What Thru-Hikers Eat on the Appalachian Trail

We took a peek inside their packs and had a nutritionist grade their choices

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Photo: Scott Martin

It’s lunchtime at the Caratunk Hostel, located just shy of Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers pour in, half-starved. Hostel owner Paul Fuller hands out his legendary pulled-pork sandwiches and thick milkshakes. The hikers come back for seconds, thirds, and fourths, ignoring the plate of cucumbers and cantaloupe Fuller keeps hawking.

“I’m constantly trying to get fruit and veggies into these guys,” says Fuller. “But it’s always the last to go.”

An avid hiker himself, Fuller has learned thru-hikers’ common preferences over the years. His hostel has become an oasis on this section of the trail, which is short on grocery and convenience stores. The hostel store carries all the backpacker favorites: Pop-Tarts, instant mashed potatoes, energy bars, and luxury items like dried mushrooms and cherries.

We hung out at the hostel on a recent Saturday to see how thru-hikers were fueling their attempt on the 2,200-mile trail. The northbound hikers we met here had been at it for months, and the southbounders were just getting going, but both were finding it hard to stay fed. Hikers regularly spend eight or even ten hours on steep and rocky terrain each day to get in their miles, burning somewhere around 4,000 calories a day.

How well are they doing? We asked Anne L’Heureux, a registered dietitian and an endurance athlete who counsels hikers on nutrition, to weigh in on their choices and offer the rest of us some practical tips for getting down the trail, which starts with eating food that helps the body fuel and recover, packs easily, and tastes good.

Photo: Scott Martin

Stephanie White, 31

Northbound thru-hiker averaging 15 to 20 miles a day

“The past few resupply towns have been really bad—no supermarkets, just a couple of rural gas stations. Normally, I’d be eating oatmeal, deluxe trail mix, lentil soup, that sort of thing. Instead I’ve been eating a lot more junk food and ramen than I would like.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: A-

L’Heureux says: “Stephanie scores major points for nutrient-dense foods like nuts, dried fruit, and lentils. Her daily multivitamin is a great supplement, too. But with an ambitious goal of 15 to 20 miles a day, she needs to add more protein to maintain muscle repair. Meat sticks, pepperoni, and packets of chicken or tuna should be on her grocery list. Mixing protein powder into her morning oatmeal would also help.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Laura “Moxie” Fleming, 27

Northbound thru-hiker averaging 13 miles a day

“I’m all about the carbs right now: Pop-Tarts, graham crackers, and instant mac and cheese are totally my thing.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: C

L’Heureux says: “Moxie scores points for her use of Dandy Blend, an herbal beverage made from dandelion, chicory root, beetroot, barley, and rye grains, as a coffee alternative. It tastes like coffee but offers a wider range of nutrients. She has a few good options for caloric density but should add in more whole foods to support a strong immune system. Swapping in dried fruit in place of fruit snacks would increase her grade. Protein is also lacking—she should add in cheese sticks, jerky, and more nuts and seeds.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Joseph “Deep V” Zanca, 29

Northbound thru-hiker averaging 14 miles a day

“I’m a vegetarian, which can be tricky on the trail. I try to stick with vegetarian proteins like primal jerkies and peanut butter.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: B-

L’Heureux says: “Deep V is doing a good job of making sure protein is on his menu, and McCormick Perfect Pinch seasoning helps replenish his sodium needs and guarantees his trail foods pack a flavor punch. Add a few dried fruits to the mix, and he’s on his way to a perfect grade. He could also consider swapping out some of his pasta sides for quinoa, which is a complete protein.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Cheryl “Tigerlily” Fleetwood, 52

Northbound thru-hiker averaging 13 miles a day

“I started out eating dehydrated meals I made myself, like pasta or chili. But I sent my stove home because I didn’t like the extra weight. So now I’m just eating everything at room temperature and not cooking anything. I also take turmeric and a multivitamin for women over 50 each day because, you know, middle age.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: A

L’Heureux says: “Tigerlily has some awesome foods on her list. Spinach wraps add a bit of veggie to her day, oats provide whole grains, and her tuna offers healthy fats and protein. But by restricting herself to foods at room temperature, she has fewer options for getting protein. Beans might be a better add than all the protein bars. Also, instead of opting for tuna packed in water, try tuna in olive oil for added omega-3’s and more calories for trail energy. Her use of turmeric and an age-specific multivitamin are great for maintaining her baseline health.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Rebecca Gast, 27, and Marvin Kassabian, 26 

Southbound thru-hikers averaging 17 miles a day

Kassabian: “I am half Thai, so a lot of our food represents that culture. Rebecca’s a much better hiker than I am, so we load her pack up with all the food.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: A+

L’Heureux says: “This power couple has it all figured out! Nutrient density is the name of their game, with options such as mixed nuts, mung beans, superfood bars, chickpeas, and quinoa. Their beverage enhancers of Nuun tabs and Mio both help replace the spectrum of electrolytes they’ll need to stay hydrated and reduce cramping.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Justin “Amish Built” Hamilton, 23, and Gabe “Muscles Marinara” Irwin, 23

Northbound thru-hikers averaging 15 miles a day

“We’re the only hikers we know who tried to premake and send all of our food. We’re trying to avoid buying anything on the trail. But this plan has also made us super codependent on each other.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: B+

L’Heureux says: “These guys earn points for premaking and sending all their food along, leaving nothing to chance with sketchy gas stations and shuttered supermarkets. Trail mix with dried fruit, protein-packed beef jerky, and fruit-and-grain cereal bars offer a nice variety of carbs, fat, and protein. With nicknames like Amish Built and Muscles Marinara, these guys need a lot of calories to keep up their pace. They could improve their diet by adding in some tuna, salmon, or chicken in olive-oil pouches.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Allison “Onward” Garrigus, 53

Northbound thru-hiker averaging 15 miles a day

“Usually, I’ll shove a beef stick in as well. I hate them, but I know I should eat them. I should probably run back into the store and get some before I head out.” 

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade: A

L’Heureux says: “Allison has a good mix of macronutrients: protein in the tuna, a bit of everything in the fruit-and-nut trail mix, and essential salts and sugar in her electrolyte powders. A daily multivitamin would be a great add to her food bag.” As for the hiker’s obsession with Twinkies? Everything in moderation, says L’Heureux—even on the trail.

Photo: Scott Martin

Adam “Captain Insano” Shapiro, 39

Northbound thru-hiker averaging 15 miles a day 

“I came on trail weighing 177 pounds. I’m down to 145 pounds, but I feel great. I’m a powerlifter at home, and I also do intermittent fasting there. Here on the trail, this is a pretty typical meal for me, and then I binge eat when I’m in town.”

Photo: Scott Martin

Grade:  C-

L’Heureux says: “Captain’s practice of intermittent fasting prior to his hike may have helped his body become efficient at utilizing fat for fuel, which may be why he has lost a total of 30 pounds at this point in his trek. Although some weight loss is expected, too much can indicate inadequate calories. Also, opting to keep trail snacks light and binge eat in town could lead to high-stress situations and put him in a spot of leaning on poor-quality foods, which could also open him up to a weakened immune system. Some suggested trail foods include nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.”

L’Heureux is an avid hiker who enjoys hitting the trails in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire and into Maine. She can help you fuel your perfect hike, too. You can reach her at AnneLHeureuxRDLD@gmail.com.