organic vegetarian meals for the trail

How to Cook when Backpacking

cooking pasta with a backpacking stoveWhether you have recently started backpacking or are a veteran, you could probably benefit from a few cooking tips.

First, we’ll describe the common method that backpackers use when cooking dried foods and strategies you can use to conserve your cooking fuel when using a backpacking stove. This method of cooking is a great concept and works well both on and off the trail. We call it boil-soak cooking. It is extremely efficient because it uses less fuel and water.

Boil Soak Cooking Instructions – boil water first

  1. Set up your backpacking stove. Find a spot to cook on level ground that is insulated from wind.
  2. Add the required amount of water to the cooking pot and light your stove.
  3. Put a lid on the cook pot and bring the water to a rolling boil.
  4. Quickly stir in the meal ingredients and close the lid tightly. Note: You can also pour the boiling water directly into a thermos if you want to keep your pot clean, or need it to make something else.
  5. Turn off the stove and insulate around the cooking pot to retain as much heat as possible. Use a fleece jacket, hat or pot cozy. Insulating the cook pot is optional, but does speed up the hydration time — especially in cold weather.
  6. Leave it alone to rest at least 10 minutes, or as instructed on the dehydrated meal.  Items such as pasta or instant rice may take longer, up to 15 minutes. Do not open the lid to peek inside!

This strategy cooks the food the same way as if it were sitting in the cook-pot boiling the entire time, burning away precious fuel. The only caveat to the boil-soak method is that you’ll need to adjust the amount of water you use when cooking standard household food products (non-trail) sold at grocery stores. Standard cooking instructions are based on the fact that you’ll use no lid and much of the boiling water will be lost through evaporation, or you’ll drain off the pasta water, etc. With the boil-soak method, the steam is absorbed into the food to help it cook, rather than dissipate away into the atmosphere. This means less water and fuel are used during cooking because 1) less water is evaporated out from a sustained boil and 2) the pot cover keeps the heat retained inside the cooking vessel.

Watery Meals? Do not drain off any surplus cooking water if the meal is watery; find a use for it or drink the broth, rather than lose the precious nutrients. If the entrée is too soupy, grab some bread to soak up the excess liquid. Boil-and-soak cooking works on most food products, such as dried pasta, instant/freeze-dried/dehydrated foods. It is most suited for meals that are the one-pot variety, or where all the ingredients are pre-combined and added in one shot.

Alternative Cooking Method – add food to cold water 

You can combine the cold water and food together first and then bring it to a boil (covered of course). The problem with this method is that it that it makes clean-up more difficult. It is not recommended for thick saucy dishes, as it tends to splatter all over the lid and get caked onto the pot. It is better suited for soups or stews.

Pre-soaking food to speed up (or eliminate) cooking

You can soak ingredients in cold water while hiking or sleeping to greatly lessen cooking time and fuel use. This does take extra discipline in meal planning, but the added fuel savings make it worth the effort. It works best when you know what you want to eat a few hours ahead of time or want to eat foods that have not been pre-cooked and dried.

Start off by soaking the meal in a pot of cold water. Dump the ingredients into a wide-mouth water bottle or thermos and pour enough water to cover the meal. The soak time can range from a few minutes to an entire night. The longer the soak time, the faster the food will cook.

Decide you want a hot dinner when you stop to eat lunch? While you have your food pack handy, take the extra step to get out the dinner meal and allow it to soak while you are walking. It will slosh around a bit at first, but will gradually thicken as you hike. When you are ready to eat: Turn on the stove and warm up the meal. Want a hot bowl of thick oats for dinner, rather than the instant variety? Soak your oats before you go to bed and warm them up in the morning, or eat them raw. Most dried meals don’t require pre-soaking, it just a way to conserve fuel or remove phytic acid (see below). It is intended for less-processed or whole grain foods. Split lentils, pasta, thick rolled oats, quinoa, amaranth, couscous, and rice are some possible candidates. You can also pre-soak dried trail foods when conserving fuel is a priority.

No-Cook Backpacking

Maybe you don’t want to carry a backpacking stove, or you ran out of fuel and finished off all your fresh food, crackers, and granola bars. There are a few dry food ingredients that can be prepared without using a stove at all. We can’t promise a hearty experience, as warm food is comforting to many of us, but it is a viable option to enjoy a calorie-dense meal without a stove. You’ll have to soak the food in cold water. Some ingredients that work well for soaking –

  • Rolled oats – old-fashioned or regular oats work well; you do not need to succumb to the instant variety. Soak about 15 minutes.
  • Couscous – the morrocan style (looks like cornmeal) works well by soaking in cold water. Soak at least 15 minutes and they’ll fluff up.
  • Instant Noodles – we have never tried it ourselves, but hear it works fine in cold water. Anyone know how much time this takes?
  • Other pre-cooked & dried ingredients – any food items that are dehydrated, freeze-dried or “instant” should work; these foods are fully or partially cooked prior to drying and will need adequate time to soak in water in order to rehydrate.
  • Chia Seed – mix into water and dried fruit (for flavor) and soak 10 minutes. It will form into a pudding; if you are desperate, you can soak in plain water, but it will have almost no flavor.

Phytic Acid & Soaking

A benefit to soaking grains before cooking is that it makes them easier to digest and improves your ability to absorb the nutrients. The hulls of whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contains a substance called phytic acid (phytates), which binds to calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium in your digestive tract. When these minerals bind to phytic acid, they become insoluble and are prevented from entering your blood. Soaking or sprouting helps to neutralize phytic acid in grains and prevent such binding from occurring in your digestive tract.

Now, we’ll cover strategies to Conserve Cooking Fuel when Backpacking.

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1 thought on “How to Cook when Backpacking”

  • Thanks for the good tips on soaking food before hand. I hadn’t thought of this idea but it makes a lot of sense. Especially important when trying to conserve fuel. Another option is to use one of the many wood burning backpacking stoves out there.

    Of course these are only good when you have enough woody material to make a fire and you don’t mind putting in a little extra work stoking the fire. I will try out your soaking method while hiking next time we are out on the trail.

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