How to Eat (Well) on the Trail
Almonds. You know, I was sure I’d be sick of these things by the time I finished my thru-hike. I generally remember the exact day I said no more to many of the foods I had come to rely upon for nourishment during my hike. But not almonds. I swear, I could eat smoked almonds every day for the rest of my life and be just fine. Who would’ve guessed?
Too bad that wasn’t the case with over half of the foods I consumed while navigating my thru-hike. Truth is, there was a lot about eating on the trail that took me by surprise.
Before starting my 2016 thru-hike of the AT, I did tons of research (mostly about gear), read lots of online trail journals and made weekly trips to the REI flagship in downtown Seattle to buy new toys and return what I didn’t like. I already had a good base of knowledge about backpacking – I spent my childhood in the Boy Scouts and my twenties hiking and camping in the mountains of North Georgia.
But I had no idea what I was going to eat on the trail – I only thought I knew. I spent more time learning how to tie knots I’d never use (total waste of time – jackass-level pointless, in my opinion) than I did learning about what long-distance backpackers actually ate in the woods. I’d read plenty online to know about “hiker hunger” and heard more than a few stories of backpackers nearly forced off-trail due to malnourishment. But for some reason, I figured eating on the trail would work itself out. And it did, sort of. I soon found myself with just a few weeks before my departure and starting to get a little nervous – I really had no clue how to eat on the trail. I needed some help.
1. Talk to Your Doc.
I’m 5’7” and weighed 150 pounds at the start of my hike. I knew my pack’s initial base weight would be roughly 32 pounds (I carried a lot of stuff, but that’s another story). I was sure I’d need to consume more food, and therefore more calories, than usual make up for the extra weight. I also knew enough to know I’d need to pay attention to my protein intake. Beyond that, I honestly didn’t have a clue.
Thankfully, I sought the advice of a nutritionist – she certainly set me straight. I was surprised to learn I’d be burning anywhere from 4,800 to 6,000 calories per day! She calculated this assuming I’d be carrying a 40 to 45 pound pack (that’s with food and water), bringing my on-trail weight total to 190 to 195 pounds! I didn’t realize the addition of a full pack would cause my caloric needs to increase so much. And, in order to simply maintain muscle mass, I’d need to consume at least 100 grams of protein per day – that’s a lot of beef jerky!
She rather bluntly told me I needed to re-think what I thought I knew about food and eating on the trail. To ensure I meet my caloric and protein needs, she suggested I consider adding things to my food bag like protein bars and almonds (as you know, I love almonds). She also pointed out I could make simple substitutions to my diet, like eating couscous instead of ramen, to help reach my on-trail dietary goals.
Hint: I never really paid much attention to nutrition labels prior to starting my thru-hike. I was surprised to find several ways to maximize my caloric and protein intake simply by reading nutrition labels and applying a little critical thinking. For example, flour tortillas have a surprising amount of protein (14 grams per serving) and hold up well on the trail.
2. Practice Makes Perfect.
It was my first night on the trail – I was attempting to cook dinner at the Springer Mountain Shelter when another thru-hiker (the one-and-only Savage) leaned over and whispered, “I’m afraid of my stove.” I nervously laughed – what the hell had I gotten myself into? But the truth is I, and probably everyone else sitting at that picnic table, had little to no idea what we were doing. I ended up with soupy couscous mixed with limp, slimy Spam that first night – it was bland and pretty disgusting.
The funny thing is I cook a lot at home in the real world. But in the weeks leading up to my departure, I didn’t cook a single trail meal, not one. I tried out my stove once in my apartment and that was only to make sure I knew how it worked.
I learned the hard way. In that first week on-trail, I made several absolutely disgusting dinners I ended up forcing myself to choke down. I could have eliminated a lot of stress and stomach shame had I practiced cooking trail food before I left.
Hint: If your cooking pot lacks liquid measurement markers on the inside, carve or etch your own (1 cup, 2 cups, etc.) before hitting the trail. That way you’ll know how much water to add before attempting to make ramen, pasta, rice, couscous, whatever – I sure wish I had.
3. To Mail Drop or Not to Mail Drop?
I was on the fence about organizing mail drops prior to starting my thru-hike (if you don’t already know, a mail drop is a pre-planned food/meal package you organize prior to leaving for your hike – a friend or family member will then ship it to you at the appropriate time and place).
Then I ran into a huge beef jerky sale at a drugstore in my neighborhood. By this time, I had already consulted the nutritionist and knew I’d need lots of lean protein in my diet – and a single 3 oz. bag of jerky would provide nearly a third of my daily needs. Over the course of two weeks, I bought over 130 bags of name brand beef jerky at a 70% discount. For me, that settled it – I’d be a mail dropper.
The savings I accrued by purchasing the jerky at a steep discount would more than cover the shipping costs for my mail drops. I purchased other items to add to my mail drops as needed – foods like dried cranberries and flavored almonds as well as toiletries like mini toothpastes, hand sanitizer, and small tubes of Dr. Bronners.
While mail drops make sense financially, I eventually got tired of eating the same foods every day. I remember catching a whiff of teriyaki-flavored beef jerky one afternoon and feeling like I was gonna puke – I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had inadvertently ruined one of my favorite foods due to overconsumption. The same thing happened to protein bars – it didn’t matter what flavor I ate, I could barely stomach them by the time I got the Maine.
Hint: Should you decide to organize mail drops, you’ll need to find friends or family back home to help you pack and ship them. Utilize those helpful folks back home regardless! I got the following idea from fellow thru-hiker Push – reach out to all of your friends and family and ask them to send you some edible surprises along the way. As soon as I asked friends and family to send me treats (outside of what I was already mail-dropping to myself), I found that most of them were totally receptive to sending me snacks – and the added variety was extremely welcome and, at times, hilariously comical.
4. Eat What Tastes Good!
I started hiking north with a 16-pound food bag packed to the brim with foods I never ate in the real world (and didn’t really even like to begin with), instant oatmeal and tuna packets being the primary offenders. I initially purchased and carried these items because I read online that these were the real foods long-distance backpackers ate. What was I thinking??
Again, I largely ate in total misery that first week. I found I couldn’t even give this crap away. I was carrying next to nothing that I actually enjoyed. I was so hungry by the time I summited Blood Mountain on day four, I dove into the hiker box at Mountain Crossings and started stuffing my face with whatever I was able to scrounge up – I probably ate a sheer pound of homemade trail mix. Then I went inside the outfitter and bought all the things I had been craving – macaroni and cheese, Nutella, Snickers bars. I even bought and packed out Doritos. I learned my lesson.
Hint: Keep a food diary once on-trail – it really helped me remember what I liked and what was easy to prepare at the end of a long day hiking. And having that list made my resupply a lot easier once I got to town – it took the guesswork out of shopping.
5. Resupply as Frequently as Possible.
I started hiking north with a 20-liter dry sack capable of carrying a six-day resupply – and I stuck to that weekly resupply schedule the first month of my hike. Big mistake. I’d sometimes leave town with an 18-pound food bag and end up unnecessarily breaking my back for the first few days. What a waste of energy!
I eventually bought two 7-liter dry sacks. Not only could I better organize my food supply (snacks versus meals), I was forced to hop off trail more frequently. And this made a big difference – my food bags never weighed more than 14 pounds after I made the switch. I found I could quickly catch a hitch at a road crossing or trailhead, buy three or four days’ worth of food, maybe grab a quick burger in town, and be back on the trail in under two hours. I had to get it through my thick skull that resupplying didn’t necessarily mean wasting a lot of time in town.
Hint: Before I started my thru-hike, I envisioned eschewing society and wanting to spend as much time in the mountains as possible. Again, what was I thinking?? Get into town whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even a few hours in town provided me with a chance to take a short, but much needed, mental break from the trials of the trail.
6. Eat Fresh!
Another benefit to resupplying every three to four days is the ability to buy fresh meat and vegetables – something I had totally taken for granted. When I’d stay in town overnight to shower, do laundry and recharge batteries (both literal and emotional), I’d find myself at the town buffet eating things like steamed broccoli and steak instead of the pizza and Chinese food I assumed I’d be craving. My body was demanding real meat and fresh veggies – I never saw this coming!
Then I’d hop back on-trail and go back to gorging myself on Rice Sides and Nutrigrain bars, thoroughly missing the fresh foods I’d eaten the day prior. The thought never even crossed my mind that I could be eating like this on-trail as well!
I started out with kale – I discovered if I cleaned and prepped it ahead of time in my hotel room or hostel, it would last at least two days in my pack. Throw a handful into a pot of couscous and, like magic, I had my fresh food fix! As time went on, I got more and more creative.
I started packing out peaches, plums and strawberries, then carrots, zucchini and bell peppers. On a few occasions, I bought frozen sausages, pre-sliced onions and peppers, and eggs. Nothing like sausage and peppers for dinner and then cracking a few eggs into my pot of leftovers for breakfast.
Hint: Give fresh baked bread a try. I eventually got sick of tortillas (even the flavored ones) and experimented with garlic naan, Italian flatbread and ciabatta rolls. I found that rye or pumpernickel (if that’s your thing) lasts longer than white bread and seems to hold up quite well.
7. Spice It Up!
I started hiking north with absolutely zero spices or sauces. I read online that most “hiker foods” are already high in sodium and, therefore, don’t require much in the way of additional seasoning. I assumed carrying spices, even salt and pepper, would be an unnecessary luxury. I was dead wrong – yet another big mistake.
I bought black pepper early on in my hike and was thankful I did every time I sat down to eat dinner. I eventually branched out to other spices – oregano and garlic powder became instant (albeit temporary) hits. By the time I reached Pennsylvania, I had carried, and enjoyed, taco and pesto seasoning packets, small bottles of sriracha and Frank’s Hot Buffalo and Hot Honey Garlic sauces.
Among my group of hiking companions, butter became a favored addition. I personally never carried any, but my hiking buddies swore by it – we even temporarily changed McDoubles’ trail name to Buttertubes by the time we reached Virginia.
Hint: Many larger grocery stores have a bulk spice section. I was able to stock up on expensive spices like cumin rather cheaply. Also, don’t forget to raid the free sauces available at gas stations and fast-food restaurants – I found packets of salsa, BBQ sauce and honey mustard in addition to the usual ketchup and mustard.
8. Pack It Out!
Town food doesn’t have to just stay in town. This should have been a no-brainer, but it took me reaching Marion, VA to figure this one out. I was getting ready to leave town, eating a slice of Little Caesar’s pepperoni pizza while I waited for the rest of our hiking group to meet at the hotel – man, it was good! Then it hit me. Why not take the rest with me to enjoy for dinner??
We hiked out in the early afternoon and made camp a few miles outside of town. Even though I had a full resupply, I was thoroughly pleased to be chowing down on leftover pizza for dinner instead of choking down another Pasta Side (with tuna – ughh).
Hint: When ordering a sandwich to-go from a pub or restaurant, ask the server to wrap the bread/bun in aluminum foil and put the rest (meat and sides) in a resealable bag before leaving. Nothing kills a burger or Buffalo chicken sandwich like a soggy bun.
9. Snacks! Ah-ah! Savior of the Universe!
No matter how well I planned my resupply, I always ran out of snacks. Snacks are indispensable. Snacks are a hiker’s life blood. And snacks quickly replaced instant oatmeal for breakfast and ramen (with tuna – ughh) for lunch.
Just because you’re eating a snack doesn’t mean it has to be unhealthy. I enjoyed just about every flavor of almonds, sought our every variety of dried fruit in the hiker-verse, and destroyed every type of sandwich cracker I bought.
As is the case, I eventually got tired of certain snacks and flavors. It’ll happen, but it’s okay. There’s more snacks out there than any hiker can possibly eat in a lifetime. I developed an insatiable taste for all things blueberry – PopTarts, Nutrigrain bars, Belvita biscuits, dried blueberries, fruit snacks. It didn’t matter – I just couldn’t get enough blueberry.
Snacks. Enough said.
Hint: Resupply as a team and trade snacks before leaving town to maximize variety. I knew I was shopping for snacks correctly if I could reach blindly into my snack bag and be content with whatever I pulled out.
Hey ya’ll – hike strong and happy trails!
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