Meal planning can make or break your thru-hike. Regardless of which long trail you hike, whether it’s the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Long Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, or others, meal planning will always be involved.
Food carries can range from 3 to 5 days or even 7 days for those longer hauls. In order for your hike to be successful, it’s important to learn how to plan your meals, what to look for in the foods you choose, and get specific ideas for what to eat.
How Do You Plan Food For a Thru-Hike?
When it comes to planning food for a thru-hike, it’s mainly about calories, fat, and protein. If you aren’t getting enough of these nutritional factors you won’t have the energy to hike your long trail. That means you need foods that pack a punch. And of course, foods that you actually enjoy out there.
If you haven’t thru-hiked before, you might not know which foods you crave on the trail and which foods you simply can’t stomach. Your taste for foods will be much (much!) different on the trail than it is when you’re working or at home having dinner on a Tuesday night.
That means variety is key. Bring a lot of different foods with you in your resupply, so that if you hate one food, you’ll have other options (versus bringing the same five foods and disliking half of them).
When you’re deciding which foods you want to bring with you and exactly how much to pack, start by breaking them down by calories per meal and snack. Below is a sample of what to aim for, but of course, everyone’s exact calorie intake will be specific to them:
Breakfast: 1000+ calories
Lunch: 1000+ calories
Dinner: Load it up. This is when you try to pack as many calories as you can since you’re most likely in a deficit from the day.
Snacks: Consider aiming for 100 to 250 calories per hour you’re hiking.
Also consider adding a protein shake to your meal plan after every dinner, since protein plays a huge role in recovery (and your body will most likely need all the help it can get). Protein shakes are easy to make on trail since you typically only need to add water. Just make sure to try it out before you start your thru-hike and make sure you like the taste.
Make sure to also throw in foods with protein and fats throughout each day (think almond butters, fully-cooked bacon, protein bars, tuna packets, etc.). This will balance out your overall nutrition.
As mentioned, the exact number of calories you’re consuming during your thru-hike is going to be specific to your health, body type, terrain, and daily hiking mileage but the above can still serve as a general starting point.
3, 5, and 7-Day Food Carries
Weight is an important factor when considering which foods to bring on your thru-hike. One day of thru-hiking food typically weighs two pounds or slightly over. When packing your pack with meals for a 3-day carry, you can expect your food bag to weigh around 6 pounds or more, 10 pounds or more for a 5-day carry, and 14 pounds or more for a 7-day carry.
While 6 pounds for food is pretty light, 10 pounds and higher is considered to be a hefty load. This is where the food selection strategy comes into play.
3-day carries allow you to have more flexibility in your food choices. Maybe you want to throw in an avocado or two, or maybe you’re fine carrying an entire bag of those chocolate chunk cookies you love. A 3-day food carry doesn’t really have any rules and you can pretty much throw in whatever your thru-hiker heart desires.
This is not the case for a 5-day and 7-day food carry. Stick to nutrient-packed foods that are lightweight. In other words, you want to choose foods that are high in calories and fat without the extra weight.
Chips are really good options, since you can choose from a wide selection at the grocery store or gas station and they are loaded with calories, fat, and salt and weigh very little. Ramen is another ideal choice (high in calories and lightweight), as is jerky (loaded with protein).
When trying to decide which foods you want to bring with you on your hike, head over to your local grocery store. Then peruse every single aisle, especially the instant dinner aisle, chip aisle, and packaged foods aisles. Examine the different food options and see what looks good to you, take note of what contains a lot of calories, fat, and/or protein, and start making a mental list from there.
Thru-Hiking Meal Ideas for 7 Days
Below are specific meal ideas for up to a 7-day food carry.
Breakfast: Instant oatmeal, loaded with dried fruit and nuts
Lunch: Tortillas with salami, mustard packet, avocado (or guacamole)
Dinner: Ramen with fully-cooked bacon, protein shake
Snacks: Chips, almond butters, Epic bars, chocolate bars
Breakfast: Two S’Mores ProBar Meal bars, trail mix
Lunch: PB&J tortillas
Dinner: Couscous with prosciutto, protein shake
Snacks: Jerky, gummy candy such as Watermelon Sour Patch Kids, Larabars, Fritos
Breakfast: Instant oatmeal, loaded with dried fruit and nuts, almond butter
Lunch: Tortillas with fully-cooked bacon slices, mustard
Dinner: Ramen with instant mashed potatoes, protein shake
Snacks: Cheez-Its, Epic bars, candy, Bobo’s granola bars, Spring Energy Gels
Breakfast: Biscuits and Gravy Mountain House meal
Lunch: Bagel and tuna packets with relish
Dinner: Pad Thai Good To-Go Meal, protein shake
Snacks: Jerky, almond butter, protein bars, cheese crackers, chips
Lunch: Tortillas with peanut butter and honey
Dinner: Chili Mac Mountain House meal, protein shake
Snacks: Fritos, cheese crackers, Clif bars
Breakfast: Two Blueberry Muffin ProBar Meal bars, trail mix
Lunch: Summer sausage, hard cheddar, and crackers
Dinner: Instant mashed potatoes, chicken packets, protein shake
Snacks: Trail mix, peanut butter pretzels, chips, Spring Energy Gels
Breakfast: Breakfast Skillet Mountain House meal
Lunch: Bagel, chicken packets, mustard
Dinner: Mushroom Risotto Good To-Go meal, protein shake
Snacks: Larabars, granola bars, fruit leather strips, candy
Determining Your Overall Food Strategy
You’re going to be presented with a couple of resupply options during a thru-hike – Mailing yourself resupply boxes, resupplying in towns at grocery stores, and resupplying at gas stations.
Sometimes your only option will be to mail yourself a resupply box or to head over to the local gas station, making your choice easy. But what about the other times when you have to choose? How do you know which option is best?
While this is ultimately a personal preference, most people would probably agree that resupplying at a gas station is not ideal. The food options are extremely limited and they can be expensive. It’s also easier to resupply at a grocery store than to mail yourself food since grocery stores have endless food options. Plus you don’t have to deal with the pre-trip bulk food purchasing, packaging, and labeling.
If you have specific dietary needs and there are particular food items that you can’t find at a general grocery store, then your best bet will be to do a combo of mailing yourself the food you need and buying the remainder in town.
Finding Cheap and Affordable Thru-Hiking Food
If you’re looking to save money on backpacking food, you’ll want to avoid pre-packaged dehydrated meals (or make your own) and stick with instant mashed potatoes, ramen, chips, and basically anything from the snack aisles of grocery stores. The good news is that the thru-hikers diet is mainly junk food anyways, and that tends to be less expensive in general than organic food items from a local market.
Another option you have is shopping for your resupply meals at Trader Joes, Costco, and grocery outlet stores. These places tend to have more budget-friendly options.
Healthy Food Ideas
Eating healthy foods while thru-hiking is challenging, to say the least. Going to town is your chance to stock up on healthy foods. When you order a pizza, add a salad to it. Try to load up on veggies as much as you can. If you’re craving healthier foods while on the trail, try nuts such as almonds, cashews, and macadamia nuts.
You can even try adding oatmeal with flax seed to your meal plan or packing out bagged salads on the first day or two of your hike.
There are also different gels designed specifically for endurance activities, such as Spring Energy Gels, that are made with more natural foods like rice, apple sauce, cinnamon, banana, and other ingredients.
You’ll also need to redefine what “healthy” means. When you’re hiking every single day, 10 miles or more each day on often challenging terrain, healthy means getting enough to eat. Make sure you’re getting the calories, fats, and protein you need (and eating often) so that you can feel physically and emotionally strong during your adventure.
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Carly Moree is the Owner & Founder of Rocky Mountain Hiking Company. She was the first woman to attempt the men’s unsupported record on the 223-mile John Muir Trail/Nüümü Poyo. She is the co-author of the popular thru-hiking book Pacific Crest Trials, and has hiked and run thousands of miles on trails, including the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, both the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. Her work is featured in REI and Larabar and she is the co-host of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s podcast Unlikely Stories.