Eating is one of my very favorite pastimes—but if I’m honest, meal planning itself is kind of stressful. I mean, have you ever wandered the aisles of a grocery store only to enter a fugue state resulting in a fridge full of random, unrelated items you now have to consume in some fashion before they spoil?
But when it comes to long-distance backpacking, I absolutely, definitely know what I’m doing. I have not met a ramen noodle I couldn’t tame, a candy bar I couldn’t devour, an instant mashed potato I couldn’t rehydrate to the fluffiest proportions. That’s because I know the five distinct phases of eating while thru-hiking: from honorable early-on intentions to the descent into disgust—to all-out feral eating. In that spirit, I present to you the world’s most realistic, fail-safe, honestly perfect thru-hiking meal plan.
Day 0: The Pre-Game
I mean—ARE YOU EXCITED OR WHAT?!?! You’re preparing for an epic journey, the kind of thing that might even change your life, or at least sculpt your calves into something not unlike solid marble. The days, weeks, and months leading up to your big hike provide ample space for drawing up a plan.
Here’s what you do: Spend hours online reading what other people ate. Take fastidious notes—especially from the savviest among us who’ve created sexy spreadsheets listing important stuff like calories per ounce. Build your own spreadsheet filled with a dizzying assortment of perfect snacks, drinks and meals. Color code the entire thing, just because it looks nicer that way.
Now you use that dreamy list to stock your food arsenal. Buy a dehydrator. Buy cookbooks that include at least one recipe for “pemmican.” Deplete at least one-third of your life savings to accrue a large stockpile of protein bars, dried fruits, ramen, individually packaged cookies and chips and crackers, trail mix, mashed potatoes, instant coffee, tuna packets, candy bars and assorted dehydrated things. Marvel at your cache, and document it extensively for your Instagram feed. Now divvy it all up into boxes and ask a long-suffering friend or family member to mail them to Future You at strategic stops along the trail.
Days 1-14: The Period of Honorable Intent
You printed out and laminated your weekly meal spreadsheets, right? Now refer to week one—isn’t it nice? Didn’t you do such an incredible job planning every single morsel you are going to stuff in your mouth? When eating around fellow hikers, try not to gloat … much.
Breakfast every day is a leisurely cup of coffee and one of the following: Instant oatmeal peppered with pecans, laced with brown sugar, and drizzled with honey. Quinoa soaked overnight with coconut milk, blueberries, and, um, more honey. Freeze-dried scrambled eggs tossed with parmesan and French herbs. Are you drooling yet? Lunch is a generous hunk of baguette slathered in fresh avocado and layered with your favorite meats and cheeses. Or maybe a tortilla spread thickly with hummus and sprinkled with sprouts, chopped peppers, and cucumber slices. Can you even handle dinner? Actually, you probably can’t since you’re not really all that hungry yet.
Days 14-21: The Arrival of Hiker Hunger
A-ha! Your stomach has awoken and it is demanding three square meals, so it’s time to dig into that dinner stash, which is obviously an assortment of expensive freeze-dried meals. Who needs money when you can just recklessly ingest lots of salt instead?
This is a very exciting period for any hiker—you are still super-duper psyched on your pre-planned meals and you’re finally hungry enough to devour every last bit of food you’ve packed. Except the protein bars—because obviously those are to be saved for emergencies. Wait—how did you calculate your daily calorie needs, again? Why are you still hungry even after you’ve checked off each square on that day’s meal spreadsheet?
Hmmm. Perhaps it’s time to start supplementing your rigorously planned menu with a few additions, like the most economically priced family-size bag of chips you find at the next gas station you encounter. Or maybe a trail angel will hand you a cold one at the next road crossing. Or a piece of fruit. Or an entire cheeseburger. Regardless, it’s absolutely okay during this portion of your hike to turn to the person next to you and ask, “Hey, are you going to eat that?”
Days 21-28: Feeding Fantasies
Wow, FOOD IS SO GREAT! Carve out some time each day to stare into the distance and think about what you’d like to eat next. Engage your fellow hikers, or anyone within earshot, really, in a very loud, wistful conversation about your personal food fantasies. I can tell you from personal experience that there is nothing more exhilarating than spending a full thirty minutes audibly rating your favorite potato products.
Since you have to add, like, five thousand extra calories to your meticulously planned resupply boxes anyway, it’s time to get creative. Ramen is very exciting with hot sauce, peanuts, and peanut butter—like, don’t even bother heating it up. Just crunch it all down raw because boy, you’re really hungry. Make a five-star meal out of instant mashed potatoes, gravy packets, and Fritos. You cannot possibly eat enough salt! Did you know that you can just put whatever you want into a tortilla and then eat it? YOU CAN! Peanut butter, sweaty cheese and salami, tepid refried beans, Snickers bars, hungry tears—whatever!
Oh, and remember to supplement with real, live fruits and vegetables whenever you can. A town stop is a good excuse to toss a few avocados into your pack. And definitely eat a nice, large salad before you get on trail—just be sure to chase it down with the customary large pizza with the works.
Days 28-34: A Descent into Disgust
The walk to the post office to pick up your resupply at this point is the longest, saddest walk of all. What’s inside the box you packed a month ago? Oh, the same thing you’ve been eating for the last few weeks, day after day. Whoopee doo.
Toss approximately half of your resupply into the nearest hiker box or donation bin, then prowl the perimeter of the post office to see what other people are discarding. It’s often more efficient to just circle the nearest hiker box so that you can pounce as soon as someone throws something inside. So what if that unlabeled baggie full of powdery beige stuff has bite marks in it? It’s (probably) food, and more importantly, it’s not the same stupid food you’ve been eating for weeks.
Day 34 and Beyond: Feral Feeding
No amount of food can possibly sustain the monstrous miles you are crushing. When in town, you chase your salads with a large pizza with a burrito with a pint or three of ice cream, and then maybe go back in an hour and do it again, depending on your mood. You are feral. You have absolutely eaten dirt at this point.
But remember—no matter how hungry you get, don’t eat any of those protein bars that have been festering at the bottom of your pack for weeks. Those are for emergencies. Only. Obviously.