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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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November 17, 2019

Weighing in Part 1: What’s the best food for an Appalachian Trail Thru-hike?

The short answer: whatever you can find in the few stores and outfitters along the trail once the first 3-5 days of food you start out with runs out.

In all seriousness, however, there is still always bound to be some variety, as well as chances to hitch a ride at a crossroad to a (gasp) real grocery store.  Considering that every ounce is critical on a thru-hike and the average male thru-hiker is bound to eat an astounding 5000 to 7000 calories a day, making the wrong food choices can weigh your pack down pretty quickly.

While I am gathering as much information as I can on every aspect of an AT thru-hike, I haven’t had a chance to read up enough on food yet, so I’ve been conducting my own experiments based on weight and what seems to help during my prep hikes.  There are certainly premium backpacking meals by brands like Mountain House, as well as MREs, that make foods designed to be light and easy to cook on the trail, but they can also be expensive.  I try to write all of my articles with a focus on low-budget hiking (partially because I am on a pretty tight budget for my own hike!)

To start to get an idea of what types of foods would work best, I bought a selection of foods I expected to work well, as well as some that I simply hoped would work well because they were appetizing to me.  At least as appetizing as one can get on an alcohol stove or a Jetboil.  At the moment, I still plan on using the latter, partially because I already own one (although alcohol stoves can be bought very cheap or even homemade) and partially because it’s so fast and easy that I’m willing to carry the bit of extra weight.  Being able to get a hot cup of coffee in my hand in 2-3 minutes on a cold morning is bliss for me.

Once I had a decent selection of various foods and snacks, my first step was to record the calories and weight.  From this I calculated the most important information (in my opinion), the calorie to weight ratio.  The lighter you can make the 3-5 day food supply you’ll need to have on hand at most times the better (while still being able to enjoy your meals to some degree — after all, this is supposed to be fun).

So here are the results of my experiment.  Different brands will vary slightly, and in some cases you may have to decide if you’re willing to eat that macaroni and cheese or instant mashed potatoes without the milk it says you need, but this should give you a good idea of how many calories you can expect to get out of various foods.

Food Total Weight Calories per Ounce
Ramen Noodles (1 pkg) 3.2 oz 118 cal./oz
Trail Mix – Large Bag 26.5 oz 132 cal./oz
Honey Roasted Peanuts 17.8 oz 160 cal./oz
Pop Tarts 2-pack 3.6 oz 117 cal./oz
Summer sausage 5.7 oz 83 cal./oz
Pasta 1 lb 16 oz 105 cal./oz
Canned Chili 17.1 oz 30 cal./oz
Dirty Rice Mix 6.1 oz 110 cal./oz
Instant Mashed Potatoes 5.1oz 176 cal./oz

This is by no means a complete list, just a variety of foods and snacks I have weighed in so far.  As I suspected, anything in a can means lots of weight.  Not only is there the weight of the can, but canned food is already going to have the water in it, something you’re better off adding yourself.  As you can see, canned chili is by far the worst calories to ounces ratio.

The highest calorie to weight ratio was instant mashed potatoes at 176 calories per ounce, and believe it or not I was able to find a brand that didn’t require butter OR milk in my local dollar store.  And if you really want a bit of buttery taste, those margarine squeeze bottles are great — although I’d transfer just as much as I needed into a much smaller bottle.

I am a meat-lover, but the types of meats that contain high calories just aren’t practical to bring on the trail (other than beef jerky).  Those half-pound bacon cheeseburgers will have to wait for the rare opportunities when you reach civilization I suppose.  Using this as a basic guide, I can’t imagine bringing food that is less than 100 cals/oz unless it was really worth it.

My next post, Weighing in Part 2, will come once I have really dug into the research on what types of food are typically available at outfitters and other supply points along the way, as well as what some of the most calorie dense foods available are.  While my experiment identified some foods that have a pretty decent calorie to ounce ratio, even averaging 130 – 140 calories per ounce means 5 days of food weights 13 – 14 pounds — that’s a lot of pack weight.

As an insulin diabetic, I found the foods that don’t have to be cooked very helpful.  Just doing my 8-mile prep hike today, I needed to eat many more calories than I expected, and it’s just easy to pull out a package of pop tarts or trail mix and eat as I hike, making sure my blood glucose doesn’t go too low.  I certainly want to have a warm meal to cook at night, but the faster I can get food into my system when I need to the better.  Once I get on the trail, however, after consulting with my diabetes specialist, I expect to be taking very little insulin because of all of the activity.  I was shocked at how much food I had to eat during just a 3-hour 8-miler, and 6-7 of those miles were basically flat.

Also, I do carry 15g carbohydrate gel for emergencies (or just lows that come on quickly), but I would consider these as part of first aid weight and I’ll cover them in another article.

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