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Fire bans, simplicity, and weight savings are three oft-quoted reasons why hikers pursue cookless backpacking. Fire bans are definitely a legitimate reason; simplicity may or may not qualify; and weight savings rarely makes the cut under close scrutiny. If for any reason you do decide to go cookless, I've included food options below.
During drought situations, local authorities may periodically implement staged fire bans. Certain stages prevent open fires (such as campfires or cooking fires), stove use (including backpacking stoves), and at times, may even close land to all recreational use.
Some people just don't want to bother with a stove and the associated cooking that goes with it. It may be that they're going out for a short, easy, one or two night trip, potentially in warm weather, and just don't want to pack their stove. I've done this myself.
For a novice who doesn't yet have cooking gear, it can be a simple way to start getting out there. But with a novice, a little knowledge will go a long way. With the availability of inexpensive stoves (free if you make your own), and food that requires little more than boiling a bit of water, even novices may soon realize that stoves have their advantages.
International or air travel may also complicate packing a stove and fuel. Airlines may not allow you to fly with a stove - even if checked in. Fuel bottles that have ever held fuel may not be allowed at all due to the potential for vapor build-up. Solid fuel such as Esbit tablets may be permitted. Check with your carrier before bringing such items to the airport.
Soda can stoves are unlikely to cause any problems. Since any plastic bottle will do for alcohol, buy fuel when you get to your destination. Some soda can stoves are so simple, they can be made with your pocketknife. Make a stove once you get to your destination.
Going cookless may not net you any weight savings. Fully hydrated food options are heavy and it only takes one or two meals before those options weigh more than lightweight stoves, pots, fuel, and dehydrated food options. If you are carrying food that requires rehydration, unless you are planning on carrying food that does not require long soak times, you'll end up carrying an extra container filled with the soaking food and water. The weight of that container and, more importantly, the water within, may just end up weighing more than a lightweight pot and stove combo that can be put together for about 6 oz. Such a setup plus Esbit tablets at .5 oz./day or alcohol at 1 oz./day could easily eliminate the need to soak.
There is only one exception... If you happen to be heading out and know you're not going to make it to water that night, then carrying one hydrated meal for that night might make sense. Otherwise, you would have to carry the water necessary to hydrate a dried meal for the same distance anyway.
Situations may arise where hypothermia can be a real problem on the trail. Hypothermia doesn't require freezing temperatures. Rather, in the right conditions, it can easily set in even with temperatures in the 50s. With no ability to make a hot meal or drink, you can end up in a bad situation or end up relying on others around you.
When I was on the Pacific Crest Trail, an "ultra" lightweight hiker found himself in this situation. On a day when bad weather forced a group of us to stay put in our tents or stop early to take shelter, he found himself without adequate food, clothing, and shelter and relied on others around him to get him to safety.
If you decide to go cookless and you aren't hiking in an area with a fire ban, at least carry a couple of Esbit tablets, a 4" square of foil, and a lighter in an emergency kit. That and a metal cup in which to brew some warm water could make a huge difference if you end up in a bad situation.
These lists are not meant to be exhaustive. They were just something I put together prior to my Continental Divide Trail hike in the spring of 2006 where I spent a couple of weeks going stoveless due to fire restrictions.
There are two types of situations that determine food options: when resupplying in a store in town, it's possible to take some foods that will last just a few days before spoiling; and then there's the food that can go into maildrops that will survive without refridgeration for weeks.
Aside from the standard snack food type fare typical even on hikes with stoves such as protein bars, candy, Pop-tarts, nuts, prepackaged cheese and crackers, and dried fruit, here are a few other ideas I've thought of or gleaned from others:
Items that last long enough to buy in town and take on the trail for use within a few days:
Items that last indefinitely and can be sent ahead in maildrops:
I would be happy to hear other ideas or comments on what I've shared. Do I have anything in the wrong list? Do you have other ideas?
I don't enjoy hot food unless it's rather hot, but some dehydrated meals can be made for rehydration on the trail. If they rehydrate rather quickly and you don't have to carry the rehydration water for very long, they could prove a useful option for some people. While not hot, lukewarm may be achieved by keeping your water container in the sun while hiking.
Last updated, June 29, 2013.
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