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Freezer bag cooking: No, thank you

Why would Patrick cheapen this breakfast spot by eating from a plastic bag?

Why would Patrick cheapen this breakfast spot by eating from a plastic bag?

A reader, John P, recently asked if my breakfast and dinner recipes are suitable for “freezer bag cooking”:

In preparing for my first ever thru-hike…I’m trying to figure out my menu…and came across your recipes. Is it possible to cook them using the freezer-bag method instead of cooking them in a pot? Can I pre-mix the ingredients, add boiling water, and let sit in a bag and cozy for 20 minutes?

Since I’ve fielded similar private inquiries before, I thought worthwhile to address here.

What is Freezer Bag Cooking?

Before John’s email prompted me, I had never looked deeply into the method, which I’ll attribute (with reservations) to Sarah Kirkconnell, author of several books including Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple. I had heard of it, but was turned off immediately by its name — Why would I ever want to cook and eat out of a freezer bag?

In fact, Freezer Bag Cooking is more of an approach to backpacking food, not just a preparation technique. Kirkconnell promotes DIY meals, not commercial freeze-dried varieties like those from Mountain House or prepackaged items like Knorr Pasta Sides. Meal ingredients are pre-mixed at home and cooked together in the field, not bagged and cooked separately, which generates excessive trash and dirty dishes. Finally, as the name implies, the meals are “cooked” inside a freezer bag, typically insulated with a cozy, and eaten directly from the bag.

This last component is the only unique aspect of Freezer Bag Cooking. DIY meals and pre-mixed ingredients are probably about as old as backpacking, and seem far more commonsensical than revolutionary. Oddly, while Kirkconnell recommends cooking in and eating from a freezer bag, she is not insistent on it. If you’re wondering why Freezer Bag Cooking is named as it is or why it’s talked about like it’s something different, you’re not alone.

A DIY dinner made of cheese tortellini, homemade pesto sauce, and salami. Yum!

A DIY dinner made of cheese tortellini, homemade pesto sauce, and salami. Yum!

My thoughts on Freezer Bag Cooking

Kirkconnell and I agree on two things. First, DIY meals that are pre-mixed and cooked together are more economical, simpler, and lighter than the alternatives — and, if your recipes are good, the meals are more than satisfactory. View my favorite recipes.

Beyond that, I will make a strong case for cooking in and eating out of your cookpot, not a plastic freezer bag. Why:

1. It’s a better eating experience. If I’m given the option of eating from a hard-sided bowl (which in this case doubles as my cooking container) or a plastic bag, I will pick the bowl every time. Eating from a plastic bag feels cheap.

2. Thoroughly cook your food, fast. For ingredients like polenta, macaroni, and instant rice, an extra 30 to 60 seconds of simmering dramatically improves cook time. After a long and hard day, eating 10 minutes earlier does matter, trust me. Moreover, at high elevations and in colder temperatures, the option to simmer can be a necessity, not just a luxury. Consider that 12 oz of 195-degree water (the boiling point at 9,000 feet) will cool immediately to 147 degrees when poured into a 6-oz bag of 50-degree food. Some food items will struggle to reconstitute fully at this temperature, or it will just take a very long time.

3. Unlike a plastic bag, there is no risk that your metal pot will tear or develop holes that will leak when filled with water. Freezer bags are tough but they are not impervious, particularly on long trips when they might bounce around in your pack or bear canister for a week before being consumed.

4. Packaging your meals into disposable sandwich bags is not perfect, but it’s more economical and more environmentally friendly than using heftier freezer bags. I suppose that freezer bags can be washed and reused, but I’m doubtful that many backpackers do.

5. Do you think it’s safe to heat food in a freezer bag? Ziplok does, based on the standards set by the EPA for food-grade plastics. I’m not concerned with what they know, but what they don’t know yet (a la BPA), and I’d rather not chance it when there’s a reasonable alternative.

It's not difficult to avoid scorching your food. Foremost, pay attention, like you would at home. Extra water in the pot helps, too.

It’s not difficult to avoid scorching your food. Foremost, pay attention, like you would at home. Extra water in the pot helps, too.

But if I cook in my pot, I have to clean it!

True, if you cook in and eat out of a freezer bag, you don’t dirty your pot. But you simply transfer the mess: rather than a dirty pot, you have a dirty plastic bag that you must pack out, hopefully without it leaking.

Plus, a dirty pot is not something to fear. To wash it, add a few ounces of water and scrub the insides with your fingers. If you think you really need one (you don’t), pack a cut-up sponge. You can drink the greywater or disperse it, your call; I normally drink it, especially when in arid areas or dry camping.

For extra messy pots (e.g. scorched food, oil slicks, sticky cheese) add a handful of dirt, sand, or forest duff to the rinse water. Use it as an abrasive to clean the pot. Rinse twice, dispersing the water each time.

By making soupy meals, clean-up is generally easier. There are other perks, too.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

59 Responses to Freezer bag cooking: No, thank you

  1. Tripp Clark March 27, 2016 at 11:46 am #

    I have used the Freezer Bag Cooking (FBC) method for all of my hot meals on the trail for the past decade. I find it terrific in terms of quality, satisfaction, and especially convenience. I have only once had a bag failure / leak, and that was because of a mistake on my part. Still, I do always carry one or two extra bags. The fact that there is no clean up is probably my favorite aspect of FBC.

    • Andrew Skurka March 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      That is the part I do not get. What is so hard about cleaning a pot?

      • Jim March 28, 2016 at 12:07 am #

        A pot need not be hard to clean. That being said, if I never cook in my pot, I never have to find room for it in my bear canister or bear bag. Once I finish something I’ve steeped in a freezer bag, and consumed the grey water dross, it fits compactly into whatever room is left in my canister. Also, my MSR titan kettle is too small to actually cook one of my meals in, but is plenty big to heat up the water I need for my meal.

        If you want to go the health issue route with the food grade/microwaveable plastic used in freezer bags, I’d point out there’s more actual study data out there that show disease links to aluminum cookware and, in the kitchen, Teflon coated cookware when the coating flakes off, even though some of it is under dispute.

        By not cooking in the pot, it may take longer after Newton’s law of cooling kicks in, even with the cozy, however, on a thru hike this means my fuel lasts more days. I tend to cook with an caldera cone style alcohol stove, and making my fuel last longer works well for me.

        I pack not only custom meals in the freezer bag, but I repack all other food in freezer bags getting rid of their original packaging before I head out. I find this makes for better packability. Although, if I didn’t steep in a freezer bag, your point about sandwich bags would be well taken (more compact).

        I’ve done multiple thru hikes. This system works extremely well for me, and is super time efficient, as far as I’m concerned. I also used to be a mountain guide, and spent a fair amount of time working in remote parts of Alaska. If I had clients with me, I wouldn’t use this method, and not because it doesn’t work for me as an individual. The reason I wouldn’t use this method in a larger group are because you gain economies of scale in a group with a larger pot, but more importantly, cooking around a pot with a group of clients can be part of group bonding, and make it easier to connect with your clients.

        I pack my alcohol stove, grip, and lighter inside of my MSR kettle. I can have that all put away in my pack while my food is steeping in the bag. Once I’m done with the bag, it goes right in the canister, and I go to sleep. I don’t cook breakfast, so I’m ready to go within about 15-20 minutes after getting up the following morning, and eat my breakfast on the trail. I don’t drink coffee, even off trail, so that probably saves time too (tea or hot chocolate for me, but seldomly).

      • Greg January 16, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

        First cleaning requires clean water if you have it. Second there is an odor issue if you clean and disperse you will attract critters. Just seal the bag and the odors are sealed and then place in your bear bag.Third you have to pack out waste packaging anyway unless you carry your food (noodles, mac and cheese ) loose in your pack.

  2. Blake Boles March 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    Freezer bag Mac n Cheese is the best. I’ve sworn by it for 10 years and never had a broken or melted bag. And I really don’t like cleaning gooey cheesy dishes.
    1. Repackage one box of standard mac n cheese (I like Annie’s) into a ziploc quart freezer bag. Separately bring a stick of butter (essential) and dry powdered milk (optional).
    2. On trail, boil water and pasta normally. (An entire box of Mac fits perfectly into a 0.9 titanium pot.) Drain most water with lid.
    3. Dump the pasta and small amount of leftover water into the ziploc that previously held the dry stuff. Add butter and massage to melt evenly. Add cheese powder and dry milk powder (optional). Massage for 1-2 min to get the powder well dissolved. This all warms up cold hands very, very well.
    4. Open the bag, shovel into your face, enjoy! All you have to clean up is a pot with pasta water residue. Trash= exactly one gross ziploc bag.

    • Blackwell April 14, 2017 at 5:13 am #

      Curious … how long does butter last on the trail?

      • Andrew Skurka April 14, 2017 at 10:53 am #

        Way longer than you might think. My wife and I NEVER refrigerate our butter, and it’s never gone bad despite a stick of it probably taking a month or two for us to use up.

        On the trail the bigger issue is keeping it intact. On a group trip, when I have a more generous weight allowance, I carry it in Tupperware containers. On a personal trip I will drop it into a freezer bag and then pack it tightly in my food bag so that it does not shift around much and get squeezed.

  3. Todd c March 27, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    I have been using much the same cooking style as you for the exact same reasons. But one difference is I bring my food to a boil for maybe a minute, then put out the stove and keep hot in a pot cozy. This saves fuel and works well with my alcohol stove. I agree that I can cook more kinds of food by bringing them to a full boil, rather than pouring boiling water into a bag that never gets it quite as hot

  4. Walter Underwood March 27, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

    You missed one negative, with FBC, you pack out wet, heavy trash. It isn’t that heavy, but with a larger group or several days, the wet bags with bits of food add up. They are also bear smellables.

    Still, for a weekend, I like FBC. It is especially good for couscous, which completely rehydrates in the bag.

  5. Walter Underwood March 27, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Kenji Lopez-Alt argues that pasta cooks just fine without simmering. He tested bringing it back to a simmer after adding the pasta, then turning off the heat. As long as the water stays above 180º for ten to twelve minutes, you get perfectly cooked pasta.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/05/how-to-cook-pasta-salt-water-boiling-tips-the-food-lab.html

  6. Sarah March 27, 2016 at 4:38 pm #

    “Oddly, while Kirkconnell recommends cooking in and eating from a freezer bag, she is not insistent on it. If you’re wondering why Freezer Bag Cooking is named as it is or why it’s talked about like it’s something different, you’re not alone.”

    Let me say the “why” here: When I started writing and developing FBC recipes, there was only a handful of them out there – since 2004 I have published over 1,000 FBC friendly recipes. So yes, someone out there wants them. They also want easy to follow recipes. PS: The whole name “freezer bag cooking” came out of the Backpacker forums back in 2002-2004, so did the nickname FBC. It was hikers who gave it that.

    The whole concept of FBC came out of wanting something similar to commercial meals, but where one could control it. To have the meals ready to go, not cooking out of old school bulk bags (example, NOLS). That you could do it in freezer bag…well that was just a bonus. (Old style Mountain House meals came in a bag btw, that you put a cardboard collar on, then slipped back into the mylar bag). Go back to say 2004, and earlier, and you either ate those meals, or you cooked in a pot. There wasn’t many choices. And the recipes/concepts were pretty limited.

    It isn’t for everyone.

    But you also ask why I show other methods…well, FBC might be my second born baby, but it isn’t everything. When I started writing recipes I was out hiking most weeks. I kept a hiking pantry to use. It was FBC because I was hiking a lot. But I am not, and will never be, a long distance thru hiker. Life changed, I had more kids – and had more time on my hands when hiking. As I did, I also grew in my at home cooking- and both spilled over. Because, sure not everyone wants FBC method, but plenty want easy recipes. Sure, you can do 99.99% of my recipes in a pot. But don’t hate on me because I pioneered a movement 14+ years ago! Seriously, half or more of Trailcooking (my website) isn’t even FBC….yeesh.

    PS: We all create trash in some way or other. Food is still nearly always packed in plastic bags (there are exceptions mind you, for those who use beeswax based lunch bags, or cotton bags). There are always options to be more mindful…but in the end…driving a car to a trailhead is still the most impactful thing a hiker can do.

    • Andrew Skurka March 27, 2016 at 5:02 pm #

      Hey Sarah – Thanks for the comment and explanation.

      I think you and I are more in agreement than disagreement, as far as an approach to backpacking food. Like you, I think that DIY meals and pre-mixed ingredients are the way to go. When in a group setting, often with clients whose eating preferences (e.g. seasonings, allergies, etc) are a mystery to me pre-trip, I tweak things some, but it’s the same in essence.

      Cooking in and eating out of a freezer bag is the aspect that puzzles me. I’ve never considered it a hassle to wash my pot; plus, a messy leftover freezer bag seems imperfect. I know you recommend but don’t insist on this technique, but I think it’s believed by the wider backpacking community to be an inherent part of method.

    • Gene is Lucky March 27, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

      Sarah, you rule among my buddies. Most are medicare eligible and do FBC. I tried it and found I like to base my meals on a Knorr side with add ins. I let knorr figure out the seasonings you see. But I use a pot and find I have better texture. Soon to try the faux baker. Yep, Andrew, the bag cooking is optional. Sarah, thanks for providing the hiking community tons of free recipes.

  7. Scott Ryser March 27, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

    Andrew, much respect, just something to consider:

    a) I love FBC because I have learned how to take most any good stew or soup or casserole I make at home, and after our family enjoys it, I can dehydrate the leftovers into a few meals for the field. So I can build a pantry with little extra effort. I’ve used this method twice on extended trips in the high Sierra’s in September (i.e. at altitude with sub-freezing overnights), and have had no issue with the lower boiling point or quick cool-off. Dice everything small enough before you dehydrate, and 10-15 minutes in the cozy works just fine.

    b) Sure I could take the same dehydrated-leftovers meal and boil in a pot … but think about being in bear country. With FBC, I put the empty ziplock into an Opsack, then into the canister I’m required to carry anyways. Nothing to attract a bear as long as I wasn’t careless while eating. But if I boil in pot, then have to clean … then the gray water (if dumped out) becomes bear bait, no matter how far from camp I dump it. Or I drink the gray water, and there’s still a good chance I have some residue/odor in the pot. With FBC that’s no issue.

    I respectfully recognize you have far more experience on extended trips than me (minor understatement :-), but for the 1-3 week backpacking/bikepacking jaunts I am able to pull off – I’m all in on FBC as the most convenient way to ensure I have great tasting food at the end of a long day.

    • Andrew Skurka March 27, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

      In terms of bear safety, I can’t imagine that storing a dirty freezer bag in an Aloksak makes any difference. You and your gear reek of food, at least according to the nose of a bear There are several ways in which you can meaningful reduce the likelihood of a bear entering your camp, but this is most likely not one of them.

  8. Frank March 27, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

    I’ve been following Sarah’s ideas since 2004 and it was a great way for me to save a lot of money on Mountain House style foods by making my own. I like the idea of keeping my food contained and then folding up the trash and packing it into my dedicated garbage ziploc. What’s the big deal with doing dishes? Well I don’t need to waste valuable water washing and rinsing dishes which can be a big deal in some water scarce areas. Further the less food smells I can keep contained the better. Will my trash be slightly heavier than cooking the dry ingredients? Of course it will. But for those of us that want to just boil water with an alcohol stove this is the way to go. It saves fuel leaving food reconstitute in a cozy. How is that not a win as well?

    Your comment on how using premade food generates more trash; yes it does but in a quest to save money should I fork out a ton of cash on Mountain House type varieties then? You can buy some of this stuff in bulk or make it yourself from bulk depending upon what food it is but seriously it isn’t my fault Lipton cannot sell me a gallon container of noodles to keep the bags out of a landfill. Perhaps they should develop more environmentally friendly packaging. How is the same packaging you have out in the field any different?

    Your article title was immediately bias and why not write something more subjective and give your opinion afterward or let readers make their own? The title should have read “Here is why I hate eating out of a bag” in your case. Hey if washing dishes works for you great man. For me I’ll stick to what has been working great for me for the last 15 years; which is FBC.

    I’ll give you this much you did have some valid point on bags tearing and certainly not everyone wants to eat out of a bag. I totally get it and I do not disagree there. Again we all do what works best for ourselves when out on the trail. Maybe next time you write such a post you can be more subjective and let us readers make our own decisions.

    • Andrew Skurka March 27, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

      1. I discourage the use of commercial freeze-dried meals, as evidenced by nearly a dozen DIY recipes.

      2. I have backpacked extensively in arid areas and frequently dry camp. You can wash a cookpot without wasting any water.

      3. I’m extremely doubtful that having a dirty plastic freezer bag, even stored inside an OPSAK, makes any difference to bears or mini bears. You and your gear wreak of food. Plus, due to the past presence of other backpackers, the local wildlife know exactly where all the hot campsites are.

      4. Opinion-less writing tends not to very useful, and about 2x the work for the writer. I’ve made my argument; it’s been graciously countered by others, including you. Readers win: they get to read informed and passionate opinions from both sides.

      • Leslie Martin June 22, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

        “I’ve made my argument; it’s been graciously countered by others, including you” And yet you continue to be ungracious…..

        ” I discourage the use of commercial freeze-dried meals, as evidenced by nearly a dozen DIY recipes.” so why are you bashing someone who spent the past apparently 13+ years promoting diy backpacking meals?
        I’m sorry, but you just sound rigid and hateful. I came here from a search trying to find lower sodium options for backpacking food and landed in the middle of this crap….. Awesome….

  9. Ed March 28, 2016 at 12:24 am #

    I simply hate having an additional task to do at the end of the day. I don’t want a pot to clean. With FBC, you’re done when you’re done eating. The other consideration is access to water. I live in the desert and often times I don’t have enough water to clean my pot.

    • Andrew Skurka March 28, 2016 at 8:41 am #

      The hatred for washing a single pot is puzzling to me, but clearly that’s the way you feel and it’s not my position to question it.

      Re water scarcity, I have hiked extensively in arid areas and have led trips in arid areas, too. I’ve never felt like dishwashing was a notable waste of water, especially because you can drink the greywater — it’s a nice end-of-meal broth.

  10. Steve C March 28, 2016 at 2:03 am #

    My meals are always packaged in a little sandwich ziplock bag — they compress better in the bear canister. My cook pot and drink cup is a single titanium Snow Peak 600 ml cup. The TI cup fits quite nicely on the titanium wing stove, too. No need for a heavy canister stove. The cup cleans up really easily after cooking the food. I finish off by pouring my drink into it and cleaning the cup using the drink.

    It’s much easier to control the temp of the pot of food. I can start eating as soon as it’s warmed enough — sometimes boiling temp isn’t even necessary. And I can re-heat if needed. I couldn’t do that with FBC. My empty sandwich bags are pretty much clean and dry, so my trash at the end of the trip is tiny.

  11. Viajarapie March 28, 2016 at 4:36 am #

    The FBC term, albeit a valid one, misses the main point in this technique. I call it Modular Cooking which represents the idea better. The idea is to bring modularity to the cooking system, much as it can be done with clothing (layers), shelter (bivy + tarp) or any other functional group.

    A modular approach relies on a set of specific tools that work together, narrowing down each item’s function to what it does best and relying in the teamwork for the whole functionality. In this particular case, the pot is best at heating, the bag is best (from a weight perspective) at holding the cooked food.

    It will depend on the particular food but in general a small metal pot + big plastic container will be lighter than a big metal pot alone.

    The plastic container may be a Freezer Bag but doesn’t need to. It may be disposable or not. It may be another pot. I use an old, cut up Platypus bottle that developed a hole near the opening threads so it was useless as a water bottle. I’ve been using the same one for 10+ years now.

    Then, there are pros and cons to the technique. If using a non-disposable plastic container in bag/foldable bottle form, cleaning is indeed more difficult than with a pot. Chemicals are indeed a concern with any plastics. On the other hand, a bag or foldable bottle section like the one I use is not only lighter all things considered, it’s also easier to pack and easier to insulate (plastic is itself an insulator where metal is not)

    • Andrew Skurka March 28, 2016 at 8:50 am #

      > The FBC term, albeit a valid one, misses the main point in this technique.

      I agree. The freezer bag is the least important element in the concept, and I think it’s immediately off-putting to most because of the impression it gives. “What? Cook and eat from a plastic bag? I don’t think so…” But the other pillars of FBC (DIY meals made of pre-mixed ingredients, cooked together in a single container) have a lot to offer.

      The FBC label reminds me of “lightweight backpacking,” which similarly puts emphasis a relatively unimportant aspect (“light”) and turns off people. The approach would be more widely embraced if it were called something like “overnight hiking” that implied an objective, not just a technique.

      Re the rest of your comment, I’d take issue that a “small metal pot + big plastic container will be lighter than a big metal pot alone.” A 600ml Evernew weighs 3.4 oz and a freezer bag weighs .5 oz = 3.9 oz. A 900ml Evernew weighs 4.1 oz and a sandwich bag weighs .1 oz = 4.2 oz. For an extra .3 oz, I will eat from my pot every time. Heck, I might even carry the 1.3L Evernew for an extra half-ounce so that I can heat water for food and coffee simultaneously. I’ll be several miles down the trail by the time the FBC person is even done with their meal.

      • Sean March 28, 2016 at 5:05 pm #

        “A 600ml Evernew weighs 3.4 oz and a freezer bag weighs .5 oz = 3.9 oz. A 900ml Evernew weighs 4.1 oz and a sandwich bag weighs .1 oz = 4.2 oz. For an extra .3 oz, I will eat from my pot every time. Heck, I might even carry the 1.3L Evernew for an extra half-ounce so that I can heat water for food and coffee simultaneously. I’ll be several miles down the trail by the time the FBC person is even done with their meal.”

        The solution here is obvious to me. Someone needs to create a pseudo-plastic material or paper material out of corn starch or rice protein or something that will dissolve in hot water. Then a way to seal said package.

        So when you go cook, you toss the whole thing into your pot and it just turns into extra calories.

        I’d buy the living bejeebus out of those.

  12. Lori March 28, 2016 at 4:59 am #

    For me, it is more about the plastic than the convenience or difficulty of clean up. We use way too much plastic in general, not just in backpacking. I try to utilize methods that don’t require storing, cooking or eating out of plastic containers. If that means a little more weight or inconvenience, I am fine with that

  13. Fozzie March 28, 2016 at 5:12 am #

    I’m not convinced some of that plastic doesn’t end up in my food . . .
    As to dirty pans – I’ve never had burnt food at the bottom of my pan since I began using alcohol many years ago. Boil water, transfer some to mug for a hot drink, put pot back on burner, pour in food, and if you’ve measured your fuel quantity correctly (easy once you get used to it), you’ll have around a minute more burning time left to heat the food. Lid on, remove from heat and put in a pot cosy.
    It is impossible to burn your food using this method.
    Plastic bag cooking?
    No thanks . . .
    ~ Fozzie

  14. JT March 28, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    FBC has one big advantage when my wife and I are hiking. We can zip right through meals and hot drinks, usually 2 boils for the food and one for drinks, in about ten minutes max. No clean up time and a very clean Jetboil unit to stow away with zero concern for mess or smell. For us, a super efficient system.

  15. Greenfire March 28, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    Homemade hiker meals? Yes please!!! Making them IN a heavy freezer bag and then having to carry away the dirty bag after? No thanks!

    First, I can make some awesome premade meals and carry them with me for less money, and less weight than if I pack them in a freezer bag, and carrying out a dirty freezer bag doesn’t appeal to me at all, because however good intentions are, I only know of one person in the world who actually does wash out her plastic bags for reuse. Everyone throws them away, I can pack premade food into bags, that don’t need to be washed out to reuse them. Also, when weight matters, I’d rather wash the pot and drink the water than lick out the inside of a bag because I need more calories.

    I’ve also seen some people complain about using dirt and leaves for washing their pots, “because germs.” I don’t know about you, but I actually bring my water in my pot to a boil, killing any potential germs there may be from the previous day’s wash. Not an issue.

    For people grossed out about drinking the grey water, it’s really not much different than just having a drink of water with the food, you don’t put soap in it, and again, the germ factor of not using soap is mitigated when you boil the pot the next time, which you’re going to do anyway.

  16. Jay Kerr March 28, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    I started building DIY backcountry meals in 1980. We were preparing for our third expedition to the Alaska Range, and were going to spend 80 days in the field. We designed a 7-day menu of breakfasts and dinners that I still use today. We skied into and out of the West Fork of the Ruth, and built the meals in two-person portions so that each tent (there were 10 of us) could prepare their own meal.

    One of our team was working at an archeological dig, and was able to score a 6-foot tall artifact drying rack. We positioned the rack over a heating register, cranked up the oil furnace, and spent two months dehydrating the ingredients. We dried hamburger, veggies, fruit, cooked beans and pasta. We used cheddar cheese powder, tomato crystals, powdered eggs, restaurant squeeze packets of honey and other commercial products. The only freeze-dried meals were saved for alpine ascents.

    We cooked our meals in our MSR pot, and sewed our own pot cozies out of nylon with synthetic insulation (normal daytime temps were between -20 and +20). The pot would stay in the cook bag for 30 minutes, stay piping hot, and did a great job of rehydrating. Needless to say, pot cleaning was the least appreciated camp chore at those temperatures.

    More recently, for my backpacking trips, I’ve gradually switched to FBC coking. My stove of choice is an MSR Reactor, which I love for its fast boil time, but the reactor does not simmer, so cooking in the pot is not really optimal.. I have the smaller size pot, which is just the right size to heat enough water for a FBC meal and a hot drink. I heat the water, pour half into my meal bag, pop it into its cozy and tuck it into my puffy, then enjoy a hot beverage while rehydration magic happens in the bag.

    Yes, Im sure that these meals would be better if I were preparing them in our classic Alaskan “cooked in the pot” method, and the esthetics of eating from a nice bowl would be far more enjoyable than spooning out of a freezer bag. But for me, convenience, speed and easy (read no) cleanup of FBC trumps.

    • Andrew Skurka March 28, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

      That sounds like such a cool trip, totally Alaska.

      • Jay Kerr March 30, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

        It was an amazing trip! A low-budget adventure by a group of dirtbag hippie climbers from Portlandia. We even made our own clothing, as we couldn’t afford the expensive Patagonia fleece. Unfortunately, the fabric store only had fleece (a new product in 1980) in a kind of strawberry pink. So we were head to toe in pink furry fleece!

        Here’s a link to a trip report:

        http://www.supertopo.com/tr/West-Fork-Ruth-Glacier-Mt-Huntington-East-Ridge/t10480n.html

  17. grannyhiker March 29, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

    Another FBC fan here who HATES washing dishes. With FBC all I have is the spoon. Andrew, if you like washng dishes, you’re welcome to come visit me any time!

  18. Jake March 30, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    After a few years of cooking with a grease pot and fancy feast stove, I switched to FBC last year. The main reason was a modified Matt Kirk’s silver bullet cone pot to work with a small, remote fed alcohol stove from minibulldesign. The result is a much smaller and packable “pot” that now doubles as a water container. Saved about 4oz, too.

    It was certainly more work to assemble, but don’t think the quality of my meals has changed noticeably. Of course, I also recently started dehydrating my own meals rather than just mixing together packaged stuff, so that has probably helped on that end.

  19. annie_on_the_trail April 6, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    My problem with bag cooking is that I’ve yet to hear of anyone packing out the trash in order to wash and recycle the bags! Nope, it’s just another pile of plastic in some landfill. The homemade meals I pack in stay dry in the bag, and are shaken out to reuse for the next trip. They’re used repeatedly, not once. Good grief, who’s washing up these folks’ dishes at home?

  20. Byron Stickler April 10, 2016 at 9:59 am #

    I am in no way an expert on this subject but after reading this article and many others in preparation for a JMT journey with my wife this summer, I have come up with a few conclusions.

    1. Freezer bag cooking, to me, is the result of the ultralight mentality: why carry or do something that is seen as unnecessary. Pouring hot water in a bag so you don’t have to clean the pot makes sense…it’s one less step to do. From Andrew’s statements, he, others and myself don’t see cleaning a pot as an extra step, just something we do normally at home. So this is more about philosophy vs conditioning out on the trail.

    2. Some like to eat out a plastic bag, some like to eat out of a bowl. Choose what works for you and don’t worry about others.

    Personally, I would rather have a clean pot than a bunch of bags with moisture and food residue in them. As for Yogi Bear, it probably does not matter. If you have unused food on you, they will smell it and investigate.

    Is one better than the other, no. Like anything else (boots, pack, sleeping system, eating system,etc) find what works for you, your style of camping and the experience you are looking for.

  21. Jessie April 12, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Just to check my understanding, no matter the method the food is still being stored in plastic bags. The difference is only where the food is cooked and eaten from? So does it just boil down to whether you prefer to eat/cook from a pot, clean it after and back away clean plastic bags or eat/cook from a plastic bag and back away dirty plastic bags? I’m a noob hiker and dehydrate all my trail meals and vacuum seal them for freshness. Because I already store them in plastic it seems like common sense to just re-hydrate them inside the bag and save cleaning up. I’m also still learning to manage my water better though. I would rather cook from the pot but also like not having to clean it after wards in addition to the extra water usage.

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2016 at 6:30 pm #

      We’re all in agreement that DIY meals with mixed ingredients that can be cooked together is the way to go. The choice is whether to eat out of a pot or out of a freezer bag. This post and subsequent comments do a good job in addressing the virtue of both approaches.

      Cleaning your pot is not a big deal. In fact, I had never even thought about finding a workaround until I read about the freezer bag approach. Minimal water is needed (2-3 oz) and if you want to conserve you can drink the greywater — it’s basically a broth of your dinner.

  22. Gerry Brucia April 17, 2016 at 9:08 am #

    Andrew, Since you mention simmering your meals in a pot, what kind of stove are you now using? I know for years you used a cat stove which does not simmer.

  23. corwin wilkins April 17, 2016 at 6:07 pm #

    I think it’s a evolution of thinking about backpacking meals.

    Most peeps I see starting out have the Jetboil and (insert favorite prepackaged backpacking meal). As they talk to other hikers they learn that you can easily make a more nutritious meal yourself in the prepackaged vein, but they are still holding onto the jetboil, which until recently you could not even simmer in.

    So yes, there is more trash (with FBC), and yes, cleaning your pot isn’t a big deal but 90% of your backpackers are lazy enough that this is as far as they want to go for a solution.

  24. Mr. Peeters from Europe April 18, 2016 at 4:08 pm #

    Another issue: I can’t very well DIY my meals with mixed ingredients and take them on the airplane for thousands of km/miles. Well, I could, but that would be too much weight/space while my luggage has a maximum. Nor do I stay in accommodation where I can make proper DIY meals the days before I head out from the trailhead. This is of course because I’m not from the US. For most around here that’s not an issue, but for me it is. If backpacking in Europe it’s another story, but backpacking in Europe is quite a different beast anyway. I have not found an alternative yet to buying readymade FBC meals when backpacking in the US. I’m happy to read about them though.

  25. Randy Owens May 16, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

    “Consider that 12 oz of 195-degree water (the boiling point at 9,000 feet) will cool immediately to 147 degrees when poured into a 6-oz bag of 50-degree food.”

    Physics geek moment: That’s true if you ignore specific heat capacity of the two, or assume that they’re equal. But water has a ridiculously high specific heat capacity compared to just about anything else found in nature (notable exception: ammonia, but if you’ve got that in your cooking, I’m going to have issues with that). While the first thing on Google [http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/specific-heat-capacity-food-d_295.html] doesn’t have values for pasta or rice, it does have kidney beans and dried peas, which are probably close enough and useful in their own right, and have specific heat capacity just 0.28 that of water. Correctly calculated, then, 12 oz. @195℉ water added to 6 oz. @50℉ beans or peas would result in a 177℉ mixture, and I’d wager similar for rice or pasta.

    I still prefer eating out of a pot, regardless, but the instant cooling isn’t among the reasons why.

    • Andrew Skurka May 16, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

      Should have known that this isn’t as intuitive as it would seem, and that eventually I’d be called out by a physics geek.

  26. Justin June 11, 2016 at 8:05 pm #

    I have a couple of pots with a ceramic based non stick coating (made by Evernew brand). This makes cleaning up easier and minimizes burnt on stuff to begin with. It still helps to use plenty of water though, especially with things like oatmeal, which if left to dry out, seems to turn into a kind of concrete.

    Even without the ceramic non stick, i would prefer eating from the pot than from a bag. While i may pack food in a freezer bag, i’m much more likely to re-use that bag, if only dry stuff was in it and it stays dry. I’m also a bit concerned with leaching. Polyethylene is a fairly stable/inert plastic, but it’s not the base plastic that’s so much a concern, it’s the plasticizers added, that potentially worry me, that and subjecting the plastics to unusual, semi extreme conditions (boiling water temps) which can speed up/increase leaching.

    Nope, my man boobs don’t need to be any bigger than they are, thanks. While i’m joking..i’m kind of not at the same time.

  27. Justin June 11, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

    And i’ve done mostly non cook in the past, though lately i’ve been using a stove more (i backpack primarily from late fall through winter into early spring, but in an area where running water is rarely ever completely frozen). I think i probably qualify as lazy in this department. Hence, i’m also a bit perplexed by this whole, man, it’s such a chore to clean a pot, mentality that a number are expressing. I’m not judging the folks with the mentality, just a bit perplexed.

  28. Mark July 10, 2016 at 1:06 am #

    Great thread. Informative AND funny. I have used both methods. I wash and reuse freezer bags all the time. After spending eight days in the Wind River Range and accumulating nasty bags, I pretty much homed in on a hybrid method of mixing and transporting food in a freezer bag, and then hydrating the food in a Lexan bowl in a cozy. It seems easier to me to clean the Lexan bowl than a metal pot; and, like a previous poster, I can pack up the stove and pot while the food hydrates.

    Ms. Kirkconnell’s recipes have served me well, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having her book.

  29. Ilona Berzups July 19, 2016 at 8:29 pm #

    Excellent thread. In #5 it sounds like you’re saying Ziplocs have BPA? To clarify, they don’t. I like freezer bag cooking and I don’t mind washing a pot. I dug deeper.

    I’ve been using this method on backpack trips for a short while now. There are many discussions out there with folks citing pros and cons. Most of the cons I’ve read have more to do with preference than with toxicity concerns. The status quo for FBC seems to be SC Johnson’s Ziploc® brand. While researching another method that uses their Ziploc® containers I found a sustainability and safety page on their website that states their bags are “BPA-free and Dioxin-free.” I sent them an inquiry to see if the same holds true for all their products (it didn’t mention containers). I received an answer in less than 24 hours. Here’s the reply for those who may be interested.

    —–

    Thanks for your interest in Ziploc® brand Twist’n Loc® Containers. As a leader in providing high quality products, I’m happy to share all of our Ziploc® products (past or current) have never contained BPA. Additionally, they’re extensively evaluated for toxicity and safety and comply with – and often even exceed – applicable quality and safety regulations.

    That being said, should you have additional question or concerns, please feel free to call our product safety specialists at 866-231-5406. They will be happy to help and are available 24 hours a day.

    And just for awareness, because Ziploc® brand Freezer Bags are not designed to withstand such high temperatures, we don’t recommend them for boiling.

    If we can assist with anything else, know we’re always here.

    Mai Song
    Consumer Relationship Center
    SC Johnson, A Family Company

    USA 1-800-558-5252 | scjohnson.com
    Canada 1-800-558-5566 | scjohnson.ca

    https://ziploc.com/en/sustainability-and-safety

  30. Amanda Tikkanen July 21, 2016 at 2:44 am #

    I’ve done several different cooking methods since I started backpacking in 2002.

    I like FBC for what it is—a quick way to get your food made pronto. Heat the water, pour into the bag (already in the cozy) stir, and pack away your stove/pot/fuel while you wait. I use a small (24 FL oz capacity Imusa mug as my pot, so I can use it for a hot drink while I wait on my meal to rehydrate if I want to. I can also have 2 or 3 cozies going at once instead of whatever one-point meal I’d have otherwise assembled.

    I also like simmer and cozy meals because they’re a happy medium between FBC and full on cooking. Way less sloppy trash than the former and not nearly as much fuel use as the latter. Chef Glen from Backpacking Chef/Recipes For Adventure recommends the long soak/short cook/cozy method as well as a long soak in an insulated bottle in your pack. That does require a leakproof insulated (read: heavy) food bottle.

    An alternative to FBC I didn’t see above is thermal bottle/mug cooking. It’s not any lighter (probably heavier) than either method, but it reduces the trash you’d have with FBC (wet food is never in your storage bag, so you really can reuse them) and there’s no risk of scorching. I have a couple of truck stop special travel mugs that I’ve acquired over the years and all work pretty well for this style. A DIY version that would be lighter would be a plastic container with lid (like a Ziploc Twist-n-loc) and a reflectix cozy.

    I’m also a fan of stoveless meals depending on what my goals are for the trip. It’s not necessarily lighter, but if I can save an hour of cooking/cleaning time then that’s at least another hour/2-3 miles I can be on the trail, or the ability to nap in the heat of the day. 2 more miles per day adds up quickly and allows me to squeeze in a longer trip on my long weekend (10 days on/4 days off once every other month).

  31. Haiku September 8, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    Yeah, pretty much what you said. I cook in my pot, eat (I think I would die if I had to wait that long to eat at the end of a day) use my finger to scrape (because I want every calorie). MAYBE if I’m feeling generous I rinse out but honestly not needed. Easy enough to stow in the hang bag- you can put things in the pot if there’s not enough room, y’know? Anyone I saw using FBC (only a handful of people BTW) on my thru hike quickly abandoned it- just too hungry at end of day to wait. Also consider the math above AS did that EACH DAY’s dinner is .4 more weight than a normal plastic bag (ps my foods never went bad in these). Even if you have a pot that weighs slightly more, in the example of the Evernew 600 vs 900mL the savings is made up on the SECOND DAY.

  32. Chef Glenn November 8, 2016 at 6:56 am #

    I cook dehydrated meals in a pot. An Evernew titanium 900 ml pot works well for solo hikes. Eating out of a plastic bag never appealed to me. I like the firmness of the pot and having a handle to hang on to. I keep the pot in the cozy while eating the meal, often with the pot in my lap. The meals stay piping hot to the last morsel. Cleaning the pot with a few swirls of water is easy. I drink the water rather than disperse it since I don’t want to attract flies and mice. I prefer to have dry plastic bags in my pack rather than bags with wet food residue. Most of my dried meals fit in sandwich-size bags, saving weight and bulk compared to carrying quart-size freezer bags. Those are the reasons I prefer cooking in a pot, but lots of people ask me if BackpackingChef recipes can be cooked using Sarah’s freezer bag method. The reason given is almost always that they don’t want to clean the pot, especially people who cook with a Jetboil system with its taller, narrower pot. Considering the feedback I get, and several of the responses to your article, cooking freezer bag style offers benefits which they prefer.

    The good news is that dehydrated meals can be cooked either way. With freezer bag cooking, putting the bag in a cozy will greatly improve results, as will patience – allowing enough time for the food to rehydrate. For freezer bag cooking, I recommend precooking and dehydrating pasta, rice, and potatoes. That way, all you need to do is heat and rehydrate, rather than cook the starches. Precooking and dehydrating rice and potatoes has another benefit – you can cook them in beef, chicken, or vegetable broth before dehydrating, so the flavor carries to your trail meals.

    One food rehydration method that I have been championing for the past two years is to use a Thermos Food Jar to cook lunches. I use the 24-ounce capacity size. The idea came to me one day on a winter hike when the cold turkey sandwich I brought along didn’t quite cut it. I thought how great it would have been to have a hot lunch. I used to stop and cook hot lunches in my pot. However, it was often inconvenient to cook in rain or wind. With the thermos method, I add boiled water and the dried ingredients to the thermos after breakfast. Come lunchtime, regardless of conditions, I simply open the thermos and eat a delicious meal. Sometimes I eat half the lunch at one stop and finish it a couple hours later. After lunch, I add a cup of mixed dried fruit to the thermos with two cups of cold water. This makes a refreshing and nutritious fruit cocktail for late in the day when I want a boost for the last few hours of hiking.

    Eating hot lunches works for me because I like to stop, rest, enjoy the scenery, and fortify my body and mood with good meals. It’s no extra trouble to dehydrate food for lunches, since I already dehydrate food for breakfasts and suppers – might as well make full use of the benefits of dehydrating and carrying lightweight, delicious food. Of course, the bottom line is for each of us to cook – or not cook – whatever makes us happy. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your experience and informative website, and thanks to Sarah, too, for helping people eat well on the trail.

  33. JP December 16, 2016 at 3:44 am #

    I’m confused as to why people would continue FBC when specifically told by the manufacturer not to? Not to mention the thought of a nature lover using disposable plastic bags on a daily basis is completely hypocrital to me. There are reusable silicon storage bags on the market that can be used for carrying home spun dehydrated meals. That and a pot might make for a much more eco friendly excursion.

  34. Mark Whitcombe January 1, 2017 at 10:48 pm #

    I’ve re-read this thread several times in the months since Andrew initially posted it — each time, with new thoughts. Thanks, Andrew!
    Amanda and the excellent Chef Glenn both mention but to my mind don’t emphasize enough the practice of pre-soaking. I have borrowed recipe ideas from many folks, including Andrew, Glenn, and Sara. I make my own assortments of pre-dehydrated ingredients I buy (Asian noodles, for instance) and ingredients and full meals that I have dehydrated myself. I package them into sandwich bags or sometimes freezer bags. Sometime in the afternoon when I replenish my water supply (so that I can dry-camp), I three-quarters fill a 700mL plastic peanut butter jar weighing 60gms with treated water, dump my supper into the pre-soak jar, put the lid on securely and shake it up. I carry this water any way for the rest of the afternoon, and so it adds no additional weight. When I get to camp and have set up my hammock, I fire up my alcohol stove, dump the pre-soaked meal into my 900mL pot, and heat the already cooked meal up to eating temperature. And eat it immediately. I use Andrew’s finger-scrub method, and drink the slurry. My pot set & stove goes into my food bag and gets hung.
    Seems to work for me — especially the pre-soaking approach.
    I’m considering buying a 1L Toaks Titanium Bot the next time it comes up on Massdrop to replace my plastic pre-soak jar, thinking that it could actually replace my cook pot as well.
    The bigger issue for me is how to reduce all the plastic that I end up packing out as garbage. I’m not enamoured of washing and re-using flimsy sandwich bags.
    I’m looking for suggestions that might include carrying resealable packages of basic dehydrated ingredients, and ‘making up’ meals as I go — a spoonful of this, a cup of that, a slosh of the other. I would be bulkier and it would be slightly heavier. But surely it would be lighter on the earth … I know wilderness paddlers who use this approach very effectively. It’s also what my father did as an early recreational paddler in Algonquin nearly 90 years ago with his gunny-sack of beans, and of oatmeal, and of tea. Surely there’s a way to modernize this ‘pantry’ approach for modern distance backpacking?

  35. Amanda Tikkanen January 2, 2017 at 12:10 am #

    Mark, the pantry system I’ve seen for backpacking is all quick-cook items. Rice and noodles can be cooked and dehydrated at home to speed cooking on the trail, but you do lose some starchy water.

    1 serving starch + 1 serving protein + 1 serving plant + 1 serving fat. Spice and sweetener to taste.

    Depending on your trip you’d bring 1-3 of each of these and mix and match as you go.

    Rice + nuts + fruit + coconut oil or ghee = breakfast.

    Rice noodles + chicken + veggies + olive oil = cold noodle salad lunch.

    Rice + chicken and nuts + veggies + coconut oil, olive oil, or ghee = dinner (add curry sauce).

    One bonus is you can adjust serving sizes slightly if you’re going to be out for an extra day unexpectedly (and catch it early enough). Use 1/2 c rice instead of 2/3, for example. It adds up over a week,but isn’t as noticeable day to day.

    • Mark Whitcombe January 2, 2017 at 10:50 am #

      Thanks, Amanda — this is very much along the lines of what I am thinking!
      What do you store your bulk items in?
      I’m thinking of mainly using plastic peanut butter jars because I have many of them. Or large ziplock containers, which are eminently reusable. Or in some cases, large ziplock bags, though that’s really what I’m trying to avoid.
      Breakfasts will continue to be all the same for me — because that’s the way I like them.
      2 * 1L jars premixed nut-rich homemade granola + nido (for six breakfasts)
      Snacks and lunch are one and the same, just spread out every several hours throughout the day. This stuff could be in large ziplock bags, separated out each evening/morning into the next day’s rations.
      1 * 1L mixed nuts — for snacking and for additions to suppers
      1 * 1L mixed dried fruits — for snacking
      1 * 1L jerky — snacks
      Suppers would be as you indicate, with meals based on Andrew’s (and Glenn’s and Sara’s and other’s) basic half-dozen meals, using differing spice mixtures to change tastes.
      It’s really about what containers to use for these separate ingredients … Recommendations?

  36. Amanda Tikkanen January 2, 2017 at 11:51 pm #

    Experiment and see what works for you. If you’re concerned about space, then jars might not be the best, but they’re more durable and easier to reuse than a bag. The silicone bags mentioned somewhere above might be the happy medium you’re looking for.

    • philthy February 15, 2017 at 10:13 pm #

      I think the silicon bags weigh around 4oz which is a fairly big trade off but possibly worth it in my book

  37. dodong March 6, 2017 at 9:13 am #

    it’s as simple as this: if it baffles you to eat out of a bag, then don’t; if you are lazy, then do fbc. there is no right or wrong. to each their own truths. adamantly repeating something in a baffled, slightly ridiculing overtone does not make your argument more convincing, imo.

  38. Cara Greene August 2, 2017 at 7:53 pm #

    I like FBC because I cook for three. We can’t all eat out of the pot and we would need a huge pot if we were going to try. So, we do FBC in one large bag, which we then divide among three people (we eat out of our small backpacking coffee cups and refill). If needed, we can have a second FB cooking while we all share the first. It’s the easiest/lightest option I’ve found, but would love to hear how others handle group DIY cooking. (And we use reuseable FBs, which we do, in fact, clean and reuse.)

    • Cara Greene August 2, 2017 at 8:01 pm #

      I guess I should admit that it’s not true FBC, since I use reuseable, not disposable bags. I would add that with bags we can make stream pudding (powdered pudding mix and powdered milk in FB — add water, shake vigourously, and secure in cold stream to set up while dinner cooks).

    • Andrew Skurka August 2, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

      When I cook for a group I give each person (or have them bring) their own eating container, preferably a solo metal pot, so that they can reheat or simmer. One very inexpensive option is a Stanco grease pot, about $7. Another option is a plastic bowl or storage container, but it’s more limiting.

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