About the Author: Laurie Freeman is a naturalist, environmentalist and soon-to-be retiree. She earned a BE in mechanical engineering and a MA in biology (ecology, evolution and behavior). Laurie spent the majority of her career as a professor of biology and environmental science at a small upstate NY community college. She and her husband Jim built their home (and homestead) using local material and human powered tools, and she continues to practice self-reliance by gardening and beekeeping. Laurie teaches yoga and runs a small herbal medicinal practice in her community. How she finds time to hike is a mystery. You can follow her AT thru hike on trailjournals, instagram @lauriefreeman and twitter @LaurieJFreeman.
I’m a planner. My husband would say that’s an understatement. So when I decided to take on the AT I started, well, planning. Given that hiking nearly 2200 miles is physically demanding (another probable understatement), calories are a big issue. According to Livestrong, a 160 pound person expends about 435 calories per hour hiking. If they are carrying a backpack, add up to 200 more calories an hour. Even a heavy day pack adds 100 calories per hour. So an ultralight backpacker might be burning 550 calories per hour for as many hours as they are hiking each day. At 8 hours of hiking, that total is 4400 calories. On top of that, the body’s metabolism does not slow down immediately after it stops moving. Continued caloric usage occurs for up to 14 hours post-hike! Which is why thru hikers typically burn 5000-6000 calories (or more) each day! (Difficult terrain can further increase calories expended.) Assuming that each pound of body weight burns an equal amount of calories, my 140 pound body will burn 87.5% of that 160 pound person. That’s still a whopping 4375-5250 calories/day. Replacing those calories requires a mountain of food! This challenge must take planning, right?
According to Zach Davis, it takes an average of 165 days to thru hike the AT. That’s 165 breakfasts, lunches and dinners or a total of 495 meals! How do hikers deal with food planning? From my research, there appear to be 5 strategies:
1) Make and dehydrate all your meals and mail them to post offices, businesses and hostels along the route. Resources for this approach abound. There are recipes and dehydrating advice on websites such as backpackingchef.com, trail recipes, wild backpacker, and the yummy life. There is a Facebook group that goes by the name Dehydrating Backpacking Food with 2000 members as of this writing. Though it is super time consuming, this is a great option if you want to carefully plan your nutrition.
2) Buy pre-packaged dehydrated meals and mail them (as above). Some popular brands include: Mountain House, Packit Gourmet, Good To-Go, and Backpacker’s Pantry. A quick Google search of ‘best dehydrated backpacking meals’ will garner reviews of products that are popular with hikers with various dietary habits. This option is substantially more expensive than making meals yourself but it sure saves time.
3) Use a trail supply company to purchase pre-packaged meals and have them mail the boxes. There are a couple of companies that make resupply their business: Trail Supply Company and Zero Day Resupply are two that I found. These companies not only sell backpacker meals but also other supplies you are likely to need such as toothpaste, sunscreen and bug repellant in backpacker-sized containers. In addition, they keep track of the weight you’ll be carrying for the resupply you are preparing.
4) Resupply in towns along the trail.
5) A smorgasboard of the first 4 strategies.
For the first 3 strategies, the hiker is required to determine where and when they will be at specific points along the trail. Both the Thru-Hiker’s Companion and A.T. Guide provide information about post offices and businesses (with addresses) that accept mail drops. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy website also has information about how to ship boxes along the route.
From what I’ve read, shipping resupply boxes is not without problems:
- If you ship to post offices, you have to arrive when they are open. Most close between 4-5pm on weekdays and have very limited weekend hours. You run the risk of arriving on a Friday night and being stuck waiting for 9am Monday morning to pickup your package.
- Businesses may charge to hold your mail. If it’s a hostel, there might be not be a fee if you stay at the hostel. For any business, verification of the addressee may be more lax than at the post office. This means someone else might pick up your box (intentionally or not) leaving you without a resupply.
As tempting as it is to plan everything out in advance, I’m not. In a very uncharacteristic off-the-cuff way, I’ve decided to wing it and resupply along the trail. Why?
- I’m lazy. I can’t imagine prepping almost 500 meals ahead of time. That’s a heck of a lot of work. Honestly, I’d rather spend my limited free time taking some preparatory hikes and shaking down my gear.
- I can’t be sure I’ll eat all that stuff. I may have to leave the trail due to injury or family emergency. I don’t want to be stuck with a mountain of meals I’m unlikely to eat at home. Months worth of backpacking meals is a lot to find places for in off-trail life.
- I honestly don’t know what I’m going to want to eat. Even in the comfort of my own home, I have ‘food moods’. Sometimes I want Italian, sometimes Mexican. Sometimes it’s potatoes and sometimes pasta. If I pre-plan all my meals, I might plan for something I just don’t want to eat in the future. The idea of having to eat food that is not that attractive to me is unsettling… especially given I’ll have to eat a lot of food each day.
- I am a firm believer in supporting local businesses. The communities that are adjacent to the trail count on trail traffic for their economic health. In turn, if the communities are healthy due to hiker patronage, the AT culture will be healthy. I want to be as much a part of that synergy as I can.
- I like the idea of trying local specialties. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Northerner. I relish the idea of trying southern cuisine (even the backpacker version of that) and products that aren’t marketed up north.
- I am looking forward to being creative. Sometimes I’ll have the luxury of shopping in a well supplied store; other times it will be a convenience store. I’m actually eager to see what the world has to offer along the way and making due with whatever that is.
- I’m resisting the temptation to overplan. Part of my reasoning for thru hiking the AT is to move away from the need to plan everything. I’m working on living in the moment rather than in the future.
Finally, I trust that communities along the trail will have plenty of food to satisfy hiker hunger. I’m at peace with the fact that there will likely be times when my diet is less than optimally nutritious. I am certainly confident I won’t die of starvation. If I truly run into a resupply challenge, there is always the option of shopping via the internet and the convenience of Amazon prime!