A lot of people have asked me what I’m going to eat while hiking the PCT. Since food has been the biggest part of my preparations, I wanted to include an entry devoted to it alone.
Hiking 15-30 miles per day requires a lot of calories, but the heavier the food, the more you have to carry and the more calories you burn each day. Adequate nutrition (both quantity and quality) is of the utmost importance when you are working out all day, nearly every day, and from what I’ve read of other people’s blogs, it is something that most thru hikers struggle with.
First, there are multiple ways to handle your food on the PCT (or any other long hike). You can: (1) make your own food and mail it to post offices or other places along the way; (2) do nothing and buy food in the towns along the trail; or (3) some combination of the previous two. Each way has advantages and disadvantages. Making all of your own food takes a lot of time, but gives you much more control over what you eat and will probably give you a wider variety overall, and is probably cheaper (although I have not worked out the costs). Buying food saves a ton of time and hassle but then you are at the mercy of small town grocery stores and no one really wants to eat instant mashed potatoes for a solid week. Plus, food in small towns tends to be more expensive.
Being the meticulous and well-prepared person that I am, I chose make all of my own food. We’ll see how it goes.
In my, still limited, experience, if you are thinking about doing a lot of backpacking, I would highly recommend buying either or both of the following books: Lipsmackin’ Backpacking (I got the vegetarian version, but there are others) or Backpack Gourmet. Since I now have both, I can say that they are pretty different and both useful in their own way. I would also highly recommend buying a food dehydrator (like this one). I have a small dehydrator and was fortunate enough to borrow another, larger one from a friend. Because I only had two months to get my food together, there were a few weeks when I was running both dehydrators around the clock and I still worried about finishing everything in time.
I started in January and focused on breakfasts and snacks at first, because those are the easiest meals. For breakfasts, I made about a dozen different types of oatmeal (either using instant or quick cooking that I baked) and made around 12-16 servings each. To my oats, I added any combination of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and flavoring, mixing them in a large bowl. To each flavor, I added non-fat milk powder and protein powder for extra nutrition. I then packed two cups of each into a sandwich zip-lock bag. Each bag contains two servings. Towards the end I was getting very tired of making oatmeal so I also bought a few bags of granola from the bulk section of my favorite grocery store and added dry milk and protein powder to these before repackaging them. This was much faster, although still time consuming (never underestimate how long it takes to repackage things!) and I don’t think the granola is as healthy, but I had hit my limit and needed to focus on other meals.
For snacks I made about a dozen different trail mixes, with different combinations of nuts, seeds, dried fruit, peanut butter, yogurt covered raisins or peanuts, and any other goodie I could find in bulk. Flavored nuts, like tamari, honey roasted, or curry are an added bonus. Crystallized ginger is also a favorite. Although chocolate is a great trail food (high calorie, low volume), it also melts easily so I actually tried to avoid using a lot of it. I would make large bowls at a time then repackage the mixes into one cup snack size zip-lock bags. Each bag is a serving that I will eat either mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
Since I think I will need three meals plus two snacks each day, in addition to the trail mix, I made a lot of other snacks, like energy balls (peanut butter and honey or chocolate with nuts, rolled into small balls then frozen), several different granola bars, dried fruit, fruit leather, sweet and savory breads that I dehydrated, and more granola bars. I’m sure I put more time and effort into this than I needed to because I could have just bought a lot of it, but I like knowing what’s in my food and it was a lot of fun to try new things.
I knew lunches and dinners would be the hardest so I put them off for as long as possible. For about half of my lunches I’m going to have dehydrated hummus that I bought in bulk (and flavored with different spices) with either veggie chips (which in my mind sound much healthier than potato chips but I’m not so sure about that) or crackers. I started making crackers by hand, from scratch, and quickly gave that up and bought a bunch from the store and repackaged. The stress of food preparations became too much for me and I needed to get it done. For the other lunches, I made and dehydrated some different spreads with beans, tofu, or tomatoes, which I’ll also have with crackers. I also dehydrated some spiced tofu, or just planned on eating extra dinners or breakfasts as my mid-day meal.
Dinners were the meal that I struggled with the most because I decided early on to not bring a stove with me. I know it may sound crazy, and there is a lot of controversy about stoves in the thru-hiker world (everyone feels very strongly one way or the other), but I was convinced by several people who hiked the PCT last year that this is the way to go. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always have Jacob mail my stove to me in one of my boxes.
Because I would eat cold dinners, I needed to have food that would dehydrate well with ambient temperature water. I tested all of the bulk dried beans and chilies that I could buy at the store and some of them worked out really well. To those, I added dried vegetables that I prepared and packed them so that one cup of dried food is a serving.
Variety is the spice of life and I know I will get tired of eating the same thing every day, so I also did some tests of which grains rehydrate the best without cooking (the winners: couscous, Israeli couscous, and bulgur wheat) and mixed those with dried veggies and spices. Once I got the two backpacking cookbooks, I had a lot more options and I made and dehydrated a lot of recipes in there. I tried to ensure that each dinner had protein and at least some vegetables, but I know there are a few dinners that are pretty carbohydrate heavy.
Some days I would cook three dinners during the day and get them all dehydrating while I also baked granola bars and mixed trail mix. It’s a good thing I have been working 60% time for the past three months because otherwise I don’t know if I could have done all of this in time.
At first I didn’t really have an idea of how much food I would need, but then I made a rough itinerary on pctplanner.com and that helped to give me a ballpark range of the amounts of food I needed.
Since I made nearly all of the food myself, I did not have the patience to measure each calorie and calculate each day’s intake. Instead, I used a rule of thumb that some ultra-lightweight backpackers suggest when it comes to food: plan on 1.4-1.5 pounds of food per person per day. That seems too little, even for me, so I decided to plan on a bit more food. To prepare my boxes I added breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks per day into each box for the given number of days I thought it would take me to get to the next town. Then I would weigh the box using my kitchen scale and add snacks to it until it held 1.6-1.7 pounds of food per day. After adding my maps, guide book pages, toilet paper, floss and extra zip-lock bags I called it done.
I remember the elation that I felt when I packed the last of my food into my USPS boxes. It was such a weight off my shoulders to have that out of the way so I could spend March focusing on gear and physical preparation.
I now have 25 boxes of food in my spare bedroom waiting to be mailed out. I’ll mail the first two boxes before I leave next week, then Jacob will mail the rest of them to me so that they arrive at their destination a week or two before I do. There will also be a few places where Jacob will meet me for a weekend and he’ll bring my resupply boxes then.