Going Stoveless: The Pros and Cons of Cold Soaking

Everything was wet. I huddled in the doorway of my tent, trying to peel off my layers of smelly nylon without drenching my sleeping bag, wishing I could simply curl up in said sleeping bag and drift off to the sound of rain pattering on my tent. Unfortunately, I was starving. I left one side of the tent vestibule open for ventilation, assembled my fuel, stove, pot, water, and pasta, and waited for the water to boil while the trees dripped steadily outside my cramped shelter.

The reward? A hot and cozy dinner to lift my spirits on a chilly, drizzly evening.

I carried a stove throughout my Appalachian Trail journey. Two years later, I abandoned my stove and set out on the Pacific Crest Trail with a Talenti gelato jar. Instead of cooking meals, I rehydrated them on the go: a method known as cold soaking.

If you’ve never tried cold soaking before, it might sound crazy to give up nice, warm dinners, especially on days like the one described above—and it’s true that cold soaking has its drawbacks. But the benefits are certainly worth consideration!

The Benefits of Cold Soaking

Less To Buy (and Carry)

When you carry a stove—even a tiny MSR PocketRocket like mine—you also have to carry fuel and a cooking pot. The fuel is an extra expense and the whole setup adds weight to your pack. Compare this to the cold soaker’s popular backcountry kitchen tool: the lightweight, airtight Talenti jar.

Talenti is a gelato brand found in many grocery stores, making the plastic jars relatively easy to replace if needed (and providing a delightful frozen treat in the process). Once you have your Talenti jar, it’s a simple matter of putting your dehydrated dinner inside it with some water and waiting approximately an hour for the food to soak up the moisture and transform into an edible treat.

My AT Setup:

My PCT Setup:

  • Talenti Jar: 1.9 oz/$5

No Waiting for Dinner

Why wait a whole hour for dinner when you could cook it on a stove in significantly less time? Well, the beauty of cold soaking is that you start the rehydration process before you ever arrive at camp. Add water to your food an hour or so before you reach camp, and it takes care of itself while you’re on the move. By the time you finish setting up your tent, dinner is already prepared; all you have to do is devour it.

Easier Cleanup

Not only does cold soaking save time, but it also reduces the cleanup process. During my stove-carrying days, I spent a LOT of time cleaning my pot after dinner… especially after dinners involving copious amounts of cheese.

Have you ever tried scraping macaroni goo out of a pot with nothing but water and your fingers? Of all the things I expected to do during my hike, developing a fiery resentment toward Velveeta was not on the list, but it definitely happened. I ended up carrying napkins to help with the cleaning process, which worked but also gave me more trash to pack out.

Once again, the Talenti jar simplified things. All I had to do was put some water in the jar, tighten the lid, and shake it vigorously for a minute. This removed most of the food residue in a matter of seconds and ultimately preserved my post-dinner sanity.


Cold soaking saves time on both food prep and cleaning, eliminates the need to buy fuel, and cuts down on pack weight. It also comes with another perk that must not be overlooked: the ability to eat in bed.

Had I cold-soaked my dinner on that rainy day in the Appalachian Mountains, I would have been enjoying my food in the warmth of my sleeping bag instead of crouching in my tent vestibule, trying to avoid getting dripped on while I managed my stove. Granted, I wouldn’t have been enjoying hot food… and that leads us to the inevitable downside of leaving the stove at home.

The Drawbacks of Cold Soaking

Learning Curve

It was my first week on the PCT. I sat beside a stretch of dusty desert trail, holding my water bottle poised over the mixture of Minute rice and mashed potatoes in my Talenti jar, frowning at the dry bits of food and wondering exactly how much water I ought to add. Well… maybe just a little for starters. Besides, water was easier to add than to remove, if necessary.

With a mental shrug, I poured a moderate amount into the jar and screwed on the lid.

Fast forward a couple of miles, and I sat in my tent in the gathering dusk, poking my spoon at the dubious concoction inside my Talenti jar. It wasn’t pretty, but I was ravenous. I placed a tentative bite in my mouth and instantly experienced a minor emotional crisis as my teeth sank through what felt like a wad of crunchy trail dirt.

Cold soaking, for me, took time to master. In the beginning, I managed to turn some of my dinners into soup, while others met the same fate as my rice and potato mixture. When I finally did get the hang of it, I found it preferable to cooking—for the most part.

My AT kitchen

Sometimes You Just Want Hot Food

There were some cold, wet occasions toward the end of the trail when I sat with my numb fingers wrapped around a tortilla full of cold Spanish rice, gazing with a kind of desperate fascination at my trail family as they enjoyed their piping hot dinners. At one point, one of them offered me a bite of Mountain House chili mac, and believe me, I savored it like it was the last bite of food on earth.

Cold soaking isn’t for everyone. Sometimes that hot meal at the end of the day is the morale boost a person needs after a tough hike. I met plenty of hikers who found enjoyment in the cooking process and considered it well worth the extra time and pack weight.

Food is one of the most important aspects of a thru-hike, and there is no right or wrong when it comes to the preparation method. The important thing is to figure out what works best for you.

A Stove Offers Versatility

When deciding between cooking or cold soaking, it’s important to note that certain foods do not rehydrate properly without heat. Mountain House freeze-dried meals are a perfect example of this. Noodles, rice, and beans that haven’t been precooked won’t work. Certain dehydrated vegetables, like corn and mushrooms, can be problematic. While I haven’t tried it myself, I’ve heard that cold-soaked meat is downright awful.

A stove, on the other hand, can cook all of these things without a problem.

Water and Warmth

Not only that, but a stove can also provide some safety benefits in a pinch. In the event that a water filter is lost or broken, a stove can be used to boil and purify drinking water. In winter conditions, it can melt snow to provide water.

A stove is also a source of warmth. During my early, snowy weeks on the AT, I looked forward to cooking for the chance to warm up my hands, and my comfort item was a 16-ounce Nalgene bottle that I could fill with heated water and place inside the foot of my sleeping bag.

No matter how you put your stove to use, it’s important to remember that it should never be used inside a tent; the enclosed space creates a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Posing with my delicious, stove-cooked dinner during my first weeks on the AT

Final Thoughts

While a stove provides a wider variety of rehydration options, there are still plenty of delicious options for the creative cold soaker. The following is a list of my favorite cold-soaked meals from my PCT adventure:

  • Near East pearled couscous (favorite flavor: roasted garlic) with a pouch of chicken mixed in
  • Brown Minute rice mixed with Idaho mashed potatoes and pepperoni
  • Knorr rice sides (especially Spanish rice) added to a tortilla with cheese
  • Ramen noodles (I craved these in the desert)
  • Instant oatmeal with honey and raisins

READ NEXT – 100+ Backpacking Food Ideas for Your Next Hike

Finally, while it’s not a meal, I have to mention my absolute favorite thing to drink out of my Talenti jar at the end of the day: a packet of chocolate Breakfast Essentials with two instant coffee packets. (No, the caffeine didn’t keep me awake. Yes, my trail family thought I was weird.)

That being said, meal preparation on the trail doesn’t always have to involve rehydration. Going stoveless taught me to be imaginative and led to the discovery of some amazing trail dinners that can be made without cooking or cold soaking.

My favorite dinner was a jalapeno-cheese bagel (found in the bakery section of many grocery stores) topped with salami, avocado, and mustard. I also made a chicken salad wrap by mixing dried cranberries, salt, and mayo with a pouch of chicken on a tortilla. I kept a generous supply of condiment packets on hand to spice up any meal.

Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Featured image: Photo by Rachel Shoemaker. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 10

  • Meg : Jun 21st

    Once you’ve rinsed out the jar, how do you dispose of the dirty water? Thanks.

    • Kerry Smithwick : Jun 23rd

      I usually drink the water.

  • thetentman : Jun 22nd

    Great post. Definitely food for thought. Sorry.

    Is there a bacon cheeseburger dinner you can presoak?

  • Scribbles : Jun 23rd

    Great post! I carried the ‘cooking equipment’ on the first leg of my AT thru-hike in 2011. About a month in I decided I wasn’t enjoying the whole ‘cooking’ process and was just as happy with cold soaking…there is always the opportunity for a hot meal in town. To me, food is important for the fuel on the AT, and not dealing with the equipment was more enjoyable than hot food. I am also not a ‘town’ person but I did look forward to getting into town early for a hot breakfast especially when I was up north and there were some chilly nights. To really save weight buy the tuna packs and dehydrate them…..you do not need a special piece of equipment to do this – it is easily done in your oven – then repack in ziplocks. You will be amazed at how much weight is saved. I have not carried cooking equipment since the first part of the AT and have hiked close to 10K miles and don’t miss the hot food at all. Hike on!

    • Louie : Jul 12th

      This is just a super light sickness taken to the nth degree.
      There’s NO WAY carrying an ultra light alcohol stove or even a Pocket Rocket and a titanium pot is going to have the least bit of impact as it relates to one finishing a through hike or any other hike.
      I’ll have my coffee in the morning and some tasty hot meals at night. It’s called moral boosting.
      I’m digging the Ultralight movement overall – but this cold soak thing just sucks the joy out of breakfast and dinner.
      Consider me a hard “no”.

  • Gene Buonviri : Jun 23rd

    Great article !
    Although I am not a long distance through hiker, I am interested in good articles about trail hikes.
    My average hikes are 8-12 miles and long hikes are 15-20 miles. No over night stays.

  • Nicole : Jun 23rd

    “a fiery resentment toward Velveeta..” lol……

  • Washington Mike : Jun 23rd

    I look forward to cold soaking! Thanks for the article.

  • Will : Jun 23rd

    Having been in military I’ve had my share of concoctions that were if nothing else a learning experience. The thought process of “if it doesn’t taste right add something else to it” was how it usually went. With a little trial and error you can come up with meals you don’t have to be part billy goat to eat. I don’t hike but something you may consider is cold soaking in a heavy duty ziploc type bag as usual and then putting it in a flameless ration heater. They weigh almost nothing, take only a few tablespoons of water, can be used in wet environments and only cost a couple bucks. Nothing wasted, nothing to wash out and is easily folded up for pack out. It’s not necessarily a solution to the stove or not to stove dilemma but if you’re willing to eat cold soaked meals this would at least give you the ability to have a hot meal or two with little extra effort. And NO FIRE/FLAME!

  • Wolverine : Jun 28th

    I use the lightest jetboil without stand and any extras – 8 oz.
    I can easily boil water just outside tent door and then eat/sip in my tent if I desire. In the morning I unzip just enough to light stove and have hot coffee in minutes, while I’m packing up gear.
    I never cook in my jetboil – so no need for clean up. I only boil water in it. I hydrate my meal in its wrapper or ziplock bag. (yes you can put hot water in a ziplock. Easy.
    Hot meal and hot coffee every day. Always worth it.
    Carrying an extra 14 oz for months of warm food bliss.

    Don’t see a con here. I cold soaked plenty of years and it always generally tastes like crap.
    Why not enjoy your food on trail!


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