Eating Healthy, or Just Eating, in the Backcountry
When I was preparing to spend 30 days on the Appalachian Trail, researching gear and acquiring equipment was a blast! I loved watching YouTubers comparing lightweight tents, wool socks, and nano-puff jackets. Coordinating 30 days of backpacking meals wasn’t so simple! When I searched for videos and articles on meal planning for the Appalachian Trail I found a trove of menus packed full of ramen noodles, Knorr sides, tuna packets, and Cliff bars. Unfortunately for me, these typical resupply items just weren’t going to make the cut for my dairy-free and grain-reduced diet. I was fortunate enough to work closely with Heather to develop a custom 4,000 calorie a day backcountry meal plan with an emphasis on protein and healthy fats. What I found after 30 days on the trail? I was by far an exception to the rule.
Ramen Noodles: Hiker Trash or Hiker Treasure?
I was incredibly blessed to meet some really extraordinary hikers on the AT, and night after night, as we gathered around our stoves it never ceased to amaze me how many of these beautiful people fueled their journey with ramen noodles and pasta sides. How could they feel nourished and energized to conquer 20 mile days eating gas station resupply backpacking food? “We’re suffering by choice,” one thru-hiker told me.
When you’re on the trail for 5-6 months at a time, cost and ease of availability override the average hiker’s desire for healthy, nourishing meals. One thru-hiker kept his pack ultra-light and earned himself the trail name ‘Tasteless’ by eating frozen burritos and cream cheese for every meal, every day. (Yes, he would resupply on frozen burritos, and eat them as they gradually thawed in his pack between towns.) At the end of the day, the majority of thru-hikers are going to be eating the easy calories sold in the gas station and small town grocery stores along the trail, regardless of the nutritional value. It’s no wonder then, hearing stories of hikers losing 20-30 pounds on the trail.
Dehydrated Backpacking Meals for the Healthy Eaters
After asking dozens of hikers about their eating habits on the trail I finally found one other health conscious individual. This young man had spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing dehydrated backpacking meals for his thru-hike. From his buckwheat breakfast to his homemade sprouted peanut butter, this dude clearly cared about the fuel he was putting in his body. He was enamored when I showed him my Heather’s Choice dehydrated backpacking meals. Considering the time and money he had invested into his own meal planning, the Heather’s Choice meals presented an easy alternative of equal quality.
The Cost of Nutrition in the Backcountry
Why are healthy eaters the exception to the rule in the backcountry? It all boils down to cost and convenience. Preparing your own dehydrated backpacking food or purchasing ready-to-eat backcountry meals is undoubtedly more expensive than filling your pack with ramen noodles and mac-n-cheese. Secondly, healthy meal options aren’t readily available at the various resupply shops along the trail. Carrying these items for weeks or months at a time requires dozens of well organized mail drops (and yes, those cost money too).
Ultimately, deciding to eat healthy in backcountry makes you an exception to the rule, and comes at the price of both money and time. But heck! Aren’t you worth it? If you prioritize healthy eating and nutrition in your everyday life, of course you’re going to want to maximize your athletic performance by eating nourishing meals in the backcountry. My advice? Don’t save your meal planning for the last minute. Consider your individual dietary needs and daily food budget and plan accordingly.
Advice for Every Thru-Hiker: Pass the Protein!
Ok, so I might not convince you here to ditch your rice and noodles, but if there’s one word of advice I could give to every hiker on the trail it would be PROTEIN! There wasn’t one person on the trail who couldn’t use more protein in their diet. One of my male hiking companions was “withering away” after a month on the trail and complained to another hiker that his sweat smelled like ammonia. The cause? The breakdown of healthy amino acids in his muscles. Doubling his protein intake increased his athletic stamina and returned color and form to his depleted body.
Heather’s advice for protein intake? Consume one gram of protein for every pound of lean body mass. Yes, even you big, bulky hunter guy, one gram for every pound or muscle! Prepare your backcountry meal plan accordingly!
Vanquish Hiker Hunger with these High Calorie Hacks
I saw hikers eating some really creative meals and snacks along the Appalachian Trail. Here are a few fun, easy hacks to add some extra calories to your backcountry meal plan.
Multitool’s Hiker Trash Pad Thai
If you’re gonna eat ramen noodles on the trail, this is the way to do it! With just a few extra ingredients you can make a power-packed hiker trash pad thai.
1 Packet Oriental Ramen
1 Tbsp Hot Sauce
2 Spoonfulls of Powdered Peanut Butter
1 Packet of Soy Sauce
1 Handful of Peanuts
Heather’s Tip: Consider adding in a packet of tuna or chicken to make this a more balanced meal.
Wizard’s Morning Mixture
Mix up this protein-packed smoothie in bulk before you leave for the trail, then scoop, shake, and enjoy each morning!
1 Serving Protein Powder
1 Serving Powdered Whole Milk (Sub Powdered Coconut Milk for Dairy-Free)
1 Hot Chocolate Mix
1 Coffee Packet
Smokey’s Packaroons & Peanut Butter
Combine these two must-have trail snacks for an extra delicious, high calorie treat! Squeeze your peanut butter packet onto your coconut Packaroons and enjoy!
1 Packet Orange Vanilla Packaroons
1 Packet of Peanut Butter
Thank you to all of the amazing hikers that opened their hearts and their food bags to me in preparation for this article! An extra special thank you to Goliath, Gray Jay, Old Mate, Wizard, and Multitool for being willing to share their anecdotes and recipes here!