The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Thru-Hiking
Simply saying that “thru-hiking burns calories” is to make a comical understatement. When asked about my experiences on the AT and the PCT, I frequently described my metabolism as a wildfire burning through every molecule of food I ate. This makes sense considering the average thru-hiker burns 4,000 to 6,000 calories every day.
How, you might reasonably ask, does one keep up with that kind of energy expenditure when all food must be carried? Well, besides hauling calorie-dense foods like energy bars and trail mix, town stops are invaluable opportunities to catch up on calories, what with their selections of restaurants, bars, and delis.
And when it comes to resupplying food for the trail, every hiker is similar, yet different: some buy food in town, some send themselves food in the mail, and many choose a combination of the two. Unsurprisingly, maintaining one’s food intake and nutrition is one of the keys to a successful thru-hike. The longer the trail, the more important this becomes.
So… what about hiking with dietary restrictions? Considering the sheer quantity of calories a thru-hiker requires, is it actually possible to complete a long trail while avoiding certain food ingredients? Specifically, what about a vegan diet (commonly referred to as “plant-based”), which avoids animal products and therefore many common trail staples, such as jerky and cheese? How difficult is it to find vegan trail food that meets a hiker’s caloric and nutritional needs? Is it easy to find vegan options at restaurants along the trail?
How Many People Hike Vegan?
Using data from hiker surveys, The Trek and Halfway Anywhere broke down dietary statistics by trail, including a general estimate for the number of vegan thru-hikers:
- The Trek’s 2022 survey of 403 Appalachian Trail hikers reported that 4% were vegan.
- Halfway Anywhere’s 2022 survey of 953 Pacific Crest Trail hikers reported 30.9% with dietary restrictions, 14.6% of which were vegan.
- Halfway Anywhere’s 2022 survey of 235 Continental Divide Trail hikers reported 26.3% with dietary restrictions, 23.6% of which were vegan.
Interestingly, Halfway Anywhere’s 2022 surveys also asked hikers to rate the difficulty of accommodating their diets on trail. On a scale from 0 (easy) to 10 (difficult), vegan hikers averaged 3.4 on the PCT and 5 on the CDT.
So what does this mean for vegan thru-hikers?
Is it possible to thru-hike on a vegan diet? The short answer is yes, absolutely. Is it difficult? The short answer is no. A significant minority successfully thru-hike the AT, PCT, and CDT every year.
In terms of resupplying, finding food is not especially difficult. However, the question of difficulty ultimately becomes subjective based on many factors, including individual needs and preferences, how one responds to trail magic, and what options are available in small towns with limited restaurant options.
Every hiker approaches the trail in a different way, and when it comes to those with restricted diets, some are flexible. Some stick with it throughout their hike. Others modify or even forego their diet for the duration of the hike. Some make exceptions in special cases only. Oftentimes, dietary modifications are made in response to what food is available, though the body’s intensifying caloric and nutritional needs are potential factors as well.
What to Expect: Vegan Thru-Hiking
If you’re planning to thru-hike vegan and want to get an idea of what it’s like, then read on. Coming up is a list of vegan trail foods to help you get started, as well as some challenges that you can expect. Firsthand perspectives are provided by successful vegan thru-hikers Max Kiel, Taylor Sienkiewicz, Owen Eigenbrot, and Aric “Ranger” Ross. Max, Taylor, and Owen have written about their vegan thru-hiking experiences, and Aric agreed to share the wisdom from his vegan Triple Crown during a phone interview.
Vegan Resupply: Grocery Stores vs. Mail Drops
When it comes to resupplying on the trail, thru-hikers have a few options: buy their food at grocery stores, prepare food at home and have it mailed to them, or box up grocery store food in town and send it ahead to the next stop. There are pros and cons for each method regardless of dietary preferences, but if you’re wondering how difficult it might be to find vegan options along the trail without packing them in advance, here is what three different vegan thru-hikers had to say:
“Many people mail themselves food resupply packages throughout their thru-hikes if they have dietary restrictions,” said Max Kiel in his 2021 article. “While this strategy may work, I can tell you that there is absolutely no need to go through the hassle of preparing and shipping packages all over the trail if you are planning on eating vegan.”
Aric Ross, who thru-hiked all three of the Triple Crown trails vegan, expressed a similar opinion about his experience: “As far as mail drops go, I didn’t do anything outside of the ordinary… I just sent the typical mail drops that anyone who wasn’t vegan would send — I actually did the whole Appalachian Trail without mail drops.
“I think I did eight resupply boxes on the CDT, and maybe nine on the PCT,” he added. Rather than packing these at home before his hikes, he bought food from grocery stores in trail towns and sent them ahead from there. “Halfway Anywhere has lists for where the most popular mail drops are,” he said. “I didn’t send any mail drops anywhere outside of that.
“As far as grocery stores, it wasn’t hard. I still ate Knorr sides and Near East couscous. There were a lot of Knorr sides I didn’t eat, but the Spanish rice and the Mexican rice are two good options. The Near East garlic and olive oil flavored couscous is vegan, and Walmart has vegan ramen.”
“Honestly, our trail food isn’t anything bizarre,” said Taylor Sienkiewicz in her 2018 article. “Other hikers are surprised to find that our food bags aren’t too far off theirs. We eat Pop-Tarts, oatmeal, bars, ramen, peanut butter, and starchy dinners just like everyone else.”
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What About Protein?
According to Backpacker Magazine, “About 10 to 20 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from protein so your body doesn’t break down muscle tissue.” Along with muscle recovery, protein is essential for metabolism regulation and strengthening the immune system.
Jerky, tuna, and cheese are common sources of protein in many backpackers’ food bags, but there are certainly alternatives for those who don’t use animal products.
What do the vegans say?
“I think there’s sometimes a misconception about needing one specific source of protein,” Aric said. “But in reality, anything with grains in it has protein. Beans have protein. My oatmeal in the morning with flaxseed and walnuts had protein. The granola I ate for lunch had protein. Clif Bars have protein. The couscous and the wrap I put it on had protein. So there wasn’t a single source of protein that I had.”
Aric also said he never used any kind of protein powder or supplement. That being said, even hikers with no specific dietary needs often find it helpful to add protein powder to their meals or water. For vegans, there are many plant-based powders available, such as Vega or Amazing Grass.
“In my view, adequate nutrition, or lack-there-of, is an issue for all hikers, regardless of their dietary preferences,” says The Trek’s editor Owen Eigenbrot, who has also thru-hiked vegan. “Protein is just one piece of the whole puzzle, and the hyperfocus on this single macronutrient is detrimental to everybody when the real focus should be on overall nutrition, including micronutrients.
“People adhering to a vegan diet can lack protein intake, but so can the omnivorous hiker. No matter your dietary preferences, if you live off of Pop-tarts and potato chips, you’re not going to perform optimally.”
He continues, “There’s no general rule that a vegan diet can’t be a healthy option, but it’s certainly not a guarantee that it will be. The same goes for any diet. There’s a lot of crappy junk food that hikers love, and some of it just happens to be vegan. I’m not proud to admit that a majority of my trail calories are probably derived from just Oreos and potato chips. Balancing that yummy garbage with plenty of real food should be everyone’s goal. So yeah, the laser focus on protein is misplaced. Protein is not a problem for vegans. Balanced nutrition is a problem for everyone.”
Vegan Trail Food
While certainly not exhaustive, the following list of vegan trail foods includes lots of options to provide a starting point for prospective vegan hikers. Keep in mind that the ingredients in different food brands and flavors will vary, and it’s always a good idea to read the ingredients before buying (gelatin and honey are particularly good at hiding).
- Oatmeal (can add flaxseed, nuts, fruit, chia seeds, etc.)
- Cream of Wheat
- Unfrosted Pop Tarts
- Laird Instant Lattes
- Clif Bars
- Luna Bars
- Lära Bars
- Nature’s Bakery Bars
- PRO bars
- Nuts and trail mix
- Dried fruit
- Peanut butter
- Saffron Road Crunchy Chickpeas (Buffalo flavor is NOT vegan)
- Vegan jerky
- Zatarain’s red beans and rice, black beans and rice, dirty rice
- Vigo red beans and rice
- Near East couscous (not all flavors)
- Knorr sides (Spanish Rice and Mexican Rice are fair game)
- Vegan ramen (varies by brand)
- Backpacker’s Pantry vegan meals
- Dehydrated refried beans
- Plain mashed potatoes with Lipton Onion Soup mix
Sometimes fresh is best
“For my shorter resupplies, I liked to carry fresher things,” Aric added. “Sometimes I would carry out veggie wraps; I would have hummus, some spinach, tomatoes, and then maybe a thing of tempeh that I would cut up and put on it. I also had bagels with avocado, tomato, and lettuce. I think especially by your third thru-hike, you’re so tired of eating backpacker food that it’s really nice to have something fresh.”
How to Approach Trail Magic
If you’ve spent time on any of the Triple Crown trails, especially the AT, you’ve probably run into trail magic. Sometimes it’s a cooler full of sodas left beside the trail. Sometimes it’s people set up at road crossings with chairs, tents, and occasionally a grill to serve hikers a full range of meals and snacks.
“For the first month or so of my thru-hike, it felt like I was coming upon some sort of trail magic almost every day,” Kiel wrote. “While these trail angels will often have a few vegan-friendly options such as fruit or chips, many times their goodies consist of cookies, brownies, and even the occasional burgers and hot dogs.”
He went on to say that after the first couple of weeks on the AT, remaining vegan took serious willpower. “I looked on as all my friends replenished their bodies with calorie-rich baked goods while I ate a banana. I knew that as I got further north, my body’s cravings would only get more intense.”
His breaking point came when someone hiked out to a shelter one evening carrying root beer and ice cream. Kiel and his friends were amazed by the man’s kind gesture: “Not only was I starving and craving something fattening and sugary, but I would’ve felt a bit rude turning down his trail magic.”
It’s alright to say no
Aric’s experience with trail magic was different. “If people left things in a cooler or something, there tended to be something for me,” he said. “But sometimes people would grill next to the trail, and it’s usually hot dogs and hamburgers. It was a little awkward when they would invite me to sit down and offer me a beer and a burger. I’d say, ‘Thank you, I’ll just have a beer. I appreciate the option for the burger.’ But it was never too awkward, and I guess I never really felt left out and I definitely never felt tempted.”
Contending with the questions raised by trail magic can be a challenge to thru-hikers on restricted diets, though it can be easy too. Hiker hunger is hard to ignore, but when adequately prepared, no one should need to rely on trail magic. Even picking an unexpected apple from a table of buttery brownies is a treat. So similar to resupplying, deciding whether or not to modify one’s diet for such occasions is an individual choice.
Talk of the Trail: Restaurants
On a similar note, restaurants along the trail often pose a challenge for vegan hikers, especially in smaller towns where options are very limited. However, for Aric, this wasn’t a problem:
“In small towns, oftentimes there was just nothing for me besides maybe french fries, which was not a big deal. I guess for whatever reason, I didn’t really care, and when there was a good option for me, it just made it that much better.”
While some vegan thru-hikers might not consider the lack of options a challenge, others make exceptions based on their bodies’ individual needs. “I was able to eat almost entirely vegan in several towns,” writes Kiel. “However, there were times when I had to be flexible with my diet and consume vegetarian meals because there were simply no other options.”
He went on to note that weight loss is a concern for anyone on trail, especially for those hiking on a restricted diet. For him, choosing to eat vegetarian meals when no vegan options were available was a matter of maintaining body weight.
Or skip the restaurant
While Eigenbrot understands this position, he says that he found it rare to be completely out of options. “Once or twice on the CDT I needed to turn a blind eye to the fact that they were probably cooking my hash browns with butter instead of oil, but usually I could scrape a meal together out of side dishes.”
He goes on to say, “There are a lot of times when it’s best to skip the restaurant altogether. I promise you that the vegan pizza from Domino’s is the saddest thing you’ll ever see. My favorite options are Taco Bell and Subway, but usually, I grab a big haul of food from the grocery store. This is a cheaper and healthier way to fill up, and I always get a pint of vegan ice cream out of it.”
Something to look forward to
If you’re worried about finding vegan food in town, it doesn’t take too much effort to do a little research ahead of time. HappyCow.net is a great resource for finding vegan and vegetarian options at restaurants, and sometimes anticipating a meal is the best part.
“Months before I even started the CDT, I was drooling over the vegan pies at Piante Pizza in Breckenridge, CO. This was my Stehekin bakery equivalent on that trail,” Eigenbrot says in reference to the famous cinnamon roll hotspot on the PCT. “On the AT it was Kelley Farm Kitchen in Harpers Ferry, but there was dank vegan food most of the way to Katahdin.”
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, individual preferences and nutritional needs will guide hikers to make their own choices. There’s no wrong or right way to fuel your thru-hike, and doing it vegan is absolutely possible. It may take some practice and mistakes are probable, but in general, there are few added barriers to ditching the animal products. Grocery stores, most restaurants, and trail angels all provide vegan options, and there’s no rule that says vegans need to send more mail drops than anyone else. How you approach eating during your hike is a matter of figuring out what works best for you.
Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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