A lot of potential hikers want to know, what do you eat on the PCT?
Once you really get in the groove on the Pacific Crest Trail you’ll be hiking big miles and gaining a lot of elevation on a daily basis. This has the effect of making you feel like a machine, but a more immediate effect would be that you feel like a giant stomach on two legs.
Your appetite will be insatiable, and your metabolism lightning fast. In town, you can gorge yourself sick at an all you can eat buffet (if you’re lucky enough to come across one), and be ready to go for another round in about an hour.
Yes, being a literal beast and eating so much with so little consequence is amazing. In town, that is. On the trail, your hunger is even worse, yet you don’t have access to restaurants or grocery stores. Thus the hiker hunger conundrum.
Here’s what to eat on the PCT everyday so you can put in your miles everyday while not wasting away (at least not too severely).
Get Those Calories
Before you begin to look at the finer details of the thruhiker diet, you need to ground your knowledge with a master class in food energy, aka calories.
Most hikers hike at 20 miles or more per day, with a pack that’s anywhere between 15-35 pounds when full of food and water, a pace between 2 and 4 mph, and elevation gains anywhere from 1,500 – 7,000 feet per day. You need at least 2,000 additional calories, on top of the standard “2,000 calorie diet” that you see on nutrition facts on food packaging.
In one section of the Sierras, we hit the trail with two bags of awesome Trader Joe’s trail mix (about 1,500 calories per package) sent in a care package from home. We went through one bag per day like it was nothing. That’s 750 calories each, and less than 20% of our daily energy needs if you go by the rough 4,000 estimate.
If you’re out for 5 days, that’s about 20,000 calories of food you need to be carrying. For the average hiker with the average sized pack full of necessary gear like a tent, sleeping bag, rain jacket, etc., 20,000 or more calories of food is a bit difficult to fit in there. You’re usually running at a deficit. And as I have to explain to many, the more food you try and bring, the heavier your pack weighs and the larger your caloric requirements become. It’s an asymptote on the graph of hiker hunger.
Especially in the Sierra Nevada mountains, bear proof food containers are a requirement, and a large BearVault (the most popular bear proof container) holds 11.5 liters. Even when you really cram your food in there, it’s a lot less than you think, especially with hiker hunger over the course of several days. This is why hikers tend to swing for the 100 calories per ounce rule.
100 calories per ounce
The best hiking and backpacking food is dense and has a lot of calories. Think trail mix, nut butters, and especially: junk food. Ramen, candy, Pop Tarts. I bet you could fuel your entire hike quite well off of instant ramen and Snickers and Twix. Plus, those things are all delicious.
We got a lot of push back from family who were horrified by what we’d be eating. Looking back after having actually walked the PCT, I can say they had good intentions but zero experience or knowledge of what we were about to do. It’s nice to wake up everyday with a cup of hot water and lemon and munch on fruits and vegetables so you feel healthy and “refreshed,” but thruhiking is the complete opposite of refreshing and/or daily life. You simply cannot subsist on a 2,650 mile backpacking trip on healthier foods that tend to be heavier on “nutrients” and lighter on calories.
Take your thruhike as an opportunity to enjoy the most unhealthy food available to you and that you can carry- because at the end of the day, when it comes to the effects the hike will have on your body, a diet of processed foods is the least of your worries.
Now that you get just how much you’ll need to eat, it’s important to look towards the kinds of calories you’re consuming, especially the longer the hike goes on. Carbs are a necessity, but too much refined carbs and sugar and you’ll start to feel like shit, to put it mildly. There is a profound and penetrating feeling of sadness that comes with trying to sustain that level of activity on just sugar. Believe me, I have been there, and it is unpleasant.
Not only do fatty foods pack more calories per ounce, but they sustain you for longer. Take care of your body and give it the fat calories it needs foremost and treat sugary snacks like an energy boost.
Nuts and animal products are your best source of dietary fat. Unless you’re allergic to nuts, you’ll be eating your weight many times over in those, so it’s really a question of getting meat and dairy on the trail.
As a vegetarian, I found trail food to be convenient and mostly meat free. If you’re one of the types that “can’t live without” meat, you’ll be going out of your way to supplement it into your diet, as most non-perishable meat products aren’t particularly tasty. Dairy products present a similar problem in an environment completely without refrigeration.
Even so, we went out of our way to secure dairy products, not only because we needed the fat but because we love those foods. Cream cheese can usually keep for a day or two, which is plenty of time for a hungry hiker to consume it. Hard cheeses are worth every penny- they keep for much longer, provide plenty of fat and calories, can be eaten a variety of ways and let’s be honest, are heaven in your mouth with every bite.
If you’re a meat eater, cured sausages and the like will usually keep for longer. Some hikers carry olive oil with them on the trail (I’ve even seen some with butter) and add it to their food to get the necessary fat intake.
What about protein?
I’m no nutritionist, but I feel better when I get both fat and carbs in my system. I’ve heard a few hikers mention eating protein bars- but these usually suck and are low carb for the weight-cutting, muscle-building crowd. Most of your trail foods should have the necessary amount of protein, which people drastically inflate anyway.
And apparently in high alpine environments, lots of protein is actually bad for your body. So says the elite Marines mountaineering instructor for the US Special Forces that gave us a ride into Lake Tahoe.
What does he eat when he’s way up there? Lots of ramen.
I can’t make this stuff up.
What to Eat on the PCT: Your Food Supply
So what kind of food do you actually eat when you’re out on the trail? After a good amount of trial and error (or trail and error, lol!!!), we’ve found our major hiking food groups:
- Nuts. Mixed nuts, trail mix and nut butters (i.e. Nutella)
- Tortillas. Yes, they are their own hiking food group, and for good reason: tortillas are convenient, calorie dense, and taste great by themselves or with other hiking foods. Eat them alone or slather them with nut butter, wrap up a slice of cheese or turn your dinner into a burrito. Voila! Easy, tasty calories. By the end of our time on the trail, several slices of cheese wrapped in a tortilla plus a tortilla slathered in Nutella was our go to meal for breakfast and any major snack. Our recommendation is to never be without them on the trail, they were that much of an essential food.
- Freeze Dried Meals. You don’t have to eat these all the time, and frankly, they can get expensive, but Mountain House and backpackers pantry are so easy and delicious, they’re hard to pass up. Make sure you’re getting fat from other sources, as dehydrated meals tend to be loads of processed carbs (and not worth the money, in our opinion).
- Instant Mashed Potatoes. Say hello to your new dinner for the next 4 months. It’s hard to find a hiker who isn’t carrying instant mashed potatoes on the trail. These are cheap, hearty calories and a full bag of them will fill you up. The Idahoan brand comes in a variety of flavors, and though they are all kind of bland, it isn’t hard to spice them up a bit.
- Ramen. I have always loved instant ramen noodles, and eating tons of it on the trail didn’t sway me at all. Ramen is a great trail food: it has a lot of calories per ounce, is cheap, has plenty of salt, is tasty and cooks up into a hot meal in no time. I much prefer ramen to instant mashed potatoes because I think it has more flavor, but to each his own.
- CANDY. Your instant energy booster/pick me up/mood adjuster. Snickers. Twix. Big Hunk. M&M’s. Pop Tarts (I think we can all agree, Pop Tarts are basically candy). Some kind of chocolate and peanut concoction with plenty of sugar is an instant pick me up on the trail. Plus, they’re extremely easy to eat and convenient. Yes, I know refined sugar is bad for you, but keep in mind how sedentary thruhikers are not, and we can get away with eating a lot of crap with little to no consequences. Do yourself a favor and pack plenty of your favorite candies before you head out of town- you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll be reaching for them inside your food bag.
- Cheese. Just get a block of cheap cheese and nibble a few chunks off every time you take a snack break. If you want to be fancy with it, wrap some in a tortilla to get a good dose of carbs with the fat.
- Meat. For those people who “can’t be vegetarian.” Cured sausage is the way to go if you need your meat; I’ve seen plenty of hikers eating tuna packets, which seems silly as tuna is specifically a low calorie food. If you’re looking for meat products, go for ones that are high protein, high fat and high calorie, otherwise you’re just wasting precious space.
- Drink mixes. I love Lemon-Lime Gatorade, it makes funky tasting desert water taste great and gives me additional calories as well as salts. Hot chocolate became mandatory for us every night in the Sierras; we got to end our meal with some delicious chocolatey calories, while tucking into bed with a warm belly.
- Honey. Eat it alone or add it to hot tea, coffee, or oatmeal. Maybe add it to peanut butter and wrap that up in a tortilla: oh yeah. Honey sticks or honey packets are your best bet.
- Oil. Depending on the oil, you can just dunk whatever you’re eating in it; savory for olive oil, sweet for coconut oil. Warning: Don’t try to drink olive oil shots unless you have a stomach of steel.
Yes, this exists. And once real hiker hunger sets in, you’ll understand why.
You’ll notice that we didn’t specifically mention meals or recipes here. Aside from adding hot water to mashed potatoes, ramen or some Backpacker’s Pantry, there was never a time on the trail when we ate an actual meal. Our diet revolved around preprepared processed food, but more importantly, it revolved around a strict time table. We found it more important to make sure we were eating something at regular intervals, rather than stopping hiking at standard meal times.
But, everyone is different and it’ll be part of your journey to discover what your body needs and how to fuel yourself.
Trail Towns: A Calorie Oasis
Being in town is your chance to load up on all the amazing food you can’t get out there in the woods, but also to create a calorie surplus. I know this is starting to sound extreme, but just remember: hiker hunger (or a state of starvation).
One guy we’ve met on the trail said that he gained weight at the end of the Appalachian Trail. The longer he was on it, the more lethargic he felt because he couldn’t eat enough, so whenever he was in town he forced himself to eat about 4 times what he normally would so he could calorie up, so to speak. He was very adamant in telling Indiana to eat as much as possible in town.
For the most part, I would agree. In town, my stomach never growls like it does on the trail, so it can be hard to remember to eat as frequently. Make sure you do or you’ll be dead tired within a few miles back on trail.
Obviously, many hikers have their own strategies and these tips are just what has worked for us on the first 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Got more tips, comments on these or suggestions for what to eat on the PCT or how to tame hiker hunger? Please share them with us in the comments!