One of the most common questions I would get when I was on my Pacific Crest Trail hike in the summer of 2017 was ‘what do you eat?’ Many people who did not know I was vegan asked me this question, but if I revealed that I was vegan, this question became even more likely to pop up.
Though it is possible to live off the land, there are two major problems a) time/energy invested in gathering food from the land is time/energy which is not devoted to moving forward and b) the lands surrounding the Pacific Crest Trail cannot produce nearly enough food to support all of the humans who are passing through. This is ignoring the issue that most hikers do not even know how to get enough food from the land, since if the problem were merely a lack of skills, skills could be acquired. Furthermore, there are often restrictions on gathering food on the land (for example, there is one section of the Washington PCT where only the local indigenous people are permitted to pick berries). Therefore, hikers need to carry all of the food they need to sustain themselves.
Okay, so practically all food needs to be packed. The next question is: mail drop, or buy in town? I had been advised that food options were limited at all of the resupply points in Washington, so I arranged a mail drop for every town. For my training hike in the CA-R section of the PCT, I was coming almost straight from home, so I just brought the food with me to Seiad Valley. What about my first Washington segment, between Cascade Locks (OR) and Trout Lake (WA)? At the Ashland Food Coop, I bought a lot of trail food, and then supplemented it with a few things I picked up at a Trader Joe’s in Portland.
That’s not to say that I only ate mail-dropped food after I left Trout Lake. I deliberately put at little less food than I needed in each food package because I knew I would be able to supplement my food supply at each town, and I wanted a little flexibility in my trail food options. I also took advantage of the hiker boxes, sometimes picking up weird food items which added variety to my diet, or sometimes just adding free food. When I was at the Dinsmores, there was no way to buy food (without getting a ride to another town), but the hiker box had all of the food I needed, and there were tons of ripe blackberries on the bushes to satisfy my craving for fresh fruit.
Yep, fresh fruit was the #1 food I craved in southern Washington. For obvious reasons, it hard to take fresh fruit for more than a day on a 5-7 day hike between towns. That meant that, when I did reach a town, one of the first things I did was get fruit. When I arrived in White Pass, and I saw that they had a few fresh oranges, I told the woman behind the counter “I am buying all of those orange right now, whatever the price.”
However, in central and northern Washington, it was prime berry-picking season, and those berries really took care of my fruit cravings on trail. They were delicious, and no doubt very good for my health. It was also a great excuse to stop hiking on a steep uphill section. I eventually became a huckleberry connoisseur, able to judge how good a huckleberry would taste based on looking at it. The most delicious huckleberries were along Agnes Creek, though that might have been because I was there at the right time.
That still leaves the question of what I ate (aside from berries). When I was planning my trip, I was aware of the problem of hikers getting tired of their food, and not being able to stand the food in their maildrops. I tried to prevent this problem by putting different types of food in each resupply box. Another principle I had was to never send regular Clif Bars. A lot of hikers complained that they ate so many Clif bars that they never wanted to eat any ever again. I also knew that Clif bars were more likely to be available in the Washington towns than most other kinds of trail foods, so that was one particular food I did not want to risk becoming sick of (this was the right choice; I did in fact buy some Clif bars in the towns of Washington, and I managed to not get sick of them).
My favorite resupply box was the box I sent to Trout Lake. It was full of superfood Larabars (which were different from the ordinary Larabars I had bought on sale in Ashland), Indian dal mix, coconut dessert things (coconut + sugar = lots of calories), ProBar energy chews, and good stuff like that. I still has nutritional yeast left over from my resupply in Ashland/Portland, so I was doing okay with protein too. Later on, I almost wished I had a repeat of my ‘Trout Lake Box’ – I say almost because, if all of my food drops had been the same, I might have gotten tired of the food, and then it would have been much less tasty.
At this point, you might have already figured out that I went stoveless AND I was not using campfires for cooking. I did consider bringing a stove – I have used a backpacking stove in Taiwan and Japan – but what ultimately convinced me to go stoveless was that I did not want to deal with the logistics of stove fuel. I have no regrets, and I think all of my PCT section hikes will be stoveless, because I did not miss hot meals at all (it may have helped that it was a very warm summer by Washington standards).
My resupply box in White Pass had my first set of freeze-dried dehydrated meals (actually not – I had picked up a few dehydrated meals in Ashland because they were relatively cheap and different from the ones I knew I had in my resupply boxes), along with some Clif Builder bars (not the regular Clif bars). I also supplemented it with some food from White Pass. How did I prepare them without hot water? COLD SOAK FOR THE WIN! I found that 1-2 hours of soaking was enough for just about any dehydrated meal, but leaving it to soak overnight was the best.
By far the most popular brand of dehydrated meals specifically for outdoor activity is Mountain House. However, they have almost no vegan options. I guess they don’t want money from vegan people. So I sent a lot of meals from the second most popular brand, Backpacker’s Pantry, which has lots of vegan options. Even though Backpacker’s Pantry is the #2 brand, I found that a lot of outdoor people have never heard of it. Huh. But my White Pass resupply had some dehydrated meals from an obscure business – Camp Chow. They were expensive, but I figured it would change things up.
I LOVED the veggie gumbo from Camp Chow – it’s expensive, but so good. I HATED the chili. In fact, their chili gave me indigestion so bad that it interfered with my hiking, I vomited, and I gave away my other package chili as fast as I could.
Anyway, back to Backpacker’s Pantry. I took 5 different Backpacker’s Pantry Meals with me. My favorite to least favorite were:
1. Cuban Black Beans & Rice
2. Chana Masala
3. Kathmandu Curry
4. Mexican Cowboy Beans & Rice
5. Louisiana Red Beans & Rice
All of these meals were variations of legumes & rice, which works really well for me as cold soak dehydrated meals. Legumes + rice are a complete protein. I also never got tired of any of these, though on my current PCT hike, I’m only taking the top three (plus some dehydrated meals from an obscure business for variety, and a couple of Backpacker’s Pantry meals I haven’t tried before).
Though I generally liked my food (with the notable exception of that chili from Camp Chow), while I was hiking the PCT in Washington, I ate to live, I did not live to eat. A lot of hikers obsess about food on the trail. Me? I was obsessed with water, and to a lesser extent finding good campsites. Food was an afterthought. Eating was a chore I did because I knew if I did not eat, I would not have enough energy. Also, eating snacks was a good excuse to take a break, and would also lighten my pack, which were more compelling reasons to eat food than my own appetite.
This was pretty much how I ate until I reached Stehekin. In Stehekin, it all changed. That’s the topic of the next post.