I don’t think I cooked more than a handful of meals for immediate consumption during the six months prior to our hike on the John Muir Trail (JMT)—thank goodness my husband likes to cook, otherwise we would have starved while I prepped all the food for the hike. Whenever I’d think of an idea for a fresh meal, it would float away like a wisp of smoke as the drone of the dehydrator filled our kitchen. I became obsessed with food for the trail and soon there wasn’t room for anything else in my mind or kitchen. Little packets of unlabeled powders and grains started filling up our cabinets and spilling out onto the counters while grocery bags and bins sprouted all over the house. After bringing all of our backpacking food stash from Tahoe so it would be on one place, gargantuan footlockers, plastic tubs and five-gallon buckets lined up against the wall in the dining room like soldiers ready for action.
For people who like to stuff all their belongings into a small pack for days on end, it seemed counter-intuitive that the food prep expanded beyond reasonable boundaries. It was a conversational focal point when we entertained guests as they perused the blossoming piles of food, inquired about ingredients, participated in taste tests and generally looked at us like there was something wrong with us. In the end, the planning was worth it because we were never hungry, maintained good energy and lost minimal amounts of weight (4 lbs for me and 7 lbs for Steve).
See my book, “The Hungry Spork, a Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning” for more information on meal planning.
I swore I wasn’t going to get sucked into making spreadsheets but, never say never. I thought just one might be good to keep track of things and I’m proud to say it stayed at one. Does it count that it had at least eight tabs? Calorie and protein calculations, meal components, supply tracking, inventory and resupply lists crept in. Freehand scribbles of grams per teaspoon and ounces per serving gave way to embedded formulas in Excel. Darn, I succumbed to my inner geek. Mine were extremely rough estimates though, compared to some of the more refined and much more extensive spreadsheets in the files of the John Muir Trail Yahoo Group where engineers and data analysts have gone wild with spreadsheets.
Here are ten things that worked, five that didn’t and a summary of our food choices. See my daily meal plan if you’re interested in more detail.
10 Things That Worked:
Clif Builder Bars with 20-30 grams of protein bumped us up from the 40 g/day that our average backpacking diet provided to the minimum of 60 g/day that we needed. For me, I felt like this made a huge difference compared to our High Sierra Trip (HST). I was never hungry and didn’t crave protein at the end like I did on the HST. I’ve burned out on many types of energy bars in the past but I was going strong even after one Clif Bar a day for 23 days.
- PROBAR Meal Bars can’t be beat for their fresh, distinctive flavors that make their bars taste like real food. Steve never tired of them and they gave us extra calories when we needed them. The PROBAR Bolt Chews powered us up many a pass.
- Mission or La Tortilla Factory tortillas are worth their weight. These were new trail foods for us because previously I had always scoffed at taking something that heavy. However, they were so palatable that no matter how lousy my appetite was, I could always get them down. I stuffed them with black bean mix, pinto beans or tabbouleh mix from the bulk bins at Oliver’s (our local store) or Whole Foods. Packed unopened in the resupply box they lasted over a month without refrigeration.
- String cheese lasts forever (at least four weeks). Being individually shrink-wrapped, they are in their own sterile bubble. We packed them in our resupply buckets and they never went bad. Baby Bell cheese rounds, which are encased in plastic do equally as well.
- TJ’s Instant Oatmeal. I don’t care for regular instant oatmeal, but I worried that I’d burn out on granola and I knew that warm cereal on cold mornings would be good. I experimented with different brands and found that I like the Trader Joe’s Maple and Brown Sugar instant oatmeal a lot—it has great texture and the maple tastes real.
- Jelly Belly jelly beans. These little sugar shots always tasted clean and refreshing and the myriad flavors provided a lot of variety. No matter how my appetite sagged I could always eat a few Jelly Bellies.
- Sweet potato bark. Of all the home dehydrated food I made myself we liked the sweet potato bark the best, served with ground beef, instant gravy and freeze dried peas. I learned how to make the bark from BackpackingChef.com.
- Freeze-dried sausage. I ordered a giant can of Honeyville freeze-dried sausage and it was great—it rehydrated quickly and wasn’t full of preservative or unpronounceable ingredients. I either built meals around it or added it to some commercial freeze dried dinners to boost the calories.
- Mountain House dinners gave us a lot more variety than I could concoct from home-dehydrated meals, and we couldn’t beat how easy they were. We were glad we alternated between Mountain House and home-dehydrated meals, and after particularly exhausting days we reached for the Mountain House for the simplicity and taste. After this trip I gradually moved toward making all of our own meals, resulting in the book, “The Hungry Spork.”
- Karen’s Naturals (previously Just Tomatoes) has a complete line of freeze-dried fruits and vegetables without any additives. I order direct so I can get what I want: corn (so sweet you can snack on it), peas (they don’t rehydrate as well as corn at altitude), mixed veggies, strawberries, grapes and mixed fruit. Fruit was added to cereal, grapes to tabbouleh, and veggies either got mixed into a meal to add flavor and texture or (rarely) were prepared separately.
5 Things That Didn’t Work:
Rice, white or brown, of the home-dehydrated variety, didn’t ever rehydrate to our liking. I had tried this successfully on a canoeing trip but at 10,000 feet the rice was unpleasantly chewy and I heard similar stories from others. Freeze-dried rice or Minute rice works better but I’ve come to prefer noodles.
- My marinara sauce needed some tweaking. My home-dehydrated sauce was like a hockey puck. After soaking in hot water, we could scrape layers off but it was almost impossible to get it to dissolve. I learned later that cutting or shredding the sauce at home aids in rehydration. I would spice everything up more as it seemed like the spices dissipated over time.
- Steel-cut oats for resupply days. I thought this would be a treat at my resupply stops, just for the two mornings we’d be there. They were quick-cooking and I thought I could soak them in water the night before and then add hot water in the morning. The first time, I was too tired and forgot to soak them. I also forgot to bring any kind of sweetener and at home I douse maple syrup on them. They tasted like shredded cardboard. Yuk. I’ll stick with granola and instant oatmeal.
- Corn soup with mashed potatoes. I don’t know what I was thinking for this concoction–maybe I thought the potatoes would make the soup richer, but something about it was too grainy and unappetizing. I had planned to put it in tortillas or actually make soup but we ate one serving and then I got rid of them by exchanging the rest in the hiker barrels at our resupply stops.
- Lemon oil. I tried to get too fancy with some condiments, and although it did jazz up the tabbouleh and an orzo/lamb dish it was a pain to have the small container rolling around in the barrel. Most of the time I forgot about it until it was too late. I’ll keep it simple next time with the plain olive oil.
Breakfast: Granola or instant oatmeal, packed in snack size bags. I added freeze-dried fruit to both, and to the oatmeal added flax, chopped hazelnuts and powdered full-fat milk (Nido or Peak full-fat milk— see Backpacking Resources for sources). All the extras were packed with the cereal at home. We had Tang as our refreshing orange juice and black or green tea.
Lunch: In the morning after breakfast I’d take our two lightweight, plastic Ball Freezer Jars (1 oz each, including top) and add some dehydrated flakes of legumes and grains with water. I used the jars because we could eat directly out of them if we wanted and they were easier to wash than a baggie. By lunchtime the mixture would be rehydrated and we’d spoon the thick concoction into our tortillas. At home I prepared snack size zip-top bags of black bean mix (from bulk bins at our natural food store) or home-dehydrated pinto bean bark or lentils. To each bag I added some dehydrated rice or quinoa to make a complete protein and provide extra texture. I also used tabbouleh mix from the bulk bins plus a few freeze-dried grapes for a nice sweet-salty flavor. When building my burrito I’d often add freeze-dried corn (not rehydrated) and pumpkin seeds to add crunch, which was sorely missing from many of our foods, along with string cheese. Sometimes I’d add Tanka Bites (buffalo and cranberry) to boost the protein and add complex sweet and savory flavors. I dehydrated fresh hot salsa (Casa Sanchez Hot Salsa) at home, which was a delicious addition to the black or pinto beans, especially since the food tasted unusually bland.
Dinner: Many years ago we abandoned the idea of cooking in a pot in favor of the simpler foil bag or freezer bag method of adding hot water to freeze-dried meals. It’s less messy and keeps the pot clean and free of unwanted flavoring. Food takes longer to rehydrate at altitude so I’d usually use a small amount of warm water to do a pre-soak, adding more boiling water when we were ready to eat. If I forgot the pre-soak, I’d simply allow more time for the hot water to work. I placed the foil packet or bag in a cozy (see below) to retain heat. If the package said 8-10 minutes I’d give it 20-25 minutes above 10,000 feet.
We alternated between Mountain House freeze-dried dinners and home dehydrated dinners, though now I mostly make our own meals. I repackaged most MH meals in thin zip-top bags to save space, including one in the original packaging. We’d eat that one first, rinse and re-use. To the Mountain House dinners I often added ingredients to boost the calories, protein or flavor, such as olive oil (to all), sausage (to red sauces), or freeze-dried veggies. I had dehydrated jambalaya, Asian stir-fry and a white-bean and lamb stew meals (one of my earliest stews tasted like it was on the verge of going rancid, but only one). Dehydrated orzo with marinara sauce worked great while angel hair pasta and Asian noodles tasted good but were incredibly bulky. As mentioned above, rice did not rehydrate well. I packaged home dehydrated meals in vacuum sealed bags and used an Opsak, which are thicker and sturdier than freezer bags or mylar bags for rehydrating on the trail. A couple of meals were combined from ingredients I packaged separately:
- Marinara sauce, lamb, and tabbouleh or orzo
- Ground beef, instant mashed potatoes or sweet potato bark, Knorr beef gravy, freeze-dried peas
Snacks: I’ve already mentioned some, but to be complete, we each carried energy bars (Clif Bars and PROBARs) and Jelly Belly jelly beans. Steve carried mixed nuts, peanut M&Ms, chocolate and salami while I carried a mixture of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and freeze-dried corn, as well as Tanka Bars and Bites. After dinner, we rationed out bites of dark chocolate for Steve and white chocolate for me.
Drinks: We had Tang and tea in the morning and Crystal Light for Steve at night. For our cereal and tea, we used full-fat powdered milk. My “go-juice” was some kind of powdered electrolyte/energy drink for me (Gu or Accelerade) in a one-liter bottle, usually diluted more than the directions so it wasn’t so sweet, sometimes juiced up with Tang to add flavor. I sometimes enjoyed a cocktail of Tang and a tiny shot of vodka while Steve maintained a small secret stash of tequila.
Resupply Food: We had two zero days, one at Red’s Meadow Resort, the other at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). At Red’s we ate all our meals in the Mule House Café. It was drizzly and smoky from the nearby French Fire so we were happy to get away from our campsite and eat fresh food served by friendly people. At MTR, we packed a whole extra five-gallon bucket just to gorge on during our zero day as were not staying in one of their cabins with the meal plan. I packed cans of Amy’s Organic Chili and added chicken from foil packets for one dinner and an extremely bulky dehydrated Asian noodle dish for another. We thoroughly enjoyed tuna packets and crackers for lunch. Treats were shortbread cookies, UHT milk cartons (regular for cereal and strawberry flavored) and canned peaches. I also packed some toiletries like shampoo and cream rinse that I used during our stay.
Migraine Diet: I’m following an evidence-based migraine diet (from Heal Your Headache) in a last ditch attempt to control the migraines that have been worsening over 20 years. It was highly inconvenient to launch this dietary change a month before the trip since I was well into my meal planning. I won’t go into the tedious details of this diet, which basically bans most foods backpackers would eat like aged cheeses, salami, jerky, chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, artificial sweeteners and caffeine. I couldn’t adhere 100%, but it drove some of my choices, like Tanka Bars, seeds and white chocolate instead of cured meats, nuts and dark chocolate. I normally am an “eat everything” kind of person so it was a challenge to adopt this diet but if it helps it’s worth it. (It seemed to help at first but after six months I couldn’t see a difference. I eventually abandoned the diet.)
We made a cozy out of foil insulating material (e.g. Reflectix), available at hardware stores or online. I used a Mountain House meal bag as a guide, cutting the foil to allow an extra inch on three sides and enough for a flap on top. I folded the bottom, taped up the sides with duct tape and made a tab for the flap with duct tape. It was very light (1 3/8 oz, to be exact), didn’t take up much space when wrapped around my sleeping pad when secured to my pack and worked very well in the cool temperatures of the high Sierra to keep our food warm.
Bear Canister: All of our food had to fit inside bear-proof canisters as required by certain jurisdictions we passed through. I’ve always carried the food, while Steve carries the tent, stove and eating paraphernalia, which would be fine for the first relatively short sections. But for the last ten-day section we tried every which way to get ten days of food for two people in one Garcia food canister and it just wasn’t going to work. I had done it before on the High Sierra Trail with nine days of food but I was hungry on that trip so I wasn’t going to compromise variety and calories. We debated sending an extra canister to Muir Trail Ranch but Steve decided to carry it the whole way. The Garcia isn’t the lightest canister at 2.7 lbs but I’m holding out for Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks to approve the Ursack. At 7.3 oz it’ll be my food-storage container of choice once it’s legal everywhere. Currently the Ursack is legal only in the National Forests along the JMT. Eventually I purchased a Bearikade as well.
Food storage bags: I used thin zip-top bags for almost everything, especially single serve items like cereal. The extra weight from freezer bags adds up amazingly fast if you use the thicker bags. A few of the sturdier quart or gallon size bags are useful for multi-serve foods that have to last longer.
For drinks, I used Platypus soft-sided containers that collapse into a thin silhouette as you use them. This is always hard to explain because I use them not to drink out of, but to store the dry powder. I use a funnel at home to pour powders like Tang, powdered milk and energy drink powders in to the narrow-mouth containers. I find the narrow mouth convenient for pouring, as long as I’m careful to wipe the mouth with a dry cloth if any of the crystals adhere.
In the end, I was glad I had put the time into providing a lot of variety, testing products so we were certain they were palatable and making sure we had enough calories and protein. We learned a few lessons and I’m sure we’ll learn more as our trail tastes continue to evolve.
See related articles
- A Backpacking Meal Plan with 4,000 Mostly Healthy Calories
- John Muir Trail: Permits, Planning and Prep
- Ralph Burgess breaks SoBo John Muir Trail record
- Preventing altitude sickness on the John Muir Trail
- Top 10 Maps, Apps and Guides for the John Muir Trail
“The Hungry Spork, a Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning” by Inga Aksamit. Available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. I wrote this after “Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail” and now make most of our own food.