The Best Food Hacks for Thru-Hikers
Don't rely on convenience stores and junk food to fuel your miles
By the time Christopher Cage completed his Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2013, he was a whip-thin 155 pounds. Like many long-distance hikers, the 5'11″ Cage just couldn’t consume enough calories to replenish the 5,000 to 6,000 he’d burn each day for months on end. And most trail foods rank as processed, low-nutrient junk: Spam, Snickers bars, and ramen noodles are popular because they’re readily available at convenience stores where thru-hikers resupply.
So, as soon as he left the AT, Cage started inventing a better fuel. His first attempts resembled a seed-studded slime—and tasted terrible. But after consulting with a food scientist and establishing his Atlanta-based company, Greenbelly, in early 2014, Cage debuted his ultimate trail food: a shelf-stable, nutrient-dense energy bar that delivers a whopping 650 calories (the equivalent of a full meal) and actually tastes good.
Most hikers (especially thru-hikers bent on maximizing mileage) don’t bother to stop, fire up the stove, and cook a proper midday meal. Usually, lunchables such as tortillas and summer sausage provide low-nutrient calories. That may be fine for a weekend, but when you’re living on trail food for a thru-hike that could take up to six months or more, Cage says, “You need some fiber. You need healthy fats, carbs, and protein.” And so Greenbelly’s Meal2Go—which requires no cooking and provides 17 grams of protein, 100 grams of carbohydrates, 22 grams of fat, and nine grams of fiber—solves the constant question: What to eat for lunch?
The company’s business has doubled every year and attracted the attention of some of the biggest names in hiking. Heather “Anish” Anderson (the first woman to complete the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails in a single year) is a Greenbelly devotee; so is ultrarunner Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer.
Most sales are via online channels; Meal2Go isn’t sold in the C-stores lining the AT and other long-distance routes. So, for now, health-conscious hikers must include Greenbelly in the mail drops they ship to themselves along the route.
But as a thru-hiker who has spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to fuel, Cage has worked out other food hacks that add up to better eating on long-distance trails.
Forget instant oatmeal, which has most of the fiber stripped out of it to make it cook superfast. For longer-lasting fuel, Cage starts his day with uncooked rolled oats moistened with cold water and embellished with nutrient-dense additions, such as chia seeds, protein powder, olive oil, almond flour, and brownie mix. “I call it the concoction,” Cage says. “It checks a lot of nutritional boxes, tastes good, and there’s minimal cleanup.”
“It’s really hard to get many greens while on the trail,” Cage says. And yet green vegetables provide key vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants that help build and repair muscle. Cage shipped himself packets of freeze-dried green beans and bought seaweed from supermarkets along the trail. “Seaweed is easily sourced at a lot of grocery stores, and it’s high in calcium and minerals,” he says.
Oil is one of the most calorie-dense foods hikers can carry—olive oil registers 120 calories per half-ounce—but Cage didn’t down his straight. Instead, he prefers to mix a high-calorie cocktail made of one part olive oil, one part creamy peanut butter, and one part honey. “Eat it in small spoonfuls with water,” Cage suggests. “Or to make it a meal and eat it on a big handful of kale inside a tortilla.”
Here’s one convenience store staple that actually provides hikers with worthy fuel. High in fat and protein, pork rinds are also lightweight and tasty.