Two Cook’s Advice for Going Stoveless

When other hikers heard what we do in “real life” on the trail, everyone all reacted the same way: “I bet you have the best meals out here?!” For those that don’t know, we are cooks by trade—and very proud of it. Ironically enough, we are two cooks that got sick of cooking on the trail. We both started with titanium cook pots and shared a stove. We did the whole instant mashed potatoes, Knorr rice dishes, and Ramen thing and got tired of it fast. By the time we got to Hot Springs, NC (~mile 271) we decided to send everything home; the cook pots, the stove, the soap, the scrubbies, the spork… everything. Tons of other gear also got sent home during this purge, such as our water bladders, waterproof matches, and a couple other things we can’t remember.

We left towards the end of February so at night it was still really cold. Imagine this scenario:

It’s freezing out. You just hiked all day and probably didn’t get a great night’s sleep. The sun is setting early; it’s still technically winter. You’re starving, and once you find a camp spot, you still have to set up and unpack your gear for the night. You get water boiling while you are doing chores because you’re not about to waste time getting food into your face. It’s almost dark, it’s even colder than it was before, but at least you just ate and you’re full. You’re ready to get into bed and get warm. You then remember you still have to scrub your dirty cook pot which is probably scorched because the flame was too high. You go to clean your dishes and the water is bone-chilling on your hands. Fast forward through ten minutes of scrubbing, rinsing, and bear hanging your food and now you’re ready for bed.

Do that every night for six months, we double dare you.

To be fair, it’s not always going to be freezing at night but the amount of steps required to cook a meal will never change. Also, there are lots of people out there who look forward to that hot meal at the end of the day regardless of the time it takes to get it. We get it. Hot food brings some much needed comfort after a long day. To us, the chores that came with cooking made it not worth the hassle. We felt we could accomplish the goal (feeding ourselves) in a much more efficient manner and we could spend more time inside our tent getting warm and watching a movie. Here is our guide to going stove-less on a thru hike!

1. Know your body.

This is a big one, and was something we became very in tune with. Going stoveless, we were limited to the things that we could pack out that were calorie dense. That meant we shopped for certain things in every town. For us, it was important to have sugar in the morning to wake us up and get us started. For lunch we needed carbs to keep us going, and we had proteins at night for muscle recovery. That may not be the case with your body. You will figure out your preferences and learn what your body truly needs. Here are a couple of our staples:

Bread: The best form of energy we could pack out. Bread, or carbohydrates in general, help the body produce glucose. Glucose then turns into glycogen and that is the good stuff. Glycogen is the long-term energy that the body tucks away for a tough day (aka every single day of a hikers life). We tended to pick the breads with cheese or pepperoni or other things baked into them for added bonus calories. Walmart and Price Chopper always had the best and cheapest breads. There were times we each carried two types of bread. We would carry a sweet bread for breakfast and would have a savory for snacks/dinner.

Peanut Butter/Mayonnaise: We group these together because they each served the same purpose. These were our two most common toppings on whatever bread we were eating. For example, we would have a couple slices of cinnamon-swirl bread with peanut butter, a snickers bar, and a honey bun for breakfast. It sounds gross, but a piece of bread with a squeeze of mayo and a slice of cheese was the perfect snack for us and was packed with energy. In the early stages of our hike we would just pack out the individual peanut butter cups and mayonnaise packets, but by Vermont we started carrying whole containers. One of us would carry the mayo bottle and one of us would carry the jar of peanut butter.

We have a future blog post planned on diet so we don’t want to get too in detail with what we ate. We got a lot of questions about this so we’ll dedicate an entire future post to this one. Almonds, Little Debbies, protein bars, and chips were almost always found in our food bag as well.

*Pro Tip: Adjust your diet according to the terrain.*

In one of our recent posts, we briefly touch on how much we screwed up our resupply’s. Looking back, we should have resupplied depending on the terrain we were about to hike. We should not have had a general list of things to always get. There were some areas we should have packed out heavily salty items because we were sweating so much and needed those electrolytes put back. In the White Mountains we could have packed out heavy on the carbs. In the Shenandoah’s, where the infamous roller coaster exists, I could have lived off of sugar. Those quick up and down hills were really tough for me and my body responded to them in a much different way than powering up a mountain.

2. Learn how to snack, properly!

All of the meals we could create with the foods that were worth packing out got boring. That is the common ground between going stoveless and having a stove—everything gets boring, no matter how it’s prepared. There were things that sat in our food bag for way too long simply because we got tired of eating it. Protein bars, Little Debbie’s of all shapes and sizes, and peanut butter crackers are a few items you still could not pay us to eat. With that said, our resupplies became entirely snacks. This was a huge issue at first because we lacked the knowledge of what we needed to eat and when. Instead of the meal idea—having three larger portions over the course of the day—we transitioned to grazers. We did consistently eat in the morning and at night. Other than that, we ate specifically when we were hungry and we tried to focus on what we needed whether it be carbs, fats, or both. Throughout the day we probably ate five six times. Breakfast and dinner would be larger than the other times, when we would just take a break and eat a snack.

Pictured here is our only picture of a resupply. How is that possible? We took thousands of pictures and never once thought to document the day-to-day food we were eating. This is an example of a questionable resupply at best. In the background you can see my Smuckers Goober that I already got into.

Pro Tip: Have the self control to not eat your food before you get back to the woods.

3. Be flexible.

Unlike our friends who did the whole get-a-box-sent-to-them-in-every-town-thing, going stoveless allowed us to pick and choose based on the stores that were available, the food we were craving, and the food we actually needed to survive. There will be towns where it’s hard to get a hitch to and times where your resupply is at a gas station. This does suck, and sometimes places price gouge because they know they have hikers by the ba- they have them in a tough spot. This also sucks, but it’s the nature of the beast resupplying in each town. Understand that every resupply is not going to be ideal. There was a time in either New Jersey or Pennsylvania where we had to walk two miles down a sketchy one-lane road and resupplied at a BBQ joint because the grocery store was not worth the extra distance. This did not always happen because a lot of people went out of their way to help us, but bad luck happens. Think of it as added nostalgia to look back on all the adversity we faced.

It’s also fun to look back on trail towns, because not only did it force us to see and walk through the town, each state had a different feel to their grocery stores and markets. We got a good glimpse of the local culture this way.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 11

  • Mary : Dec 14th

    Thanks for writing this! Gives me more confidence in possibly going stoveless. I enjoy reading your posts; looking forward to more!

    Reply
  • Jim Adams : Dec 15th

    Really liked you article on restocking. Having thru hiked twice, I followed the mail drop system for the first thru hike and 1/2 way thru the second but I got tired of what I had packed and started re-stocking your way and have never looked back. My diet improved greatly and constantly changed. It made my hiking so much more pleasant. One word here that may help though. If you carry a small stove and pot in the beginning and have it sent back toward the end of your hike, you can use it just to boil water so that you have hot tea / coffee / cocoa to supplement your meals during cold weather and still have no cleanup. Great article!

    Reply
    • Alex Wnorowski : Dec 16th

      This was something that really intrigued us. We never thought to pour hot water into a bag that could also be eaten out of and thrown away later. On the next thru hike I might give this a shot and see how it works out. I really enjoy not carrying a stove and having to think about fuel. Thanks for your kind words, man. It means a lot to hear I could make an impact on another hike.

      Reply
  • Pando : Dec 15th

    Resupply based on the terrain is simply brilliant. In all the many articles and videos I’ve seen, I’ve never heard that tip. Great advice all around.

    I’ve debated going stoveless because there’s nothing I hate more than the after-dinner cleanup. Even the cold soak method requires a bit. You may have sold me.

    Reply
  • John : Dec 16th

    Thanks…any advice about eating healthy or vegan?

    Reply
    • Alex Wnorowski : Dec 16th

      Yikes! That’s a solid curveball you threw at us! Neither of us are vegan and while we aren’t T-Rex type of carnivores, pepperoni, cheese, and beef jerky were big for us out there. As far as being healthy, literally anything you put into your body will be burned off. Eat whole tablespoons of coconut oil. Eat spoonfuls of mayo. Seriously. If you thru hike, it will be impossible to keep up with the calories you need. You simply cannot carry it all. You won’t want to, anyways. Thru hiking means being hungry every second of every day.

      Reply
  • Justin : Dec 19th

    Great stuff guys! I see y’all cooked at the Umstead…if you’re in Cary soon drop by The Wine Merchant (I’m co-owner) and let’s chat about the AT (did a section from Max Patch to Tanyard Gap in Oct) and have a beer on me! Cheers and congrats on the huge accomplishment.

    Reply
    • Alex Wnorowski : Dec 20th

      Too cool! We live in Cary and currently cook there. Maybe we’ll take you up on that soon and we can reminisce together over a glass of wine or something? Come in to the hotel, we would love to cook for you 🙂

      Reply
  • Doctari : Jan 4th

    Mind blown. I’ve been doing the flip flop of “stove, no stove” for awhile now. Still undecided, but more inclined to skip “cooking” than before. If you come up with anymore tips / food ideas PLEASE post them. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Alex Wnorowski : Jan 4th

      I’m here to help grow backpacking! Usually I’ll write about what I get asked the most. What do you want to know, specifically?!

      Reply
  • jon : Jan 6th

    Thank you for posting your experience, Mine begins march 15th Nobo, 25 year dream of mine, very excited, Your advice was great thank you

    Reply

What Do You Think?