By: Annie Seekins
When I was first introduced to cold soaking, the process of preparing food by simply soaking it with cold water rather than adding boiling water or cooking over a stove, the only hikers I saw choosing this method were those in the ultralight crowd, content to sacrifice any number of comforts in the name of weight savings. More recently however, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of hikers going this route, ultralight or not. It seems this approach to food prep is gaining traction, and for good reason. If you remember to add water to your food long enough before you want to eat it, cold soaking is an easy way to simplify mealtime and remove logistical issues that might come along with relying on a stove. Little known fact, all the ReadyWise Adventure meals are freeze-dried so regardless of if you have a stove or not you can still cold soak them and have a delicious meal ready when you get to camp.
Perhaps the most obvious logistical benefit to ditching the stove is simply not having to think about fuel. Gone are the days of packing for a short trip, picking up one partially used fuel canister after another trying to gauge which one has just enough left to bring along. For long trips, resupply stops don’t have to be planned around which trail towns have an outfitter that carries fuel. All you need to cold soak is a container with a tight seal (Talenti gelato jars and wide mouth nut butter jars are popular options), your utensil of choice, and you’re good to go. If you have enough time when you get to camp, or a good way to carry it, you can even still get away with using the resealable bag your freeze-dried meal came in.
Another benefit of cold soaking, and the reason I finally decided to give it a shot, is that weather concerns or other trail conditions don’t affect meal planning the way they might when relying on a stove. I’ve spent the better part of the past few years traveling around the US and hiking in a range of environments. When I’m in the Northeast, a forecast of sunshine can turn into a week of rain. Anything in the western states I’m likely to find myself facing fire restrictions, and every trail comes with some type of wildlife eager to sniff out the source of that curry scent wafting through the trees. The peace of mind I get from knowing I’m not making my campsite extra smelly for bears, and I won’t have to sit out and boil water in the rain is worth the trade-offs.
I’ve found myself in enough situations where cooking wasn’t a good option that I now have a personal rule of only bringing food that can be prepared without a stove, even if I intend to carry one. Again, this is why freeze-dried meals are good option. None of this is to say I’m always down to go weeks on end without cooking but familiarizing myself with cold soaking and having a strategy that works for me has proven to be more useful than I initially thought.
There are so many good reasons to ditch the stove and I’m all for it in the right conditions, but I would be remiss not to point out some of the downsides. As with any attempt to lighten your pack or simplify your gear, it’s only worth it if you’re still safe and enjoying your time outdoors.
Going stoveless means giving up what could be an important heat source, which is a bigger consideration if you’re hiking in an area with fire restrictions. It’s important to evaluate your stove as part of your overall gear set-up, not only its usefulness for cooking. Personally, I’m much less likely to go stoveless on late season trips, especially at higher elevations. In those situations I want the ability to heat water and bring a hot water bottle to bed if the temps drop too low.
It’s also important to consider how much you rely on your hot food and drinks for the morale boost they provide, and I mean really think about it. At the end of a long day, does it take a warm meal for you to settle in and still find pleasure in being outdoors? Are you going to be ok with cold instant coffee in the morning, or with no coffee at all? Deciding between hot or cold coffee may seem trivial when you’re planning a trip from the comfort of your home, but once you’re on trail and your creature comforts are fewer and farther between, the impact these things have on your enjoyment of your trip can increase significantly. Recently, my partner and I have been testing the ReadyWise instant coffee and really enjoying it as an alternative to trying to make regular coffee on trail.
Last, but certainly not least, if you’re going to cold soak you have to remember to soak your food. This may sound like a no-brainer but trust me, it must be said. Forgetting to add water early enough happens to the best of us; it’s a mistake hopefully made only once. There may also be times when you do remember but circumstances less in your control cause a late soak. Some days you may find yourself without enough water to spare when you want to start soaking your dinner and your next good water source isn’t until you reach camp. The best ways around this are to know your food, know your water sources, and have a routine that works for you.
When you pack for a trip, have at least a rough idea how long your food will take to rehydrate. This way, if you know when you want it ready to eat, you know when you need to add water. Making this step part of a routine can help reduce the likelihood of forgetting. I know some hikers who pull out their dinner when they stop for lunch so it’s accessible and ready for water at any source within an hour or two of when or where they want to stop for dinner. Other hikers wait until they stop for the day, they treat starting their soaking as their first step in setting up camp. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
If you’re curious to try cold soaking but still have some hesitations, try it on a short overnight trip first. Or on a multi-day trip, try it for a few meals, or maybe cold soak your dinners but still have hot coffee in morning. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing while you test the waters. Whatever way you choose to go about it, incorporating this method is a low-fuss way to shake up your outdoor meal prep.
By: Annie Seekins
Annie Seekins is a long distance Thru Hiker, writer and vanlifer. She has a passion for cooking, sewing and all things outdoors. In 2021, Annie completed the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada 3100 miles in length. Her perspective on backpacking meals and gear is an invaluable source of inspiration for our meals.