Home / Backpacking Food / Trail Food: The Most Important Piece of Gear in Your Pack by Lawton “Disco” Grinter

Trail Food: The Most Important Piece of Gear in Your Pack by Lawton “Disco” Grinter

Thru-hikers dining out in Dubois, Wyoming during a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike
Thru-hikers dining out in Dubois, Wyoming during a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike

Ray Jardine once said, “If our journeys degenerate into battles, in terms of lost energy and mental buoyancy, then I think those battles are usually won or lost in the grocery stores, rather than on the trails.”

I can further simplify this statement with the following piece of advice: Don’t Skimp on Food!

It took me the bulk of 10,000 miles of long-distance hiking to really grasp the concept that junk food and carrying less food to save overall pack weight works against you both in the short-term and the long run.

The sad results of eating a half-gallon of ice cream in 33 minutes during the Appalachian Trail’s Half-Gallon Challenge in Pennsylvania
The sad results of eating a half-gallon of ice cream in 33 minutes during the Appalachian Trail’s Half-Gallon Challenge in Pennsylvania

In 1999, I set off from Georgia to hike the Appalachian Trail to Maine. I was for all intensive purposes, a backpacking newbie. The sum total of my previous backpacking experience was a paltry 10 days worth of overnighters. Not much of a resume when setting off to hike 2,100+ miles. Through persistence and just plain stubbornness, I got myself to Maine and lost 30+ pounds in the process. I finished the trail gaunt and weak at the trifling weight of 157 pounds. Not good for a guy who is 6’2” in height.

Oddly enough, I had read Ray Jardine’s quote before I started my AT hike. I just hadn’t taken it to heart. In 2004, I set out to hike the 2,650+ mile Pacific Crest Trail. Remembering my dilapidated state at the end of the AT, I set out to avoid that type of similar ending on the PCT. This go around I lost 20 pounds. Somewhat better but still not where I wanted to be when I reached the Canadian border.

Charged up and ready to hike after a quick snack along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast Trail
Charged up and ready to hike after a quick snack along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast Trail

A thru-hike of the CDT in 2006 ended with much the same results . . . 20 pounds lost and my being rather exhausted when I reached trail’s end at the Mexican border.

Since that 3rd thru-hike wasn’t the charm, I had full intentions of my 4th thru-hike being the one that I finally got it all figured out. And this time, I did not purposely gain weight before I started the trail in hopes that my overall weight loss during the journey would not leave me feeling depleted at the finish line.

Trailside fruit stand made for a nice snack break while day hiking in Maui
Trailside fruit stand made for a nice snack break while day hiking in Maui

At the end of this 4th thru-hike, I was down only 7 pounds! Success!! An amazing victory for having just hiked 4 + months over 2,600+ miles while burning 4,000-6,000 calories per day. So what was the difference?

The difference was that I had finally taken my own advice to heart: Don’t Skimp on Food! I carried 1.75 – 2 pounds of food per day on trail and I ate food like it was my job during the brief times I was in town. I also embraced a technique that professional backpacker Andrew Skurka calls the “caloric drip.” Instead of eating 3 meals spaced over many hours on a given day of hiking, I ate smaller portions every hour to hour and a half throughout the entire day. This not only kept my energy levels up, but also allowed me to hike 12-15 hours per day without bottoming out. I had always wondered how some hikers could routinely do 30 miles per day. The big secret . . . they ate a lot of food and ate it at frequent intervals. And all this time I thought they had been blessed with great genetics or were just super athletes. Turns out it’s all about food intake. Who would have known?

You’ll notice that I have not gotten into a big discussion about what types of food to eat, how many calories/day, nutritional value, etc. There are volumes of books and web information on the specifics of “what to eat” and a discussion of that nature would create a post the length of Atlas Shrugged. And more importantly, “what to eat” is largely a matter of personal preference and taste.

A hot meal during late afternoon adds fuel for a couple more hours of early evening hiking
A hot meal during late afternoon adds fuel for a couple more hours of early evening hiking

Having said that, 2 pounds of gummy bears per day will get you nowhere on the trail. Nowhere but sick. Junk food is best avoided. We all know what junk food is too. Keep it out of your backpacks as much as possible. Focus on bringing foods with ingredients you can pronounce. Less is more! A popular brand of corn chips I take routinely on the trail contains 3 ingredients: corn, corn oil and salt. I don’t need the Google Translate app to understand what those ingredients are. And they pack a whopping 160 calories/ounce. I know I promised not to talk calories or nutritional value so forgive me, but 160 calories/ounce is stellar!

Currently, I’m unable to take off for 2,000+ mile hikes the way I used to be and I find the bulk of my current hiking to be trips that are done in a day. This same “caloric drip” system coupled with not skimping on food has made my day hikes as enjoyable as they get. Instead of returning to the trailhead famished and in search of the nearest greasy spoon, I find I can actually make the drive back to my house without passing out. It’s truly wonderful and makes me want to day hike more and more.

So to sum up, you’ll find the miles going by a bit more effortlessly if you eat trail food at frequent intervals all day during your hikes. It took me 10,000 miles of long-distance hiking to figure this out. I hope it takes you a lot less. And remember, Don’t Skimp on Food!

Time to recharge the engines along the Pacific Crest Trail in northern California
Time to recharge the engines along the Pacific Crest Trail in northern California

About Lawton “Disco” Grinter

Lawton “Disco” Grinter is a veteran long-distance hiker and triple crowner having completed end-to-end hikes of the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and two hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail. In addition to the Triple Crown, he has also hiked the John Muir Trail and Colorado Trail in his 12,000+ miles of long-distance hiking since 1999. He produced The Walkumentary, a trail documentary that covers his 2006 southbound Continental Divide Trail thru-hike and is one of co-hosts of the new hiking podcast, The Trail Show.  Lawton just published his first book, I Hike – Mostly True Stories from 10,000 Miles of Hiking. He currently lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and fellow long-distance hiker, Felicia Hermosillo, and their dog Gimpy.

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23 comments

  1. Would love a follow up on what foods work for you. BTW, totally enjoyed “I Hike”.

    Karl

    • Karl, I hesitate to go into a discussion of what foods work for me because I find that it changes from year to year and hike to hike. I always try to go for whole foods with ingredients I can pronounce though! I also dig homemade energy bars of which I have a recipe for on the web. If you search for “lawton grinter energy bars” you will find my recipe. Glad to hear you enjoyed “I Hike!”

  2. Even though I should know better, I skimped on my food weight on trip a few weeks ago in the 100 mile wilderness. Me and my buddy walked out with only 200 extra calories in our food bags and had to walk 37 miles in the last 2 days because we were running out of food. That was a stupid-light move on my part. Next time, I’ll bring extra Nutella!

  3. Great advise, loved the article! Being that I am “blessed” as some would say with a high metabolism, I have learned to live with eating frequently throughout the day, whether I am hiking or sitting at my desk at the office. Before lunch time I usually eat some sort of fruit, apples, oranges, etc, a granola bar, and maybe a bagel. I’ve consumed 500 calories sitting on my ass by the time lunch rolls around but I am still hungry by then!

    When I am out on the trails on a day hike, the same thing is true, although I don’t tend to eat any more or less when my activity level is higher either, which is weird I think. I usually try to stick with a high carb and high fat diet. That can go a long way per ounce of food carried. Lots of nuts, granola, and HEALTHY oils! Healthy oils that include olive oil, peanut oil, or canola oil. I also like to make my own bars to take along. There are plenty of recipes you can find online that are much healthier with natural ingredients and you can custom tailor the recipe to suit your tastes!

    • Shawn – I usually consume 1000 calories by noon. Of course, I get up quite early, so the morning is most of my day! I like a lot of carbs and tea to get started.

      • Oh I’m quite sure you are up at least 3 or 4 hours earlier than I usually am! I can definitely vouch for tea. I usually make a cup or two of loose leaf in the morning. Can’t start my day without it.

  4. Another great article. I find that if I eat protein based meals and snacks my energy levels stay constant. I pack extra nuts and jerky to eat during the day.

    With high carb meals within 2 hours i am starving, while if I add protein or have a more balanced meal I can go 3-4 hours.

    • Chuck, I’ve had similar results when adding in protein to my trail diet. Case in point . . . on the AT I routinely ate oatmeal that I prepared with water for breakfast. I’d last an hour to an hour and a half before I was hungry again. I started preparing the oatmeal with dried milk after a few weeks and found that it almost doubled my time before being hungry again while simultaneously boosting my energy levels!

  5. Great article – and I suspect the same goes for fluids. I find I walk much better now I drink far more water during the day.

    • Hi David, you are spot on . . . fluids are absolutely key. You can eat all the healthy high caloric food that you want on trail and if you are dehydrated, you’ll find yourself pretty miserable. Staying hydrated is equally important to eating good foods while out and about!

  6. I Just googled your recipe, it is very similar to mine but I haven’t added flax seed to them. I think I might try that. I loved your post. I am the worlds worst when it comes to food. Either too much or too little, I am working hard to find the right balance.

  7. This is one of the toughest “planning” phases of any hike…..it’s a constant live and learn…so long as you live! Great information! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Great info and wonderful photos, Disco. I eat ground golden flax seed every day sprinkled on my meals. Once ground it goes rancid very fast, so I keep it refrigerated. I’ve included some flax seed “facts” here that you and your fans may not already know. MADwoman
    From North American Nutrition PO Box 456, Warroad, Minnesota 56763
    Toll Free: (800) 387-5516
    We do recommend grinding the seeds for the majority of the flaxseed you consume in order to receive maximum nutritional benefit. The reason for this is the seeds are very small and it is hard to thoroughly chew them all. Your body utilizes the mucilage from the outer coating of the unbroken seeds, which does have health benefits but will not take advantage of the Omega’s within the seeds.
    I eat whole seeds sometimes because I like them that way, but I also eat plenty of ground seed everyday. If whole seed meant the difference between eating flax seed and not eating it then I would say keep eating it whole as you are receiving some of the benefits. Otherwise I would agree with your friends and try to eat the major portion of your flax seeds pre-ground.
    The nutritional value of golden flax seed vs. brown flax seed are very similar if the samples are of the same quality. I mention quality because it is very important in determining the omega 3 content and overall nutritional value. A high quality flaxseed whether golden or brown will accomplish the same, although we have found most people prefer the nutty-buttery flavor of our golden flax seed over the brown flax seed.
    The variety we grow is called Omega and was developed by North Dakota State University in 1989 for human consumption. We specialize in flax seed. We strive to deliver the highest quality flaxseed with the most nutritional value. We are able to achieve this high quality by growing it farther north in Minnesota next to the Canadian border. The cooler climate and longer summertime daylight hours help to achieve a higher Omega 3 content in the

  9. Well said! Though weight loss has not occurred for me on my long hikes, I concur with your preference for whole foods. In addition, I discovered that whole foods are more calorie dense – more calories per ounce – than processed foods besides being more nutritionally sustainable. Congrats on all your hikes too!

  10. Good post! Minor correction: “intents and purposes” not “intensive purposes”.

    • I was going to say the same thing. The correct phrase is “all intents and purposes”, but is often misheard as “all intensive purposes”. Good to know the grammar police are on the beat. :-)

  11. This is actually one area in which women have a huge advantage over men. Having far less muscle mass is one reason we burn fewer calories, even during a thru-hike. Where a man might need 3x as many calories as normal, a woman only needs 2x.

  12. I think there is a reason why Ray Jardine ate fresh potatoes, tomatoes, bread and especially buckets of corn pasta like it was going out of style!

  13. This is so true and is the main reason I was determined to get my packweight down. I believed I was hitting ‘the Wall’ too early in most walking days due to the great weight of my pack (about40-45 pounds) but I’ve since realised – from great posts like this and a bit of experimentation – that that weight was a small contributor. It was my poor diet that I carried over into my hiking and did not supplement with more calories, in any form, that was causing me to hit ‘the Wall’ so suddenly and disappointingly early in a hike. In terms of importance the weight of the food in my pack cannot now be measured as that weight has grown in proportionate opposition to the lessening of the weight of my equipment.

  14. Hip belt pockets are a must for me nowadays so I can keep those all important trail snacks for the ‘caloric drip’ effect!

  15. What’s the 3 ingredient corn chips you were referring to? I would like to try them out on the trail.

  16. Never mind. I had no idea that’s how simple they were.

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