I can say from experience that the two most common topics of conversation on a long hike are eating and pooping. While the latter should be somewhat self-explanatory, we asked four incredibly accomplished long-distance hikers—with a collective total of over 56,000 miles of hunger pangs under their ultralight belts—about the former to learn how they plan meals, which foods occupy their daydreams, and just how badly they’ve screwed up at chowtime.
JEFF “LEGEND” GARMIRE
In November, Jeff “Legend” Garmire became the second known person to complete the Great Western Loop. This nearly 7,000-mile route, created by adventurer Andrew Skurka, links a handful of long-distance trails across the west with almost 700 miles of cross-country travel in the deserts of Arizona and California. This isn’t Garmire’s only venture into the epic. He’s also an avid backcountry skier, has climbed every Colorado fourteener, and is one of a handful of people to hike all three Triple Crown trails within a calendar year.
Garmire, who earned his trail name after hitching into town to grab pizza for grateful fellow hikers, focuses on a high ratio of calories per ounce, goes stove-free and carries perishable foods when the conditions allow, and rotates food selections to keep his taste buds piqued. He also resupplies at grocery stores when possible, only mailing packages ahead if in-town options are slim. He suggests that people stay “flexible” when it comes to food planning for a long hike. “Your tastes and preferences will change as will the level of your appetite,” says Garmire. “While it is good to research things ahead of time, nothing can take the place of actually getting out there and finding it out for yourself.”
Biggest fail: I bought gluten-free tortillas on accident and they were very difficult to get down. Beyond that, I have often failed to buy enough food. I had a cocoa packet explode in my food bag. I spilled my freshly made coffee on a ten-degree morning, which was very tough. I once spilled my dinner on my sleeping bag, so I had a wet bag and a limited salvageable dinner.
Favorite snack: I like these small packets of flaming hot peanuts. Goldfish Crackers are always good, too. I really like things that are salty and I am always trying some new snack. I also eat a lot of pitted dates because they feel like a healthy dessert.
Deepest cravings: I think pizza and ice cream are my biggest cravings on trail.
Blacklisted food: Cold instant mashed potatoes. Warm instant mashed potatoes are totally different, but I avoid cold ones.
Town indulgences: French fries, tater tots, pizza, or ice cream. Or just whatever they are serving at a spot with WiFi.
Best trail magic: At Morrison Lake on the CDT 2018 (Great Western Loop), a hiker’s girlfriend drove their pickup out and made us all a breakfast egg scramble for dinner with all-you-could-eat chips and cereal. It is one of my favorites because it was so unexpected (I had only seen one person all day) and it was extremely satisfying.
ELSYE “CHARDONNAY” WALKER
Last July, Elsye “Chardonnay” Walker donned a pink tutu, scrambled atop the boulder-strewn summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT), and celebrated with a swig of her namesake beverage. She had already completed the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2015 and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) two years later; with those final steps in Maine, she likely became the first African-American woman to earn hiking’s coveted Triple Crown.
Walker, who is now a board member for the American Long Distance Hiking Association – West, insists that she’s the rare type who doesn’t suffer from “hiker hunger,” an insatiable gnawing at the stomach that seems to strike most long haulers after a few weeks. She does, however, focus on packing in calories throughout the day to keep herself fueled. Her advice to others? “Don’t over think it. Eat All The Things, then hike like you mean it.”
Biggest fail: When I didn’t camp near a water source, I only had instant potatoes and ramen for dinner. However, I’d already added strawberry flavor to the only water I had. Instant potatoes and ramen with strawberry water…why not? Not! Fail.
Favorite snack: Gummy bears. I can eat those ALL day.
Deepest cravings: Brussels sprouts, probably due the lack of veggies.
Blacklisted food: Spam.
Town indulgences: Roasted chicken, fried chicken, chicken fingers…basically, chicken.
Best trail magic: On a long, hot day we had seen multiple signs saying “trail magic ahead;” after a while, we figured we had missed it or it was a joke. But then we rounded a corner, and there in the shade was cold beer and Goldfish Crackers!!! Simple pleasures!
JENNIFER “ODYSSA” PHARR DAVIS
Jennifer Pharr Davis—“Odyssa” on trail—is a true multi-hyphenate. She owns an Asheville, North Carolina guiding outfit, Blue Ridge Hiking Company, and will launch a partner retail location this spring. She’s a prolific author whose latest book, The Pursuit of Endurance, offers a fascinating look at the physical and mental fortitude of ultrarunners and long-distance hikers. And she’s an in-demand public speaker, in no small part thanks to her designation as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. And how she got that designation? By logging miles (over 18,000 of them at this count—some of those while pregnant or hiking with toddlers!) around the world, including her iconic overall fastest known time on the AT in 2011, which made her the first woman to accomplish the feat.
Over the years, Davis has learned to prioritize nutrition in order to keep her mind and body happy while logging long miles, picking up fresh produce to supplement the dried and dehydrated kind. Still, she says, “Food is fuel. Getting enough calories is the top priority; once you figure out how to do that, then you can start to be more discerning about what types of fuel you use.”
Biggest fail: I pre-packed all my resupply boxes on my first Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I planned to cook dinner the entire way and some breakfasts, as well. The first week of my hike, I broke my stove and quickly realized that I much preferred trail life without cooking or cleaning dishes. I ended up wasting time, energy, money, and food by pre-packaging all of my resupply drops before leaving home.
Favorite snack: Dates stuffed with cheese and then wrapped in pre-cooked bacon. Mmmmm!
Deepest cravings: Avocados, chocolate milk, and Kettle Chips
Blacklisted food: At this point, most energy bars make me gag. There are only a few that I can still tolerate on trail.
Town indulgences: Salad, french fries, anything with butter slathered on it, fresh fruit, yogurt—oh, and definitely ice cream!
Best trail magic: Really, too many good ones to count. But the woman in Vermont who drove me to her house, let me sit in her hot tub, and then fed me homemade raspberry rhubarb pie probably takes the cake…or the pie.
LIZ “SNORKEL” THOMAS
Like Pharr Davis, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is also a public speaker, author (her book, Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike, covers the intricacies of long-distance hiking), and record-setting hiker—she claimed the women’s unsupported speed record on the AT in 2011. She’s also notched miles all around the world, including establishing urban hiking routes in cities across the United States and completing the first traverse each of Utah’s Wasatch Range and the Chinook Trail in the Pacific Northwest. Not content to rest on her trail runners, Thomas recently launched Treeline Review, an almost freakishly thorough gear review site for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes.
Thomas is a bit more methodical than her contemporaries when it comes to trail grub, detailing her needs on a spreadsheet that estimates days between resupplies and food weight for each stretch. She prefers sending herself resupply boxes to avoid being overwhelmed at the grocery store, but cautions that appetites change over a long hike. “Stuff you think you want to eat when you’re planning is often not the stuff you actually want to eat in the field,” says Thomas. “Add a lot of variety and small amounts of many things as you’re starting out. That’ll give you an idea of what you really want to eat when you’re out there and not burden you with too much weight if you decide you’re not interested in eating something.”
Biggest fail: To save money, I buy a lot of food that’s passed or close to the expiration date. On the Sierra High Route, to motivate, reward, and celebrate getting to the top of a pass, I opened up a jerky bar at the top. The whole thing had turned bright green and fuzzy. I’m still getting over the heartbreak.
Favorite snack: Real food that isn’t dehydrated, freeze-dried, or dried. Over the years, I’ve eaten so many bars, nuts, and dried stuff on trail that on day hikes, I bring maki rolls and roasted sweet potatoes. If I can pack out a sandwich, cold pizza, cheese, broccoli, or an avocado as I leave town, it’s such a treat (even if it’s heavy). That stuff is too bulky and heavy to make up a full resupply, but definitely is a treat. Oh, yes—and chocolate bars. That never gets old.
Deepest cravings: Green stuff. Broccoli. Tomatoes. Not going to lie—beer.
Blacklisted food: Nutella. I learned I’m allergic to hazelnuts the hard way.
Town indulgences: Broccoli. Kombucha. Yogurt. Bananas. I’ll usually start there before the requisite beer, burgers, pizza, and ice cream that hikers are known for consuming.
Best trail magic: On the CDT, after an exhausting day in Yellowstone of worrying whether we’d make it outside of the park that day (we didn’t have a permit to camp in the park that night and had heard stories about a ranger out to catch CDT hikers), we finally made it to the park boundary right at dark. A work crew was fixing up a historic cabin there. They invited us over for a beef stew dinner and were so welcoming in a park where it had felt like thru-hikers didn’t belong. “Where you staying tonight?” they asked. We pointed 100 yards to the other side of a sign that said Park Boundary. “Great! Come over for breakfast!” That morning, they made us eggs and real sliced potatoes (not instant mashed) and hash. It fueled us for the next long stretch without resupply. More than the food, though, it made us feel welcome and our hearts were filled by their kindness just as much as our bellies.