Thru-Hiking with a Restricted Diet
Sometimes it’s just not in the stars.
After hiking the JMT in the summer of 2017, my thru-hiking to-do list got a few additions. Of course the PCT was on the top of this list, but I had to find some shorter trails to hike until I graduated and could start the PCT. The High Sierra Trail and the Colorado Trail made the cut. I decided to start with the High Sierra Trail for the summer of 2018. Since the Sierra are my favorite place in the world it made sense. I planed out my whole High Sierra trek, got permits, updated gear, looked at flights, hotels, etc. I was pumped. My partner and I were ready, but then things fell apart. My partner for this trek happened to be my girlfriend, and when we broke up a month before the hike we decided to call it off.
I was sad that I wouldn’t be returning to the Sierra that summer but knew that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be thru-hiking that summer. Next on my list was the Colorado Trail. Since I was working to save for the PCT I knew I couldn’t do the whole thing and settled on doing a 14-day section. A day before I was supposed to leave I got an unexpected call from my doctor. I had taken a blood test a week earlier to make sure my thyroid levels were all good (I have hypothyroidism). My doctor told me that my levels were fine but they had tested me for Hashimoto’s disease, a cause of hypothyroidism, and it had come back positive. I decided to shorten my hike to ten days and take some time before I left to do some research on what I had just been diagnosed with. I learned that this diagnosis wasn’t all that surprising since many people with hypothyroidism eventually get diagnosed with Hashimoto’s. What was more shocking to me was that most people suggested testing out a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. I had suffered from stomach problems since high school and after learning about a gluten- and dairy-free diet I figured that I should give this a shot… but not until I got back from the trail since I had already bought all my food. This was a mistake since thru-hikers tend to consume a large amount of both gluten and dairy. Soon my ten-day backpacking trip was shortened to four days as my body rejected everything I was eating. No matter how much I liked the food I was eating and tried to tell myself that ten more days of gluten and dairy wouldn’t hurt, my body disagreed. There was no way to pump out 20-mile days when everything I was eating made me feel like junk. So I got off trail to try to figure out a bigger issue: What the hell was I supposed to eat on the PCT?
Hiker Trash Diet: Take Two
After getting off the Colorado Trail, I was disappointed at myself for bailing on the trail but I was more worried about how my new diet would affect my 2019 PCT attempt. I started to panic about the inevitable difficulty and the high cost of being gluten- and dairy-free (GF/DF) for five months on the PCT. I spent hours reading blog after blog on food, drop spots, resupply towns, etc. I messaged people I knew who had major diet restrictions and talked to past PCT hikers.There were days I decided that I should not hike the trail because it would be too stressful, and then there were days where I was determined that I wasn’t going to give up on my dream. Thank god the latter mind-set came out on top and I finally decided:The PCT was already going to be hard, why not just make it harder?
I started researching backpacking food companies that aligned with my diet and asked for sponsorships and discounts. I made arrangements to use my friends’ dehydrators in the future. I made lists of GF/DF bars and snacks I have on my pro deals through work and school. I wasn’t going to let my new, shitty diet ruin my hike, I just had to roll with the punches and make some adjustments.
Vegetarianism on Trail?
One of these adjustments was the decision to potentially break vegetarianism while on trail. I have done just fine being a vegetarian in the backcountry previously, but with the addition of other restrictions this could prove to be difficult, if not impossible, and a threat to my health on trail. With this being said I have decided to accept the fact that there might come a point when meat will be added to my trail diet, and that’s OK!
My overall takeaway from my internal diet debates is: Hiking the PCT or any thru trail with diet restrictions is going to be difficult, but isn’t thru-hiking already hard? Why not just make it harder? Make your diet just another aspect of the challenge that is thru-hiking. With enough planning and determination off trail you can make it so that potential food/resupply issues aren’t even on your mind while on trail.
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