Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Food for the PCT

I got a request to write about my food for my 2014 hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, so here I describe my strategy for resupply, menu planning, my favorite meals and snacks.  All my food was no-cook/ stoveless, which is how I've been eating on the trail for a long time.  I prefer the simplicity and it saves me time.  Enjoy!

Maildrops vs. Buying in town
There are two general strategies for resupplying food on the Pacific Crest Trail.  You can mail yourself food (or really have your friend or family member mail it to you) or you can buy food in towns as you go.  I didn't know which I would prefer, so I planned a hybrid approach, preparing and dehydrating meals for about half of my stops, and figuring I could buy food in town the rest of the time.
Buying food in town.
This hybrid strategy turned out well for the first 940 miles before I had to get off the trail for the stress fracture.  They say sending yourself food works best for those with specific food requirements, and that's the case for me- I am hypoglycemic so that means I need more protein and fats with every meal and I'll crash if I get too much sugar.  The boxes of food that Still Waters and my parents sent me were filled with all sorts of delicious snacks from Trader Joe's, and whole-foods-type stores or International Markets, and dehydrated meals that I made from recipes I'd developed over the years.  More veggies, more nutrient-packed foods, less sugar.   So I found that I ate much better from my boxes than when I shopped in town where the choices were more limited. 

When I bought all my food in town, I found I had less variety, since there were fewer options in the small towns.  I mostly ate fresh foods like tortillas and cheese, but did pack out more veggies which was great.  But I had less energy when I ate the sugary foods common in convenience stores like pop tarts, hostess cakes, and candy bars.  It was a nice change once in a while, but I looked forward to my resupply boxes when I could get more variety.
Fresh tomatoes and green peppers taste delicious on tortillas.
Preparing and dehydrating meals for the trail
Last winter, I dehydrated many of my favorite winter meals.  These tasted great on the PCT.

When I was healing from the stress fracture, I prepared trail food for the second half of my hike while I was at Steph's house (Thanks again Steph!).  I had the advantage of knowing exactly what foods I wanted, and I could incorporate what I'd learned from the first 940 miles into my menu planning.  What I had learned was that I wanted to eat food that had flavors like I normally eat at home.  I also learned that the food I could make or buy myself was so much better than what I could find in towns.

I made meals by dehydrated a few ingredients and combining them with other ingredients that I ordered online.  I generally followed several recipes found on the Backpacking Chef website.  (Note: Below I only list ingredients, not amounts, because I didn't measure anything.  If you need a recipe, check out that website.)

I dehydrated rice that I'd flavored before dehydrating (see below) and also creamed corn to make corn bark.  I also dehydrated shrimp and deli ham.

I ordered pre-made dehydrated veggies (from Harmony House), freeze dried cheese, and freeze dried meat online to add to what I made.   
Mixing up dried veggies with other ingredients.
My favorite meals
The key thing was thinking up what dishes I like to eat at home, and then figuring out how to mimic those on the trail.  I love Indian, Mexican, and Asian food, so I took those as inspiration to create meals from the dehydrated ingredients I had.  

    -Green curry- dehydrated Trader Joe’s Green Curry Simmer Sauce over cooked jasmine rice, then added dehydrated shrimp and freeze-dried peas.
Dehydrating Trader Joe's Thai Green Curry sauce mixed with jasmine rice.
    -Corn chowder- dehydrated corn bark, dried corn and dried potato, nido milk powder, cheese powder, dehydrated shrimp or ham.

    -Sushi in a bag- dehydrated sushi rice (prepare sushi rice as you would for regular sushi by seasoning it with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt, then dehydrate it), dehydrated shrimp, dried cabbage, and broken up dried seaweed.  I'd put it all together in a bag, then add cold water. It wasn't rolled since that would have taken too much time, and the seaweed turned sort of mushy, but all the flavors were there and it tasted close enough for me.
Making "sushi" for the trail.
    -Fantastic foods tabouli- with added dehydrated corn, carrots, and peppers.

    -Tortilla soup- dehydrated corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, dehydrated refried beans, freeze dried  cheese, dehydrated beans, with fritos sprinkled on top.

    -Lime-cilantro rice with corn and beans- dehydrated rice with lime juice and cilantro, also added corn bark, dehydrated beef, and taco seasoning.
A favorite.
Meal plan
I followed a rough schedule for eating that involved frequent meals.  Breakfast at 5-6 AM, 1st snack at 8 AM, 2nd snack at 10 AM, lunch at 12, 3rd snack at 2 PM, 4th snack at 4 PM, dinner at 6 PM and evening snack right before bed.  Dinner was probably my smallest meal.  I felt more constant energy when I ate continuously and never had a big meal.  When I did fewer miles and didn't need as many calories, I skipped the evening snack.

Breakfast was always granola with nido milk powder and jerky or cheese sticks for protein.  I ate this every single morning and never got sick of it.  I mailed myself nido milk but bought granola in town.

Lunches and dinners were just-add-cold water meals.  Sometimes I had tortillas with cheese and pepperoni, or with peanut butter and dried fruit.  Because I am hypoglycemic, I always had protein with my meals in the form of cheese, tuna, nuts, or freeze dried meats.
Blue Yonder makes up some tortillas with peanut butter and dried cranberries.
Snacks were bars, pudding, dried fruit, dried veggies or veggie chips, or nuts.   Plus some protein like cheese or jerky at every snack break to avoid sugar spikes.  An equal number of sweet and savory snacks worked well.  The evening snack was usually peanut butter.  Salty snacks were especially important in the heat. High calorie snacks were really important in the Sierra.  We were all really hungry by that point, and needed extra calories in the cold and difficult terrain.
Snack break after crossing Forester Pass. Our shoulders are hunched over cause we are HUNGRY.
I didn't like bars as much as other people.  But they were easy to buy and carry so I still ate them sometimes.  Traditional bars were usually too sugary and boring, but made OK treats when paired with some jerky.  A few times other people gave me bars they were sick of like ProBars and these were great because I hadn’t had them before.  I liked bars that had higher calorie content like some of the protein bars, builder bars, and pemmican bars.  I also found a few unusual bars in natural food stores that were delicious and high fat (which was great!) like Halvah and Oskri coconut bars.
The key to bars is variety and not eating them too much. 
Dried fruits
I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy dried fruits and fruit leathers.  Especially tart and tangy fruits.  I didn’t dehydrate any fruit for the beginning of my hike because I thought dried fruit would be easy to buy.  I was wrong- all the dried fruit was too sugary and not nearly as good as my home dehydrated fruits.  (The exceptions are dried ginger which soothes the tummy, and Trader Joe's Mandarin oranges.)  So while I was healing from the stress fracture, I dehydrated bananas and made low-sugar fruit leathers (cranberry-orange and mixed berry were favorites).  I added yogurt to the fruit leathers to up the protein.  Most of the time I ate the dried fruit directly, but it was also delicious when I added cold water to it and let it soak and turned it into a “smoothie”. 
Dried fruit and fruit leathers.
Other sweet snacks
Instant pudding with nido powder and chia seeds.  Instant cheesecake mix.   Chocolate was also a very important thing to carry for chocolate-emergencies.  Tictacs and jolly ranchers for SoCal.
Don't forget the chocolate!
Dried veggies
Veggie chips were a favorite.  Also, wasabi peas and kale chips. 
Loved all things veggie.
Nuts and nut butters
Nuts were one of my favorite things in SoCal.  Then I got sick of them by the end of the Sierra.  Nut butter single serving sizes were good at the beginning, but once hiker hunger set in, I always carried a jar of nut butter.  One time I mixed nutella and chunky peanut butter half and half and it was divine, though probably had too much sugar for me but I didn't care at that point.
Nut butters.

I ate a lot of jerky.  Lightweight and packed with needed protein.  I loved Simply Snacking jerky strips.  Krave brand jerky (Pork black cherry barbecue) was another favorite.  Jerky was really expensive on the trail, so I tried to get it sent to me because it's much less expensive at Costco or online.

I usually carried a block of cheddar, but occasionally got something fancier like gouda.  String cheese was another favorite.

Drink mixes
EmergenC, gatoraide (low sugar), and any kind of drink mix packets added flavor.  These were especially good when water was scarce and I would want to “tank up” and drink a half liter (or a liter) at the water source to rehydrate. 
Drink mixes.
Fresh food
Packing out fresh food added nutrition and tasted delicious.  Things that held up especially well included apples, tomatoes, and carrots.  Other favorites to pack out included baked goods and hardboiled eggs.  Tortilla, cheese, and pepperoni was my standard lunch fare. 
Nothing like packing out a fresh apple.
To be honest, I didn’t do as much fresh food after the stress fracture because it tended to weigh more and it was more important to me to keep my pack weight down.  To make up for it, I did take more zero days and ate a lot on in town.

Final notes
The thing about food on the trail is that everyone is different.  Some people say they get more variety from buying in town, but I just saw they could get more variety of poptart flavors.  Read a lot of different blogs about food on the trail, and try to read between the lines to see what strategy fits your tastes.

My experience was hugely shaped by having to get off the trail due to injury.  I imagine I could have gotten sick of my food if this hadn't happened.  But then again, I had a lot of variety and a specific diet, so perhaps not.


  1. Thanks for the break down on your foods. There seems to be more variety and good eats than I would have thought for stove less meals. I'll have to give it a try.

    1. Thanks for suggesting this post, Tracy. I've been surprised too with the number of stoveless meal possibilities. And I forgot to mention all the couscous and ramen meals. Give them a try in the summer- cold food this time of year takes some getting used to...

  2. Always great to get more ideas! Thanks for the links too!
    Hugs to you,

    1. You're welcome. Always looking for more ideas myself. Variety is so important on the trail. Hugs to you too!

  3. Another great post with helpful information. I've added it as a link on my blog. One of the things I'm struggling with right now is how to combine driving trips with backpacking trips. I much prefer my home prepared meals, but found that in many places I can't leave food in my car at a trailhead while I'm out trekking (makes sense DUH!). Since I'm making decisions on the fly, it makes it impossible to send food ahead. Quite a conundrum~

    1. Oh shoot I wouldn't have thought of that difficulty of not being able to leave the food in the car. I'm assuming you mean because of bears, right? Let us know what solutions you figure out.

  4. Thanks for this post! Many of the blogs I've been reading push towards purchasing all food in towns. I also have dietary restrictions and am glad to hear another review of what is available in towns!

    1. I noticed this too about so many people recommending getting food in town. It doesn't work for everyone though, so glad this helped you with a different perspective.

  5. Excellent write-up, Joan. I will chime in here and agree that generally food you send to yourself is much better. I only prepared food for about a quarter of the trip and bought locally the rest of the time. It was definitely more expensive to buy food locally and the selection wasn't alway great but postage adds $12-$18 to the cost of sent meals so you have to figure that in. The bottom line though is that I did feel better fed with my sent boxes than when I lived off the economy and if I were to do it again I would make up boxes for most of the trip.

    1. Absolutely! It really did come down to how the food made me feel- how much energy I got and how satisfying it was. Thanks for adding your thoughts on this!

  6. Joan,

    Thank you for the comprehensive and practical post. I can't wait to try the "sushi" meal on my next and last section of the PCT, sniff.

    See you on the trail,
    Dana Law

    1. Hope you enjoy the sushi-ish meal! How cool that you are going to be doing your last section too! See ya down the trail...

  7. What an informative post.
    I can't imagine going totally no-cook but there are a lot of ways to cut back here. I like granola with Nido too and the best peanut butter I've ever had was on the trail. Just something about being out there.

    1. I transitioned gradually to no-cook. In the summer it makes lots of sense. It does help that all food tastes better in the outdoors.

  8. Great write up for food. I normally have a limited recipe book, but I am looking to increase it and your post has definitely done that. While, I'm not sure about the no cook transition, you have provided me with many tasty options. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Jarrett, glad I could provide some ideas for you. It's always nice to have some variety when you're on the trail. Enjoy!

  9. Hi, Joan!

    I'm planning a 2016 PCT thru-hike and am going to try and go stoveless as well. This post really helps me a lot! How did you figure out how much water to use to re-hydrate your meal? I know that a lot of the Backpacking Chef recipes call for boiling your water instead of cold soaking. Was it just trial and error or is there some great information you can pass on to me?

    Thanks for such a great blog!

    1. Sorry I just noticed I never replied...

      Trial and error. I added water 2-3 hours before I wanted to eat. Then about an hour later, I would check the progress of the food and see if I needed to add more water.