Mayo jar + spork = kitchen

That whole thing about the alcohol stove and the joy of trail cooking? Forget it. I changed my mind a few weeks ago and I'm back to being a stoveless hiker, as I was on the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking without a stove is somewhat of a fringe technique—I'd guess that less than 10% of long-distance hikers do it for an extended length of time. But it works for me, and here are the brief pros and cons, as I discovered on the AT. Pros:

  1. NO FUSS. This doesn't refer just to the possibility of mechanical failure, which is essentially nil with some alcohol stoves. It refers to the entire act of cooking: finding a flat place to set the stove, making sure it doesn't start a wildfire, tending to the kitchen when the weather sucks, carefully packing the stove and fuel, rationing fuel, resupplying fuel in town. When I hike, I am LAZY and HUNGRY and I want that food in my stomach as SOON as I stop moving. No fiddling around and waiting for 15 minutes while it boils and soaks.
  2. You can eat whenever and wherever you damn well feel like it. This is especially nice in the tent in bad weather.
  3. Cold foods may, but don't necessarily have to, use less water than cooking. It's a nice option to have when water is scarce, as on, say, most of the PCT.
  4. Meals are a vague concept when resupplying (not always a pro; see below). Basically, as you're standing in the grocery store, you don't feel so limited to "dinner food," "lunch food," and "snack food" when you're eating them all interchangeably at different times of the day.
  5. Weight savings? Disputable. Some cold food staples have a lot of water or fatty weight built in (think peanut butter, for instance). That said, if someone really had their diet dialed in and was using a lot of dehydrated food that reconstitutes well with cold water, they would absolutely save weight over someone with a stove and fuel. This is what I'm trying to accomplish this year.
  1. Variety is limited, especially if your resupply takes place only in grocery stores along the way. Some of my favorite no-cook foods, instant hummus and instant refried beans, are not found in most grocery stores and need to be shipped from home, where there is this glorious thing called the Winco bulk aisle. You may get into a rut, as I sometimes did on the AT, where you walk into each grocery store and don't have the imagination to come up with new meal ideas that really satisfy you. But I'm not sure that this problem is limited to stoveless hikers—a lot of people who cook their meals basically eat the same hot salty mush (ramen, Lipton or Knorr instant rice/pasta, instant oatmeal) each day. Being able to receive maildrops from home, modified to your real-time specifications (i.e. not all prepared before the beginning of the hike), increases the potential food variety for just about every hiker.
  2. Meals are a vague concept (see above for why this is a good thing too). The whole no-set-meals concept on the AT frequently resulted in me taking more food, and hence more weight, than was necessary, as it was harder to plan for what I needed. People who have really figured out their trail diet have learned how to determine their food needs by weight and calories per mile, not by planning for specific meals. For instance, Scott Williamson lost zero pounds on his record-setting 64-day PCT thru-hike. But I'm not at that stage of understanding my metabolism yet. This summer I'm sure I will learn more.
  3. Breakfast. I almost never found no-cook breakfast food that satisfied me on the AT. Pop Tarts and granola bars are shit when you have to eat them day after day, cereal doesn't go well with just water, and powdered milk gives me awful acid reflux. Nowadays I'm working on a homemade muesli concoction that can be soaked overnight, Swiss-style, and eaten on the go in the morning. Again, it will have to be shipped from home to ensure that it's (a) what I like, and (b) is the right amount for each section.
  4. Not good in very cold weather. Fortunately, there's not a lot of that on an AT or PCT thru-hike. It may freeze overnight, but during a normally-timed thru-hike there will hardly be any days where you walk all day, and have to prepare food, in freezing weather.
So what do I actually eat on the trail if I don't use a stove? Well ...

  • That muesli I just mentioned. Ideally, it's soaked in water for a long time beforehand, overnight if possible. Sometimes, if I have to buy granola or cereal from the store and it doesn't go well with water, I'll soak it in peanut butter instead. (You see, when you're a hiker, it's okay to write sentences like that.)
  • cheese
  • summer sausage/pepperoni
  • Nutella
  • peanut butter
  • chocolate bars
  • Snyder's flavored pretzel bits (Buffalo wing + honey mustard and onion = ambrosia)
  • jerky
  • mustard
  • sometimes a bread medium like bagel-thins or tortillas. My consumption of bread decreased as the AT went on; I found I rarely desired it and it was too dry to ever want to eat. I envision a similar issue on the PCT.
Dinner (if it's not more of the above): 
  • couscous
  • instant refried beans
  • instant mashed potatoes (Idahoan only)
  • powdered hummus
  • ramen (without the flavor packet)
These can all be rehydrated nicely without hot water. They also all benefit from an enthusiastic application of olive oil and spices—the spices added at home, the olive oil added on-trail. The couscous and beans that I have been experimenting with, both from the Winco bulk aisle, take about 25 minutes to come fully back to life with cold water. The ramen I'm not sure about yet, but I've heard half an hour. I plan on using either a screw-top tupperware container or perhaps something like an empty plastic mayonnaise jar to let the rehydration take place as I hike, rather than after I've stopped. Again, waiting around sucks.

Going stoveless takes away some of the burden on Kristin, my maildrop coordinator and self-appointed Dehydration Doyenne, which is probably a good thing. We're way behind on learning the dehydrator, and there's only a month left to figure it out, in which time we each have only a hundred other things to take care of. The new food strategy is easier to manage logistically, but still leaves plenty of room for experimentation and variety. After the AT, I thought I might not like to go the no-cook route again, but I hadn't really paused to consider how much I could improve on my food options if customized maildrops are thrown into the mix. Luckily, I have someone who is willing and able to assume that role for me.