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Cold soaking is a method that ultralight backpackers use to save on weight and space in their packs when they are traveling. It might sound weird, but it makes sense. In this blog post, we will go over the process of cold soaking your gear and how you can add cold soaking to your backpacking routine.
It does make some changes in your food preparation before the trail as well as your gear on trail, food choices, and considerations about whether you like to use hot water for instant coffee or if cold water will work before you leave on your backpacking trip, making it an adjustment for most that may take a bit to adapt thoroughly.
What is Cold Soaking
Cold soaking is not new to the hiking world but has seen its popularity shift in recent years, with more hikers choosing it as their method to approaching the trail, so what is cold soaking backpacking?
To “cold soak” means you prepare food on the trail without a stove. This leads to less weight carried by dropping a stove and fuel for backpackers. Cold Soaking involves adding cold water, which softens foods that generally require heat to cook using time in the water to prepare them for consumption.
This is a simple and efficient way to eat when on a hike as you will want to start soaking foods sometimes an hour or more before mealtime, or you may be sad while everyone else is eating up.
So if this is so awesome and beloved by backpackers and hikers, why don’t all people choose to go stove-less and cold soak, you may wonder?
Why and When to Go Stoveless?
There are considerations you want to go through as to cold soaking. Whether something warm could be helpful to a hike, the most common would be facing cold temperature or lousy weather along with things like personal preference and then the social impact.
Considerations (Weather & Temperature)
Weather and conditions can play a huge role in whether you want to cold soak or not. If the weather is colder and stormy, it may benefit from packing something hot so that your meal will warm you up from the inside out.
This might include winter hiking where nights get below freezing and days are frigid, making for quite an uncomfortable hike than summer weather hikes where the cold soaking might be more beneficial.
Another consideration is hiking in a hot environment; if it’s summer and sweaty weather, then bringing something cold to eat might be nice instead of dehydrating yourself with heated food options.
Considerations (Personal Preference)
For many, a warm meal at the beginning or end of the day can be a favorite part of hiking, and cold-soaking might not be the best fit for them. And this is okay as ultralight hiking has many options to choose from. You just have to figure out what works well with your backpacking style.
Don’t allow pressure from others to change what makes you enjoy the trail. If you love to have hot food and drinks, then the correct answer for you is to bring along fuel and a stove to maximize your enjoyment!
Considerations (Social Aspect and Impact)
For many on a long-distance hike, there are some social implications if you avoid shelter areas and places where others get together to cook and prepare their meals.
Many hikers left on a thru-hike to learn more about themselves; the exciting part is much of this is known through interactions with others, so for most, you want to have these chances to make connections.
If you want to socialize still you can wait to eat your food until they have heated theirs, and this will change very little from your meal other than maybe a bit mushier.
How To Cold Soak Foods on Trail
To cut past all the helpful information below, if you are looking to start and think it must take a degree to understand this well here are the four simple steps required to cold soak food.
- Step 1: Get a jar that won’t leak (Especially When Sideways)
- Step 2: Add your water (Obviously Pre-Filtered)
- Step 3: Understand the Soak (cook) time for your food choice, some can be as little as 15 minutes to others being overnight.
- Step 4: Stir and mix up then enjoy it!
That’s it, this is as simple as cold soaking can be, and unless you are going for chef-style additions like powders, spices, or other additions it can be done fast and efficiently which is what has led to the growth in popularity.
Reasons For Cold Soakings Popularity Growth
There are loads of reasons why cold-soaking has gained in popularity, but here are some of the key factors that have thru-hikers everywhere taking notice:
Lighten Your Backpack
Dropping the cooking items from your pack can save you anywhere from a couple of ounces to over a pound depending on the can of fuel chosen, and that weight savings can quickly add up on long-distance hikes.
Less Fuel Stress
If you have carried fuel for multiple days before you know the worry the longer into the trip you are that you will run out, it happens and has happened to me!
On a long hike, this can be even more frustrating as you will be in town, and do you buy a whole new can, or is there enough in the can I already have to make it through to the next city?
This was enough of an irritant that I don’t bring a cooking system much anymore and prefer to learn new cold soak meal ideas instead.
Less time is spent in camp in the morning, lunch, and dinner as you don’t need time to set up cooking and preparations and the pack back up.
This means more time for relaxing, exploring side trails and doing other things you might not have otherwise taken the time to do if your day was full of cooking.
On some long-distance hikes, the time saved can be huge as you are spending less time in camp is more miles down the trail, which is a win.
You have to bring foods with you regardless of choosing to soak or cook, so if those parts are considered equal, then the cost savings on a soak method will be in the dramatic drop in fuel costs, which is typically one per 5-7 days.
For someone to eat without cooking there is dramatically little effort, you take your soak container, dump in the food, add water and then hike until ready, super simple and uncomplex.
For a cooker, you have to take out all the gear, connect the stove to the fuel, start the stove and then boil the water which then you add to the food and wait however long the food needs to be fully cooked.
Then once done you have to reverse out all these steps to clean up and store your cooking gear along with cleaning it all, face it, cold-soaking is just less effort at every point of a hike!
Unlike the above for cooking set up you only need to eat all your food out of your container then take some clean filtered water, spray into the food container, swish it around (or close the lid and give it a hard shake), then dump out the water, done.
Though on a side note, when in town I ALWAYS suggest using some dish soap or similar item to thoroughly wash out the container and remove any possible particles that could develop into gross things to your body.
If it is raining out you are not going to have any issues preparing your food still as the soak doesn’t need a stove and anything you can do to cut down the smells from camp the safer you and the animals will be from each other.
No Care on Local Fire Bans
If there are burn bans you will be unimpacted as you are not needing to cook anything, though on the other hand if you need to cook your food you are limited to what you can burn.
Fewer Smells to Attract Bears
Anyone who has stayed in the outdoors where bears live knows the danger they can present to you and others, so anything you can do to reduce your smells is a major benefit.
Cold soaking tends to permeate the air much less than the smells of cooking, so this is a great benefit to reduce bear interactions at all.
Drawbacks to Cold Soaking
Now it isn’t a solution for every need or for all hikers, there are a few negative things to consider with cold soaking that we will cover below to help you think deeper on the choice.
No Hot Meal or Drink Option
Unless you bring a metal container and make a campfire at an approved location you will have no way to make any hot meals or drinks, so this will be a complete cold meal and drink experience.
When you have a long hard day in driving rain you may like to have that heat in your belly, so this is something you want to think about and how you handle adversity.
Cold-soaking Takes Time
You can’t just choose to sit down and eat at a minute’s notice unless you started preparing your food before you will be left eating a bar or other quick meal options instead of a full meal.
So knowing when and where your group plans to stop and break for lunch, for example, matters to you as you would want to stop an hour beforehand to start your food soaking for the trek until the breakpoint so you do need to have some good planning.
Food Choices May Be Limited
There are just some foods that DON’T WORK for soaking, the foods you will eat are limited in options for the most part but this doesn’t stop them from being nutritious for you.
We will go over the most common foods for a soaker to eat later below but it isn;t going to be a game stopper for most people unless they are very interested in a food that is not good uncooked.
A Stove is Back-Up Water Purifier
If you should have issues with your filtration system, whether a BeFree like I use or other, having a stove and pot does give you the means to boil water to ensure that what you drink is safe and not filled with bugs to get you sick.
This would be in a desperation mindset though and that you have no other choice available to you, so really this is a Plan B if needed.
Boiling Helps Disinfect a Dirty Pot
Now I know people will always say their pot is clean but it is easy without a dishwasher and high-pressure water to miss some areas which can lead to many common illnesses from not being clean.
Boiling water in your pot after eating can help keep those bacteria numbers down and minimize the risk of illness.
Now that we have looked at the benefits and drawbacks of cold soaking let’s take a look at some additional tips and tricks that work great for the process.
Cold-Soaking Tips and Tricks
There are some good ninja tips for someone new to cold-soaking backpacking meals to help them make the right choices in gear and in managing a meal.
Unlike a dehydrated backpacking meal like Mountain House, you won’t always know the number of liquids and when food is ready without some trial and error which a pre-packaged backpacking meal would help with.
Choosing a Cold Soak Container
The first thing you want to do is find and use a container, for most who are just starting to test their ability with this style of eating I would start with the Talenti or peanut butter jar as they are cheap and easy to replace or throw away.
Plastics – Talenti Jar
These are in the freezer section in the grocery store, they are basically small ice cream containers but they have very little in the way of ridges along the sides making them easy to clean.
Additionally, since they come from a grocery store they are super simple to replace on the go once in town as you can throw away your old one and buy the new one providing yourself a treat along with a new container!
Plastics – Peanut Butter Jar
Very similar to the Talenti above, the additional benefit is that peanut butter is an exceptional trail food and provides loads of energy if you should leave and eat the peanut butter before using it for other foods you will have a solid snack plus option!
Also, this is super simple to replace since it is just a plastic container where you can always buy a new one in many places even as small as a gas station in many towns!
The Vargo BOT is an interesting option as it is metal and has an amazing screw-on lid that stays tight and gives you a leak-proof container with a seal, the only time I have heard of issues is removing the lid if you gain or lose altitude enough to cause a pressure differential.
These though also aren’t cheap but you are basically buying one that will last you a decade or longer if treated well which is much less of a cost when weighed out over a lifetime of use versus 100’s of $5 containers you will break or throw away making it the far best choice in a green eco-friendly option.
FDA approved TPU – CNOC BUC Food Bag
This is what I have moved to as Talenti containers were much too difficult to clean out for me consistently and the BOT is price prohibitive at the moment. This is a material similar to the larger water bags they make that has a closure slide to lock in the contents.
I have enjoyed using it and since it is a bag the clean-up is simple and easy by filling with water and a hard shake out and towel dry it is ready for the next use.
Adding Water to Your Food
You will need to learn to adjust the water in your food as some foods require much more water than others as they need to absorb more or they will end up crunchy and not too tasty.
Each food will differ though and over time you will mix and match more stuff into a single meal which means understanding where you should be and possibly checking to add more water, but when in doubt always useless as no one wants cold mushy soup instead of mashed potatoes.
You can always add more water but removing it is a whole different story!
Timing Your Meal Prep and Consumption
You will need to know when you want to start your meal but also when they are ready, if you do soak them for too long you will end up with very soft and mushy food, too little time and some foods will be hard still and have a hard tooth-breaking crunch.
Stir and Eat When Ready
Once you plan to eat always use a spoon, fork, or spork and mix all the contents around as some meals will have some spices or added items like ramen where all the spices may have stayed in. one place.
Mixing the food around ensures these get distributed as nothing stops me from wanting to eat like taking in a huge bite of the ramen mixture and having my tongue be attacked by the saltiest material invented!
Easy Cold Soaking Foods
So now that you know a lot about cold soaking and have a solid base of knowledge on it what are some of the foods that are frequently used and how to maximize the potential?
What are the Most Common Foods to Use?
The most common cold-soaking foods are those that are widely available and easily accessible like Ramen, Instant Mashed Potatoes, Oatmeal (instant preferred for speed), couscous, and much more.
Couscous – An easy to prep and cook food that can be made in a short period of time and is very flavor versatile working well with nearly any spices or additions.
Ramen Noodles – Everyone knows ramen, one of the most common trail foods you will see with a non-cooking approach. Ramen requires very little time to rehydrate and comes with a simple spice package that provides you that needed sodium you sweat out on the trail!
Rice Noodles – These are very similar to ramen but are liked by some over ramen they can become mushy fast though if oversoaked.
Oatmeal – This is a solid breakfast staple but you need to be certain you get the instant if you want any chance of not starting it the night beforehand as many oatmeals can be hours and hours and hours to be ready for consumption.
Instant Rice (Think Minute Rice) – The instant rice can work well as it is already ready minus the needing to rehydrate to be edible but be aware that it will not have the same texture as if you were to cook regular rice.
Instant Potatoes – I grew up on these, but they are so much fancier now with a range of flavors on their own. The nice thing is you can now pair these with another item and build flavor mixes that can make your mouth water!
I love to mix these with ramen and a packet of bbq or spicy chicken (or maybe spam) as they make for a perfect match together to hit all those hunger needs and a flavor blast!
Dehydrated Beans (Personally I prefer refried beans) – The perfect food with some tortillas from town can make for a great meal with very little weight and a high value of taste! Think about sneaking out some Taco Bell sauces and maybe some cheese and you have an instant bean burrito or four!
Frequent Spices, Flavorings, Condiments
There is a load of options for adding flavor to your food as a cold soaker, some are as simple as adding soy sauce (or teriyaki), salt, pepper, Tabasco sauce, or a range of dehydrated ingredients, along with protein powder or other nutritional boosters.
Others may want to get a bit more creative with their flavors and add in sriracha, various salsas, powdered garlic/onion mixes, different mustards, or even pesto which can transform a meal from bland to fantastic!
Olive Oil – A simple way to add some valuable calories the longer you get into the trail and when energy becomes a bigger need. Plus, it makes everything taste better!
Dehydrated Fruits or Freeze-Dried Fruits – Fruits have a wide value of additional nutrients that are missing in many hiker diets, bringing these into your meal can help provide some more balanced nutrients that you may be lacking and give a great boost of flavor.
Sriracha Packets – I love these as they are a great way to add some spice and heat in a hurry plus the packets tend to last a long time without taking up much space.
Any Fast Food Packets – In general, you will have many options along the trail for fast food options and most of them tend to sport something that lends itself to travel use, adding a few Taco Bell hot sauces can lend some more flavor to those bean burritos I PROMISE!
Final Thoughts on Cold Soaking
Cold-soaking meals are a great way to save time when backpacking. It can be done with anything from instant mashed potatoes, ramen noodles, oatmeal packets, couscous, along with other dehydrated meals giving you a variety of foods!
Your foods will typically include things like dehydrated beans, frequent spices, or flavorings that add nutrition and taste like sriracha sauce packets. These packs also last for an extended amount of time without taking up much space in your pack.
This concludes the crash course of cold soaking 101 and the most important things you need to know before getting started. As always if you have any questions be sure to reach out and I will do my best to help you out!