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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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