Kale on Trail, Swill in the Ville (Eating Well on the CDT)

Let’s talk about food!

By the time you read this, we’ll be headed west on a multi-day journey to the Crazy Cook monument at the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail! First stop: Tucson, for a final shakedown in Catalina State Park and some family hangout time, then the train to Lordsburg, NM, and finally the CDTC shuttle to the border. We’ll start walking north around 10:30am, and no doubt will immediately begin anticipating lunch. 

It’s important to shake down every aspect of a long hike. A diner breakfast failure on trail would be embarrassing for everyone.

The first few meals on trail will have the shine of novelty, but soon we’ll be jonesing for town food, maybe telling each other bedtime stories about the burger toppings we’ll select when we get back to Lordsburg on Day 5. We will enjoy these fantasies while living mainly on high fiber, mostly vegetarian meals from home–things like black bean-quinoa chili, sprouted lentils and basmati rice with baba ganouj and sun-dried tomatoes, and Szechuan tofu and vegetables with brown rice noodles.

The title to this article describes the key to my food strategy:

Eat healthy on trail, eat whatever you want in town.

Many hikers proudly live on Pop-tarts, tortillas, gummy worms, and ramen on trail. They figure if they’re burning 4,000 calories per day eating healthy doesn’t matter, or can be accomplished by adding a daily dose of some green powder–and they seem to do fine. Good for them!

My experience has been that simple carbs and sugar are terrible fuel for hiking for me. They provide a 40-minute energy burst and then a crash, requiring more sugar. A few rounds of this leaves my stomach sour and my mouth furry, and a few days of this leaves my digestion sluggish. I do best when more of my energy is coming from fat, low-glycemic carbs, and protein. (That’s not to say I don’t like some candy to get me through the afternoon–after a hearty, wholesome lunch.)

I do not recommend these as a main course.

Eating whole foods on trail makes me feel better so I can hike farther, and it’s more practical than the reverse: I get to arrive to town with a hankering for deep-fried goodness and melted cheese, which is what town is good at! It’s no fun at a bar where everything on the menu is beige if your soul is crying out for broccoli and kale, and it’s not possible to dehydrate mozzarella sticks and beer.

(Bounce) Boxing Day

One of our last tasks before leaving home (and our beloved kitties) was to mail ourselves boxes containing food, gear, maps, and refills of various necessities that might be hard to find on trail. Some of these are going straight to where we need them; others will “bounce” along, meaning we’ll take what we need and send them ahead, and/or break them into multiple single-destination boxes. We started by making a basic itinerary for the hike, taking into account elevation, long water carries, access to towns, and how in shape we’ll be in different phases. While I’m sure we’ll “break” the schedule within the first weeks if not days, now we have a general plan to keep our pace in check, and a good tool for estimating how much food we’ll need along the way.

Everyone behind me in the post office line was super excited about this pile of boxes.

We expect our journey to take about 145 days. At least 15 of those will be “zero days,” meaning zero miles hiked: wake up in town, go to sleep in town (which automatically means at least two nights in town). We can safely assume there will be at least ten more nights when we will stay in town but won’t zero (that is, we will set out again on trail the following day). All in all, we’ll spend about 40 nights in motels or campgrounds, and will eat in town most of those nights. Subtracting 40 from 145, we need about 105 dinners to eat on trail.

They won’t all be homemade–sometimes we’ll have those fancy pre-made hiker meals, such as our favorite Thai curry from Good to Go. Occasionally we’ll succumb to hiker trash ways and enjoy meals based on instant faves from Dollar General (after a day of especially difficult climbs, I’m partial to what I call a Buffalo bomb: a packet of Idahoan mashed potatoes with a couple sticks of cheddar and a packet of Buffalo chicken embedded in the middle.) About 85-90 of our 105 trail dinners will be homemade–I confess I lost count at some point and just kept making food, so we have some homemade cold-soak lunches, too.

Ingredients (prepped and purchased) waiting to become meals. Food prep began in January.

It was fun figuring out how to make meals we will enjoy that would also work with dehydration. Some recipes are best cooked up as usual and then dehydrated (chili, curry)  while others work better as an assemblage of prepped ingredients. Fats will tend to go rancid and impede drying, so we’ll add fat on trail by carrying a small bottle of fancy olive oil (leak-proof, with a spout). I’ve added lots of protein through strategic use of nutritional yeast, sprouted lentils and mung beans, goat milk powder, tofu, textured vegetable protein, and Quorn (makes great “taco meat”).

Some fun discoveries on our dehydration journey:

  • A large can of La Preferida refried pintos plus a can of Rotel is a shortcut to deliciously seasoned instant refried beans.
  • Tofu should be frozen first to make it spongy, then cut up. It soaks up marinade, dries evenly, and makes its own sauce.
  • Frozen green beans, peas, black-eyed peas, broccoli, and corn dehydrate very well–just pour them frozen onto the dehydrator screen. They are mostly water, so they end up very small and light for the nutrients they contain.
  • Sweet potatoes can be mashed and seasoned, then dried like fruit leather to eat as a snack or add to recipes.
  • Dried bananas are sweet and chewy, tasting nothing like those noxious fried banana slices that show up in trail mix.
  • If you put rice on the drying screens, be prepared for it to fall through to the bottom once it’s dry. Dry rice by itself, trust me on this.

Cooking and dehydrating rice and pasta makes it healthier–the carbohydrate chains get longer = lower glycemic index.

In addition to most of our dinners, I’ve made most of Todd’s breakfasts, which are each about 500 calories and consist of oats plus fruit or other healthy additions like flax, chia, peanut butter powder, walnuts, and so on. These can be cold soaked overnight in his Talenti jar. I’m doing something similar with chia and hemp instead of oats.

For myself, I’ve made protein recovery shakes from grass-fed whey protein, collagen, sugar, salt, plus a flavoring for each batch such as cocoa, PB2 powder, powdered freeze-dried berries, or instant espresso. I like to have these at the end of the day because I’ve found they prevent my legs from cramping in the night. (I also heavily supplement magnesium, which prevents muscle cramps and headaches.)

For New Mexico, each box is a food resupply to the next town plus whatever gear needs to be added or swapped. The box for Pie Town, pictured below, includes town foods we’d ordinarily buy on trail at a grocery store, like salmon and crackers, because there is no shopping there. On the other hand there are good restaurants in Pie Town (guess what they serve), and we hear there’s a bountiful hiker box at the Toaster House hostel where people have offloaded extra food, so I tried not to go overboard on the snacks. The numbers on the sticky note came from the itinerary, by this logic: we’ll have four days until the next city (Grants), we might not be able to pick up our box there the day we arrive, and there’s no shopping in Pie Town.

There are also some birthday surprises hidden in here, don’t tell.

When we arrive to Chama, NM we’ll evaluate the snowpack in the San Juans to decide whether we’re continuing north into Colorado or flipping up to Wyoming. The box I’m sending to Chama is for all of Colorado, with a couple of flat boxes included, and index card address labels for each town I think we’ll send to.

Finally, when we get to Wyoming my brother will send us a big box we’re leaving with him in Tucson, from which we’ll send several smaller boxes forward into the 200-mile section of trail that follows the Idaho-Montana border, and a bounce box beyond it. Because some towns there have nothing more than a motel and a bar, we’ll add groceries we buy in Wyoming.

Continental (Divide) Cuisine

Most of our meals just need cold soaking OR hot water and little to no cooking time. Because Todd will be with me and we’ll need bigger dinners, I’ve upgraded from my usual 700mL Toaks pot (which Todd will carry as a mug and dinner bowl) to the Vargo Bot 1L. This ingenious titanium cooking pot has a screw-on lid with a gasket so it can also be used as a water bottle and for cold soaking, then flip the lid over to use for cooking. Todd will carry a Talenti sorbet jar to cold soak his breakfasts and single-serving lunches.

Getting in a couple of 14-mile days with full packs around Ann Arbor before the long journey to Crazy Cook.

Here’s what I’ll eat on a typical day in New Mexico:

  • The night before: put cold soak breakfast in the Vargo Bot, add water, stir, store overnight in bear-proof container. 
  • First liter of water: with a capsule of potassium salt dissolved in it, to help me hold onto more water early in the day.
  • Breakfast: overnight oats with chia, hemp, and dried fruit. ~400 kcal
    • Rinse lightly, drink the rinse water, add cold soak lunch!
  • Second breakfast: after we’ve been hiking about 1.5 hours, eat a Luna bar. ~200 kcal
  • Late morning snack: after another hour or two, a big handful of dried fruit and nuts. ~200kcal
  • Lunch: cold-soak sprouted lentils and veggies with added olive oil, plus crackers and a packet of salmon. ~400 kcal
    • Rinse lightly, drink the rinse water, add dinner to Vargo Bot for cold soaking if desired.
  • Early afternoon snack: Peanut M&Ms, the greatest hiking fuel on Earth. ~250 kcal
  • Mid-afternoon snack: Pouch of sunflower butter, kale chips, and dried fruit. ~200 kcal
  • Recovery shake: As soon as we quit hiking for the day (whether before or after dinner), 40g protein and ample electrolytes. For Crazy Cook to Silver City the flavor is chocolate. ~250 kcal
  • Dinner: Egg noodles with peas, sour cream powder, freeze-dried green onions, dill, salt & pepper, cold soaked and then heated. To serve, I’ll add olive oil and a package of tuna per person to make “tuna noodle casserole,” and sprinkle potato chips or Fritos on top. (Meals are labeled with calories so we know when to add more!) ~500 kcal each
  • Bedtime snack: Last thing before securing the Ursack and heading to bed, I eat something fatty and full of carbs to make sure I won’t wake up hungry in the middle of the night. Usually it’s another bar, nut butter, or trail mix–whatever I have extra. ~200 kcal

Total daily intake on trail: ~2500-2700 kcal 

That’s less than I’m burning in the early days of the hike, but not by too much, and I’ll make up the difference in town–or when wild trail magic appears. I’m carrying a few extra winter pounds, but I don’t want to lose weight too quickly and put my body in starvation mode–I want to sleep well, and build muscle.

Who knows which of the above choices will turn out to be genius, and which we will regret? The good news is there’s nothing stopping us from switching things up as we go.

There’s nothing left to do now but get going.

Two little hobbits about to leave the Shire, already missing the seltzer.

Next Time: Traveling to the desert, last-minute change-ups, and first night on trail!




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Comments 3

  • Julie : Apr 20th

    Thanks for this very inspiring and helpful post! I took notes. 🙂

  • Amy Spooner : Apr 23rd

    This prep work suits your exceptional lawyer brain perfectly! I love reading about all of the logistics. Safe travels to NM!
    (I originally mistyped sage instead of safe, which I guess is also accurate. Wishing you safe and sage travels…)

  • Becky Klapil : May 16th

    Wow! You are amazing! I saved this whole post. The food and nutrition info is fascinating and informative! Love your writing too, beige bar food lol not fun. Following ! Happy trails…


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