Thru-hiking with food sensitivities- a rough guide
On August 16 I finished my hike of the Appalachian Trail. 4.5 months of near-daily intense physical effort, that required a goodly amount of fuel. Alas, I am one of those people who over the years has developed food sensitivities. Luckily (or rather, with conscientious eating + acupuncture treatments + herbal medicine) I have been able to eat some of these things in the last two years or so again, generally without feeling like complete junk. 99% of the time I just eat my dairy- and gluten- and sometimes legume- (bean) and grain- free things because it’s what makes me feel best. I knew I would want to be feeling well while hiking so just eating the typical hiker foods wasn’t going to work for me. So I came up with a plan involving maildrops, dehydrating a lot of food, and using my e-charm via e-mail to score some sweet snack donations.
Here’s my typical meals on trail:
Breakfast: Early on I planned to do no-cook here, and just eat bars/dried fruit w/nutella or nut butter. I found it wasn’t enough energy for me so I actually started cooking breakfasts as well. I just went with the easiest GF thing to find on trail- 2-3 packets of oatmeal + 1 spoon of almond or sunbutter. This was tasty and gave me energy, but whenever I would eat this my first poop of the day would not be so happy. Oats can mess me up a little, I don’t tend to eat them IRL. In the future maybe I will try some other type of cereal, maybe dehydrate some kasha or amaranth or use quinoa flakes? I don’t really love breakfast foods but on trail I enjoyed porridge more for whatever reason, and felt filled by it.
I had this chocolate chia seed pudding made with coconut milk but it didn’t really come out so well- about half the time I ended up drinking it like hot chocolate…speaking of that:
I am too much of a coffee snob to drink instant on the trail (ok, ok…I got trail magic of Via packets a couple times, those were ok…). I thought a healthier choice would be instant matcha green tea. I also had made instant cocoa out of cocoa powder and coconut milk powder (threw some spices in to make it Mexican style)…I realized that I was never finishing both packets in my drop, so I started adding some of the green tea powder to the cocoa- awesome! Trust me, chocolate and green tea totally works, plus you get way more energy and a ton of antioxidants. Um…win?
Lunch/snacks: I almost never did a proper lunch, just snacked on things throughout the day. Generally this meant a bar or two and maybe some jerky or a meat stick. I tended to not love dried fruit and nutella, which was crazy to me as those were my favorite things to eat on my hikes the year previous on a round the world trip.
I also tended to have some chips, most of the time plantain chips- these were awesome! Also awesome were vegetable chips- actual real vegetables like beets, squash, green beans- I got from Sprouts market (I am told Walmart carries the same brand- not sure how I feel about that). I had okra chips and they were more of an acquired taste, and a few of those snap-pea crisps (good, but really greasy and not always satisfying).
I am working on a review of all the bars I used, but in the meantime here’s a list: Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars (Gluten-free), RxBars (these were my favorite protein bars), Health Warrior (couple types, they were super tasty too), Macrolife Naturals bars (also super tasty), Yawp Bars (grain free), Kind Bars (meh), ExoBars (not so tasty).
In the second half of the trip I realized I needed some more protein for recovery (as well as just more calories per day) so occasionally I bought Clif Builder bars and Luna Bars which were usually the only bars I could find without dairy in them on trail. I don’t love soy but these didn’t mess up my stomach at least. In Monson I found the best bar I had on trail (and not just because I enjoyed it on Katahdin)- a chocolate one made with pumpkin seed protein powder. I have no idea what it is called now and I am super sad about this.
I thought I was going to have Larabars which are awesome as they usually only have 3-4 real food ingredients, but in retrospect I didn’t have a single one on trail. I guess it’s because they can be expensive, and don’t have much protein? I don’t know why I never bought these, I like them.
For jerky I had a TON of smoked salmon jerky from SeaBear (they also hooked me up with pouches I used in dinners). I also used Nick’s Sticks and New Primal grass-fed beef sticks, and sometimes some jerky I got from Costco for cheap.
I made a ton of trail mix up too but really didn’t want it, especially once it started getting hot. The only one I still jammed on by the end was a Persian-inspired mix with rose-flavored bits of lokum (Turkish Delight). I guess because it wasn’t so heavy tasting in the heat? In a future through-hike I would advise against getting super gung-ho there.
I had some instant hummus mix in maybe 1/3 of boxes but even though I enjoyed it, it would definitely mess up my stomach and/or poop for a couple hours. Not sure if I’d do it again.
I also had sausage/salamis in my 1st half’s boxes, it was something I found I didn’t end up liking for the most part and usually left in hiker boxes or traded with people.
I had one other lunch-time meal a couple times that I got in town, which I would try more often in the future: 1/2 avocado + Mediterranean tuna packet (150 calories!) + corn chips. Super tasty and I felt good after, yes, despite the probably GMO’d corn.
Dinner: Dinnertime was awesome, because I dehydrated some seriously awesome meals. I am not lying: I had the best dinners on trail (well, excepting anything you might have packed out from town). I still miss the dinners, actually. This was my menu:
Tom “Yummy” Soup (sorta like Tom Kha, I didn’t have all the ingredients) with vegetables and wild-caught salmon
Stewp with mashed sweet potatoes and pulled pork
Spaghetti arrabiata soup (see a theme here? I ended up just always putting a random amount of water in so things were more soupy than not) with 100% buckwheat noodles…as the summer went on I often threw a packed of tuna or salmon in there too.
A west-African-inspired soup- with coconut milk, grass fed ground beef, cauliflower, tomato powder, and either sunbutter or almond butter being the main ingredients. Sorta made out of leftover ingredients I had, but it actually came out pretty darn well. Sometimes added mashed potatoes or noodles.
“Modern German” mashed potatoes: with za’taar seasoned kale/chard, chickpeas, sauerkraut.
Turkey mole chili…soup (haha). Pretty much started adding mashed potatoes to thicken this almost from the get-go. I used pastured turkey!
These meals were super awesome and definitely a good way for me to end the day. I tend to have gourmet tastes in real life, there is no way I could have done Lipton sides or ramen + taters the whole trail even if the food sensitivities weren’t an issue. I never ever got tired of these meals. I would definitely DIY dinners again. It only took a week for me to dehydrate everything (and that was not including nights, I wasn’t allowed to run the dehydrators then). Definitely something anyone can do if they chose to! With some insanely thrifty shopping I only paid about $120ish for the ingredients for these meals (I made around 120)…yes, that’s $1/meal, you read correctly. That’s not including if I got some mashed potatoes or noodles in town to add in, so maybe add another $1-3/mail drop. I did have some Amazon credits gotten free through promos, or from some books I sold, so you could add in another $35 for the 5lb bag of coconut milk powder (I still have a good amount of this left though) and some extra for almond/nut butters which I got for free (courtesy of Barney Butter and Sunbutter). Still, that’s crazy cheap!
When I had some I would eat chocolate for dessert, although sometimes I had already eaten it earlier in the day. I had chopped up one of those giant chocolate bars from Trader Joe’s to have at least a little something in every box. When I had chocolate during the day, *I swear* the chocolate that I had that was made with low-GI coconut sugar seemed to give me a better level energy. That’s not something I ever felt I was sensitive to before but I just consistently noticed it. ALSO that chocolate seemed not to really melt like normal chocolate would, it would just get soft. I got a pretty nice hook up from LuLu’s Chocolates but also had some trail magic from Cruise Missile (check out her video blog here) in the form of Coconut Secrets organic chocolate. Definitely, definitely would pack more chocolate in the future, I just always felt awesome with it.
Shipping was cost-effective because I (uh…we- thanks mom! Get you back soon on it.) used regional-rate shipping. The boxes cost from $6.70-8.70 to ship from NJ, which was mid-point-ish on the trail. I would definitely, definitely do this again, and make sure I mailed from a place central to the trail (if you are my distant friend or colleague, and live in northern CA or southern OR, and you hear from me in the next few months, this is probably why. haha.)
Here’s the drops I ended up using on my 4.5 month hike
(Bring with you to Springer) 5 days
- Hiawassee- 6 days
- NOC- 4 days* this one got lost, and also my mom had sent 2 boxes for some reason to Hiawassee, so I had MORE than enough food. Also my appetite was crazy low at the beginning.
- Gatlinburg NOC 5 days
- Hot Springs 4.5 days
- Erwin 4 days. I bought food in Damascus although that might have been a place to drop, grocery store was a good 1-2mi away (the Dollar General in town sucked, I have no idea how people could resupply there)
- Troutdale PO 4 days* I missed this drop, it was a Friday, and I was so annoyed PO wouldn’t be open until Monday I hiked onto Marion that day and resupplied in town. I think I did like 25 miles blegh.
- Woods Hole Hostel 5 days
- Buena Vista PO 3 days *SUCH* a random town, HIGHLY recommended, though just do an in-and-out, not worth staying over for sure. So weird. I had to pick up a new trekking pole here anyway so worth it for just a 3-day drop.
- Waynesboro 6 days. They had a pretty good grocery in town, fair amount of ethnic and health-foody stuff.
- Bear’s Den Hostel 5 days
- Carlisle PA 6 days. Not the best location (I stayed at Holiday Inn which was free on points, but about 3 miles away. I think there was another hotel .5 mi away from the road crossing though) but sorta glad I mailed here- next day was the infamous Doyle Hotel and a lot of people seemed to have issues with their maildrops there when I stayed over. I got my next two boxes courtesy of family, they came up to visit at Delaware Water Gap, and in Fort Montgomery. I think each box was 5-6 days. Then I didn’t actually get another box until the end of MA! What ended up happening was there were a lot of places where the trail intersected towns and I got town food there, and saved my food bag stuff for later. Also in Great Barrington I had quite a few dinners left, I basically needed bars, so just purchased those at the Co-op in town.
- N Adams MA 5 days
- Rutland VT 5.5 days. Again I was originally going to send a box to Hanover, but found I didn’t need one.
- North Conway NH 5 days I had a buddy from grad school who hooked me up here. Gorham is probably going to be your choice for most people (can be same exit potentially depending when you get there)
- Rangeley ME 5.5 days
- Monson ME 7 days (though this was sort of, whatever is left, box)
Actually for these last two I just told my mom, put as many bars, then snacks as you can fit in the box. I guess I was good to go on the dinners.
In general I had too many dinners. Occasionally I would eat them for breakfast however, and this would make me really happy. I don’t love breakfast food.
When I say number of days above, it’s not how long it actually took me to hike (could be more or less depending) but how many days’ worth of food I got. I knew I’d have 140 days at most to hike so sort of planned around 120, figuring that I would occasionally get town food, trail magic, etc. This seemed to work for me pretty well over all.
It was pretty close to $130 to ship all these (with an average of roughly $7.75/box at the regional rate including the second box sent to Hiawassee). That’s actually less than I thought, because I had originally anticipated about 20-24 boxes.
With this setup I was able to indulge in town food that had the no-nos in it without feeling like I was going to die. Definitely though my gut felt better after a few days in the woods eating the cleaner stuff (especially if it was a week without oatmeal).
Hopefully this is of help to some people! Don’t let dietary concerns weigh you down- it’s totally possible to do a long-distance hike with a little bit of planning.
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