The base weight of a well-packed backpack can be ruined by carrying too much food. I’m guilty of having lugged heavy, spacehogging items that should have been left at home. A six pack of beer, small champagne bottles, cases of nutrition bars, cans of chili or soup. Weighty things that certainly taste good and add to the good times, but certainly less smart choices for the trail. Food that, even after it’s been consumed, still adds weight.
I don’t do stoves. So I won’t be address them here. I will say that my reasoning for not cooking food while hiking is two-fold: 1) I believe less is more. I want to carry as few things as possible to keep my gear inventory as simple as possible. A stove, to me, is a nice yet unnecessary item. And 2) When I’m on the trail, food is fuel and little else. Back home I like certain tastes and enjoy satisfying my cravings – but as soon as I start hiking, a switch flips in my brain and I don’t care much what I eat, as long as it propels me successfully to where I’m going.
The one exception to my no-stove lifestyle would be if I were hiking in temperatures where melting ice was necessary to create water. I guess I’d bring a stove then. But I try to make a habit out of not camping in such extreme temps. It ain’t my bag.
On the trail, most of my main meals are cold-soaked. It’s a never-ending cycle of preparing the next course so it has enough time to reconstitute. At night I soak my breakfast so it’s perfect come morning. Before starting for the day I prep lunch so it’s ready in a few hours. After lunch I make dinner, then repeat this cycle every day so my food is always ready when it’s time to stop and eat it.
My cold-soak strategy employs 3 main items: 1) A reused plastic Talenti ice cream pint (which I am all too happy to empty in advance of my adventure), 2) Dry foods that successfully rehydrate, and 3) Water (duh). If I have these 3 things and a spork, I will never go hungry.
On the AT, water is plentiful. So as long as I am mindful about regularly filtering and drinking before I get thirsty, I should be fine. I tend to consume more water than is typically recommended, so I choose to carry extra. Currently I’m carrying 2 bottles (1.5l for plain water and 1.0l for electrolytes), and a Katadyn filter.
I believe that backpacking food requires a thoughtful strategy. These days when I put together my trail meal plan, I consider 5 main things (though not necessarily in this order): Weight, durability, calories, digestion, and palatability. Let me break them down a bit:
Weight: Anything that has substantial weight after it’s been consumed is probably a no-go. Cans, bottles (glass or plastic), boxes, etc. are all terrible backpack fillers. With a little searching, many of the foodstuffs contained within them can be found in a dehydrated form or in lighter containers. But of course, many are also luxuries that ought to be reserved for off days in town. I try to keep my daily food ration to about 1 lb./day, and usually start with 5 days worth of food, with a few extra snack things mixed in just in case I get in a pinch.
Durability: Anything stuffed in a backpack takes a beating. All the climbing and descending, the crushing of gear against other gear, the banging around of contents from taking the pack off and on. If you aren’t careful, your smartly prepared food plan may end up exploded in your pack. Not only is this frustrating, it’s also more likely to attract critters to food meant for your belly, not theirs. I’m a big fan of Ziplocs. And not the dollar store cheap ones, either. The actual Ziploc brand Ziplocs. I lean toward the freezer style bags since they are a little thicker and tougher than their counterparts. I prep each meal in a Ziploc, then consolidate the day’s worth of food into another one. Once all the days are prepped, I put them all in a larger odor-free plastic bag that fits perfectly into my Ursack Bear Bag. Sure, digging out a meal is a little less convenient than a grab-and-go, but it keeps everything organized and, more importantly, intact.
Calories: Anyone doing a long thru-hike can count on one thing always being true – you will always be in a caloric deficit. And the longer you are out there, the faster your metabolism will become. I finished my 3259 mile walk across America looking skinny and gaunt. But make no mistake, I was eating 5000+ calories/day, which often included a full large pizza followed hours later by a steak and potato dinner. I simply couldn’t satiate my hunger. Back then I indulged in any calories I could get my hands on. These days I try to be a bit more mindful about where my calories are coming from. I still crave bready white floury sweet things most of the day, but I consume multiple double honey buns in one sitting like I once did. My goal now is to eat real food as often as possible. Fresh veggies and fruit are not the smartest packing choices on the trail, but dehydrated options are a nice happy medium. Nuts, nut butters, and protein rich reconstitutables outnumber sugary goods that don’t do much to sustain athletic energy.
Digestion: Before heading out on the trail, I eat like a hiker for a few days at home to see which foods agree with my belly and which ones don’t. I have sort of a wonky digestive system that can be easily disrupted by seemingly benign foods. Beans are great, but if I overdo it I may as well just live in the bathroom. Same with dehydrated fruits. Too much is too much. I dial all this in then stick with the plan while I am hiking to keep my tubes happy and consistent. Sometimes it’s hard to do this when suddenly faced with an abundance or new foods. A good example – when I hit Dick’s Creek Gap (Hiawassee, GA) on the AT, the “Kentucky Crew” was offering trail magic in the form of a hot dog wrapped in a pancake covered with peanut butter and syrup, then dolloped with a smear of sriracha. Glorious, huh? I ate one and it was delicious. Then I walked .6 miles to the Hostel Around the Bend and microwaved a feast of frozen pizza, chicken salad, Klondike Bars, and all sorts of other foods my guts were not used to. All I’ll say is that I wish I had stuck to the plan (with maybe some slight deviation), because my GI system was all messed up for the next 24 hours. Know what works in you body and feed it that. You’ll be happy you did.
Palatability: Flavor is low on my list of food priorities, but I still am discerning about how things taste. I’ve learned that often my smartest hiking food choices don’t have legs, meaning sometimes a great cold-soak option, couscous for example, tastes fine once then makes me barfy every subsequent time I try to eat it. Unfortunately this is often a lesson learned while on the trail rather than something that can be ascertained beforehand at home. Still, it’s worth paying attention to. I know I can can eat oatmeal every doggone day and even look forward to it. I also know I can eat a pouch of tuna every day and never grow tired of its taste. Same goes with Top Ramen. But other items make my calorie-intake less joyful. And though I’m not super particular about what gives me the energy I need to keep rockin’, I’m always gathering data about how to make my meals something to look forward to anyhow.
Here’s what my daily food schedule looked like for days 1-10 on the Appalachian Trail:
BREAKFAST (usually around 7:30 a.m.): All night cold-soaked mix of quick oats, dried cranberries, chopped nuts, various spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg), brown sugar, and powdered oat milk. Once I’ve eaten the oats, I rinse the Talenti pint (I drink the rinse water), and make my instant Folgers coffee. I use less water so it feels like an espresso. Then I fill my belly with plain water (1/2 a liter or so) before I hit the trail.
MORNING SNACKS (usually around 9:30 & 10:30 a.m.): I consume 1 energy gel (my preference is GU Roctane, any flavor will do) and a few big swigs of electrolyte water (I prefer Nuun). Ideally I drink at least 1 liter of electrolyte water before stopping for lunch #1.
LUNCH #1 & #2 (usually around 11:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.): There are couple options that have been working well. A pouch of tuna in water and a small pack of mayo on a tortilla x2. Or, rehydrated refried beans on a tortilla x2. Or, reconstituted scalloped potatoes. Lunch #2 is always followed by a cup of “fancy” instant coffee (Starbucks Via) and a couple squares of chocolate. This little mid-afternoon indulgence fires me up.
AFTERNOON SNACKS (generally hourly between lunch and whenever I stop for the night): One pre-packed baggie/day filled salty nuts, fruit, crackers, cookies, and various fruit newton bars. I also have a daily Clif bar to help diversify the afternoon snack option. Snacks are always accompanied by a mixture of water and electrolyte intake.
DINNER (lately this has been between 5:00-6:00 p.m.): Though I experimented with couscous, Israeli and traditional, I will hereafter eschew both. I will likely eat Top Ramen every evening with an assortment of the following additions: Peanut butter powder, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried vegetables, and packets from various restaurants back home to add flavor – soy sauce, duck sauce, hoisin sauce, Tapatio, and sriracha. I also drink a bunch more water with dinner.
EVENING SNACK (usually right at sunset and before hanging my bear bag): Some sort of bready, sugary pastry snack. A mini honey bun, a crunch bar, a devil dog – none of these pack well so they are typically smashed or broken, but whatever. Also, I drink more water.
Honestly I have no idea what the approximate calorie count is for all this. But I do know that on the trail I was rarely hungry and that I had sufficient fuel to consistently motor up and down the trail’s killer terrain (~175 miles or so) between Amicolola Falls, GA and Fontana Dam, NC. I imagine my food plan will fluctuate as I cover more miles and as the weather changes, but any changes will stem from this initial foundation.
I’m no nutritionist, and I’m not crazy about food data like some folks are. What I am really good at is tuning into my body and recognizing what’s working and what’s not – then making changes along the way as needed. I fully trust that my attention to self/needs and my intuition will always serve me well.
Thanks so much for following along! More to come! 🙂