Trail Food is Love
Whoever prepares six months of food for them-selves at one time? Maybe astronauts do. Maybe farmers do, those who take all their spring produce and preserve it for the winter. Maybe squirrels who work hard hiding their acorns all Summer and Fall do. Maybe long-distance hikers do, too. Last year when I was preparing my food for the PCT, I had never packed for more than a 10 day stretch. But, since I knew how that worked, I basically took that process and multiplied it by twenty to get all my on trail food set up for the PCT.
If you get a group of hikers together for any more than ten minutes, all the conversation will eventually end up centered around food: what you’ve been eating, what you have left to eat, what you ate at the last town stop, what you plan to eat next, and how it comes out the next day! It is impossible to get away from, especially since your caloric needs spike to between 4,000 to 6,000 a day, hikers must eat all the time. The information that follows here is just what I did and what worked (or didn’t) for my 2016 PCT thru-hike. I hope there will be something useful here for you, and if you have any questions, you can message me on FB at milissajayn.
What can I say, I am a foodie. Food is very central to my life. Food is my medicine, it is sacred to me and I am a big believer in “you are what you eat.” Simply put, Food is Love. In my Universe, one of the best ways to practice self-love is to eat well and share food with loved ones. Planning and preparing all my food for the PCT was a big part of my journey. It was lot of work, but a lot of fun, both the food part and the hiking part!
There are so many ways to tackle the task of planning your meals for six months ahead. From a completely “wing it” mentality to a completely planned set of re-supply boxes with attached spread sheet, and everything in between. As one of my best friend, who is a Master Chef says “the sky’s not the limit”, anything is possible, especially on the PCT.
I do have to put in my two cents, however, on the importance of nutrition on the trail. I was already a very healthy eater and an athlete, so in my PCT planning, I knew the demands of my body and how much better my body performed with the right food. I eat mostly plants, dairy and occasional fish. So, when I thought about what kind of fuel my body would need on a thru-hike (hiking an average of 20+ miles a day for six months, over mountains, carrying 30+ pounds on my back), I got down to business and took it quite seriously. I decided to send myself 25 re-supply boxes and rely mostly on the food I packed in advance. So, I took on the massive task of preparing dehydrated meals for myself, all in all there were about 90 of them, so about half of my total dinners on the trail.
Of course, I had my worries and anxieties before the hike, things like “what if it tastes horrible?” or “what if it doesn’t re-hydrate properly?” or the big question “what if it’s not enough?” That’s a lot of “what-if’s” and as it turned out, the only way to answer those questions is to get out there and try it, so that’s what I did. Yes, I made lists. Yes, I made spread sheets. And yes, I pre-packed 25 re-supply boxes filled to the brim with amazing, nutritious, calorie dense and delicious food. You may ask “didn’t you get tired of your same foods all the time?” or “you probably spent a lot of money, right?” Well, yes and no.
All in all, there were only a couple of foods that I just got sick of and could not eat. When those came in my re-supply box, I swapped them out with food from the hiker box, or purchased something different. I did invest a lot of money in the planning and shopping stages, but that meant I spent less money while in towns and actually on the trail. So perhaps I evened out. I was not the most budget conscious hiker out there, but that’s just me. In “off-trail” life, I spend most of my paychecks on food anyway. So, for the PCT, that was not about to change. I ate well wherever I went, and it was totally worth it!
Eating well does not have to cost you an arm and a leg though, and here is how and why. Buy a good dehydrator and a vacuum sealer, you can invest in both of these for around $250, and you will have it for all your future hikes. In the long run, this will actually save you a lot of money. For about two months prior to starting my PCT hike, every time I went to the grocery store, I was doing research. I would take photos of packaged foods that I thought might work, including the calorie, fat, carbohydrate and protein contents. When I shopped for my dinner meals at home, I purchased and cooked extra of whatever I was making that night, especially fresh produce. The extras went right into the dehydrator and ended up in my re-supply boxes. I prepared grains such as brown rice, blended wild rice and quinoa. I made a few variations of vegetarian chili, spiced black beans or curried lentils. I sautéed vegetables with different flavorings like garlic and basil, fajita spices or Thai coconut curry. I also steamed and dehydrated basic plain veggies like carrots, kale, green beans, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, onions and the like.
For proteins, in addition to dehydrated beans, I purchased veggie proteins and sliced them thin and dehydrated them. My favorite veggie protein turned out to be tempeh fakin’ bacon strips. They were already flavored with a delicious sauce and thinly sliced, so I just stuck them on the dehydrator trays and let them dry out. They also turned out to be super easy to re-hydrate. I also found these great Nutburgers at the health food store, which were wonderful in regular life, and re-hydrated they turned out to be amazing on the trail. They did not hold their shape after dehydrating, but that didn’t matter at all, they tasted so great and were filling. I also experimented with dehydrating tofu, which was futile, and Seitan, which worked well but the pieces took way too long to re-hydrate. There was a lot of figuring this out for the first time, so I bought a couple books online specific to preparing backpacking food. They gave guidelines on how to slice and cook different veggies and suggested drying times. I found the books somewhat useful, but the drying times varied tremendously. Most of the time my veggies took significantly longer than what those books said. I am sure every dehydrator is different though, as is the climate of your location where you are making the food. Things like temperature and moisture will influence the drying time too. The most important thing about dehydrating your own food is to give yourself plenty of time and don’t be afraid to experiment.
It’s also a good idea to experiment with re-hydrating your foods so you know what it takes before you get out in the field. I did this some of the time, but there were definitely items that I discovered were terrible to re-hydrate, only once I was on the trail. The best example was green beans. They just never seemed to recover the right texture and were always chewy. Not only this, in retrospect, they were a total pain in the ass to prepare and dehydrate in the first place. So all in all, green beans got a failing grade in my book. I suppose you could purchase frozen French green beans and then thaw them, then dehydrate them, and that would probably work much better, but sounds like a lot of work still.
Kale and broccoli worked great, and after dehydrating them, I pulverized them in a food processor for about 10 seconds, and then I had the basic roughage that weighed close to nothing and stretched a long way on the trail. I could add these to any meal to get some extra nutrition and flavor. One of my absolute favorites was eggplant. I cut them into 1” cubes and sautéed them Italian style with plenty of olive oil, fresh basil and fresh garlic. Then I dehydrated them and vacuum sealed them along with some sliced sun-dried tomatoes I purchased at Trader Joe’s. These were so delicious on the trail and they re-hydrated very quickly.
I found that re-hydration varied from meal to meal, and the best thing to do was to pour water in the dinner at lunchtime and let it soak for a few hours in the afternoon while hiking (zip lock bags work best for this task). This way, when you got to camp, your dinner is basically ready to go and all you need to doiss heat it up. This also helps save on fuel consumption and if you want to go stoveless, this works great.
If dehydrating is not really your thing, there are a ton of healthy and delicious options out there that I am going to talk about here, alternatives to the typical thru-hiker diet of Ramen, Knorr and Idahoans. With the wonderful internet, online ordering in bulk is a great way to save money on quality products. I would say that 50% of my meals came from such purchased items that I divided up and packed myself.
For example: Bob’s Red Mill Farms has just about every type of grain out there sold in bulk and it is all Organic and fairly inexpensive. I bought their instant potato flakes which come in a giant bag that yields nine, one cup servings, for a total cost of $3.89 per bag. That’s .43 cents per meal before adding anything to it, not too shabby. I measured out the one cup servings and put them into zip lock bags, then I added dehydrated butter and cheese powder that I also ordered online in bulk. These turned out to be great on the trail, and I could add whatever additional flavorings, veggies or proteins I had on hand. In my opinion, these potatoes were far better than Idahoans because the ingredients were simple: potatoes, butter and cheese, add your own salt, pepper and oil if you have it, and there you go. That’s it, no preservatives and processed ingredients that make you swell up in the night and wake up dying of thirst!
The other ways I used the dehydrated butter and cheese powders were on pastas. I purchased pastas that were made from beans, usually black beans, lentils and adzuki beans or pastas made with brown rice or quinoa. I rarely used regular pasta in my meal planning, although there is nothing wrong with good ol’ Annie’s Organic Mac & Cheese! Another favorite meal that I found at the store and is super cheap, is couscous. I like the Near East brand that is curry flavor. I add dried fruits and cashews and dried wasabi peas to this and it is seriously such a delicious meal that cooks instantly and is cheap and light weight. Awesome! I also purchased a few types of store bought pastas with flavor sauces like marinara or cheese sauces. These pastas were made from high protein grains or beans, the great thing about these pastas are they typically pack a whopping 20-30g of protein per serving!
Lastly, I purchased sauce packets like Pesto or Alfredo and added these to my bean based noodles, plus dehydrated veggies and extra butter powder and oil when I had it. I have to say, these turned out to be my least favorite, I think mainly because of the texture of the noodles, they were thin and spaghetti-like, and for some reason were just less satisfying compared to the macaroni elbows, penne or something like a grain or potato. Plus, cooking them left you with excess water in your cook pot to deal with and practicing proper LNT, I had to force myself to drink it. Ugh! So, the spaghetti type pastas were the ones I ended up trading out in hiker boxes more often. I am sure somebody out there was stoked to have them, especially if they had been eating Ramen day after day after day.
Speaking of Ramen, I did purchase a few packets of Organic Ramen made with brown rice or buckwheat noodles and were vegetarian. These were supplementary meals, something I could keep on hand for that “extra” night spent on the trail that was unplanned or the occasional appetizer. Adding a few extra potato flakes can bolster a Ramen meal really well, as can a little nut butter and some re-hydrated veggies, all which make a decent meal when it comes to Ramen! Because I only ate this on occasion, I never got sick of it.
Speaking of nut butter. I had some fun with these. Since I was preparing all my packages in advance and having them mailed to me, each and every one contained a full jar of nut butter of some kind. During my planning process, I made the most amazing nut butter tower, it’s kind of crazy now to look back and think I ate all of them! I shopped around at local health food stores to see what was on sale, and also at places like Trader Joe’s for good deals and variety. I never paid more than $7.00 a jar, which when you look at prices at stores in trail towns, you could definitely end up paying up to $7.00 for Skippy or Jiff, not always, but often. You pay for the convenience, and sometimes, if you arrived right after a big wave of hikers, the last jar would have just been taken off the shelf and purchased by one of your thru-hiking companions. Big bummer! I found some fun stuff like Cashew Butter, Sunflower Butter, Raw Almond Butter (Trader Joe’s), and flavors like Gingerbread Spice Peanut Butter, Peanut-Coconut Spread, Pumpkin Spice Peanut Butter, Mighty Maple Peanut Butter and even a healthy version of Nutella made by Trader Joe’s which was Cocoa Peanut-Hazelnut Butter. I lived on and loved these nut butters, and never got sick of them. My very favorite was the raw almond butter from TJ’s, it was so clean tasting and really did my body good. These nut butters became indispensable, as they were always ready to consume. I ate them at every mealtime or whenever I needed a boost, and in between all that, there was always a spoonful ready for me.
At first, I actually took the time to remove the nut butter from the jar and place it in a zip lock bag. A lot of work to save some weight. I actually did this all the way to Crater Lake, when at that time, my Cashew Butter melted and exploded all over my food bag, right after my coconut oil had done the same. It was the height of Summer then, so everything solid turned to liquid. From that point on, I just kept the stuff in the plastic jar and carried the extra weight, and ditched the coconut oil. At this point, thinking about future hikes, I will just keep the jar and call it a day. And the coconut oil? Its amazing stuff, but since it is liquid in warm weather and solid in cooler weather, it can be difficult to pack. I definitely used it often in colder weather, but during the Summer heat, I ditched it.
For those of you who are into baking and preparing your own trail food, something really fun and amazing were the cookies I made for the trail. I am talking Super-Hero style Superfood cookies. I went all out on these and baked like mad. In the end, I had about 250+ cookies that I put in vacuum sealed bags and filled up the freezer at my Dad’s house. From there, as he was my re-supply person, he simply added a package of cookies to every re-supply box. Not a single cookie went to waste, they were amazing and I packed enough to share! The base of these cookies was almond four, but I also mixed in different flours such as coconut flour, sorghum flour, oat flour and flax seed meal. I added Cacao powder, Maca powder, Spirulina powder and things like Goji berries, dark chocolate chips, walnuts, Chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp hearts, instant coffee, bananas, raw whole oats, raisins, cinnamon, vanilla, and sea salt.
These ingredients were not all in one cookie, I made a variety of flavor and nutritional profiles and I would mix them up. Every time I got a bag of cookies in my re-supply it was like Christmas, “what kind did I get this week?” I ended up eating these often for breakfast, with a few spoonfuls of nut butter and was good to go. These were the fastest, no-cook, high nutrition breakfast I could easily consume every day. Honestly, how do people get by hiking on Pop-tarts? It does not compute for me. When I ate two of these cookies for breakfast, with a few spoonfuls of nut butter and a cup of coffee, I was good for three hours of solid hiking before I needed a snack.
Speaking of breakfasts, here are some of the other options that I tried, some worked for me, some didn’t. Granola and other high protein cereals were great. I bought these at the health foods stores in bulk. They were a bit on the expensive side, but worth it for me. Hot cereals like Bob’s Red Mill Farms 10 Grain cereal was nutritious, but I found that because it was plain, I often needed to add so much to it to make it palatable, that I ended up giving up on it, it was just too bland. Instant oatmeal was good for me, but I had to supplement it for calories, so I added protein powder and nut butters, plus nuts and oil (like coconut oil) and that worked well. I bought a ton of dehydrated egg powder and planned on that being a staple for me on the trail, but abandoned that plan when I realized how much extra time, effort and cleaning it took to make eggs on the trail. They were delicious though, and if there was one single food that I craved the most on trail it was scrambled eggs! So, on occasion, I would pack out my egg powder, and I would add my tempeh bacon, some cheese and tortillas, and voila, awesome trail breakfast! I ditched several of my egg powder packages to the hiker box, and one time found out that another hiker actually added them to her instant potatoes for extra calories and loved it. I never did try this, but I think it’s a great idea!
Now, here’s the big topic: Snacks. Snacks make up the bulk of your food on the trail. You are eating snacks roughly every hour or two so they are very important. I saw so many hikers out there eating candy and sugar almost constantly, and in my opinion this is so unhealthy and not even worth the weight. Yes, candy is cheap and gives you a good buzz, but there is absolutely zero nutrition in it. You are carrying empty calories with those sugary foods like Honeybuns and donuts and the like. The best snack (and lunch) food out there are tortillas or bagels and cheese (hard cheeses last the longest), salami’s or jerkeys (including vegetarian jerkeys), nuts and nut butters, chips (tortilla or potato), crackers (like Triscuits or Wheat Thins) and various nutrition bars. I pre-purchased several kinds of nutritional bars, and this was definitely an expense, but I ate them all. I packed myself 2-3 bars per day. I would have one for second breakfast, one in the afternoon and if I was hiking later in the evening I would have a third one before stopping for dinner.
For lunch, I ate tortillas with nut butter or cheese and salty, fatty chips or crackers most of the time. I purchased cheese and chips in all my town stops and did not skimp. I would occasionally get sick of eating nuts on the trail, so I would pack those every other week, and that way I never burned out on them. Chips and cheese and tortillas I never got sick of! I also mailed myself things like chili-spiced dried mangoes, spiced chickpeas or wasabi peas and veggie jerky.
Another great lunch (and dinner) item turned out to be instant dehydrated re-fried beans. These were store bought, Santa Fe brand, with the ingredients being: black beans and sea salt. That worked for me. Done. I could eat these with a bunch of corn chips and top it off with cheese and have a very satisfying lunch or dinner out of this.
Last but absolutely not least, you must eat plenty of chocolate! This is a hiker rule in my opinion, and I feel very sorry for anyone who does not like chocolate. Sad, sad, sad. If you can purchase chocolate bars from home, you can get better quality dark chocolate and a variety of flavors if you like. I was certainly glad I did because the availability of quality dark chocolate in the towns was miniscule. Usually the best I could find would be Hersheys, if even that. Dark chocolate is a Superfood, it contains loads of Magnesium, which your muscles and brain need, and it simulates endorphins and contains a small amount of caffeine. It is one of the best things you can eat on the trail. However, not all chocolate is created equal, so be sure that you are getting real cacao, 60% or higher, and not loaded with sweeteners. The other amazing discovery that I would definitely repeat, is dark chocolate with espresso beans. The BOMB! I loved this stuff, and wished I had more of it. It gave me a definite buzz and energy for a climb that I needed. I also found that when I was feeling sluggish on a cloudy or rainy day, it lifted my spirits and the caffeine and chocolate combination also helped me with my pain. And there was a lot of pain! If you can find some dark chocolate covered espresso beans, even better, buy them, send them to yourself, and eat liberally!
In term of bars, I usually chose the ones that had the fewest ingredients. I prefer ones based on nuts or nut butters, and have dates or dried fruits, dark chocolate, and greens blends (like Spirulina and green vegetable powders). I avoid all but natural sweeteners and other ingredients that are not whole foods. I also prefer sea salt. I purchased a variety of these bars online (by the case) to save money, and was very happy with them. I ate Clif bars on occasion, but found them to be too sugary for my liking. A little side-note: I met a wonderful hiker back in Agua Dulce, who was subsisting entirely on Clif bars. He ate 20 a day. I am not joking. He set his watch alarm and every 30 minutes he ate a Clif bar. I hope it goes without saying, this plan was not working out for him! He lost 40 pounds in that first 450 miles, but the funniest part about it all, was he didn’t understand why that plan wasn’t working for him. Strictly based on calories, he was eating enough, but this just goes to show you that not all calories are created equal. When he and I first met at Hiker Heaven, our very first conversation was a heated discussion about food on the trail and I was preaching the importance of “you are what you eat” and, this is a great one “Food is Life!” I exclaimed several times. That’s not to say that I never ate Clif bars, however. They were good once in a while, and there were a few flavors out there that were always welcome in my book, like Peanut-Toffee Buzz, oh yeah! My point? Variety is key. Eating out on the trail is not just about “getting by” it really is your fuel for a body that is being asked to do some very serious and important work for you.
One of the best fuel-to-weight foods I can recommend, besides Spirulina, are Chia seeds. There are a number of ways to get these into your diet. Some people just soak a spoonful in water and eat. I found some great Chia bars made by Health Warrior, and my favorite flavors were the Coconut and the Chocolate-Coffee. These were small 110 calorie bars that you could pop in at any time and I often just kept them in my hip-belt pocket. I also loved Kind bars, and found certain flavors that I liked and some I did not like so much, so you just have to try them ahead of time. They even make savory Kind bars such as Mesquite BBQ and Thai Chili that I thought were quite good. I love Greens, especially Spirulina, so I purchased several bars that have Greens in them like Organic Food Bar Active Greens, Raw Revolution Spirulina, Betty Lou’s Spirulina, Macro Greens Bars (with live cultures), Amazing Grass Greens+ Chocolate bars. Spirulina and Blue-Green Algae are the most protein packed food on the entire planet. The energy available in Spirulina is readily available and highly absorbable by your body, and it contains a whopping amount of much needed trace minerals. It one of the best foods you can consume, and it is especially great for endurance athletes. I swear by it and have never found another food that gives me such a steady long lasting energy boost for strenuous activities like running and hiking, than Spirulina.
Finally, there are Tosci bars. These are such a treat, and while they are expensive, they are oh so wonderful. I could get two snacks out of one package because they were so filling and gave me so much energy. One complete bar contains 450 calories! They have a few flavors but the baseline ingredients are super simple: either Cashews or Almonds, plus golden flax seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, evaporated cane juice and sea salt, that’s it. They taste great and always have a nice crunch. Let’s face it, texture is very important. Crunch is highly important on the thru-hiker scale of food needs. I spent an entire hour one time with a hiking companion just talking about the importance of crunch. One of my favorite bars for taste and texture alone were Nature Valley Bars. They have flavors like Oat & Honey and Peanut Butter or PB & Chocolate. They are fairly priced and usually available in town shops. The primary ingredients in them are Oats, and they are not full of preservatives or too much sugar, so they get my vote! I would eat them with, you guessed it, spoonfuls of nut butters for a mid day snack. Awesomeness!
If you decide to shop for most of your food in trail towns, you will not be too disappointed in the options available to you if you are not picky. For me, shopping for my entire re-supply in trail towns would have left a lot to be desired, which is why I did all this preparation ahead of time. That is not to say I did not buy food along the way. Sometimes I just wanted junk food or something totally different. Sometimes I needed a chocolate cake, ice cream, a doughnut, pancakes, greasy salty fatty foods like French fries and the like. I ate well in town and at restaurants I always made sure to consume fresh salads and load up on carbs. I ate salmon or other fish whenever I could, along with vegetables of all kinds, and always planned my re-supply and zero days around having scrambled eggs for breakfast before hitting the trail. Town may have been about getting a shower and picking up your package, but no matter what, always the first order of business was to eat! Another great treat from town, is to purchase some fresh fruit and pack it for the first day or two back on trail. Oranges, bananas, grapes, apples etc are so wonderful out there. But, be sure to practice LNT and pack out the peels, because they take up to 5 years to decompose out there. And even though they are technically biodegradable, they do not belong in the wilderness. So please pack them out!
All in all, the more flexible you are, the more creative, and the more time you have to plan, the more fun you can have with food on the trail. It is not overkill to re-emphasize how important food, and good food at that, becomes to thru-hikers. I also think it is a very personal choice, what to eat, as is your hike in the first place. As the saying goes HYOH and you could add to this, ETFYL (Eat The Food You Love). Even with all my planning, I actually rather enjoyed digging through hiker boxes to see what other people had left behind, and ended up finding some fun and delicious items in there. Hiker boxes are great, and if you are really really on a tight budget, if you hike behind the herd, and hike behind people like me, you can honestly re-supply from the hiker boxes pretty well for a good part of your hike. Some of the best places to re-supply in the hiker boxes that I found were (in order of South to North): all of the Trail Angels homes that accept hiker packages (such as Ziggy & The Bear, Hiker Heaven etc.), also Kennedy Meadows, Muir Trail Ranch (if you decide to go there it’s like striking Gold, especially after all the JMT Southbounders have passed by), Etna (Hotels and Hostel), Callahan’s (Ashland), Crater Lake (even though they say not to leave stuff, there was a lot to choose from), and one of the best was Big Lake Youth Camp because they have a giant hiker room just for us (please leave them a nice donation for all that they do for us)! Make sure to go to Big Lake, they are simply amazing! At Big Lake Youth Camp, this religious group prepares vegetarian meals that feed hundreds of people daily, and PCT hikers are welcome to join in.
This brings me to a whole other topic, which is food offered to you by Trail Angels and Trail Magic. Oh the wonders of these surprise offerings that seem to come out of nowhere just when you need it most. These times and these treats are some of the very best parts of the thru-hike experience. For me, it wasn’t about the actual food or items that were being offered (although some of them were pretty amazing, like Coppertone’s rootbeer floats) but more importantly, it was the sense of camaraderie, encouragement, support and love that came with the offering of food. This was truly food for the Soul. If this isn’t an expression of Food is Love, I don’t know what is!
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