National Park Essential Food Guide
This may be my favorite part of the entire road trip guide just because of how ridiculous it is.
So let me put it simply, if you go on a hiking trip, and you hike as much as we did, you eat lots of calories. Like 5,000 to 6,000 per day.
Now, if you can afford it, this will give you a chance to eat at some amazing restaurants and not put on any weight.
However, if you are like us, and can't afford it, that's where the fun (and double bacon cheese burgers when we could afford it once in a while) starts . We spent a total of $400 on food for over 30 days of hiking for two people without eating at a fast food restaurant once.
How, you ask, can this be possible?
The answer is Costco, lots of peanut butter, and the ability to rough it. Let me say this, if you are not comfortable eating the same things every day, then you either need money or you can't really do this kind of trip.
Our diet primarily consisted of: Power Bars, Peanut Butter, Chocolate, Trail Mix, Pasta, Ramen, Cereal, Cans of Tuna, Salt, and a huge bag of Craisins (more on that later). No Gatorade or sports drinks, I will talk about this at the end.
Lets do this one item at a time shall we:
Power Bars: These are perfect for hikers, they are not heavy enough to bog you down, but they give you enough energy to keep hiking. To supplement the calories we inhaled from the Power Bars we would coat them in Peanut Butter (Check out the pic below). Not only does this make them delicious (and honestly, you would eat them anyway, we did) it adds about 300-400 calories depending on the amount of PB added. This comes to a grand total of 540-640 calories per snack or Power Bar. We would usually eat 3-4 of these "snacks" on a 25 mile hike, depending on our hunger, how cold it was, and what altitude we were at. Now, while it may look excessive, it isn't. When you are carrying 30 pounds of gear + water up mountains in cold temperatures at high altitudes, you need the calories. This was one of the ways we manage not to lose weight on our trip. We went through about 45 Power Bars on the entire trip. The best way to obtain these is at Costco where you can get a box of 24 for $20 bucks, or a little less that $1 a bar.
Peanut Butter (PB): Oh man, do I love this stuff. It is literally the perfect hiker food. Doesn't need refrigeration, is calorie dense, is high in protein and salt, and tastes awesome, no matter how much of it you eat. Put this on Power Bars as shown above and you are good to go. Buy a couple of huge jars at Costco, and they will last you the entire trip. These are the cheapest calories you will find.
Chocolate: Combine with PB to equal better tasting hiker food. Take a look at the PB Fortune Cookie Smore (below) I made at a campsite for dinner to get some extra calories. Tell me that doesn't look amazing. (Bonus point - We used "defective" or misshapen fortune cookies we found in China Town in San Francisco for these "Smores", get an entire bag for a buck.) In terms of buying chocolate, Costco is your friend again.
Trail Mix: Pretty much the same as PB, high in calories, easy to pack, doesn't need refrigeration, and delicious. Get 4 or 5 bags at Costco of the Fruit and Nut Medley or their M&M variety, depending on preference to last 4 weeks.
Pasta: Remember the Atkins diet? Well, this will definitely blow it all to hell and for good reason. You need to carb load. Every. Single. Night. Pasta is an easy way to do this, and you can get a case of spaghetti at Costco for $10 that will last the entire trip. A hot bowl of pasta also tastes unbelievable at the end of a long day of hiking in the cold. Get some tomato sauce too, it helps you eat the pasta faster. We would typically eat an entire package between the two of us and that gave us each 900 calories. Add in a can of tomato sauce, some raw salt, two cans of tuna, and boiling water and you have a great meal at the end of the day.
Ramen: My personal favorite of the trip, this stuff packs on the calories like no other at 600 per package. It just has a way of tasting great at the end of a long day, and it is dirt freakin' cheap. You can get a case, yes a whole case of about 50 at Costco for about $8. We would typically put about three of these things in a pot, add some raw salt (yes you will need it), and add two cans of tuna to make a sort of stew thing. If you don't like tuna, you can easily substitute this with Chicken, but is a little more expensive.
Cereal: This is useful for snacking on in the car on those long drives or eating after dinner, when you need still more calories, or right before a hike, when you aren't really that hungry but know you need to eat something. Grab a couple boxes of your favorite, Honey Nut Cheerios work particularly well as they taste good and can be combined with PB and taste even better. Again, Costco will save you here. A huge box with two bags will set you bag about $6.
Tuna (Or Canned Chicken): We used tuna out of preference, but canned chicken works equally well here. Add a couple of cans to the pasta dishes above and you have just added a couple hundred calories and some protein. Good stuff. Again, buy 16 cans at Coscto for about $10. We bought two and we ate all the tuna by the end of the trip.
Salt: Get a jar?/can? or salt. One of the blue Morton ones from Costco will work. This is to supplement the salt you eat in your dinner meals, as you will not naturally get enough to replace all of the salt you lost during the day.
Craisins: Now, we thought Craisins would be a good way to get some fruit into our diets. However, they put so much sugar on them that they are almost inedible. We recommend getting a bag of plain raisins instead. You can also add these to cereal or PB for bonus hiker points.
A Note on Gatorade/Sports Drinks: We though that buying one of those huge cans of Gatorade powder at Costco would be a good idea, but in reality, it turned out to be of limited use for a couple of reasons. One, you can't use the Gatorade in the Camelbacks because it will essentially ruin them. Two, you have to spend the time making the stuff, and while that doesn't sound like a big deal, it is a bigger pain in the ass than you would think out on the trail. Third, you can't chug it in the quantities you need to out on the trail. It just didn't work out for us, however, if you really must have a sports drink instead of drinking water all the time, Camelback makes sports drink tablets without sugar that don't mess up your Camelback that are not bad. I have used them in Phoenix when I am hiking in 105+ temps.
A Final Word - While these diet suggestions may sound ridiculous right now, my reasoning will become abundantly clear once you hit the road and start hiking. The thing is, if you hike as much as we did, you need to eat as many calories as you possibly can. For instance, at Yellowstone, near Old Faithful there was an ice cream store where their scoops were basically pints of ice cream for a couple bucks. We each ate about 2 pints of ice cream for the calories alone. It is an interesting mentality, always trying to eat as much as possible, and believe it or not, you may have a hard time eating this much every day. I certainly did. That's where the PB comes in. On the flip side, the transition back to society is kind of a shock. When you go from 6,000 calories per day to 2,500 (for me) it is quite a shock.
The one key bit of advice I can give in regards to food is eat every 2 hours on the trail, and if you are in doubt over whether you have eaten enough that day, you haven't, so eat more peanut butter.