Stoves, Food, Water, and Illness on the Appalachian Trail: 2016 Thru-Hiker Survey

More so than with backpacking gear, food and water plans are different for each trail, because they depend on road access, prevalence of nearby towns, and the landscape. For example, extensive experience on the Pacific Crest Trail would be useful for shaking down your base weight prior to an Appalachian Trail hike, but the resupply and water source options would be different from those on the “Green Tunnel.”

In order to identify current food and water options on the Appalachian Trail, we surveyed almost two hundred people who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail or completed a long section in 2016. This post covers our findings regarding stoves, resupply, water treatment, and illness. For more information on the sample, check out our general information post. You can also skip to the TL;DR at the bottom for a shorter summary.

Stoves

Stove Type

graph-stove-type

About three quarters of hikers used canister fuel stoves, and stoves using alcohol fuel were the second most common. Some hikers switched models during their hike; those who did so switched to canister fuel stoves or went without a stove altogether. The only person who used a wood-burning stove changed types, as did several hikers who set out with alcohol or liquid fuel stoves.

Favorite brands and models

We asked hikers about their favorite stove that they used during their 2016 AT hike.

graph-stove-brand

The majority of hikers preferred stoves by MSR and Jetboil. Following these brands, homemade stoves were the most common.

Canister fuel favorites
msr-pocket-rocket

MSR Pocket Rocket

  1. MSR Pocket Rocket, used by 26 percent of all hikers in the survey
  2. Jetboil Flash, used by 6 percent of hikers
  3. Jetboil MiniMo, used by 4 percent
  4. MSR MicroRocket, used by 4 percent
  5. snow peak LiteMax, used by 2 percent
Alcohol stove favorites
supercat-steel-can-stove

Supercat steel can stove

  1. Homemade stoves from steel catfood-type cans, used by 3 percent of all hikers in the survey. The Supercat website has instructions on how to make your own.
  2. Homemade stoves from aluminum cans are also an option
  3. The Titanium Siphon by Toaks is a manufactured option using alcohol fuel

Stove Satisfaction and Dietary Restrictions

Actual stove type was not associated with stove satisfaction. However, no one with a dietary restriction (e.g. allergies, gluten-free, vegetarian) reported dissatisfaction with their stove, so dietary restrictions were actually related to increased stove satisfaction.1 My guess is that people with dietary restrictions may have been more careful with planning their food and cooking.

Thirteen percent of hikers (25 people) reported some sort of dietary restriction, including vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, and allergies to common foods.

graph-stove-type-diet

Like the sample as a whole, people with dietary restrictions were generally satisfied with the stove/fuel type they began with, and not many changed stove types. Like the hikers on the whole, they preferred canister fuel stoves. However, while alcohol stoves were second in popularity for the overall sample, sixteen percent of hikers with dietary restrictions chose to go without a stove.

Re-Supply

On average, hikers went 4.3 days between re-supply, give or take 1.1 days. The days between resupply were nearly the same for hikers who used stoves and those who didn’t.2

graph-resupply-format

As you can see in the graph, a higher percentage of hikers with dietary needs used mainly mail drops, or equally both strategies. However, there weren’t enough hikers with dietary needs for me to see if this difference was significant.

Nearly all (92%) of hikers reported they were “somewhat satisfied,” “satisfied,” or “very satisfied” with their resupply strategy, and they were no more likely too be more or less satisfied with any of the three strategies.3

Water

Frequency of Treating Water

We asked hikers how often they filtered water they took from natural sources.

graph-filter-frequency Overall, hikers tended to treat their water. Almost two thirds said they treated their water every time, and treating all water except direct spring water was the next most common response. Very few hikers said they never treated their water.

Water treatment type

Water treatment generally comes in four types:

  1. A pump that filters the water, requiring no wait time before drinking.
  2. Liquid chemical treatments that take a few minutes to react before the water is safe to drink.
  3. Tablets that operate the same way. Tablet treatments have been around longer than liquid treatments and, while small, are more bulky than liquid options.
  4. Devices inserted into the water bottle or bag that use UV rays to treat the water.

graph-filter-type-02

Mid-size water filters, such as the Sawyer Squeeze, were the most popular filtration system, followed by liquid chemical treatments, such as AquaMira.

sawyer-squeeze

Sawyer Squeeze pump

aquamira

Aquamira drops liquid chemical treatment

 While dissatisfaction with water treatment system was rare, half of the Sawyer Mini users (nine people) reported their Sawyer Mini stopped working, became clogged, and/or worked so slowly they replaced it with another treatment system. In contrast, only two people (1.6%) of people who used the regular Sawyer Squeeze found it too ran slowly, and no one reported it became clogged or broken.

Illness

As I mentioned in our general hiker information post, 12.1% of hikers (4 people) who did not finish an intended thru-hike quit because of illness. This included illnesses contracted on trail, such as giardia or norovirus, as well as any unrelated illness (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, etc.). Only 4.8 percent of hikers in the survey (9 people) reported they contracted a Waterborne illness during their 2016 trek, and only 4.3 percent (8 people) said they contracted Lyme disease on the trail.

Prevention

The more frequently people filtered their water, the less likely they were to contract a waterborne illness. However, the type of treatment (e.g. filter, tablets) was not a significant factor in contracting waterborne illness.4

We also asked hikers about the actions they took to prevent Lyme Disease, specifically insect repellant containing DEET, spraying their clothing with Permithrin, and checking for ticks daily.

graph-lyme-prevention

Using DEET without Permithrin or daily checks was a significant predictor of contracting Lyme Disease. In other words, people who used Permithrin and who checked daily still ended up with Lyme Disease sometimes. However, people who used DEET were actually more likely to contract Lyme Disease than those who didn’t.

Several hikers also reported carrying a Lyme Disease medication (for example, Doxycycline) in case they had a tick bite. However, I didn’t include this in the analysis because none of them specified whether or not they ended up using it.

TL;DR

  • The majority of AT long-distance hikers use canister fuel stoves, the most common model being the MSR Pocket Rocket.
  • Alcohol stoves are also common, typically handmade stoves from catfood-type cans.
  • For people with dietary restrictions (such as vegetarian), canister fuel stoves are still the most common, but going without a stove was more common than using alcohol stoves.
  • The average number of days between re-supply was 4 days, give or take 1 day.
  • About two thirds of hikers primarily bought food in town, rather than using mail drops. However, mail drops were somewhat more common for hikers with dietary restrictions. While mail drops used to be the norm on the AT, at this time, if you don’t have dietary restrictions, you probably don’t need to bother with mail drops.
  • For the most part, hikers treated their water. The less frequently they did so, the more likely they were to contract waterborne illnesses.
  • Mid-size pumps, such as the Sawyer Squeeze, are the most popular type of water treatment system.
  • About two thirds of hikers used DEET, about half checked daily for ticks, and about one third used Permithrin on their clothing.
  • However, based on rates of contracting Lyme Disease, DEET appears to have done nothing to prevent Lyme Disease. Permithrin and daily checks appear to help, but keep in mind that a few hikers still contract Lyme Disease when taking these actions.

¡Muchas Gracias!

Many thanks to all the hikers who provided information in this survey, and CONGRATULATIONS on completing your hike! Thanks also to Zach Davis for his help creating the survey, getting the word out, and his patience with me when I take too long writing these. ?

More from the 2016 Thru-Hiker Survey

Check out my previous posts on general hiker information, backpacks, footwear, shelter systems, and sleeping bags. The last post in the series, on sleeping pads and miscellaneous gear, is coming next.

Notes for the Nerds

  1. An ANOVA was conducted with ultimate stove type and dietary needs as independent variables. For dietary restrictions, = 4.77, df between subjects = 1, df within subjects = 173, = .030.
  2. Means and standard deviations for days between re-supply for each stove type: Canister fuel = 4.3 days +/- 1.1, Alcohol stove = 4.3 days +/- 1,1, Liquid fuel = 4.2 days +/- 1.4, No stove = 4.3 days +/- 0.7.
  3. A correlation was conducted between resupply strategy (ordinally) and satisfaction with resupply strategy (also ordinally). Pearson’s r = .044, r = .554.
  4. A binomial logistic regression was conducted predicting contraction of waterborne illness with frequency of filtering and type of filter as predictors. Frequency of filtering was a significant predictor B = -.84,p = .029. The overall model was not significant in comparison to a constant model, X2 = .5.097, df = 2, p = .078.
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Comments 6

  • Chuck Crookshanks : Jan 20th

    Love the research that you are doing particularly when I can apply it to hiking decisions. Thanks

    Reply
    • Steve Runnion : Jan 23rd

      I have used every type of filtration and have found the Steripen to be the effortless, easiest answer.
      I am wondering why I never see any hikers using it??

      Reply
  • Colter : Jan 25th

    Good stuff! It’s interesting how gear choices change through the years. When I hiked the AT alcohol stoves were in vogue.

    Very interesting to see the data on Lyme Disease and water treatment as well.

    Thanks for all the hard work!

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