What do you eat out there?
While canned foods can still be great for car camping, we’ve come a long way from carrying heavy cans for longer backpacking trips.
Throughout most of the Appalachian Trail, I would resupply in various towns every 3-5 days or so. For the most part, there’s no need to carry more than 5 days of food at any point of the trail, except perhaps through the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine.
So, what kind of food fuels us thru-hikers? What keeps you going for over 2,000 miles of walking? A healthy dose of variety is key. Many thru-hikers quickly fine tune their ability to find the most calories per ounce of food. I was never worried about calories in general so much as what kind of calories they were: I knew I needed to focus on fats and protein a bit more than carbs and sugar. (that said, I almost always had dark chocolate with me).
First I’ll share my own trail food experience, then I’ll touch on a few of the more interesting concoctions I’ve seen other hikers cooking up.
BREKKIE BREK (BREAKFAST)
Most of the time, I have oatmeal for breakfast. By the time I got off trail last year, I was eating 2 instant oatmeal packets with a scoop of protein powder almost every morning. There was a brief era – perhaps a week or two – when I was trying to save time and pick up my mileage, so I skipped oatmeal and just had granola bars and poptarts while I walked. This was not sustainable for me. I would get sugar crashes. No bueno, folks. This year when I finished up the last quarter of the trail, I ended up having breakfast bars most mornings, with some fruit if I could manage it. I’m still very much pro-oatmeal.
SNECKY SNECKS (SNACKS)
Notice: I often didn’t have an official “lunch” in the way we tend to think if it. Sometimes I would pack out bagels and cream cheese (which keeps surprisingly well) or maybe tortillas for my tuna and cheese (topped with the occasional avocado). But otherwise it was usually just a bunch of different snacks throughout the day. (“snack per hour,” as my friend said.)
When I pack up camp for the day, I usually fill my fanny pack with a handful of snacks: some chocolate for the up hills, some cheese sticks, a granola/Clif bar, maybe a Poptart. I just eat these things while I walk. When I do take a break, I’ll include something like a spoonful or two of peanut butter, or a tuna salad packet, or an orange (don’t get scurvy kids).
DIN DIN (DINNER)
My first week on trail, I had the freeze dried Good To-Go meals for dinner every night. Then I realized that, despite being delicious (especially the Thai Curry, yummmm) it was way too expensive ($6+) to have every day.
For a week or two after that, dinner would be a variety of different things. Finally, around week four, I tried ramen for the first time. GAME CHANGER. I can’t exactly advocate ramen as a staple for “normal” life, but for trail life, it is wonderful. Hot noodles and the boost of salt you actually really need when you’re hiking all day – plus, it’s easy to add pretty much anything to it. “Ramen bombs,” as they are called, are a little different every time, but the idea is to add whatever else is in your food bag to your ramen. Peanut butter? Gold fish? Cheese? Tuna? Throw it all in there.
Then, one magical evening a full seven or eight weeks into my journey, I was making dinner at a shelter with a few Northbounders, when all of a sudden one of them pulls out a box of Annie’s Mac n Cheese. Was there angelic singing in the background? Maybe, or maybe it was just in my heart and stomach. I knew right then that my trail cuisine would never be the same. I started carrying mac n cheese with me from the very next town I went to, and have had it as my trail dinner essentially every other night since then, alternating with ramen so I don’t get tired of either one.
Side note: I’m a firm believer that Annie’s Mac is the best for it’s quality, weight, price, and heavenly-ness. Other brands can be alright, but beware off-brands because THEY ARE NOT TASTY and they STICK TO THE POT. You have been warned.
NOTABLE NOMS (CREATIVE TRAIL FOODS I’VE SEEN)
My first day back on trail this year, I ran into a lovely German woman – she was christened with the name “Trail Chef” that night, so you already know this is gonna be good. Essentially, she found a way to make quesadillas quickly and happily without using a stove or a pan. I regret not taking a photo of this, but I’ll paint the scene as best I can: tortilla is loaded and folded in half, then she uses three angled twigs to pin it closed. Next, she takes a longer stick that branches out and places the quesadilla on the end. Finally, she holds it over a fire for about 30 seconds, flips it and holds it for another 30 seconds or so, and – voila! A masterpiece! So simple, so brilliant – I can’t believe I never saw anyone doing this sooner.
Many of my trail friends have become what I like to call “Knorrs Connoisseurs” – meaning that they’re experts in the Knorrs pasta sides and know exactly what to add to them to make them just right. My hiking buddy this year (cheers to SoBos out of season!) scored some elusive instant sweet potatoes and added them to his Knorrs. I was a little jealous.
Some people like to go stoveless to save weight or time, and many of them end up doing what’s called “cold soaking:” letting your ramen soak in cold water for a long time, and then eating it while, yes, it is still cold. Half the point of ramen is that it is hot, so I can’t say I fully understand this choice, but there are all kinds of ways to eat on a thru-hike.
I know I’m hiker trash and I will eat food that drops on the forest floor, but I still have zero appetite for spam.