Food on the Pacific Crest Trail
Hiker hunger: the never-fully-satiated feeling of an empty stomach that occurs when you can’t keep up with the 4,000+ calories you burn each day on trail.
What you decide to eat on the Pacific Crest Trail is just about as personal of a decision as it gets. In this post, I will detail what I decided to eat and why, but know that your preferences will likely be different from mine.
As far as my initial approach, I did not count calories for my resupply, factor in a good ounce/calorie ratio, or, in full honesty, focus too much on nutritional value. I didn’t have extensive backpacking experience, so I pretty much just read blogs and picked out food for my resupply boxes that sounded good. Once on trail, my tastes and calorie intake changed, so I adjusted. Everything about this trail is about adjusting. With that in mind, here are the basic things I ate on trail, why I stuck with them, or why I changed my mind about them:
Trail Foods I Enjoyed
Breakfast was the meal that I had the most difficulty with figuring out what worked best for me. There were a couple of factors at play: I wanted it to be fast to eat so I could get going quickly, I didn’t want to cook in the morning, I needed it to have enough calories, and I wanted a quick clean up.
- Bars: This was by far my most typical breakfast on trail. I had no interest in cooking early in the morning and was much more focused on packing up camp. Bars were great because they required no cooking, no clean up, and I could eat them while still laying in my sleeping bag. In fact, I used chewing as a tiny way to get my body moving and awake early in the morning. My favorite breakfast bars were ProBars and Gatorade Whey Protein Bars because they were filling and packed more than 300 calories.
- Belvitas: Before I relied solely on bars, I used Belvita breakfast biscuits for quite some time on trail. The perks were that they were tasty and oddly filling for how small and light they were. At first I ate only one 230 calorie package in the morning, but I eventually bumped this up to two packages for more calories. The cons were that they were very crumbly. I would spend time shaking out my tent to get the crumbs from breakfast out. Eventually I switched to bars because they were just easier to eat. But if you get tired of bars, I still recommend Belvitas. I’ve tried all their varieties and have liked all of them: traditional, protein soft-baked, sandwich, bites. Bites are the least crumbly.
Lunch was the simplest meal of the day. I veered from my staple of a tuna wrap on a couple of occasions, but for whatever reason I never got sick of them. Lunch was also a great time to graze through all my delicious snack foods.
- Tuna/salmon tortilla wraps: This was overwhelmingly my most typical lunch on trail. This was partially due to the fact that I took a gamble and bought 40+ tuna packets off of Amazon to put in my resupply boxes. But I credit it more to that I never got sick of the meal. If I had lost interest in tuna, I would have dropped them in hiker boxes and figured out an alternative. But it stuck. For my wraps, I would pair one packet of tuna with a crushed salty snack like Cheez-Its or potato chips and maybe a dash of hot sauce and wrap it all together with one large flour tortilla. This was not my entire lunch, of course, as I boosted my calorie intake with other snacks (detailed later). I ate so much tuna that my mom grew concerned and swapped out some tuna packets for salmon packets, harder to find and a bit more expensive, but they contain less mercury. If I die from mercury poisoning, I will credit it to my time on the PCT. My favorite flavors were Lemon Pepper and Tuna Salad.
- Cheese tortilla wraps: For variation, I tried packing out a block of cheddar cheese to use instead of/in addition to my tuna packets. It’s not dangerous to pack out a block of (hard) cheese for a couple days out on the trail. The cheese does “sweat” and become somewhat of a oily mess, so that’s why I cut it out. If your terrain permits it, you can cool off your cheese by refrigerating it underneath snow. Just remember (or ask a friend) to dig out your cold cheese before heading out.
- Ramen: Ramen is a tasty, quick option for lunch. You can either spend time cooking it with your stove, or simply re-hydrate it 30–60 minutes before you plan to eat lunch. If you are rehydrating using a Talenti gelato jar like I did, be warned that one pack of ramen will rehydrate to the very top making it difficult to eat with a spoon without noodles spilling over. Because I often ate hot ramen for dinner, I didn’t eat it for lunch very frequently.
- My uncle’s dehydrated soups: My wonderful, thoughtful uncle sent me some packets of homemade, dehydrated chilis and white bean soups for me to eat on trail. I tried to cook these for dinner a couple of times, but they took a long time to rehydrate on the stove. I was too impatient to wait for these delicious meals to cook at dinner, so I simply started to rehydrate them in my Talenti jar when we stopped for our first morning break. After a couple hours, they were ready to eat cold at lunch. I loved having a meal that someone else cooked just for me. Thanks, Uncle Matt.
Snacks are everything on trail. When you’re walking 12–14 hours a day, you are burning calories at a far faster rate than what you’re taking in. It’s simply unfeasible to sit down and eat multiple meals every few hours, so that’s where snacks come in.
My snack strategy was broken by morning and afternoon. In the morning, I would put three bars in my left hipbelt pocket that I would eat every 1–2 hours as I became hungry. That is separate from my breakfast bar, so I estimate that I ate 1,000+ calories in bars alone before lunch. In the afternoon, I would swap out the empty bar wrappers with a small plastic baggie filled with non-bar snacks, listed below.
I typically never stopped walking when I ate bars, except for when I ate at a water filtration break. I put snacks in my left hipbelt pocket since I kept my phone, inhaler, and knife in my right hipbelt pocket, as I used my phone in particular more often than I ate snacks (I am righthanded, for context).
- Potato chips: Light, highly caloric, salty, easily packable, and tasty. These traits make chips a great backpacking food. In addition to complementing my tuna wraps with a crunch, I would eat these out of a ziploc with my spoon. I was teased about this, but my hands were usually gross and I didn’t want to get them greasy too. My favorite chip flavor was salt & vinegar. Fritos are also a great chip option.
- Cheez-Its: Just like potato chips, Cheez-Its are a wonderful backpacking food for the same reasons. When I bought food in towns, I usually only bought a box of Cheez-Its or a bag of chips, not both. My favorite flavor was white cheddar. I also ate these with a spoon because I’m me.
- Beef jerky: For whatever reason, I can only recall eating beef jerky while waiting for my dinner to cook. Jerky isn’t super high in calories, so it didn’t make much sense to eat it during the hiking day. It does have protein which, to my understanding, is good for recovery after workouts, but I am by no means a nutritionist. I ate beef jerky because it was tasty and light and varied my snack selection.
- Dried mango and dried cranberries: Dried fruit is a backpacking staple. Pretty light, high in calories, and delicious. My favorite dried fruits are mango and cranberries. Mango is pretty expensive to come by on trail, so I usually only ate it when it was in my resupply boxes. I bought Just Dried Mango packets from Trader Joe’s when putting together my boxes because it didn’t have added sugar and was the most cost effective option out of all the local grocers and online stores when I was researching foods for my boxes last year.
- Nutella: Everyone loves the person who has a jar of Nutella. Sure way to make friends on trail. The upsides were that it was supremely tasty, you could eat it with just a spoon or on a tortilla, and very high in calories. The downside was clear: weight. A small jar of Nutella is over 14 oz. Oof, but worth the weight in my opinion.
- Cookies: Cookies were wonderful treats to eat on trail, but they crumbled almost instantly. But if you use my spoon technique, you can easily eat cookie crumbs in a dignified, mess-free way. I liked to eat Chips O’Hoy, Oreos, and Mother’s Double Fudge Cookies. This snack does not make you feel healthy.
- Bars: I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about my most popular morning snacks. I ate over 35 types of bars on trail and these were my favorites or most common bars: Clif Bar White Chocolate Macadamia, Clif Bar Coconut Chocolate Chip, Clif Bar Carrot Cake, Clif Bar Apricot, Powerbar Chocolate, Kind Bar Almond & Coconut, GoMacro Protein Pleasure, Snickers bars, and Milky Way bars. I recommend you try to notice how different bars impact your body, so you can figure out what works best for you. For example, Powerbars gave me an intense rush of energy due to its sugar content, so I ate this as my first non-breakfast bar whenever I was feeling groggy.
This was by far my favorite meal of the day. I really enjoyed the promise of a hot meal at the end of the day. Typically, we didn’t hike after dinner, but when we did, it gave us a boost to finish out the day.
- Annie’s mac & cheese: Annie’s was the holy grail of dinner options for me. A whole box can be used as a single serving. It takes a bit longer to cook than these other dinners, but it’s well worth the weight. I liked to add olive oil and bite-sized chunks of an Epic Bacon Bar for extra flavoring and calories. You can also save some of the pasta water to make it a creamier meal.
- Ramen: One ramen was never enough for a single dinner, so I created Double Ramen Night. My favorites were double Chicken, Chicken and Chili (fun fact: Chili is a vegetarian option), and double Oriental (also vegetarian). Ramen cooks super fast. And if you’re worried about MSG, maybe use half a seasoning packet. I never did that though. Also I highly recommend trying out other ramen options like NongShim Shin and Sapporo Ichiban.
- Knorr’s: Knorr’s is a very popular available dinner option on trail. They come in four categories: pasta sides, rice sides, “Fiesta” sides, and “Asian” sides. They cook fairly quickly. It takes a bit of finagling to cook these with enough/not too much water and not burning them. I recommend filling up the water to about a half inch above the dry pasta/rice mix. Try to stir while it’s cooking so the bottom doesn’t burn. My favorites were Chicken, Taco Rice, Spanish Rice, and Teriyaki Rice. You will find “Chicken” everywhere you go. I’m fairly certain its seasoning is the same as in Top Ramen Chicken
- Pasta: Specifically angel hair pasta is the best for on trail because it cooks amazingly quickly. Less than four minutes is pretty wonderful when you’re eager to eat. I recommend waiting for the water to get hot before dropping in the pasta. Otherwise, the pasta will be kind of mushy. You do not need to do this for Knorr’s. Pasta Roni was a good brand for angel hair pasta. You can also buy a pound of angel hair pasta and one or two of these sauce packets for a more cost effective set of dinners.
Water was clearly the most available and frequent drink. It was nice to mix things up with some different options.
- Trader Joe’s instant coffee: This is by far the best instant coffee pack, in my opinion. They already come with dried milk and sugar and are cost effective at $0.50 a pack. If you like your coffee black, this isn’t for you. I would put one or two packs in my Talenti jar with not too much water for our coffee breaks or lunch.
- Mio Electrolytyes: Electrolytes are super important when you’re working hard and sweating all day. I don’t know the science behind any of it, but I can tell you that I felt much better when I drank electrolytes in the hot afternoon. Mio is great because it comes in an easily squirtable bottle and is pretty easy to find on trail. My favorite flavors were Berry Blast and Lemon Lime.
Trail Foods I Did Not Enjoy
Some foods just don’t work out for you. And that’s perfectly fine. Your least favorite food might be someone’s favorite. Trade it, drop it in a hiker box, or just bite the bullet and eat it.
- Oatmeal: I don’t like oatmeal off-trail, so it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t like it on-trail. Filling? Yes. But tasty? Not in my opinion. Plus, it’s difficult to eat while laying in your sleeping bag.
- Granola: I tried granola and water for one section at the beginning. It was tasty, but it took too long to prepare and eat. I also couldn’t eat this in my sleeping bag. Quite bulky as well.
- Pop-Tarts: Every blog I read before claimed that Pop-Tarts were the way to go. They are super high in calories, quite small, and dirt cheap. So I tried it out. A couple of major issues: 1. The calories are all sugar, so you get hungry immediately after eating it. 2. They are super crumbly and prone to breaking. It was a mess eating them.
- Idahoan instant mashed potatoes: Tried them once. Never again. I detested the texture and lack of flavor. I forced myself to eat them once in the desert and wrote them off for the rest of the hike. I am in the minority though. These were an extremely popular food option on trail.
- Peanut butter: Oh, peanut butter. I like peanut butter off-trail, but for whatever reason, I could not stomach it on trail. I did use peanut butter as a way to supplement my bar breakfast for more calories in Northern California, when I was struggling to keep up with how much energy we were burning. I would take two spoonfuls and swallow them with water like a pill. Not a highlight of my day but it did add needed calories.
- Trail mix: I carried trail mix with me every day on trail all the way to the Canadian border. This was because I considered it my emergency rations. In the event that I ran out of food, I would always have trail mix on hand. It did come in handy when I did almost run out of food in one of our first sections in Northern California. Trail mix is just not my favorite snack food, but if it’s yours, that’s terrific.
- Off-brand mac & cheese: I tried experimenting with non-Annie’s mac & cheese to see if I could save money that way but it turned out awful. The orange was bright neon which freaked me out, and the pasta was mushy. Super cheap mac and cheese wasn’t worth it to me after that.
- Dinners that required more than 10 minutes of cooking: Anything that required me to watch my pot while everyone else around me was already eating was quickly nixed.
- Mountain House / Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried dinners: I thought I would use these as a kind of treat one trail, so I bought six to put in my resupply boxes. The pros are obvious: you only have to boil water, pretty tasty, and no clean up. But the cons are that they are very pricy and quite bulky. I had a terrible stomachache after eating one in Washington which has since turned me off to them forever. I can’t determine whether my pain was directly related to the Mountain House I ate for dinner, but I simply can’t stomach them anymore. If you do decide to eat these, know that “two servings” equals “one PCT serving.” Also if you’re buying their granola and milk packs, what in the world are you doing? You do not have to spend $7 on dehydrated milk and regular granola. That is insane.
- Non-Trader Joe’s instant coffee: Any instant coffee that didn’t already have creamer and sugar tasted bitter and awful to me. I only stuck with TJ’s.
- Mio Energy Black Cherry: Holy hell, this stuff tastes nasty. And I drank it for so long! Before using Trader Joe’s instant coffee, I would use this Mio Energy to give myself a boost when we were waking up at 4am in the Sierra Nevadas. It tastes like cough syrup. I knew hikers that would take it like a shot in the morning to get it over with.
Food I Liked to Eat in Town
The PCT was one big food tour. When we got to town, we ate ourselves sick. When you eat pretty much the same things every day, most of it processed, you crave fresh food. And lots of it.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables: This is the single biggest craving I had on trail. Fresh produce weighs a ton because of all the water, so it’s not ideal to carry out. Also after eating so much processed carbs, it’s a relief to eat something that seems to have nutritional value.
- Yogurt: We would eat yogurt to add some healthy bacteria in our system.
- Beer: Beer’s terrific. Not sure what else needs to be added here. Always a treat.
- Cheeseburgers: Every single town you go to will offer cheeseburgers. Make it a game. Compare and contrast different burgers you eat on trail. Tip: The general store in Sierra City, CA offers the “Gutbuster”, a 1-pound bacon cheeseburger. Not for the faint of heart.
Other PCT Food Tips
- Olive oil is an excellent way to add both flavor and extra calories to your meals. Use a dependable container to hold the oil, like its original bottle or a small Nalgene bottle. Double bag it so that if it leaks, it doesn’t get everywhere.
- Knorr’s sides and pasta in general do not cold soak well.
- Chocolate melts. Prepare accordingly.
- Snow can be used to quickly chill cheese and solidify melted chocolate bars. Watch for wildlife, though. I once lost one of the Snickers bars pictured in this snow to a raven.
- You should shoot for a minimum of 250 calories per bar to maximize food efficiency and so that you don’t have to eat every twenty minutes.
- Clif bars can be used as an indicator for how expensive a resupply option is (i.e. if a Clif bar is $3, you’re in for an pricy shopping trip).
- This may be obvious, but eating dinner gives you a much-needed boost to crush some evening miles.
- Put a sticker on your bear canister since everyone’s looks pretty much the same.
- Bear canisters can also double as beer coolers.
- Take a daily probiotic to help with good digestion.
P.S. If you’re interested in reading more about my PCT 2017 adventure, I shared a post on my Instagram for every day on trail. I have written more about my experience on Hike with LL. And if you are planning your own hike, I’d be happy to answer any questions about my experience, gear, and resupply strategy.