I have hiked 4,850 miles of National Scenic Trail (insofar as the Pennsylvania AT can qualify as "scenic") so far without a stove. I used somebody else's once. More than most things about hiking, this leads to questions, sometimes questions accompanied by a concerned look. To wit:
What is wrong with you?
I don't know. Next question.
So what do you eat?
I snack all the time, sometimes for breakfast and dinner as well as throughout the day. I snack on:
- blocks of cheese
- peanut butter and Nutella (scooped straight, usually together)
- summer sausage
- Snyder's flavored pretzel bites
- chocolate- and yogurt-covered things
- chocolate bars (Snickers first, Butterfinger distant second, all others ... meh)
- mixed nuts
- pre-made trail mixes
- dried fruit
- Gatorade drink mix
- Pop Tarts for breakfast
- Idahoan instant potatoes for "dinner," although I don't really have meals per se besides breakfast. The Idahoans mix just fine in unheated water; I eat them out of an empty peanut butter jar, which is very easy to clean by putting a little water in, putting the lid back on, shaking for a few seconds and dispersing.
Why don't you just carry a stove?
I think there are lots of nice things about not having a stove, most of which boil down (!!!) to there being absolutely zero fuss. These include:
- Having the freedom to eat in your tent, sleeping bag, in the shelter, while walking, wherever, whenever — awesomesauce when it’s rainy/snowy or buggy. Awesome when you can sit/lie down at the end of the day and not have to get up ever again, or until the next morning (a pee bottle is helpful here too, for the fellas).
- Don’t have to worry about fuel resupply
- Don’t have to worry about your stove breaking
- Don’t have to worry about starting a forest fire with your alcohol stove (an issue not to be taken lightly out West: most users of Super Cat stoves or something similar will tell you they've knocked their stove over while it was on fire before, and hikers, sometimes thru-hikers, start forest fires every year on the PCT)
- No dishwashing
- There is the potential for weight savings, although that’s not really why I do it and for me that tends to be cancelled out by the relative heaviness of snack food in general, compared to dehydrated/freeze-dried foods.
I could never do that, I need my coffee in the a.m.!
- Yes, but have you tried Starbucks Via iced blends? I can't speak for every year, but in 2013 on the PCT, someone with wholesale access had dropped off thousands of cold Via packets at trail-angel houses and hiker boxes the whole way from Mexico to Canada. I could have drank one every morning and not paid a cent. Or I could have paid many cents.
Some days I just need a warm meal when it's cold out!
- I don't disagree, but a) it's not cold very often on your typical three-season thru-hike. b) All calories (a.k.a. UNITS OF HEAT) warm you up at least a little. c) When I have been a little chilly, for instance on the cold and rainy days in Washington on the PCT, I've just eaten my breakfast and dinner while lying in my sleeping bag in my tent. It's quite a cozy feeling. You can always get a hot meal in town within a day or two if it's THAT important.
What about in an emergency?
- I would not pack a stove just to account for the infinitesimal chance of getting hypothermia all by myself on what is a predominantly warm-weather, well-traveled trail. If, for whatever reason, it was imperative for my immediate safety that I boil water, I would probably have had the foresight to get myself in a group of other people first and have access to a stove.
So do lots of thru-hikers do this?
- Yes and no. On the AT, very few do. You can chalk that up to the AT having a higher percentage of nervous, overpacking first-time thru-hikers ("You pack for your fears," as they say), and more water availability than the trails out West. On the PCT, a smallish percentage (maybe 10%) of thru-hikers go the whole way without a stove, but I'd guess almost 50% spend at least some time without one. When the weather is toasty, water is infrequent, and the desire to travel faster/lighter is growing as thru-hikers hit Northern California, a lot of people give up on cooking, at least until they reach Oregon and the weather cools off again. Or maybe they never look back.
- Also, my way – heavily emphasizing snack foods – is by no means the only way to hike stoveless. With proper planning, some people get more enthusiastic about the cold-soaking of various freeze-dried things, including their own concoctions from home made with a dehydrator. Dishes like couscous salads, cold noodle soups, powdered hummus, refried bean flakes, etc. I never saw a need for that, personally, because my standards of food are pretty simple and I've found what I like. But if you have something like an empty plastic peanut butter jar with a screw-on lid, you can soak dishes for hours as you walk – start with water from a water source in the mid-afternoon, and by dinner you have something that took 3 hours to get to the right texture. You can put black tape over your jar if you want to get the water warm on hot days (I've heard of this but never tried it).
For me, it's all about the simplicity. Even lighting up a cat stove at the end of the day or right after I woke up would seem like way too many steps. If I hike the CDT, I may bring a stove, probably a JetBoil, for the sections where melting snow is a primary water source, and the weather is extra-special cold (regularly below freezing). Otherwise, no stove for this guy for spring/summer/fall solo hiking outside the alpine zone.