The main questions I received on trail were always about food.
Where do you get it? How much do you carry? What do you eat? were very common curiosities from dayhikers, locals, and fellow backpackers. They wanted to know if I hunted/foraged for food, or if I stopped in town. They wanted to know if I ate junk food, processed food, or fresh food. They wanted to know how often I resupplied and whether I mailed myself food or bought it in local stores. They wanted to know which foods I craved and which I didn't.
As you may have already read, I did a lot of pre-hike work on my food resupplies. I bought, prepared, boxed and labeled over 14 separate packages to mail to myself on trail. I created spreadsheets, organized itineraries, labeled shipping dates on calendars, and left Tanner behind with carefully bagged meals for every single resupply stop. I bought foods that I had eaten previously on backpacking trips, I went to WinCo and bought bulk foods: trail mixes, rice, pastas, banana chips, rice cakes, tuna packets, off-brand pop tarts, granola bars. I dehydrated vegetables and created pre-made meals for myself in ziplock bags. I was wonderfully prepared and I was convinced I would be set for the whole of the trail.
I was wrong.
Something happened that I would have never expected: I lost my appetite. For three whole weeks on trail, I could barely stand to look at my food, much less eat it. I carried it hundreds of miles through the desert, but when I stopped for snack breaks, I had to force myself to eat. The heat of the desert, the new experience of walking so many miles a day, the exhaustion and dehydration zapped me of any desire to eat. It made me nauseated. And so I carried pounds and pounds of food every day and barely ate any of it.
When at last - at last! - my appetite returned after three weeks on trail, I was ravenous. But I quickly discovered that I had a new problem: I didn't want anything I had packed for myself. My new backpacking body had specific needs, and like an overly pregnant woman, I had some very strange food cravings.
This was a surprise for me, because I assumed I would crave stuff like ice cream and candy bars, but I never did. In fact, I started to hate candy bars. I was the only hiker on trail who gave away all my Snickers bars. I started to crave stuff like fresh fruit, ice cubes, and gatorade. Flavored drink mixes helped, but they were never cold on trail.
I also started to crave things I never had much interest in before the trail, like hard candies, pancakes and chocolate milk. Something about the sugar and the carbs and the protein was just what my body wanted. In town, we would buy a whole gallon of chocolate milk for one day and drink the whole thing before leaving the next day.
I hated the trail mixes I packed in every box. I grew quickly tired of the rice meals I made. I choked on the off-brand pop tarts (cheaper isn't always better). I gave away all my snacks and off-brand granola bars and spent my time in grocery stores, trying to find foods that satisfied my food cravings. After a few weeks of playing with combinations, and through trial-and-error, I finally came up with my perfect resupply box.
I am one of those weird people who usually doesn’t tire of foods. I think I ate PB&J every day in school growing up. This was a blessing, because once I knew which foods I was craving, I could pack the same things in my resupply boxes and not get tired of them. Prior to my hike, I had packed boxes all the way from Mexico to Portland, assuming I would pack my Washington boxes when I got home again. This was a great idea, since I knew much better by then what I liked.
Here was a typical week's food resupply for me:
4 packages of Pop Tarts (generally raspberry or brown sugar) - for quick mornings
3 ziplock bags filled with granola and powdered milk - for slower mornings
3 Instant Carnation breakfast packets - vanilla or chocolate (to add to granola or oatmeal)
1 package of 10 large tortillas
7 foil packets of ready-made tuna salad
7 small bars of cheese (Tillamook has individually packaged cheddar slices)
1 small jar of peanut butter (the Planters chocolate and cherry one was a favorite)
1 package of turkey jerky
20-30 granola bars, assorted (depending on my mood)
1 package of dried fruit, nuts, or trail mix
5 packets of strawberries-and-cream instant oatmeal (I added water and ate this right out of the bag, usually for snacks rather than breakfast)
1 14oz bag of Skittles
Jelly bellies, jolly ranchers (great for the desert to keep your mouth from drying out), or other assorted hard candies
7 Little Debbies oatmeal cream pies (a personal favorite - I never eat them at home)
7 individual packets of Crystal Light flavored caffeinated drink mixes
7 Knorr Pasta sides, assorted flavors (I tried them all and grew tired of most of them, but the few flavors I could stand by the end were: broccoli and cheddar, spanish rice, and cheddar macaroni. By Washington I was mostly just making myself tuna wraps for dinner since I was too tired to cook.)
I made myself a tuna-cheese wrap every day for lunch and a pot of pasta every night for dinner. I snacked mostly on granola bars throughout the day, often covered in peanut butter for more protein. My "backup" foods were tortillas and peanut butter - if I was completely out of everything else, for some reason, I usually still had enough PB and tortillas to get me through to the next resupply stop.
I also loved picking up little treats for myself in towns. Different types of candies were always fun desserts, and special snacks for the middle of the day made me really happy when I opened my food bag and remembered they were there. My absolute favorite treat on trail was a bag of dried mangos - I had such a ridiculous craving for anything mango-flavored that I'm surprised it wasn't my trail name, since my hiking friends loved to tease me about it. (Treekiller even found me a mango-flavored beer in Bend!) I could never find dried mangos in town (it's sort of a specialty product) but my mom was awesome about sending me care packages. At every stop in town she would mail me a bag she had picked up from Costco. I'm sure it cost her just as much in postage as it did to buy the bag, but I loved it. The whole thing weighed at least two pounds, but I would happily carry it, trying to make the treat last me all the way to my next town stop.
For future thru-hikers who have questions about food preparation, I usually tell them the same thing: only send yourself boxes where it's absolutely necessary. There are a few stops on the PCT like that (Warner Springs, Seiad Valley, and Stehekin, to name a few) where there aren't any grocery store options, so it's better to mail yourself food. For everywhere else, you'll be better off buying food in town. Yes, it's a little more expensive that way (although factoring in shipping prices these days, maybe not...) but you're able to tailor your cravings directly to what you'll be eating on trail the next week, and having the right food is huge. A hungry hiker is an unhappy hiker. By the time you reach mid-California, you'll know exactly what you like and don't like, and a lot of hikers make themselves boxes along the trail and bounce them forward to more expensive towns ahead. Treekiller and Sunshine spent a whole day in Bend, OR making their boxes for Washington so they wouldn't have to worry about it later.
No matter how much you plan, your tastes and cravings change quite drastically when you're hiking 25 miles a day. You start to realize how wonderful fresh foods are, and you feel the effects of eating weeks and weeks of processed food, but ultimately you realize that processed foods are the quickest AND lightest way to get the required number of calories in you. (A lot of hikers drizzled olive oil on everything since that has the highest calorie per weight ratio) And in between, there are town stops where you have the luxury of eating whatever you want, whenever you want, to great excess. I like to say the PCT is a tour of food... you spend your days eating your way through the United States and, on occasion, walking it, too.