Going Stoveless: Dinner in a Jar

Stoveless breakfast in Montana

Stoveless breakfast in Montana

I never thought I’d explore the many uses of a peanut butter jar until last summer on the Continental Divide Trail, when it became both my stove and my bowl. Repurposing the peanut butter jar was all part of an attempt to go lighter and simpler, and to secretly test my threshold for a daily serving of dehydrated refried beans.

Like many other hikers, my progression towards ultralight backpacking spans several trails and just as many pieces of gear. My collection of tents, sleeping bags, and packs, all impossibly hard to part with, are a tribute to the timeline that ultralight backpacking has seen over the years. One piece of gear that sticks out in my mind as having undergone a drastic change in both weight and function is my stove. I started out with a trusty MSR WhisperLite for the PCT and part of the AT, relishing every quickly-cooked hot meal that the sturdy stove produced.

Then I graduated to the homemade alcohol stove on the CT, having skipped a few iterations of stoves between the WhisperLite and the Fancy Feast can and having bought a titanium pot in the process. While the alcohol stove worked well, I updated my cooking system yet again for this past year’s CDT hike when I went completely stoveless, converting my peanut butter jar into a “stove” and eating only cold food that hydrated without heat.

Melted chocolate straight from the Ziploc

Melted chocolate straight from the Ziploc

Why would I give up my love for a warm meal at the end of a long hiking day? Mainly because of weight, but also for logistical ease on the CDT. My love for peanut butter exists both on and off the trail so it was easy to obtain an empty peanut butter jar, weighing in at 1.3 ounces, and immediately cut out the weight of a stove, a cooking pot, and fuel.

Regarding logistics, I had already played the game of looking for Heet in small towns on the Colorado Trail and didn’t desire that added stress on the entire CDT, in towns as small as 100 people. For good reasons, fire bans in parts of New Mexico and Colorado made it downright illegal to carry an open flame stove. Once I embraced the peanut butter jar, there was a sense of freedom in going stoveless and the literal weight that was lifted gave me unmeasured enjoyment in a lighter pack.

Going stoveless was daunting at first, especially given that I ate a vegan diet, but a little research on the internet widened my possibilities and I gathered quite the mix of dehydrated meals that cooked well without hot water, such as refried beans, lentil soup, mashed potatoes, hummus, tabouli, ramen, and even a vegan taco meat. I tested different foods and hydrating times before the trail and then loaded up, purchasing forty pounds of dehydrated refried beans and ten pounds of dehydrated lentil soup, in addition to smaller amounts of the other meals, breaking them down into individual meals before packaging them up in resupply boxes for the entire trail. While it would have been quite a feat to eat forty pounds of beans on my own, I’m happy to say I shared those meals with my husband and hiking partner, Optimist.

Easy cleanup - Just rinse and drink!

Easy cleanup – Just rinse and drink!

The real question is, how did it go? How was it eating a cold meal each day, including at least one meal of dehydrated refried beans, every single day, for over 100 days? Shockingly good! With each meal I also packed olive oil and “salty snacks,” as I called them, like corn chips, crackers, or some other crunchy vehicle to go with the soft food. The only fail along the way, and it was a big one, was when I ate a Lipton Noodle Side meal after rehydrating it in my jar overnight. The next morning it was a cold, mushy pile of dough. Even a scoop of Chex Mix couldn’t bring that meal back to life and I downed massive spoonfuls of it just to get it down and never re-live the horror. In addition to those meals, I rounded out our daily caloric volume, about 4,000 calories a day, with go-to hiker food like trail mix, energy bars, nut butter packets, dark chocolate, dried fruit, and granola.

All in all, dinner in a jar is my meal of choice. On the CDT, I loved how effortless it was to let my food rehydrate in the jar on the outside of my pack, never taking more than thirty minutes for any of the meals, and I really didn’t miss the warm meals or the hunt for Heet in town. Going stoveless may not be for everyone, especially for those coffee lovers out there, but for me and my CDT hike, it fit all my needs of being ultralight and hassle-free. That being said, I won’t go into what the daily serving of beans did for my marital bliss in the tent each night, but even that was just another part of the trail life.

This post was written by Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Julie ‘Stopwatch’ Urbanski, a Triple Crowner who has traveled through much of the U.S., whether on foot, via bicycle, or in a car. She has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Colorado Trail (2007, 2011, 2013, 2012), and bicycled down the Pacific coast from Portland, Oregon to the border of Mexico. Author of three books, The Trail Life: How I Loved it, Hated it, and Learned from itBetween a Rock and a White Blaze: Searching for Significance on the Appalachian Trail, and her latest A Long Way From Nowhere: A Couple’s Journey on the Continental Divide Trail. You can follow more of her adventures athttp://urbyville.com/.

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26 Responses to Going Stoveless: Dinner in a Jar

  1. Glen K Van Peski April 14, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    Julie – great article, thanks for sharing. I’ve gotten my stove weight down so low I’m not sure the peanut butter jar would save me much weight, but I can appreciate the simplicity of it, and will put it on my list to try. Do you have your favorite meal combos on your blog?

  2. Julie Urbanski April 15, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    Hi Glen – thanks for reading my post! I can’t say we were very creative with meal combos. We ate at least one meal a day of dehydrated refried beans and corn chips. Fantastic Foods brand has really good instant tabouli, hummus, and vegan taco meat, so those meals were often a treat on the trail, in combination with pita chips, triscuits, and corn chips.

    I linked my “Food Inventory” spreadsheet in an urbyville blog post about food: http://urbyville.com/for-trail-eyes-only-part-4-food/. I created a spreadsheet with calories for all the food we ate and even broke them out into “salty” and “sweet” calories so we had a nice balance.

    Dark chocolate ended up being the one food we could always eat more of (hence me licking the Ziploc bag in the picture above; I couldn’t stand wasting melted chocolate!).

  3. Gage April 16, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    I love me tea, but this is something I have to try.

    • Maxine April 19, 2014 at 1:19 am #

      Gage, I often put 2 or more Tetley’s or PG tips (no strings or tabs, staples) in a 15oz Lexan bottle overnight in cold water and I have concentrated tea that I can dilute for breakfast, and have another cuppa or 2 later in the day. Cheers!

  4. Julie Urbanski April 16, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    Gage – yes, I love my coffee. I just suffered from withdrawal between towns and then downed as many free refills as I could while it lasted. I have tried Starbucks Via coffee with chocolate/ vanilla instant drink mixes as well. Not the same cold but still gets the caffeine fix in!

    • Glen K Van Peski April 18, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

      I’ve done the Via, also, dark chocolate covered espresso beans are good if it’s not going to get too hot during the day…

  5. peabody3000 April 18, 2014 at 5:32 am #

    i think the simplicity is the big plus. the added weight of carrying the hydrating meal around in the pack would have to somewhat even out against not carrying a light stove. i believe a sensible esbit/caldera/Ti pot system weighs about the same as a few fluid ounces of water

  6. VTMike April 18, 2014 at 5:58 am #

    Food for thought! Thanks. =) Might try it this summer. God knows I can empty a peanut butter jar. =)

  7. Q April 18, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    add some dehydrated tomato, cayenne pepper, powdered cheese to those corn chips and beans and you have a full fledged cheese enchilada meal…

  8. brad boll April 18, 2014 at 7:42 am #

    I’ve got your caffeine fix covered. Chocolate covered espresso beans! My partner and I have some every morning. It’s chocolate AND coffee! And has calories. How could you go wrong?

  9. Julie Urbanski April 18, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    These are some fantastic tips – I’ll have to try out the esbit method. I’ve definitely heard of other hikers using it but have never ventured there myself. Enchiladas and chocolate covered espresso beans – just might have to run to Trader Joe’s tonight because I think I know what I want for dinner and dessert…or breakfast!

  10. Bow April 18, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    In your experience was a normal size peanut butter jar large enough for a decent size serving of beans? I am using a strategy similar to yours this year and haven’t decided on a container yet. What was your serving sized of beans? Thanks!

    • Julie Urbanski April 18, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      3/4 Cup was our normal serving of beans and equated to about 190 calories. It was the ideal fit for the jar, along with a Tbsp of olive oil to up the calories. Later in the hike when we were hungrier, we could fit a whole Cup of beans, which made for some thick beans, but still doable.

  11. Ernest T. Bass April 18, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    I thought girls were immune to the affects of beans.

    • Julie Urbanski April 18, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

      I think my husband would beg to differ. Let’s just say I didn’t hold back when the beans kicked in. And we shared a one-person tent!

  12. Diane Soini April 18, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    I did a post on cold meals last year. In my jar I rehydrated dehydrated cooked pulled chicken and dehydrated vegetables and sweet potatoes. I found a 16 oz jar was enough food. I could always eat something else along with the rehydrated meal.

  13. Vandy-SJ April 18, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    Been reading about stoveless meals this past year, and experimented with my own peanut butter jar recipes several times; mostly with good and tasty results, on a few day-hikes or overnighters. One-shot coffee paks (Folgers, Starbucks), as an overnight ‘cold brew’ in a 10 oz. bottle (Tropicana juice bottles work well), provide a cold but welcome ‘wake-up drink’ in the morning; and the caffeine still works. Adjusting from heated meat-and-chicken meals to cold rehydrated bean-based meals is easier if you adjust to the diet at home, before hitting the trail. Julie, your article adds to a lot to that. Having tried and sampled it a little bit myself, switching to it on longer hikes, and maybe section hikes (I’m not there yet) seems easier. Finding sources (stores) for dehydrated foods is sometimes a challenge. I’ve found Harmony House Foods (online, Amazon) has a fair selection of dehydrated foods. Thanks for the link to your spreadsheet; very helpful. Great article, Thanks!

    • Julie Urbanski April 18, 2014 at 11:18 pm #

      Vandy-SJ, thanks for reading the article and for sharing your tips! It looks like I’ve really missed out on some great caffeine fixes in the past. We too had to do a bit of searching for dehydrated food, especially vegan, but luckily got a great mixture with items online, stuff from Fantastic Foods (online you can buy in bulk), and in the bulk sections of local stores here in Seattle.

  14. Michael & Keri April 18, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

    Julie, My wife and I enjoyed meeting and hiking with Optimist last summer on the CDT through WY. We shared a lot of good stories along the miles. Sorry we missed you in that section, but we saw that you rejoined him further north once he sped ahead of us. I know he really missed and must have been thrilled to have you rejoin him. :)

    My wife and I have used a tiny titanium Esbit stove and titanium pot through all our section-hikes along the PCT and CDT, but after hearing about your “dinner in a jar” strategy from Optimist, we are keen to try it this summer. My biggest attraction to it is the huge reduction in the hassle factors of getting fuel tabs in each resupply drop, the paraphernalia of cooking gear to organize, clean, and carry, the time spent cooking, the additional worry of spreading food odors in grizzly country via steam from cooked food in the surrounding area and throughout our hiking clothes and gear, and the additional gear to bear-hang with our food bags. I can really see how liberating it might be and look forward to enjoying the additional freedom.

    My wife and I are vegetarian, and after Optimist told me about your “amazing food spreadsheet” outlining your ~4,000 daily calorie vegan diet, I was impressed and excited to get a hold of it. Thanks for sharing! Your blog post and all the terrific replies have answered all my additional questions, except one.

    Do you and Optimist share one 40-oz peanut butter jar or do you each carry your own and prepare your own dinners? I was also considering the big square plastic jar from Ann’s House Soy Energy Blend (from Costco) that is approximately double the volume of a 40-oz peanut butter jar (with a bigger opening too). Also, do you use a spoon with a longer handle? Ti or Lexan?

    Thanks for your help and say hey to Optimist for us!

    • Julie Urbanski April 18, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

      Michael & Keri! Optimist still talks about the section he hiked with you and about how you kept him sane while I was getting my own head on straight before getting back on the trail just a couple days after you met him. I was so sad I never met you guys.

      Yes, the simplicity was a huge factor in going stoveless and the odorless factor was a great unintended benefit that we didn’t think about until we reached grizzly country. When we cooked on previous trails, we often ate dinner, then hiked on before setting up camp without creating odors; we really prefer to finish hiking, then eat dinner, so the stoveless method suited that part of our hiking style.

      So glad you found the spreadsheet too. I remember Optimist saying that I would have loved to have met you so we could geek out on gear, pack weights, stove styles…all the fun stuff that puts my spreadsheet-mind in overdrive.

      We actually started with one 40 ounce jar and one 16 ounce jar so we could combine our meals into one jar, then split them up when ready. This ended up being kind of a pain because then we shifted weight between us when one person was carrying the food and we inevitably worried one person was getting more food than the other when it was portioned out (yep, thru-hikers fighting over food). In Colorado we switched to each of us carrying a 16 ounce jar and that gave each of us more freedom in when we wanted to eat and in carrying our own food weight. We didn’t use a longer spoon but would have liked one for the 40 ounce jar. For the 16 ounce jar, while it would have been nice, it didn’t feel absolutely necessary. We both have .4 and .5 ounce sporks from REI and Sea to Summit – nothing super fancy but both have lasted 2 thru-hikes.

      I’m so glad you posted and definitely keep in touch! Good luck in your CDT portion this year – starting out at Old Faithful this time???

  15. AB bkpkr April 21, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    There is always the problem of finding chocolate covered espresso beans, plus the cost. Just try popping 2 – 3 espresso beans into your mouth along with a square of dark chocolate in the morning. Easy to find, carry and cheaper. Enjoyed all the posts.

    • Julie Urbanski April 22, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

      Thanks for reading my post AB bkpkr – yeah, unless someone is at home to fulfill that need for chocolate covered espresso beans, they are certainly a luxury. I think the best price I’ve seen is at Trader Joe’s, but you’re right, straight dark chocolate is the way to go to really fill up on chocolate.

      We bought 35 of the Pounder chocolate bars (3 vegan types!) from Trader Joe’s in order to pack all our resupply boxes. And we could have eaten even more than what I packed for us…crazy.

  16. Bob Drues April 22, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    Hello Julie:
    My wife and I are just looking into the stoveless option. The refried beans with corn chips sounds like a good dinner idea. You mentioned that this might however negatively affect marital bliss in the tent at night. My wife and I are both too shy about such things to “just let it happen”. There is a product that is supposed to eliminate gas with beans called “Beano”.
    It comes as pills that you take with the first bite of beans. It is an enzyme, so cant be cooked with the beans, but for a heatless rehydration, you could just add one of these to the jar to be rehydrated. Have you tried this, and would you recommend it?
    Thank you for the post, and I will be checking out your spreadsheet.
    Bob Drues

    • Julie Urbanski April 22, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

      Hi Bob – I’ve never tried Beano, so I can’t say I’d recommend it. I will say that when we tried to rush the hydration of the beans, meaning we just mixed in water and ate them on the spot, the aftermath was quite a bit worse. The beans just didn’t seem to digest well and we felt miserable for a couple hours afterwards. When we practiced patience and waited about 15-30 minutes, our bowels thanked us and our relationship in the tent was much better.

      You could always reserve the beans for a daytime meal and then have something a little gentler on the stomach for dinner, like Ramen or mashed potatoes. Something starchy was always a nice change from the beans.

      Thanks so much for reading my post and best of luck as you explore cooking options.

  17. Daryn April 26, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    Beano, being an enzyme may “digest’ the meal inside the jar and change its taste. Not sure if this would taste good or not, but it might make the consistency quite runny. It also may make it taste sweeter since it would break the complex sugar into more simple sugars. If I remember right, the enzyme in Beano is galactosidase and breaks down the sugar galactose so that the body can digest it more effectively. Not sure if it has an effect on other sugars or proteins, etc. found in the beans. Adding it would be an interesting experiment. There are other broad-spectrum digestive enzymes that will digest not only sugars and starches, but proteins and fats as well that are available in capsule form. It is an extra bit of weight, but might help make the digestive system a little more happy on the trail. Love the information being shared here. Thanks Julie.
    Daryn

    • Julie Urbanski April 27, 2014 at 7:57 am #

      This sounds like a “Do try this at home” experiment! Thanks for the well-thought out information in order to make a happier digestive system on the trail.

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