food

Q&A: How to Pack a Resupply Box

Every once in a while, I’ll be talking to someone about the trail and I’ll be asked if thru-hikers need to carry all the food they’ll need from Georgia.  Assuming each day’s food weighs 1.5 pounds, which is a conservative estimate, that would mean that hikers would each carry some 250+ pounds of food when they climbed up Amicalola Falls.

Because 250 pounds isn’t exactly ultralight enough to keep the Jardi-Nazis happy, thru-hikers rely on resupplying at towns along the trail.  While we cross roads often on the Appalachian Trail, we’ll generally only go to a town every three to six days.  When we do, we’ll pick up supplies at either the local grocery store/Dollar General/Walmart/gas station or at the post office, where our food and other essentials might be found in a box sent from home.

I’ve certainly used both methods of resupplying, but I’m quite partial to using mail drops.  While at the outset these might be more complicated than spontaneously resupplying at stores, I’ve found that the quality and lightness of the food I can send to myself makes mail drops worth the extra effort.

Today, I thought I would address what, in my mind, is an essential step in preparing for a thru-hike: packing resupply boxes.

Any time I head out into the woods for at least a month, I scour the guidebook or maps ahead of time and plan my resupply locations.  I look at the services the nearby towns offer and study the mileages and elevation gains between easily-accessible towns.  Ideally, resupply locations are three to five days apart.  In some sections of the Appalachian Trail, that might put town stops fewer than 50 miles from one another; other times, they might be upwards of 100 miles apart.  I’m currently in the process of laying out the resupply locations for my 2015 hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and it’s already apparent that the distance between resupplies will vary widely while I’m out there.

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Organizing the contents of a resupply box I received at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. I was on a cookie kick, apparently.

Once you have a list of planned resupply destinations, you’re ready to organize your resupply boxes.

I think packing these boxes is best done slowly or in stages, but my mother is an expert at quick-packing them.  Whatever your speed, you’ll need an area in your home that’s pest-free and able to serve as a resupply hub.

In this area, I like to line up the boxes that I’ll be needing to pack.  If you’re packing more than three days of food in each box, the most cost-effective shipping method is USPS’s Flat-Rate boxing system; if that’s how you’ll be sending your mail drops, you can generally take an empty set of boxes home from the post office to fill.  (I recommend explaining your situation to a USPS employee, who is likely to be happy to help.)  To a flap of each open box, I generally affix a sticky note with the box’s destination and some basic information about the itinerary of the days for which I’ll depend on the box.  (For example, I usually list the number of days, the number of miles, and the elevation gain for each box.)

Once your boxes are organized, it’s time for the fun part: packing them.

Add breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks to each box.  I recommend aiming for variety; no one (except, perhaps, a certain hiker named Clif Bar Kid–or CBK) wants to eat one snack exclusively.  If you choose to load the boxes over the course of several days, it’s a good idea to stick a checklist to each box to save yourself from having to recount snacks or dinners.

After you’ve packed the food but before you seal the boxes, it’s important to throw in some other essentials.  Sometimes, resupply boxes contain incredibly important gear, such as a cold weather sleeping bag.  Most of the time, however, the only non-food items they contain might be things like toilet paper, bandages, toothpaste, or an empty journal.

With the food and non-food items packed, you’re almost ready to go.  This is a good time to call the destinations of the boxes to confirm that your packages will be able to be held for you and that the addresses you’ll be sending them to are correct.  Once all that’s taken care of, it’s time to get out the tape, seal up the boxes, and send them on their way.

Meal Idea: Lunches on the Trail

In many ways, hiking the Appalachian Trail is a six-month vacation.  In many ways, it isn’t.

A month or so ago, the Appalachian Mountain Club published an article about a family who thru-hiked the AT.  Many of the things the family said were really insightful, and the article is a short, good read.  One of the comments that I most enjoyed was the mother’s saying that she was constantly busy on the trail.

When it comes to lunch on the trail, the thru-hikers who carve out the necessary time to prepare a cooked meal are few and far between.  Lunch is generally viewed as one of the five to seven, non-dinner, eating periods of the day, and it often consists of energy bars and/or granola bars and/or trail mix.*

However, in my experience, just a little extra effort turns lunch into a fifteen-minute break (rather than a five- to ten-minute break) that my body is thankful for at the end of the day.  Here are some of my favorite lunches to have on the trail.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Tortilla Sandwiches

These taste so much better than they sound like they would, and they tasted downright decadent by the time I got to Maine.  I tend to treat the jelly like an unnecessary extra, but I shouldn’t; it adds so much flavor.  You can get jelly packets by asking for some at a fast food restaurant or by ordering them from Minimus.biz.  Or, you can be a total hiking hipster and carry a glass jar with jam from your family’s hobby farm.  (Yeah, I’m cool like that sometimes.)

Hummus and Crackers

I’m convinced that hummus is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.  This spread of chickpea goodness is great on the trail.  If you’re out on a relatively short trip (or short resupply cycle) or if the weather cooperates, it’s easy to just bring a small plastic tub in your pack.  If that’s not practical, dehydrating hummus is a great way to bring it on the trail.  I’ve been told that Fantastic Foods makes an awesome hummus mix, but I’ve never found it in stores.

Leftovers

This is probably my favorite lunch, but I almost never have the willpower to wait until lunch time to eat it!  If you cook breakfast, just heat some extra water and rehydrate one of your dinners, preferably one that is well-suited to wrapping, since lunch burritos are trendy.  If you only cook dinner, rehydrate an extra meal at that time to enjoy the next day.  (If you’re not in bear country, I recommend double bagging it and sticking it in your sleeping bag for warmth.)  My favorite dinners to have lukewarm or cold and wrapped for lunch are chana masala and unstuffed peppers.

What are your favorite trail lunches?  I’m always looking for meal ideas.  Bonus points if your suggestions are vegan!  (Summer sausage and cheese are out!)

Meal Idea: Pasta with Marinara Sauce

Something that was difficult for me while I was thru-hiking and that I hadn’t really prepared for was the feeling of being constantly on the move.  I had mixed emotions about my extremely nomadic lifestyle; sometimes, I appreciated it for its simplicity and for the independence it gave me, but other times I just longed to sleep in the same place two nights in a row.

When my feelings tended toward the latter, I would rehydrate some comfort food.  Since I was a child, my family has been big pasta eaters, and our default meals at home always involve pasta noodles.  As a result, when I wanted to feel like I was safe or home on the trail, I would reach for pasta with marinara sauce.

This freezer-bag dinner is only slightly more difficult to prepare than the trail mix I wrote about last week.  (We’ll get to the more complicated and fun stuff in time, I promise!)

1) Choose your favorite variety of noodles.  Spaghetti noodles tend to break in a backpack — or, worse, poke holes in the freezer bag.  If you’re as hungry and impatient at the end of the day as I am, you might prefer something with a lot of surface area, since those noodles seem to rehydrate faster.  Rotini was my noodle of choice on the trail.

2) Choose your favorite variety of prepared pasta sauce.  (You could make your own, but it’s far more economical to just purchase one of those huge plastic jars at the grocery store, since you’ll be consuming hiker-sized portions of it.)  I’d recommend something with lots of vegetables, like Ragu’s Garden Combination.

3) At home, prepare pasta according to package directions.

4) Dehydrate pasta for 6+ hours or until completely hard and dry, both to the eye and to the touch.  I always taste test whatever it is I’m dehydrating to ensure that it’s dry all the way through.

5) Pour pasta sauce on lined dehydrating trays, spread it very thinly, and set the dehydrator to the “fruit leather” setting — somewhere around 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit.  (If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can dehydrate food on a low setting in the oven, but I’m not really familiar with how to do that — and I love my dehydrator.)  The variety of the sauce and the thinness with which it was spread on the trays will influence how long this step takes, but you’ll want to let the sauce dehydrate until the thinnest parts are brittle and flaky and the thicker parts are leathery.  Midway through the process, I always peel the sauce off the sheet, turn it over, and break it up a bit to speed the drying.

6) In a pint-size Ziploc freezer bag, add 1/4 lb. of pasta.  (Who ever ate just one serving of pasta?!)  Since I put the noodles into the sauce bag in the end, this wouldn’t need to be a freezer bag, but freezer bags are just less likely to rip or leak.

7) In another pint-size Ziploc freezer bag, add roughly three or four servings of sauce.  You’ll appreciate the flavoring of more sauce than you’d eat at home.

8) When you get to camp, just add the noodles to the sauce bag and boil some water.  Add enough water to the bag to cover the pasta and sauce.  (At this point, I never measure out my water anymore; I just eyeball it.  You’ll get the hang of it!  You want the food to be comfortably submerged but not drowning, if that helps at all.  Trial and error are good teachers here, since the worse case scenarios are that you have soup or that you need to add more water.)  Keep the bag warm until the pasta rehydrates in about five minutes.  Enjoy, and think of home!

Meal Idea: Trail Mix

Like any thru-hiker, I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Thus, it seems only fitting that I post recipes on this blog every so often, and today seems like a good day to start.

And, while my backpacking recipes get surprisingly sophisticated and elaborate, I though the most appropriate recipe to begin with would be trail mix. Because trail mix.

Trail mix can be simple or complex, ranging from GORP (Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts) to classy mixtures of nuts and seeds.

In my mind, to be called trail mix, nuts and/or seeds must simply be combined with either dried fruit or chocolate. (I could probably be convinced otherwise with an inventive recipe.) Other than that, creativity is the name of the game. Just mix one or more items from Group A with one or more items from Group B, and you’re all set!

Group A

  • Peanuts
  • Cashews
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans
  • Pistachios
  • Macadamia nuts, hazel nuts, Brazil nuts, and other fancy fare
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • Chia seeds, flaxseeds, and other fancy fare

Group B

  • Raisins
  • Dried cranberries
  • Dried apricots
  • Chocolate-covered fruits
  • Yogurt-covered fruits
  • Pretzels (including those covered in chocolate or yogurt)
  • Bite-sized candies
  • Chocolate chips
  • Peanut butter chips
  • Granola
  • Breakfast cereal

My favorite trail mix consists of peanuts, sunflower seeds, raisins, and vegan chocolate chips or Reese’s Pieces (which are “almost vegan” and don’t melt, even in the heat of the Mid-Atlantic). It’s simple and cheap, but it tastes great in the woods.

How do you make your trail mix?