My PCT Thru-Hike Diet and Nutrition Plan
As it turns out, Oreos are not a superfood.
One of the beautiful realities of thru-hiking is that you can eat literally whatever you want and either not gain weight, or more likely, lose a ridiculous amount of it. For the average person, this translates to a half-year hall pass for whatever one chooses to jam down their swallow hole. For my AT thru-hike, this meant an ungodly amount of Oreos, Snickers, and Little Debbies.
I finished my thru-hike and only lost a couple pounds in the process (and maintained this weight post-trail). By this measure, my “diet” gave me all I needed: enough energy to haul 30+ lbs. up and down mountains for ~150 days, from Georgia to Maine.
So, what’s the problem?
On the surface, not much.
Under the hood, however, all was not well. By the time I hit southern Maine, my body was breaking down. Each climb was unreasonably exhausting. It felt as if my backpack was wearing a backpack, and inside of my backpack’s backpack were billiard balls filled with mercury and even more backpacks. Eager to end the struggle, I pushed my body to the limit every day, which was far fewer miles than I should’ve been capable of.
Somehow, my fatigue got worse after returning home. For two months, I was sleeping between 10 and 12 hours a day. Only through the aid of caffeine was I able to escape the feeling of sleepwalking when awake. I sought the help of a functional medicine practitioner whose tests revealed that my adrenal health was a disaster. With some heavy-duty supplements and steroidal hormones, I was eventually able to right the ship.
There were several elements which contributed to this biological breakdown, not least of which was an undiagnosed case of West Nile virus. But, I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge that my fuel source of garbage extract was a major contributing factor.
The Stakes Have Been Raised
It took me five months to hike the AT’s 2,181 miles. This comes out to approximately 14.5 miles per day.
We are hoping to hike the first ~2,000 miles of the PCT in 2.5 months. This comes out to approximately 27 miles per day, or, roughly twice as fast as my AT pace.
Now, I can anticipate your next question…
“You are stupid.”
First and foremost, yes I am. Secondly, although technically accurate, that’s not a question.
Although my hiking partner has trekked long distances at this pace or faster, this is completely uncharted territory for me. We are giving ourselves plenty of backup plans, namely the option to flip down to Kennedy Meadows South to beat the Sierra’s cruel, early alpine winter. But we would prefer a continuous SOBO hike.
To get different output from my previous >2,000 mile trek, different inputs are necessary. There are three factors I’m focusing on:
- Training. I didn’t train for the AT. I got away with this because I had roughly seven months to complete the trail (before it becomes logistically more complicated to do so). I was confident this would be no problem given my fitness level at the time. I was right. But I am training my ass off for this hike. I may eventually put together an article on this subject, but truth be told, the prescription is simple: hike and/or backpack as much as possible.
- Gear. Overall, my gear for the AT was heavy and not good. The combined weight of my sleeping bag and tent was more than seven pounds. My big three (sleeping bag, shelter, and pack) now weighs half that. My gear list will be the subject of my next post.
- Nutrition. Freaking finally, to the point of this post.
The Game Plan
Our dietary plan is loosely based off of Brenda L. Braaten’s nutritional recommendations for thru-hikers. It’s impractical to think that everyone’s body will respond identically to the same macronutrient ratio, but her 50% fat / 35% carb / 15% protein is a good template to build off of.
Calculating macronutrient ratios is tedious and a stress I’d rather not add to the growing list. Instead, we will live off a simple nutritional maxim: Consume a diet that’s high in fat and micronutrients, favors real foods, provides enough quality protein, and is enjoyable.
Lastly, I am not claiming to hold the key to the one and only “perfect trail diet.” Instead, what lies below is a hypothesis—based on a good deal of research and self-experimentation—that I believe will best enable us to maximize our potential. Diet can be as divisive as religion. If you believe in a different dietary deity, good on you. I am making no effort to change your mind and encourage you to share what’s worked for you in the comments. I’m continually tweaking my approach and welcome input.
Disclosure: We have been provided with an absurd amount of free food for this hike. Much of what is discussed below was donated. We are very grateful to the brands who are giving us their support. But, to be perfectly clear, all of the brands that we have partnered with are those which Jabba and/or myself have been purchasing, using, and enjoying for quite some time and would be utilizing on our trek regardless of donation. Simply put, if a product isn’t great tasting and/or doesn’t fit our dietary needs, it’s not something we’d use or endorse. Period.
Now let’s go a bit deeper with the nuts and bolts behind our dietary maxim.
Because fat provides the most amount of energy per weight, it’s a long distance backpacker’s best friend. The more fat a hiker carries and consumes, the less overall food weight they’ll need to haul to meet their energy demands. This is not a controversial statement.
Fat-heavy foods we’ll be consuming regularly on trail include:
- Potato Chips. Especially Jackson’s Honest chips, which are cooked in coconut oil, and more importantly, crazy delicious. Coconut oil is high Lauric Acid (which acts as an anti-viral and anti-bacterial) and medium chain triglycerides, which is an especially efficient fuel source. The fact that these chips utilize a healthy fat source is really just icing on the potato chip.
- Nuts. Nuts are a backpacker superfood. They’re high in fat, protein, and nutrients, including vitamin E (important for immune system), vitamin B2 (red blood cell production), magnesium (essential for too many functions to list), manganese, phosphorus, and iron. We’ll be consuming a lot of Navitas Organics’ nut-based products. Not only are they all organic, as the name implies, but they’re coated in an array of nutrient dense compounds, including cacao, hemp seeds, goji berries, and turmeric.
- Nut butters. Obviously the same benefits as listed above, but are easier to consume in higher qualities (to bypass the ever-annoying chewing process) and pairs deliciously with other foods. We opt for brands that use pouches vs. jars (additional weight savings). For this, we will have two go to products. 1) YumButter, which offers four different nut-butter varieties (peanut, cashew, sunflower, and almond), are blended with chia, hemp seeds, and goji, and are all organic. Infinite bonus points for being based out of Madison, WI. 2) Trail Butter, which focuses more on flavor blends- pairing dark chocolate with coffee, cranberry with sunflower seeds, and my favorite, the maple syrup with sea salt. Both of these brands offer delicious, nutrient dense products using backpacker-friendly packaging.
- Cheese. On the one hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a minor case of lactose intolerance in recent years. On the other hand, cheese. Said differently, there’s a zero percent chance cheese will be excluded from my diet. Wisconsin would revoke my unique, state-authorized cheesehead (their official state identification). Cheese is a good source of fat, calcium, protein, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B12, and joy. Because cheese doesn’t do well sitting in non-refrigerated places for a long time, this is something we’ll be purchasing along the way vs. sending ourselves upfront.
- Olive oil packets. A simple way to get more fat in your diet and improve the taste of a dehydrated dinner is with a serving of olive oil. Some people opt for carrying a small plastic bottle of oil. We went the individual packet route. It’s more expensive, but less hassle. I opted for a case of Marconi’s Organic EVOO, and will put these in a separate Ziploc bag as the knock against this product is that the packaging is prone to breaking (a headache I’m willing to put up with in exchange for a better price point).
- Avocado. Because avocado is delicious and a good source of potassium, fiber, b-vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, and magnesium. It’s also heavy, so I will likely carry no more than one out of town and for shorter stints between towns, as I’d rather not carry an avocado pit for 150 miles.
- Salmon packets, when possible. Salmon is a great source of EPA and DHA, which important for healthy brain function. It’s also a great protein source. I’ve included a couple packets of Chicken of the Sea wild-caught salmon packets in each of my drops.
There is a lot overlap between the criteria for our dietary maxim. The “real foods” is probably the one that shares the most overlap with the rest of our motto.
However, there is one dehydrated meal brand which I feel offers a superior product to its competition, specifically for its use of real foods.
Good To-Go first came to my attention a couple years ago after sampling their Thai Curry at Outdoor Retailer. Not only was it exceptionally good (their head chef and Co-founder Jennifer Scism has owned and operated a Michelin Star-rated NYC restaurant, and is an Iron Chef contestant), but what stood out to me was that it tasted like a healthy, home cooked meal. Although I generally enjoy most dehydrated dinners available from the big box outfitters, real food isn’t the first word that comes to mind to describe them. I mentioned this while sampling the Thai Curry, and the person preparing the food, as if she was expecting that response, promptly handed me the product package and encouraged me to look at the ingredients. Sure enough, the first line on their ingredient list read “(notice how many you can pronounce)” I scored a 100%. To my disappointment, no report card was tendered.
From that point forward, Good To-Go’s Thai Curry became my good go-to dehydrated meal, and the first dehydrated meal brand who I sought to be included in the Badger Sponsorship, but I digress.
Since then, the small operation based out of Kittery, Maine has expanded to offer ten meals, including two breakfast options. The flavor profiles are diverse, ranging from chili, to marinara with penne, to bibimbap (a Korean dish I had never heard of before Good To-Go), to Mexican Quinoa.
The two things I don’t love about these meals, which I’m sure many people would disagree with, is that they’re low in sodium (I’ll get into why this is an issue for me shortly) and mostly meat free (the Thai Curry and Pad Thai contain small amounts of seafood products), which is largely a taste preference but also for protein. Both of these minor gripes can be easily remedied, however. I almost always doctor their meals with a salt packet and some summer sausage or salmon / tuna.
If you have yet to try Good To-Go, I encourage you to start with their Thai Curry, Herbed Mushroom Risotto, Classic Marinara with Penne, and/or the Granola with milk powder.
Good To-Go isn’t the only player in the real foods dehydrated meal space. Two brands that I’ve heard good things about (although have yet to try myself) that also offer meals that don’t read like a science experiment are Paleo Meals To Go and Outdoor Herbivore.
Macronutrients are only part of the story, and consequently, not all calories are created equally.
When I’m in my routine, I’m typically good about getting a high intake of fruits and vegetables, a process I simplify by throwing a slew of plants into a blender. When I am consistent with my smoothie routine, I am a better person. More energy, clearer headed, happier, etc.
When I am traveling or out of my routine for whatever reason, I tend to neglect fruits and veggies. My workouts suffer, as does my mood and focus. Getting ample amounts of micronutrients on the trail can be an even greater challenge, as fruits and vegetables are high in water content (i.e. weight) and low in calories. Bad qualities for backpacking foods.
Thus, to reach our micronutrient goals, we will be utilizing a daily serving of superfood powders. There are a slew of companies that offer this type of product, but it’s difficult to find something that doesn’t taste like grass clippings. We will be using Navitas Essential Vanilla Blend and Chocolate Blend. Both taste good and offer a slew of ingredients high in nutritional value, including wheatgrass, kale, spinach, spirulina, goji, and maca. They also include a good amount of plant protein. We will be mixing these blends with a variety of other superfood powders including pomegranate powder and chia seed powder.
Worth noting: Another superfood blend brand I’ve enjoyed (and I’ve tried quite a few) is Amazing Grass.
Nestled under the micronutrient umbrella is electrolytes. For most people, getting a diet rich in minerals would be enough to stave off electrolyte imbalance issues. For me, electrolyte imbalance is something I have to be very conscious of having suffered from hyponatremia (a sodium imbalance caused by drinking too much water) twice in my life, most recently during my AT thru-hike.
In a nutshell, people perspire at different rates (I’m a sweaty bastard). This sweat has different concentrations of sodium, and I’m on the high end. Replacing this loss of fluid with only water is recipe for disaster for sweaty bastards who expel a lot of sodium.
When I introduced an electrolyte supplement into my diet when hiking the AT, my energy and overall wellbeing improved drastically.
If you’re a sweaty bastard who leaves giant salt rings on all of your workout clothes, I strongly encourage you to include an electrolyte supplement in your routine, especially if exercising for extended periods in heat (i.e. hiking through Oregon / Northern California in the dead of August).
After trying a slew of different electrolyte supplements, my new preference is Skratch Labs because it foregoes the coloring agents, artificial sweeteners, and synthetic flavors. Consequently, this is what we will be using on trail.
This is likely the category that causes the most amount of disagreement. Not only in terms of quantity, but also the source.
The method I will be adopting for this trek is to have my intuition (i.e. taste preferences) dictate my protein intake and favor quality sources when possible. If I’m feeling weak or losing a disproportionate amount of muscle mass, I will take that as my cue to increase protein. Otherwise, I will roughly target between 15-20% of my calories from protein (or 120 – 150g per day).
Much of our protein intake is outlined above (salmon pouches, nuts, plant protein in Navitas products). We will also be utilizing whey protein and dehydrated beef from grass-fed cows.
Whey is considered the best source of protein for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (source). Sadly, for this guy, whey protein powders can cause a digestive apocalypse (seems like I’m in good company). Fortunately, I can handle Clif’s Whey Protein Bar. I’m not entirely sure why this works whereas powders don’t, my best guess is that it has something to do with the rate of absorption.
For dehydrated meat products, we will favor grass-fed (vs. corn-fed) beef, when possible. This is for the superior fatty-acid profile, but also for ethical reasons. Corn-fed cows tend to come from factory farms, whereas grass fed cattle are raised on pastures.
Truth be told, I’ve had trouble finding dehydrated grass-fed meat products that I enjoy. Enter: Sweetwood. I first fell in love with Sweetwood’s meat stick product, comically named “Fatty.” The Fatty is a mix of grass-fed beef and all-natural pork. It’s also the best meat stick on the market. More recently, they’ve introduced a pair of purely grass-fed meat options, the Bully and Jerky. These are the two tastiest 100% grass-fed dehydrated meat products I’ve found. Hands downs. Epic Bar is also good; I prefer their Bison bars.
Purely from a nutritional standpoint, our dietary formula is far from perfect. I’m sure we’d be better off consuming a diet consisting exclusively of wheatgrass, quinoa, and cricket powder. That, however, would be enough to drive me off trail.
In addition to being fuel, food is also a source of pleasure (at least for me). Enjoying my snack and meal breaks goes a long ways toward keeping a strong mindset, something I put a lot of value in.
That said, I’ve learned the consequences of subsisting off junk. I’ve also learned that eating happy and eating healthy isn’t an either/or. It just takes some work to find the foods that fit both criteria. I’m confident that we’ve done a good job.
And there will be plenty of time in town to sandwich pizza between donuts and cover said donut pizza with nacho cheese and ice cream. That will happen.
You may have noticed that there was no mention of carbohydrates in our dietary maxim. This was not an oversight. This is because most popular non-perishable foods are largely carbohydrate based. Bars, cookies, crackers, chips, candy, all things Little Debbie, ramen, Knorr sides, bread, tortilla, dehydrated fruit…I could go on. It’s not hard to get enough carbs, the challenge is avoiding getting too many (in terms of percentage of overall intake).
Obviously, we’re not going to neglect carbs, but instead first focus on getting enough fat and protein and then fill the gaps with (mostly) healthy carb-dense foods.
Carbohydrate-heavy foods we’ll be regularly consuming on trail include:
- Clif Bar– There will be an grotesque amount of Clif products going into our gullet. Admittedly I OD’d on Clif Bars on the AT (this is the result of over-consuming any bar), but, I predict that the new nut-butter filled Clif Bars will be much harder to overdo. If you haven’t tried these yet, you’re missing out. It’s the best product they’ve ever released. My lone knock is that it should be 30% bigger. It’s impossible to eat only one.
- Navitas Power Snacks. These bad boys are dense, both in weight (a little bit goes a long ways) and nutrition.
- Huppy Bars. Like the power snacks listed above, a small bar packs a lot of punch. About the size of a dollar billed folded in half and 200 calories. They’re also gluten free, nutrient dense, and sans preservatives, refined sugar, or GMOs.
- Chocolate. Specifically Salazon Chocolate. Andrew Skurka has said “Never have I wished that I took less chocolate on a backpacking trip. It simply cannot be done.” Challenge accepted.
- Navitas Organics Superfood Snack Bars. Think KIND Bar, but with way more nutrition.
- Tortilla. A thru-hiker staple. This basically serves as an edible canvas for which to paint a delicious, wrapable snack. Tuna and cheese. Doritos, pepperoni, and cheese. Cream cheese and cheese. Cheese. Peanut butter and cheese. Cream cheese and bacon bits. Cheese
- Town food. Non-perishables get old real quickly when it’s the bulk of your diet. Thru-hikers dream of town food not only for the superior taste, but also because it’s so foreign to what they’re typically consuming. For this reason, it’s essential to pack out at least one meal from town, such as pizza, a sandwich, or 90 McDonalds Cheeseburgers.
I feel like I could go on, but seeing as this article is already 3,300 words (a gold-star if you’re still reading), I won’t. If for some sadistic reason you’d like to know more, feel free to comment below.
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