Wait…what? We’re hiking 650 KM? Food and Menu Planning for a Thru-Hike!

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Have you seen that recent Snickers advertisement campaign – Who Are You When You’re Hungry? The wrappers for the famous chocolate bar in this campaign are printed with words like Dramatic, Sleepy, Impatient, Feisty, Confused, Cranky, Irritable, Whiny. I am quite certain that at least a few of these adjectives could be applied to me when I’m hungry (not saying which ones – you’ll have to ask my partner, Stephen. As for him, there is only one word to describe him when he’s hungry– one word to rule him, one word to find him, one word to bring him, and in the darkness bind him – HANGRY!) But besides being funny and getting us to laugh at ourselves (and to sell more Snickers bars), this campaign underscores a very important point: hunger affects our mood. And our mood in turn affects our thinking and decision making capabilities. Recall that piece of advice your Mom may have given you: never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach!

Who are you when you’re hungry?!

So as you can imagine, menu planning and food preparation for a 35 day thru-hike takes on monumental significance. Not only for the physical and biological considerations of consuming enough calories to offset the amount you will expend in an 8 + hour hiking day, but also for helping to ensure that cooler heads prevail and that Stephen and I will still like each other at the end of the trip!

Sharing a meal together on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail.

With this in mind, our food and menu planning for our 35 day, 650 km thru-hike of the International Appalachian Trail in Quebec began in earnest about 8 weeks prior to the trip.

The first section I tackled in this planning process was our Snacks/Lunch requirements.

Step 1: Snacks/Lunch

On a typical hiking day, we do not actually stop to prepare or eat a true lunch. We may take a 5 or 10 minute break if we feel the need for a short rest, but otherwise, lunch is eaten on the fly. With challenging terrain and many kilometres to cover in a day, there is usually not time to have a leisurely lunch, and once stopped, the law of inertia may kick in. In inclement weather, we may stop to make some soup if we need to warm up.

Our lunch therefore is more of a snack. Our meal plan calls for consuming snacks at 2 hour intervals throughout the day. Usually, breakfast is eaten between 5 and 6 AM; therefore, we will need snacks for approximately 8AM, 10AM, 12PM, 2PM, and 4PM. Dinner will usually be around 5 or 6PM, depending on when we arrive at the next campsite. Therefore, each of us requires 5 snacks a day, for a total of 10 snacks per day, x 35 days, to be packed.

Gathering the snacks.

The considerations for choosing the snacks included:

  • Nutritional value: Each snack needed to have a calorie content of at least 200-250 or more calories per serving, with a high fat and carbohydrate content
  • Protein: at least 1 or 2 snacks per day containing 10-20 grams of protein or more
  • Variety: a good selection of different tastes, textures, format, etc. to avoid becoming bored with eating the same things too often
  • Treats: some junky, feel good, comfort foods thrown in as treats
  • Shelf stability: all snacks had to be non-perishable and able to be shipped, as we had to mail out several food re-supply boxes to be picked up along the trail (more on that below)

Costco was my vendor of choice, as the ability to purchase in bulk for the large number of snacks we needed was economically beneficial, as well as having a better selection than most grocery stores. Some snacks required repackaging into single servings; others, such as bars, did not. I spent at least half a day repackaging snacks into single serving Ziploc bags. Some of our snacks included the following:

  • Snickers bars – I bought these at the Dollar Store; they were under a dollar and we needed a lot of them1
  • Protein bars – a variety of different kinds, always checking to get the highest protein content possible
  • Granola bars – a variety of different kinds, checking for healthy ingredients such as nuts, seeds, and dried berries
  • Trail mix or gorp – our favourite is Prana Kilimanjaro Mix with dark chocolate pieces. It’s a bit pricey but available at Costco in bigger packages. It is the most healthy pre-made trail mix we have come across
  • Nuts – cashews, almonds, walnuts, flavoured peanuts
  • Fig newton bars
  • Dried fruits such as apple, mango, and banana slices
  • Party Mix – with pretzels, bagel chips, corn chips, nuts, etc.
  • Shortbread cookies (Happy Yak)

We also bring with us a powdered protein drink called Perpetuum, made by Hammer Nutrition. We mix this with water and drink it at lunch time, every other day, for an added boost of protein and calories.

In order to ensure that we had the correct number of snacks for each day, and to avoid repeating the same snack too often, I placed each different type of snack in its own pile around the perimeter of our dining room table. I then took a large size Ziploc bag and walked around the table, depositing one snack from each successive pile until there were 10 in each bag. I repeated this 35 times for 35 days. The snacks were now done!

Step 2: Drinks

We keep the drinks very simple – coffee in the morning, water through the day, maybe kool aid or lemonade for supper, and hot chocolate in the evening if we feel like we need to warm up before bed or want a few extra calories. We use powdered single serving Kool Aid and Country Time lemonade packets, and Nescafe single serve coffee packets.

In the same way as the snacks above, I placed each of the drinks in a big pile on the table and gathered them into a medium size Ziploc, so that each day’s drinks would be in one bag. Wash, rinse, repeat x 35!

At this time, I hit up the local grocery stores for small discarded cardboard food trays. I went to a couple of different stores until I had accumulated 35 of them. I lined them up into 5 rows of 7 days (one week) in our sunroom, and then put one day’s supply of snacks and drinks into each tray.

I was now ready to tackle the breakfasts and dinners!

Step 3: Breakfast and Dinner

We are very fortunate to be Brand Ambassadors for and have as a sponsor, a company out of Quebec called HAPPY YAK. Happy Yak makes healthy and tasty freeze dried meals for outdoor adventures. For my write up and more details of their quality product, please check out the following link on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/livelovegetoutside/posts/297973277275052

We ordered all of our dinners, and half of our breakfasts, from Happy Yak.

Our delivery from Happy Yak!

Organizing the dinners, breakfasts, and desserts into weeks.

Dinners:

To keep it simple, I based our dinner order from Happy Yak on a 7 day rotation, so that in each week, there would be no repeats. The menu would then repeat in each new week. There was a variety of meat and vegetarian selections, with options of pasta, rice, and potatoes, and vegetables.

Breakfasts:

I ordered freeze dried flavoured omelette packages from Happy Yak for half of the week’s breakfasts, and made our signature oatmeal breakfast (prepared at home) for the rest of each week. This meant I was preparing approximately 20 oatmeal breakfasts at home.

Stephen and Leanne’s Oatmeal Breakfast (feeds 2):

At home, add the following to a medium size Ziploc bag-

  • 2 packets of any flavour single serving Quaker Instant Oatmeal
  • 1-2 tbsp of ground chia
  • 1-2 tbsp of ground flax seed
  • 1-2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1-2 tbsp powdered milk or coffee whitener
  • ½ cup nuts: almond slivers, chopped walnuts, etc.
  • ½ cup dried/dehydrated fruit: blueberries, apple slices, raisins, craisins, etc.
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, or other spices if desired

At camp, pour contents of ziploc bag into pot, add 2 cups boiling water, stir and let sit for 5 minutes. Very hearty, nutritious, and satisfying!

I then added a breakfast and dinner to the 35 cardboard trays. Ready for desserts!

35 small cardboard food trays from the grocery store used to organize and hold a complete day of food.

Step 4: Desserts

Desserts are really a luxury on a thru-hike, and not something we have every day, due to the extra weigh they add. But I did order some desserts from Happy Yak, such as apple crisp, mud pie, berry chia pudding, etc, to have maybe 3 or 4 times per week. I then added the desserts to 3 or 4 trays per week.

It was now time to pack the resupply boxes to be mailed out.

Step 5: Preparing the Resupply Boxes

We calculated the number of days required in each resupply box by comparing our itinerary with the list of food drop locations provided by the trail association, the distance table, and the number of days of travel in between each location. We poured over the maps and itinerary, and counted days repeatedly, to ensure our calculations were correct. It varied between four and nine days, for a total of 6 food drop boxes to be mailed. I purchased 6 boxes, labelled them with the name of each location and the number of days to be packed, and then began to pull the food from each day’s tray to be packed into each box. We also included other resupply items in each box such as toilet paper, hygiene items, water tabs, and clean socks!

Six food drop boxes to be filled and mailed!

We were now ready to mail our resupply boxes.

Step 6: Mail Out

After carefully packing each box, adding packing materials to fill up empty space, it was time to seal them securely and address them to each food drop location. Double and triple checking to make sure the addresses were correct was a must, as was adding our names and instructions, in French, to hold for SIA-IAT thru-hikers and the date we were expecting to pick up the food drop.

Here is where I became a bit anxious, worrying like a nervous parent with her child on the first day of kindergarten. Did we calculate everything correctly? Would the boxes arrive in good condition and be ready for pick up at the correct location and time? It was all in the hands of Canada Post now, as I took the boxes to the local post office to be mailed. I sent a little prayer out to the universe: please let the boxes arrive safely! please let Canada Post take good care of our packages! please let it all work out!

Signed, sealed, and hopefully delivered!

Despite the worry, it was a huge weight off my shoulders to have this part of our planning completed. Time will tell, as we progress on the trail through the days and weeks, whether we have calculated our caloric and nutrition needs accurately. We do have one thing in our favour. From time to time, the trail passes through small villages and towns. Here, we may be able to stop for a real meal with fresh ingredients at restaurants and cafes, or stuff our faces with the treats and junk food that we have been craving, or stock up on snacks and additional food needs at grocery stores.

Bon appetit mes amis!