How to eat on a longer thru-hike

This is part one of coverage to this topic, more to come as soon as I have found a feasible solution to get enough healthy calories per day…

How you eat on a hike and what you eat will most likely determine how long you can continue and how you will feel while out on a trail. There is a connection between your eating habits and your general mood.

Although not yet 100 % decrypted by science, there are strong indicators that the digestive system interacts with your brain. Eat trash and you feel like trash. Trashy food can apparently even cause psychological maladies.

Your gear can be near perfect, your fitness as well, god could spare you from bad weather and blisters, shin splints and all problems alike, if you don’t eat well, you will not make it far (and god will punish you with injuries). 

Eating right is a challenge

Many people encounter problems when searching for a healthy diet even in normal life. Unfortunately, the food industry doesn’t just strive to produce the healthiest food possible. They are interested in your cash, if in doubt they don’t care if you are healthy, nobody forces you to eat something. Many individuals around the globe are addicted to sugar. Some try for decades to eat healthier and to lose weight. One needs to learn new habits in order to eat healthier and so on. 

Plus, there are serious concerns about environmental issues when it comes to production of food. While most animals have a better life here in Switzerland compared to others, they still eat soya. This soya does not grow on our mountains but rather in Brazil where the rain forest burns also for us. Switzerland produces less than half of its required food on swiss soil but even here, the transport of animals to the slaughterhouses is a concern. 

Compared to other places, our slaughter houses are like hospitals (sometimes without sufficient anesthesia, because they use old equipment but they do work on this problem…). In neighboring countries like Germany, these operations are horrible for everybody involved. Except those, who own the brands and the big store chains. Health scandals are common and the wellbeing of animals is the least concern.

Personally I have never eaten stuff with such a strange texture as some smaller meat sticks in the US. We have similar stuff here in Switzerland but it tastes like real meat, it comes even in different qualities. It is available in organic, normal or cheap side by side (and the cheapest are as usual the best in term of taste). Some meat sticks in the US were enormous, they tasted like meat but they also teared an enormous hole into my wallet.  

Still, this is the situation in ordinary life, where one needs 2400 Calories maximum per day. Go to a long distance hike and as a man, one will need 6000 Calories and more per day. Now try to pack 30’000 calories for five days.

Even finding something in this range is extremely difficult. Almonds offer the most calories per weight. Eating them raw is unpleasant after a while. You don’t want to eat too much nuts anyways, because sometimes you need to breath heavily and getting parts of nuts into your lungs is not a good idea. 

So, if long-distance hiking is comparable to endurance sports anyways, why not just eating sport foods? Read the fine print on PowerBar packages. They suggest not to eat the stuff the entire day. Their drink tablets sometimes contain caffeine. You will get insomnia, if you use half a roll of them during one day. There is nothing particularly wrong with these tablets, but they are developed for, let’s say the gym, during a session of two hours. They are vegan and contain electrolytes but no calories.

A lot of sports nutrition is made for a short period of time or let’s say an ultra-marathon. They last for some 14 hours maybe and afterwards you take it slow for some days. The website of GU energy states: “The average body can digest roughly 120-240 calories per hour during exercise.” So even if this amount is doubled, during 12 hours of walking one can only take 5760 calories in. The rest you need to take before going to bed. Good luck eating 1000 Calories when you are tired from hiking and all you want to do is sleep.

Let the games start

Doesn’t matter as the plan is to eat round the clock on zero days anyways? Well several men (and nearly no women) have reported losing more weight than they would have liked to during thru-hiking. A lot of older hikers struggle with food. Older AT hikers often report losing 30 pounds in a few weeks. The existence of silly games like the half-gallon challenge on the AT is no coincidence. If one eats a certain amount of pancakes in Seiad valley on the PCT they will be offered for free. Personally, I am not a huge fan of such games since they lead to food waste. 

Other venues have special menus for hikers. The hiker-trash burger in Cascade Looks is an oversized burger with small pizzas instead of the buns. Unfortunately my stomach is not big enough for processing huge amounts of food within a short period of time. If I stuff my face on zero days, I get pain to the point where I have to take a break from eating and with every break I lose two hours. Therefore eating on zeros for me is insufficient and not effective.

The good news is, your body communicates directly, what is missing. Some hikers start do drink cold milk whenever milk is available. Because I ate a lot of trash on the PCT I began to take vitamins and became a model customer for cold bottled coffees. Every store has this kind of coffee, I assume they make a boatload of money out of it.

Use boxes!

While it is definitely possible to hike without boxes, it is unfortunately difficult. One will not starve to death but he has to make due with so called gas-station resupplies in numerous locations on the PCT. At the NOC on the AT it is apparently the same although the AT has more places near the trail where you can get useful food. Gas stations always have some food you can buy but it is expensive and while they have a variety of chocolate bars, nobody wants to hike up to 30 miles per day on Snickers only. It is not unheard of to eat 8 bars per day or more. 

It is possible to hitch further away from the trail but I would only recommend this, if there is a good progress made so far and time is not an issue. Once in a lovely town you may take a zero or two. Before you know, you end up staying everywhere too long. But it is definitely worth it to check Guthooks and to make yourself familiar with where to go. If you have no boxes, go to bigger towns or eat miserably on the next stretch. 

The chances of completing a CYTC will improve massively with boxes. Otherwise you need an army of trail-angels and you lose a lot of time organizing them, regardless how eager they are to help you (thanks to trail angels anyhow). Sometimes there is no cell network.

Lose and win independence

Once the idea of 100 % independence from boxes is out of the window and accepted is the idea of organizing the necessary logistics, a lot of additional advantages result from this decision. Suddenly the dependency from stores for shoes and gear is gone – don’t rely on Guthooks for your shoes or be prepared to hike with whatever shoe they may have left in the store. It is never what you want. 

It becomes possible to start with a 0 F sleeping quilt (although Mr. Skurka says it’s BS to begin with) and switching to a 20 F quilt later in the year. You can use a sophisticated bear-can, which will make you faster just because of mental effects. If you lose speed in the Sierras, just think of the lovely carbon fiber (which you will transport inside your pack, because you don’t want to show off with your gear, thus nullifying the weight savings compared to a lighter pack). 

You can simply amazon yourself another sleeping bag and hikerbox your warm one, but if you organize yourself in this way, long-distance hiking is maybe not the thing you will like the most in your life. Specialized long-distance hiking gear is made to order anyways.

Get the hygiene right

There are new possibilities for hygiene with boxes as well. Some people prefer not to play the hiker trash game. They cut their toenails instead of just letting them grow until they touch the shoe and fall out altogether. Baby wipes from a store are bulky and heavy. They contain a lot of stuff nobody wants to see in water – a problem when crossing streams but you wiped your legs before. There are better solutions – like EZ towel

a lot of trash is produced anyways – this is just from a two day trip after packing the food for transport

Reducing plastic waste is also a good idea. Instead of buying the cheapest razors in every town and throw them away after two minutes, maybe it is possible to cut a handle, carry it and sending only blades.

The biggest advantage of all of this in term of hygiene is however the possibility to send yourself a new, carefully prepared toothbrush from time to time. A nicely cut toothbrush is essential on trails. If you don’t cut your toothbrush, you should really stay at home.

Get the better food

With boxes, much better food can be selected. If the same quality of food is desired along the way without boxes, direct support out of a camper van at road crossings is needed. This can be difficult to organize. 

Ordinary stores along the trail have a lot of bars. Designed for the convenience of the sofa at home, most of them contain exactly between 150 and 180 calories and a lot of trash. Close to useless for hiking fast. And an assault to your health because you would need to eat 20 of these every day, at this point your sugar intake becomes problematic.

Ditch your stove

Most of the long-distance people I have heard of, ditched their stoves after a while. Besides the weight savings this has practical reasons. It is impossible to cook enough calories on a camping stove and it is time consuming. Most thru-hikes take an entire season. There is nothing wrong with being part of a tramilli and enjoy the trail together with friends over a period of several months. However probably there is lot you eat besides it anyways. Love your hot coffee in the mornings? Carrying a stove is also a social tool. Humans assemble to cook together. 

When you need to do miles because one trail per season is not enough, you will have to look at all your habits from normal life. It is possible to drink warm coffee in towns, who cares about morning routines? Unless you want to have something to put on YT every day, it just doesn’t make much sense seen from a mile crushing perspective, but hey HYOH.

What to send yourself…

Once boxes are accepted the questions is what to put in them. Katie “Salty” Gerber says: Fat instead of sugars. Oils instead of candy. Healthy fat instead of trans-fats. She advises to eat more fat instead of sugary energy-gels, because fat burns slower than sugar in your body and thus provides longer lasting energy without the unwanted peak.

… and not feel like an idiot because of it.

Sometimes hikers get their packets and dump it directly in the nearest hiker box. This is great for hikers on a budget who check these boxes for additional calories. Not everybody who is sick of his bars sends just junk. I personally benefited from ProBar Meals at the beginning of the sierras in 2018. However it is not unheard of getting allergic on some tastes. Lemonzest bars may suddenly taste like glue. The effort of buying them at home and sending them out is wasted in such cases. 

Jupiter, a member of the faster and longer distance crowd, shows us what he eats in one of his great YT videos. Every packet gets basically the same. He is not nuts at all, but he wants something on trail which gives him the necessary fuel and is reliable. When he needs more variety, he uses different sauces.

There is also a professional meal-planning service out there. Check out backcountry foodieTM. They come to the same conclusion as Katie, but they say fat can pose problems for long-distance hikers, because the products have less shelf life.

Screw it, I ‘ll just buy some Mountainhouse!

If somebody uses traditional Mountainhouse meals while hiking long-distances, he has simply too much money and not enough knowledge. Mountainhouse meals are not made for long-distance hiking. They are maybe great for a Sunday afternoon but they are way too heavy for the calories they offer at the moment. Maybe they will release a long-distance option soon, who knows?

OK, I ‘ll order it in the internet instead

There is already somebody who will send out resupply, ordered over the internet: Zerodayresupply. Their platform can be searched, also for calories per dollar. The best product in this regard is mayonnaise. Airborne, a hiker who did a Yoyo on the PCT in 2018, uses mayonnaise probably every day, so it can’t be completely wrong. Surprise: Mayo is greasy, who would have thought. Besides it, Zerodayresupply has more the everyday stuff, they simply intend to spare you from losing time in towns.

Huel and Soylent

What about eating complete powder based meals, something like Huel or Soylent? The figures of Huel are already impressive compared with those from the Backcountry foodie meals, even more impressive is Soylent. 

Above them all stands greenbelly in terms of calorie density. 600 calories within 120 g or 4.23 oz is massive. Greenbelly meals are unfortunately not intended as complete food replacement and their bars are full of sugar. If my friend Chris  – he talks to me as a friend on his page, so I think he is also my friend – could add more vitamins, minerals and other healthy stuff, this would be really great. And sell his meals in pouches with 5000 calories. Thanks to a video from Tip Tap I know of the existence of Radix also, but they are only in AU/NZ at the moment. They plan to expand in 2020, who knows if their expansion is hampered by corona.

Soylent has a higher calorie density compared to Huel. Huel offers more healthy stuff, at least on paper and the original Soylent isn’t available in Europe.

Such food options you want to test in norml life before embarking on a long hike and at least through one simulation of two weeks hiking non stop, pulling 30 miles per day. On weekends you may push your body well beyond the limits while on special stuff like Huel to test the combination of your body and this kind of food.

To eat like suggested by the foodies is a little bit complicated and I guess this is targeted towards the more relaxed hikers. Something I will also do but not sooner than in ten years from now. Foodies have, as their name suggests, a lot of variety in their recipes and their ideas are ideal for weekend warriors. Since on a weekend or on a short trip, there is no need to enter full battle hiking mode. Instead of doing FKT speeds over the weekend one may enjoy hiking slow more.   

Huel is unfortunately not flexible enough to deliver directly to the trail within one subscription (at least they told me so last year). Theoretically, you could order their bags simply to many addresses along the trail. They would send you something like 40 shakers and spoons also, if you don’t cancel it everytime and you would lose the 10 % subscription discount.

To be continued…