As hundreds of thru-hikers made their way through the Pacific Crest Trail’s Washington section this summer, The Daily Herald’s food reporter spoke to several about their diets — and what drove them to leave civilization for months on end.
SKYKOMISH — Pop-Tarts and beef jerky for breakfast could mean a few things: You’re hungover, you hit snooze seven times, you’re in desperate need of groceries.
Or maybe, just maybe: You’re a thru-hiker.
The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, takes hundreds of thru-hikers from Mexico to Canada every year. By the time they finish — if they finish — they will have climbed and descended more than 300,000 feet across 2,650 miles through California, Oregon and Washington.
A thru-hiker’s primary goal is to walk, so they must eat enough to power through 100 marathons over the next several months.
The hikers who arrived at Stevens Pass by mid-July were just 200 miles from the Northern Terminus at the U.S.-Canada border.
So to find out how they sustain themselves, I made my way to trailheads and towns where hikers often resupply. I found my first PCT thru-hiker outside a tiny motel in Skykomish, a small historic railway town that could serve as the backdrop to a Western film.
It was around 10 a.m., and Gator was snacking on a big bag of Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtator potato chips. (Gator, by the way, is her trail name, a rite of passage in the hiking community.)
On day three of a thru-hike, she said, your hunger will kick up a notch. After the first week or two, your appetite becomes insatiable.
For some, thru-hiking is an excuse to eat whatever you want, and with good reason: It’s not every day you burn 5,000 calories daily just from walking.
Hikers try to pack in 3,500 to 4,500 calories per day on trail, then go ham in town to maintain their body weight. It’s not rare for a thru-hiker to eat several hot dogs or a family-sized basket of fried chicken in one sitting. On the East Coast, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers gorge themselves on ice cream to conquer the infamous “Half Gallon Challenge.”
Hiker meals often resemble late night munchies: Honey Buns and king-sized Snickers bars are solid second breakfast options. Mix ramen with instant mashed potatoes — a “ramen bomb” — throw in some pepperoni, and you’ve got a carb-heavy dinner. For dessert, a tortilla stuffed with peanut butter, Chips Ahoy and Lucky Charms. Or buy a bag of powdered cookie mix, add water and you’ve got instant cookie dough.
On a thru-hike last year, Gator took a stove to cook her meals and resupplied mostly in town. This time around, she went the cold soaking route, meaning she steeps ramen, rice, beans and other dried foods in water for a few hours before consuming.
The method allows her to shave weight from her pack, but she also has to plan more in advance by shipping herself meals along the trail. The day I met her, she was waiting for the Skykomish Post Office to open. She’d mailed herself a box of meals and snacks for the next few days.
PCT hikers usually resupply every three to seven days. They filter their water at sources along the trail, sometimes hauling up to six liters, or about 1½ gallons, through desert stretches.
‘The lighter and faster, the better’
As Gator and I talked about the PCT and past trails, a bearded hiker came out to smoke a cigarette.
“What’s your trail name?” I asked as he sat beside us.
“Still Smokin’,” he replied gruffly, taking a drag.
Still Smokin’ was traversing the PCT alone, as he has done with other thru-hikes. He enjoys the solitude, the quiet, being away from people. When he’s working, he’s usually thinking about when he can get back on trail again. When I asked him what made him want to hike the PCT, he replied: “Get away from society for as long as I can.”
I drove Gator and Still Smokin’ a short way to the post office before dropping them off at the northbound trailhead, 15 miles east of Skykomish.
Their boxes varied. Still Smokin’ had what is considered standard thru-hiker fare: a big jar of peanut butter, instant oatmeal, tortillas, tuna packets, Sour Patch Kids.
Gator had more homemade meals like rice and beans, as well as vegan jerky and a colorful array of power bars. She was excited to find one with 350 calories (most bars contain less than 300), as it meant more energy in a smaller package.
Hunger can make hikers more emotional and prone to injury. Thirty miles south of Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT this summer, Gator tripped and fell 30 feet down a ridge. Luckily she was able to keep moving, as it would be a few days before she saw another human again.
One of the most soul-restoring parts of the trail are trail angels. They are rays of sunshine in a thru-hiker’s eyes, boasting hot dogs, ice-cold Gatorade, cookies, fresh fruit and chips right on trail. They’ll give you a ride into town or a warm, comfy bed, all for free. Just because they want to help.
On a warm day at Walker Pass, just south of Sequoia National Forest in California, Gator came across trail magic: a picnic table with a bunch of ice cream and several happy thru-hikers. Already stoked, she then spotted a pint of vegan ice cream, a dream for her lactose-intolerant body. It was still cold.
As thru-hikers often say, the trail provides.
After I dropped the two solo hikers off at the Stevens Pass trailhead, I found two young male hikers looking for a ride back into Skykomish. They’d just finished a difficult 107-mile section that cut through the Glacier Peak Wilderness. They took enough food for 4½ days. If I hadn’t picked them up, they might have walked 15 miles into town with no food.
“I generally prefer to pack for exactly how much you need. The lighter and faster you can move, the better” one of the hitchhikers said. “But today we literally had no food save for the last bar we just ate.”
The two were still figuring out how to sustain their momentum: Soda and Pop-Tarts provided them with a quick sugary burst of energy, but they’d inevitably crash soon after.
“I’m thinking we need more trail mix with nuts and healthy fats for slow-releasing energy,” one said to the other. “We also need protein so we don’t dwindle away to nothing.”
They met a southbound PCT hiker who consumes only two meals on trail: A trail mix with a specific ratio of carbs, fat and protein, and a homemade dehydrated powder with spinach, kale and blueberries — basically a meal replacement shake with added nutrients. It’s gotten him through several other thru-hikes.
During our conversation, I realized we hadn’t introduced ourselves. (Yes, I had two 20-something men in my car whom I’d just met. Sorry, Mama!) I asked for their trail names. They laughed, begrudgingly.
“I’m Tree Trunks,” one said, explaining that a fellow hiker pointed out that his legs looked like, well, tree trunks. The name stuck.
As for Fifty Shades, his is a story for another day.
From ‘wet and gross’ to ‘better food’
On her first backpacking trip in 2001, Aaron Owens Mayhew hiked in jeans, a long-sleeve cotton T-shirt and an ill-fitting 70-liter pack.
“I went into it totally unprepared, but I fell in love with the scenery,” the clinical dietician said. “At the same time I was like, this can’t be the way backpacking should be.”
She went with her boyfriend at the time, a military guy who brought MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) that Owens Mayhew remembers tasting “wet and gross.”
Over the next 15 years, she took on longer backpacking trips and swapped out her cotton clothes for quick-drying synthetics.
She used to think the pain, fatigue and general suckiness of her backpacking trips were normal.
“Once I changed my diet, I realized a lot of that was food-related,” she said.
As a dietician and long-distance runner, Owens Mayhew knew the importance of food for performance and recovery. She ditched the MREs for better-tasting — and more expensive — Mountain House dehydrated meals.
It wasn’t until a mid-life crisis in 2016 that she decided to take a leap: Owens Mayhew, 40 at the time, quit her clinical dietician job in Seattle to attempt the PCT, her first long-distance trail. She couldn’t afford Mountain House meals for five months straight, so she started tinkering in the kitchen and eventually developed a line of hiker-friendly recipes with plenty of fat, carbs and protein to fuel her journey.
She posted the recipes on Instagram, and soon after, Backcountry Foodie was born. Her ultralight backpacking recipe and meal planning business gives members access to recipes, forums, classes, nutritional breakdowns and more.
Since founding Backcountry Foodie, Owens Mayhew has section- and thru-hiked the Oregon Coast, Appalachian and Colorado trails. She makes sure her meal plans are diverse and easy to switch up, because “flavor fatigue is real.”
Her classes teach backpackers how to shop at the grocery store and meal prep for long trails. Dehydrated hummus and pasta are lightweight and filling, while carbs like couscous are quick-cooking. Not all hiker food needs to be dried or dehydrated: Dairy items like cheese sticks can be packed out, and you can bring fresh produce like avocado for the first day or two.
This year, Owens Mayhew only bought food from Dollar Tree while hiking the 400-mile Condor Trail in California, to prove hikers can eat well on a budget.
Her guiding principle: How would you shop for a meal at home?
“It’s about getting out of the mindset of, ‘Oh, it’s thru-hiking, so I’m going to eat Doritos and Honey Buns and Pop-Tarts,’” she said.
She likes to remind her clients that thru-hiking does not make for a sustainable weight loss plan or lifestyle, as most people don’t hike 10 to 30 miles a day at home.
“It actually makes me really sad because people use thru-hiking as a weight loss plan,” Owens Mayhew said. “Losing weight means you’re not fueling your body adequately. You lose fat, but you can also lose a lot of muscle mass. So if you’re not eating enough calories, that means you’re most likely using protein for energy that needs to be used for recovering your muscles.”
That catches up with hikers, some of whom have to leave the trail because they’ve become emaciated.
A nutrient-packed diet helps prevent health issues like muscle weakness and iron deficiency. That’s especially true for folks 40 and older.
“We don’t recover like we were in our 20s,” Owens Mayhew said. “We rely on better food. I won’t say that the traditional hiker diet is bad, because it works for some people, but if you’re looking for higher performance, you need a better diet.”
‘My last hike’
Thru-hiking is a world in which its citizens lovingly call themselves “hiker trash.” They exchange war stories of waterlogged tents, sudden lightning storms on bare ridges, long patches of sweltering desert with no water for 30-plus miles.
Like any life-altering journey, your biggest obstacle on trail is often yourself: Can you handle carrying a 30- to 50-pound pack up and down mountains for months on end? Can you tolerate long stretches of monotonous, mind-numbing and spirit-crushing terrain? How about the freezing nights, the blistering sun with no tree cover for miles, rain for days on end, the mosquitoes and black flies that’ll find you and tell all their friends? Are you ready to experience culture shock in your own body after finding out how bad you can really smell, out there, with no shower for another week? To be away from your loved ones and sleep alone on the darkest of nights? Get a nasty toe infection, no dry sock or antibiotic in sight?
The trail does not care about your suffering. Your body and mind will break down during this journey. You’ll likely cry and scream and let your animal out and that’s OK. You’ll unearth the ugliest and most beautiful parts of yourself.
Human suffering has its rewards — sometimes it is just enough to carry you through to the Northern Terminus.
When it did, he pulled a pizza from the oven as hungry hikers converged in the kitchen of the 90-year-old lodge. Manny had a long, graying beard and wore an orange zip-up hoodie and glasses. He grabbed a plate for me and insisted I have a slice.
After sliding round two in the oven, Manny and I pulled out a few boxes of Ghirardelli brownie mix, eggs and oil.
“In a way, this is going to be my last hike, because I think I’ve gotten out of the trail what I needed,” he said, mixing the batter into a dark, chocolatey sludge.
Manny is from Puerto Rico and calls anyone younger than him a Millennial. He’s hiked the Appalachian Trail and others in Spain, where he eventually plans to retire. He had lost 56 pounds on the PCT by then.
“Too much,” he said. “I’m burning the candle on both ends.”
So he took a few days to rest and bulk up at Guye Cabin, which gives weary hikers a place to recover, have a warm meal, resupply, shower and do laundry.
The trail, for Manny, is a way to reset and reframe his expectations. To embrace the bare necessities of a life well-lived. That goes especially for food: Burnt toast? Warm water? Flat champagne?
“I’ll have it the way it is,” he said. “It is magic for me to have food no matter how it looks.”
When you have gratitude for the meal in front of you, for the trail ahead, Manny said, everything else is gravy.
What two vegan hikers eat in a day
Isaac and Sarah Pitt traveled from Tasmania to hike the PCT this year. The married couple, who go by Greens and Dusty on trail, are both vegan. They rely more on fats and protein than sugar to sustain their energy throughout the day. Their main challenge is finding plant-based foods in smaller towns. (You can’t always score vegan ramen and ice cream at a tiny gas station.) Luckily, even the smallest town has trail mix and nuts.
The PCT is their first attempted thru-hike.
“Our holidays are usually based around a hiking trip or a climbing trip,” Greens said. “I’m not yet convinced thru-hiking is more enjoyable than shorter trails, but this is the only way to find out.”
Here’s how they fuel their hike the plant-based way:
Oats with vegan protein powder, dried fruit and chia seeds, flaxseeds or hempseed mix.
A Builder Bar for an easy and filling meal that contains 20 grams of protein.
Mixed nuts, vegan bars (they enjoy Luna Bars).
A mix of greens powder, essential nutrients like amino acids and water.
Ramen with added sunflower seeds, peanut butter or couscous, and textured vegetable protein. Dehydrated meals about once a week.
Peanut butter and chocolate spread; a chocolate protein shake with dehydrated coconut milk for extra calories.
A Japanese curry ramen bomb: Add a Japanese curry cube to ramen, along with textured vegetable protein and instant mashed potatoes ramen. Top with crispy jalapeno flakes.
When you’re in town, pack out fresh food for the first day back on trail: Even in the heat, a bag of baby spinach will last 24 hours and can be added to just about anything.