7 Reasons Why Cooking on Trail is Overrated

Before we dive in here, I just want to make it clear that I’m not one of these anti-stove, cold-soaking-lightweight fanatics. It’s just that I’m really content without a stove. In fact, I think the simplicity of having but a lone sack of non-perishable food to keep myself alive, with no combustion or fancy gadgets required to eat it, gives me a unique sense of bliss.

I feel drawn to my core as a being knowing my inventory is rudimentary. I want others to feel this. So if you’re someone who has been contemplating ditching the stove, but just can’t bring yourself to do it, I recommend giving this a read. It may just be the justification you need.

1. It Takes up Unnecessary Weight and Space

Cooking on Trail

This one is obvious, but if you don’t want to hang gear outside of your pack, saving space can be crucial. Either way you look at it, though, a canister, especially a full one, a stove, and a pot are three items that’s weight accumulates. I suppose this wasn’t the deciding factor for me, but it’s still a point, and when I’m struggling to squeeze everything in my backpack after a fresh resupply, I’m glad there’s not a stove sitting at the bottom. For many resupplies on the Pacific Crest Trail, I know I wouldn’t have had room to fit everything had I had one. 

2. Deprivation of Food on Trail Makes it That Much Sweeter in Town

Cooking on Trail

Seriously. Do you really need to have hot food on trail? I think not. Let hot food be your motivation. It’s a tactic that works greatly for me. I understand that some people just hate the things that allow for a stove-free diet, such as tuna, spam, ramen, and peanut butter, but if you don’t mind these foods, give it a shot. Your food not being warm doesn’t make it any less sustenant. Oh, and the vast majority of block cheeses at markets are not as perishable as you may think. I’ve rationed some of these blocks for over a week’s time. Let cheese be your friend.  

3. It’s Just as Monotonous as Not Cooking

Cooking on Trail

A common argument I’ve heard in opposition to the stoveless life is the undesirable monotony the diet requires. Here’s the thing though: most meals that can be boiled can also be cold-soaked. I never even cold-soaked until late into my PCT hike, and still I only soak ramen. I’m normally repulsed by the idea of meals cold that are intended to be hot, but I found the saltiness of ramen strong enough to overpower the unappealing temperature. My point, though, is that you don’t even need to cold-soak to spice up (no pun intended) the variety in your diet. 

I survive on wraps and bagel sandwiches, for the most part. I supplement with nut butters, protein bars, and snacks, but these lunch items are really what fuels my drive. Over time, I’ve become increasingly innovative with these sandwiches, trying almost every flavor Starkist has to offer, and even experimenting with condiments like mayonnaise and McDonald’s sweet and sour sauce.

My favorite concoction is an overstuffed bagel sandwich with tuna, cheese, crushed Doritos, mayonnaise, hot sauce, spinach, pepperoni, and spam, all wrapped in a tortilla. Sound gross? Don’t knock it until you try it. Monotony is only the result of your lack of ingenuity. Be creative.   

Just like tuna, there are only so many flavors of ramen and other dehydrated noodle meals, and I wouldn’t exactly argue eating couscous and Idahoan instant potatoes for every meal is a varied diet either. 

4. Reliance on Fuel and Water Can Be a Logistical Nightmare

Cooking on Trail

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me something like, “Oh, so you’re dry camping?” I would probably have enough money to write and publish an extensive essay on how easy dry camping is when you don’t cook. And that’s what I love: I only need water for hydration.

This replenishment is also unhindered by my lack of desire for sugary drinks. Hydration is the new craze these days. With supplements like Mio, Nuun, and Liquid IV flooding the grocery stores, hikers feel that water is no longer enough. As someone who has never (seriously, never) packed out anything to add to my water, I can assure you water is enough.

If you eat food throughout the day like you’re supposed to, you will maintain your needed electrolytes. So stop tainting your water. It’s beautiful just the way it is. And of course, without a stove or these packets, you’ll need less water. Water is life, and it’s not everywhere. I’m sure you’d feel foolish if you couldn’t eat because of your lack of it.

Retaining fuel is another necessity of cooking. I’ve seen a handful of hikers run out of fuel in the middle of a trail section, requiring them to eat their food dry (no thanks) or cold-soaked. Fuel can’t be found everywhere. On the Appalachian Trail, we had to take a detour into the town of Kent, Connecticut because we ran out of it. The only place that sold them was the hardware store, and their supply was meager. The clerk who assisted me told me they wouldn’t have carried them if it weren’t for hikers.

It’s not easy to measure fuel levels. I’ve seen hikers do all kinds of things like shaking their pods or putting them in water to evaluate their levels. You also can’t fly with fuel pods, so if air travel is how you’re getting to the terminus of your hike, you’ll need to have a pit stop planned to grab some along the way.

5. Stoves are Dangerous

Cooking on Trail

With just a small amount of education and common sense, stoves are not much of a hazard. Still, there are occurrences every year of hikers being harmed from these pressurized gas receptacles, and not always is the user at fault.

In New York, I lit a stove that emitted massive, neon-orange flames with black smoke spooling from them. This caused me to throw the stove which ultimately led to me being on fire. This deterrent of my use of stoves is more post-traumatic than rational, sure, but the canisters can still fail. They are inflammable, and the gases in them are toxic.

For the full story on this, check out the “Stove Explosion” anecdote on last week’s blog:


6. It’s Time Consuming and Labor Inducing

Cooking on Trail

When I joined my friends in southern California for a break on the side of the trail and they pulled their stoves out, I had to hold back my cringe. These guys were doing low miles, and right then I realized why: they were pulling out their dang stoves every time they stopped. I don’t think I have to explain why cooking takes time, but it’s a lot of work, and who wants to do more work than they already have to do?

Not only do you have to boil water and then cook the food until it’s soft, but you also have to clean up your dishes afterwards, which can (harrumph) require more water. I suppose the “cooking in the bag” approach can save you the mess here, but most bags from hiker dinners are not conducive to this.  

7. It’s Not Real Cooking

Cooking on Trail

Let’s be honest. If you’re boasting on your ability to cook on trail, I’m going to wonder how you perform in the real kitchen. “Cooking” while backpacking is likely just boiling water and adding things to it. I’ve seen people get decadent with the spices and hot sauces and what not, but come on—let’s be real here. It’s not real cooking.

And even if you prepared a bevy of gourmet dehydrated meals before your journey to be sent out one resupply at a time, the magic didn’t happen on trail. It was done in the kitchen. There’s no culinary merit to firing up a pocket rocket and stirring noodles. 

Ditch the stove. 

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Published by Nicholas J. Devlin

I'm a freelance writer from western Massachusetts. Horror, comedy, and all the unholy things my parents told me to stay away from are my favorite. Oh and I like the outdoors. boomsplayground.com/ fulldarkfever.com

8 thoughts on “7 Reasons Why Cooking on Trail is Overrated

  1. I switched over to cold-soaking in 2019 and I haven’t gone back. I carry an alcohol stove and some fuel as an emergency back-up, but even in the cold & once getting rained on for a week straight I haven’t missed hot food enough to go back to boiling water regularly.

    I bought a food box from Garage Grown Gear last year, and I still haven’t used all the food. One of the meals requires 700 ml of boiling water. The meal contains 1000 kCal. I can accomplish that with dehydrated brownie batter hummus, coconut oil, a package of graham crackers, and 2 fl ounces of water.

    My one regret? I’d figured out how to make chicken & dumplings on a backpacking stove just a few months before I gave up cooking on the trail.

  2. Good stuff.

    My son was in another Boy Scout troop before our current one, where two grown men seemed to have this unwritten competition to see which could cook better meals for the adults (this was regular camping, not backpacking BTW). After I volunteered to do breakfast for one winter trip and got micromanaged, I figured out that they were a bit territorial about the whole thing, so on future trips I just sat back and reaped all the benefits as they tried to outdo each other. It was kind of fun.

    By contrast, when my son and I are on our own, our approach to regular tent camping meals is pretty simple, and backpacking is even simpler. But I admit I like having the stove. For one thing, I must have my hot coffee in the morning just to get my butt up the trail. And for another, it gives us something to do in camp and a bit of structure to our day – which is good when you have a young teen backpacker in tow. So I admit I am not about to give up my PocketRocket2 all that easily, and we’ve also enjoyed farting around with homemade alcohol stoves when just heating water for freeze-dried stuff. However, I totally agree that cooking is overrated. We keep things pretty simple and are not out there to show off. We also seldom heat anything but my coffee for breakfast (cold pop tarts, anyone?), and sometimes even lunch is stove-less.

    So far, our longest trip has had us out on the trail for four nights, so that helps make the stove a more reasonable proposition.

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad to know these posts have been helpful. We are actively looking for writers with outdoor experience to write both guest blogs and routine articles. Writers earn all ad revenue garnered from their posts. If interested, email us an introduction at boomsplayground@gmail.com with your outing background, writing publications (if any), and at least one idea for an article. Short stories are also applicable.

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