Going StovelessMar 01, 2019
A hot meal at the end of a challenging day can be an excellent morale booster when you need it most. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What if your day had been less difficult to begin with?
You can move comfortably or you can camp comfortably. It’s hard to do both. Shedding weight, saving space, and making the daily grind easier will almost always mean giving something up. Today, we’re talking about going stoveless.
Before one bothers learning how to manage without a stove, it’s a good idea to look at the benefits and consider whether it’ll be worth it.
We’ll start with the obvious. Every thing you carry weighs something. There are many types of stoves, and they can vary dramatically in weight, but the most popular types of stoves will add an additional 200-350 g (7.1 - 12.3 oz) for the stove itself.
Of course, the stove isn’t the only thing necessary for cooking. You’ll also need a pot or pan, likely made of some kind of metal, and you’ll need to carry fuel. Pots and pans can vary a lot in weight, but for our purposes, we’ll assume a relatively light 350 g (12.3 oz).
Fuel makes just as big a difference here. Like everything else, fuel containers vary in size and weight, the type of fuel itself varies in density, and you’ll even be carrying different amounts of fuel during your ride/hike as you use up your fuel or purchase more. One of the most common ways to carry fuel is in a disposable 225 mL (8 fl. oz) container, which itself has an empty weight of 150 g (5.3 oz). For our purposes, we’ll conservatively assume an “average” fuel canister is just under half-full, bringing its weight to 250 g (8.8 oz)
- Stove: ~275 g (~9.7 oz)
- Pot: ~350 g (~12.3 oz)
- Fuel: ~250 g (~10.6 oz)
- Total: ~875 g (~1.93 lbs)
Carrying a stove requires you to carry just under 1 kg, or just under 2 lbs. For an efficient hiker/biker, this could represent as much as 10% of their packing weight, possibly more than other heavy-hitting items like pack, sleeping bag, or tent. All because you want your food to be hot instead of lukewarm.
Often overlooked, space is arguably as important as weight, if not more so.
Saving space in your pack means hiking with a better-balanced load and means biking with a more streamlined, aerodynamic profile. The folks over at CyclingAbout have done excellent experiments demonstrating the relative importance of weight vs. aerodynamics when cycling (short version: aerodynamics wins, and it’s not close). How you carry your weight is as important as how much weight you carry.
In addition to being sleeker and more balanced, if you save enough space, it’ll save you even more weight! By cutting down on the volume you carry, you can get away with a smaller backpack or with ditching a set of panniers and/or a rack. Your backpack, racks, and panniers are among the heaviest things you carry.
A stove, pot, and fuel canister combine to take up about as much space as a soccer ball. Ditching them will either make your pack considerably more voluminous or will allow you to dramatically cut down on your carrying capacity.
Not having to jam as much crud in your pack makes your morning routine shorter, makes it easier to find what you want in the middle of the day, and you’ll get your camp set up faster in the evenings. Not to mention you’re less likely to lose something when there’s less to keep track of.
Uncooked food can’t come out burned or under-cooked. You won’t have to spend extra time, up to three times a day, cooking food instead of simply eating it. You won’t have to find somewhere to buy another fuel canister. You won’t ever have to worry about running out of fuel. If you’re traveling by plane, you won’t have to stop at a store to buy fuel before you start your adventure. Not to mention the smell of hot food is a critter magnet (never cook dinner where you camp).
There’s a certain beauty to the simplicity of hiking/bike touring and the lack of responsibilities. Wake up, eat, hike/bike, eat, sleep. Repeat. No cooking means one less thing to worry about.
How to do it
If these benefits sounds like they’re worth mostly eating lukewarm/cold food for weeks or months at a time, read on.
What to eat
A complete list of good things to eat on the road/trail is enough to merit its own article, but we’ll hit the high points here. Here are a few staples that are worth carrying:
- Oatmeal, Granola, Cereal
- Dried fruit
- Peanut/nut butter
- Tortillas, bagels, English muffins
- Instant potatoes
- Instant rice
- Powdered milk
- Powdered peanut butter
- Protein powder
- Carnation, Ovaltine, Nesquik
- Packaged meats (tuna, Spam)
- Cajun/creole spice
There’s a common theme here: density. All of these foods pack a lot of energy without taking up much space.
Quite a few of these can be combined in creative ways. Peanut butter + Carnation + cinnamon + tortilla makes for a satisfying snack or lunch. Powdered peanut butter + Carnation + protein powder tastes like a Reese’s milkshake, with more protein and vitamins, but less sugar and fat. Potatoes, rice, beans, and meat can go together in almost any combination.
Adding flavor to your meal goes a longer way than simply warming it up. Spices weigh less than sauces, and a small vial of spice can last months. Nearly every trail food falls into two spice categories: cinnamon and Cajun. If it’s supposed to taste sweet, use cinnamon. Savory, use Cajun.
A lot of things on this list, like oatmeal, rice, and potatoes, are typically cooked. Which brings us to…
A surprising amount of food doesn’t need to be cooked in order to be prepared. Anything with the word “instant” in the title falls into this category, as well as a few things without the moniker.
Cold soaking, as the name implies, refers to soaking food in cold or lukewarm water. While cold plain oatmeal may not appeal to some, you’d be surprised how good cold oatmeal can taste once you add cinnamon, dried fruit, nuts, and possibly some kind of powder (like Carnation or peanut butter). Not only does adding to a dish make it more interesting, you’ll be getting all your food groups.
When it comes to cold soaking, some instant foods work better than others. In descending order:
- Instant potatoes: You could almost eat these dry.
- Oatmeal: Admittedly, it’s better served hot, but the taste and texture is identical to cooked oatmeal.
- Instant rice: Only loses points because it takes a while to soak, sometimes as much as an hour.
- Noodles: It can be done, but there are better options. No matter what amount of water you use and how long you let it soak, the texture will always be a little strange.
Since these staples form the basis of many popular packaged instant meals (Backpacker Pantry, Mountain House, Knorr Sides, Hamburger Helper), you can prepare any of them without a stove. But of course, you don’t have to buy them! Get some instant rice, throw in some beans, tuna, or jerky, add Cajun spice, and you’ve got yourself a meal.
How to cold soak
For the most part, it’s easily done. Put food and water in a container and let it soak!
For your container, a screw-top plasticware, between 0.5 and 1 L, is the best option. A decent one will be cheap, lightweight, durable, microwave-safe, and leakproof. Not only does this allow you to carelessly stuff a soaking meal in your pack, letting it soak for hours without a second thought, but such a food bowl also doubles as a backup water bottle.
Different foods need soaking for different amounts of time. Instant potatoes and oatmeal are truly instant, whereas rice and noodles take longer. Some foods need more water than you might expect (potatoes), and some less (oatmeal). The good news is even if you make a mistake, the food isn’t ruined. You can either drink or pour out excess water. If you didn’t use enough water, add more! If food isn’t done soaking yet, wait longer. If you think your food soaked for too long, most likely, you’re simply a picky camper.
Since your food is likely to be soaking for an hour or two (it’s almost impossible to leave it soaking for too long), one trick is to leave it in a mesh pocket or lash it to your pack. In either case, leave it directly exposed to sunlight. If you’re using a clear container, your food will be warm after being in the sun all day. Depending where you are (like the desert), you might even need to blow on it!
In some circumstances, like a cold rainy day, this obviously won’t work. Sadly, the days when you’ll most want hot food are the days your food will be coldest. Similarly, it’s impossible to make a hot breakfast by this method, but there’s a workaround: sleep with it. While this will only make your oatmeal as warm as the inside of your sleeping bag (about room temperature), it’s an improvement over near-freezing.
Worth noting: We only recommend this method if reasonable precautions are taken to keep your sleeping bag and tent odor-free. Your bowl’s lid should be sealed tightly, then placed inside another sealable container, ideally an odor-proof container. Depending on the wildlife in the area, this may still be inadvisable or dangerous. We absolutely do not recommend this method in bear country.
Breaking the pattern
The above list of suggested stoveless foods is only a starting point; there are lots of foods that pack well, provide good nutrition, and importantly, hit the spot. A longer list will be coming in a future article about how to cook (or not!) on the road/trail. A savvy hiker/biker may manage to go several weeks without a stove and only eat the exact same meal a few times. Mixing it up makes trail food more exciting, but at some point, you’ll be craving a hot meal.
Luckily, this isn’t hard! You’ll visit a town every few days to buy groceries anyway, so you should be able to get a hot meal equally often. Obvious choices include fast food, cafes, and restaurants, but many grocery stores and gas stations sell ready-to-eat hot meals, often of surprisingly good quality (of course, everything tastes good after enough hiking and biking). A trip to the grocery store is also a good time to indulge in foods that don’t pack well, like dairy, fresh fruit, cold beverages, and baked goods.
If you stay in a hostel, there’s a good chance you’ll have access to a kitchen. Buy something you know how to cook and make it! Even better, make a little extra and eat the leftovers for breakfast. If you want to make friends, make a lot extra and share.
The wild card here is MREs. Not a cost-effective option, nor widely available, they could still be a fun change of pace every once in a while. We feel like we could write an entire article on MREs alone.
And finally, if you’re lucky, you might run across some trail magic or get taken in by a friendly stranger. Obviously, you can’t count on this, but some of the best meals you’ll ever eat are the ones you’ll get for free.