Joe’s note: This post was authored by Katie, my adventuring partner-in-crime, crew chief and wife. She loves spending as much time outside as possible whether it is hiking, camping, running, or biking. She recently made a big career move inspired by her own struggles with Crohn’s Disease and nutrition management, and is now headed back to school to become a Registered Dietitian!
How many calories is it? How many ounces does it weigh?
These are the first two questions that typically come to mind when thinking about food planning for a thru-hike or fastpacking adventure. Over the years of helping Joe behind the scenes, the number one priority has always been maximizing calories per ounce, with a little bit of thinking also going into the mix of carbohydrates, fats and proteins making up his trail menu.
When Joe ran the AT in 2017 I remember hitting the grocery store snack aisles hard, looking for everything from the coveted pre-packaged blueberry muffin (a whopping 400 calories, jackpot!), Poptarts, Pringles – you name it. Contrary to my coworkers’ assumptions, I was not headed to a 9-year old’s slumber party – I was mailing this garbage to my husband as he put his body through hell trying to accomplish the ultimate endurance feat. It definitely doesn’t feel awesome sending your loved one off with what can be objectively classified as trash, but maximizing calories was the goal… and it seems this plan worked!
The reality is, however, that most of us who love getting outdoors, hiking long days, and spending time in remote places can’t actually subsist on Pringles, Poptarts, and Oreos. Five years ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and as such, my health has to be a priority for me and I have to get creative with my trail diet – junk food won’t cut it.
As if going on a multi-day backcountry trip wasn’t difficult enough, it can be even more intimidating if you have a medical condition or eating preferences that restrict your food choices. Despite those constraints, we were able to plan a successful and delicious nutrition plan for our thru-hike of the 210-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) and are sharing the process below with the hope that it will help others do the same.
My Pop-Tart Free Diet
These days, it seems like individual dietary needs are the norm. I’m likely biased, but I don’t see this as negative; I think it is actually great. As athletes and adventure-seekers, we have to know what works for our bodies, and we can challenge the traditional junk food thru-hiker diet to better fuel for anything from a big training run to high-altitude mountain pass. After much experimenting with different treatments and strategies, I finally found a dietitian-prescribed anti-inflammatory diet that seems to be working. It’s fairly similar to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and is basically a whole-foods diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meats.
For my health, I feel best when I avoid:
- Gluten (aka crackers, bread & cookies)
- Rice & Grains (other than oats)
- Processed food & sugar (limited maple syrup/honey are ok)
- Starchy Potatoes
- Highly processed/fatty Meat (salami, steak, etc.)
- Dairy (other than hard, low-lactose cheese like cheddar/parmesan)
A lot of the food and recipes I make are paleo-friendly foods, but also my diet also has components of the Whole-30 and Keto diets. In normal life with constant access to a grocery store, this is actually pretty easy to adhere to, but maintaining this on trail is a little tougher. (Note: I don’t necessarily recommend this exact diet for folks without intolerances or IBD – more restrictions doesn’t equate to healthier!).
For years Joe and I have wanted to do a thru-hike together, but one of the biggest obstacles has been food and the chronic pain/distress that comes along with Crohn’s Disease. This summer, however, we finally received a coveted permit for the JMT and decided to go for it. I was pumped to finally be getting in on the adventure, but it quickly dawned on me that the spreadsheets, gear analysis, and trail mix prep wasn’t where my involvement would end this time as it has on so many other trips. Heck yeah! But… the food question. How was I possibly going to hike ultra-light without being able to eat a bunch of the aforementioned “tried and true”, calorie dense (yet nutrient deficient) snacks?
The Planning Phase
A couple weeks before we left, we embarked on an extensive food-planning journey. The spreadsheets were intense, and the tables were messy (see above).
My top-5 recommendations for planning and preparation on a restricted diet are:
- Calculate calorie needs and plan out your meals/snacks. This is something that should be done on any backpacking trip, but it’s particularly important if you are hiking with dietary restrictions. It could be really easy to underpack and run out of calories. We calculated our daily calorie needs using guidance from Andrew Skurka’s Online Planning Course recommendations, 3,500 for Joe and 2,250 calories for myself. We then input breakfast and dinner meals for each day with calorie and weights broken out. A key piece was figuring out how many more calories we would each need to get each day via snacks. Rather then going nuts (well, we definitely went “nuts” for snacks) and deciding which snacks would be eaten each day, we just made sure that we had enough total snack calories in that particular resupply (we had 3 resupplies total) to cover the deficit.
- Make your own meals. The large majority of folks we met on trail were eating pre-packaged dehydrated meals from Mountain House and Backpacker Pantry. I’ll admit, there were certain days that I was jealous of our new friends eating Teriyaki Chicken and Beef Stew, but with dietary restrictions, these meals wouldn’t work for me; they generally had at least one ingredient that I avoid. There are some new healthier prepackaged products, but these tend to max out around 400 calories (which is not going to cut it when you’re hiking 15 miles with a 30 pound pack at altitude day after day). Not to mention, these are EXPENSIVE and actually not all that calorie or space efficient. Ordering the freeze-dried foods and bagging everything is time-consuming but very much worth it to maintain nutritional quality and maximize efficiency. We planned things out by day to ensure that we had the appropriate sauces to go with the meals while minimizing the number of sauces we carried in each resupply.
- Take existing backpacking recipes and manipulate them to fit your needs. Rather than starting from scratch, we took a few of Andrew Skurka’s famous backpacking recipes and put a twist on them to fit my needs. For example, we took the beans and rice recipe and substituted in regular rice called for with Trader Joe’s Chickpea & Lentil Rice. It is pretty dang good and actually cooks pretty fast (~10 minutes of simmering). This method meant that we weren’t reinventing the wheel, and we had some assurance that they would be tasty! We also tested each recipe out once at home to confirm how much we could fit in the pot to ensure accurate calorie counts and calculations.
- If you can tolerate them, incorporate nuts into everything. Since most highly-processed, calorie-dense snacks weren’t an option for me, nuts became a central source of calories. They’re both healthy and extremely calorie efficient per ounce. We had nut butter in our breakfast and usually incorporated it into dinners. We’d also snack on trail mix and some delicious TrailButter during the day to keep us energized.
- Hit Costco hard. I was pretty excited to find out that Costco had some great options that fit my needs in terms of snacks and products. We ordered all of our freeze dried food and coconut milk powder (which is also extremely calorie efficient per ounce) online. Mother Earth Products supplied all of our dehydrated needs & we also used Vitacost, but with the exception of a few Trader Joe’s products, the majority of our food came from Costco. Shoutout to Joe’s Mom, Mary Ann, for her membership and saving us some $$!
Everyone is different when it comes to breakfast on trail – some people gotta have it and others can coast on a granola bar until lunch. I had a hunch, but confirmed that I am 100% a person that needs to eat breakfast. The hardest passes for me were the ones that we tackled first thing in the morning without eating many calories before taking off.
We decided to have real breakfast every day, but knew that firing up the stove and going the whole 9 yards to make a hot breakfast would be time consuming and we didn’t want to have to carry more fuel. We ended up opting for 2 nutritious, filling options:
- Coconut Porridge (this required the stove, only did it about 4 times on trail)
- Overnight Oats
The overnight oats were chock-full of calories, prepared the night before, and didn’t require stove usage. Each night, after dinner, we’d pour our pre-portioned baggie of overnight oats into our pot, add water, and put it in our bear canister for an overnight soak. In the morning, we’d add the honey & trail butter. Highly recommend if you are an oatmeal person.
- Old Fashioned Oatmeal
- Chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc.)
- Chia Seeds
- Coconut Powder
Snacks / Lunch
Tortillas filled with everything from beef jerky, to peanut butter, to tuna are really popular for lunch on trail. Since tortillas weren’t an option, we opted for a wide-variety of snacks. Instead of having one big designated lunch midday, we’d typically have a late morning snack and a mid-afternoon snack (and then just eat any other time we were hungry, honestly). The key was to have a decent variety of options available, and a mix of textures.
I did a lot of research on this front and got ideas from my dietitian for minimally processed foods that would stay fresh and still fit into my diet. An incomplete list of the snacks we took:
- Larabars – these are minimally processed and are made with only fruit and nuts
- Paleo Bars (can be bought on Amazon or at Costco)! These things are small, calorically dense, and pretty tasty!
- Made-at-home Trail Mix (combo of almonds, walnuts, dates, raisins, cashews, etc.)
- Crispy Crunchy Chickpeas (can also be bought at Costco!) These are pretty dry, still can’t determine if I loved ‘em. But nice to have something salty and they’re pretty efficient.
- Coconut Banana Bites – literally just coconut and banana and very delicious
- Dates on their own! This was a great contrast to the drier snacks
- Dried Mangos
- Rx Bars
- All the TrailButter
- Plantain Chips (these are from Costco and are fairly minimally processed!)
- Simple Mills Almond Crackers (you can buy in bulk from Costco, which I recommend because these are $$. Very much worth it though for backpacking, IMO.)
Since we were making our own dinners and some required sauces, we decided to go with 4 main dinner meals to avoid overcomplicating things. We figured we would change it up each night to avoid eating anything too many times in a row.
The meals we picked were:
As mentioned, these were Skurka classics, so we knew they were well tested. In each dinner, we made some substitutions to adhere to my needs. Whenever the recipe called for ramen noodles, we subbed in red-lentil noodles, or when instant rice was the ingredient, we used chickpea/lentil rice. This process was actually incredibly easy since these recipes are already quite healthy and natural.
Post-Trail Food Reflections
Here’s what worked for us food-wise on this trip:
- Overnight oats worked wonderfully and provided a needed break from nuts/fat heavy food sources. Non-perishable sources of fats are pretty easy to incorporate to my diet and most healthier diets. My carbohydrates typically come from fresh produce, so I find it really challenging to find trail-friendly sources of carbs. Oatmeal is a perfect way to get both soluble fiber and and a great solution to the carb challenge.
- More salt would have been nice. A less-processed diet means that it can be harder to find sodium-heavy snacks. I was really happy we had the chickpeas, almond crackers, and plantain chips, but we should have opted for salted nuts in some of the trail mixes.
- Our dinners were delicious, calorically dense, and very satisfying. I’d probably mix in a fifth meal next time for slightly more variety, but we surprisingly didn’t get too sick of things.
- I felt really good for the majority of the trip – minimal GI distress! The last few days were iffy, which I’d attribute to the high altitudes at which we were hiking and sleeping. For those days, I had to really listen to my body and adjusted a few of the dinners (skipped the curry sauce to make the dish a little more plain, etc.). I felt totally fine once we got off Whitney! If you’re backpacking with IBD, doing your best to stay ahead of things and just listening to your body (as always) is, of course, key.
Of course, the JMT/Nuumu Poyo was an incredible experience. It was absolutely beautiful, challenging, and something I will remember for the rest of my life. And as for the food…. I’d say it went really well! We really enjoyed what we brought, had enough with us, and felt like we had reasonable variety.
Menu planning for a thru-hike is an art, with the goal being to strike a balance between competing priorities (low pack weight, calorie count, nutritional quality, and if you are like me, avoiding GI distress). The good news is that there are some tricks and products out there that have made this very doable. So whether you are paleo, celiac, Crohn’s, nut-free, or just straight up picky, there is a way for complete a thru-hike… it’s probably just going to take a little more planning and effort! 🙂 Don’t let this be the thing that holds you back!
If anyone wants to talk trail diet, anti-inflammatory recipes, or IBD, reach out! My instagram handle is @kkmcconaughy (and hopefully at some point I’ll actually ramp up my nutrition focused account @katiemccrohnzone44).
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