AT Trail

How An AT Thru-Hiker Selects The Food He Needs

If you’re an AT thru-hiker, what do you carry in your backpack when it comes to food? At American Outdoor Guide Boundless, we decided to find out as we continue to follow the progress of the AT thru-hiker dubbed Number 2 Pencil in his quest to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

About 3,000 hikers attempt to complete the 2,193-mile trail each year from Georgia to Maine, but only about one in four succeed. We’re cheering for Number 2 Pencil to make it all the way. He has posted 51 videos to date on his YouTube channel, The Heard Hiker. In Episode 34, he discusses some of his food choices.

An AT Thru-Hiker Needs Loads Of Calories

 For someone backpacking many miles, there are two basic considerations when selecting the food to bring: it has to be lightweight and compact, and it has to be loaded with as many calories as possible.

Number 2 Pencil estimates he needs 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, far exceeding the accepted standard of about 2,000 calories for average people in their routine lives. Yet, it isn’t always easy to get those calories. In less than 2 months on the trail, Number 2 Pencil says he has lost 35 pounds.

Freeze-Dried Dinners And Lots of Snacks

An AT thru-hikers usually carries enough food for 4 to 7 days on the trail. For dinners, they often pack freeze-dried meal packets, such as those from Mountain House and other companies. They’re easy to prepare – just add a couple cups of boiling water to the pouch, stir, then wait a few minutes for the meal to soak up the water. Beef Stroganoff is Number 2 Pencil’s favorite. Ours too.

Packets of powdered drink mixes designed to restore electrolytes are especially important to a hiker. Not all the food is specialized, however. Backpackers find much of what they need at the local grocery stores. Energy bars, packets of protein drink mixes, squeeze packets of peanut butter, dried fruits and nuts, and foil packets of chicken or Spam are common, packable food items.

Tortillas offer a way to make sandwiches or wraps without the need for bulky loaves of bread that are easily crushed. Much of the food carried is ready-to-eat so they can save time and stove fuel during the day. Ready-to-eat foods also add the convenience of no dishes to wash.

Roots on the AT
The terrain along the Appalachian trail is often very challenging and hikers burn through lots of calories. Alex Grichenko /

Resupply In Town

There are several ways AT backpackers can get resupplied during the long journey. They can have someone – sometimes called a Trail Boss – periodically mail packages of specialized food and other needed gear items to them that to be picked up at a post office or hostel in some town up the trail.

Sometimes hikers will “bounce” their own boxes ahead to some post office ahead of them along the trail. When they get the packages, they will take what they need, stuff any remaining food and gear they no longer need into the boxes to be sent ahead again.

Many businesses in towns along the path of the Appalachian Trail have over the years recognized the opportunity and stock supplies they know the hikers need. So, between camping outfitters and local grocery stores, hikers general can find most of what they need.

In Town Is The Time To Chow Down

To make up for the calories they can’t consume along the trail, those hiking the AT tend to eat as much as they can when they stop in the next town. Number 2 Pencil says cravings for sweets and salty foods are common when you’re on the trail. In town, it’s time to gorge on food you don’t have on the trail.

Number 2 Pencil Shares His Journey

Click on the video below to see The Heard Hiker’s Episode 34 about his food picks. And be sure to check AmericanOutdoor.Guide for more great outdoor adventures and how-to resources.

(Lead photo credit: Madelle123 /

Wanna follow the progress of the AT thru-hiker dubbed Number 2 Pencil? Click here to read how AT Thru-Hiker is Dressed for Success.

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