A Long Distance Eating Contest: Food Logistics on the Appalachian Trail
Logistics & Resupply
Planning food for my AT thru-hike was quite overwhelming. It was probably the most challenging thing I had to deal with in the planning phase. So many questions arose. What food should I take? How do I pack it? Where do I get food from? Should I dehydrate meals? Should I live off mail drops? Yeah…overwhelming was the word that ran through my mind most.
My approach to food on the trail evolved quite a bit throughout the entire process. Trail food was dependent on many factors like the weather, the distance between towns, the hours of the local post office, and what resources were in the town.
Initially, I planned to rely on mail drops with dehydrated meals that I had made before the hike. In Georgia and the the first sections of North Carolina, there aren’t a lot of trail towns. It actually worked out quite well to package food and send it ahead to post offices and outposts located along the trail. The dehydrated food was okay, but it sure took a lot of effort. I bought quite a few frozen meals (the ones in bags; stir fry and pastas) and dehydrated and sealed them. They tasted just fine, but each morning I had to place the contents of my dinner in a Nalgene bottle with water. The dehydrated foods had to be reconstituted all day long if you didn’t want to eat leathery, hard foods.
We also carried some perishable items in the beginning. I liked to carry butter as it was a great source of calories and fat and it just tasted SO good. Cream cheese was another great addition to the food sack. The cream cheese traveled well until the temperatures started to climb, then it just began to sweat. It was not uncommon for us to carry pizza as well; we often bought pizza or cooked the frozen ones in town. We gladly carried the leftovers in our pack to break up the monotony of trail food. Yum!
Still, I relied on the mail drops and always had an abundant source of food. However, another problem arose. We started arriving at towns on days when the post office was closed. It was really frustrating to roll in on a Sunday and not be able to get your food. This trend continued on and eventually I decided it was best to put an end to the mail drops. Starting in Virginia, there are a plethora of grocery stores, Dollar Generals, and Wal-Marts available. The whole concept of resupplying at the grocery store was great! You could pick and choose the foods that appealed to you at that time and didn’t have to rely on eating the same foods you packed at the beginning.
The grocery store resupply was our mainstay for food resources and it never failed us. There were some places in Pennsylvania that did prove difficult to resupply. In quite a few towns there were only gas stations–no grocery stores for miles! Gas station resupply was so annoying! Sure, they had all the candy and soda a kid could want, but they lacked the high calorie, high fat foods we could obtain at a market. I hated the gas station resupply with a passion! It always meant slim eatings for a few days.
Fortunately, New England was the land of delis! Every street crossing had a deli available. There were many days where we would feast on delicious sandwiches and subs. New England really had the best selection of quick foods available. We were never starved for options!
By the time I arrived in Vermont I was so over the trail! I was so sick of the food I had been eating. There were times when we’d come to a town with a McDonald’s or Burger King; I would go in and purchase 10 hamburgers and pack them out for a few days….They were SO awesome! I remember chowing down on a McDouble after I summitted Mt. Lafayette. We continued to pack out pizzas and a host of other fast foods; they always kept well for 2-3 days.
The Whites also provided a new source of food four us. The AMC runs Huts throughout the whites; huts are large lodges with bunk rooms that people pay good money to stay in for a night. The staff at the huts prepare a large dinner feast each night and a hearty breakfast for all those who stay till morning. It is customary that the huts will not only provide lodging to a few (3-4) select thru-hikers, as well as, 2 free meals. This means they will let you set your sleeping pad up in the dining room and give you some food in exchange for a simple task like sweeping, cleaning the bunk rooms, or just talking to the guests after dinner about your journey. Even when we were just passing by a shelter at lunch time, they would provide us with the leftover soup or pancakes from breakfast. The huts were really a nice treat in the midst of the treacherous, exhausting, and fog-laden whites.
Storage & Protection
So as you can see, trail appetites are constantly changing. The best thing is to stay open-minded on what you carry and don’t be afraid to try carrying a little fast food from time-to-time. As for carrying food, I used a Sea-to-Summit dry bag. This was the standard method of carrying food among most hikers. Some used stuff sacks or Kevlar mesh bags, but all that really matters is that your food sack is waterproof.
When I first arrived on the trail, it was very clear that I had overlooked or not anticipated some crucial things. For instance, keeping your food in a safe place so that mice and other critters can’t get to it. What I tell every person that is planning any kind of overnight backpacking trip is that you need to plan for the practice of hanging your food bag every night. At many of the shelters there were pre-installed bear cables and bear boxes. However, there were a few occasions when we had to hang our own bags and needed a decent amount of line to accomplish this. Always be ready to hang a bear bag!
For detailed information on how to hang a bear bag and what items you should place in said bag, please check out my entry: Let’s Hang a Bear Bag!
On a side note, it’s always good practice to remember to hang up your hiking pack in the evenings while staying at a shelter. The shelters are inundated with mice and they will stop at nothing to sneak into your pack in search of tasty treats. Most shelters have lines with mouse baffles to hang items on. Use them! I had my pack raided on 2 occasions and I was less than thrilled.