Thru-Hiking Food: Should You Eat Junk?

Thru-Hiking food

As an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, it’s amazing the amount of time I’d spend thinking about food. Talking about food. Eating food. Thinking about food more. My only real expense on the trail was food. However, calling what I ate “food” is sometimes a bit of a stretch.

I made the horrible mistake of reading “In Defense of Food” just before hitting the trail last Spring. I guess it didn’t make that much of a difference, though, since shopping at a typical grocery store already scares me a bit, but it didn’t help. A fellow thru-hiker, Papa Hicks, once mumbled on about how it was so weird to be eating such crap all day, but jumped on the other side of the conversation, too, “Guess it don’t matter much ’cause we’re burning all the @&#ing stuff off anyhow.”

That was the dominant justification for such horrific dietary modifications: We’re exercising so much, it won’t matter. All the Snickers in the world can’t harm the person hiking 10+ miles a day for half a year, right? In fact, pile it on since we’re burning more calories than we can possibly carry on our backs AND consume.

But that’s not necessarily the case and we don’t necessarily have super powers that eliminate the long-term side effects of eating terrible foods just because we’re thru-hiking. It would potentially do many hikers well to rethink some of the typical trail foods we nosh on all day while hiking.

An ex-cop from my home city of Philly picked us up along Skyline Drive and on the drive back to the trail, he riddled us with complaints about the South. One thing he couldn’t get over was how hard it was to find real ingredients to make real food with. What he saw those around him eat from Walmart and Family General he described as being just “one molecule away from Styrofoam.” After hiking several hundred miles for several months fueled only by that stuff, I couldn’t agree more.

I had the weird experience of shopping for several days worth of food at a gas station in the middle of some pretty rundown towns more than once. My hiking buddy went to use the restroom in one of these places and noticed that the hallway, the bathroom, and the back of store were covered in pallets of expired foodstuffs. Who knew that so many things made of so many things one could hardly call food even had expiration dates.

As he went on to describe his journey through the island of misfit honeybuns, I tried to pick the least processed garbage from the least dusty shelves in (clearly) the least visited gas stations in America. I kept trying to find things that weren’t made primarily of sugar. Since I had made that mistake in my first few weeks on the trail and had to consume twice as much food to get through the day and was still ravished and often very weak by nightfall, I was desperate for a change. Oh how I longed for a banana. Some spaghetti. Something that didn’t have glyphosphate or butylated hydroxyanisole or propyl gallate or a ten year shelf life. I actually found myself searching out things made with lard to try and avoid the insane amounts of hydrogenated and trans fats I found myself consuming each day. I was constantly swimming in a sea of unrecognizable food like products with no real food to be found.

I suppose there are a couple of methods of dealing with the disgust of eating this horrendous junk for so long:

You can not eat it. Dehydrate your own foods, spend more at quality grocery stores and farmers markets along the trail if you find any, and/or rely mostly on mail-dropped resupplies filled with only quality ingredients. This is a lot more time consuming and expensive, though, two very realistic deterrents for thru-hikers.

You can ignore it. This is easier done when you’ve started to experience true hiker hunger. Trust me, I ate stuff I’ll never touch again, but which tasted so very, very yummy and satisfying after a twenty mile day. Plus, no one turns down trail magic, no matter if it’s soda or Little Debbies.

You can make fun of it, close your eyes, and realize that it will all be over soon. This was the preferred method of some of my close hiking buddies. Slim Jims are a common snack for AT hikers and I bet if you’ve ever eaten one, you haven’t dared read the label. My friends did. The first ingredient is something called “mechanically separated chicken.” Appetizing, no? So they started trying to re-brand some of the more unsavory ingredients to fit with the typical crunchy parlance. “Mechanically separated chicken” became “steel cut chicken.” Instant oatmeal packets containing 50% sugar and 50% oats were now “free range oats.” It’s sort of the “If you can’t beat em, join em” deal, and it worked.

I didn’t meet anyone on the trail who stuck with the first method. I think most hikers develop a sort of apathy toward quality of foods on the trail and stick to quantity fairly early on. I think many long distance hikers could benefit from some pre-planning that would include more nutritious options in between town visits, especially at the end of the trail. Though everyone had toned up and gained tons of strength, the guys I saw who were still subsisting mostly on pop tarts, honeybuns, and Ramen in New England seemed weaker and more haggard at days end. (I specifically mean guys, too, because many of the women I met later on seemed stronger and had a somewhat better diet–a testament in part to our differing metabolic needs and strengths, I’d imagine.)

About halfway through, I switched to half maildrop resupplies and half grocery resupplies. I found that I was able to save money on better foods with the maildrops, but felt to nervous about planning that far ahead after having to take some time off with Lyme Disease. The resupplies in the North generally were better, though, and I didn’t have another gas station resupply after hitting New York.

I still indulged in many a bag of chips (I craved salty foods all the time and hated anything sweet after just a few weeks), but found more protein dense snacks for daytime and sent them ahead to make sure I had some with each resupply. I found that sunflowers seeds were incredibly cheap, salty, and filled with protein, and there were many decent, inexpensive protein bars on sale at most grocery stores. Making my own trail mix turned out to be fairly cheap, and gave me some flexibility in changing things up from town to town so as to not get sick of any one mix. I learned to sneak through hiker boxes for the best finds and took advantage of swapping things with other hikers who got sick of some of their foods, too.

After getting off the trail last summer, I reverted to my old habits of eating healthy and as local as possible. It was a trying experience for me having to eat so much junk for so long, but everything about the Appalachian Trail was worth the sticky suffering. I plan on hiking the PCT and CDT at some point, and I will definitely take what I’ve learned and alter my diet and resupply habits for both. Still, I almost look forward to the day when I can eat four oatmeal cream pies in a minute and enjoy it. Till then, I’ll be sticking to free-range chicken and steel cut oats.

Emily (aka Yellow Tail) thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 and started off as a solo hiker. She is a birth and postpartum doula, student midwife, and Childbirth Educator in training. You can read more of Yellow Tail’s journey at www.eflynnand2000miles.tumblr.com.


What are your thoughts on nutrition on the trail? Give us some pointers. Comment below.

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