The Trail Diet: Unique Challenges

Food is funny thing.  All long distance hikers, regardless of dietary rules and preferences, have to pack in enough calories to make the miles.  Calories taken in need to be heavy on the stuff that provides constant and ready energy, namely carbohydrates and fats.  However, despite the predictable and necessary caloric input, long distance hikers do not all experience the same challenges when it comes to food.

Why would this be?  Past experiences and relationships with food might be a factor.  Food could have a different cultural relevance for some and others might place more value on getting certain “healthier” foods like fruits and vegetables into their daily diets.  Could there be a difference between PCT and AT hikers?  And could men and women differ in what they perceive as important when it comes to trail diet?  One thing is sure for all:  the trail diet isn’t what anyone is used to eating every day.

Distancehiking asked long distance hikers from the 2013-14 hiker survey:  “What was the most challenging aspect of your trail diet?”  888 hikers responded.  All hikers from the 2013 sample were AT or PCT thru hikers.  In addition to thru hikers, the 2014 sample also included 113 hikers who hiked over 500 miles, but did not thru hike.

trail diet challenge


Arranged by trail, there were no differences between AT and PCT hikers in terms of what they found to be most challenging about trail diet.  A slim majority of people on both trails found craving healthier food to be the most challenging aspect of the trail diet, but almost as many found being hungry and lacking variety to be most challenging.  This is interesting in that the most legendary aspect of trail diet is hiker hunger.

trail diet arranged by sexThis graphic shows what men and women perceived to be the most challenging aspects of trail diet.  And here is where we find a statistically significant unequal distribution (chi square, p<0.001).  Exactly half of all women long distance hikers thought that not getting enough healthy food was the most challenging aspect of trail diet.  By contrast, only 36% of men rated “craving healthier food” as most challenging.  7-8% more men than women rated the other two major categories, “being hungry” and “lack of variety,” as most challenging.

So there’s a describable difference between the sexes.  W/M partners may want to take special note of this.

If you’re planning a long distance hike for the near future, think about your relationship with food.  Are you the kind of person who has to have some fresh, healthy food along and are you willing to possibly sacrifice net caloric intake as a result?  Or are you absolutely hell-bent on never being hungry?  There’s no right answer, other than to say that your happiness on the trail is priority number one.



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