Pass/Fail: Thru-Hike the Pacific Crest Trail Without a Stove

Can our PCT thru-hiker give up hot meals for 2,650 miles?
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Can our PCT thru-hiker give up hot meals for 2,650 miles?
Stoveless hike

Illustration by Jason Schneider

There are generally two things thru-hikers talk about on the trail: what goes into their bodies and what comes out. That made me a poor conversationalist on the PCT—at least half the time—when I decided to go stoveless and eat the simplest of meals.

My reasoning: First, I’d save the time and hassle of cooking (on a previous thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, my lack of appetite and energy for cooking left me calorie-deficient). Second, I’d trade the weight of cookware and fuel for things I could actually eat.

Plenty of thru-hikers have gone stoveless with great success, so getting advice was easy. Some of it was good, like cold Carnation instant breakfast mixed with chia seeds and instant coffee in the morning. Some I wasn’t brave enough to try, like Soylent, a meal-replacement beverage. Most stoveless vets suggested cold-soaking dehydrated food for about an hour for evening meals.

In a perfect world, I would have dehydrated five months’ worth of my favorite meals and mailed them to myself in resupply boxes. But when I became BACKPACKER’s 2016 PCT correspondent last spring, the hiking season was already looming. There was no time for extensive prep, so I did what I had to: ditched the resupply boxes and got creative with what I could buy in supermarkets and gas stations along the way. 

My plan worked through Southern California. My simple breakfast beverage made it easy to break camp fast, and all day I grazed on peanut M&M’s, meal bars, Pop-Tarts, Goldfish, and Snickers. I ate my rehydrated beans and rice and other stoveless meals in the afternoon when the desert sun ensured I basically had a hot meal every day. Win-win.

If only I was thru-hiking from Mexico to Mt. Whitney. Once I hit the mountains and consistently started hiking with one group of people, things got harder.

I was still eating my meals, but my jealousy was eating me. A hiker who went by the trail name Outro favored dehydrated meats and delicious-looking veggies. Sprinkles and Homegrown regularly had a Southwest-inspired quinoa dish that smelled like restaurant fare. When I could bum a bite of mac and cheese off Pineapple, the flavor was enough to make me fantasize about the PocketRocket stove I left at home.

But I wasn’t ready to wave the white flag. I added cold burritos of salami, cheese, and that miracle cure-all Tapatío hot sauce to my daily diet. For another 400 miles, I was once again satisfied and energized.

But by the time I hit South Lake Tahoe, mile 1,091, my resolve began to soften like cold-soaked oatmeal. On chilly nights, I missed hot chocolate. On hard mornings, I missed coffee. And I always missed macaroni and cheese.

I stared at other people’s food and imagined I was eating their meals while actually putting away another round of cold beans and rice. On one occasion, my leftovers fermented, and shoveling in that spoiled mush while Pineapple merrily munched her piping-hot mac and cheese was the last straw.

I sent for my stove and picked it up in Ashland, Oregon. On that first evening, I curled up in my sleeping bag and ate an entire pot of mac and cheese—a hot meal I didn’t have to trade for or share. I never missed another cooked dinner the rest of the way to Canada.

The Verdict: FAIL

Lack of diversity and general food envy made this attempt to go stoveless a bust. I would have had a better chance of success if I had a larger variety of meals, but the lack of hot chocolate and coffee might have still been my undoing. 

Four tips to help you kick the stove habit

Experiment at home.
Cold-soaking works best for dehydrated foods (not freeze-dried). Try beans, rice, lentils, couscous, mashed potatoes, and veggies like peas and corn.

Variety is key.
Plan a rotation of at least five meals to keep your taste buds interested. Carry a spice kit to turn those five meals into 10.

Plan ahead.
Shopping en route isn’t the best way to get cold-prep ingredients. Dehydrate your own meals, buy dried ingredients online, or get packaged meals.

Take a trial hike.
Can you make miles without hot morning coffee? Do you need something warm in your belly before bed? Going stoveless isn’t for everyone.