I’ve been meaning for a while to write a piece on the things I ate on the PCT. Food is an important trail subject and a highly subjective one- our relationship with food changes continuously and our tastes and fancies come and go like the wind. Here, I am the subject, with my fussy gut and my high standards, and these are the things that I ate.
I am hypoglycemic and I don’t eat gluten, dairy, or soy (at least without consequences). On the trail I made a point of always having protein and (dried) vegetables, as that was important to me, and I avoided additives like MSG and artificial flavors and colors. Being hypoglycemic means I can’t metabolize sugar well and when I eat it I feel verrrrrrrrrrrry tired. Instead of sugar I ate fat and protein in small amounts and nearly constantly. Basically I am a delicate flower with pretty serious digestive issues and on the trail I had to be very careful about what I ate if I wanted to be able to hike.
I ate 4,000 calories/day after the first two weeks on the trail. This was plenty in good weather and just enough if it was cold or if I was doing more than 25 miles/day. I stocked my hip-belt pockets with food and ate while I was hiking.
I planned my food so that it averaged 120 calories/ounce to insure nutrient density and the least weight possible. For example, the dried fruit I was carrying might be 80 calories/ounce, but the almonds were 160 calories/ounce, so the average was 120 calories/ounce. This also made packing easier, as I knew that as long as I had 2 pounds of food per day, it would come out to about 4000 calories a day, and I wasn’t carrying extra weight. I also like doing math.
I spent about $2,000 on food for my five-month hike.
THINGS I ATE FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND SNACKS
1. Almonds aka TRAIL MIX
Almonds were my steadfast friend during my hike. Nutrient dense, full of fat and protein, available almost everywhere. I carried giant gallon ziploc bags of almonds. Almonds and I had a co-dependent relationship and we grew very, very tired of each other. Sometimes I would try and see other nuts (peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts) but they always made me feel sick to my stomach (aka “nut tum”). By Washington the sight of almonds made me want to throw up. But I could still digest them and you know what? They kept me alive.
Things I put in the almonds:
-Shredded unsweetened coconut (more fat for my body to convert to glucose in a slow and steady way! Anti-inflammatory medium chain fatty acids!)
-Dried fruit (prunes, raisins, figs, apricots)
Things I tried to put in the almonds but quickly abandoned:
-Reeses pieces, pnut mnms, other candy (why do I feel so tiiiiiiiiiiiired?)
-Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds (excuse me while I throw up)
When buying granola, I look at the amount of sugar per 100 grams of food on the nutrition label. If there are more than 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams of food, it is considered to be “high in sugar” and I know that it’ll make me crash. Believe it or not, in a good bulk department there are usually one or two varieties of granola that aren’t high in sugar, and I would buy big bags of these. I was still careful to not eat too much granola at once, tho, and to eat it with almonds, because there isn’t enough fat and protein in granola, by itself, to stabilize my blood sugar. Granola is not gluten free as the oat-squashing machines are, I believe, dusted with wheat flour, but I’m not so sensitive that I notice gluten in really small amounts, so it was worth it. Because granola tastes good.
Chips were my salvation. Nutrient dense, fatty, available everywhere, and they never, ever stopped tasting good. My favorite were Juanita’s tortilla chips (made in Oregon and the best tasting and greasiest tortilla chips EVER) and Kettle Salt & Vinegar chips. I would buy HUGE bags of both of these in towns and stuff them into my pack. I also really like those Snap Pea Crisps that are shaped like pea pods but they’re harder to find.
I really broke the bank on this one. Some people hike the trail with very little protein, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to eat protein at every meal or I feel reeeeal sleepy. And what’s more dense in protein than MEAT? Jerky is crazy expensive, tho. Before the hike I found an online company that I liked and ordered jerky in bulk, at considerable savings, and mailed it to myself on the trail. I also bought jerky in towns when I could find it without MSG. The company I ordered from was ultimately disappointing (the packages came unsealed during shipping and I also didn’t like the way the jerky tasted) but it is becoming more common for big companies to make jerky without MSG, and it’s not too expensive, so that’s cool.
5. Flattened dried bananas from Trader Joe’s
I do not know why these exist. Did someone call up Trader Joe’s and say hey there, we flattened all our bananas, can you do something with this? But these are very, very good and very fun to peel them apart. And they are inexpensive. I sent myself a packaged (or two) in every resupply box.
Bars are high in sugar (more than 10g per 100g of food), but I still ate them sometimes. I knew it was a crap shoot as to how they would make me feel, but they tasted real good. I viewed them more as a morale-boosting treat than something that would give me energy.
THINGS I ATE FOR DINNER
I started the trail with an alcohol stove made from a pepsi can. Each night I would boil gluten-free noodles, add freeze-dried ground beef, dried vegetables, coconut oil, salt, and stir this into the most delicious thing on earth. Then my carefully pre-purchased ground beef went bad and I decided the hassle of cooking and carrying fuel was more trouble than it was worth. So I switched to a plastic peanut butter jar with a screw-on lid in which to soak my dinner, which was almost always
THE ALL-MIGHTY INSTANT DEHYDRATED REFRIED BEAN. And his cousins, Instant Split Pea Soup and Instant Curried Lentil Soup. Available for cheap in a bulk section near you, or online. I also pre-purchased large quantities of dried vegetables before the trail and sent them to myself in my resupply boxes. I ordered from North Bay Trading Company. I ordered spinach, carrots and cabbage, but only the spinach tasted good enough to keep eating after the first couple of weeks. If you buy the really big bag it’s super cheap. I also ordered $100 worth of freeze-dried peas from Just Tomatoes– these peas are SO GOOD, and so much cheaper than if you buy the little bags in the store. I also bought some bags of chia seeds from Trader Joe’s, and threw those in my resupply boxes. Each evening I would pour instant refried beans into my peanut butter jar, add dried vegetables, chia seeds, water, shake it up, and stuff the jar into my pack. An hour later, when I was ready to camp, voila! Magic delicious dinner! I would eat the beans with tortilla chips. So many tortilla chips. SO GOOD. I actually never got tired of this dinner. NEVER.
THINGS I TRIED AND FAILED TO EAT
Coconut oil is so good for me. And I love it. But it changes from a liquid to a solid depending on the temperature, and that is a pain in the ass. I never found a container that both kept it from leaking when it was liquid and made the oil accessible when it was solid, and one day I discovered that the oil had also gone rancid, probably due to the constant change in temperature and the fact that I’d been sticking my dirty spoon in there. Rancid coconut oil is really gross, and it turned me off the stuff for the rest of the trail.
Anything messy, fussy, or time-consuming to prepare
Gluten-free pasta. Oatmeal. Breakfast in general. Things that require seasonings. Olive oil.
Peanut butter is not food. It is strange paste. And it gives me really bad diarrhea.
I ate a lot of salami for a little while. Magical salty shelf-stable meat! Then I got really, really sick of it and how it made my mouth taste as though it’d been pickled. Then after a while I could eat it again. You gotta go easy with this one.
SUPPLEMENTS AND MORALE BOOSTERS
Emergen-C. Power Pak, which is like Emergen-C but with electrolytes. Caffeinated fruit snacks. Caffeinated drink powders. Calcium and magnesium supplements. For my next thru-hike I think I’ll bring a good quality multi-vitamin.
IN TOWN: EAT ALL THE THINGS
At the end of each three to five day section my food morale was really, really low. I’d been living mostly off almonds, with some other things thrown in here and there, and I wanted nothing more than to be set free in a brightly-lit buffet the size of a city block, with no dietary restrictions whatsoever. So that’s what I did. During zero days I pretended that I could digest anything. My reasoning was that it was ok if I felt like shit in town, because I didn’t have to hike those days. I could just lay face-down on the bed in the motel room all afternoon if I wanted to. Snickers icecream bars, pizza, gatorade, fried chicken, cheese and pints and pints of icecream were a few of my favorite things. I ate a lot of good stuff too, like burgers wrapped in lettuce, cartons of strawberries and giant plates of french fries. The first day back on the trail I was usually still paying the price for whatever gluten or dairy I’d eaten, but after that I was ok. (Full disclosure: four months later, my gut is still recovering from what I subjected it to on zero days.)
MY RESUPPLY STRATEGY
While planning I got Yogi’s guide to the PCT, which is indispensable re: resupply information, and used it to send myself WAY TOO MANY boxes. Seventeen, I think, for California alone? I was worried, understandably, that there wouldn’t be anything I could eat in those little trail towns. Now that I’ve been to all those towns I know which ones stock almonds, and next time around I’ll send myself fewer boxes.
19 thoughts on “Food on the PCT”
Thanks for these tips. Our metabolisms are very different, but I’m really worried about being absolutely sick of trail food long before the end of the trail, so any advice is welcome. I’ve been there before, and I’ll probably do what you did and just choke it down no matter how repulsive it is because I’ll know I MUST eat (and the whole dishes thing if you don’t finish it all).
I’m also a big fan of the dehydrated refried beans (or in my world, black beans) even at home, so I’m glad to hear they have longevity of desirability going for them. I hear a lot of hikers talk about the dehydrated potato flakes. I’m guessing I will like those too, but have never tried them. Any reason you don’t mention them? Do they have gluten?
Carrot, thanks for that blog on food. I am going back and forth on what to send myself, and its driving me crazy. My only restriction is salt content, but unfortunately for me, everything that is dried and suitable for hiking is loaded with salt. I expect that I can handle a higher dose of salt due to all the sweating but I don’t know if I can process a gram or so per meal, which is what I see on the dried foods. If it were not for the salt, I can put down anything. You must have no problem staying thin with all your diet restrictions.
I love this list, because most everything that works best for you would send my digestive system into distress if ingested in large amounts. Even when I “eat all of the things,” I have to keep fat contents relatively low or I will pay dearly. Just goes to show that humans can be drastically different in our fuel requirements (at least when given choices) and no one source will work best for everyone.
But I too hate cooking and love the ideal of cold refried beans for dinner. I’m going to keep that in mind for summer bike touring.
Great post Carrot! Food is one of my greatest worries for planning a thru-hike. I have enough trouble planning meals for a week or two backpack trip, I can’t even imagine planning for 2600 miles! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for taking the time to write this. I really appreciate the effort.
I am not making many food plans. I will send myself a few resupply boxes, but overall, I want to just vary it as much as I can. When I get above 8,000 feet, I have little interest in food, and it is difficult for me to want to eat.
Like you, I eat constantly on the trail. I run ultra-marathons and they say it’s an eating competition while running.
Thank you again, for taking the time to write.
where would you choose to send yourself a box on your next hike through? I hear the advise of “send fewer boxes” but have not been able to decide which ones to cut out.
I too am hypoglycemic and struggle to find food that my body can tolerate on the trail. I make my own granola mix (sweetened w/ mashed banana) and also eat nuts, unsweetened flaked coconut, a bunch of Just Tomatoes stuff, tuna, hummus powder, tortilla chips and lots of butter (I put a stick of butter in a small ziplock, and put that bag inside a squeeze tube, wrap it in fleece or a down vest and it has never leaked or gone rancid). I also make a chili mix with pinto or black bean powder + basmati rice, FD beef, tomato powder, hot peppers and lots of dried veggies and spices. I tried going gluten free recently but it didn’t work for me. Thanks so much for all your tips – I’ll try many of them. And best of luck on the CDT (assuming that is what you’re doing next) – I finished section hiking it last year – feel free to hit me up with questions if you have any!
I was so thrilled to read this post!!! I’m hypoglycemic too and I also go stoveless, and haven’t found much about hypoglycemic and backpacking. So this is totally awesome thanks for taking the time to go into such a high level of detail. It really is incredible how different foods work so differently for everyone. I don’t know anyone who eats like me on the trail, but your list is pretty darn close. I eat a ton of jerky and hummus powder and granola and nuts, but will have to give the chips a try. I’m going to be headed out on my first thru hike, the PCT, in two months, so this is all very helpful to know what you sent in your resupply and what you’d find in towns.
Another great, thorough, and informative post. Thank you
Thanks for the post! My wife and I are vegans and will be thru hiking the PCT this year. We are really struggling with figuring out how much is too much to put in resupply boxes. What I don’t want to do is spend 2700 miles eating ramen. I love your suggestion of going stoveless and we’ll probably try your refried bean concoction on one of our training hikes. Thanks again.
Another Great Post – Information we can use!
I’ll add to the chorus of “wonderful post” cheers here. It’s really great to have someone who has scouted the way reporting back on what worked, and being specific and deliberate about it. Huge thanks. You rock.
yeah, thank you as well – I’m setting off on a 3000 mile walk in two and a half weeks and this is really good info. I’ll be walking in Wales so it won’t be as wild as you but I still need to think about what to buy where.
Where would you send boxes next time? Did you find dehydrated beans in trail towns? Thanks!
I’m adding the peanut-butter-jar dinner to my rotation, thanks! You might also look for powdered coconut milk. It has twice the calories per ounce as whole milk and fits nicely in the places you might have been using coconut oil. I’ve used Chao Thai, Maggi, and Kara brands. The onlline prices (through Amazon) are terrible, though. Try an Indian or south-east Asian market instead.
This was great, thanks! Sugar makes me feel like a million bucks, but gluten and cow dairy make me need to lie down and moan for a long time, so a lot of the foods you’re eating will work for me. I got a lot out of your post and I’m going to bookmark it for when I’m packing for my next section.
Thanks for all your food info! Great to see eliminating stove & cooking, with your suggested recipes and to have specific ingredients and sources listed. Always very helpful to have alternatives from the voice of experience! The zero day junk food loading does sound pretty bad. I guess it’s common and inevitable for thru-hikers to do that after relative deprivation.
I had to stop having ice cream in town after I realized why I always had the runs after town. So sad.
I have reached very similar conclusions from PCT and CDT hikes.
BEWARE POTATO FLAKES. I ate them once and never could bring myself to make another batch. Don’t buy bulk without trying them first!
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