Eating food is an integral part of the thru-hike experience. It becomes one of the most important aspects of your life. You have to eat tons of food if you are hiking the PCT. Depending on your body, backpacking can burn anywhere from 400 – 600 calories per hour. Spreading this out over a full day of hiking leads to 4000 calories+ per day. Eating this much food will seem unnatural at first. If you are used to a normal, fresh and healthy diet, eating thru hiker food may come as a shock to you. The only way that you get the thousands of calories you need per day is to pretty much force food down your throat every chance you get.
In this post I am going to talk a little bit about my experiences eating on the trail, and give you a picture of what thru hiker food is like.
A PCT Day in Food
- Instant coffee mixed with Carnation Breakfast powder – 200 calories
- 1 Snickers or other bar as I get walking – 250 calories. Cooking food in the morning takes to long to deal with, wasting precious walking minutes.
Morning Walking Session
- Some sort of bar for ~200 calories every 1 – 2 hours. Usually 2-3 times before lunch break. The gastrointestinal system can only process 150-200 calories per hour. Eating more than this while you are walking won’t do much for your energy levels.
- Ramen noodles – 250 Calories
- Sweet snacks – 300 Calories
- Salty snacks – 300 Calories
- Same as the morning session, some sort of bar for ~200 calories every 1 – 2 hours.
Depending on the day, and where I am planning on camping at, and how I was feeling physically; I sometimes stopped and ate dinner 1-2 hours before my intended camping area. This is great if you are lagging in the evening, but you still want to get more miles in. It will give you a boost of energy, and you will have less to do when you get to camp at night.
- Main meal would typically be a Knorr Rice Side or 1/2 a Bear Creek Soup Mix. I may add meat or cheeses to fortify it. Sometimes a Mountain House – 600 calories.
- Salty snacks – 400 calories
- Sweet snacks – 400 calories
- Hot chocolate – 100 calories
- Pre-bed snickers – 250 calories
Per day I was averaging 3500 – 4000 calories. Note that this is still well below what I was burning each day, which was likely around 6000 calories in the Sierras. This is why I came back looking like a skeleton.
Surprisingly, it is not super easy to eat that much food each day. Especially when you are eating the same bland boring things every day. If only there were some way to stimulate the appetite easily on trail.
Not much of the food I ate on trail was ‘healthy’. Almost all of it was processed junk food. There isn’t much else you can get that doesn’t require refrigeration and preparation.
There was a point in time in Northern California where I was loosing too much weight too quickly. I had recently finished the strenuous High Sierra section, and the terrain was getting a little easier, but I was feeling fatigued all of the time. I wrote in my journal: “I’m just exhausted most of the time. All I want to do is eat or sleep when I’m not hiking. I don’t think my calorie intake is large enough.” I was beginning to feel weaker, and my body sweat was starting to get an ammonia like smell. This is the stench you have when you begin breaking down muscles. I wasn’t getting enough proteins to provide amino acids, so my body went for muscles.
After noticing this, I did an analysis of what food I was eating, and it turned out that I was only getting about 2500 calories per day, and around half as much protein as I should. As a result I decided to bump my calorie intake as much as I could. This meant stuffing my foodbag to the brim, and carrying extra on the outside of my pack. Fueling my body meant binge eating during my break times. Now you may be thinking “Eating as much food as I want, that sounds great?!?” But when you are eating the same food day after day, it gets hard.
I also took multivitamins intermittently throughout the duration of my hike. I am unsure if I was ever deficient in any nutrients, so I can’t really speak to whether or not this helped me.
Town food is great. Pretty much every town on the trail featured some sort of colossal hiker burger or gigantic breakfast burrito to eat. The grease on these things alone must have been 1000 calories. Pair these up with some beers and you are on you way to some quality R&R. Towns are also a great place to get some healthier options, like fresh fruits and vegetables which are too heavy to carry en masse while hiking. California has some of the best (and cheapest) fruit, so definitely take advantage of that.
If you are worried about your budget while hiking the trail, spending money on town food is the one area that you should be really conscious of. I don’t normally eat out in everyday life, I like cooking my food. Home cooked meals are yummier and way cheaper. But on the trail you will be wanting a break from re-hydrated mush and bars you are consuming every day. Eating out at a restaurant on the PCT isn’t cheap. Most of the towns you pass through are tourist traps, and charge accordingly. Be ready to shell out $15-20 for a meal (especially in California). Add in the price of an alcoholic beverage or two, and you PCT spending money dries up really quickly.
Disclaimer: Don’t eat wild foods if you are unsure of what you are eating!
If you know what you are looking for, there are many opportunities for on trail food foraging. There are huckleberries and wild blue berries all over northern Oregon and Washington. I got lucky and hit the season just right, and was able to eat berries for weeks. There were some days where I could have eaten berries all day long. Bushes full of plump and juicy fruit grow right alongside the trail. You just have to reach out and grab them. Wild berries have tons of good nutritional content as well. Huckleberries have one of the highest amounts of antioxidants, in addition to vitamins B and C. 
Another big foraging opportunity was mushrooms in Washington. I would keep my eye out for fungus during the day, and harvest accordingly. Then at the end of the day I could throw them in with some rice or some noodles for an extra tasty pot of food. The mushrooms found were mostly lion’s mane or oyster mushrooms. Oysters were the best.
There were also a couple areas in the Sierras with wild onions that could be plucked out of the marshy areas.
My Cook System
My cook system was one area of my gear that I was really happy with because it worked well, was light, and lasted the whole trail.
- MSR Pocket Rocket Stove. Lightweight, easy to use, and boils water quickly. It also had the ability to simmer foods, unlike a JetBoil.
- MSR Titan Kettle. Great for making dinners, and for using as a drinking cup for coffee or hot chocolate. Also large enough to store my stove in.
- Sea To Summit Alpha Light Spork. You want the long one. The handle can be used as a butter knife, and it is long enough to reach into your pot or jar of peanut butter and not get lost.
- Isobutane/propane fuel canister. There are many different brands of this floating around. I didn’t see much of a difference between their performance, so I got whatever was the cheapest. You can usually pick up 1/2 empty cans from hiker boxes. A small, 4oz container typically lasted me 7-10 days. I liked using the 8oz (medium) size because it lasted twice as long while not costing much more. The larger diameter also made for a more stable base. There weren’t many places on trail that didn’t sell canister fuels. Typically the only reason a resupply point wouldn’t have them is if they were sold out.
In general I followed these steps to cook my food:
- Add water to pot & bring to boil.
- Add stuff to re-hydrate & bring back to boil.
- For most things I ate extra simmering was unnecessary. I just wrapped it up in my keffiyeh and let it sit for a few minutes until doneness.
As far as cleanup goes, there are plenty of people that advocate freezer bag cooking to avoid the mess. However this method creates a lot of unnecessary waste, as if all the individually packaged food on trail isn’t wasteful enough. Plus you still need to carry bags of mushy food scraps around. I just opted to cook my food in the pot every night.
In order to clean the pot all you have to do is pour a little bit of water in the pot, and scrape all the food bits away with your eating utensil or finger. To keep it leave no trace, drink the cleaning water up. You can also make hot chocolate with this water. Don’t waste those precious calories! Dumping this water out can attract animals you don’t want poking around camp at night. It is also pretty gross when you get to a campsite and you see little bits of rice and noodles strewn everywhere (I saw this plenty of times on trail). If you really need to throw out food, bury it in a cat hole, making sure to mix it in with the dirt to aid in decomposition. If your pot is really dirty, put some sand in it and use that to scrub the pot.
One of my biggest pieces of advice for wannabe thru-hikers is to not pack food boxes to send. Your food requirements and desires will change along the trail. I ended up hiker boxing many of the contents of my packages because they were not appropriate.
If you had no money, you could probably hike the PCT using hiker-boxes to get all your food. There is so much food (mainly oatmeal and quinoa) in there that people dumped because they were sick of eating the same thing every day.
I’ll talk about my thru hiker food resupply strategy in depth in a different post.
A (more or less) Complete List of What I Ate
- Knorr Rice/Noodle Sides
- Ramen (two packets for dinners, not enough calories in one)
- Bear Creek Soups
- Idahoan instant potatoes (I actually screwed myself on these ones early on. The first night, just out of Campo, I didn’t eat a whole one, and I saved it for the next morning. Tried reheating it with my stove, but it just burned the bottom. I then sat there attempting to eat them, gagging with every bite. I didn’t want to throw a bunch of food out in the desert where it wouldn’t decompose well. Couldn’t stomach these for the next couple months.
- Mountain House. I never bought these, as they cost way more than a Knorr, but I sometimes got them for free.
- Trader Joe’s instant coffee
- Carnation Instant Breakfast
- Gatorade powder
- Arizona Tea powder
- Various hot chocolates, Swiss Miss were the best.
- Cliff bars
- Lara bars
- Cereal bars
- Snickers (almond were my favorite, but they have less calories per bar!)
- Pop Tarts
- Peanut butter
- Tuna packets
- Smoked meat
- Hawaiian Sweet Maui Onion chips
- Sun Chips
- Trail Mix
- Sour Gummy Worms
- Peach Rings
- Gummy Bears
- Processed bakery items such as Mrs. Freshley’ Honey Buns
- Chocolate. Avoid in the desert where it tends to become melty!
- Mayo packets. Easy way to get extra calories.
- Hot sauce. Great way to spice up anything. Or put it on a tortilla for a snack
- Energy Chews & gels. Basically portioned gummy bears for adults. These are great for hiking. They are designed to be adsorbed into your body as easily as possible.
- Beer or wine
- Honey. Every now and then I would buy a squeeze container of honey, and do honey shots on the trail. A great way to get a quick energy pickup while hiking.
Foods I didn’t eat
- Full jars of peanut butter. Unless you really like eating peanut butter all of the time, these are heavy. Try the individual packets instead.
- Spam. Heavy, and it takes multiple meals to go through one can, so unless you want a leaky spam can in your food bag.
- Oatmeal. Almost everyone puts this in their resupply boxes, but then never eats it. Relegating it to hiker boxes.
I hope that this information gives you some insights into what thru hiker food is like.
What is your favorite food to eat while backpacking? Let me know in the comments.
-  Mayo Clinic Calories burned by exercise
-  Burning Protein as Fuel
-  Health Benefits of Huckleberries