Some 300+ miles into the Pacific Crest Trail, Indiana and our hiking buddies stopped into the town of Big Bear Lake for a night at the hostel and resupply. Before hitting the highway to hitch into town, we tried to push a 30+ mile day to make it to real food that much sooner. Our buddy Border Patrol was especially in favor of this idea. He wasn’t eating near enough as he should have been and so his every thought – which he frequently broadcasted to the group- was of some type of food in large quantities. This time it was pancakes.
We didn’t make the 30 mile day, but we did get into Big Bear the next morning and found that a local breakfast place had a pancake challenge. After his non-stop talk of eating them, we made sure Border Patrol would do it. I figured hiker hunger would slay any type of food challenge, and for the first couple of pancakes, he had it in the bag.
“These are so good,” Border exclaimed, dousing them with maroon boysenberry syrup.
Except these pancakes were huge, as wide and long as a standard size cereal box. He had to eat 6 of them in an hour. Still, we were optimistic. We were his cheerleading team.
On his third one he began to falter, and with every bite he grew noticeably more uncomfortable and disgusted with the pancakes. We cheered him on relentlessly, trying different tactics- army sergeant, encouraging, reward-offering.
By the fourth pancake it was obvious he wouldn’t make it, and I desperately searched on my phone under the table for competitive eating tips. “Ok drink lots of water! Drink water!” I thrust his water glass into his hands. “Don’t forget to breathe! Take deep breaths! Deep breaths!” But it was to no avail. Leaving a little more than 2 pancakes remaining, he threw in the towel.
After the challenge he headed straight for his bunk and lay on his back, motionless for several hours.
This wasn’t real hiker hunger. Not yet. Turns out it took much longer than the 300 miles to Big Bear to get my own case of the incurable hungries.
Hitting the 1,000 mile marker on the Pacific Crest Trail was a big accomplishment, and what did we want for a reward? Food, without a doubt.
Conveniently enough, we were headed into South Lake Tahoe for our next resupply, and we knew where there were casinos, there would be food.
Standing in line waiting for the Harrah’s buffet to open, we talked up how much food we were going to eat.
“Well, you know we’re probably deficient by like, 4,000 calories.” In anticipation of the Tahoe buffets we hadn’t eaten anything since the Backpacker’s Pantry granola at around 6:30 that morning. We’d only gone six miles that day, but by 4:30 that afternoon, waiting in line for the buffet to open, we felt as though we were wasting away.
“Dude. I can eat 4,000 calories for sure.” My eyelids were heavy and I felt I was probably slurring my words. “Even 6,000.”
“Ok, Michael Phelps.”
Once we paid and were seated we wasted no time filling up. Though we paced ourselves, we didn’t stop until about 3 plates of entrees each and a few desserts.
Indiana crashed about a third of the way through his cheesecake. I laughed as I sipped on surprisingly well-brewed after dinner coffee, but then felt how horribly full I was as soon as I stood up and hobbled away from the table.
Hunger, though annoying to deal with constantly, as we have been on the trail, definitely changes ones’ mental state. After finishing our buffet meal we noticed how reality seemed suspended. We both stared off into space, completely thoughtless. The activity and noise of the dining room and one another’s presence felt distant. We never felt like that on the trail…
Though our stomachs were tight and distended, it didn’t take long for our hiker metabolism to process it. Pre-hike, I would have felt awful for hours afterward.
What is Hiker Hunger?
It sounds like another silly trailism, but the struggle is real. Bottomless hunger that lashes out with pangs if not fed every two hours or so. You can eat but it never feels like you’re getting full. Some hikers are woken up at night with the urge to stuff their faces, and they do.
Eventually, somewhere within those 2,650 you get seriously hungry. For some people it starts a few weeks in. For me, the real hunger started in the Sierras, when I had a heavy pack and was climbing mountains all day long. I was eating double what I usually did, and I still never felt full.
It’s kind of sad really, because eating is one of the best parts of the day on a thruhike!