The Thru-Hiker’s Spice Kit: A Simple Guide for Improving Meals on the Trail
Let’s face it: thru-hiker food generally sucks.
Food that is cheap, portable, lightweight, and durable enough to last through trail conditions is typically chock-full of preservatives (namely salt) and seasoned with the simplest ingredients (namely salt). Packets of tuna or salmon, while full of protein, are glorified cat food. Freeze-dried meals, though typically a step up in quality, can cost three times more than standard meals.
And while these foods provide you with the necessary sustenance to power up and down the Appalachians, their “charming” flavors wear off quickly. After constant subsistence on ramen or Knorr sides, most thru-hikers look forward to towns not so much for relief from hiking, but for relief from the bland foods they consume day after day—if I never eat another packet of instant oatmeal, I can die a happy man.
Nothing made this more clear than eating off-the-shelf meals with no additional flavoring for the first few weeks of my thru-hike. After wolfing down the same meals day after day, I decided that completing a thru-hike didn’t mean that my taste buds had to suffer for 2,000 miles.
While a thru-hike limits the types of foods you can carry—especially if you’re attempting to stay under a certain pack weight—the method in which you prepare your meals can make an ordinarily plain rice dinner into something significantly more satisfying. “Variety is the spice of life,” so why not carry a variety of spices?
How to Make a Lightweight Thru-Hiker Spice Kit
When I told fellow hikers that I had begun carrying a spice kit on the trail, a lot of them snorted something about “extra weight” before trundling off to chew on some tree bark for dinner. I understand where they’re coming from up to a point: if you’re trying to cut out every ounce of excess weight possible, then yes, a spice kit may not be for you. But if you’re willing to add an additional 4-8 ounces in order to add a range of flavors to your trail meals, then take a look at my setup below:
The secret: transfer everything into lightweight travel bottles whenever possible, eschewing the extra weight from product packaging. I found small shampoo bottles from Target for less than $1 apiece, and I picked up a few more on the trail from various outfitters. I had two exceptions to this rule: the first was for bacon bits, which were easier to access from a sandwich bag; and the other was my red/black pepper, which could usually be found in tiny plastic containers with a built-in shaker top. I stored everything in a quart-sized freezer bag and kept it handy at the top of my food bag. I always had dedicated olive oil and hot sauce bottles, switching out spices in the other bottles for what I wanted at the time of resupply. I highly recommend splitting spices with fellow hikers, so you can share both the cost of a full container and the wealth of better-tasting food.
My typical repertoire of spices included the following:
One of the most versatile, calorie-rich, and healthy foods you can carry on the trail, there really isn’t any excuse not to make room for olive oil. One tablespoon has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat, meaning that just a small addition of olive oil can significantly increase the usefulness of your meal.
But we’re here to talk about taste, right? Olive oil is great because it mixes in with most other foods. Mix it in with tuna, and it no longer tastes like cat food (NOTE: I swear I don’t actually eat cat food). It’s a great substitute for dinners that call for butter, like rice and quinoa, and it makes any meal much creamier and heartier. Best of all, it makes it really easy to fry stuff up if you’ve got a pan with you—you wouldn’t think about it at first, but one of the easiest ways to make new trail friends is to fry up some SPAM. Trust me on this.
It’s always a good idea to have some olive oil with you, as it’s the Swiss army knife of your spice kit. Just be sure to split up a bottle with a fellow hiker: even though you can find olive oil in plastic containers instead of glass bottles, it often comes in sizes that are too heavy and bulky to be practical.
Hot Sauce (Weapon of Choice: Sriracha)
If olive oil is the yin of hiking spices, hot sauce is the yang. Nothing improves the taste of bland hiking food more than a few drops of your favorite hot sauce. It also allowed me to make poor-man versions of some of my favorite dishes from back home. For example, throw some peanut butter and sriracha into cooked noodles, and suddenly you’ve made thru-hiker pad thai! Even better, you can find hot sauce practically anywhere, from dollar stores to gas stations. I was frequently able to fill up my bottle at hostels as well, as most of them had an ample supply (just be sure to ask if it’s OK first—it’s the polite thing to do, and I never had a hostel owner turn me down).
Crushed Black/Red/Cayenne Pepper
If you are like me, you put pepper on pretty much everything. Why leave something so essential on the dinner table back home? Just a pinch of pepper can add a lot of zest to your meals, so you won’t need to pack much between towns. I typically brought a little container of crushed red pepper to add a little kick without adding the flavor of hot sauce. You can usually find individually wrapped black pepper packets (sometimes red, if you ask) in most fast food restaurants, so load up on those when you grab a Big Mac in town.
Mrs. Dash Seasoning Blends
Through miracles of science/witchcraft, the manufacturers/wizards of Mrs. Dash have found a way to concoct a variety of flavors without adding any salt to their ingredient list. These blends allowed me to change even the most common meals into something much more satisfying. I would sprinkle a bit of the Lemon Pepper blend onto tuna and fry it up with some olive oil, or mix some of the Italian Medley into a pasta side, and suddenly trail food wouldn’t seem too far off from a home-cooked meal (allow for a little hyperbole here, though, as everything tastes way better after months on the trail). A little of this seasoning (a dash, if you will) will go a long way, so I recommend splitting a container with a fellow hiker.
Dried Minced Onion
If there’s one thing thru-hikers start to crave after a few weeks on the trail, it’s fresh vegetables. While dried minced onion doesn’t necessarily fall into the “fresh” category, it does add that vegetable taste that your body will yearn for. Minced onion also adds that sour taste that seems so elusive in many trail foods—most things are either sweet or starchy, so adding this to a meal will add that oh-so-necessary variety. While it may not have much in the way of nutritional and caloric value, I found myself adding it to almost everything I cooked for that savory, home-cooked flavor.
Bacon Bits (or Artificial Bacon Bits for Vegetarians)
OK, so this technically isn’t a spice, but I don’t need to remind many of you of bacon’s godlike ability to vastly improve any meal. On top of that, your body will be craving protein and fat after weeks of 20-mile days, and guess what bacon has plenty of. In most major grocery stores, you can find precooked, “real” bacon in the salad dressing/condiment isle, and these delicious pieces will last for several days when the weather is cool; you might want to eat it a bit more quickly when the summer temperatures begin. If you’re a vegetarian or don’t want to worry about spoiled food, you can also use artificial bacon bits, which are simply clumps of soy flour that have been textured, colored, and artificially flavored to taste like everyone’s favorite protein. It doesn’t beat the real thing, but it’s an acceptable substitute when you’re trapped in the woods and craving that bacon flavor. And if you’re a carnivore like me, that craving will come along pretty quickly into your trip.
While the above ingredients were staples of my kit, a quick visit to the grocery store spice isle will show you how many options you have. There is no one-size-fits-all method here, so mix and match to suit your tastes. The following are just a few of the other spices I saw hikers sprinkling into their food:
- Soy Sauce – While full of sodium, few ingredients make your rice meals as tasty as a little soy sauce.
- Parmesan Cheese – Essential if you make a lot of pasta with tomato sauce. Also, surprisingly complementary to peanut butter (I’m just saying…).
- Oregano – I only saw this once or twice on the trail, but if you love Italian food, this may be mandatory. I personally just used the Italian Medley variety of Mrs. Dash.
- Mayonnaise – You can find packets of mayo in pretty much any fast food restaurant, and when you mix this and olive oil into a tuna packet, you can make a relatively decent tuna salad.
- Minced Garlic – Another great complement to pasta meals, just be prepared to have stinky breath for the next several days (though if you’re worried about smelling bad, maybe a thru-hike isn’t for you anyway).
Lastly, unless you like your meals to be really, REALLY salty, I recommend against bringing any extra salt. If you get Rice-A-Roni, Zatarain’s, or pretty much any prepared meal on the trail, they are typically going to have an abundance of salt in them already.
A spice kit is something I rarely see mentioned by thru-hikers online, but when I was on the trail, most of my nighttime conversations with fellow hikers revolved around trading food and spices to create new twists on standard meals. If I was getting tired of my brand of hot sauce, or I wanted to try a new type of flavoring to make my quinoa more palatable, there was typically a hiker that had what I really wanted. On a whim, one time I called out for some Parmesan cheese, and within seconds I had some in my hands. The trail provides, right?
Having a proper spice kit doesn’t initially seem like something all that important, but after 2,000 miles of hiking, I found that little changes to tried-and-true methods were just the thing I needed to rejuvenate my spirits. That advice goes for your food supply as well, so treat yourself nice: pack some spice.
Just don’t pass the salt; I’ve had plenty already.
What do you think? Did I miss any spices you can’t leave home without? Tell us about your spice kit in the comments below.
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