Dietary Restrictions on the AT: “I Lost 26 Pounds in 20 Days, and My Body Just Couldn’t Cope”
This is a guest post by Nikki “Forager” Goodrich.
I attempted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) in March 2023, but unfortunately, I had to get off trail after 20 days. Before I get to the reasons why, let me give you some background on myself and the start of my AT journey.
I have always loved being outside and hiking and camping, but I had never considered the idea of a long-distance thru-hike until 2020. I am stubborn and determined, and once I set my mind to something, I don’t usually stop until I have achieved what I set out to do. What I also should probably mention here is that I suffer from allergies: dairy, soy, cocoa, and alcohol.
I first learned about the AT while watching “A Walk in the Woods” on TV. I had recently lost my best friend to cancer and was in a bad place. We had known each other since we were extremely young, and I was struggling with living a life without her in it.
I remember feeling inspired by this film and turned to my boyfriend and said, “I think I need to do this.” He must have thought I was crazy, but being the amazing person he is, he just said, “OK,” and that was when my obsession started.
“I turned to my boyfriend and said, ‘I think I need to do this.'”
I set a potential start date in March 2023, giving myself time to research and save enough money to give up my job and take six months off to do this. Then I set about reading every book and blog post about the AT I could lay my hands on and looked into all types of gear. Meanwhile, I went on day hikes and multi-day hikes to train my body as much as possible and to test out potential gear to ensure it was right for me before hitting the trail.
I am pretty sure most of my acquaintances thought the AT was a novelty idea of mine that would soon wear off, but it became a driving force for me—a way of pressing the reset button on life while raising money for charity.
Fast forward to March 2023, and suddenly, I was in America, standing under the iconic archway of the Approach Trail. I can’t possibly describe how amazing it felt! After all that time planning, researching, and preparing, I was finally here to live out my dream of solo thru-hiking the AT.
I knew my thru-hike would be slightly different from others on the AT due to my allergies. I wouldn’t be able to make the most of the trail magic, and resupply options would be more limited for me, but I wasn’t overly concerned at this point.
As I mentioned before, I did a lot of research on the AT before hitting the trail, and some of this research did touch upon the option of sending resupply boxes for those with dietary restrictions.
“At times I was in tears in the supermarkets.”
Did I consider this option before I flew to America? Yes. Was it a viable option for me? No. The post between the UK and America is notoriously bad (and expensive). Sometimes items can take a week to arrive, sometimes six weeks. As anyone with thru-hiking experience knows, you cannot hang around in a trail town for weeks on end hoping that your resupply box finally shows up.
I also (naively, as it turns out) really didn’t think that my food options in America would be that bad, as I am used to hunting out alternative options in the UK. But I was very wrong. It quickly became apparent that food was going to be my undoing as most of the food available in trail towns for hikers contains SOY!
At times I was in tears in the supermarkets: everything I picked up that was suitable for cooking/eating on the trail had soy in the ingredients. Even brands that I was familiar with and could eat in the UK had soy in the American versions.
Most thru-hikers get really excited at the thought of going into town to resupply and get food. But for me, it was the most stressful part of the AT experience as it was so hard to find food that I could actually eat. I met a number of vegans on trail who were also finding it difficult to resupply, some of whom had resorted to eating meat again while on the AT.
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“I was trying to survive on less than 1000 calories a day while keeping up with the demands of the trail.”
As part of my preparation for the hike, I had already mentally prepared myself for leaving the trail if there was a family emergency back home or if I sustained an injury. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was having to quit because I couldn’t physically get enough food to keep me on trail.
I lost 26 pounds in 20 days. I was trying to survive on less than 1000 calories a day while keeping up with the strenuous demands of the trail. All my hiker friends were getting stronger, and I was getting weaker. I even suffered friction burns as my backpack got too big for me, despite all the straps being as tight as possible.
My body couldn’t cope, and on day 19, I fainted at the top of a mountain. It could have been disastrous: I was on my own, and the only thing that stopped me from falling over the edge was a tree that caught me. I remember coming ’round, finding myself wrapped around the tree, and looking down at the very steep decline.
“Failing would have been ignoring what my body was trying to tell me.”
The following morning, I fainted again, but this time I had an amazing hiker with me who made sure I was safe and helped me get to a trailhead to catch a ride to a hostel. Together, these two incidents were my wake-up call that it was too dangerous for me to continue my hike.
Making the decision to end my hike and return to the UK was heartbreaking. I had spent so much time researching, planning, and preparing for my hike that I felt like a failure returning home after just 20 days on the trail. I have now been home for three weeks and still have to remind myself every day that my health is more important and it was the right decision to end my hike.
Failing would be if I had ignored what my body was trying to tell me and continued on the AT regardless. Next time I passed out there may not have been a conveniently placed tree to save me—and that doesn’t bear thinking about.
I am focusing instead on what I have already and can still achieve rather than what I didn’t and so I am planning to complete various hiking trails back-to-back in the UK instead, where I know I can get the food I need to fuel myself.
I’ll finish by saying that if you want to try hiking the AT, do it! The trail is amazing and life-changing. It was everything I hoped it would be. I met so many incredible people whom I remain in contact with as they continue their journeys to Maine.
Food aside, I have absolutely no regrets about attempting to thru-hike the AT. I just wish my journey hadn’t ended so soon. In a way, I am pleased I wasn’t aware of the soy issue, as I think this would have stopped me from even trying to hike the AT in the first place.
As scary as it was when I fainted on top of the mountain, at least I got to experience a small part of this amazing trail. I can call myself a section hiker, having hiked 150.5 AT miles (as well as the extra miles for the Approach Trail and blue blazes) and made it all the way through Georgia and into North Carolina.
This blog isn’t to scare people off from attempting the AT—the complete opposite, in fact. I just want others to know that more forethought about the food aspects of the trail might be warranted for those with allergies/dietary restrictions (especially soy). If this blog helps even one future hiker, then my experience was worth it.
Thank you for reading, and happy trails.
READ NEXT –
- Weighing the Potential Health Risks of Thru-Hiking
- The Uncomfortable Truth About Thru-Hiking and Weight Loss
About the Author
Nikki “Forager” Goodrich is 42 years old and lives in Kent, United Kingdom. She raised £2,195 for charity during her time on the AT and hopes to continue to raise money by completing the Hebridean Way, Great Glen Way, West Highland Way, Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Path, Offa’s Dyke Path, and the South West Coast Path in the UK.
Featured image courtesy of Nikki Goodrich.
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Hope you are recovering well. Glad you didn’t fall down worse than you did.
I suffer from an alcohol allergy as well. My sister eventually developed one, but she pops a Benadryl & still drinks. I can’t anymore due to how badly it congests and swells me up. It’s not too often I stumble across another person who says they suffer from this condition.
Wondering if whole wheat spaghetti or egg noodles would contain any soy oils in their production. That’s gotta be rough trying to find foods that don’t weigh a ton that are shelf stable without lots of additives. Beef jerky is probably one of the few things out there that hopefully shouldn’t have any soy added. My problem is added salt…I have high blood pressure and need to limit sodium intake. Lots of freeze dried meals and regular food items add tons of salt. That’s why I resorted to making my own dehydrated and freeze dried meals. Logistically, it may be tough, but if there are better food options in the UK, you may want to have a trusted partner do drop shipments to different postal drops along your route to supplement your meal options for round 2.
Good luck out there and wishing a speedy recovery.
Having to be gluten free due to celiac, I feel your pain. I’m wondering if it would be an option for those coming to the US with dietary restrictions to pre-plan resupply boxes as far as contents and destination, then arrive a couple of days earlier to assemble and mail them. People with special dietary needs could probably get what they needed in supermarkets in the Atlanta area, assemble the boxes and mail them out. This could be done in stages at major towns/cities, each covering the next segment of the trail. The one complication may be how long a post office would hold a package, but hostels may offer more flexibility.
Possibly one may need to plan to come ahead of time if they’re from another country to do research and create there resupply boxes and set them up to arrive at the proper locations along the trail. One may also want to plan on carrying extra food with them as well.
As someone who is am Orthodox Jew, the dietary responsibilities and limitations on trail is one reason why a full hike is out of the question for now ( amongst other reasons )
Buy whatever food is necessary in the U.K. and ship it in 1 bulk container to an address in the U.S. Then find someone to coordinate drop ships for you by breaking it down into a calculated resupply. That will eliminate a lot of the cost, and keep you fed while you burn 12000 calories a day.
Thank you for sharing your experience! I had a sorta similar one on my first attempt to thru-hike the Colorado Trail. It was my first long-distance backpacking trip and I did all the research and planning possible. I made it to Buena Vista (just short of halfway) when I realized I had contracted a UTI. I was at a point where I either had to get off trail or suffer for another 4 days to the next town. The heartbreak was awful. I remember crying as I made my way to a road to hitchhike into town.
I saw an indie movie once about the AT (can’t recall the name) and the “theme” was: “Hike your own hike.” This became my motto and helped me process my ‘failure’ into a beautiful lived experience, which helped me to successfully thru-hike the trail in 2019. There are no failures, simply being there and doing it is winning. Hike Your Own Hike my friends!
Fainting in general is a scary situation. Fainting and waking up hanging over an edge? I can’t imagine. I live in CT and if you ever decide to pick up where you came off, I’d be happy to help with your resupply boxes!
Is it a typo? Was OP trying to hike on 1,000 calories a day? I hope they were planning for much more than that.
Good Lord – 1,000 calories a day? I’m so glad you’re alive. That was a superhuman effort.
My wife has celiac disease and it has severely affected her ability to engage in long-distance hiking. It seems like wheat (and soy) is in everything in the US. I hiked the Benton MacKaye Trail this spring, which runs close to the southern AT, and I can’t imagine having to resupply if I couldn’t eat soy, or wheat, or had other restrictions mentioned by other commenters here.
If you should ever be tempted to come and hike in the US again, and if you are interested in hiking the 486-mile Colorado Trail, please contact me and I would be honored to help you with resupplies. I think it is more possible to accomplish the CT using resupply boxes throughout.
My wife and I are traveling to Scotland this fall and we are looking forward to finding places that will be accommodating to gluten-free tourists and hikers. Best wishes and congratulations for doing your absolute best!
Hey Forager, thank you so much for your post. I’m vegan. I have been for 11 years. I’m also obsessed with the AT. Because of my diet choice, I’ve been concerned about surviving the trail. In an effort to get some first-hand intel on what the trail would be like for me, I posted a question on the Trek simply asking if there are ant vegans out there hiking, and how’s it going? They deleted my post. No explanation. Nothing. I sent them a follow-up email asking why it was deleted…no reply. I can’t believe they’re this rude. Be that as it may, I’ve learned a lot from your post and the comments to it. So, thank you, and happy UK trails. Best wishes, Jack B.
I’m sorry but this is a lame excuse. Even if you’re vegan you could eat a couple of pounds of dried fruit, raw nuts, boiled lentils, rice, etc. No need for processed or premade meals.
Sorry to hear about your hike ending. I can understand being frustrated trying to find food with a soy or dairy allergy at convenience stores or Dollar General but even in the rural South the grocery stores have plenty of options that would work. Someone else mentioned dried fruit and nuts which are found at every grocery store (don’t forget to look in the baking section for nuts not found in the nut aisle). You also have instant oatmeal, instant rice, foil packs of tuna, olive oil. The produce sections often have date rolls ( rolled in coconut or almonds). None of these products contain dairy or soy. You can spice things up with seasonings. Of course, with all the hostels that accept packages, there’s always Amazon where you can order any unprocessed dried food product practically on the face of the earth. Better luck next time. Maybe next time come a day early and spend some time in US Supermarkets to get a better feel of what’s available without the time crunch of a resupply.