Monday, April 5, 2021

What do you eat while hiking 2/3 of the way around the world?

After posting what gear we used on the 24,000 km long Great Trail people’s attention quickly turned to our diets.  We soon received lots of great questions about what we eat.  How we keep our energy up and how we avoid becoming bored with our food choices. 

To be honest before setting out across Canada along The Great Trail, having to think about trail food and being prepared for what meals we would have was something we gave little thought to.   Our venture across Ontario’s 800 km long Bruce Trail and Newfoundland’s 300 km long East Coast Trail both allowed us to spend 2-3 days on the respective pathways in between towns.  This meant, given the short distances, that we often grabbed our resupply packages as we went and continued on. 

Similarly on the 2400 km of Europe’s Camino Frances, ViaPodiensis  / GR65, and Caminho Portuguese planning our eating was second to the pilgrimage.  Mornings were spent having Cappuccino or CafĂ© con Leche with croissants, lunches were whatever the local establishment was serving and dinner tended to be a regional treat with lots of Vino Tinto.  


So once again figuring out what we had to eat was not something we really had to think of there.  The fact was that generally wherever you stop in Europe (at least these camino routes) there was be something to enjoy.  

More than often that something was also amazing, and in those rare cases where it wasn’t the amazing pilgrims and vino made things work out.  As you can tell trekking Europe was very challenging!

Theory vs. Reality

When we began preparing for our trek across Canada we had every intention of dehydrating our own food, preparing hundreds of premade meals and sending out dozens of resupply boxes across the nation each year.  However, soon work, life, and exhaustion kicked.  Most of our planning and preparations took place between 8 pm and midnight every day (after work) during which time we were reading about other hikers, locating the very few resources about the Great Trail / Trans Canada Trail, and Google walking the route to build our own guide.   In addition to this the fact is that neither of us are anywhere close to being gourmet cooks.  So as we looked at dehydrators, and read hundreds of blogs and bought dozens of books on making camp meals we realized that we were not skilled enough to be those people.   As such, despite our best intentions, we realized that we did not have the capability to make 1200 days of food for two people and attempt to coordinate the countless resupply package drops in the time that we had available to us before setting out.

With that said in the last year we met up with JUSI Adventures on the Great Trail and they shared some of their extra food with us.  That night while enjoying their delicious meal I wanted to either travel with them or marry whichever one of them was the cook!  Their homemade dehydrated foods were AMAZING!  So I entirely respect those who have the skill and take the time to make their own trail food.  Especially since pre-making your meals is a great option and one which solves most of the challenges we listed yesterday including weight, packability, nutrition, packaging, and variety.

After drafting our trek schedule we recognized that our largest challenge was not going to be any of these factors – instead the biggest obstacle was going to be actually finding groceries.  Having Google walked the nation more than a dozen times before hiking and having since trekked from Cape Spear Newfoundland to Winnipeg Manitoba the fact is that much of the route is a grocery store desert pushing us to have more of a reliance on convenience stores, gas stations, and truck stops - or if we were are really lucky Subway restaurants.   We have also found that often the areas the trail passes through are nowhere near where the food is located which is typically alongside the highway some 10-15 km away.   Or, we have been stunned by the number of communities who have no local shops but instead regularly commute large distances across counties and provinces to get to a Walmart or grocery store.  Adding to these challenges, a large number of the communities that the Great Trail traverses are seasonal in nature which means that their local shops are either closed most of the year or only have a very limited selection to choose from when open.  As a result our resupply runs are often larger and less varied than we had originally anticipated.

Given this situation, the reality is that we often get what we get, figure out how to mix and match on the fly and from outside appearances likely eat far more high energy junk food than our dentists or parents should ever know about.

I openly admit that my trail diet is not ideal, and likely can’t even be considered great.  I begin the year trekking as Winter Winnie the Pooh and end the year hiking as Fall Winnie the Pooh.  I think I am odd, as I am the only person I have ever met or talked to who gets heavier as they trek.  Alternatively my trekking partner and photographer goes from 165 lbs to 135 lbs each season and by the end of the year is holding up his hiking shorts while walking.  So we are all different, have to prepare differently and need to approach what foods we rely on differently.

If you are new to long distance hikes or planning a thru hike then take a look at our other blog on some factors toconsider while planning your meals and resupply options!

Eating on the Great Trail for 330 days

So with all of that said, I am sure you are curious to see how we have eaten on The Great Trail for the past 330 days covering between 6500 and 7000 km.  As always, theory of planning and realities of the trail differ from one another.  The notion of being able to regularly get to well stocked grocery stores versus the realities of what is available at gas stations or holiday shops along the route.  The theory of being able to by a nutritious range of foods that are packable versus the reality that so much of what our stores carry only come in bulk sizes (ex - toilet paper and laundry pods).  The theory of receiving regular resupply boxes versus the reality that the post office is not always open and that sometimes your package has been lost or sent back.  And the theory of buying premade trail meals which are wonderful, lightweight, and nutritious versus the reality that most of prohibitively expensive to regularly eat and rely on. 

There is little denying that despite the best laid plans the trail is often very different once you are out there.  The result has been that much of our resupplying has been done based on what we find in convenience stores, gas stations, truck stops, and seasonal stores in resort communities.  Unfortunately, most of these locations don’t have a focus on nutritious foods or even a huge range of options.  If you want chocolate, a can of pop, a bag of chips or a package of Smores then you are set.   However if you have your heart set on actual food or live with a specialized diet then you have challenges to overcome.   Fortunately many of these same small communities have a Tim Hortons, McDonalds, or local diner which means that you can grab a sandwich or a large meal before continuing on – even if you can’t resupply.  However, a large part of the reality of thru-hiking is adjusting to what is available and dealing with what you have and when.

But speaking from experience - you can trek far longer than you realize on ketchup, crackers, and water.  Not that I would wish to relive those 4 days or recommend the experience to anyone else.

What our Food looks like

With me being a vegetarian buying food, maintaining nutrient levels and having protein can be a real challenge.  Unlike a lot of long distance hikers who live on easy clean proteins like tuna, chicken, and jerky mine comes largely through the random (and few) premade backpacker meals that we have, cheese, and in meals we enjoy at restaurants in resupply towns. I also admit, given a number of factors given much as what is often available we don’t have a huge amount of variety in our diets on the trail.  Sometimes that takes a great deal of mental fortitude when you are committed to eating the same thing every day for weeks, months and years on end. 

Breakfast

-         Quaker Oatmeal and dehydrated berries or raisin bread and peanut butter

-         Coffee

** While we love raising bread and a good bagel, packs of bread are bulking in a backpack, crush too much and packdown - so tortilla wraps or flatbreads are our staple for breads.

**Peanut Butter is a rare treat – as the single serving packages are hard to find and full bottles are a heavy choice to decide to put in your backpack.

Snacks

-         Cliff bar or Lara Bar

-         Water with NUUN tablet (for flavor and electrolytes)

 Lunch

-         Tortilla wrap and peanut butter or local treat.

 Snacks

-         Clif bar or Lara Bar

-         Trail mix and dehydrated fruit (peaches, apples, berries)

-         Water with NUUN tablet

** Trail mix is great for variety but it can also be the most expensive part of resupply – nuts and dehydrated fruits are often expensive.

Dinner

-         Meal of rice, beans and wrap (flavored wrap – Spinach, Red Pepper) with a bit of Ms. Dash for flavor

-         Tea

Evening Treat

-         Cadbury Fruit and Nuts bar for a late night treat along with a cup of tea or hot chocolate

Communities along the Great Trail

Added to our usual routine, we also tend to buy ice cream to enjoy and cool off with when passing through towns.  Similarly if we are stopped in town for a day resupplying and catching up on our work we tend to buy a large container of raw vegetables and fruit as a change of pace and regain lost nutrients.  Additionally, if we see a Subway along our route we often get a large sandwich filled with lot of raw vegetables.  (Sometimes we actually get an extra to carry with us for later).  We have often been fortunate to be given treats by amazing trail angels which are an amazing break from our routine!  The only other major variation in our diet comes at the conclusion of a major section of The Great Trail or when we have completed a province – at which point we tend to have a celebratory pint of local beer.

Resupply and Dehydrated Meals

In our last post we talked about the challenges of navigating what to buy to resupply on long distance hikes.  Our post detailed a number of things to consider for people who want to hike.   Once again, we were utterly stunned when we began to quickly receive a surprising number of emails insisting that we were spreading false advice.  

The critiques came in a number of forms however the two most repeated comments were:

(1) That food purchases and considerations for hikers where entirely unnecessary as one only needs to use pre-made dehydrated meals like AlpineAire, Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry or Happy Yak.  That “any suggestion that people eat anything else on the trail or in the bush was stupid and for noobs only.”

(2) That we should be “ashamed for not dehydrating all of our meals in advance” because the types of foods we were eating “promotes that people use products with packaging.”  When in turn we asked how we would transport 1200 days of homemade dehydrated food we were informed that we should be buying ziplocks which we could then dispose of along the way “as ziplocks are biodegradable” – which they are not and makes them merely another form of packaging. 

Surprisingly there seems to be a great misconception about what is biodegradable.  Just as there was a great willingness to repeatedly shame us for how our trek has been shaped so far. 

On the subject of pre-made dehydrated meals, while I have to say that we have been very fortunate to enjoy such meals in resupply packages sent by my family.  (In particular I enjoy Happy Yak meals) The fact is that these types of meals are very expensive and you could not reasonably trek 900-1200 days eating 2-3 of these meals per day given their cost.  On average they each cost between 9 and 19 dollars Canadian.  This means that having 2 meals a day for 2 people over the course of 4 years would cost between $50,000 and $90,000.  That is prohibitively expensive and inconceivable as an option for any long distance trek. 

I also have to say that in many ways these products bother me.  I have found a lot of their packages jammed into tree roots, tossed on the side of trails, melted in campfire pits, and stuffed under camping platforms (and far too many of those silicate packages on the trail).  Though perhaps this is unsurprising as we have also been emailed by people informing us that "you don’t need to carry out the packaging of these products if you bring a trowel so you can bury them!" (A comment that boggles the mind until you see someone do just that)  I recognize how great the packaging seems as it is light weight, and how it can be filled with boiling water and act as a bowl – however,  I think these companies need to get on top of things and start to put our their products in highly biodegradable packaging and do more to promote LEAVE NO TRACE principles.

** As a note to those who emailed and messaged insisting that these products are Terracycle items which “means you can put them into the earth because Terra means earth.”  This IS NOT TRUE.  Terracycle products are recyclable - they are NOT biodegradable.  As with all packaging Leave No Trace Principles need to be learned and followed whether on a day walk or thru hike! **

Instead, our focus in creating variety in our meals - owing to the kindness of Briden Solutions in Calgary who have helped us out since day 1 -  has been to buy local groceries and to include a range of freeze dried fruits and vegetables into what we can find.  We find this to be a much more practical approach that gives us more ability to vary our meals at a lower daily cost. 

Hiker know thy self, know thy comfort level, and know thy needs

That is what the past 330 days on the Great Trail has looked like in terms of our food and diet.  Perhaps not ideal, perhaps not as refined as all the expert hikers do - but we have done well enough to get from Newfoundland to Manitoba.  

To any who are looking at setting our on their first hikes or long distance treks the best advice we can offer (as it was with gear) is to find what works for you and what you enjoy. What has worked for us, what we can tolerate is not meant to fit everyone.  What works for others, no matter how loudly they recommend something, might not work for you.   Our comments are meant as a guide with reference to our experiences and not to meant as a directive for all persons heading into the wilderness or onto the trails. 

As always you will do best out there if you know yourself, know the trail, and follow Leave no Trace principles when camping and hiking!

1 comment:

  1. I love your pragmatic approach, and can certainly identify! We prepared some of our own dehydrated food for 5 nights in the Grand Canyon, and it turned out we had too much. We survived a day of walking in France on a shared granola bar and an apple because there were no shops in little hamlets we passed through, and when we finally found a shop it was between 12 and 2:30 when the shop closed for the sacred lunch "hour" and there were no cafes or bars, either. Sometimes it was just the wrong day of the week.

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