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).

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

Idahoans: instant!

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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Comments 29

  • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Mar 2nd

    My boyfriend and I are going stoveless for our upcoming PCT hike. I’m not super concerned about it, but I’m glad to hear that it’s not an outrageous thing and that you didn’t miss your stove!

  • Juli : Mar 3rd

    I have just decided to just this. Finishing the AT (300) and want to go super light…thanks for the confidence builder..

  • Jeffrey Kunkleman : Mar 3rd

    Not for me. I enjoy a hot meal and I was not out there to torture myself. A friend of mine cold soaked, and lost so much weight, he had to get off trail for a month.

    Travelinman – Class of 2018.

    • Leo Yermo : Mar 3rd

      You ever add Fritos to your cold soak? @ 160 Calories per oz, w/ all the fat etc that is a pretty good addition of crunch and calories.
      I think?

    • Tank : Mar 3rd

      I don’t understand. Cold or hot: Exact same number of calories.

      • jeremy : Mar 3rd

        it depends on the food. starches such as potatos are primarily made up of amylopectin and amylose which don’t digest well unless theyre cooked. same goes for meat. theres a lot more to proper trail nutrition than just counting calories.

        • Jenna : Mar 4th

          Instant potatoes are precooked!

      • Holly : Mar 4th

        I didn’t get it either

      • Martin : Aug 28th

        But not the same amount of energy 😉

      • CSD : Feb 9th

        The body digest better when the food is at body temperature, so you are burning calories warming up your food.

  • Matthew Edwards : Mar 3rd

    My fave cold morning breakfast;
    Afternoon before when the sun is hot on your pack:
    Pour crushed Fritos into container, a layer of sun melted peanut butter, a layer of sun melted nutella.
    By morning you have a frito Nutella peanut pie.
    If the morning is cool, the mixture comes right out of the tupperware like a candy bar.

  • eponymous17 : Mar 3rd

    My daughter and I fonnd the matches we brought on our 100-mi hike Stevens Pass to Stehekin were too old – disintegrated. Fortunately, she thought right away of cold soaking our Good-to-Go dinners, all afternoon in the back pocket of her pack. We added dehydrated shiitake mushrooms – tasted great, though not enough olive oil and protein — we arrived at Stehekin fine but depleted.

  • Josh Johnson : Mar 4th

    I’m still kicking around the idea of cold soaking so thanks for the tips

  • Salt Lick : Mar 5th

    I disagree regarding the Mountain House. I had no problems cold soaking them. I especially love the sausage gravy and biscuits, breakfast skillet and the stroganoff. Sometimes I got sick of my same ole cold soak meals so I would throw in a Mountain House on occasion.

    • Erika Lawson : Mar 7th

      Me too! I have tested out cold soaking the MH meals with no trouble. I have not tried them all but the chicken teriyaki tasted fine. It did not even take that long – about an hour. Great post!

  • Matt : Mar 8th

    I’m not sure I get how cold soaking is a weight saver. What is the weight of the water you carry vs the fuel and stove? I do get that it is a time saver, but I don’t yet understand the weight part. Please explain.

    • Justin : Mar 8th

      Most of the time you are cold soaking in camp so not carrying extra water. Even if you decided to cold soak before camp, that is one hourbof extra water per day as opposed to all day everyday with a stove.

      • Matt : Mar 8th

        Thanks for the clarification Justin, I missed that part, or just assumed one would have to soak many of the foods for a day. I see in the article above many items are an hour or less. Thanks!!

  • Paul : Mar 8th

    How do you clean your container and utensils? When I have a stove, I count on heat from the next meal to sterilize things. For summer backpacking, I frequently don’t use a stove, but all my food is finger food (nuts, chip, etc) so I have nothing to soak.

    • Jenna : Mar 8th

      Cleaning is trickier when cold soaking since you don’t have heat, but I would just add some filtered water to my jar and shake it up. Sure it wasn’t sterilized but it was clean enough and then in town I would wash it. I never got sick!

  • Fancy Pants : Mar 8th

    I cold soaked lentils a lot of in an old peanut butter jar to add to my dinner later. Still used a stove on the AT, but soaking for 12 hours definitely saved on fuel! I recommend “burping it” a few times a day so it doesn’t explode when you’re ready to start cooking.

    My favorite summer breakfast was rolled oats, dried fruit, some vanilla instant pudding powder and dehydrated milk. Soak for a few minutes while you dismantle you sleep setup! Add cereal or granola right before you eat.

  • Justin : Mar 8th

    Were dehydrated beans and refried beans easy to find along the trail? What brands were you using. I’ve been looking for these and have been having difficulty.

  • Matt : Mar 8th

    Guessing everyone reading is not hiking the AT or such, and wanted to give a shout out to Nido dehydrated milk. It is made by Nestle, and is marketed for babies. It is dehydrated whole milk, so it is very calorie dense. You may not find it in your typical trail town, but if you can it weighs in at 150 calories per ounce, and 7g of protein per ounce. Nice rich flavor, makes breakfast (and other meals) much satisfying than typical (nonfat) dehydrated milk.

    • Mateo : Jun 28th

      Do your research on Nestle as a corporation and their business practices. I have, and will not use their products… which are vast.

      • Scarecrow : Dec 30th

        Keep your politics and personal beliefs to yourself. This isn’t the place for that.

  • BobP : Mar 8th

    I started my 2018 AT NOBO thru hike with a stove and kept it until around Massachusetts. At that point I wanted to lose every ounce possible and reverted to cold soaking. I would eat cold soaked Ramen in only 60 seconds. I did keep buying Mountain House meals and while they weren’t as good as when hot water was added, I found that the Beef Stew was still pretty damn good. And the Mountain House Mac n Cheese with some added bacon bits was to die for. So…. I’d suggest folks be willing to experiment with adding cold water to Mountain House foods. And for what it’s worth even the instructions said it wasn’t appropriate to add cold water. Just ignore them!

  • Donna Dean : Jul 11th

    Agree entirely. On weekend backpacks with short mileage would cook as much for the comraderie and smell as anything, but on long mileage thruhikes I love getting to camp, eating, making camp and drifting off to sleep in the middle of journaling often in a total of 30 minutes. Before I leave town I bag up 5 to 7 day boxes and send ahead. Favorite dinner is 1/3 fried potatoes, 1/3 ramen that has been blenderized to fine powder, 1/3 dehydrated bean or lentil powderized, with a different spice mix each day, cajun, Italian, curry…. sometimes added tuna

  • Donna dean : Jul 11th

    Dried potatoes not fried!

  • CSD : Feb 9th

    So ‘lazy’ that you eat your meals in your sleeping bag at night which goes against conventional safety wisdom/knowledge…interesting.

    It is an interesting concept that probably works well for some and not so much for others. I could see where it has its uses on long days, but Im not sure it would be my go to method.

    Good article, thanks!


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