Insistent on not being completely skin and bones after finishing my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I regularly carried (and ate) a lot of food on the Appalachian Trail. Often, this resulted in having two completely full 13 L food bags after resupplying in town.
Before starting, I had a pretty good sense of what my food plan would be on the Trail, and with only a few exceptions, it didn’t change very much as I made progress up the Trail.
Read on, to see what a typical day of food for me looked like.
When I started the Trail, I took the advice to start off with something warm to eat. Instant oatmeal was pretty simple to prepare (just add hot water), so I went with that. And when it was really cold out, a warm breakfast was nice.
After a couple of weeks on the Trail, once I hit Gatlinburg, I dropped oatmeal in favor of Pop Tarts. While Pop Tarts are dry, and heavy compared to oatmeal, they were still reasonably high in calories. (Although, to be honest, I started to tire of them as I neared completion. Fortunately, there are many flavors to choose from.) Pop Tarts also offered the benefit of not requiring heated water. This let me considerably speed up my morning routine by not needing to boil water for breakfast, and it meant my stove and cook pot could be completely put away in the evening after dinner.
Not needing to heat water for breakfast resulted in a pretty significant fuel savings. Especially at that time of year, when it was still cold in the morning, boiling water meant using a lot of fuel to heat up near-freezing water. Further, because the fuel itself was cold, it was less efficient, leading to using more fuel use just to heat the fuel up so it could fully combust.
Further north, especially during the trek through New York when it was absurdly hot, a hot breakfast would have been the last thing I wanted.
It took a couple of weeks to settle into a “lunch” routine, but generally, I never had a specific lunch meal. Instead, I had a series of snacks.
I’d also drink about 300 - 500 mL of water mixed with Propel Water mix each break, which helped keep electrolyte levels up, especially on sweaty days.
The second of these breaks I’d call “lunch” only because it was slightly larger, including a pack of Gatorade Prime Energy Chews.
Both the Propel Water mix and Gatorade chews were ideas from Beast — they were working great for him, and especially as the weather got warmer and I started to sweat more, the Propel Water helped out considerably.
At Harpers Ferry, my mom gave me a bag of Jolly Ranchers, and so from then on, I added a single jolly rancher to each snack break and dinner.
For roughly the first two months, I carried a jar of peanut butter, since it’s relatively energy-dense and high in protein. However, because I always kept the jar in my food bag, it was a significant chore to get it out at any time other than after arriving at camp. As a result, while I had originally intended to have a spoonful of peanut butter at snack breaks, it never really fit into my snack routine. Even at camp, I rarely ate any unless I was absolutely in dire need of fast calories before I got to work on dinner. After I had finished my second or third container of peanut butter, I stopped carrying it, mostly because of the bulk and lack of use.
Dinner was the part of my food regimen that changed the least over the course of my hike. Almost always, it was a box of Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese, and a pack of Ramen. Occasionally, I didn’t cook the ramen if I was exceedingly tired at the end of the day, or if water was scarce and I needed to conserve. And fortunately, like with Pop Tarts, there were several varieties of both to choose from.
Also at Beast's suggestion, I usually added one of many different flavored water mixes to water at dinner time. On occasion, especially after a long or particularly hot day, I might use Propel Water mix instead.
Early on, I picked up a small 9 ounce bottle of Sriracha sauce, which added a nice kick to the ramen and mac & cheese. As the Sriracha aged, and since it rarely ever sat upright, some of the oils separated and leaked out of the top of the bottle, leading to a sticky mess in my food bag. I wound up getting rid of the (mostly empty) bottle in Harpers Ferry, and didn’t pick up more since I wasn’t going to easily be able to prevent it from leaking. A shame; a better-sealing top would have made my northern dinners a bit more flavorful.
Occasionally, as I got further north, I picked up Apple Pie Lärabars and used them as a pre-dinner snack. (They really do taste shockingly like apple pie.)
In terms of cooking technique, it took awhile for me a few weeks to completely figure out what I was doing. (I had not practiced this at all before starting my hike.) The first several days were very messy and time-consuming, with frequent boil-overs, excessive fuel use, and the Mac & Cheese being cooked in two batches.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to use significantly less water than the box directions called for (to better suit my small cookpot). The Mac & Cheese directions also called for straining the water out before mixing in the cheese, but I stopped doing that: it meant wasting water (and starches that were floating in the water). Later on, I’d start using more water than strictly necessary to allow for a more soupy dinner, since this would wind up being slightly easier to clean.
When I started, I cooked the Ramen first, since it took less time, so I could have something to eat within a few minutes. (The Mac & Cheese took much longer.) After I perfected cooking the Mac & Cheese, I cooked that first. Doing the Ramen second allowed for its far more soupy nature to help clean the cook pot. The cheese would often stick to the sides of the pot, but cooking with the Ramen generally cleared most of the cheese off the sides. By the time I was finished with the Ramen, all that was typically left in the pot was a little water and oil residue, which easily wiped off.
The other important thing I learned with cooking pasta was that once the water got up to a boil, I could turn my stove down pretty considerably. Once boiling, the water just needed to be maintained at that temperature, so too much heat would boil excess water out (wasting water, and fuel).
By the time I had optimized my dinner cooking strategy, I had also dropped oatmeal for breakfast. Together, the fuel savings let my fuel canisters last at least a couple of weeks. (Long enough, at least, that I lost track of how long it took to use them up.)
Aside from a few times very early on (when my snack routine had not yet formed), I rarely had dessert or late-night snacks on the Trail. When I did, it’d most likely be a snickers bar.
In the south, for awhile, I’d carry a dehydrated meal (Mountain House, among other brands), which I’d have for a “special occasion” to break up the monotony of constant dinner pasta. (Dehydrated meal bags also provided convenient trash bags.) Ultimately, though, I stopped buying them. While they were often very tasty, they took a long time to prepare, were somewhat bulky, and very expensive in comparison to Mac & Cheese and Ramen. Also, they tended to have fewer calories, and as I got further north, it was harder to find the larger 2.5- or 3-serving meals I needed to get up to 900-1000 calories.
When the Opportunity Provided
When I had the opportunity, I’d pick up a soda or Gatorade at a convenience store along the Trail, and drink that as part of a snack or dinner. If it was cold when I could drink it, that would be great, and if not, it meant I’d need to collect a little less water in the evening, and I had a convenient (though large) trash receptacle. On days when I was slackpacking, this generally meant I’d carry as many sodas as expected breaks. Even warm, sodas provided a great energy boost. (For the 430 miles I slackpacked between Mt. Greylock and Stratton, I drank an awful lot of Dr Pepper, and ate in an awful lot of restaurants.)
Whenever I was in town, I’d attempt to eat as much food as reasonably possible in restaurants. At home, I rarely ever get deserts at restaurants, but on the Trail, I often did. This made my hike a fair bit more expensive than it had to be.
Whenever there was trail magic that offered food or soda, I almost always took something. There was often the joke that you’re “not a real thru-hiker” if you refuse free food. While I don’t necessarily believe that’s true, free and unexpected food helps lift spirits (and often provided a temporary speed boost), keeps weight up, and combats “hiker hunger” more than I’d have ever thought possible.
Sadly, I rarely had fruit on the Trail. In the south, a couple of times, I picked up containers of dried pineapple that would last a week or so. In Andover, a couple gave me extra dried apricots and mangos they had in their food shipment they weren’t going to need. I stretched those out to the evening before I summited Katahdin; they were incredibly delicious.
Largely, this was a result of attempting to manage space in my pack. Out of town, I carried a lot of food: often both of my 13 L food dry sacks would be full, even to the point of overflowing in rare cases. (I think I had a 45 pound pack leaving Harpers Ferry.)
All You Can’t Eat
While hikers often swear by all-you-can-eat restaurants, I tended to stay away from them, after I found that “all I could eat” at an Easter Sunday AYCE buffet in Hiawasse, GA was a plate and a half of food.
There were several AYCE Chinese food places near the Trail, but I’ve found that that much Chinese food tends to disagree with me.
I do have to make mention of Pizza Plus, which I saw only a few times in the south. As an AYCE pizza place, that’s my kind of restaurant. (Especially when they took requests!)
No Supply Drops
Many hikers pre-purchase or pre-prepare dried food and mail it to themselves on the Trail. This is great if you want a variety of food and have time to do that prep work. However, I only had a month and a half of time pre-hike to prepare, so I avoided doing food drops largely because I didn’t have time to prepare them.
Adding it All Up
I only lost about eight pounds on the Trail, which I attribute to my food-heavy diet.
On a typical day north of Harpers Ferry, I ate:
- 800 cal for breakfast (4 Pop Tarts)
- 500 - 2000 cal in Clif Bars and Snickers
- 50 - 75 cal Jolly Ranchers
- 50 cal Gatorade Prime Energy Chews
- 800 - 1000 cal Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese
- 190 cal Ramen
- 2 - 4 packets of Propel Water mix (0 cal)
- 2 - 4 packets of assorted different drink mixes (0 cal)
for a total of 2400 - 4100 calories per hiking day. A day involving slackpacking could easily add another 1000 calories, between bottled soda and town food.
Food was my largest category of expenses on the Trail. My food bill, combining food stores, restaurants, and convenience stores, came out to be just shy of $4,500, or about $750 per month. Over half of that was at restaurants, and roughly half of the restaurant total came during the period where I was slackpacking for 40 straight days.
With more restrained restaurant visits, a $3,000 food budget would be very reasonable, and I could see a $2,000 - $2,500 food budget working out with a minimal restaurants and a bit more belt tightening than I’d have preferred.