Food


The Basics

For the uninitiated, here is a rundown of basic need-to-knows about food on a thru-hike:

 

Taste

Pack what you like. Try new foods before your hike or while on a zero day. Don't pack something into a maildrop without trying it first just because it was on sale or a blog recommended it.

 

Calories & Nutrition

The occasional Snickers bar is fine, but your diet needs to be full of whole grains, protein, and fats. We go into detail about caloric and nutritional needs below.

 

Cut Weight and Bulk

Always repackage foods into Ziploc bags. If the contents of a Ziploc can be confused with something else, label it with a Sharpie.

 

Ease of Preparation

Probably 90% of hikers keep their food preparation limited to adding and boiling water. Anything else is a hassle except to the most passionate foodies. It is important to have meals that require no cooking/heating in case you run out of fuel, your stove breaks, or it's raining and you'd rather not run a stove in your very flammable tent.

 

Fuel Efficiency

A lot of just-add-water dry foods like couscous and rice have cooking times prominently displayed on their packages. Never get something that takes longer than 5 minutes. Also, thinner angel hair cooks faster than regular spaghetti. Longer boil time = more likely to run out of fuel. We discuss this in more detail on the dinners page.

 

Cost

Convenience does not have to mean expensive. MREs (military jargon for meals-ready-to-eat) and the civilian equivalents marketed to campers like Mountain House or Backpacker's Pantry are expen$$$ive. Yes, even MREs  from military surplus stores are expensive. Don't bother. Supermarkets are filled with options that are both delicious and cheap. Buying in bulk at Costco or Sam's Club saves even more money.

 

How to Resupply Groceries

You have two options: buy as you go while hiking or mail boxes of food to yourself. The details are outlined on our food resupply page.


Initial Loss of Appetite

During the first two weeks of a thru-hike, something strange happens. Many hikers lose their appetite. This is because of your body's reaction to your sudden and dramatic increase in physical activity. We discussed this phenomenon earlier on our physical preparation page under the heading "The Two-Week Switch" but here we want to emphasize the need to eat.

 

Literally overnight the thru-hiker goes from little to moderate daily exercise to intense physical activity that lasts all day. Only Olympic athletes work out for so long, day in and day out. To cope, your body diverts blood from your digestive system to your muscles and your appetite declines as a result.

 

We have found that big meals, especially in the evening, are the hardest to finish. Forcing yourself to finish a big dinner is tough. Since the worst thing you can do is not eat, a good strategy to cope with the loss of appetite is to eat small meals or snack throughout the day. It takes about two weeks but eventually your appetite does return so when meal planning, consider packing a lot more snacks and fewer big meals for at least the first week.


Hangry - It's a Real Thing

Sometimes you might start to feel depressed and discouraged. Without something happening to trigger bad thoughts, you start thinking about quitting or get angry with your hiking partner. Maybe a minor frustration like a clogged water filter drives you to tears. When this happens, you probably just need to eat something. Hangry is a real thing. So if you are feeling down or angry, stop and eat a Clif Bar. It's miraculous, and will vividly demonstrate how emotional well-being is connected to physical well-being.


Caloric Requirements

There isn't much good science out there on how many calories someone burns while hiking. Lots of numbers are thrown out in forums and magazine articles, but its difficult to know whether these figures have a medical basis or are just guesses that have been repeated enough to become quasi-factual in people's minds. A search of academic medical journals for studies of long distance hikers turned up no results.

 

Adequate meal planning requires an estimate of calories burned each day. That estimate is tricky because of the many variables:

your weight               your speed         your age            fitness level

your pack weight       terrain type        your gender      number of hours hiked

 

Websites such as Health Status, Self Magazine, Calories Count, Calories Lab, and My Fitness Pal, have free calories-burned calculators to help us make the estimate. We have doubts about their accuracy and scientific underpinnings, but they are best available at the moment.

 

After averaging the results from multiple online calculators, we created this chart:

(assumed pack weight 21-40lbs)

hours spent hiking

5

6

7

8

9

your weight

110

1800

2050

2450

2800

3200

120

1950

2250

2670

3050

3500

130

2100

2450

2890

3300

3750

140

2250

2650

3100

3600

4000

150

2400

2850

3450

3900

4300

160

2550

3000

3650

4200

4600

170

2700

3200

3800

4400

4850

180

2850

3400

4000

4600

5150

190

3000

3600

4200

4750

5450

200

3150

3800

4450

4900

5750

An important caveat: this chart accounts for just two of the eight variables: weight & time. That said, the results can give us some idea of how many calories the hiker needs, and this will help grocery shopping & meal planning.


You Run a Deficit

Pig-Out in Town

Regardless of how well you shop and plan meals, you will run a calorie deficit. During all of their thru-hikes, our editors lost weight. Sometimes as much as twenty pounds. So stuffing yourself silly while in town is important. Order some pizzas. Buy a lot of fruit at the grocery. You may experience the strange sensation of being both full and still hungry at the same time. You can max out the capacity of your stomach before fully making up the deficit. Eating continuously throughout the day during a zero day solves that problem.

 

Intense Cravings

Fantasizing about comfort foods like pizza and ice cream is normal. However, if you start having intense cravings for specific or strange things, or begin thinking about food constantly all day, even after eating, then you are likely running a severe calorie and nutritional deficit. At the next town it's very important to pig out and eat a wide variety of food.

Vitamin Supplements

You will need to take a multi-vitamin while hiking. On-trail meals don't have many fresh fruits or vegetables, and there is little variety. You will run a deficit of vitamins and minerals. Women are particularly vulnerable to becoming iron deficient.

 

We recommend taking a children's chewable vitamin, like Flintstones or a store-brand equivalent. We've found that people end up not taking big, non-chewable pills meant for adults. The bag ends up at the bottom of a stuff sack and forgotten. Taking them seems like a chore. They can upset your stomach. Chewables however, are like little candies. Keep them with your food and you'll be sure to eat them at meals.


Do Not Gain Weight Before the Trip

Because of the calorie debt issue and subsequent weight loss, we occasionally come across blogs that advocate gaining weight before a thru-hike, in anticipation of then losing that weight. The idea seems to be that you can lose the "right amount" of weight by doing this, rather than losing too much weight and then looking gaunt or emaciated. We strongly discourage anyone from gaining weight (purposefully adding body fat) before a thru-hike for two reasons: hiker experience tells us it doesn't work and it's bad for your overall health.

 

1)  We have met and talked with hikers who gained weight pre-trip and the results weren't good.

Extra body fat made their hikes even more difficult since their muscles had to work harder to support and carry a heavier frame. After working carefully to reduce their pack weight, the extra body weight was like shoving 10-20 more pounds back into the pack. Their knees swelled more. Their feet hurt more. They found themselves short of breath more often. They hiked slower. They were more prone to injury. The reasons to have a small pack weight are also the reasons not to gain body fat.

 

2)  It is bad for your long-term health.

Huge fluctuations in your body weight are bad for your health. You cannot simply add body fat without also increasing cholesterol levels, putting stress on your heart, and taxing your body's use and production of insulin.

 

Finally, the gain-lots-of-weight-before-hiking plan is based on an assumption that severe weight loss is inevitable. That simply isn't true. While some weight loss is natural and healthy and should be expected, severe weight loss is both uncommon and preventable by eating correctly. How to eat well while backpacking is discussed below.


Ideal Goal:  Modest Weight Loss (at First)

Attempting to maintain pre-trip weight during a thru-hike is both a bad idea and unrealistic. All of us could stand to lose at least a little weight. The ideal scenario is one where you lose body fat and gain muscle during the first month of the hike, producing a modest overall net-loss of body weight (5-15 pounds, depending on the individual). After that, your weight should plateau and remain constant the rest of the trek. Continued weight loss is a cause for concern and indicates you need to change what you are eating.


Calorie to Weight Ratios

You want to most bang for your buck, or more precisely, the greatest number of calories for the weight. Here are the standard calorie/weight ratios provided by the National Institutes of Health:

Fat =  9 calories per gram
Protein =  4 calories per gram
Carbohydrates =  4 calories per gram

 

Alcohol also contains 7 calories per gram, but alcohol has a way of creating unintended zero days. So fats (and that includes oils) provide the greatest amount of energy for their weight.


Calories for Sustained Energy

Unfortunately, much of the dry food that keeps well and so is well suited for backpacking is also refined carbs. Whether we look at instant white rice, ramen noodles, mac&cheese, breakfast cereal, and especially snacks like granola and energy bars, we find a lot of processed carbs. These provide a lot of energy, but not for very long, since non-whole grains and simple sugars are digested very quickly. Blood sugar rises after eating but soon digestion ends and blood sugar drops.

 

On the other hand, whole grains, proteins, and fats are broken down much more slowly and so the energy they provide is more consistent and sustained between meals. Eating lots of these foods mitigates the cycle of energy spikes and crashes. On the breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks pages we discuss specific items found in Florida grocery stores. Below is a brief overview of what to look for when grocery shopping.

 

Whole Grains

The conundrum for backpackers has always been that we carry a limited fuel supply, and whole grains like brown rice, for example, take more time to cook than instant white rice. Longer cook times equal more fuel spent, and we don't want to run out of gas. 

 

Fortunately things are changing. Today there are many more whole grain options than just ten years ago. You can find things like whole grain spaghetti, mac&cheese, and instant brown rice at most supermarkets. Whole grains still cook slower however, so the strategy is to buy thin — get angel hair pasta instead of regular spaghetti, in other words.

 

Proteins

Understanding backpacking food means rejecting the incorrect correlation between protein and meat that persists in American culture. Uncooked meat must be kept refrigerated and will not keep on a backpacking trip, with jerky, some sausage, and single-serve packets of salmon being the few exceptions. Nevertheless you can have a diet rich in protein while on the trail.

 

On-trail protein sources include jerky, single-serve salmon packets, powdered milk, Carnation instant breakfast, sharp cheddar cheeses, nut butters (peanut, almond, and cashew), plain nuts, and vegetable protein supplements like TVP and hemp protein powder. 

 

Healthy Unsaturated Fats

Healthy unsaturated fats come from vegetables and nuts, not meat. Examples include plain nuts (almonds, peanuts), plain seeds (hemp), olive oil, vegetable oils (corn, sunflower), and nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew).


Punch Up Meals

The calorie count of any meal can be increased by the simple and easy addition of fats and proteins. Moreover, since so many freeze-dried meals are refined carbohydrates, adding fats and proteins to these meals will provide more consistent and sustained energy (see above).

Red Mill TVP
Red Mill TVP

Proteins:  TVP

To punch up the protein in any hot meal, add textured vegetable protein (TVP). Made from defatted soy flour, TVP has more protein than meat, cooks quickly, and takes the flavor of the food to which you add it. 

 

On the Pacific Crest Trail, TVP can be found at Safeway and Vons supermarkets (see below) usually in the rice/dry beans aisle. It is not available from smaller groceries or general stores. For that reason, include bags of TVP in your maildrops if you want it.

Bertolli extra light olive oil
Bertolli extra light olive oil

Healthy Unsaturated Fat:  Olive Oil

The simplest and most common strategy to punch up the fat calories of a meal on-trail is to add olive oil. Foodies know extra virgin olive oil has the richest flavor and while we love the extra virgin flavor, it doesn't go well with everything on-trail. For maximum versatility, we recommend buying "mild" or "light" varieties, which have virtually no taste, rather than extra virgin. This allows you to add it to any hot meal — mac&cheese, ramen, mashed potatoes, pasta, couscous, grits, oatmeal, et cetera.

 

Olive oil can be found in any grocery, big or small, along the PCT. Only Safeway and Vons supermarkets will carry small 8oz bottles, however, the quantity best suited to backpackers. Regardless of size, olive oil is always sold in glass bottles, so to save weight you need to transfer it into a plastic bottle. We discuss plastic bottles that won't leak on the food gear page.

Badia Chia Seeds
Badia Chia Seeds

Omega 3 Fatty Acids:  Chia Seeds

Chia seeds punch up the omega-3s in almost any backpacking meal. Unlike flax seeds (another popular omega-3 source) chia seeds do not need to be ground first. Your body still absorbs the nutrients in whole seeds, and since they are tasteless, whole seeds can be added to any meal. Chia seeds have more omega-3s than salmon and won't spoil. (They also don't smell like salmon and so don't attract bears and other critters to your campsite). The one drawback for some hikers is that when soaked in water the seeds form a gooey gel (vegans use it as an egg substitute) and so adding too many can gunk up hot meals.


Chia seeds are a specialty item found only in supermarkets like Safeway, not small groceries. Look for them near the spices and extracts, rather than with sunflower seeds in the snack aisle. If you want chia seeds on the PCT, they'll need to be in your maildrops much of the time.


On-Trail Meal Strategy: Two Lunches

We've concluded that a three-meal-a-day routine is not the best strategy for a PCT thru-hike. Experienced hikers have unexpectedly found themselves having blood sugar crashes and fatigue soon after beginning their hike, and we think we've determined the culprit:  while Appalachian Trail thru-hikers average 12-15 miles a day the PCT demands that you average 17-21 miles a day. The longer the hiking day, the more miles between meals, and the lower your blood sugar gets between those meals. 

 

The Two Lunch Strategy

Snacks can help fill the gaps before and after lunch, but snacks are small and infrequent, and we know people tend to snack only after they feel hungry, which is too late. For sustained energy we recommend a two-lunch strategy. Eating two equally-sized lunches splits your hiking day into three equal parts, which can then be further divided by short 5-10 minute breaks. For example, after eating breakfast and breaking camp, hike 3 miles and take a 5-10 minute break. Then hike another 3 miles and eat 1st lunch. Hike another 3 miles and take a 5-10 minute break, then another 3 miles and have 2nd lunch. Hike 6 more miles with a break in the middle for a total of 18 miles. In this example, energy is sustained by larger equally-sized meals between shorter distances rather than one large meal at midday punctuated by small, infrequent snacks.

18-Mile Day

1 Lunch           vs           2 Lunches

21-Mile Day

1 Lunch           vs           2 Lunches


Breakfast

   3 miles

   3 miles

   3 miles

Lunch

   3 miles

   3 miles

   3 miles

Dinner

 

    = 18 miles total

Breakfast

   3 miles

   3 miles

1st lunch

   3 miles

   3 miles

2nd lunch

   3 miles

   3 miles

Dinner

    = 18 miles total

Breakfast

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

Lunch

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

Dinner

 

    = 21 miles total

Breakfast

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

1st lunch

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

2nd lunch

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

Dinner

    = 21 miles total


Does That Mean Carry More Food?

No. We are not saying that PCT hikers have to carry more food than AT hikers, just that calorie intake needs to be more evenly distributed throughout the day and that simply telling hikers "remember to snack" is poor advice. Habits acquired on one trail don't work well on other trails. One lunch plus snacks works great on the AT, but not on the PCT. Grocery shopping for a two-lunch day basically means you have two options:

1)  Shop as normal — buy all the "lunch" and "snack" food you would normally buy. Then while hiking, divide your "lunch" food in half and eat it over two lunches while also eating your "snack" food during the two lunches.

2)  Buy fewer "snack" foods and more "lunch" foods.

 

Don't get hung up on food categories — think in terms of calories only. The definition of "lunch" and "snack" foods is subjective so eat what you want to eat.


Food Blogs for Backpackers

There are a dizzying number of articles on the web about cooking meals while backpacking. Every backpacking magazine or website seems to have a "top ten backpacking meals" list. Every backpacker with a blog writes about their favorite meals and recipes. Most of these folks aren't chefs however, or even passionate foodies. So we went on the hunt for websites and blogs devoted exclusively to cooking on the trail, written by chefs and foodies. If you enjoy DIY projects, hate pre-packaged options, and want to take the time to actually cook on-trail (not just boil water) then these sites are for you:

Trail.Recipes

Professional chef and cookbook author provides recipes and food dehydrating instructions

 

Trail Cooking.com

Recipes and instructions for "freezer bag meals," the DIY equivalent to commercial freeze-dried meals

Outdoor Herbivore Blog 

devoted to "organic vegetarian meals for the trail"

 

Backpacking Chef

recipes and food dehydrating instructions

 

Backpacking Recipes

blog about recipes, cooking, and food tips