Stoveless (Non-Cook) Backpacking Meals 101

The thru-hiker's complete guide to stoveless backpacking: how-to, food ideas, and meal plan.

Updated on August 7th, 2020
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A common cold breakfast with oats, protein powder, and seeds


One of the best ways to shed ounces and save money is to ditch your stove and embrace the stoveless cooking revolution. You'll have to let go of everything you've learned about cooking on the trail and be willing to embrace a whole new way of preparing food. Contrary to popular belief going stoveless doesn't mean you have to sacrifice taste. All it takes is a bit of knowledge and a willingness to experiment with your food. We will walk you through the process so you can free yourself from the stove and still enjoy some outstanding meals.

For this post, we've had Chloë "Zellow" Rowse help us out and share her experience of cold soaking. Zellow completed the AT in 2018. She ditched her stove two-thirds of the way through her thru-hike.

stuff sack filled with stoveless backpacking foods3-days worth of backpacking food

Why Go Stoveless?

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty of meal planning, let's talk about some of the benefits of going stoveless.

Save Weight: You no longer have to lug around a stove, a cooking pot, fuel, and all the necessary cooking accessories. You'll also need less water to prepare your meal, and we all know how heavy water can be. 

Save Cash: Then, there is the gear factor. You can prepare a stoveless meal in an empty peanut butter jar, so you don't have to purchase a costly stove and cooking vessel. Saving money on cooking supplies means you'll have additional funds to spend elsewhere. 

Save Time: Since you don't have to cook or clean, you'll have more time to enjoy yourself when you stop for the day. 

Worry Less: You'll never run out of fuel or go hungry because your stove is broken or too cold to work. No cooking also means you'll have fewer food containers to clean and less odors to attract wildlife. 

"I loved how much simpler the end of my day was! Dinner basically cooked itself and all I had to do was eat it. I also loved that I didn’t have to worry about having enough fuel. This was something that always stressed me out when resupplying - the decision to carry an extra canister or risk running out." - Zellow (AT Nobo 2018)

beef jerky is a great stoveless backpacking foodBeef jerky is a common trail favorite


PRICE: A variety of foods can help keep your expenses down

Living off stoveless meals can be expensive, but you can minimize the cost. The most expensive food choices - freeze-dried food and instant meal bars - cost $1.50 per ounce and more... much more. These foods are convenient when you want food instantly, but their cost can add up.  

Most people going stoveless eat a variety of foods so they don't blow up their budget. You can mix standard trail foods like tortillas, peanut butter, trail mix, and jerky with meal bars and dehydrated meals. If you want a full meal, you can buy bulk dehydrated freeze-dried ingredients and make your own meals. 

WEIGHT: The more calories per ounce, the lighter the pack

Going stoveless will reduce the weight of your cooking supplies, but it won't cut back on the amount of food you have to carry. You still have to carry roughly 2lbs or 4,000 calories of food per day. You want calorie-dense food, approximately 125 calories per ounce or more, to maximize your nutrition while minimizing weight.  

Related: 18 High Calorie Backpacking Foods

PREPARATIONStoveless doesn't always mean ready-to-eat

Stoveless cooking requires moderate preparation before you hike and minimum prep on the trail. When you are hungry, you don't have to pull out all your cooking stuff. Just grab something from your food bag and go. However, some foods will have to be cold soaked before they can be enjoyed (scroll down for additional information on cold soaking).

INGREDIENTS: Keep it natural

Try to keep your foods as natural as possible and add some variety into your meals. Use nuts in one meal, chocolate in another, and freeze-dried fruits in the next. Change things up so eating doesn't get boring.  Stick with ingredients that are ready-to-eat or reconstitute quickly in water. 

TYPES OF NON-COOK FOODS: Raw vs. dehydrated vs. freeze-dried vs. ready-to-eat

Raw: Raw food is a thru-hiker's delight because you really only encounter it in trail towns or via trail magic. Fresh fruit and vegetables are at the top of the scale for nutrition, but they are heavy and spoil quickly.  Stock up on raw foods in town and only take what you can eat right away with you. 

Dehydrated: Dehydrated food is easy to prepare at home with a dehydrator which uses warm air to remove moisture from food. Dehydrated food is more affordable than freeze-dried food, but it requires some patience when using it for stoveless cooking. Dehydrated food usually requires heat to reconstitute, so you can't add water and eat it right away. You'll have to soak the food for a period of time if you want it to be edible. Pre-packaged dehydrated and freeze-dried backpacking meals are meant to be rehydrated with heat. We do not recommend to include those in your non-cook meal plan. 

Freeze-dried: If convenience is what you want, then freeze-dried food is what you need. Similar to dehydration, freeze-drying removes most of the moisture from food. Freeze-dried food is lightweight, and unlike dehydrated food, it rehydrates quickly in water. Some freeze-dried fruit doesn't even need water - it tastes so yummy you can eat it right from the package.

Ready-to-eat packaged food: Ready-to-eat packaged food is hassle-free. Just open the packaging, add water if needed, and eat. Make sure you check the nutrition label, so you can balance your nutrition.

Greenbelly complete stoveless backpacking mealsGreenbelly is a ready-to-eat backpacking meal

What is Cold Soaking?

As its name implies, cold-soaking is a cooking technique that uses cold water and soak time to "cook" a meal. All you need is your food, some water, and a sealed container. You can use a peanut butter jar, gatorade powder mix jar or purchase a Vargo Bot. Our favorite container for cold-soaking though, is a Talenti ice cream jar. It is lightweight, fits a good amount of food, and does not leak.

"My kitchen and dishware consisted of a titanium spoon with an extra long handle and a Talenti Gelato container - these were my bowl, cup, plate, pots and pans, fork, knife, spoon, mug, etc. It's incredible how versatile those two little things could be.Plus, every time the container got too gross to keep using, I HAD TO buy a new one and eat a pint of gelato :)" - Zellow (AT Nobo 2018)

Cooking your meal is as easy as adding  the water and food to the container and waiting. You should start soaking at least a half-hour before you are ready to eat. It's even better to start soaking when you take your late afternoon break. Mix your meal before your break is over and your food will be ready as soon as you make it to your next campsite or shelter. 

Cold soaking works best with food that hydrates readily, like instant mashed potatoes and oatmeal. Oatmeal and freeze-dried fruit make a great breakfast, while instant potatoes and dehydrated beans provide a filling meal. Cold-soaking is not for everyone though. A lot of hikers can't live without a warm meal at the end of the day and a hot cup of coffee in the morning.

"I can’t really think of anything I wouldn’t recommend cold soaking... When you are out there in the woods for so long you begin to be more adventurous with what you are willing to try and more open to foods that fill you up even if the taste isn’t spectacular." - Zellow (AT Nobo 2018)
© Douglas Hurdle (@douglashurdle)
cold soaking stoveless backpacking food with sawyer water filter
Adding water to a Talenti jar to cold soak a meal

38 Stoveless Food Ideas

Here's a list of our favorite non-cook backpacking food ideas:

Trail Nutrition: What You Need to Eat

Going stoveless means you have to think more about your meals and what goes into them. You have to build your meals, so you are consuming the same amount of calories you are burning (up to 6000 kcal per day) through hiking. You also need to replace electrolytes and minerals you are losing through sweat.

Getting enough calories while hiking is a challenge. You want to balance your calories, so roughly 50% come from carbohydrates, 35% from fat, and 15% from protein on any given day. Each one of these components plays a different role in your nutrition and understanding how they function will help you fuel yourself adequately for the long haul.

Carbohydrates: Carbs break down into glycogen that fuels your muscles. You'll need carbs during the day to feed your muscles while hiking and at night to replenish your muscle's glycogen stores. Carbohydrates include both sugars (simple carbohydrates) and starch (complex carbohydrates) such as pasta, potatoes, and grains. They differ in how long it takes your body to convert them into usable energy. Simple carbs are available quickly while complex carbs take longer to break down. If you need a quick hit of energy, grab a candy bar or M&Ms. For a long, arduous climb, fill your stomach with some pasta or oatmeal.

Fats: Unlike running a marathon, which is a high-intensity exercise that burns carbohydrates and glycogen stores in your muscles, thru-hiking is an endurance activity that burns both carbohydrates and fat. Fat is as calorie-dense as it gets -- one gram of fat contains nine calories as compared to four calories for protein and carbohydrates. As you climb and descend the mountains, you'll want to eat both fat and carbohydrates to keep yourself adequately fueled for the day.

Protein: Protein doesn't serve as fuel for your muscles like fat and carbohydrates do. Protein may contribute a little to your energy needs, but its primary role is to rebuild your muscles after a day of hiking breaks them down. Strive to eat a significant meal with a balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates.

Fiber: Make sure you are getting adequate fiber in your meals, so you don't suffer from constipation on the trail. Being plugged up is almost as bad as the dreaded trekker's trots.

Electrolytes: Hiking in hot weather not only contributes to dehydration, but it also depletes your electrolytes. You need to replenish sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and calcium that you are sweating out. And water won't do the trick. Too much water without added electrolytes can be dangerous. It can cause hyponatremia - a potentially severe and sometimes life-threatening condition that occurs when your sodium levels fall too low. In hot weather, add some Gatorade powder to your water bottle on a regular basis.

Timing: When you consume your food is equally as important as what you consume. Don't skip breakfast as that meal helps get you started on your day. Don't skip dinner as you need protein to repair your muscles and carbohydrates to restore your glycogen levels. If you don't replenish your body at night, it will break down your muscles to replenish these stores. Snack regularly on high-carb and high-fat food, so your energy levels stay consistent throughout the day.

broccoli taken from a stoveless backpacking food bag

5-Day Non-Cook Meal Plan 

Day 1, 3 and 5 (3,098 calories per day)

Calories (cal) Protein (g) Fat (g) Carbs (g) Fiber (g) Sodium (mg)
Breakfast Oats (1 cup) 349 15 6 60 10 456
Breakfast Protein Powder (20g) 80 15 2 1 1 140
Breakfast Sunflower seeds (1/4 cup) 207 6 19 7 4 1
Breakfast Beef Jerky (2 oz) 232 19 15 6 1 1900
Lunch Greenbelly Meal2Go (1 meal) 645 17 22 100 9 790
Snack 2 Trail Mix (1/2 cup) 346 10 23 32 5 439
Snack 2 Dark Chocolate (1/2 bar) 281 17 72 60 21 18
Dinner Instant Rice (1.5 oz) 155 3 0 35 1 5
Dinner Instant refried beans (2 oz) 275 16 1 52 23 761
Dinner Taco seasoning (1 tsp) 10 0 0 2 0 215
Dinner Cheddar cheese (1 oz) 110 7 9 1 0 174
Dinner Fritos (1 oz) 160 2 10 17 1 170
Dessert Tea 0 0 0 0 0 0
Dessert Candy (handful or bar) 250 4 12 33 1 119

Day 2 & 4 (3,280 calories per day)

Calories (cal) Protein (g) Fat (g) Carbs (g) Fiber (g) Sodium (mg)
Breakfast Oats (1 cup) 307 11 5 55 8 456
Breakfast Chia seeds (1 tbsp) 97 3 6 8 7 3
Breakfast Powdered Milk (2 tsp) 24 2 0 4 0 11
Breakfast Sugar (1 tsp) 16 0 0 4 0 0
Breakfast Cinnamon (pinch) 3 0 0 1 1 0
Snack 1 Bagel 304 24 4 140 8 471
Snack 1 Honey (1 oz) 81 0 0 81 0 2
Snack 1 Peanut Butter (2 oz) 330 14 28 12 7 61
Lunch Greenbelly MudMeal 600 27 33 50 4 200
Snack 2 Crackers (1 cup) 183 1 37 81 0 277
Snack 2 Cheddar Cheese (4 oz) 440 28 36 4 0 696
Dinner Coucous (1 cup) 176 6 0 36 2 6
Dinner Dried carrots and peas (1/4 cup) 96 2 0 22 7 10
Dinner Italian seasoning blend (1/2 tbsp) 8 0 0 2 1 1
Dinner Olive oil (2 tbsp) 238 0 28 0 0 0
Dinner Salmon (1 pouch) 130 84 14 0 0 263
Dessert Tea 0 0 0 0 0 0
Dessert Candy (handful or bar) 250 4 12 33 1 119
Kelly Hodgkins photo

About Kelly Hodgkins

By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.

About Greenbelly

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

Stoveless Backpacking Meals
  • 650-Calorie Fuel
  • No Cooking
  • No Cleaning