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While perusing my gear this morning, it occurred to me that I hadn't bothered to buy or make a stove for backpacking. On the whole, I'm not a big fan of hot food, even when I'm a mite chilled.

What are the Pros and Cons of No-Cook Backpacking? I'm interested in responses regarding a three-season/non-winter conditions in a temperate climate, but wouldn't mind additional information about other climates.

Side-note on the tags: Yes, I am aware that the "Cooking" tag being here is a little paradoxical. It's included because this has to do with food preparation.

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I think you not being a big fan of hot food makes you different than 95% of the rest of the population :) –  whatsisname Aug 8 at 1:31
    
'Fraid so. Freshly cooked meat is one of the few things I enjoy warm. –  Zach L Aug 8 at 1:36
    
An other pro besides the ones already mentioned: warm meals can keep your digestion going - a nice warm porridge in the morning or a simple soup can help avoiding constipation. –  Akabelle Aug 10 at 13:37

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I usually don't carry any kind of stove with me when I go hunting - this could be anytime from September to November or in May and early June. The weather can vary wildly during these times and I've experienced every kind of weather, from 10 below (F) and snow, to 30 degrees and freezing rain, to 90 (F) and dry. I found that going without hot food for up to a week is not a big deal - for me. That said, I prefer hot meals so, outside of a hunting/backpacking trip, I put more effort into my meals.

The pros of not cooking while backpacking:

  1. You have more time to spend doing other things. Meal preparation time can vary, for example, boiling water for some quick oatmeal is much quicker than making enchiladas or wild strawberry pie in a dutch oven (yes, I have known two backpackers that carry small dutch ovens and eat like kings). But still, it takes time to open your pack, set up your cooking gear, cook the meal, clean up, and repack. If you are busy doing other things, such as hiking or watching wildlife in the evening, then maybe this is a chore that should be eliminated.
  2. Not taking cooking gear reduces weight and gives you extra space in your pack for other things. However, this might be cancelled by the increased bulk and weight of the food itself, mentioned in con #6 below.
  3. Preparing your meals so that you can eat all day means you will be less hungry. Instead of having two or three big meals and a couple snacks, you can simply eat whenever you feel like it. Often, I feel a lot better when I simply snack all day.
  4. Buying a stove, and cookwear, and the just-add-water meals can get expensive. Not buying them and preparing simple foods at home can save a good deal of money.

The cons of not cooking while backpacking:

  1. Cooking in the mountains can be very enjoyable. Planning not to cook eliminates an enjoyable activity (although cooking in downpours and high winds can be very frustrating).
  2. You might need a hot meal. A hot meal can really perk you up at the end of a long day when you're tired, or maybe feeling a little homesick.
  3. Your choices of foods/meals are a bit limited, which dampens the whole outdoor experience, unless your trip is a short one, or if you can conquer #4.
  4. To eat healthy while not cooking, you need to be more creative. Coming up with a list of foods that you can (and will) eat can be daunting if you aren't used to, or you don't enjoy, creating healthy menus.
  5. Unprepared. If you find that you do want to cook a meal (do you fish?), you will need to resort to using a campfire which may not be allowed at some places and times (some parks, fire season, etc.).
  6. Foods that are ready to eat are generally bulkier and heavier. Just imagine a couple peanut butter sandwiches next to a cup of uncooked rice. By the way, I don't advise carrying peanut butter sandwiches beyond day #1 :)

Even when I backpack without typical cooking gear, I'm still prepared to make an emergency meal in case my body temperature gets too low or I simply want or need something hot. For this, I carry a stainless steel cup and a couple packets of tea and a small ziploc or two of quick oats and sugar (don't forget a spoon!). Of course, if and when I use these, a fire is then required.

Just as a side note here, since you mentioned "non-winter conditions": if you intend on backpacking in the Rocky Mountains, be prepared for cold weather at any time of the year. On July 27, this year, here in eastern Idaho, we had a couple inches of hail in the lower areas and snow in the mountains. Two days later, although the weather was beautiful and in the 70's, I found 4 inches of snow still covering the trail, in places, on a section of the Continental Divide Trail. It's never really "non-winter" in the Rockies.

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plus one for being from eastern Idaho :) –  Tyler Davis Aug 8 at 21:27
    
Dried foods are not necessarily lighter. Dried foods tend to be carbohydrate-heavy which are only 4 calories per gram. Peanut butter contains fat and runs around 6. When I thru-hiked the AT I carried 1 lb. whole milk mozzarella blocks. These were 1300 calories per pound and I ate one per day on top of other food, so unlike many hikers I wasn't horribly protein deficient and losing muscle. Large pepperoni sticks are also good (protein and fat) -- stick is important, as it has less surface area exposed to the air than slices and so lasts much longer. –  James Bellinger Aug 9 at 2:51
    
I've got several unfortunate dietary restrictions that nullify Pro 4, Cons 3, Con 4, and Con 6. I can eat fruit, veggies (not Legumes or Nightshades), nuts, and meat. Nearly anything else causes minor discomfort. I'm also versed, and practiced, in primitive fire-starting, should my Bic, matches, and fire-piston fail me. –  Zach L Aug 10 at 19:53
    
In Rocky Mountain park they have an area called the "Never Summer Wilderness", which is fitting as there is snow there that will never melt even during the hottest days of summer. –  tsturzl Aug 11 at 2:07

Cooking or not, being able to heat water can be very useful in many cases.

A basic alcohol stove, a little fuel, and a fireproof cup will weight less than 200g and fit all in the cup, so that's not much of a big deal. (All for less than 15$ for basic stuff).

You'll get tea in the morning and you'll be able to boil water if needs be (sterilize water from a stream to drink it or rinse a wound).

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Pros

  • You don't need to carry a stove or fuel. The space and weight that would be spent on these can be devoted to other things, or eliminated altogether.

  • You don't need to take the time to cook things. If there's any meal preparation involving rehydration, it generally just involves putting water into the meal package a certain time before you plan to eat it, then eating it once it's ready.

Cons

  • Your meals may be somewhat more limited and monotonous.

  • A good hot meal can be the one good thing at the end of a long, hard (or cold) day. If you don't have that option, it can make a hard day even harder sometimes.

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I can't/won't go without my morning coffee. No Cook would not mean no cooker... –  mattnz Aug 7 at 23:43

Just considering weight: The great advantage is that you save weight by not carrying a stove and fuel, a pot, a Sierra cup and a largish spoon for stirring. The disadvantage is that you carry more weight than if you had taken freeze-dried or dehydrated food. That is, you have to carry the water content of all your food, which can add up, unless you subsist entirely on nuts, raisins, crackers, cheese and peanut butter. Which you can.

Other advantages to not cooking: Freeze-dried food means a lot of trash to haul out. Cooking means washing up. Cooking is a pain, or even impossible, on rainy or windy days, thus you have to carry extra non-cooked food to carry you through such days.

I think it depends on the length of the trip. I can easily see a no-cook trip for up to a week. Beyond that, peanut butter palls.

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I got an MSR Windboiler to boil water in a snow storm. So there are solutions to cooking in harsh conditions. –  tsturzl Aug 11 at 5:53

I started out cooking actual meals, which was time consuming and required a lot of clean up. Its not practical to pack out waste from food prep cleanup(like waste water), and I started to realize it was not in good ethic to do so. So I started with the mentality boil don't cook. I've gone ahead and invested in a MSR WindBoiler(similar to the jetboil). This is usually my setup. The windboiler and freeze dried foods or instant oat meal/porridge.

I typically eat nuts, jerky, and energy bars all day long, and usually only eat a hot meal for dinner and sometimes breakfast.

For me its really more about comfort. I have gone on trips where all I ate required no heating. I can only do this for an overnight trip. I feel heated food is definitely not required. Though I feel its really useful, and can actually ward off hypothermia. When you say "temperate climate" thats rather vague. Here in the Rockies you can expect to travel from a 70 degree F climate to snowy 30 degree F climate in the same day during summer months. To me having a source of heat is especially useful in these kinds of conditions. A warm meal, cup of tea, or cocoa help warm you up even if you don't particularly care for them. I've been so cold on winter trips that I literally just drank warm water. I've also used my stove to heat water and poured that in my hydration bladder and slipped that in my sleeping bag to help me stay warm.

On the flip side eating energy bars, jerky, nuts, dry fruit, etc is relatively weight efficient. With freeze dried meals you still have to carry a stove and the water to reconstitute them. You can treat water while your in the backcountry but you still have to carry that water a decent distance if there's no water source where you're camping.

As far as energy density, freeze dried foods have more energy per gram than energy bars most of the time.

Comparing 1g of freeze dried food to 1g of nutrition bar(of different varieties):

  • Clif Bar(Peanut Butter): 3.8calories per gram
  • Probar(Peanut Butter Chocolate): 3.4calories per gram
  • Probar(Peanut Butter Bar): 4.5calories per gram
  • Mountain House(Mac & Cheese): 5calories per gram
  • Mountain House(Lasagna): 4.8calories per gram

Enegry bar avg: 3.6cal/g

Freeze Dried avg: 4.9cal/g

Given this is just a list of food I have on hand(I like peanut butter). So if you look into it more I'm sure you can find energy bars or other non-cooking/heating options which provide similar energy density. Futher more you would save the weight of not having a stove. Also if you look at the protein content of each of these options, the freeze dried foods are far superior. However there are lots of jerkys out there which are packed with protein.

You should also consider the fact that freeze dried food was invented for 3 reasons:

  1. It doesn't spoil for years.
  2. It retains almost all of its original nutrients, where as dehydration does not even come close.
  3. Its very light weight, typically even more so than dry or dehydrate foods which still have some water weight.

My opinion is if you're going to do short 1-3 night trips you can definitely do it without heating or cooking a single thing. If you plan to go on an extended trip or thru-hike then I'd say having a stove is very useful beyond a means of food prep. All in all you can't go wrong if you just bring both.

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Regarding the freeze-dried meals: I've found that the majority have Nightshades involved. I cannot ingest them, lest I fancy the idea of regurgitation. That's my bad for not noting that above. ---Thanks for noting the caloric densities of example foods. I've been doing research on that and have found it quite useful for correctly adjusting my diet to fit backpacking. I've gotten it to the point where only minor changes happen between home and the peaks. –  Zach L Aug 11 at 2:09
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I definitely only eat freeze dried food on longer trips or trips where weight is an issue. I feel eating warm meals is a psychological thing for the most part. If you have a food problem with nightshades it would definitely be counter productive to eat them while in the backcountry. –  tsturzl Aug 11 at 5:11
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Like I said there are many dry and dehydrated foods that have a very high energy density. The sole reason I mentioned freeze dried food is because it is some of the highest energy dense food you can carry that's light weight and it retrains the most nutrients. On long trips maybe consider dehydrated veggies. You can make jerky out of greens like Kale and kelp, and you can add BBQ to add calories. You can also make fruit and veggie strips(kind of like fruit roll ups) by dehydrating purees which give a glucose boost. –  tsturzl Aug 11 at 5:17

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