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Ultralight Backpacking

Cut Your Pack Weight, Not Your Calories, With Cold-Soaked Trail Meals

Pare down your kit by leaving your stove and fuel at home.

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Ultralight hikers are always looking for ways to save precious grams and cut pack weight. Even after springing for a frameless pack, a trekking-pole shelter, and a super-packable quilt, though, you may find yourself still above your ideal weight. Consider this, then: You can ditch your stove and fuel, but still get all the nutrition you need on the trail.

No, we’re not suggesting that you scavenge grubs, pine needles, bark, and dandelions, though we’re sure some ultralighters would if it would save them a few ounces. Cold-soaking your meals will provide you with filling, full-calorie fare, as long as you don’t mind forgoing the luxury of hot food. Plus, even the lightest kitchen setups can weigh upwards of 10 ounces.

At its heart, cold-soaking meals is easy. Essentially you just add water to food and then wait—and wait—and wait some more for it to be soft and edible. Beyond filtered water and the meal itself, you need a lightweight, sealable vessel that’s made of plastic or metal. (A lot of ultralight hikers swear by peanut butter jars or Talenti Gelato containers.)

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There is some nuance to cold-soaking, though. Previously dehydrated foods rehydrate more quickly than regular grains and noodles. And timing is everything: You need to give everything enough time to rehydrate, but you don’t want to spend so much time soaking it that it becomes a cold mush that resembles baby food. (Or maybe you do. To each their own.)

Cold-soaking your supper will take longer than making it on a stove. Usually, reconstituting a meal will take somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes, depending on the ingredients. For instance, ramen noodles generally take around half an hour to rehydrate, mac and cheese takes about an hour, and instant rice can take closer to two hours. Certain foods, like dehydrated refried beans or instant mashed potatoes, can be ready within a few minutes. 

When shopping for foods to cold-soak, look for ones that are dehydrated or par-cooked, because they rehydrate the fastest. You can also add other ingredients to the cold-soaked food, like jerky or cured meats, to mix things up. If you have a dehydrator you can prep many foods yourself, and the bulk dry goods section of your local supermarket is also a good place to look for easy ingredients. Among them: dehydrated beans, quick rice, couscous, hummus, falafel, and jerky. You can also find dehydrated veggies in certain dry-soup mixes, or get them in bulk online. 

Before going full-steam ahead on stoveless camping, practice cold-soaking the meals you plan on eating on the trail at home. That allows you to get a better grasp of the Goldilocks soaking time. 

When you’ve figured out how long it will take to cold-soak a meal, it’s a good idea to write the time down on the bags the meals are stored in. That way you’ll have a better idea on the trail of whether or not you should start cold-soaking the meal while you’re still hiking, rather than waiting till you get to camp to do it and then waiting an hour or so to eat. 

Ultralight hikers can use some prepackaged meals like Mountain House, Good-to-Go, or even ramen, but many pre-packed backpacking meals need the heat to rehydrate rice and other ingredients together so that all the ingredients are ready at the same time. If they are using pre-packed meals, they can also cut some weight by moving the meal into a lighter, resealable plastic bag or a silicon bag.

Cold-soaking may seem daunting at first, but it’s a low-effort task when you get the hang of it. And after all, who wants to carry extra weight?

Originally published August 2021; last updated May 2022

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