Food. There are few things long-distance hikers think or talk about more. It is what fuels our bodies and allows us to complete these insane feats of endurance, and therefore it is all important. Many hours on the trail are spent dreaming about when you’ll next stop to eat, and what you’ll eat when you do. When you burn off five to six thousand calories a day, you’re rarely not hungry. This is a phenomenon known as ‘hiker hunger’, a term used to describe the insatiable hunger that allows hikers to consume massive amounts of food while rarely getting full.
So what do hikers actually eat on the trail? This is one of the more common questions I receive when I explain to someone what a thru-hike is. ‘What are you going to eat, and how are you going to get it?’ While the topic of obtaining food (or resupplying) needs its own post, this post will be dedicated to the glory and horror that is trail food.
One of my favourite trail breakfasts. Instant oatmeal, instant coffee, eaten while sitting in the dirt. (Eating while sitting down is a real luxury).
One of the biggest concerns when it comes to food is weight. Weight may be the one thing that thru-hikers talk about more than food. When you’re walking thousands of consecutive miles carrying everything you own on your back, you want the things you own to be light. Including your food. Food is obviously a necessity, but most food has the unfortunate quality of being rather heavy. This is why most hikers turn to dehydrated and dried foods. They have the most calories for the least weight (and they don’t go bad). I once saw someone post a photo of their food supply for a backpacking trip, and was horrified to see a spread including four fresh avocados and a myriad of other fresh fruits and veggies. I mean, I won’t deny that I envied them on trail as I choked down my never-ending instant pasta sides, but my god the weight. Thru-hikers are the type of people who have been known to carry around sawed-off toothbrushes in order to save ounces off their pack weight, so lugging around pounds of fresh produce ain’t gonna fly.
Not a calorie dense item, but essential for any caffeinated hiker.
There are a few common strategies for eating on trail, and I’ll briefly outline each of the most popular.
Dehydrating your own food: This strategy is used by hikers who have infinite amounts of time and energy to put into preparing their food. These intrepid souls pre-make all of their meals, stick them in a dehydrator, and seal them up. For a weekend trip, this might involve a fun-filled day or two of cooking, but for a thru-hike, this might involve months of preparation. While this strategy takes a lot of time and effort, it’s probably one of the best ways to ensure your diet vaguely resembles that of a normal, healthy person while on trail. It’s also fairly cost-effective.
Purchasing dehydrated meals: This strategy is used by hikers who have infinite amounts of money to put into their trail food. This technique involves purchasing dehydrated backpacking meals from brands such as Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry. It requires quite a bit less time and effort than making all of your own dehydrated meals, but since each meal can costs upwards of 10 dollars, this strategy will put quite a ding in your wallet.
Purchasing food that resembles the diet of a poor college student: This strategy works for those hikers that have neither large amounts of time nor a ton of expendable cash. This is the strategy that I myself take on my own hiking trips, and it involves purchasing a lot of cheap, high-calorie food. Picture ramen noodles, mac and cheese, poptarts, peanut butter, and horrific combinations of things stuffed into tortillas.
These are the three most common food strategies and the trail, and of course they can be combined to form hybrid techniques. There are any number of other small ways hikers might modify the way they eat on the trail. Some hikers might cook three hot meals a day. Others may snack throughout the day and cook one large meal at day’s end. Some hikers go completely stoveless and only eat cold food. All that matters is that calories are entering your body at a fairly constant rate.
Here is my father on a weekend canoe trip demonstrating a much more elaborate setup than what most thru-hikers will experience. What’s a plate?
Here is an example of what I typically eat during one day of an overnight trip (not a thru-hike):
- Instant coffee
- Two packages of instant oatmeal w/ added raisins and walnuts
- Dried fruit
- Tortillas with peanut butter and jam
- Gatorade powder
- 2 cheese strings
- Clif bar
- Trail mix
- Some kind of pasta (mac & cheese or a Knorr pasta side)
- Snickers bar
- Hot chocolate
The contents of my food bag for a single overnight.
I will likely keep a similar diet on the PCT, but will add more snacks as hiker hunger hits. I saw another blogger advise their readers to eat every hour in order to keep energy levels up, and this is what I plan on doing. I will likely be eating 3000-5000 calories per day. My strategy will be to fill up on as much real, nutritious food as I possibly can in town, and pack out some nice things (fresh produce, etc.) for my first day on trail. After that, it will be back to the old college diet.
In the end, food on the trail merely becomes something that you have to do in order to stay alive. It may not taste particularly good or be a particularly enjoyable experience, but it’s what keeps you out there on the trail, and that’s all that matters.