Sitting down and enjoying a scrumptious meal at the end of a long day of hiking is one of the best parts of a backpacking trip. But cooking that meal can be tedious, especially if you only have one small stove and pot to work with.
Thankfully, there’s a solution to your backcountry cooking woes: Cold soaking.
What is cold soaking, we hear you say?
Cold soaking is a method of preparing food without heat. As its name suggests, it involves taking foods that need to be re-hydrated and placing them in a container with cold water until they’re ready to eat. This process takes longer than cooking and isn’t right for everyone, but it’s popular among ultra lightweight backpackers.
If you’re new to the world of cold soaking or if you’re considering trying it for yourself, you probably have quite a few questions. In this article, we’ll address some of these questions so you can decide if cold soaking is a good strategy for your next backpacking trip.
Cold Soaking Defined
Cold soaking is a term that’s used in a lot of different activities and industries, but in backpacking, it’s used to refer to a type of food preparation technique that doesn’t require any heat or cooking.
The idea behind cold soaking is that nearly any food that you can rehydrate with boiling water can actually be rehydrated with cold water. Rehydrating food with cold water takes a lot longer than doing it over a stove or with boiling water, but it can be done with a little bit of time and patience.
For example, you can cold soak oatmeal overnight by pouring cold water into your bowl, adding oats, securing your bowl with a lid, and then placing the whole thing in your bear canister or bear hang. In the morning, your oats will be soft and edible, just like they would’ve been if you’d spent 5 minutes cooking them over the stove.
The benefit of cold soaking is that it doesn’t require a stove. For most conventional backpackers, this might not sound like much of an advantage because they were going to bring a stove anyway.
But if you’re an ultralight hiker who wants to cut gear from their packing list, switching to cold soaking can eliminate the need for a stove, cooking utensils, pots and pans, and fuel. This could equate to a whole lot of weight savings.
The downside is that your food never gets warm when you cold soak your food. If you enjoy eating a hot meal at breakfast or at the end of the day, then cold soaking could require a major shift in your camping mindset.
Additionally, if you’re going to ditch your stove and go full cold soak on your next backpacking trip, you won’t be able to make hot drinks like coffee and tea on the trail. So you have to ask yourself if the benefits of cold soaking truly outweigh some of its drawbacks before you decide to use the technique in the backcountry.
Best Cold Soaking Jars / Containers
You have several options when it comes to containers and jars for cold soaking. The most commonly used and cheapest options are to simply re-use a plastic food jar. You’ll also hear backpackers claim to simply use Ziploc bags but I would not recommend this as they do have a higher likely-hood of leaking. Consider the dual purpose route of combining a mug you drink out of that can also be your cold soak container.
Make sure and test your containers on shorter trips, you may find you prefer a larger or smaller size and can make adjustments before your big trip.
Best cold soaking containers:
- Talenti Gelato Containers
- Plastic Peanut Butter Jars
- Bowl Bags
- Fairshare Mugs (hot or cold)
- Litesmith Jars
How Do You Cold Soak Mashed Potatoes?
Cold soaking mashed potatoes is normally very straightforward as powdered mashed potatoes rehydrate nearly instantly, even when you use cold water.
To cold soak your mashed potatoes, just add enough water to your powdered potatoes to get them to the right consistency. Once that happens, you can dig in and enjoy.
However, we’d recommend adding various spices and other sources of flavor and protein, like cheese, bacon bits, or TVP (textured vegetable protein), if you’re going to make a meal out of mashed potatoes. Remember that cold soaking is super convenient, but convenience shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of your happiness or nutrition on the trail.
Can You Cold Soak Good to Go Meals?
Yes and no. In some cases, you can cold soak Good to Go meals and other pre-packaged backpacking meals, but it really depends on the brand and the exact dish that you’re eating.
The problem with cold soaking pre-packaged backpacking meals like Good to Go is that most companies design their recipes with hot water rehydration in mind. Using cold water can turn your meal into a mushy mashed potato-like mess. It could also mean that some of the components of your meal might over-hydrate while others under-hydrate.
Good to Go doesn’t say anything on their website about whether you can rehydrate their meals with cold water. Some companies, like Mountain House, explicitly say that you can rehydrate their meals with cold water in a pinch, but it won’t taste as good.
Our advice? If you want to try cold soaking a Good to Go meal or any other pre-packaged freeze-dried backpacking meal, test your strategy out at home before you hit the trail. It’s better to spend the time and money on experimenting with cold soaking at home than it is to find yourself deep in the backcountry without anything edible for dinner.
Can You Cold Soak Ramen Noodles?
Yes, you can cold soak ramen noodles. To do so, you just need to add enough cold water to cover the noodles and then wait about 20 to 30 minutes. Once the noodles become soft enough to eat, you can add in any of the flavor and spice packets that came with your ramen.
That said, every brand of ramen noodles is different. We highly recommend testing out whether you can cold soak your preferred brand of ramen at home before you hit the trail. This will also give you an idea of how long you need to wait before you can eat.
If you don’t want to wait 20 to 30 minutes to eat your ramen, consider getting instant packets of rice noodles, instead.
There are a few companies out there that sell instant rice noodle dishes, like Taste of Thai, and they’re often a great option if you want to diversify your meals on your trips. Rice noodles also cold soak way faster than wheat-based ramen noodles, which is a huge advantage for a hungry backpacker.
To Cold Soak or to Cook, That Is the Question
Cold soaking is a popular food preparation technique among lightweight backpackers because it can help you cut quite a lot of weight from your pack. However, cold soaking isn’t for everyone. If you’re okay with eating cold food in exchange for a lighter backpack, cold soaking might be the method for you. Otherwise, it’s probably best to bring a stove.
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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.