded wheat) with protein powder
     - carnation instant breakfast
     - cereal bars, poptarts, pastries, bagels, croissants, cinnamon rolls

     - fresh meat (pre-cooked bacon, salami, pepperoni)
     - fresh dairy (hard boiled egg, string cheese, mini baby bell cheese, gouda, cheddar cheese, cream cheese packets)
     - fresh bread (tortillas, wraps, naan, french bread, pitas)
     - peanut butter, dried fruit, jelly, honey
     - fresh veggies (avocado, carrots, apples, sugar snap peas, tomato)
A simple wrap of hardboiled eggs, tomato, and cheese.
     - ramen, couscous, bulgur wheat, instant potatoes
     - dehydrated soups, stews and chowders (split pea soup, lentil soup, miso soup mixes)
     - meat (jerky, sausage, tuna, chicken or salmon foil packs, single servings spam in foil)
     - frozen burrito or deli sandwich
Add fresh meats and vegetables to meals for extra flavor and texture.
Shopping hints:
    -  Check Big Lots for dehydrated soups or stews.
    -  Walmart’s hispanic food section (usually) has nido milk powder.
    -  Look for cream cheese packets and squeeze packets of hummus in the deli section.
    -  Individually wrapped cheese sticks, baby bell cheese packed in wax, and string cheese are low mess and last a few days even in summer.

Do not be scared to leave your stove at home, and give stoveless meals a try!  You won't miss the weight of the stove and pot, and you may be impressed with the simplicity and speed of this method. Enjoy!

Further reading:

My experience going stoveless
My Food for the PCT
If you do have a dehydrator: Summer Stoveless Favorites and Winter Stoveless Favorites

PMags- Going stoveless- Cold Food for Thought

Recipes for chicken salad wraps
         ...for no cook pudding and desserts

Chef Glenn's Backpacking Recipes- Another great resource for food with stoveless options mixed in


  1. Thanks for another fine stoveless article. As the weather warms up I'm going to give it a try. Just have to find a substitute for my morning coffee.

    1. Going without morning coffee is probably the biggest hurdle for going stoveless, IMO. There is something so wonderful about the ritual of coffee. For a while, I tried those packets of caffeinated drink mixes like crystal lite "energy" which provide the jolt but they didn't provide the "experience" of coffee.

      What finally worked for me was discovering the feeling that watching the sunrise provided-- I found I got a rush when I climbed up a mountain to witness the light creep over the horizon and the colors shift, and felt a thrill when I captured it all in a photo.

  2. I'm pretty close to stoveless. About 95% of the time when I am solo. It's more challenging when you go with others I have found. One thing I haven't done much of is soaking. I need to start trying that out. Thanks for the ideas.

    1. You're absolutely right, it's much easier to go stoveless on solo trips. The social aspects of the stove are interesting---at first it would bother me when everyone was sitting around with their stoves and I was the only one already done eating because my food took less time to prepare. I had another friend who was stoveless (Rewind) and doing trips with her made me feel more comfortable when I was switching because there wasn't the social pressure. Now, I hike with lots of other people who have switched (yay!) and on the PCT, going stoveless was quite common so that was refreshing as well because you got to trade tips and not feel like a freak.

      Observing this social aspect made me realize just how important stoves are to our ritual of being in camp, but they aren't functionally essential. When we are in a community like on the PCT where there is more awareness of the benefits of going stoveless and also a huge fire danger, it's so much easier to switch.

      Soaking takes a bit of trial and error to find out what rehydrates well, but it opens up lots of new menu options. Soups and stews are a good place to start. I've tried a few of the Mountain House meals and found they rehydrate in cold water too--there are even a few that are especially designed for cold water like chicken salad wrap. I've had some fails too- including home-dehydrated wild rice soup, some quinoa brands, and tofu casserole.

    2. I may have a few failures on our trip. Figure I'll eat just about anything, but I'm ready to give it a go. I do like the simplified approach, although I know I'll miss my morning hot coffee.

  3. Starbuck's VIA coffee packets dissolve just fine in cool water.