…by July, the answer will be “anything that cannot run faster than me.” Which is true, but probably not the answer you were looking for. The short answer is just about anything that is dehydrated for freeze dried or requires no cooking (yet also contains very little water).
Water is the giver of life, it is also the bane of the hiker. Water weighs over 8 lbs per gallon and is the single heaviest thing we will carry. Therefore, we will carry as little as possible. Most of the Appalachian Trail is very rich in water resources, so much of the time we will only carrying one or two liters (quarts) for each of us. There are stretches of the trail where there are 20-25 miles between water sources where we each have a 3 liter platypus bag where we can carry more for either dry stretches or for dry camping (where a campsite does not have a water source). Most of the time, we will rarely go more than 5 miles between water sources.
Those water sources are small springs most of the time, small streams other times, and rivers or lakes or hand pumps or spigots every once in a while. We have a small gravity fed water filter (fill a 3L bag and hang it in a tree and the water filters itself in five minutes) that we will use all of the time and we are carrying chlorine dioxide drops for water sources that are not springs (and more likely to contain viruses). The drops take ten minutes to be effective, so they are not my favorite first method since I like to camel up at the source and carry very little to the next source. When you use drops, you tend to carry it and hike while it does its magic, so you end up carrying more water and have to wait longer to drink. They are tasteless unlike the old iodine tablets I used to use (blue Ramen noodles anyone?).
Breakfasts are not fancy – granola bars, granola cereal with powdered milk (yuck), pop-tarts, other breakfasty bars, oatmeal, bagels (dry or with peanut butter unless we can find some cream cheese packets) maybe some bacon beef jerky (yes, that’s a thing now). Except for oatmeal and bagels, its pretty much wake up, pack up, and start hiking while you eat your breakfast.
Lunch is the most varied meal of the day. If we are resupplying from a mail drop, then its probably ramen noodles or something similarly boring. Cookies, crackers, candy bars, dried fruit, nuts, potato chips, and similar things usually top off a lunch and get snacked on all day long. Its easier to keep going when you nibble every two hours. Famous hiker Andrew Skurka refers to this as the “caloric drip” method of eating. It keeps your blood sugar more stable and helps you keep your energy up and not get bloated by large meals. When we are resupplying from grocery stores, we will eat peanut butter and jelly on tough bread or tortillas, cheese, dried meats. Leaving a town, we might pack out a piece of fresh fruit, or a non-dried sealed meat or something else that is heavy but fresh and a variation on our diet.
Dinner will typically be cooked from a dehydrated base of mac-n-cheese, noodles-n-sauce, rice-n-sauce, and those kinds of boxed dinners or sides. Dehydrated potatoes are fifty times better than they were 20 years ago so those will either bulk up a meal or become a meal on their own. Packets of tuna or other meats will help add protein. I also will be carrying a “kitchen” of dehydrated mixed vegetables to add to those packaged products to add variety and nutrition. We will be bringing powdered goats milk (better than cows milk) to add flavor and calories as well as a jar of coconut oil to add fat and calories. The first dinner out from a town will probably include a bagged salad kit. Fresh vegetables is one thing you do tend to crave after a while.
We will be carrying 3000-3500 calories per day in food, but be burning about 5000-6000 calories while hiking. That range of a calorie deficit means we could lose up to 3/4 lb every day! Over 150 days, that would mean I could lose half my body weight and Karen would vanish into thin air, bones and all! That obviously can’t happen which is why we will be bringing the coconut oil to add calories (at night when your body can use the fat to stay warm) and will be over-eating as much as possible in towns. It is quite easy to consume 5000 calories in one meal at a Chinese buffet or Pizza Hut. It is also why we will be eating ice cream at every opportunity and packing dairy whenever possible.
When you first start out, your appetite is pretty normal if not suppressed a bit because of the jump in exercise. After two weeks is when the hiker hunger kicks in. By the third or fourth week, full hiker hunger should be in force. Which is perfect, because at that point we should be passing the 501 Shelter in Pennsylvania which will be our first opportunity to order pizza delivery right on the trail. This shelter also marks the division between flat-and-smooth PA and rocky destroy-your-feet PA.
In the last decade, a large number of eating establishments have discovered that starving hikers make for great supplement to their business. And hikers have discovered that fresh food they don’t have to carry is like Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one. The 501 shelter has fliers posted inside from a local pizza shop and there is excellent cell reception. You call up and order a pizza and walk a mere 0.2 miles to the roadside pulloff and wait for the driver. Fifteen minutes later you are rewarded with treasures from heaven. There are probably twenty such places along the trail and we will try to take advantage of each and every one of them.
Another treat along the trail is what is referred to as “the New England deli hike” where there is a deli either on the trail, or within half a mile down the road from the trail almost every single day. Nearly a month of the hike will be like this. I can’t wait. Buy one sandwich for right there, and buy a second sandwich to pack away for dinner. Bliss. Many of the gas stations in the area have a deli right inside and let me tell you, these are top notch delis. At one road crossing in New York a hot dog stand is 0.1 miles up a road, and a dairy with home made ice cream 0.5 miles further. Trust me, we will be stopping there. I ate 4 hot dogs last time I was there and that was just so I didn’t fill up on ice cream.