How Much Food Thru-Hikers Should Be Eating (And Why It’s More Than You’d Think)

This post could have been called “My A.T. Weight Loss Plan: Eat as much junk as you can and still lose weight!” but that is not the point of this post because I lost too much weight and it ended my hike on the Vermont – New Hampshire border.

I definitely had some extra dough (aka fat, weight, or spare tires) on me when I started, so losing 20 lbs. in the first month of hiking did not worry me.  It actually made me happy to finally lose that weight which I had been trying to lose for a while, and it put less stress on my knees which were suffering from the additional pack weight.

What started to worry me was that I kept losing weight.  I wasn’t stick skinny and close to organ failure or anything, but in 4 months, I ended up losing 38 lbs in fat and muscle mass.  I was always eating as much as I could hold in town and thought I was taking in enough calories on the trail but something wasn’t keeping up.  I was breaking down my muscle faster than I could rebuild it.  I was struggling every day physically and mentally because I should have been flying compared to earlier in the hike.

Instead, I was having a harder time and getting slower.  I didn’t care about views if they were not right on the trail.  I did not want to walk .1 miles to a stupid overlook!  I just wanted to get to our next campsite to eat and sleep.  I would leave my husband to socialize while I laid down in the tent apologizing for not hanging out.  That is no way to hike the trail so I after many tears, I decided to become a section hiker. Nutrition or lack of ended my thru-hike but luckily, the trail provides for hikers in need.

Changing the oil on Predator and RV's car in overalls!

Changing the oil on Predator and RV’s car in overalls!

Our friends Red Velvet and Predator were from New Hampshire and offered me their car to travel up to Maine and we could “work out” how to get their car back to them later.  What awesome people!  I was able to get to Maine in their vehicle to work on a farm while Alex continued his thru-hike.  I chose this farm because it was about a 35 minute drive to the trail where I was able to provide some trail magic and help shuttle some friends as they passed through, jealous as they continued when I could not.

I had the pleasure of hiking up Katahdin with Alex and do not think I could have made it up that mountain had I not had several weeks rest and recovery.  I left RV and Predator’s car in Millinocket so they could drive home when they finished.  My farm host picked Alex and I up for one last week on the farm before heading home.

I had to really watch how much I ate.  We heard several stories where people kept up their trail eating habits and gained more weight back than they lost on the trail.  If you’re hiking 12+ miles a day up and down mountains with 30 lbs on your back, you can eat whatever you want and as much as you want and still lose weight, as my diet proved.

In town, we gorged ourselves.  I often ate until uncomfortably full, but everyone did.  I remember in one town, we went to eat at a Mexican restaurant with 4 other hikers.  We all tore down like 8 baskets of chips and salsa before tearing into our food.  I only could fit half of my burrito in before I wanted to explode.  All the other guys licked their plates clean.  After, we all were in line for the restroom because if you put that much food in, something has got to come out.

Trail magic is the most amazing thing ever and it is usually food but when there is no trail magic you can resort to other tactics.  There is actually a trail verb, Yogi-ing, which means trying to get food out of people (usually unsuspecting city folk) like Yogi Bear.  We heard about one guy with the ultimate Yogi-ing technique.  He would keep an empty container of peanut butter and sit at a parking lot trying to scrap and lick the last remains of his peanut butter while people were watching so they would give him food!

It is amazing how much hikers eat.  We would get to stores and find they were out of Snickers bars. We are like a plague that comes through convenience stores.  Hide your Ramen and Pop Tarts!  The thru-hikers are coming!  Alex and I altered our hiking schedule so we could eat at The Home Place because they weren’t open Wednesday nights.  Unfortunately it was a crazy rainy day when we arrived and we were freezing.  We couldn’t change out of our wet clothes inside because they weren’t open yet. We changed our clothes on the porch and I was mid-change as a bus of people from an old folks home pulled up.  Clinker and Alex were nice enough to hold a tarp up for me to change behind as the old folks sat on the porch to wait for the doors to open.  THE MEAL WAS WORTH IT EVEN IF THEY HAD ALL SEEN ME NAKED!

I think food is the most important piece of gear you can have on the trail.  You can spend the most money on the ultra-lightest of gear and still not be able to complete the trail.   It is super important (and delicious) to get enough calories to maintain your hike.  This is something I failed at.

My husband and I didn’t really have a nutrition plan.  The only things we considered were cost, weight, and protein.  Alex is an ultra-runner (runners who run more than marathon distances) and was concerned with losing his running muscles.  We made sure we ate plenty of protein bars and he would go on trail runs while I rested in the tent which helped earn him a reputation on the trail.  We would meet people who heard of a guy running after we were done hiking for the day.  It’s funny how stories travel up and down the trail!  Anywho, the point was that he was operating in a gear that I didn’t even have.  He did not need as much food as I did and it seemed I was eating a ton of food so we didn’t really count calories.  We just planned meals making sure we had enough until the next town stop.  We usually had more than we needed (which was frustrating since we had to carry it).  For a few days, I kept a log of exactly what I ate and after adding up the calories, I can understand why I lost so much weight.  If you just look at the food and not the calorie count, you would think I was eating too much! Here is an example of our daily diet about a month into the trail:

If you just look at the list without the calorie count, how many calories would you guess I was eating?

If you just look at the list without the calorie count, how many calories would you guess I was eating?

I was not eating enough although my mind told me I was.  I was only eating a little over 2000 a day but burning way more.  By the time I realized it, it was way too late.  The damage was done and I couldn’t carry more food because I was trying to make Alex carry more of my pack weight as it was.  Just do a little research before you pack your meals and really make sure you’re preparing for the amount of food you’ll truly need!  Or, take a look below at some fancy charts I made comparing some food brands.

Comparing Food calories, weight, and cost.

Comparing Food calories, weight, and cost.

My best advice is to forget “backpacker food” which are the freeze-dried packs you find in outfitters.  In general, they are expensive and do not contain enough calories for their weight and you eat them with lack of satisfaction.  These meals are for easy weekend treks, not day after day of thru-hiker rigor!  The only good things about them is that you JAW (just add water) and they cook in their bags instead of having to keep the fuel burning.  We usually found our food not cooked all the way through, though, hence the lack of satisfaction.  Eventually, we found some cheaper alternatives.

As proof, I have prepared yet another helpful chart!  Costs are about what you should find at a grocery store or outfitter because that is what you’re going to run into on the trail.  Cost could be reduced in buying bulk online, but then, you have to ship and do mail drops which sort of negates the savings.  We stayed away from things that took a long time to cook because running out of fuel when it has been raining for the past few days sucks.

You should also look up some stuff to forage!  Alex and I often forage in Wisconsin and try to add a new thing each year.  Here is some stuff we foraged on the trail!

I could go on so if you have any questions or want some other food suggestions, just let me know in the comments!  We ate at a lot of places on the trail and not all of them were worth it.  If you take only one thing away from this post, it is to make sure you eat enough food!  Make a nutrition plan or at least count your calories to make sure you do not ruin your thru-hike!

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