Strange Food Combinations: Weird Stuff That Thru-Hikers Eat
No surprise here, food is one of the most commonly discussed topics during a thru-hike. At least that was my experience on the Appalachian Trail. Yet while many of us thru-hikers discuss the ominous and ever-present hiker hunger that appears during the second half of the hike, we frequently overlook the loss of appetite that can strike during those crucial first few weeks on trail.
Counterintuitively, just when caloric needs are ramping up, the body shuts down the digestive tract. Whether it’s due to nerves, excitement, the physical shock of drastically increased exertion, or a simple change in diet, those who lose their appetite understand how important it is to find meals that taste great.
Luckily, there are many options for hikers to choose from! From freeze-dried pre-made meals to custom concoctions, all hikers will discover favorite meals that both fill them up and provide those necessary calories. While finding our favorites during my AT thru-hike, many of my trail family uncovered unique and unexpected cravings that showed up on trail and in town. (Un)surprisingly, it was these weirdest combinations that often tasted incredible after being on trail for a few hundred miles.
Read on to learn about some of the weirdest food combinations I enjoyed during my thru-hike. Even if you don’t love my treasured hiker trash delicacies, hopefully they spark some new meal ideas of your own. Now let’s get started.
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Ramen is a magical food of the Appalachian Trail and long trails everywhere (probably). Everyone seems to eat it, from double ramen to the ramen bomb (ramen mixed with instant mashed potatoes). Long term, you’ll want to mix in more nutritionally varied foods, but these noodles can be a silver bullet when your appetite ebbs.
Yes, ramen is an excellent source of calories and weighs next to nothing (and costs next to nothing), but I found additional value in this cheap fuel source: salt. Especially for hikers who don’t love the taste of Liquid I.V. or other electrolyte drink mixes, scarfing down a double ramen at the end of the day is an excellent way to replenish the all-important (and delicious) sodium content that we lose while hiking. Not that ramen is a ‘health food’, but it does some things really well.
However, if you make ramen a staple of your trail diet, then you might find that flavor fatigue is a real affliction. Fortunately, there are other ways to doctor up your ramen if you get tired of the same old off-the-shelf flavors:
Add some peanut butter
Adding peanut butter to almost any ramen flavor (my favorite is soy sauce) tastes great and adds more protein while boosting the calories of the dish. Plus, just a sporkful of peanut butter mixes with the broth to create a peanut sauce reminiscent of Pad Thai. If you want even more protein, create your own Tuna Pad Thai with a classic or sweet and spicy tuna packet.
Try your ramen raw
For those not carrying a stove, ramen is still an option! Cold soaking is always fair game if you have patience, but I hiked with someone who crunched on their uncooked ramen as a ready-made snack. Simply crush up the ramen into bite-sized pieces, put it in a ziploc bag, shake in the flavoring packet, and dive in! This option provides more calories than potato chips while satisfying that incessant craving for salty snacks.
Don’t use the seasoning
If you take the seasoning out of your ramen, you leave the door wide open to adding different flavors to your pasta dinner. As a true Southerner, my favorite ramen ‘fancifier’ was barbecue pulled pork packets. The BBQ flavor creates an excellent pasta sauce and the added protein of the pork made for a more fulfilling dish. If pulled pork isn’t your jam, you can add your favorite tuna packet instead. If you’re vegetarian, toss the noodles with a bag of lentil curry.
At the end of the day, there are plenty of ways to get creative with your ramen. Add summer sausage, salami, veggie flakes, beef jerky, nuts, and other trail foods for more variety in your ramen experience.
Dinner was almost ceremonial for our trail family during our thru-hike. We would pull into camp, collect wood to start a fire, set up tents, and pull out our stoves to cook dinner and eat as a tramily.
Spending this time together meant that we not only enjoyed our own dinners, but we also benefited from cross-pollination. Investigating and sometimes trying those other delectable meals as we sat around the fire was fun, delicious, and educational. Some of my favorite combos that we tried during this time included:
Meatballs and mashed potatoes
While somewhat heavy (10oz/pack), Hereford meatballs provide both calories and protein for hungry hikers. Adding these balls and their accompanying spaghetti sauce to your mashed potatoes (or unseasoned ramen) creates a fulfilling treat. I’d recommend trying it as your first meal out of town so that you’re not stuck carrying those heavy meatballs for too many days.
Cornbread stuffing simply needs water to rehydrate, which is easy to do while on trail. However, if you want to take it to the next level add chicken salad and gravy mix to the bag. All combined, these ingredients transform into something resembling a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. The celery of the chicken salad provides a satisfying crunch to the otherwise creamy mixture. The only ingredient I wished I had to complete the combo was dried cranberries for a sweet touch.
Fried spam and cheese
This may not seem like a super weird combination to many, but as someone who had never eaten spam prior to thru-hiking, this combination made for a surprisingly delicious dinner. Hard cheeses kept better in my food bag and were easy to cut into pieces that would melt onto the fried spam. I was also guilty of eating the combination raw in a tortilla for lunch.
Peanut butter and trail mix tortilla
Using some of the most commonly carried trail ingredients, one of our trail family members swore this combination tasted just like a Snickers bar, but you can be the judge of that. Try it after one of your delicious dinners for a sweet treat at the end of the evening.
Wild mushrooms and butter
I don’t suggest doing this if you’re not confident about mushroom foraging, but I counted myself lucky to be hiking with some experts. Carrying out a small packet of butter takes Chantilly mushrooms and Chicken of the Woods mushrooms to the next level.
With those fried-up mushrooms, spam, tuna, rehydrated refried beans, or other favorites, simply add some cheese and throw it in a tortilla. This creates the basis of a delicious quesadilla. All you need now is a fire and the right roasting stick (I recommend one with two prongs). Balance your dinner on the stick and hold it over your fire — when the cheese melts and the tortilla crisps, you’ll have a gourmet dinner for the evening!
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Fast Food For Fast Feasting
While not a strange combination of typical trail foods, don’t neglect the humble fast food grabbable as a legitimate source of quick calories. While nearly anything will do (fries are the miserable exception), I was introduced to the McDonald’s resupply challenge while on the AT. This consists of packing out only McDonald’s burgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Rather than participate, I simply chose to enjoy several McDonald’s burgers while in town, but even tepid fast food is likely to cause mumblings of, “this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” or similar. Taco Bell, and frozen burritos in general, are another can’t-lose portable town-food option.
Breakfast of Champions
For me, breakfast was the hardest meal of the day, and most of the time I needed to force myself to eat. At home, I rarely eat first thing in the morning, but breakfast calories are necessary when you’re trying to walk a marathon every day. The answer: sugar (aka carbohydrates).
Of course, I’d eat a protein bar or something of more substance along with the chosen sugar for sustained energy and a longer-lasting full feeling. For me, Pop-Tarts proved to be the easiest food to choke down, and, surprisingly, some dietitians even recommend consuming Pop-Tarts prior to working out due to their easily digestible simple carbs.
Pop-Tarts aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Plus, variety is key if you don’t want to get bored with your breakfast choices. For this reason, in addition to Pop Tarts, many of my trail family became connoisseurs of the humble honey bun. Comparing the calorie count in our favorite brands was a regular topic of discussion. Summing up, here is the info for each of our favorite brands:
- Duchess: The regular Duchess honey bun has 340 calories, and the jumbo version 560.
- Little Debbie: The standard Little Debbie honey bun has 230 calories while the Big Honey Bun offers 460.
- Tastykakes: A glazed Tastykake honey bun offers an astounding 590 calories! And the iced version has even more with 720 calories.
- Hostess: Hostess offers a jumbo honey bun with 560 calories, the iced version with 570, and the devil’s food version with 580.
- Mrs. Freshley’s: Mrs. Freshley’s offers several honey bun options, including the standard glazed with 210 calories, the jumbo honey bun with 590 calories, and the grand iced honey bun with 720 calories.
But what about weird breakfast?
Okay, I know that Pop-Tarts and honey buns aren’t exactly strange, and because I promised weird food combinations, here’s one of my strangest breakfasts from trail. It was also one of my favorites. A trail angel ran out of breakfast sausage while cooking up hot breakfast so he substituted hot dogs instead. If that seems like a subtle change, I can tell you that alongside breakfast pancakes, hot dogs are a little strange — and delicious. If you don’t believe me, try wrapping a hot dog in a pancake with maple syrup at home and enjoy!
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As a frequent salad-eater in my off-trail existence, adjusting to the high-calorie, junk food diet of the Appalachian Trail was not easy. However, after a while, I was happy to eat anything that would provide me with the calories I needed to fight off lethargy throughout the day. Ultimately, my favorite way to get calories was by combining plain ramen with pork barbecue, as described above. Even better if I remembered to pack out a beer to enjoy with my evening meal!
Loss of appetite is unfortunately a part of the trail for certain hikers. While some are veritable garbage cans to begin with, it might take others some time to develop their on-trail food preferences. If this is you, then don’t lose heart. If you find something that sounds appetizing, then go for it even if it might not be the ‘right’ choice. Hiking all day every day is hard, so fuel up any way that you can, even if you’d be ashamed to tell your parents about it. Sometimes, the stranger the better.
Featured image: Jamie Angle photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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