The terms “cold-soak” and “no-cook” have become popular lingo amongst backpackers who opt for another way to eat on-trail without using a stove. Cold-soaking is a no-cook method where you simply soak dry food with water to prepare a meal. Sounds easy, right? For the most part, it is – but if you’re new to the cold-soak world and want to give it a try, there are a few tricks of the trade to make your experience more worthwhile and some points to consider to see if it’s right for you before you ditch your stove for good.
The Basics: How to Cold-Soak
This is the basic, four-step process to stoveless cooking (aka “cold-soak” or “no-cook”). I’ll include more details to elaborate on these four steps to come.
- Get a jar that seals and doesn’t leak.
- Pour filtered water over the food.
- Be aware of the timing – make sure the meal has enough time to “cook.”
- Stir and eat it when ready.
Benefits of Cold-Soaking Backpacking Food
So what’s the hype with cold-soaking? I did some research on cold-soaking before I started my Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike. I had been super content carrying a stove on my Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike, yet this cold-soaking technique had become all the rage since then, so I thought it was worth a look. I decided to do both – carry my trusty stove, pot, and a small Talenti Gelato jar that was only 1.9 ounces. Sure, many ultralight hikers would laugh at me because they had opted to ditch the stove and fuel to save weight, and here I had both in my pack, but I wasn’t sold on cold-soaking just yet.
Through my experimentation and the feedback of other cold-soak junkies, here are the key benefits of Cold-Soaking Backpacking Meals.
Lighten the Load
Some hikers believe it’s less weight to carry when you don’t have a stove or fuel to lug around in your backpack. However, you do have to carry the weight of that water mixed with your food in the container, so it may only save a bit of weight since stoves can be quite light. In terms of space, it definitely feels less bulky to me on subsequent trips when I’ve just carried my Talenti jar and that’s it.
It’s difficult to figure out how much stove fuel you need to carry on a trip, which urges one to lean on the side of caution and carry more. With cold-soaking, you leave that fuel-guessing game behind and don’t have to haul bulky gas canisters.
Some backpacking stoves can get pricey, as well as choosing a lightweight, quality pot. Depending on where you’re hiking, fuel canisters can be off the hook expensive when in demand. This leads some to argue that cold-soaking saves you money, which you can choose to invest in other gear needs.
After a long day of hiking when energy is lacking, sometimes it can feel like a drag to pull out the stove, cook, eat, and then clean up. The same goes with mornings if you just want to get out of your tent and start hiking right away. With cold-soaking, you can walk while your food rehydrates and then stop to eat it whenever you wish.
I really liked doing this when I wanted to hike very early in the dessert section of the PCT to avoid the heat; I would cold-soak my oats and eat them when I wanted a break after an hour or so of walking. On days I was putting in a lot of miles, I chose to cold-soak and carry my food which was ready to eat when I got to camp at night without doing anything extra. This also worked well for me if I wanted to hike at night. I would cold-soak my food around dusk, hike while it did its cooking thing on my back, break to eat, and then keep going without the big production of having to bust out my stove, wait for the water to boil, cook, etc. When efficiency and time are factors, cold-soaking is awesome.
All you have to do is add some filtered water to your jar after eating, shake, and then drink to clean up easily. I personally like to wipe out any last bits with a little toilet paper that I then pack out, to make sure it’s dry and I’m not sealing up a wet jar; this is especially important in a hot climate where it can get funky. It’s a bit questionable as to how sanitary you can really get that container, especially if it has little grooves in it at the base. On the flip side, when you boil water in your pot, you help to disinfect and sterilize it, which is worth mentioning.
A Rain-Friendly Method
It’s never fun to cook on your stove outside when it’s raining and it’s definitely not advisable to ever use a stove in your tent. Some hikers cook under the tent’s vestibule, but honestly, doing that always freaks me out as I imagine my tent going up in flames should an accident occur. With cold-soaking, you don’t have to worry about getting wet or going hungry if you need to eat in your tent during a storm.
Fire Ban Areas
There are trails you may hike where fire bans are in effect because of wildfire risk and you can’t use a stove. Knowing how to cold-soak doesn’t limit where you can go and ensures you’re respectful of the rules of where you’re backpacking.
Less Smell to Attract Bears
If you’re backpacking in bear country, for example, it can be important to avoid strong cooking smells so as not to attract them to your tent site. Yes, you can cook a distance away from your tent and then return to it when done eating, but it can be extra effort to move around so much after a tiring day. If you cold-soak, you’re skipping the cooking part and lessening food smells wafting in the air, which can contribute to your safety. Of course, you’ll still have to take care of storing your food properly, but at least stoveless eating supports minimizing cooking smell.
Downsides to Cold-Soaking Backpacking Food
There are always two sides to a coin, and that’s no different with cold-soaking as a cooking method. Although I grew quite fond of cold-soaking at times, I still like carrying a stove. Here are some reasons why, and when, you may not wish to cold-soak your food.
No Hot Meals or Drinks
This reason is pretty obvious: no stove means no heat, which means nothing hot to consume. I find that in some conditions, having a warm meal can be soothing and comforting. Not only is this ideal in cold weather, but also for the ritualistic aspect of pausing to break and eat, without rush or hurry. To be transparent, I really don’t like crushing big miles, but I do it when I have a goal and need to hike hard to attain it. I prefer creating time and spaciousness on my trips to enjoy my food and nourish myself well, both nutritionally and emotionally. Cold-soaking can be more of an ‘eat and get it done’ experience which isn’t always what I’m going for when I backpack.
With that said, there were times I didn’t feel as satisfied when I ate cold-soaked meals, and that I was just eating for the sake of it. Sometimes this came in handy, but it wouldn’t be my forever choice. This is worth giving some consideration to. What is your style of eating? Do you like to take time to eat or it doesn’t really matter to you as long as you’re fed? There’s no right or wrong way – you just have to know your way.
Food Choices May Be Limited
I conjured up plenty of cold-soak meal options while on-trail, and complimented it with other stoveless food choices, so there were days I never needed to whip out my stove. There are many possibilities out there with cold-soaking backpacking food, yet you may find some choices are limited. Most packaged backpacking meals cannot be cold-soaked, which includes brands like Mountain House. These meals often contain pasta and rice which really needs to become heated to be edible.
However, I do know hikers who cold-soak Knorr Rice Sides and Mac & Cheese with relative success; these dishes just need to be soaked for several hours before ready to consume. Note that quinoa and instant rice don’t work with cold-soaking. There are some packaged backpacking meals that do work with cold-soaking, but it’s just not a guarantee and requires some experimenting or research.
And if you’re like me, I can’t stand cold coffee, so I don’t even bother without a stove, although other hikers love it. You do you.
I mentioned that hot food from a stove and pot can be comforting, and it also can be warming in cold weather conditions. I get cold very easily so I need to think about how a stove benefits me not only for sustenance but in case I need to warm my hands and body temperature. Drinking warm beverages also can ward off hypothermia.
If you chill easy or do a lot of cold weather trips, you may not love cold-soaking. However, in hot, desert conditions and in summer, I’m not as excited about warm meals. I actually prefer the consistency of my cold-soaked oats with all my mix-ins than when I cook them. If you backpack in hot climates often, cold-soaking may be a dream come true.
A Stove is Back-Up Water Purifier
Another reason not to forgo your stove is that boiling water is also a water purification method. If your water filter happens to break or you lose your AquaMira tablets, it’s smart to have a back-up method for drinking water.
Cold-Soaking Tips and Tricks
Here are some more tips and tricks for cold-soaking meals, so you can eat with success and pleasure.
Choosing a Cold-Soak Jar/Container
When choosing a cold-soaking vessel, look at these specifics.
- The container needs to be leakproof and seal tightly.
- It should be large enough and wide enough – if you’re going to have a lot of food inside, a small container won’t work for you.
- Not too tall – your spoon or spork has to be able to reach the bottom and it’s tough to clean if too tall.
The container I’ve used with success seems to be one of the most commonly used on trial, the Talenti Gelato 473 ml jar that holds 16 ounces in volume and weighs 1.9 ounces. There were times I wished it was bigger, and this past summer I discovered the next size up – Talenti’s large 950 ml, 32-ounce jar that doesn’t weigh much more. Yes, it takes up more space, but no different than if you had a pot.
Hikers also like using peanut butter jars that seal well, which are also lightweight, and usually come in at around 750 ml. and 25 ounces for volume. Peanut butter jars can be taller though and a bit narrow; I like to be sure it’s wide enough so it’s user-friendly to pour my food into and scoop out. There are other jar options out there, just be sure to test it for ease of use and leaking before heading out on a trip. Also, don’t use glass because it’s heavier and can break.
Adding Water to Your Food
Adding water might sound straightforward, but there are a few nuances to consider.
- Add enough water to cover your food completely, and then some.
- Leave room for the food to expand as it rehydrates, which means you don’t want to fill the jar to the top with food.
- Put on the lid and shake it, especially if you have spices and seasonings in the meals, so it’s distributed throughout.
- You may want to give a shake to your food in the container periodically to ensure that the meal hydrates evenly, depending on what you’re cold-soaking.
Timing Your Cold-Soak Meals
Giving your food ample time to soak is crucial with this cookless technique. Some foods need more time than others to soak and become edible, and this should be accounted for regarding when you want to eat. I mentioned earlier how some hikers like to cold-soak Knorr Sides, which need hours to rehydrate well. Ramen noodles, on the other hand, take a half-hour.
Cold-soaker aficionados have it down to a science as to what foods need exactly what amount of time because they claim some things get mushy. Frankly, I don’t bother with those specifics when I backpack. I choose to give everything at least an hour to be safe, and sometimes more. For example, to be efficient in the morning, I’ll opt to soak my oats the night before.
Another factor to consider is planning around when you’re near a water source to get that extra water for your food to soak. I also like to channel the power of the sun to help “cook’ my food while I walk; I keep my container on the outside of my backpack in my front mesh pouch.
The key takeaway is not to forget you have to soak your meal, or you’ll be one hungry hiker.
Stir and Eat When Ready
Well, this step goes without much commentary. But when in doubt if it’s actually ready, give it more time.
Good Cold Soak Foods
Here’s a list of foods that can be cold-soaked. I’m very health-conscious with my food choices in life and while backpacking, so I tend to stay with foods that are natural, with no preservatives or weird ingredients. That’s what works for me, yet I encourage you to choose what’s right for you.
- Rice Noodles (I prefer these over ramen, although they can get mushy)
- Quinoa Flakes (like oatmeal in texture)
- Instant Mashed Potatoes
- Ramen Noodles
- Polenta Mix or Grits
- Dehydrated Refried Beans
- Dried Hummus
- Creamy Soups (I like McDougall’s Brand, but you can also find these in the bulk section of co-ops. Split pea & black bean are loaded with protein)
- Dried Falafel Mix (Doesn’t look like falafel balls, but tastes good and is like a spread)
- Breakfast Powders, Protein Powders, Peanut Butter Powder, Coconut Powder
- Freeze-dried Fruits and Veggies & Dehydrated (some don’t work great)
- Dried Seaweed
An excellent thing to note is that homemade, DIY dehydrated meals work great for cold-soaking. This is also ideal because you control the ingredients that go into these meals, and in turn what goes into your body. I have yet to explore the realm of DIY dehydrated meals, but I can say I know many hikers who do and love it. I’ve been given a few and they were delicious! There are tons of resources and recipes online if you search for ‘how to make dehydrated backpacking meals.’
Cold-Soak Meal Recipes & Ideas
One way to make cold-soaking work, in a way that it’s a whole meal, is to combine it with other stoveless food choices. Here are some of my favorite, healthy cold-soak meal creations you can try out on a backpacking trip.
- Dried oats or quinoa flakes mixed with protein powder or coconut milk powder, cinnamon, dried fruits or dehydrated fruits, dried coconut, cacao nibs, maca powder, matcha powder, hemp seeds, flax meal, chia seeds, and any other nuts/seeds you like.
- Granola can be mixed with protein powder, coconut milk powder, or even water and soaked in advance to make it softer.
- Couscous mixed with a packet of salmon or tuna, dried fruit, and nuts, sea salt. Near East is a good brand if you want flavored, or you can add your own seasonings like garam masala, curry, garlic for Indian; lemongrass and ginger for Thai; cumin, chipotle, chili for Mexican, etc.
- Hummus, falafel mix, or refried beans mix with blue corn chips (any chips/crackers you like works) or on a tortilla. Nutritional yeast has protein and adds a cheesy flavor.
- Polenta mixed with jerky is tasty.
- Rice noodles mixed with dried seaweed and peanut butter powder is a go-to for me. (I like Rice Ramen by Lotus Foods which is low sodium and Mike’s Mighty Good).
- Split Pea soup mix, Black Bean soup mix, Corn chowder soup mix, Curry Lentil soup mix – these are all high protein and yummy with crackers or chips for the crunch factor. I mentioned McDougall’s Soups above.
- If you want to drink cold coffee, Four Sigmatic is a fantastic brand that makes single-serving packets. Pricey, but contains adaptogen herbs and mushrooms for a healthy, crash-free boost. They also make protein powders and other beverages.
With a bit of knowledge and a spirit of experimentation, cold-soaking no-cook backpacking meals can be a fun adventure in itself. If you become familiar with the basic process and then play around with your personal tastes and the array of options out there, it can be a practical way to either leave the stove behind OR take it with you and do both (like this crazy hiker does). Whatever you choose, do what’s right for you and what makes you feel comfortable and free to enjoy your backpacking adventures.
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