What Thru-Hikers Eat on the Appalachian Trail
We took a peek inside their packs and had a nutritionist grade their choices
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”