Cold Soaking Your Meals: Two Thru-Hikers Share Their Wisdom
When most people imagine camping, they picture a group of friends huddled around a campfire grilling hot dogs, followed by roasting s’mores. And there are certainly scenarios where that is exactly what you get. However, meals look quite a bit different for long-distance backpackers. Campfires and grills are traded for ultralight pots and stoves. Hot dogs and s’mores are swapped for ramen and instant potatoes. To some, this already seems like a sacrifice. But what if we told you taking it one step further could be the best decision you’ll make on trail? Let us introduce you to cold soaking. Not only are we ditching campfires, but we are ditching all sources of heat to cook your food. Instead, we place our dehydrated meals into small containers with the right amount of water and allow it to come to life before our eyes (or over the course of a couple hours).
Related: The Best Backpacker Meals
While this may sound absurd, let us (Madeline and Jenna, PCT 2018 thru-hikers), bring you our take on cold soaking: why we chose to do it, why we love it, and some tips and tricks for anyone who thinks or doesn’t know yet that this might be for them!
Why did you choose to cold soak your meals?
M: I initially chose to cold soak because when I was researching what gear to take on my thru-hike, that’s what I saw ultralight hikers doing. I figured that even though the weight savings from going stoveless are pretty insignificant, every ounce counts. Ultimately, I ended up being grateful for that decision because it turns out that I’m a really lazy hiker. Once I get to camp, I want to just throw up my tent (if that), shove some food in my mouth (preferably while lying down), and hit the hay. Especially on those bigger mileage days, I was super grateful for the time and effort I saved by not having to cook.
J: For me, choosing to cold soak was totally a timing thing. I decided to finally ditch my stove in Oregon because I knew I would be hiking more miles per day and may not have time or energy to cook at night. I ended up loving it and found it perfect for Washington too, where on cold, rainy nights my food would already be cooked. I could get in my warm, dry sleeping bag and eat as soon as I got to camp.
What is the best container to cold soak in?
M: I’m all about the Talenti gelato containers because they are light, big enough to fit a whole ramen or instant mashed potatoes package, wide-mouthed, and leakproof. The ice cream that comes in the container is a bonus, too.
J: Talenti Jar! It’s the perfect size to fit ramen, couscous, or macaroni. It’s a really durable jar as well. Best part is if you don’t finish your meal you have a great storage container to save it for later.
Favorite foods to cold soak?
M: By the end of the trail my all-time favorite was Near East Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil Couscous with lots of mayonnaise and a salmon packet mixed in. So much flavor, so many calories. Ramen with Sriracha and peanut butter (Hiker Trash Pad Thai) was also a favorite. I sometimes even packed out a lime for a fresh kick. And somehow, I never got sick of Idahoan Instant Mashed Potatoes, with lots of mayonnaise incorporated for maximum calories and creaminess.
J: Ichiban Ramen. It only takes 30 minutes and is so delicious. I recommend only adding half as much water as the packet says to eat it as noodles and not soup. I would also add a packet of olive oil to it while soaking for calories. If you add it after it’s rehydrated then it just tastes oily. I always topped mine off with a Sriracha packet in camp. I also really loved the Near East Couscous packets for cold soaking. They rehydrate quickly and have plenty of calories and flavor. Another favorite was dehydrated beans mixed with instant rice and taco seasoning, or dehydrated lentils with curry powder and coconut milk powder. Each option easily cold soaked and tasted great, but those last two will require a little meal prep at home before you hike.
Worst things to cold soak?
M: Do not try to cold soak pre-packaged backpacking meals, like Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry. Those are not made to rehydrate without heat, and you will be sorely disappointed when your expensive hiking luxury is reduced to a watery, crunchy mess. Knorr Sides and Annie’s Mac and Cheese—two other staples for hikers with stoves—also do not cold soak well, although I do know people who insist they made it work.
Note: If you buy dehydrated fruits and vegetables in bulk, make sure that they are freeze dried and not air dried, as the latter needs heat for proper rehydration.
J: Annie’s Macaroni. The noodles just never got to the right consistency, no matter how short or long I would soak them.
Did you ever regret your choice?
M: I was really happy with my decision to cold soak. It would have been easy to have my backpacking stove sent to me if I ended up wanting it, but I never did, save for a few cold and wet nights in Washington. I found it important to mix up my meals and supplement with lots of snacks, but I think that would be the case even if I had a stove. And cold soaking made the hot food in towns all the more glorious!
J: Once I started cold soaking I never looked back. The convenience is 100% worth it. If you prepare well ahead of time there are a variety of foods you can cold soak to keep things interesting. I may consider carry a stove again for weekend backpacking trips, but for my next long distance hike, cold soak all the way!
Here are a few references for how long to cold-soak these common meals:
Ramen: 30 minutes
Couscous: 20 minutes to one hour
Refried beans: instant!
Annie’s Mac and Cheese: one hour at least
Quaker Instant Oatmeal: instant!
Instant rice with dehydrated beans/lentils: two hours
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