Alongside a tent and a sleeping bag, a backpacking stove is often thought of as an essential part of any backcountry camping trip. But can you backpack without a stove?
Yes, you can backpack without a stove, and doing so is actually quite popular among ultralight hikers. Although bringing a stove gives you the ability to make a wide range of hot meals while on the trail, ditching your stove helps you cut weight in your pack. But, going stove-free while backpacking does require careful meal planning.
If you’ve never gone backpacking without a stove, the idea of leaving your trusty portable kitchen at home can be nerve-wracking. But the good news is that it’s completely possible to go stove-free in the backcountry with the right preparation.
Up next, we’ll discuss some of the basics of backpacking without a stove so you can decide if it’s the right meal strategy for your adventures.
How To Backpack Without a Stove
You definitely can backpack without a stove. In fact, stove-free backpacking is a reasonably popular thing to do, especially among ultralight hikers and thru-hikers. That’s because leaving your stove at home can greatly reduce the amount of weight that you carry around on the trail.
Although we often think of camping stoves as indispensable tools while in the mountains, the reality is that we don’t actually need to have a modern stove to be able to eat well while outside.
In fact, there are plenty of tasty meals out there that you can eat without the need for a stove in the backcountry. Plus, there are a number of ways to either cook or re-hydrate your food even if you don’t have a nifty backpacking stove at your disposal.
That being said, carrying a backpacking stove makes cooking very convenient. Without a stove, doing simple tasks, like heating up water for tea or coffee, can become either impossible or much more complicated and time-intensive. So, while going stove-free is a great option for some pack weight-conscious backpackers, it’s not the ideal choice for everyone.
Can You Thru-Hike Without A Stove?
Absolutely, you can definitely thru-hike without a stove. While most of the thru-hikers that you’ll come across on the trail do have some sort of stove cooking system in their packs, many opt to go stoveless for their adventures.
There are a few main benefits to thru-hiking without a stove:
- Reduces Pack Weight – The most commonly cited reason why people go stove-less while thru-hiking has to do with pack weights. Even relatively small stoves add weight to your pack (for reference, the super small MSR Pocket Rocket 2 weighs 2.6 oz/73 g). If you’re aiming for a sub-10 lb (4.5 kg), every ounce matters, so removing a stove from your packing list can make a huge difference.
- Cuts Gear Costs – There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: backpacking gear is expensive. Thru-hiking is also a surprisingly expensive pursuit. A reasonably lightweight backpacking stove will cost you a pretty penny and paying for fuel on a regular basis can also take a chunk out of your adventure budget. Opting not to buy a stove can ultimately mean more money for food and other gear.
- Saves Time While In Camp – Cooking meals in the backcountry can take quite a long time, even if you have a stove that can boil water in just a few minutes. If you leave your stove at home and use no-bake or cold-soaking cooking methods instead, you can save in camp during your trek so that you have more time each day for hiking.
Do keep in mind, however, that stove-free thru-hiking isn’t without its challenges. It can be difficult to diversify your meals if you’re limited to food that you can eat only without cooking or by cold-soaking. Plus, if you meet other hikers on the trail, you might also find that you get a bit jealous of the meals that they cook on their nifty stoves.
If you’re considering thru-hiking without a stove, be sure to do a trial run on a few shorter hikes to see how it works for you before you commit to going stove-free on your next long-distance adventure.
3 Ways to Camp Without a Stove
There are many ways that you can camp without a stove, but the method that you choose will greatly depend on where you’re backpacking and your personal camping style.
The most common stove-free camping methods include:
1. No-Cook Strategy
One of the simplest ways to camp without a stove is to only bring foods that you don’t have to cook. The so-called no-cook strategy is great if you want to save time on the trail as it lets you opt for things like Pop-Tarts, bagels, granola bars, and other easy snacks.
However, many of these foods tend to be quite heavy and most of them aren’t very nutritious. So this strategy doesn’t necessarily work well on longer trips where weight savings and nutrition are key.
2. Cold-Soaking Strategy
Although it might sound a little odd, the cold-soaking strategy is a popular choice among ultralight hikers. With this strategy, you only bring foods that you can re-hydrate using cold water, like oatmeal, rice noodles, couscous, instant rice, and instant mash potatoes.
You can actually cold-soak most dehydrated foods, too, but doing so takes longer than re-hydrating with hot water. This strategy is great for cutting weight in your pack, but it means that you need to develop a liking for cold food on the trail.
3. Cooking Over a Fire Strategy
The final strategy for stove-free hiking is the only one that lets you enjoy a warm hot meal each day. Cooking over a fire is a very reasonable option for many hikers as it lets you eat well without the need to carry a stove.
However, cooking over a fire is much more labor-intensive than cooking with a stove. It also can be more dangerous, especially if you’re new to working with fires. Additionally, this strategy isn’t allowed in many places either due to seasonal fire bans or year-round fire restrictions.
Regardless of which of these stove-free campings strategies you opt to use, be sure to test out your chosen method on shorter trips before you commit to using them on a long adventure. The last thing you want is to be deep in the mountains without a stove, only to realize that you really don’t like eating cold-soaked food or that you have trouble starting a fire.
Stove-Free Backpacking: An Ultralight Hiker’s Secret Tactic
Backpacking without a stove is a time-honored tradition in many ultralight hiking circles, and for good reason: stove-free camping is a great way to save weight, money, and time on the trail.
However, backpacking without a stove isn’t for everyone. If you want to ditch your stove on your next trip in the mountains, be sure that you first have a solid plan for eating well in the backcountry. Ultimately, the most important thing is that you have nutritious food while you hike so that you have the energy you need for your adventures.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.