PCT food planning: overview
It should be of no surprise to anyone that walking the PCT from Mexico to Canada will require a lot of food. And by a lot, I mean truly massive quantities.
The food planning part of getting ready for the trail is … not fun. For me, at least. Some part of me knows it’s more important than which pack I’m using, or which brand of merino wool shirt I select, and knowing its importance brings out the inveterate procrastinator in me.
Not only do I have to decide what to bring or buy, but I have to figure out how much I’ll need or want each day. And then there’s the matter of getting the food to me on the trail.
Today I’ll talk about the first element: what types of foods I’ll eat while hiking the PCT. With that in hand, I’ll move on to calorie and nutritional planning, including the recommendations guiding my research, such as Dr. Braaten’s thru-hiker nutrition guide. Finally, I’ll cover the little issue of resupplying food along the way.
A quick note: food is such a personal topic, and I’m not a nutritionist, so please take this all as what I’m planning to do, and not what I think you should do. Who knows what you should do, besides you?
Dense and delicious
While planning my PCT food, I am keeping two principles in mind. I want my meals to be calorically and nutritiously dense, and I want it to be delicious enough that I don’t throw it all in the first hiker barrel I find.
Because I will be carrying all my food on my back, density is important; the higher the calorie to ounce ratio the food has, the more efficient that weight is. Olive oil, good (though messy, no?). Rice cakes, less good.
In addition, the more compact the volume of the food, the easier I can fit it in my pack. When it comes time to cram all the food into a bear canister going through the Sierras, this will be particularly important.
As for taste, I’m a fan of eating, and I’m hoping to find some balance between eating to fuel myself (through whatever is most efficient), and eating for enjoyment, i.e. deliciousness. Peanut butter is a high calorie food, but after Day 2 on the trail it tastes like mucky sand to me, so I will be avoiding it as much as possible.
Hobbit eating for fun and calories
So how do I put this together into an eating plan? Like a hobbit: lots of meals, including second breakfast. Keeping in mind how I like to get up and out of camp quickly, I’m aiming roughly for a meal schedule like this:
|PCT meals at a glance|
|AM snack (elevenses)||snack food|
|PM snack||snack food|
If you have been following along with my 2013 JMT journal, you may remember that this is basically how I ate during that 20 day hike. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?
Problem is, it was a bit broke.
I got ferocious hiker hunger by the end of that hike, and would prefer to avoid that this time around. Solution? Eat more calories. I also will be walking for more of the day on the PCT, which will require more calories. Instead of waiting to get to camp to have my dinner, I’ll eat it along the trail sometime late-afternoon or early evening, and then having another meal/snack when I get to camp and am ready to pass out.
I am also adding in another breakfast, so that I can munch as I get going in the mornings, and get some mileage under me before stopping for granola.
If I find I need more meals than this, that’ll be okay. My pack has belt pouches that I’ll be sticking food in to snack as I walk, so that I won’t have to choose between eating and keeping going.
Snacks and bars and meals, oh my!
If 3 out of 7 meals are “snack food”, what falls into that category, and the others, for that matter?
Oh, lots of stuff. I have been trying out various foods for the last few months, and along with foods I liked during my JMT hike (and at home), I’ve got a variety to work with:
Snack food: This is where I’ll get the most variety: salami, jerky, Snickers bars (too candy to go in the Bar category), dried fruit (for vitamins & fiber), straight-up chocolate bars, non-peanut nut butters, fig newtons, Cheez-Its, honey-roasted peanuts, corn chips, trail mix that’s mostly chocolate, and whatever else looks tasty and high calorie in my neighborhood hippie grocery store‘s bulk section.
Bar: Pretty much what it sounds like. Some brands I like so far include ProBar, Lärabar, MealPack & Pemmican, and Clif Bar. These are all spendy, so to spare my wallet I’ll be trying to keep these to a minimum.
Granola: Granola really packs a caloric punch, so I’ll be taking it for breakfasts again. I pick flavors by which has the highest calorie/oz ratio without too many little seeds (I’m not a fan of picking those out of my teeth), and I aim for a variety.
Whole milk powder adds more calories, though it’s surprisingly hard to find in Safeway or Whole Foods these days. If you go to your local Latino grocery (Mi Pueblo in Oakland is great) and ask for Nido, you’ll be set.
Rehydrated meal: This is the category I’m still tweaking the most. I’ll be doing a combination of bases like couscous and beans, with spices, corn chips and olive oil to complete the protein and add fat.
Fantastic Foods has a line of dehydrated beans that rehydrate in hot or cold water; I’ve got 8 types at home that I’m working through. So far the Refried Beans flavor is quite tasty. When I ate a lot of beans on the trail in 2012, I had frequent gas — I’m hoping a longer soaking time will mitigate that issue.
Good thing there won’t be anyone in a tent with me that I’d be dutch-ovening.
Live & learn
I tried out some foods last year that I didn’t end up liking on the trail. This year I won’t be bringing: peanut butter (too sticky), tortillas (too dry), or random chocolate bars (too waxy). I’ll also be skipping the cashew-heavy trail mixes (I always pick around the cashews), the Krave Jerky (strangely soft texture), and dried cranberries.
Unsulfured apricots are out. Dried peaches are out. Dried pineapple stays, but dried apples are on notice. They may make it in if they taste really spectacular between now and April.
Make your own?
In my daily life, I like to cook and make my own food. There are hikers who cook meals at home and dehydrate them, then vacuum seal their tasty creations. My understanding is that this can be more economical than purchasing ready-made meals like ProBars, and can also be a way for hikers with dietary restrictions to guarantee the suitability of their trail food.
While dehydrating my own food would certainly fit my desired trait of deliciousness, I start shuddering and shaking my head just thinking about it. Nope, nope, nope.
It would seem that my aversion to trail cooking extends to off-trail trail-related cooking.
Perhaps once I’ve managed a food plan once, making my own meals will seem a reasonable added step, but for now, I’ll stick with planning on dehydrated beans and energy bars.
Stay tuned for a look at how I’m doing my calorie planning, and how I’ll be doing my resupply on the trail.