Preparing food for a five month journey is daunting. The photo below was taken while preparing for a one month trek in the Australian outback with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Looks kind of intimidating, right? NOLS made our meal decisions for us — we just had to repackage the food. Prior to our PCT thru-hike, we have a lot more decisions to make and work to do. We need to figure out when we will mail food boxes to local post offices (vs. buying food from a local grocery store), what food we want to eat (best nutrition, taste, and cost), and how much of each item to bring. Once we have those questions answered we will embark on a massive grocery trip. And finally, we will repackage items into smaller containers, and fill shipping boxes with our meals.
I’ve decided to tackle the food planning challenge bit by bit. Here I’ll discuss thru-hiker nutrition.
When backpacking, as with any exercise, you burn more calories than when you are sedentary, so you need to consume additional calories to maintain a high energy level and keep a neutral weight. Reading the NOLS Cookery book and various websites, I determined that 4,000 calories per person per day is about right for our daily hiking mileage, temperature ranges, and trip duration.
There are many ways we can fill our bodies with 4000 calories each day, but some will leave us feeling stronger three months into our journey than others. Brenda Braaten, a registered dietitian and thru-hiker, posted some informative articles entitled Pack Light, Eat Right on the nutritional needs of thru-hikers. In her articles she recommends eating a higher fat diet than normal. Ideally, a thru-hiker’s diet consists of 50% carbohydrates, 35% fat, and 15% protein. Fat is the most calorie (energy) dense food, so a high fat diet allows a thru-hiker to reduce food weight while maintaining a high calorie count. The high fat diet isn’t dangerous to a hiker’s health because the fat is being used upon consumption, and is not stored in the body.
The human body can store sufficient nutrients and minerals for several days, but those stores need to be replenished on a longer journey. Braaten recommends thru-hikers pay special attention to keeping their vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, and calcium levels high. She also warns against consuming too much salt when not in the desert. This may be tricky because many of the typical trail foods are filled with salt. Her suggestions will guide our food choices.
In summary, we will be aiming for 4000 calories per day per person, with half of our calories from carbs, more fat than typical, less protein than the typical American diet, low salt, and high iron, calcium, and vitamin C and E.
Phew, one piece of the food preparations puzzle solved!