The Best Cold-Soak, Stoveless Backpacking Meals

By Joshua Davis •  Updated: 08/17/22 •  16 min read

My wife thinks I’m gross.

As a family who cooks from scratch on an almost daily basis, we typically have a good supply of leftovers in the fridge that make for a great lunch the next day.

While my wife will take the time to preheat the oven and let her leftover lunch slowly reheat to culinary perfection, I prefer to eat for function’s-sake and get back to work.

In other words, I won’t think twice about eating leftovers cold straight out of the fridge: hamburgers, shepherd’s pie, rotisserie chicken and roasted broccoli … you name it.

If it’s already cooked, then down the hatch!

This usually earns me a few dry heaves from Heather if she happens to come into the kitchen while I’m scarfing down last night’s lasagna at 38°F for brunch.

On the trail, I’m the same way. Taking the time to cook a meal and cleaning up after burns precious daylight that I would rather spend exploring. I prefer to eat for function.

When I’m solo backpacking, 9 times out of 10 I’m eating cold food. And, from experience, I can tell you that cold doesn’t have to mean bland, boring, or gross.

Here are some of my favorite simple stoveless backpacking meals and cold-soak recipes that even my wife’s cultured palette approves of. Bon appétit!

Pre-Fab Dehydrated Meals That You Can Cold-Soak

If you’re in a hurry and need some quick stoveless backpacking meals, these prefab dehydrated food options actually rehydrate quite nicely in cold water.

Wilderness Tip: We strongly recommend NOT trying to cold soak meals from Backpacker’s Pantry or Mountain House. Even though we avoided meals with rice and pasta in them, they still assaulted our gag reflex with the lumpy, chunky, chalky results after hours of soaking.

1. Energy and Protein Bars

Soak Time: None

Recommended Method: Tear it open; wolf it down.

Except for a cup of instant coffee, I generally prefer not to prep breakfast on a beautiful backpacking morning. I just want to hit the trail!

For those mornings when time is too precious for even an easy cold soak (or you forgot to prep it the night before), I recommend these tasty and nutrient-packed meal-in-a-bars:

2. Quaker Instant Oatmeal or Instant Grits

Soak Time: 30 minutes

Recommended Method: I’ll be the first to say that these need a little boost to give you the nutrients you need for a day of backpacking. I recommend packing a small container of nut butter and freeze-dried fruits to add to the soaking process. Add however much you desire, just increase the water a little to compensate.

Wilderness Tip: Need a jolt? Add a packet of instant coffee to your oatmeal!

3. Ichiban Ramen Instant Noodles

Soak Time: 30 minutes

Recommended Method: Reduce the amount of prescribed water by half to enjoy the noodles without the broth being too diluted. For more calories and enhanced texture, add a packet of olive oil with the water in the beginning.

For an added kick, add a packet of Sriracha when you’re ready to eat!

4. Lotus Food’s Millet and Brown Rice Ramen

Soak Time: 20-30 minutes

Recommended Method: As with the Ichiban Ramen Noodles, we recommend half the water; but, it’s up to personal preference. This ramen is pretty flavor-packed; however, we always recommend the added nutrients of an olive oil packet and the kick of Sriracha.

5. Idahoan Instant Mashed Potatoes

Soak Time: 1-2 minutes

Recommended Method: Pre-measure your desired servings of instant mashed potatoes into a sealable plastic bag and write the required amount of water on the outside with a Sharpie. At meal time, pour in the water let soak, and stir.

For added creaminess and a boost of nutrients, add a packet of mayonnaise or some nutritional yeast (don’t knock it ’til you try it) or enjoy it with a few links of dried sausage or beef jerky.

6. Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods Creamy Soups

Soak Time: 10-20 minutes

Recommended Method: Remove the dry soup contents from the cup and store them in a sealable plastic bag to conserve space. Notate the amount of needed water on the outside of the bag with a permanent marker. Prepare by pouring your meal jar and adding water. Stir thoroughly and soak for 10-20 minutes.

I recommend supplementing this meal with some dried sausage, jerky, or salami. It’s a great way to greet the end of the day

Cold-Soaked Breakfast Ideas

1. Cold Brew Instant Coffee

Soak Time: 1 minute

Coffee is the most important meal of the day.

I’ll be the first to say that it is not as soothing as a hot cup, especially in the chilly season. Still, that caffeine jolt is a welcome buzz any morning.

Use any instant coffee you take a liking to. I recommend Taster’s Choice, personally. Follow the package directions (except for the hot water part, obviously). Shake well to dissolve all the crystals.

2. Rolled Oats with Fruit

Soak Time: 15-30 minutes

1/2 c. rolled oats
1/4 c. powdered milk
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp vanilla powder
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
Freeze-dried fruit of choice (recommend apples, blueberries, or strawberries)

Pre-mix all the dry ingredients in a sealable plastic bag. Fifteen to 30 minutes before mealtime, mix in a jar with 5-6 oz. of water. Stir well and allow to soak. For a softer consistency, allow cold soaking longer, up to 2 hours.

4. Instant Potato and Sausage Breakfast Tacos

Soak Time: 30 min – 1 hour

NutriStore Freeze-Dried Sausage Crumbles
Idahoan Instant Potatoes
Tortillas or Naan Bread

I would prefer eggs in my breakfast tacos; but, the result of cold-soaking powdered eggs was … gag-inducing.

The sausage crumbles will need to be rehydrated long before the potatoes; so, get them started while you’re breaking camp. Setting them in the sun will speed the process along. Add the potatoes just before meal time. Stir well.

Enjoy them with a spoon or a tortilla.

5. Granola, Berries, and Milk

Soak Time: A few minutes

The Granola Bakery KETO Granola Cereal
Freeze-dried fruit mix (from your grocery store’s bulk section)
All American Whole Milk Powder

I’ll eat this for any meal of the day!

Prepare the milk by mixing the milk powder and water in the jar and giving it a good shake (watch for clumps). Add the granola and fruit. I personally enjoy the crunch of freeze-dried fruit; so, I recommend digging in immediately.

Easy Cold-Soaked Dinner Ideas

Ah, the meal at the end of a long day of traipsing through the wilderness! It’s here that forgoing a hot meal may mean the most sacrifice, especially in the colder seasons.

Still, cold-soak backpacking recipes can fill the stomach and tantalize the tastebuds if done right.

Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Sleep-Alone Rice and Beans (with Fritos)

Soak Time: Up to 2 hours

Mexicali Rose Instant Homestyle Refried Beans
Knorr Spanish Instant Rice
Chili Cheese Fritos

I didn’t pre-measure any of the ingredients in this meal. I just packed the whole package of dehydrated beans, several packets of rice, and Fritos, and mixed them on the fly. Feel free to pre-mix these in Ziplocs before your trip if necessary.

We had it several nights in a row.

And, we slept alone.

If you don’t get it, you will.

You’ll want to begin soaking the rice way ahead of time to ensure it rehydrates. Do NOT eat rice that is not fully rehydrated … it’s difficult for your stomach to digest.

If in doubt about the rice, just double up on the beans and pour them over the Fritos. you can also substitute Couscous for the rice which rehydrates easier.

Wilderness Tip: Dehydrated rice can be a bit tricky to rehydrate, especially in colder temps. Consider soaking the rice earlier in the day and placing it in an outer pocket of your pack to let the sun get to it. Add the beans as meal time draws closer.

2. Couscous, Kale Chips, and Dried Sausage or Salami

Soak Time: 30 minutes

Near East Herbed Chicken Couscous Mix
Rhythm Organic Kale Chips
Mother Earth Freeze-Dried Vegetable Soup Mix (Optional)
Foustman’s Naturally-Cured Salami

A high-calorie feast in primitive backpacking terms to be sure: this is a favorite of mine.

The couscous and kale chips can be enjoyed as-is, or combined with the freeze-dried veggies for added flavor and nutrition. Pre-measure the couscous and vegetables in separate bags according to desired servings ahead of time.

Combine the veggies and water according to the package directions and let steep for at least 30 minutes.

Add the couscous and additional water (follow packet instructions) 10 minutes before meal time.

The sausage or salami is there for extra protein and flavor. I prefer Foustman’s, as it is all-natural with no nitrates or preservatives, but you can use whatever brand suits your fancy.

3. Hummus with Tahini and Naan Bread

Soak Time: 5 minutes

Sadaf Hummus Mix with Tahini
Toufayan Bakery Original Naan Flatbread
Mother Earth Freeze-Dried Vegetable Soup Mix (Optional)

A simple, stoveless meal that will leave you stuffed, this one is a favorite of mine when I’m short on time or energy.

Just follow the package directions for the hummus mix, adding water as directed. Then, tear off a piece of naan bread, and dip away!

For added nutrition and flavor, mix in some freeze-dried vegetables with the hummus. Be sure to add additional water to compensate. I recommend pre-measuring the dry ingredients into sealable bags before your trip.

Tortillas or bagels are also good if Naan bread is hard to find.

4. Couscous, Smoked Salmon, and Veggies

Soak Time: 30 minutes

Near East Herbed Chicken Couscous Mix
Mother Earth Freeze-Dried Vegetable Soup Mix (Optional)
EPIC Smoked Salmon Strips

For this meal, I combine the veggies and couscous into single serving bags and notate the necessary water with a Sharpie.

While you can cold-soak the Salmon with the couscous/veggie mixture, I prefer the strips by themselves. If you choose to soak the salmon, cut it up into small pieces to ensure they soften nicely.

No-Cook and No-Soak Backpacking Food Ideas

If you’re through-hiking the Appalachian Trail or PCT, it’s important to scrutinize your meal prep to ensure you are getting sufficient nutrients and packing the ideal calorie-to-weight ratio.

For shorter trips (a week or less), however, preparing a backpacking meal can be as easy as tearing into a bag of loaded trail mix, crunching on some freeze-dried veggies and fruit (more satisfying than one might think), and gnawing on some beef jerky.

Here are some of my favorite no-prep meals that keep things ultra-simple when I’m out for a few days or want to use less water:

Before any backpacking or camping trip, I always pay a visit to the bulk section of my local grocer. In most grocery stores, there’s a wide array of nut and fruit mixes (as well as candy to sweeten the deal a bit) to help keep a variety in your meal plan.

Purpose to try something new each time. You may find a new favorite!

Best Containers for Cold-Soaking Backpacking Meals

Cold-soaking your meals means you’ll most likely be adding water to your meal the night before (if prepping breakfast) or while you’re still on the trail a few hours ahead of dinner time.

It goes without saying, you’ll need a tough, leak-proof, reusable container that won’t allow your meal to escape and play havoc with the contents of your backpack en route.

Empty Peanut Butter Jar: Depending on your appetite, you can go for the typical 18 oz. jar at your local grocery store, or, for the more ravenous, I recommend the COSTCO Kirkland’s 28 oz. Organic Peanut Butter jar.

Just make sure the opening is wide enough to get your hand in there to clean it out and that it’s not too tall for your eating utensil to reach the dregs.

Empty Talenti Gelato Jar: While I haven’t tried one myself, this 11.4 oz. jar has been recommended by several backpacking bloggers for its large mouth opening and compact size.

For me, it’s too small for a meal; but, for those backpackers that don’t exceed 200 lbs. and 6’4″, it may be just the thing. If you want something larger, buy the 1-quart jar.

The Freedom of Going Stoveless

The truth is, I didn’t choose to go stoveless because I dislike cooking or because I have a strange affinity for eating cold food.

I go stoveless because it’s simply more convenient as well as time-and-cost effective. It’s one less thing to pack and one less thing to worry about when I’m out on the trail.

1. Save Money and Weight

While butane canisters aren’t the most expensive backpacking supply item, they’re still an added expenditure, take up a relatively large amount of space (even empty), and, combined with the stove assembly, cook pot, and accessories add a significant amount of weight to your pack.

Stove cooking also requires you to take along more water for clean-up which is the heaviest supply item per capita for a backpacker.

Plus, ultralight cooking gear can be costly.

Leave the stove; lighten your load; save some chedda’!

2. Save Time and Energy

Time is a precious commodity on the trail. If you’re like me, then every waking minute is spent trying to maximize your enjoyment by squeezing in as much mileage and exploration as possible.

The last thing I want to do at the end of a long day of hiking is spend 30+ minutes squatting over a butane burner, making sure the beef stroganoff doesn’t permanently scorch itself into my cooking pot only for me to sit scraping and cursing it clean when I could be star gazing.

Can you say, “Run-on sentence?”

3. Less Tech, Less to Go Wrong

I go camping and backpacking to simplify my life. I’m not trying to recreate my home kitchen in the woods.

The less tech I have to rely on, the fewer opportunities there are for things to go wrong.

I’ve seen it happen time and time again: a camper’s stove fails them when they need it most, leaving them feeling frustrated, angry, and hangry!

I’ve never had my cold-soak meals go bad on me.

Also if you’re looking for more of an adventure and to become a more resourceful outdoorsman-slash-woman, then going stoveless is a great way to spice up your trip and force you to get creative with your food options.

What is Cold-Soaking?

The term “cold-soaking” is a bit of a misnomer because, technically, you’re not supposed to let your food soak in water that’s below 70°F.

However, for all intents and purposes, “cold-soaking” refers to the process of rehydrating backpacking meals without using heat.

You simply add water to your dry ingredients, seal it up, and let the mixture sit for a few hours (or overnight) until the food rehydrates.

It’s that simple!

The Down-Side of Going Stoveless

To every good thing, there is a trade-off, and cold-soaking your meals and going stoveless have theirs.

The most obvious is the lack of hot food and drinks.

There’s something special about sipping on a piping hot cup of coffee in the morning or savoring a steaming bowl of chili after a long day on the trail, but, alas, the joys of a warm meal are best left to stove-cooking backpackers.

Another potential downside is the increased amount of packaging waste that goes along with pre-packaged, dehydrated meals (unless, of course, you DIY your own).

Finally, going stoveless means you’re forgoing a convenient way to purify water from a natural water source, sterilize bandages, or boil the funk out of those socks when the need arises.

That being said, going stoveless may not be the best idea on longer trips when the need for hot water may be more likely and frequent.

If You Backpack Frequently, Get a Dehydrator!

Yes, upfront, it’s a relatively large expense; however, in the long run, it’s worth it!

Not only will you save money by making your own stoveless meals, but you’ll also have the ability to customize them to your liking and dietary needs.

Additionally, dehydrating your own food is much healthier than buying pre-packaged, processed options from the store. It also makes the food you pack much lighter!

We recommend two models for your kitchen:

1. COSORI Food Dehydrator

An extremely popular food dehydrator, the 6-tray COSORI is great for those who want to dehydrate large quantities of food at once.

The clear glass front door lets you see the progress of your dehydration, and the digital control panel makes it easy to set the timer in 30-minute increments for up to 48 hours.

The dehydrator comes with 6 stainless steel trays, 1 mesh screen, 1 fruit roll sheet, 1 manual, and 1 recipe, and is made with food-grade stainless steel and a glass front door.

It’s also quiet to use, with noise levels recorded at less than 48dB. Plus, the trays are dishwasher-safe, and the whole unit comes with a 1-year warranty.

If you like the idea of having a COSORI Dehydrator, but prefer something more compact and less-expensive, check out the smaller COSORI 165 5-Tray Dehydrator.

2. Samson Silent Dehydrator

For those needing a dehydrator with more capacity, the Samson Silent Dehydrator is the way to go!

With its 6.5 square feet of dehydrating space, this dehydrator can handle larger batches or accommodate larger items like fillets.

The Samson Silent Dehydrator also features an automatic fan for consistent drying and preventing overheating, as well as a top vent and door that work together for consistent heat and airflow.

Plus, the Samson Silent Dehydrator has a clear panel that slides securely in place, allowing you to monitor the progress of your food as it dries.

Finally, the dehydrator includes an impressive eight temperature settings (95ºF-158ºF) and a timer that range from 0:30 minutes to 19:30 hours, in 30-minute increments.

What’s included:

The Samson Silent Dehydrator is BPA-free and endorsed by the Vibrant Health Institute.

More As It Comes …

Truth be told, I haven’t been going stoveless for very long and my experience is fraught with trial-and-error. I’ve learned that, until I master backpacking without a stove, I should take one along … just in case of a culinary disaster.

And it has. It’s nice to have a backup.

What I will say, however, is that going stove-less has definitely taught me to be more resourceful and creative with my meals.

I’ve also found that I’m much more mindful of how much food I’m packing … because every ounce counts when you’re carrying everything on your back!

As I learn and discover more, I’ll add it to this post.

So, if you’re feeling adventurous and are up for a challenge, ditch the stove on your next backpacking trip.

You might just surprise yourself with what you’re able to create.

Joshua Davis

Being outdoors is freedom! Being outdoors with my wife and two boys is LIVING! Whether in my backyard or getting lost in a National Park, there’s nothing I’d rather do than explore, discover, and experience the paradise that surrounds us. Give me my family, a backpack, and a trail and my life is full!