Multiple sources agree that the average thru-hiker needs enough food for approximately 4,000 – 6,000 calories a day while backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. Planning for that caloric intake over a sustained six-month period, while also maintaining some semblance of a healthy diet, is the greatest challenge that I have encountered in preparing for my A.T. thru-hike. I had to keep the following questions in mind:
- How often do I need to resupply?
- Where do I obtain my food?
- What lightweight foods can I carry?
- How do I eat enough calories to remain healthy and avoid massive weight loss?
There are several schools of thought on how to obtain food on the A.T. At one extreme, hikers will start out with several days of rations and will purchase food along the way wherever it is available. On the other extreme, hikers will anticipate their needs and prepare boxes of food prior to beginning their hike, and will have a rear support person mail those boxes to them at designated places along the trail.
Buy as You Go
- Maximum travel flexibility
- Ability to change diet with changes in taste
- Nutritionally questionable convenience store subsistence e.g. Pop-Tarts, candy, Knorr Sides, and ramen
- Dependence on what is available
- Controlled diet and better nutrition
- Save money through bulk purchases
- Loss of travel flexibility e.g. must go to a designated place to pick-up packages during business hours
- Postage expenses
- Anticipating tastes months before actually eating the food
So, what is a growing (and obsessive compulsive) boy to do when it comes to obtaining food? Well, the answer is “all of the above!” It all starts with (drum roll please . . . . . . . . ) the PLAN. I’m sure the PLAN will be out the window by day 2, but you have to start somewhere. The PLAN says it will take me 170 days to thru-hike the A.T., and to do that I will need 510 meals plus snacks. The PLAN has me passing near many eateries where I can get a hot meal (and a cold beer) and I intend to take full advantage of this for 145 meals. What remains are 365 meals that I will mail to myself and supplement with “buy as you go” options to account for variety in my diet and changes in the PLAN.
Food and Nutrition
Because carrying the weight of 4,000 – 6,000 daily calories is prohibitive, the average male thru-hiker loses 25-30 pounds, while the average female thru-hiker (through some cruel trick of metabolism) simply starts to look like an aerobics instructor. I, for one, do not have 30 pounds to give without ending my hike looking like a released P.O.W. The norm seems to be to carry 1.5 – 2 lbs. of food per day and to make up for the caloric deficit when you arrive at a town, prepared to “consume mass quantities.”
Obviously, it is important to pack as many calories and as much nutrition as possible into that 1.5 – 2 lbs. a day. One of the most calorie dense foods is olive oil, which provides a whopping 4,000 calories per pound. But the results of subsisting off olive oil for an extended period could be unpleasant to say the least. So, the next best option is to remove the water weight from food through the processes of dehydration and freeze drying.
Several months ago, I bought a dehydrator and started to experiment with the components for preparing my own lightweight backpacking meals. After testing dozens of recipes, I found four breakfast and four dinner combinations that will make up the bulk of my prepared meals. I know many of you are thinking that I will get tired of eating these and will surely hate them after three weeks, but I’ve always eaten like that. I’m the type that will cook a big pot of something on the weekend, and then eat the same thing all week long. The following is a list of what I am preparing:
- Apple and Cinnamon Oatmeal w/pecans, raisins, brown sugar, and milk
- Honey Almond Granola w/milk
- Peach Oatmeal w/walnuts, brown sugar, and milk
- Pineapple and Mango Oatmeal w/coconut, brown sugar, and milk
- Pasta and Beef w/cheesy tomato sauce, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes
- Curry Chicken and Rice w/carrots, corn, peas, and green beans
- Chicken and Rice Cacciatore w/onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes
- Cheesy Chicken Veggies and Rice w/carrots, corn, peas, and green beans
To add a little variety to the menu, I purchased 66 Mountain House freeze dried meals (breakfast & dinner). Mountain House meals are generally too pricy, but these were obtained over the past year and a half from Amazon as “Deal of the Day” items at over 45% off! All of the above meals, whether self-dehydrated or Mountain House, will be packaged in vacuum sealed Ziploc freezer bags and are prepared by adding boiling water to the bag and letting it sit for 20 minutes. Bon Appetit!!
Lunch, which for all practical purposes is comprised of snacking throughout the day, is a combination of GORP (Good Ole Raisins and Peanuts), nuts, dried fruit, M&Ms, energy bars, jerky, summer sausage, tuna packets, Spam packets, and PB & J. Some of this will be mailed to myself (I scored some amazing bulk deals on jerky), and some of it will be purchased along the way.
I entered the nutritional value of all of the above items into a spreadsheet (that is what I do) and determined that I will carry a little over 3,000 calories per day on the trail at a weight of less than 2 lbs. daily. More importantly, my food selection will provide over 100 grams of protein per day and is well balanced nutritionally among carbohydrates, fat, and protein. I will supplement this in town with double bacon cheeseburgers, chili cheese fries, ice cream, and craft beers.
I received many questions about my process for dehydrating backpacking meals, so my next series of blog posts will be instructional videos that explain the entire process. Since this will be my first attempt at video production, it should be pretty amusing, so please stick around! If you have any questions about the PLAN, please leave a comment below!