My Appalachian Trail Nutrition Plan

One of the common questions I receive about my 97-day AT thru-hike is, “What did you eat?“. The short answer is: everything. The long answer is that I developed a nutrition plan and then spent about two months months procuring, preparing, and dehydrating my trail food and packing it into resupply boxes to send to myself along the way. This accounted for about 80% of my calories during the hike and I purchased the remainder of my food in towns (to the tune of over $600).

A small sample of my AT diet.

One of the key concepts in ultrarunning that is applicable to thru-hiking is the development of a nutrition plan. Knowing how often you’ll have access to aid stations (or in this case, towns and stores) is a critical aspect in determining how much food to carry in order to reduce unnecessary weight. Once that is determined, you can figure out how much food to pack based your needs.

15 resupply boxes loaded and ready to ship.

This strategy struck a good balance for me. By using resupply boxes, I saved time and money by not having to go into town every three or four days or worry about various stores having what I needed. On the other hand, I also had the freedom and space to buy whatever items I was craving to mix things up and supplement my regular intake (i.e candy).

Pre-packing only 80% of my food left space for trips to Hiker Heaven.

I had my boxes sent to hostels and hotels, and they all arrived on time with no issues whatsoever. I strongly recommend that you do not send boxes to post offices, as their hours are ever-changing and unreliable. If you send to a hotel or hostel, not only do you avoid going out of your way to retrieve it, but they’re also guaranteed to be open when you arrive. I had no desire or patience to wait for the post office to open while I was hiking, so I never bothered with it and I believe that was the best choice. Here’s a list of my resupply box destinations:

  • Hampton Inn – Franklin, NC
  • Standing Bear Farm – Hartford, TN
  • Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel – Erwin, TN
  • Woodchuck Hostel – Damascus, VA
  • Woods Hole Hostel – Pearisburg, VA
  • Holiday Inn Express – Troutville, VA
  • Holiday Inn Express – Waynesboro, VA
  • Quality Inn – Harpers Ferry, WV
  • Rock N’ Sole Hostel – Schuykill, PA
  • Staybridge Suites – Stroudsburg, PA
  • Days Inn Berkshire – Great Barrington, MA
  • Mountain Goat Outfitters – Manchester Center, VT
  • Rodeway Inn – Lincoln, NH
  • The Cabin Hostel – Andover, ME
  • Shaw’s Hiker Hostel – Monson, ME

Anatomy of My Resupply Box

The intent of packing a majority of my own food on the AT was to ensure I had lightweight and adequate nutrition, access to food I enjoyed, and an escape from the hassle/cost/disappointment of resupplying in every town. In a typical resupply box (which generally had five days’ of supplies), I would pack the following:

  • Breakfast pouches (one for each day minus hostel/hotel days)
  • Snacks (8/day)
  • Dinners (one for each day minus nights I’d be in town)
  • .5L olive oil
  • 1lb peanut butter jar
  • Sleeve of crackers
  • Candy (Jolly Ranchers, usually)
  • Energy gels
  • Almonds
  • Small toothpaste tube and flossers
  • Multivitamins

Once I double-checked that I had the right number of meals and snacks, I loaded everything into a USPS Regional Box B and sealed it for shipment. Tip: Regional B boxes are almost the same size as the Large Flat Rate boxes but ship to the east coast for half the cost and can hold up to 20lbs. The boxes and postage are only available online, however, so you won’t be able to find it at the post office.

Opening a resupply box in Waynesboro, VA.

Meal Breakdown

Breakfast

The first meal of the day was always the same: oatmeal, protein powder, olive oil, and coffee. In the beginning I cooked the oatmeal before adding protein and olive oil, but after about a week I got tired of waiting around for the water to boil (especially when it was below freezing out), so to speed things up I would just mix everything in my pot (coffee included) and drink it cold. It worked great.

Protmeal: breakfast of champions. One of the only times I cooked breakfast on the trail.

I also mixed in several servings of grits instead of oats to provide some variety, but I quickly discovered that grits don’t soften in water as quickly as oats and it was like drinking ball bearings. After the first time I stopped using grits altogether and would just throw them away and eat something else.

This was the easiest meal of all to prepare for my resupply boxes. I simply measured out two servings of oatmeal (a kitchen scale makes this easy) and poured into a sandwich bag with a packet of protein powder and instant coffee. Multiply this by the number needed for that particular resupply box and you’re done.

Packing up breakfasts.

Lunch

Once I started hiking for the day, I tried to take in 200-300 calories per hour. I would load up my Zpacks multipack with protein bars, almonds, candy, energy gels, beef jerky, and other snacks that would last me until my afternoon break around 2pm.

Cruising with a full chest pack of easy-access snacks.

During my break, I’d have some peanut butter and crackers while I rested my feet and filled up on water. Then I’d refill my multipack for the remainder of the day.

Taking a load off in the Roan Highlands.

Some of my favorite snack items included:

Dinner

For several weeks leading up to my departure for the AT, I was a madman in the kitchen. After purchasing Recipes for Adventure by backpacking chef Glen Mcallister, I chose three easy meals that I could make in large batches and dehydrate overnight.

  • Chili with ham and vegetables
  • Lentils with chicken and vegetables
  • Macaroni with tuna and cheese and vegetables

I decided to go with only three meals because it cut down on the number of ingredients I needed to buy while providing enough variety that I wouldn’t have to eat the same thing every night or even more than twice or thrice per week. It was a lot of work using my Excalibur 4-tray dehydrator (which is awesome!), but in the end I was happy to have put in the effort. I had delicious, home-style, and nutritious meals every night on the trail and I never got sick of any of them.

Batch of chili ready to be dehydrated.

This ended up being the only meal I cooked on the trail each day. Although it took some time to rehydrate and heat up, it was really nice to have something hot and delicious at the end of a long day. It was also extremely lightweight, as three dinner servings (700cal/ea) weighed just 14oz dried.

Lightweight, nutritious, and delicious!

I dehydrated and divvied up enough portions of each to meet my needs on the trail and placed them in their corresponding boxes. I also utilized a Foodsaver to vacuum seal each weeks’ rations which helped create a little more space in the boxes and prevent any premature spoiling.

Weight Loss

Despite planning and eating everything in sight, I still managed to lose 26 pounds during my thru-hike. Ideally my weight would have fluctuated only a little, but I just couldn’t eat enough to balance out my expenditure. I was never hungry, however my pace was such that I was burning over 6,000 calories per day and my resupplies only had 3,500-4,000 per day.

Before and after.

Carrying more food would have made my pack heavier, and I didn’t want to do that so I stayed the course and am fine with the result. I put all the weight back on (plus a few pounds, I think) within a month of finishing.

Summary

Overall I was very pleased with how my nutrition plan worked out during the hike. Although the resupply boxes required a lot of upfront time and effort, which some folks may not be willing to do, they saved me a ton while on the trail and it was one less thing I had to think about. Having a variety of snacks was key and I never got sick of anything I packed (except for plain almonds) and all the boxes arrived on time.

If I were to do it over again, I would consider going stoveless and cold soaking simply because it saves a lot of weight between the fuel, stove, and pot I needed. I don’t have any experience with that kind of setup, though, so I wasn’t comfortable starting the AT that way. Otherwise, my system worked flawlessly by providing good and balanced nutrition while also leaving space (in both my wallet and my pack) for trail magic, pizzas, and other indulgences along the way. This method isn’t for everyone, but if you’re motivated and organized it can make trail life much more manageable.

 

 

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