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Monday, November 22, 2010


Throughout the hike, food was one of the most common conversational topics. Food, poop, feet and gear made up at least 95% of what thruhikers talk about. I'm really not exaggerating. It was so common because, amongst other reasons, eating was the third most time-consuming activity, behind walking and sleeping. I spent about 3 hours of my day actively involved with food.

A lot of positive things came of this:
1) There are no longer any foods that I don't like. Olives, tomatoes, avocados and pickles were the last 4 that I didn't particularly care for before my hike. I like 'em all now. As a matter of fact, I like them all more than a lot of other foods that I liked before.
2) I know the caloric content of any packaged food in the grocery store. Thruhikers are the only ones who go into a supermarket and compare PopTarts to see which has the MOST Calories and then buy that one (surprisingly, the unfrosted fruit PopTarts have 10 more per tart than the unfrosted)
3) I am now very in touch with my body's caloric and nutritional needs

While hiking, I was burning about 200 Calories per mile while hiking, and another 1,000+ during the night to repair muscle tissue and replenish glycogens. This totaled out to about 6,000-7,000 Calories on an average day at my peak of 25 miles average. I was consuming approximately 3,500 Calories per day on the trail. Once you begin carrying more than about 2 pounds of food per day, there's actually a diminishing return. It requires more calories to carry this weight than they can provide. If you were carrying pure fat (olive oil, butter, lard, etc.), it would provide 3,500 Calories per pound. You can't eat pure fat. Your body needs other things to function. So, 2 pounds of food works out to 3,500 Calories LESS than what I needed. This is a net loss of 1 pound of body fat per day. When I'd get to town, I'd eat 10,000 calories or more in 1 or 2 meals.

In the first 10 days, Djangle and I each lost about 22 pounds. Then gained some of it back in Monson and settled back in at 22 pounds down by the time we reached Stratton, ME. Our blood sugar and muscle glycogen were so low that neither of us were capable of writing our names in a trail register. That night, we each ate 10 pounds worth of food and beer. This was a result of eating less than 2,000 calories per day, getting into shape and traversing the most difficult terrain with our packs at their heaviest. Add to this the fact that we were only stopping in town once every 7 days or so, rather than 3, which was the norm at the end of my hike.

In Pearisburg, VA I ate more than 10,000 calories in 1 hour at the Pizza Plus buffet. That's what 27 pieces of pizza, more than a dozen breadsticks, 2 salads with ranch and 2 32oz. cokes will get you. I then ate 2,000 calories worth of Ben & Jerry's and drank 1,400 calories worth of beer. And 2 packages of beef jerky. Mind you, I had eaten a 1,000 calorie breakfast and snacked on 1,000 calories before I got to town in the first place. And ate some cookies and a bag of M&Ms out of a care package. So, 16,000 calories in one day, and I didn't even feel particularly stuffed. This was during my peak of hiking 2 weeks straight of 25+ mile days.

So, the moral of the story is: if you want to lose weight, I have a sure-fire way of doing it. If you want to gain weight, I can help you do that too.

Here's how I ate:
Breakfast 6-7AM: 800-1200 Calories
2nd Breakfast 8-9AM: 400 C
Morning Snack while walking: 200 C
Lunch 12-1PM: 700 C
Afternoon snack 4PM: 200 C
Dinner 6PM: 800 C

Here's what I carried all the time:
PopTarts (B): Brown Sugar & Cinnamon or unfrosted fruit had 210C/tart (high fiber when available)*
Apples (2B): They're good for the mind and body. Granny smith.
Granola/Trail Mix (S): It never got old, surprisingly. I did like to mix my own when feasible
Raisins (S): Very high in calories and fiber*
Tortillas (S,L,D): Whole wheat when available
Bagels (L): Thomas' whole wheat, honey wheat or any of the harvest grains varieties
Cheese (L/D): Asiago, Parmesan & Romano during hot weather; Cheddar, Pepper Jack and cream during cooler months †
PB (B/L/D/S): At 200 C per 2T/32g serving, this is the highest calorie food readily available.
Lipton Sides or Idahoan Loaded Baked Potatoes instant mashed potatoes(D): Easy meal, lots of varieties and very filling, plus with some cheese and in a tortilla it makes a pretty good burrito.

Things I carried off and on:
-Avocado, lime, garlic, onion and pepper. Fresh guacamole is amazing. This was my dinner for about 2 weeks in VA
-McCormicks Garlic & Herb grill seasoning. Your body needs a huge amount of salt that isn't supplied by most of my other trail foods, so I added this dinner, cheese and whatever else. Sometimes I just ate it straight
-Snickers carry well and provide 270 readily available Calories
-Planters Dark Chocolate & Nut chewy granola bars are delicious and a nice break
-Cliff/Power/Protein bars very rarely. They're expensive. And all the cliff bars taste the same
-Beef Jerky. Great source of protein, but incredibly expensive. Thanks to my dad who sent pounds of it home-made at a time
-Dark Chocolate M&Ms are good calorically and delicious, easily edible and pack well
-Summer Sausage. Summer sausage is a great lunch meat or addition to dinner.
-Yellowfin Tuna in olive oil. None of the others are worth the weight calorically, but the OO brings the pouch to 200 calories and tuna is a nice change
-Honey contains a lot of essential nutrients and is a nice addition to cereal, a wrap or a PB sandwich
-Almond butter is a nice break from PB (although a little bit less caloric and more expensive)

Things I carried earlier on, but stopped eating for one reason or another:
-Ramen. It's 100% crap. Trust me, you'll be happier and healthier if you don't
-Oatmeal. It has been said that it contains about as much nutritional value as the box it comes in
-Pepperoni. I stopped carrying it after I had eaten a pound of it in one morning and earned the disrespect of my hiking partners with the title of "Worst Fart of the Trail"
-SPAM. It's actually pretty good, but I'd much rather spend that money on an extra hamburger in town and not have to carry the can
-Carrots. Good for you, but they get limp pretty quickly
-hehe, limp carrots
-Olive Oil. Great source of calories, Omega 3 fatty acids and a natural anti-inflammatory, but I had gotten rid of my stove and didn't have anything to use it for until the end, where I just didn't think about it. Good addition to rice/pasta meals and guacamole
-Oranges. They make you so happy, but are a pain because you really shouldn't throw the peals out in the woods
-Whoopie Pies. If you're a New Englander, you know what these are. 760 calories per pouch of pure, delicious, horrible-for-you filling and cake. You just can't get 'em South of Connecticut
-Moon pies. The worst imaginable thing in terms of packability. You might as well just crumble them into dust as soon as you buy them
-Powdered whole milk. Nido is hard to find; everything else is skim milk (low fat=worthless). I stopped because I thought it might be causing some of my nausea after my illness in Waynesboro, VA. I didn't carry it after that because I had switched back to PopTarts from cereal for breakfast
-Cereal: I loved cereal for breakfast, but it just fell out of favor, I s'pose
-Gatorade (or other drink) powder. It didn't provide much of anything besides flavor. And to be honest, I really liked the taste of fresh spring water more than anything

*Not that I needed extra fiber, but having a good poop was paramount to having a good day. I was very fortunate in being regular: every day within 30 minutes of waking up and always before I left the shelter. As a matter of fact, there were some mornings in Maine where I was awoken by my bowels with less than 1 minutes warning before it was going to happen whether I was ready or not.
†Cheese will keep for weeks at a time unrefrigerated. If it's too hot, it doesn't actually go bad, either. It just gets oily and crumbly. Remember: the original purpose of cheese was to preserve milk.

In town:
-The Dollar menu in any fast food restaurant
-Cheeseburgers and fries
-Subway footlong. It's delicious and cheap
-Lots of beer (a great source of calories) and soda
-All You Can Eat Buffet
-Salad bar. You have no idea how much I craved salad.
-Biscuits and Gravy
-Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. It has about twice as many calories as any other ice cream on the market, and it's about 3 times as delicious

So basically, I was hungry all the time. So much so, that I stopped being hungry. It's hard for me to tell now when I need to eat something until I start to get shaky. I ate as much as possible in town when there so that I could put on some meager reserves for the next few days. I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night so hungry that it hurt and I would have to get up to feed myself. And there were definitely a few times where I was so weak that my body had shut down any other functions: like being able to use my hands at all.

I'd only carry 3 days or less of food at a time where possible. If I carried 4 days, I found that it slowed me down so much, that I could have made the journey in 3 if I had less weight. Plus, my pack really didn't allow for much more than that, given the size and weight of my food-sack by the end of the hike.

So, there you have it: A thruhiker's view on food.

Carry on



  1. Hi. I just got to this. Thank you. Very lively writing, and almost scary. But I would like to try a 10,000 calorie meal sometime, as soon as I get in shape for it.

  2. More data points for readers regarding caloric content:

    I hiked the A.T. southbound in 2008, and I hiked the John Muir Trail just this September, generally doing fifteen to twenty miles a day (less on the JMT than A.T. due to elevation). So I think I have some long-distance miles under my belt (if not as many as I'd like ;-) ). My typical day on both trips, once I figured out an efficient meal system that kept shopping time to a minimum:

    - either two pop-tarts (400cal) or multiple oatmeal packets (~300cal); oatmeal I relegated to the JMT when volume/compressibility were at a premium
    - a couple tortillas (~200cal) plus one of honey/peanut butter/Nutella toppings (~500cal? slather up!)
    - flavored/unflavored tuna/salmon/chicken pouch (~100cal, maybe more, memory hazy) plus Knorr pasta/rice/noodles (~600cal)
    Hiking snacks:
    - candy bars: half Snickers, half other stuff for variety (~900cal); I found on the JMT I could get by on three or four a day eaten around a third at a time, but it was more comfortable to eat more if I had extras (most comfortable was a large candy bar an hour, but I rarely carried that quantity)

    All total that comes to perhaps ~2700cal while hiking. My first resupply on the A.T. I attempted to look at calorie counts, but it very quickly became clear it'd be way too much hassle, so I winged it for the first few weeks until I figured out what I needed. Once I had that, there was little reason to keep track overall. But I still did look at calorie counts for individual items. :-)

    On pop-tarts:

    The best pop-tart variety I found for calories was cinnamon/brown sugar Pop-Tarts at 410cal for two (I think there was one other flavor, too). Everything else was 400. I usually went for off-brand even if it was only 400, partly for cost and partly because at least one generic brand labeled the foil wrappers. (Without labels, you might eat all the brown sugar right off and then be stuck with blueberry the rest of the way, versus eating them all at relatively even levels and having variety of flavor every day. Yes, this really is important.)

    On gorging in towns:

    It's not necessary to go 10kcal-crazy, but yes, you eat a lot when you stop. (Or you should.) I well remember eating 16in. pizzas in Delaware Water Gap, at 501 Shelter, in Damascus, and at NOC (and I may have forgotten others!). And I made a point of getting half gallons, or as close as I could get, of mint chocolate chip ice cream at every possible opportunity. (You can hike on a half gallon of ice cream, believe it or not!) But I would hesitate about stopping in every town just to eat, because it gets really expensive really quick (especially if you get a tasty beverage, or multiple tasty beverages, at the same time). Every week and a half to two weeks for a restaurant stop is a reasonable rate (but should not be a rigid requirement) once you're used to it. If you're hungry or need the calories, splurge on something (like ice cream, or a deli sandwich, or a half gallon of orange juice) when you buy more supplies.