What to eat (and not eat) while long-distance hiking for optimum health
By Danielle Vilaplana, Photography by Maria Khoroshilova
I'm sitting on a granite peak, watching the waves crash against a distant rocky coast. I drove here on impulse, 15 hours back to Maine. I'm nearly 200 miles from Mount Katahdin, but that doesn't matter—I'm content to be back, eight months later, in the state where I started my hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Despite finishing the trail nearly four months ago, I find myself running back with the same restlessness that first sent me to it last June. The trail is familiar and novel, brutal and brilliant—a violent roller coaster where the only sure advice is "enjoy the ride." It was a lifestyle so opposite of my former habits that I knew I could never go back to the way things were. I’d lost the path I wanted to be on, but the AT brought me back.
A passion for hiking is mandatory to walk from Maine to Georgia, but the sublime moments stand out more than the landscape in retrospect. Watching the sun set and rise from McAfee Knob and the shooting stars in between. Eating half a gallon of ice cream at the AT’s midpoint. Sitting beneath a dual-headed shower and watching the warm water and dirt swirl around my feet. After spending so much time going without, the trail’s unexpected moments became overwhelming.
During my thru hike, I subsisted on instant oatmeal, Pop-Tarts, ramen, Great Valu electrolyte powders and anything Little Debbie. Calories and weight took priority over health, and town stops were characterized by rapid intakes of fast food. This meal plan got me through roughly 25 miles a day, but the nutrient deficiency destroyed my body.
"You're burning an exceptional number of calories,” explains Kristen Arnold, a professional cyclist and dietician, when I talked to her about the best foods for hiking. “But you're also using all of your bodily systems more than you are normally, so your need for micronutrients, vitamins and minerals is also higher."
"It is really important to stay hydrated and also maintain iron stores, preferably heme iron, which is from animal protein,” says Kristen. “Non-heme iron from plant sources is also okay, but the hiker would need to have a higher amount to make up for the fact that it is less absorbable.”
Several people I met on the AT dehydrated their meals and sent them in mail drops. By preparing food ahead of time they could incorporate more diverse and nutritious items into their diets.
To stay vegetarian on my next hike, Kristen recommends focusing on whole grains and using quinoa or whole wheat couscous in recipes instead of the standard instant rice. She also advises a supplement or a multivitamin as a fallback. Getting enough protein and iron is easier for those with fewer food restrictions, as they can add a variety of animal sources to their meals.
I plan to consume more legumes on my next hike, especially chickpeas. I frequently sat outside Walmart eating an entire Sabra container and wishing I could justify buying expensive dried hummus on Amazon. Hummus becomes a fine, lightweight powder when dehydrated, making it an excellent sugar-free, protein-rich lunch or snack.
Adjusting to life after the AT is difficult, but coming back to Maine reminded me why I fell in love with this lifestyle and why it's important to keep planning and preparing. Though most of my friends will be on the Pacific Crest Trail this year, I linked up with a northbound hiker I met in Connecticut and together we’re mapping a route on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
Spanning an unfinished 2,600 to 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico, the CDT is a vastly different trail from the AT and requires more gear and a different mindset. The endless hours researching, training and in the kitchen are a reminder to stay focused on the goal—the CDT. Thru-hiking is about what happens between each terminus but the finish line is what kept us going, with the knowledge that each step on the trail, and every hour spent in the kitchen, will get us closer to that final summit.
How to Cook Dehydrated Meals for the Trail
Grains can be cooked in a normal manner but double the serving size for a trail appetite. Leave out most oils or fats that a grain recipe may call for—a rule that is applicable when drying any food. Pasta should be made al dente, as it will cook some as it rehydrates.
Vegetables that are normally cooked should be steamed before drying, but this is not necessary for those that are generally consumed raw. I intend to go stoveless for the CDT, so it's best to steam the vegetables for eight minutes when temperatures do not reach a boil. Fruit is similar in that as it is consumed raw it does not need to be cooked, but choose mature fruits for better flavor.
Backpacking dinners are more complex and can be made a number of ways, but most people dehydrate different elements separately. Not all foods rehydrate equally, so preparing them individually and assembling them after ensures a consistent outcome. Foods dry at different rates as well and may vary due to factors such as humidity and outside temperature.
To rehydrate meals, follow a general 1-to-1 ratio of water to dry food. The most effective method for time-crunched thru-hikers is to let the meal soak for 20 minutes and bring it to a boil halfway through. For stoveless meals, simply mixing the food and water in a jar a few hours before camp is enough to adequately rehydrate dinner.
Spicy Avocado Hummus
3 jalapeños (or to taste)
4 cloves garlic
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
¼ cup tahini
5 tablespoons lime juice
1½ teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Roast jalapeños and garlic for 20 minutes at 400°. Once cool, remove seeds and chop coarsely.
Add all ingredients to food processor and blend until smooth.
Spread thinly on dehydrator trays and leave at115° until completely dry and crumbly, rotating trays occasionally.
Run the dried hummus through a food processor again to create a fine powder.
On the trail:
To rehydrate, add water slowly. A few drops of olive oil will boost the flavor and texture.
Can be eaten alone, on a tortilla or with the rare vegetable.