The Thru-Hiker’s Diet

This is a revised, revamped and expanded version of an article I wrote in 2010. It includes a spreadsheet of food items I eat on trail, tips for maintaining weight, town stop strategies, and a basic overview of my eating habits over the course of an average thru-hiking day. 

Food bags for 17 day no-resupply stretch down Tasmania’s rugged west coast | Southwest Tasmania Traverse, 2016.

Introduction

Food tastes better in the outdoors. I guess it’s a combination of fresh air, beautiful surroundings and all that exercise you’re doing. It also represents the most regularly anticipated and most commonly fantasised about subject that occupies a hiker’s mind. Yep, even more than that other one.

In keeping with its exalted status, it stands to reason that no matter whether you are a gourmet, spartan or somewhere in between, food will play a significant role in your hiking plans. On shorter trips of a week or less, our body’s natural reserves are such that we can pretty much eat anything and still be relatively ok. However, for longer walks, nutritional (i.e. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet. Let’s break it down into five sections:

  1. Quantity
  2. Regularity
  3. Quality
  4. Variety
  5. Simplicity

Resupply Heaven | Castella, CA, Pacific Crest Trail, 2007.

1.  Quantity

How much food you need depends on multiple factors such as metabolism, level of exertion, age, sex and climate (i.e. you need more in cold weather).

Your own personal experiences in the outdoors will ultimately be your best guide. As a general reference point, it is estimated that for three season (i.e. summer, autumn, spring) conditions the average hiker should carry approximately 1 kg (2.2 lb) of food per day.

How that quantity is divided, will to some extent dictate your energy levels and ultimately your overall health whilst out on trail.

The Breakdown

Food consists of three main elements: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. To achieve optimum hiking efficiency, we need to strike a balance between all three.

For extended trips, nutritionist and long distance hiker, Dr. Brenda Braaten, recommends the following caloric breakdown: 45-55% carbs; 35-40% fats; 10-15% protein. For shorter treks, where potential weight loss is not so much of an issue, you can decrease the amount of fatty foods you carry and increase the quantity of carbs and proteins.

The table below is a list of the foods I eat during an average thru-hiking day:

The Deficit

As seen in the table above, while on trail I generally consume around 5000 calories per day. This presents a conundrum in so much that during an average hiking day of 14 hours, I will be burning approximately 6000 – 6500 calories (Note: The amount varies according to exertion level and/or conditions). Therefore I will be running a calorie deficit of approximately 1000-1500 per day.

How to compensate?

Every time I hit a town or resupply stop, eat like that little Japanese bloke that wins all the eating competitions. It never ceases to amaze me how many calories one can consume in a short period of motivated chowing (i.e. 12,000 plus during a full rest day).

Loading up before closing time at the Timberline Lodge buffet | The manager of the establishment was so impressed, he came over and chatted with me for 20 minutes! | Pacific Crest Trail, 2012.

2.  Regularity 

In a nut shell, eat small and often.

Snacking regularly (i.e. every one to two hours), as opposed to eating three big meals per day, is conducive to a more efficient hiking approach. You are not weighed down with a full stomach, your muscles won’t be as stiff because your breaks aren’t as long and it’s better for your digestive system. Most importantly, by feeding your body small amounts at regular intervals, it is easier to maintain your energy levels throughout the hiking day (Tip: Keep your day’s snacks in a hip pocket and/or near the top of your pack for easy access).

Although I emphasise regular snacking, I still usually eat a couple of larger meals during most hiking days. These meals, which double as my main rest stops (normally around 20 to 30 minutes), roughly equate to a late breakfast and an early dinner.

Here’s a breakdown of when and what I eat during an average thru-hiking day (Note: These details can vary considerably depending on the environment and/or nature of the trip):

  • 5 – 5.30am – Break camp. Grab an energy bar, some trail mix (700 calories) and make up a morning coffee to go (100 calories – Via plus NIDO).
  • 7.30am – Trail mix (300 calories).
  • 9.30amBreakfast: Generally consists of a big bowl of granola with full cream powdered milk (800 calories).
  • 11.30am – Trail mix (300 calories).
  • 1pm – Chocolate and corn chips (400 calories).
  • 2.30pm –  Chocolate and/or trail mix (400 calories).
  • 4.30pm Dinner – The second largish meal of the day. Before eating, I will soak the beans for approximately 20 to 30 minutes in a reconstituted Gatorade Powder Container. I usually mix them with corn chips and occasionally some olive oil (1200 calories total).
  • 6pm – Chocolate and/or trail mix (300 calories).
  • 7.30 – 8pm – Set up camp. Eat a protein bar (400 calories) and some corn chips (200 calories) before going to bed.

Midday break during the Badlands Traverse | South Dakota, 2016.

3.  Quality          

When it comes to food, long distance hikers can be a demanding bunch. We want nutrition, but we want it to come in a compact, lightweight, easy to prepare, high calorie density package. Almost forgot………preferably it should be economically priced as well. For an in depth overview of the nutritional side of backpacking foods, see Dr. Braaten’s excellent series of articles, Pack Light, Eat Right.

Fresh Foods and Town Stops

Whether on trail or off, fresh and organic foods will always be nutritionally superior and provide greater long term energy than processed and refined fare. Unfortunately for backpacking purposes, fresh foods are generally heavy and have a limited use-by date.

That being the case, whenever I arrive at a town or resupply stop, my culinary focus will invariably be lasered in on fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products. Basically all of the items it’s hard to get when you’re out in the boonies (Tip: Before sitting down to a big meal, try to eat a salad first).

While leaving towns, whenever possible I’ll carry out fresh items such as spinach, carrots, boiled eggs and apples, which I’ll then consume during my first day back on trail. In extremely cold environments or especially long stretches between resupplies, I’ll also pack out a tub of natural peanut butter, which helps with keeping the weight on.

Some hikers believe that the nutritional value of food while thru-hiking is inconsequential. Indeed, there’s no denying that more than a few folks have completed long distance trips surviving on little else but junk food. However, I have never belonged to this school of thought. Personally speaking, if I eat crap food for an extended period, I start to feel like crap. In my book, not all calories are created equal. From a performance perspective, I’ve found that this particularly holds true the older that you get.

Finding berries along the trail is always a welcome bonus | Salmonberry heaven in the Chuckanut mounains, WA | Pacific Northwest Trail, 2011.

4.  Variety

You may have ticked all the boxes in regards to nutrition, high calorie density and overall weight, but the fact is if you don’t enjoy the items you have packed, it’s like a metaphorical black cloud is looming over each and every meal. A balance needs to be struck.

Unless you can subsist on the same food day after day (and some long distance hikers such as myself do), plan on packing a variety of different options. Don’t underestimate how easily you will become bored with certain foods. In my own case, I’m fortunate in that I have never minded eating the same foods day after day. My taste buds don’t get bored easily. That being said, when I arrive at a town or resupply point, I can tell you that the last thing I am thinking about is eating more dried fruit, nuts, cereal or beans!

The best guide to knowing how much culinary diversity you’ll require during a thru-hike are your own experiences. If you’re a person that always likes to be eating different things in your everyday life, chances are you will be the same way on trail. Vice versa for those that are content consuming the same food on a weekly basis at home.

The 600th and final MealPack bar of the 12 Long Walks journey.

5.  Simplicity

Away from the trail my diet is simple one. I’ve never been interested in gimmicky eating regimens. When it comes to health, I’m in for the long haul. The way I figure it, if I exercise regularly and eat a balanced, nutritious diet 90-95% of the time, than the occasional chocolate, ice cream, beer or glass of wine won’t do me too much harm.

I adopt a similar approach whilst hiking. My on-trail diet generally consists of a core group of healthy items (e.g. dried fruit, nuts, organic energy bars, natural cereals, full cream milk powder and legumes), supplemented with the occasional chocolate bar and tub of peanut butter to boost my fat intake. It’s an approach that has served me well over the decades. During my hikes I rarely lose much weight (e.g. During the 12 Long Walks I lost only 3 lbs over 18 months of continuous hiking) and my energy levels remain constant.

For extended trips out in the woods, I try to pack easy to prepare items (e.g. granola and dehydrated beans) that require little in the way of preparation time. At the end of a long day, I want to be spending my time eating and relaxing rather than slaving over a three-course feast. Even the most simple foods usually taste great when you are out in the wilderness…….especially when washed down by a couple of beers that your hiking buddy has secretly packed in.

Unexpected post-dinner beer | Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2009.

                                                


Comments

The Thru-Hiker’s Diet — 8 Comments

  1. Hi Cam,
    That’s a great article and a great template to copy or adapt for personal use. I have a question relating to your Australian`hikes. Have you used the same dehydrated bean dinner idea on these trips? I was wondering if there are any issues regarding customs/quarantine when bringing the packets in to the country. As its processed/packaged I would hope that it wouldn’t be an issue.

    While on the subject I have just returned from some day walks n the Grampians, there are plans to make a multi day Grampian Peaks Trail do you have any plans to hike in Victoria or South Australia? I would have thought the Australian Alpine and Heysen Trail would be right up your street.
    Thanks again for a great article.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the kind words. I have used the dehydrated beans back in Australia as well, and haven’t had any issues bringing them through customs. In regards to Victoria and South Australia, I’m not sure I’d be interested in doing the whole of the Heysen and Australian Alpine Trails, but there are definitely sections of both tracks that I’d love to hike. Hopefully in the next year or two!

      Cheers,

      Cam

  2. I may have missed this from another post, but have you ever tried protein powder + powdered milk + water (in place of protein bars)? Quick and gets the job done? But maybe it’s too hard to force down..

  3. Great info and appreciate the link to Dr. Braaten’s page on trail nutrition. Excellent stuff. Have you found it beneficial to drink an Emergen-C or some other vitamin supplement or do you seem to get enough minerals, etc. from eating your healthier foods? Cheers and thanks.

    • Hey Jeremy,

      No worries. I stayed with the Braaten’s on both my PCT hikes, and I remember having a discussion with Brenda about trail nutrition on their porch in 2012. Very nice people.

      Good call on the vitamins/Emergen-C. For longer hikes I do often carry multi-vitamin tablets. If I’m hiking in an area where fruit and veggies are hard to come by, I’ll also take some extra vitamin C as well.

      Cheers,

      Cam

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