“Let’s see here. Allright, two dozen Reese Cups, gummy bears…”
Here it comes.
“Ramen…yep. Uh, jar of peanut butter, tortillas, M&M’s. Instant potatoes, um, two three, ok. Ten Snickers, bag of Fritos, and, oh yeah, donut holes.”
The heavily bearded, slightly emaciated hiker in front of me nararated as he packed his foodbag. Let’s call him Redbeard (a common moniker along the AT).
“And I could never do without these.” He held out a sleeve of off brand sandwich cookies; the kind you find on the snack tray in the fellowship hall before church a service. I looked at the Oreo knockoffs, nodded that I understood, and waited, expecting a punchline. He shrugged and dumped them into a ziplock and crammed them in his pack, next to a few tuna packets and instant oatmeal. His friend exclaimed from the trash can just outside the entrance of the grocery store.
“Dude somebody bought Triscuits!” He was gazing into the recepticle, full of hiker trash.
“Amateurs.” muttered Redbeard as he pulled the lid from a pint of Edys Moose Tracks.
Virginia and I were in Manchester Center, fresh out of the Whites and heading south through Vermont; right through the brunt of the northbound bubble. Outside the Price Chopper were a dozen or so filthy hikers shoving resupply into their packs, smoking herb, and talking about the movie they were gonna catch before they hit they trail. Scenes like this are common in towns that are close to long-distance trails. For many thru hikers, town stops involve replenishing their bodies with nutrients that they lack on the trail, such as calcium (half gallon ice cream, quart of chocolate milk), protein (McDonalds burgers) and fresh vegetables (the lettuce leaf and tomato slice on the burger).
RESUPPLYING IN TOWN
It’s no secret that when you’re trying to consume 5K calories a day while carrying 4-5 days of food on your back, junk food just comes with the territory. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it tastes pretty good, and it gives you those concentrated calories to help crank out the miles. But a hikers diet shouldn’t be sponsored by Little Debbie. It should resemble a consistent, disciplined binge with fresh fruits and vegetables consumed as often as possible. After a week in the mountains and cruising into town on fumes, the sheer volume of food in a grocery store can be overwhelming. Here’s a few tips for resupply without feeling like Agustus Gloop when we you’re done.
- Don’t shop hungry. If you have to go in and buy a sandwich first, do it, but don’t walk into a supermarket with a grumbly belly and try to buy five days of food, or you will surely buy ten.
2. Walk the perimeter first. Do a lap around the store, starting in produce. Many core items can be found along the four walls, such as breads, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, nuts and sometimes bulk bins. This of course varies from store to store.
3. Make a list. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? When you’re looking down an aisle of fried potatoes, fried pigskins, and poofed cheese, it’s easy to forget exactly why you’re there in the first place. Check off your list, then do a round to grab anything you want to consume immediately.
4. Think whole(ish) foods. Not the market, just good ol’ food that hasn’t been processed into oblivion. If it takes you more than 5 seconds to read the ingredient list, consider something else.
5. Carry greens and fruit. Throughout our bike trips and long walks, Virginia often can be found with a bag of greens and two bananas on hand. Spinach, kale and chard all hold well in all but the hottest temperatures and last for several days. Apples, bananas, and avocados are all welcome treats the first day or two in, albeit being slightly hefty and fragile.
6. Keep it simple. There is no reason to saute a shallot and deglaze the pot with a Crown Royal shooter before adding a pouch of Knorr Rice Side.
7. Weigh your food. Two pounds per day is a good bet unless you’re just getting going, or somewhere with tons of resupply options such as the AT. Use the scales in the produce section to weigh your grub before you checkout. Grab a banana while you’re there.
8. Sign up for a card, or borrow. It only takes a moment to sign up for a store’s discount card (aka never signing up but still using it just the same). Alternatively, we’ve found that often the cashier has a store card on-hand that they’re happy to scan. Just ask.
9. Mix it up. Your taste buds and morale will become bored with the same thing day in and day out. Small variations on ingredients can yield a multitude of flavors and textures, which is important when your eating two to three times your normal amount.
10. Spread it out. Find a quiet aisle and lay your food out in front of you. Make separate piles for the days, the meals, or whichever method helps you eyeball your resupply before you checkout. Then weigh it.
11. Don’t be an asshole! The act of procuring food is where hikers and general public mingle the most, and therein lies opportunity for good and bad interactions. Show simple respect and remember that you are not a special flower.
TO COOK OR NOT TO COOK
When we left California in February on our bicycles, we were more than glad to have our alcohol stoves. Lightweight with easy to find fuel, they heated water for morning coffee and boiled countless pots of linguini with Newmans Sockarooni. By the time we reached Delaware Water Gap on our AT thru hike five months later (July) we decided to abandon our stoves in exchange for a much lighter kit; a two cup Ziploc bowl with a screw top lid. We were soaking. In the heat of the summer we found that we didn’t crave hot food or drink at the beginning and end of each day, and we could still eat very well without having to cook.
Soaking simply involves rehydrating food over the course of a few minutes to several hours, depending on the fare. The only equiptment you need is a leak-proof screw top container (an empty peanut butter jar will do, as will many gelato or ice cream containers found in the frozen section of most grocery stores) and water. When rehydrating common backpacking foods such as Knorr Rice Sides, Bear Creek soups and stews, Lipton noodles, cous cous, or instant potatoes, simply dump the food into your container, add the amount of water recommended for cooking, shake well, and wait. If you’re disciplined, preparing lunch after breakfast, dinner after lunch, and breakfast before you go to sleep makes world of difference when your ready for that next meal. The tradeoff is of course carrying a little extra water weight as the food is soaking. TIP: Always keeping a bag of instant potatoes on hand makes a great thickner for runny, overhydrated meals.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t plan on soaking every meal. Thru hiking, bike touring, or any type of long distance travel that requires increased caloric intake will demand you put something in your mouth every few hours. Snacking constantly throughout the day as opposed to sticking to three squares is just the way it goes with this form of travel, and inherintly lends itself to a non-cook eating method. We found that a hearty breakfast of cold cereal, oatmeal, chia seeds, fruits and nuts, or pastries followed by several high calorie snacks every few hours got us to lunch. Lunch usually consisted of something savory wrapped up in a tortilla with fresh veggies (treat), followed by several more high calorie snacks throughout the day, leading up to dinner which was our most soaked meal. Virginia was good at finishing dinner and immediately preparing breakfast for the next morning, while I would just fix myself something a few miles into the next day. We had coffee several times a day. While the Starbucks Via is tasty, price and availability usually led us to Nescafe Classico. Instant coffee is fairly good cold, albeit somewhat bitter, so we would usually just mix it into our breakfast.
DEHYDRATING AT HOME AND MAILDROPS
If you’re planning on sending yourself maildops, investing in a dehydrator may prove beneficial. It’s always a good chuckle watching someone opening a box of food they’d sent themselves, only to reveal Pop Tarts and Ramen. We had access to a commercial dehydrator and prepared numerous boxes of food to send ourselves in New England, where supplies are more expensive and not as plentiful . In hindsight, the food we prepared for our maildrops was delicious at home, but bland and monotonous on the trail.
The real example of a proper maildrop came when were contacted by my sister, Carma, who happens to be Chef/Owner of Carma’s Cafe in Baltimore. She sent us numerous drops along the trail, each extraordinarily amazing. Opening her resupplies was an exhilarating affair. On top was a detailed letter explaining her menu, her well researched methodology, rehydrating instructions, a bit of local wisdom on the section we were currently hiking and descriptions of edible plants along the way. In the box were individually labeled, vacuum sealed packages, each containing a days portions. Each meal, each snack, all perfectly contained in compostable packaging. We feasted on jambalaya and lasagna. We devoured homemade fruit leathers, chocolate coffee beans, candied cantaloupe and pumpkin pie, mushroom gnocchi and ratatouille. While others boiled water for oatmeal, we were eating waffles stuffed with bacon and drenched in maple syrup. The hot cocoa mix she put together (along with the giant handmade marshmallow that would float on top) was as delicious hot as it was sprinkled on a tortilla with sunflower seed butter. She would send a jar of pickled strawberries, a nice bottle of Chianti, dark chocolate and homemade cookies. One package had two bright orange handkerchiefs to increase our visabililty as we approached hunting season in Southern Appalachia. We had no idea maildrops could be this good.
It would be difficult to have every resupply this way without lots of money, research, and kitchen/deydrator/packing time. Carma somehow found the time to prepare us one box a month, which would be opened with bated breath, usually in someones way outside the post office as we ooo’d and aahhh’d the contents. Walking into a Piggly Wiggly for resupply after a week of Carma food could be fairly depressing, in a first world problem sort of way. It would be back to Grape Nuts in coffee, nutbutter Cheeto wraps, and BearCreek Darn Good Chili, sans meat. Back to knock off honeybuns and Lance crackers. Not that we were complaining or anything.