Probably More Detail Than You Need About What I Eat on the AT
Before embarking on my thru, I had a lot of questions and uncertainty about trail food. I wanted to eat as healthfully as possible, since that was what I mostly did at home and the way I knew I could be my (physical AND emotional) best self.
The reality of trail life is such that eating fresh fruits and veggies, while not categorically impossible, is, given the need to carry as much as six days’ food at once, unrealistic. Until you’ve stuffed it into your food bag, then tried to fit that into your backpack, then carried all of it up and down hills for miles and miles, it’s hard to imagine what six days’ of food looks and feels like—how much space it takes up, how much it weighs.
It’s especially hard to conceptualize six days of food for someone burning up to 6,000 calories a day.
Of course I did research, so I knew my fare would comprise a lot of oatmeal, protein bars, ramen, tuna pouches, jerky, trail mix, and the 25 or so home-dehydrated meals I made after finding a homemade-backpacking-food web site.
But I once read that you “figure out” resupply—both the amount and type of food you’d buy in or have mail-dropped to towns—after two weeks, but by my 72nd day on the trail, although I am closer to hitting the mark on amount, I am not wholly satisfied with what and how much I carry and eat.
Before I headed out, I posted some queries in a tone of alarm at the amount of processed, sugary junk food most hikers eat. I got all sorts of commentary, from hikers mostly, explaining that such a diet was a requirement to get enough protein, sugar, and carbs without carrying 30 pounds of food. I got a comment that after a month I wouldn’t want healthy food. I got a few commiserating replies from people who went to extraordinary lengths to get their greens, including one woman who somehow grew sprouts in a bag as she walked.
The first mistake I made was taking too little food on my first leg, which wasn’t a bad mistake to make on the one hand, because in the first week your hiker hunger hasn’t kicked in and you don’t need as much as you will later. It was still a mistake, though, because it set an amount in my mind that seemed right for a 4-day, 3-night leg of sub-10-mile days that I was never quite able to shake going forward.
My second week, I felt my cravings changing, and I realized that the biological, historical reason for humans’ craving calorically dense food such as sugar, namely because they actually needed a lot of calories for running after prey and farming all day, etcetera, certainly applied to me if I was going to be engaging in 8-10 hours of cardio-ish activity a day. Hallelujah! I said, and bought, at the Franklin grocery store, the following junk food: powdered mini-donuts, Reece’s Pieces, peanut M&Ms, and cheddar Goldfish.
Also at that early stage, I recalled meeting some thru-hikers the year before, watching them put tuna on tortillas, and thinking to myself that this combo didn’t look too bad, though I’d probably go for whole wheat tortillas. Almost a year later, struggling up a hill and wishing I had ready-calories in my belly, I thought, “F**k whole wheat tortillas, gimme summa ‘dat high-glycemic-index trash!”
So, pretty readily, it seemed, I was proving my critics right: eating healthy on the trail was impossible; a calorie really was a calorie, and I really needed and wanted a lot of them.
But that turned out wrong–for me at least.
It was late in my second week; I had heard about people eating some candy just before a steep climb to power themselves up it, so I tried it with Skittles. At first, it seemed to work–whether this was a placebo or an actual energy shot, I don’t know. In any case, I felt energized and climbed faster than I expected to … until I didn’t. Okay, I thought, more Skittles. So I ate more, and put more of the hill beneath me, and ate more, and put more of the hill beneath me, until gradually I realized that each handful was fueling a shorter distance, and then I wondered whether any of it was getting me anywhere at all, and then I felt the crash.
So, screw Skittles.
For my money, the best breakfasts are the ones I made myself before my hike: oatmeal packets that contain quick-cooking Bob’s Red Mill oats, oat bran, chia seeds, whole-milk powder, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. These packets have no sugar–I add sweetness to them via dried fruit and I add fat to them via nuts, and they are absolutely delicious, plus they legitimately fuel my first two hours of hiking. The only drawback to these breakfasts is that I only had time to make about 30 of them before starting my hike, and the only way for me to get them is for Inti to mail them to me. He does send me mail drops, but it’s impractical for him to send me as many as it would take for me to eat the oatmeal every day. He would basically have to send a box to every town or hostel I stopped in, and I seldom know where I’m going to stop with enough lead time for him to send a package. He could of course send a surplus and send them less frequently, but then I would have to carry more oatmeal than I need, which option manages to be less appealing even than eating the sugary, artificially flavored oatmeal packets you can always score from hiker boxes.
Same deal with dinners. I made myself about 24 home-dehydrated meals and these were light years better than standard hiker fare, which is ramen with a tuna packet, or a Knorr pasta side (with or without tuna packet). The usual backpacking approach to dinner–with its vegetable dearth–troubled but didn’t surprise me given that most Americans’ in-the-kitchen or in-a-restaurant approach to dinner lacks greens as well.
Once I realized (tangibly remembered, really) that junk food, while appealing to me for the first time in at least a decade, doesn’t fuel me whatsoever for 8+ daily hours of challenging activity, I was right back where I started in my dilemmas and quandaries w/r/t hiking food. I wanted and needed protein for strength, complex carbs for fuel, vegetables to feel human, dried fruit and nuts for sustained energy, and salty snacks for, well, for salt.
Resupply points carry approximately one practical protein source: tuna pouches. Happily, these come in many varieties. Unhappily, all are marketed toward and designed around the American dieter’s idea of healthy; they’re low cal. Hikers, of course, want the opposite. Most of the varieties boast that they are 110 calories or fewer, which puts a laughably small dent in the 3,000-plus per day that you burn.
The list of laments I always feel when doing my resupply is long. If there is milk powder, it’s nonfat. If there are tuna pouches, they don’t have the higher-calorie (the Mediterranean and Mexican versions have a bit more oil than the other flavors) choice. If there is dried fruit, it’s part of a trail mix package that also has M&Ms or other candy that I like but which causes a crash if I eat it as anything other than a special treat. There are not only never any dehydrated veggies, there are seldom any veggies at all. I grew increasingly concerned that small town Americans are not eating any vegetables because the only produce in many, many of the little stores we visited was a miniscule selection of fruit (apples, bananas, and oranges) a handful of onions, a few tomatoes, maybe three heads of iceberg lettuce, and possibly an elderly bag of carrots and a few molding cucumbers. It’s possible that lack of demand is driving this produce paucity, but there seems to be a chicken-egg thing happening here. I can’t even count the number of other hikers who also say they are frustrated by the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets, and yet these same hikers often don’t buy what little produce they could.
Also, I think I’m in a minority in rejecting sugar as a primary calorie source. This could be a function of my age (43). Most thru-hikers are in their 20s, and it’s possible their consumption of Nutella-filled tortillas; crumbled Pop Tart-filled, honey-drizzled tortillas; and peanut butter, nutella, and Reece’s pieces, and frosting-filled tortillas really doesn’t flatten them half an hour later, the way it would me.
Another food-related challenge is coordinating mail drops. Getting mail drops is one of the happiest moments a hiker gets to experience on the trail, especially when they’re from friends and family (or perfect, kind strangers who “adopt” you after reading your blog. I’m looking at you, Ronnie). I mean who doesn’t love getting good mail? Coming into town and knowing you have a package there, knowing it will be filled with goodies, just thinking about someone thinking about you and wanting to participate in your adventure in this way, knowing they’ve gone to a significant amount of trouble and expense to buy, package, and mail you things you can’t get at the hostel’s tiny resupply point or the town’s only hardware-slash-grocery store? This feeling is unbeatable.
But coordinating mail drops is tough! People say they want to send you something, and it’s marvelous–you can’t get dehydrated veggies or dried fruit or Starbucks Via instant coffee or mayonnaise packets at most resupply points, so you really need the mail drop. But you also really don’t know where you’ll be next, or when, or what resupply will be available when you get there. It’s hard to pick the next address and make sure it’s far enough out that you won’t beat the package to the drop and wind up taking an unplanned zero to wait for it. In fact, it’s hard to know if you’ll get there at all. I got so much resupply mailed to me at the first NOC that I shipped forward more than half of it to Gatlinburg, and then I didn’t end up getting out of the Smokies to go to Gatlinburg because I planned to meet Inti at Standing Bear hostel on a certain date, so I had to have that shipped forward, too.
Then, I got so much resupply at Standing Bear that what I couldn’t unload onto other hikers (2-pound bag of Swedish fish, anyone, Ronnie, wink?) and what I desperately wanted for myself because it wasn’t otherwise gettable but was too much for me to carry three days to Hot Springs I shipped forward.
Early on, I was going to follow Zach Davis’s advice and mostly buy resupply as I went precisely because the logistics of coordinating and receiving mail is so difficult, so in many places I had no mail drop and the legs following these were tough without dried fruit, without healthy oatmeal, without coffee. Of all the standard hiker fare I wound up eating along the way, I found ramen the least objectionable. The Knorr pasta sides I tried once and only once–I got the cheddar broccoli and mixed in a tuna packet; it tasted pretty good, like tuna casserole, which I love, but made me feel like ass for hours afterward.
So what is day-to-day cooking and eating like for a hiker? How does it actually go down? For me, a typical day would be as follows:
Wake up at 5:00 or 5:30, pack up everything, get food bag from the tree it was hanging on, carry it and my Jetboil to the picnic table at the shelter and hope I don’t wake the shelter sleepers. Pour unfiltered water into my Jetboil, take 90 percent of the contents of the food bag out of it in order to find the gallon Ziploc that holds my breakfast items. I should say this is an inconvenient process, since there’s never quite enough room on the picnic table, or the picnic table is wet, or there is no picnic table, or when you set down the food bag it tips over, no matter how you try to prevent it from doing so by settling its weight. Then I open the breakfast bag and take out either one of my premade oatmeal packets or two instant oatmeal packets, and dump the contents into my titanium mug, and pour one sleeve of Starbucks Via into the little cup that attaches to the Jetboil. Then I rummage through the breakfast bag for nuts and dried fruit to add to the oatmeal. I put the empty coffee packet into my trash Ziploc and shake out the empty oatmeal Ziploc for reuse.
Once the water boils, I pour 1 cup into the oatmeal, stir with my long titanium spoon, and put the Jetboil’s little rubber lid on top of that to hold in the heat for it to rehydrate and cook. I wait a little bit for the remaining water to cool before adding it to the coffee powder; I learned that if the water is too hot, the coffee tastes burnt.
Then it’s time to eat! I love eating a hot breakfast on the trail; it’s one of my favorite things about long-distance hiking, and although I’ve sometimes eaten bars instead to save time on big-mile days or to save hassle on very wet mornings, I vastly prefer the hot meal. There are few creature comforts on the AT; for me, breakfast is a reliable one. After eating it’s time to do the dishes! I put about a quarter cup more water into the Jetboil and heat it up, then pour it first into the coffee cup, swirl, and then pour that same water into the oatmeal cup. I start scraping down the sides with the titanium spoon until the water has cooled enough for me to use my fingers to rub the sticky oatmeal out. I swirl and drink the dishwater and repeat. Then I use one of my two bandanas to dry out the mug, the cup, and the Jetboil itself, and then pack the fuel canister and stove back into the Jetboil, screw the cup on to the bottom and the lid onto the top.
I now rummage through the food bag for my snack Ziploc and take out two or three things to eat later, to have accessible so I don’t have to open my backpack’s main compartment. Usually this is a Builder’s protein bar and a bag of nuts or banana chips. If it’s the first day out of town, it might include a luxury piece of fresh fruit.
Those calories really fuel me well for about two hours, as I mentioned, and then I feel–almost to the precise moment–when my body has burned through them. At that point, assuming it’s not raining, I look for a nice spot for a break, sit down on a log or lean up against a tree, and drink water and eat the snacks. Depending on shelter location, if I reach one early in the day and I’m not going too many miles that day, I might take out my notebook and do some journaling, too.
The Builder protein bar is amazing, with 20 grams of protein, and really fuels me; I can take a pretty late lunch.
Lunch is always my most problematic and challenging meal of the day. The thing that seems to fuel me best is a tuna packet on a tortilla with a mayonnaise packet for calories and palatability; however, it’s boring as f**k. Once or twice, I’ve done a hot lunch–ramen, and once, the ill-fated Knorr pasta side–but usually it’s the tuna and tortilla. It’s got protein, it’s got carbs, it’s got fat, and it doesn’t taste terrible. When I have the freeze-dried veggies lovingly sent to me in mail drops, I sprinkle those on top and they help immensely, but usually I don’t have these, so lunch is pure fueling, no pleasure in it.
Another problem with lunch is that, likely because I usually eat it quickly and feel an urgency to get going again (damn big-mile days) and strap on a tight, heavy pack immediately after eating, I often get afternoon heartburn. At first I thought I was simply eating too much, or eating the wrong food (I ditched summer sausage after the first two weeks), but even with a light tuna-tortilla lunch I get the heartburn unless I give myself a good 30 minutes to digest, which most days feels like too much of a luxury.
After lunch, I typically walk without stopping until I reach the shelter or campsite where I’m staying for the night, anywhere between 4 and 6 p.m. Unless I’ve walked a hideous number of miles, I’m not usually hungry until later, and even then I’m not usually very hungry.
I first pick a spot for my tent and set that up, then I again carry the Jetboil, some unfiltered water, and my food bag to the shelter’s picnic table or, if I’m at a campsite, to whatever log or rock someone has pulled close to a fire ring. I go through the same routine of emptying out almost the entire food bag to find the dinner Ziploc. If I’m lucky enough to have dehydrated veggies, I’ve likely pre-hydrated them at lunchtime by pouring just a tiny bit of water into a Ziploc with them and whatever pasta I’m going to eat with them (Annie’s Organic mac & cheese for the win). In that case, I’ll boil more water and pour that and either tuna or, if I’m lucky enough to have gotten some in a mail drop, chicken (very few resupply points carry chicken pouches) into the Ziploc, then, leaving a little bit of water in the Jetboil, put the entire Ziploc back into it and cover it to keep it hot while it rehydrates. (This process works only if I have pre-hydrated both the veggies and the pasta. If I’ve forgotten to do this, I have to properly cook everything in the Jetboil, which I avoid for two reasons: 1) to have less cleanup and 2) because the Jetboil’s flame is so strong that it’s hard to reduce it enough to achieve a simmer.)
Again, the homemade dehydrated meals are about fifty times better tasting and better fueling than anything I could cobble together out of town resupplies, but between cleaning, cutting, cooking, and dehydrating the vegetables and cooking and dehydrating the meats and then assembling the meals, it was months of work for just 25 of them, so most of the time it’s ramen or Annie’s plus tuna. Womp.
Hunger on the trail is unlike hunger at home, and eating on the trail is very different from eating at home. Your relationship with food becomes very clean–when you need calories, you consume them. It’s elemental. I’m not saying I never eat food I don’t need on the trail; I confess to enjoying an afternoon cup of coffee and a few Famous Amos cookies once in a while. Despite thinking I wouldn’t lose weight on the trail, in the first month, I did get drastically skinny. Then I leveled out, starting putting on muscle, and even gained some weight back.
Right now I’ve been off the trail just over a week, trying to heal a stress fracture in my foot, and I weigh more than I did before I started my hike. As grim as the food options are out there, I confess that I miss having such a close relationship with my body’s true caloric needs. Don’t get me wrong; I’m enjoying the gluttonous surplus here, but there’s something really pure about eating dinner, hanging your food bag, getting into your tent for bed, and then realizing an hour later that you didn’t get enough calories and getting the food bag back down, eating a protein bar, and rehanging the bag. Not getting the munchies, not emotionally wanting food, not eating out of boredom, but legitimately needing more food. I miss that.
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