It’s time for an ultralight meal planning makeover!

Unexpected injuries ending thru hikes prematurely can be devastating! After hiking only 375 miles, I was forced off the trail due to a shoulder injury. Although I could no longer carry my backpack, I couldn’t bear the thought of my dream ending so soon while the remainder of my body felt great. Well, I did what I do best. I persevered and found an alternate way to keep my dream alive!

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Earned the trail name “Sling” after creating a sling out of my tent footprint to stabilize my shoulder.

After rehabbing my shoulder for nearly a month, I’m scheduled to begin a northbound (NOBO) flip-flop thru hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Harper’s Ferry, WV on 5/23/17. Due to a variety of reasons, I’ve chosen to not go back to the PCT but will plan to section hike it in the future. My days on the PCT are NOT over!  With this second chance I have utilized my meal planning experiences on the PCT and made adjustments for the upcoming AT trek.

It’s time for a meal planning makeover!

 Food Preferences and Dislikes

Favorite meals on the PCT:
  • Breakfast: A variety of granolas continued to be a favorite as they do not require cooking and can be consumed on the go. However, I was disappointed with how poorly dehydrated coconut milk mixes with cold water as instructed on the package. To improve the consistency of coconut milk, water was added to the small ziploc packet containing the coconut milk, mixed well by pressing the baggie with my fingers and then added the rehydrated milk to the granola. This seemed to help some but clumps of powder remained altering the texture of the meal. Coconut milk powder, however, rehydrates fabulously when mixed with hot water!
  • Lunch/Dinner: Vegan Chili, Pine Nut Pesto Hummus, Red Lentil Curry, Parmesan Pesto Ramen and Sun Dried Tomato Couscous were my favorite meals. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on the trail long enough to cycle through all of the meals prepared for the trip to give a full report.
  • Beverages: My favorite morning beverages were the Coconut Ginger Smoothie and Peppermint Latte recipes. It was surprising how much I enjoyed warm beverages. I also never tired of the Chocolate Peanut Butter Milkshake recipe that I looked forward to every day at lunch.
  • Desserts: I didn’t have an opportunity to try many of the desserts prepared but the Double Chocolate Pudding tasted amazing while enjoying the shade provided at the Whitewater Preserve.
  • See my previous post for a full list of recipes taken on trail.

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My favorite meal on trail!

Least favorite meals on the PCT:
  • Breakfast: The Breakfast Ramen recipe was a little too sweet.
  • Lunch/Dinner: For the most part, I enjoyed all of the recipes created for the trip with the exception of a Walnut Trail Rice recipe that just didn’t taste as good as it did at home. The Tropical Trail Rice recipe tasted great at home but was too sweet for my liking on trail. It’s also not visually appealing as it looks like a pile of brown mush. Bleh!
  • Desserts: The Trail Tapioca Pudding didn’t rehydrate as expected as it quickly turned into a gooey mess if not eaten immediately.
  • Snacks: I found that I just couldn’t stomach eating nuts while on trail while macadamia nuts are a favorite at home. This is unfortunate as the 3 oz baggies of macadamia nuts provide 690 calories per serving. I also found that I didn’t care for chia seeds which I had planned to add to my water as another source of nutrition.
Changes made for the AT:
  • The Trail Tapioca Pudding will be left at home.
  • The frequency and volume of nuts per menu will be redistributed with the hope that I will begin to like nuts again as they are such a great source of nutrition.
  • Chia seeds will be left at home as the nutrition provided by the small amount allotted daily is insignificant in terms of effecting hiking performance.

Daily Meal Plans

As many thru hikers began their trek, appetite suppression and excessive volume of food packed were frequent complaints shared. I learned early on that caloric intake on trail is critical to my hiking performance after bonking on day three. Thereafter, focus was put on fine tuning my fueling strategy with the following plan seeming to work well.

Daily meal plan on the PCT:
  • Immediate consumption of an adequate breakfast after rising continued to be critical to be my well being. This was learned early on and continued to be a focus when planning my daily meals.
  • Three 1000 calorie meals + 150-300 calorie snacks every 90 minutes when taking sock breaks satisfied hunger and maintained my energy level.
  • Snacking every hour, my original plan, proved to be too frequent.
  • See my previous post for additional details.
Average daily nutrition intake on the PCT:
  • Daily intake varied significantly the first three weeks on trail with a low of 1640 and high of 4450 calories daily.
  • A full assessment of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fiber and fat) consumed on a daily basis has not been completed as the daily menus were not followed as written.
  • Meals and snacks were chosen based on cravings at the time.
  • Hiker hunger didn’t fully kick in until week three on the trail with intake consistently greater than 4000 calories daily.
  • Highest intake at 4700 calories was consumed the next to last day on trail after pulling twenty miles.
  • The 5000 calorie goal initially set proved to be too high as I found that I didn’t need the extra 500 calories worth of snacks.

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A total of 1600 calories were consumed at this meal and I was still hungry! Hiker hunger is real!

Daily menus written for the PCT:
  • Ten daily menus and four bear can specific menus for the High Sierra were originally developed.
  • See my previous post for distribution of macronutrients as menus were designed to be higher in fat, lower in carbohydrate and provide adequate protein for an endurance athlete.
  • Despite the daily menu rotation I became aware of the pattern and found myself hoping for menus other than those scheduled to arrive in the next resupply box.
  • Due to inability to consume the full 5000 calorie goal and meals oftentimes consumed in town when resupplying, an excessive amount of food remained in my food bag.
  • I’m thankful for the opportunity to makeover the menus written for the Sierra section as they would have been disastrous!
    • To save space in my bear can, double portion recipes were created for the lunch and dinner meals.
    • When I left the PCT, I could have easily consumed the double portion in one sitting leaving me hungry the following meal.
    • The menus also included two baggies of macadamia nuts a day when I was already having difficulty consuming one bag daily. YIKES! 
Changes made for the AT:
  • Total daily calorie goal reduced from 5000 to 4500 calories per day.
  • Additional snacks will be purchased in town if I find that I do in fact need 5000+ calories per day.
  • To reduce pack weight, menus not including a dinner meal at 3800 calories each will be used when a town meal is expected.
  • The 3800 calorie goal was chosen as I expect an in town meal to easily provide 700 calories meeting the daily 4500 calorie goal.
  • With the food remaining from my PCT trek, 31 brand new menus have been created to meet the redesigned meal plan! This will hopefully help diversify resupply boxes when compared to the ten menus previously used.
  • Due to the need to redistribute food, my original ultralight goal of 150 kcal/oz will not always be met with some menus as low as 135 kcal/oz indicating a higher carbohydrate, lower fat load.
  • I plan to attempt to follow menus as written so assess how I feel when consuming a higher versus lower fat diet. Will my energy level dwindle more rapidly when consuming a lower fat diet?
  • New macronutrient distribution average for all menus:
    • Protein: 100 g or 1.5 g/kg (previous goal 114 g or 1.7 g/kg)
    • Carbohydrate: 41% total calories (previous goal 39%)
    • Fat: 44% total calories (previous goal 46%)

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Thirty-one completely different menus created for the AT best meeting new calorie goals with food remaining from the PCT.

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Example of a PCT four day resupply at 5000 calories per day (150 kcal/oz) and a total of 8 lb of food.

New four day meal supply.

Example of an AT four day resupply at 4500 calories (145-150 kcal/oz) for days 1-3 and 3800 calories (135 kcal/oz) on day 4 for a total of 7 1/4 lb of food.

Cooking Methods

Preferred cooking methods for the PCT:
  • Initially, I found that I didn’t have the energy and/or desire to cook hot meals and chose to cold soak as a result.
  • As days between resupply increased, I found that carrying food that was cold soaking only increased my pack weight further.
  • To avoid hiking in the mid-day heat, lunch breaks in the shade lengthened allowing time to prepare hot meals.
  • I also found it interesting how few hikers use the freezer bag cooking method. My meals were nearly consumed while others continued cooking theirs.
Changes made for the AT:
  • Expect that meals will continue to be cooked using the freezer bag method versus cold soaking.
  • Cookset has been switched out from a JetBoil MicroMo to an ultralight PocketRocket 2 and Snow Peak mini solo titanium cup to reduce pack weight.

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New ultralight cookset and cuben fiber food bag for the AT on the left with PCT cookset and Ursack including Loksaks on the right.

Resupply Strategy

Original resupply strategy:
  • I quickly found it challenging to keep up with resupply shipment deadlines. Luckily, my resupply help followed the Craig’s PCT Planner notes that I left behind which served as reminders.
  • We also found that shipping one stop versus the anticipated two stops ahead proved to be plenty of time for the boxes to arrive. This also allowed for last minute changes to be made to the boxes.
  • Due to my pre-packing boxes for the first 700 miles, we did not have an opportunity to see how pulling the food bags from the labeled bins would play out.
  • See my previous post for additional details about the original resupply strategy.

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Gallon size ziploc baggies containing one full day’s food supply.

Changes made for the AT:
  • Five 30 gallon totes now contain an evenly distributed number of menus.
  • Single 30 gallon tote contains menus missing the dinner meal.
  • Single 30 gallon tote contains meals and snacks that remain to serve as replacements if others fail.
  • Gallon size bags of food will be chosen randomly from a single 30 gallon tote.
  • Once the tote is empty, food will be chosen from the next tote.
  • This method will save my resupply help time by not having to open multiple totes as previously planned.
  • Resupply boxes have not been readdressed as I’m unable to predict resupply locations at this time.
  • Resupply boxes will continue to be shipped one stop, approximately five days, in advance.

Recycled resupply food storage bins and mail drop boxes.

Recycled PCT plastic resupply bins and flat rate boxes for the new AT resupply strategy.

Now, it’s time to talk about what you’re really interested in reading about!

Hiking performance:

  • I’m proud to say that this old gal kept up with the twenty-somethings and even lead the group on a few occasions!
  • My legs, knees and feet were strong and pain-free over the entire course of the trek.
  • I would like to attribute the strong hiking performance to my diet as other hikers consuming a less nutritious diet didn’t feel as well.

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After returning home, I was strong enough to snowshoe without using switchbacks. This was not the case prior to my trek.

Body composition changes:

  • After returning home, I was disappointed to learn that I had gained four pounds (156 lb) when my original goal was to lose 10 lb reaching my race weight of 142 lb.
  • I am, however, excited to share that I lost inches all over my body indicating reduced fat mass and increased muscle mass which reinforces the strength gained on trail.
  • New measurements: 29″ waist (1 1/4″ reduction), 36″ chest (no change), 40″ hips (1″ reduction), 22″mid-thigh (1/2″ reduction), 15.5″ mid-calf (3/4″ reduction)
With the unexpected opportunity to makeover my meal plans, it is my hope that I will remain strong and injury-free while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Until next time…

Consider following my Instagram or Facebook feeds for daily interactions with other hikertash foodies as I thru hike the Appalachian Trail starting May 23rd.

If you haven’t already done so, also consider joining the Backcountry Meal Planning for Thru Hikers Facebook group as this is where you will find experienced foodies and thru hikers representing all of the long trails throughout the United States. Your questions will not go unanswered.

Wish me luck!
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Comments 7

  • Kim McCorquodale : May 19th

    Wow! and Wow! So much information that is so interesting. Of course, I too am a “foodie” by trade so maybe that makes it more interesting to me. But, you have very good insight already. Can’t wait to hear more as you travel along and when you finish the AT- as I know you will! Relish the journey and all the people you will meet. Have fun!

    Reply
    • Aaron "Sling" Owens : May 20th

      Thanks, Kim! Looking forward to hearing how your JMT meal planning plays out.

      Reply
  • Claude E Jensen : May 20th

    How do I get the meal plan for AT?

    Reply
    • Aaron "Sling" Owens : May 20th

      I’m writing it up and publishing it after my trek if all continues to go well. Stay tuned!

      Reply
  • Allen : May 26th

    Would someone via, say, a comment please tell me what the “cooking-bag” food-preparation method is? Forgive my ignorance, but what in the heck is a “cooking bag,” and how does a person prepare on-trail food with one? Thanks much in advance for any info.

    Reply
    • Mark : May 26th

      Freezer bag cooking is a simple method of cooking by adding hot water to the contents of a ziplock freezer bag. Simple meals would be something like couscous or ramen with freeze dried veggies, mash potatoes, bean flakes, etc, anything that would only need hot water. The food is cooked in the ziplock and is typically eaten out of the ziplock. Freezer bag cooking is a method used often by thru hikers and ultra light hikers due to it’s simplicity, lack of things that can break (pop can, super cat type stoves), light weight and alcohol is usually a fuel more easily obtained in more places than canister fuel. Typical volume of water is 12-16 oz usually heated on a small alcohol or esbit stove which would not used to simmer or cook (as there are no controls) but merely heat water, using a small pot or cup in the 16-20 oz capacity. The setup is usually for solo hikers but can be adapted for multiple hikers. Canister stoves can be used instead as noted in this blog. Canister stoves have advantages too and comes down to the hiker’s experience, style, needs, etc. More complex meals can also be prepared but require a bit more thought to meal planning.

      Check out this site for more info:
      http://www.trailcooking.com/trail-cooking-101/freezer-bag-cooking-101/

      Reply
  • Steve : May 26th

    The fact that your original fitness goal was based on a weight loss and not a muscle mass and fitness metric just goes to show how ingrained the false narrative of the relationship between total weight and fitness is in Americans. As you discovered, you are now leaner and stronger and weigh more because muscle, by volume, weighs more than fat. Congrats on achieving a more important goal, overall fitness!

    I quite enjoyed reading about the analysis and time spent on it, for preparing perfectly sized meals and your organization for preparing it all. The less you have to stress about on the trail the more fun you can have, leave the stress for home!

    Reply

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