Ask hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) what they think about most on this stunning adventure and most people will answer emphatically in chorus, with big grins—“FOOD!!” Even though they chat with people from all over the globe, cross scary snowscapes using ice axes and crampons, pony up courage to forge gushing rivers, enjoy sweet encounters with wildlife, and photograph glowing sunsets that will become treasured memories, many confess that what to eat at the next “re-supply” town is often paramount in their minds. As they sip from their water bottles, swat “skeeters” and apply sunscreen, many fantasize about huge helpings of pizza, ice cream, pasta, burgers, chocolate bars, candy, and whopping “gas station pickles.”
While meandering each day through desert, mountains, forests, and snow on the hiking trail that stretches 2,655 miles from San Diego County almost to the Canadian border, they’ll talk about what they want to toss when they get to the next tiny crossroads (maybe dehydrated mashed potatoes or crushed crackers) and what they hope to find there. As the day wears them down, they can get so exhausted that they finally just think about food quietly as they plod along in their boots, with humongous blisters, one step after another, until they reach a level spot in a safe place, pitch their tent, zip their sleeping bag, and collapse into blissful oblivion. Some may prepare a quick meal if they have the stamina—and even a hot one if they’ve brought a burner. But the weight of this journey is everything. Carrying a burner gets old. The longer these sojourners continue, the more they use hiker boxes in towns to abandon heavier items, unloading the food they’re sick of and gear they no longer need. Over time, the chat about what sustenance to carry can become like an obsession—a never-ending journey in itself—to get it right.
The world-famous PCT starts at the Southern Terminus in Campo, near the border wall in East San Diego County, and winds its way through California, Oregon, and Washington, over the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains to the Northern Terminus in a forest just south of the international border shared with British Columbia. It takes most hikers about five months to complete. Some do it in sections over several years, while others do the long haul in the same year and earn the title thru-hikers.
Many have researched the trail for years, waiting for their “gap year” or retirement to do it. They come from every country in the world, carrying their painstakingly packed provisions in their ultra-light packs. A lot of them have spent months practicing to make every square inch and ounce count, doing test hikes to see how everything works, researching calories needed, studying previous PCT hikers’ tips, trying out their homemade jerky or dehydrated meals until finally the big day to embark arrives in the spring.
The PCT will test their plans. Many of these globe-trotters say that after weeks of eating oatmeal, ramen, freeze-dried meals, pretzels, jerky, packets of quinoa, tuna, protein powder, nut butter, and textured vegetable protein, they “can’t even look at the stuff anymore, let alone stomach it.” Also, what they’ve packed won’t necessarily agree with them under extreme conditions, such as high altitude or blood sugar fluctuations after arduous days. Some people develop nausea or digestive disruptions, according to their accounts. The term hangry is used a lot. Many PCT hikers say they benefit from taking supplements and electrolytes but others have to be careful not to take too much of a good thing.
Over time, these trekkers can get so worn down, sometimes hiking alone in the elements, that they feel like giving up the journey. According to the PCT Association, of the 4,728 thru-hike passes secured in 2022, only 868 hikers completed the journey. But nourishing food, a hug, and a little “you go girl” from other hikers and volunteer trail angels can help them regain their resolve. Rejoining their fellow hikers during stops in towns where they might pick up packages mailed by family, take a shower, do laundry, and even overnight in a motel, they can commiserate, joke, sleep like logs, fortify a determined attitude, and hit the trail again. Many figure out what food works to keep their stamina and resilience going and adapt pretty quickly while others spend lots of miles trying to fine-tune it. Food, to put it mildly, can become “a thing” on this vacation—more than many expect.
Some trail angels along the route provide meals or lodging, rides to and from the airport, and advice about local amenities. Scott Vanderlip, a founder of Trail Angel Central, which aims to connect angels and hikers, says he’s a bit embarrassed to describe what many PCT hikers survive on in the wilderness. He’s a hiker himself. “They tend to prioritize food by price, calories per ounce, and weight, often in that order. This puts toaster pastries near the top of the hiker food chain, or ramen and instant potatoes—for a ramen bomb.” As an angel, Vanderlip cooked hiker meals this season at CLEEF Campground in Campo, where a shuttle by hosts Just Paul and One Speed (PCT trail names) brings adventurers to camp overnight, hear advice, and start their trip with a warm breakfast.
Along the way, many learn that lightweight food doesn’t always satisfy. Some are willing to haul their favorite menu options but not very far. A mature Frenchman with a very heavy pack decides to call it quits after the arduous hike up out of Hauser Canyon to Lake Morena County Park in searing summer heat. He offers his packaged food—pasta with amazing sauces—to fellow hikers who join him for a meal at the nearby Oak Shores Malt Shop. “Oh, no thank you!” one pair gasps, almost in horror. He looks shocked. “But, it’s French food!” he responds, appearing rather hurt. (Mon Dieu!) The others explain, “Thank you very much, but it would weigh too much.” H tries, “Coffee?” showing them his cache of French espresso. “Oh, no, really, thank you,” they say.
When the going gets rough, candy helps many people log more miles. Hikers joke about the secret amount of sugary treats they carry but most are serious about protein too. One hiker is passionate about making his own beef jerky for his section hikes. With his family-endowed trail name, Corgi Legs, he set out this year hoping to trim up on the trail.
Humor aside, the full PCT thru-hike is a very serious journey that will test anyone’s health and strength—emotionally, physically, socially, and financially. Injuries are common, a few people get lost or disappear, and over the years, there have been fatalities. Wisdom about what to pack on this trip is crucial. Eating consistently for stamina, knowing how quickly you’ll go through food, how much energy you’ll need, what the terrain and weather will be like, how many days until the next town, and what’s available there is vital. The trail includes many designated wilderness areas. Unprepared people quit. Some have to be rescued. It’s worth learning from those who have done this before.
While each person’s needs may be different due to a number of factors such as age or existing health conditions, the PCT Association offers a wealth of basic information. One post emphasizes the rigorous adventure will create “daily flushing out of salt and vitamins from the body,” for example from sweating. Hikers should replenish accordingly.
Some thru-hikers have become health professionals. Anna Herby is a registered dietician and certified diabetes educator, with a doctorate in health sciences. She works as the nutrition education specialist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine through plant-based nutrition. Herby did the PCT thru-hike in 2014 on a vegan diet. She’d been a vegetarian since childhood. To prepare, she did several section hikes in Oregon and Washington on a vegetarian diet.
“I’ve been vegan since 2013, and I’ve done many successful hikes on this diet, including the Continental Divide Trail in 2021, the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2019, and the Alpine Pass Route across Switzerland in 2017,” she says. Herby is the author of The Dietician’s Resupply Box; The Guide to Thru-Hiking on a Plant-Based Diet.
Herby says whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables are the best foods for hiking. “I usually start my day with a vegan, energy bar while I start hiking. Then, I stop for coffee, granola, and dried fruit for breakfast. Lunch might be a tortilla with instant hummus or rehydrated beans with some dried fruit. For dinner, I usually have a homemade, dehydrated meal, like lentil vegetable mushroom stew with brown rice, black bean chili, or a pasta dish with veggies. I like to have chocolate after dinner, too.”
“We should be focusing mainly on carbohydrates throughout the day because they are the main fuel [source] for our muscles, which are constantly working on a long hike. An endurance athlete needs 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise, so when you’re walking all day, this really adds up,” Herby says.
PCT hikers at Lake Morena County Park this season were adding protein powder to their coffee and oatmeal. Others were making a beeline to the malt shop, where burgers, chicken, pizza, and eggs were on the menu. One trekker ate chicken drumsticks and ordered more for the hike.
“Protein needs for an endurance athlete are 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, so for someone who weighs 130 pounds, they’ll need 71 to 83 grams of protein per day,” according to Herby.
However, she says some hikers focus too much on protein and not enough on carbs. “Protein doesn’t provide the quick energy for your muscles that carbs do, so too much protein could make you feel sluggish. Most people will naturally meet their protein needs if they eat a wide variety of food and consume enough calories. However, hikers who are at a consistent calorie deficit may also have a protein deficit. In this case, it makes sense to focus on getting adequate or even extra protein to prevent muscle loss and malnutrition. Plant-based protein is really the healthiest option,” in Herby’s opinion, “so making sure to include beans, lentils, and nuts in your diet every day can help a hiker meet higher protein needs.”
“Most hikers will be consuming fewer calories on trail, then making up for it in town,” Herby says. “That can be OK if you’re choosing the right foods.” She says what’s missing in a lot of comfort food, like ice cream and pasta, are micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. “These are essential for recovering from the stress that hikers put on their bodies. It may be fine to have pasta and mashed potatoes for a few days on the trail but the town food has to be more nutritious. Gorging on ice cream and pizza gives you the calories but the poor nutrient quality of these foods also adds extra stress on the body that it now has to deal with in addition to recovering from intense hiking,” Herby advises.
“Carbs are the primary fuel for muscles and the brain,” Herby reminds us. “Becoming hangry is because you don’t have enough carbs and sugar in your system. With hikers, this can happen for a few reasons. First, they are burning through carbs and calories so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with the body’s needs. Second, many carbohydrates that people consume are simple carbs, like candy bars or white flour tortillas. These burn off really quickly. One way to avoid getting too hangry is to switch to complex carbohydrates—whole wheat tortillas in place of white flour, whole rolled oats instead of instant, dried fruit instead of candy. This will give more sustained energy throughout the day.
Some thru-hikers aspire to lose extra weight on the journey. How can they do this safely?
Herby says the main concern is that people will lose weight successfully without having any concerns about how they’re eating. “A person could literally eat ice cream and pizza for the whole trail and still lose weight. Hikers who are not focused on nutrition will risk gaining the weight right back once they complete their hike.”
“Many people will face injury and their ability to bounce back is much more related to what they eat than most people realize,” according to Herby. “Many high-profile athletes are adopting a vegan diet these days and finding their ability to recover from intense activity is greatly improved. This can also be the case for hikers. [An anti-inflammatory] diet will allow you to get up each day and put in the miles without feeling as sore. If you do get injured, your chances of healing on the trail are greatly improved if you eat the right food.”
Most thru-hikers conclude their trip in the fall. Here’s one of this season’s success stories. Megan Swinney of Missouri who goes by the trail name BAG trekked from Campo out of Hauser Canyon into Lake Morena County Park on her own in the brutal spring heat. That following morning, she decided she didn’t have what it was going to take to do the whole trip. But, with some encouragement from other campers, she strode back on the trail and hiked the whole PCT.
It helps some hikers to connect with others along the way and hike together for company and safety. BAG became part of a trio. Due to heavy Sierra snow, they made the tough decision, as many did this year, to flip and do a snobo. This is where hikers leave the trail, go to the Northern Terminus south of the Canadian border, and hike southbound back to where they left off while the snow melts away. They arrived at their final destination, Kearsarge Pass in the Sierra Nevadas, concluding on September 14. BAG began her trip on April 30, at age 21, after finishing a degree in biology. “I wish I could go back in time to share this joy with the younger version of me,” she shares on her blog. “The girl [who] struggled many times along the way, doubting she was tough enough to do it. I am braver, tougher, and more determined than I ever thought I could be.” Visit BAGOnTheLoose.com to read more about her journey.
*Julie Pendray has interviewed hikers between Campo and Canada over the past 10 years, writing about hiking in Southern California in general for a variety of publications. She met Anna Herby in Idyllwild during Herby’s PCT thru-hike.