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Drink Recipes

Hot Jell-O Drink: Classic Backpacking Recipe or Boiled Nightmare?

We dug up an old recipe from our archives and gave it another try. Here's which flavors stood the test of time, and which you should leave on the shelves.

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Sure, you’ve eaten Jell-O with a spoon, the way the universe and Kraft intended. But have you ever drank it from a mug?

In the fall 1974 issue of Backpacker, a reader named George Williams from Keokuk, Iowa, submitted a classic mountaineering recipe that he called an “instant hit.” The ingredients: hot water and Jell-O. Our staff passed it around with fascination. Could this sugary, hacked-together beverage possibly be good?

For a few months, we filed it away and mostly forgot about it. Then, our Pacific Crest Trail correspondent Patricia “Blackpacker” Cameron took the initiative to try it for herself. To our surprise, she agreed with recipe-submitter George: It was a hit.

My fellow Backpacker editors and I were shocked. By the sound of it, hot Jell-O drink doesn’t necessarily get me salivating. I assumed it would taste like boiled Gatorade and then somehow solidify in your stomach. But another part of me was curious to see if this underdog recipe might actually have something to it, like cheesy s’mores. I bought a few different flavors and got to work in the kitchen.

jello in mug
Pouring the Jell-O Drink into a mug. (Photo: Emma Veidt)

Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty good, assuming you get the flavors right. My favorites were berry blue, strawberry, and raspberry. They brought me back to my childhood, when Jell-O was a summer staple. This is all assuming you like sugar, of course: Although the flavors were enticing and nostalgic, the drink is so syrupy and sugary that I felt like I needed to write an apology letter to my dentist after a couple sips. The berry blue flavor was a notch below cloying, but the strawberry and raspberry weren’t so bad. George’s recipe doesn’t indicate a serving size, but three cups is an absurd amount for one or two people. It was so sweet that I wouldn’t want more than one mugful.

This isn’t a dealbreaker, though; you could adjust the ratio of Jell-O mix to water and find a solution for your palate. After a few rounds so sweet that they left my cheeks sore, I found that you could nix a quarter or a half of the Jell-O powder and still have a tasty drink.

If alcohol is your thing, the berry blue and strawberry flavors were tasty with a nip of Fireball added in. Patricia also recommended the berry blue flavor with apple whiskey (get the recipe below). If you have a dehydrator, I’d suggest adding dehydrated berries to make a fruity Jell-O sangria.

There are some caveats. Never, for the love of all things gelatin, use Jell-O’s vanilla pudding mix instead of its fruity desserts. Just because it’s the same brand doesn’t mean you’ll get the same result. For some reason, I thought it was going to be like a creamy backcountry milkshake or eggnog. Instead, I found myself choking down one of the grossest things I’ve ever eaten. It didn’t blend well, and the vanilla was so diluted that it was less like drinking pudding and more like slugging wallpaper paste while sniffing an air freshener. There’s no redeeming it.

Overall, this is something I’d be happy to try again. When I’m backpacking, I usually slurp on some miso soup, hot chocolate, or hot Nuun as a non-alcoholic aperitif before dinner. I thought my arsenal was pretty stacked, but it turns out there’s always room for a little Jell-O. Just not vanilla pudding. Never that.

Recipe: Patricia’s PCT Punch

Backpacker’s Pacific Crest Trail correspondent, Patricia “Blackpacker” Cameron, recommends this sweet sipper for cold nights. Makes 3 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 box blue raspberry Jell-O mix
  • 3 oz. Jack Daniels Tennessee Apple whiskey

Directions:

  1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add Jello mix and stir until combined
  2. Divide Jello mixture into three cups, add 1 oz. whiskey to each, and enjoy.

From 2022