PCT Food Review: What I liked, Would Do Differently, and Recommend

(This is a little overview of some food ideas I used on my 2011 hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I did this hike to raise funds and awareness for victims of human trafficking. This coming summer, 2012, I will be taking off on another adventure for the same cause. Follow along on the new adventure —-> HERE.)

Paradise Cafe...lived up to its name!

I thought I would write a post dedicated solely to food and how I ate on the PCT. Food rocks. I’ll just say that right here. But…something happens while you hike the PCT. Food becomes elevated. It goes beyond the “like” you felt towards your junior high school crush. Oh, for sure. It goes beyond “rock star” status. Think you liked your mom’s lasagna? Welcome to food on the PCT:

Food becomes something way bigger than you’d ever think it could!

One of the biggest issues while hiking the PCT is weight. Unfortunately, most really delicious and tasty food items are heavier than you might want to lug down the trail. You’ll have to make concessions, and try to find the middle ground between “amazingly delicious” and “This stuff tastes gross, but if I eat it I live another day.”

Breakfast using my 'Happy Container!'

So here is what I would do if I were to do it over again…and in a way, I will be this summer when I mountain bike the Great Divide Route.  The following list isn’t all-inclusive, nor is it meant to be the only food you bring, but merely a basis for what a lot of your days might include in one way or another. While you are sure to be tired of some of the food by the time you are finished, you don’t necessarily have to be. With the right choices and a good variety, I think you could make it without damaging your taste buds!

Oh, and one thing I’ll mention now: I LOVED this container (shown below). I would eat the majority of my meals from it, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Inexpensive, light, nearly leak-proof…and one container could conceivably last you the entire journey if you treat it well. And if you don’t? They usually come in a 2-pack. So you have a back up ready to be sent out to you.

Ziplock or Rubbermaid 4 cup container


I can’t say enough about oatmeal. One of the best parts of my day was breakfast. Not because I was particularly hungry, per se, but because it never disappointed and it was easy. In fact, as boring as it sounds, I tried to make ALL of my meals as easy as possible. So I would get the combo pack of oatmeal with all the neat flavors. Strawberries & Cream, Cinnamon & Brown Sugar, Peaches & Cream, etc. 2-4 packs of that each morning plus a foil pack of two Pop Tarts got me going. Along with that I had a 20oz bottle that I would mix water, instant coffee, and a pack of cocoa or instant breakfast into. Then,  I’d set that aside while I broke camp, which usually took anywhere from 7-30 minutes. I would then shoulder my pack, start walking down the trail and eat as I walked. My bottle of coffee happiness was in my pocket, and I’d sip, eat and walk. No cook, hassle free. You could heat some water up, but I went mostly cook less the last 1,000 miles anyway. It wasn’t that bad.

A couple options: In your oatmeal, add a packet or two of the vanilla or strawberry Carnation Instant Breakfast packets. Or to add in the coffee: Add a packet of Carnation Instant Breakfast. (Chocolate or vanilla seemed like the best fit with the taste of coffee. You get a little creamier drink, and some extra vitamins and minerals, as well as much-needed calories. Fit calories in where you can).

If you do make some hot water, one thing I found I liked that you might find interesting (or gross!): Two crumbled up Pop Tarts in the plastic container with hot water added. Let it sit, and you have a mushy pop tart concoction. I won’t lie: as gross as it sounds, it was good!

Another fun option is to find an amazing recipe for homemade granola. Not only is it fun to make, it’s less expensive than most options, and you can bake in as much or little of any ingredients as you want. Make a bunch of it, separate it into smaller batches after you make it, and then send a ziploc full in any resupply packages you decide to send. If it’s good stuff, you’ll be very happy you did. If it tastes good at home, chances are it will taste amazing on the trail. (for milk, see what I have to say below!)


I’m a fan of Top Ramen. I usually liked to grab two packages, any flavor, and stop for a small break about an hour before I thought I’d each lunch. I’d dump them into my little happy plastic meal container, add water, and screw the lid back on, then place it upright  inside one of my side water bottle holders or the kangaroo pouch on the back of my pack. Again, no need to heat anything up, and to do this step takes maybe 5 minutes, and I was off and walking again. If you’re trying to make miles each day, this was a good way to do it. Then, about an hour later, if I was ready for a break I’d find a nice spot, kick off my shoes and socks, grab my hydrated Top Ramen and have lunch. I’d add other food to it or alongside of it, generally, but again, this was just a base for a meal.

An option, which is a lot better than it sounds: Top Ramen, hydrated without the flavor packets (stash them for another meal!), and then add a couple globs of peanut butter and mix well. Calorie dense, and very filling.


The meal most often looked forward to by almost every hiker. Again, I chose dinners that would work hot or cold. I prefer hot, but that was a weight sacrifice I made over the latter half of my hike. I have as yet had a craving to sit in my backyard in the wet grass and eat cold instant mashed potatoes. Hot? You may talk me into it!

So these instant mashed potatoes you speak of…they are the one item I would go with more often than not. They make a great side dish, or if you have other items you could add to the potatoes, they make a great main course.

I would often use the instant mashed potatoes, then add one or more of the following:

  • dehydrated beef/chicken/turkey
  • TVP (texturized vegetable protein)
  • hot sauce
  • cheese
  • crushed up crackers
  • crushed up Pringles (salt & vinegar or BBQ or ranch was awesome)
  • dehydrated vegetables (favorite was corn)
  • gravy mix
  • Chopped up summer sausage
  • bacon bits

One night, I made my hiking partners a little envious with my mashed potato experiment. They had a really cool pesto mix that had been sent by a friend, and was very good, but they both said my dinner was better, so  hey…you CAN make some good stuff on the trail.

As for which type of mashed potatoes, I believe that is a crucially important factor. I say Idahoan Instant Mashed Potatoes, hands down. There’s really no argument in my book. Their flavors rock, they have a great flavor variety and you can, with practice and/or luck, make the concoction right in the package. I tried Betty Crocker. Hey, Yogi even propped up Betty Crocker’s “loaded” mashed potatoes in her guide…but I have to disagree. I still have Betty’s stuff left over, I switched to Idahoan. I’ll never go back!


Oh….snacks. You must have the snacks. I knew hikers who were set for meals, but lacked snacks, and got off the trail to hit a town to load up on snacks. I hiked with Grizzly Adam and Leader through the Sierra, and about once a day you could count on a Hershey’s Miniature coming from Grizz, or a Starburst coming from Leader, and those were such great pick-me-ups. y: how did Leader NOT eat through his stash of Starburst? Once I started, I could eat through two packs before regaining any semblance of sanity or self control…) Trail bars are good, but expensive. I like Clif Bars…but they are pretty heavy. Upside to those: they don’t melt in the desert. Downside: they are tough to chew in the snowy cold of the Sierra. Trail mix is good, although can be heavy. Make your own, add the nuts and happy goodies you truly enjoy. I liked adding M&M’s to the trail mix, and stayed away from the dried fruit. But that was just me. I craved dried fruit by itself though.

Snickers. Can’t say enough about Snickers. I think that snickers, if you buy them in bulk as Costco, are the least expensive trail bar you can buy. If you think about it, they have pretty much many of the same ingredients as any of the other trail bars, taste phenomenal, and I never once got tired of them. Your main problem with them will be that you may eat through your stash before you make it to the next town. If your will power is high, then you may have a chance to ration them. They also make great trade bait. In fact, most snacks make great trade bait. I know I tread Leader a pack of smoked salmon for two Little Debbies Oatmeal Creme Pies. In the real world, those pies may cost no more than $1 combined, if that. The salmon was almost $6. But…you do crazy things on the trail. To me, at the time, I got the best part of that trade!


Craved. Loved. This.

The majority of what you will drink on the trail is good old H20. And you will find some AMAZING water on the trail…full rushing rivers, quaint little crystal clear streams, ice melt, lakes. I’ve never drank so much water in my entire life…and never in my life had I needed to, either. Without water, your trip will be over fast. So drink up.

Sometimes, though, you just feel the need for FLAVOR. You crave it, dream about it. You start to drool just imagining an ice cold glass of grape flavored Kool-Aid. Even if you grew up despising grape flavored Kool-Aid. Flavor takes on a big importance on the trail. Luckily, we are in the age of portable flavor.

I bought a lot of single-packet flavor pouches for anything from Arnold Palmer’s ice tea, cranberry-peach, any and all Gatorade flavor packets, Crystal Lite fruit drink mixes, etc. Most seem to be sugar free, as I have come to the conclusion that these were intended for the cubicle working class set, and as such, those folks may not get much exercise. So keep the sugars and calories down, is what the makers of these mixes were thinking. But on the trail, sugar and calories are alright! Unfortunately, most are sugar free and nearly calorie free. You could always carry with you a small 2-3 ounce bottle of agave nectar. Sugar in the Raw makes a great agave nectar, and it’s sweeter than sugar and better for you, so you’ll save a little weight and know you’re getting naturally made sweetener from nature.

Cocoa was huge. Loved adding it to coffee, or as a night-time treat.

Coffee. I loved it. I would generally have some in the morning. I used Alpine Aire’s freeze dried coffee. Taste was superb, cost is WAY less than anything you’ll find for the same amount, and it was super fine, so it packed well. I vacuum sealed tubes of it, snipped off a corner, and would shake out what I needed. It would prepare perfectly hot or cold.

Milk. Wow. I had a small staple of nonfat dried milk, and it was ok. I mean, nonfat milk in general is pretty much not my style. When you combine that with the fact that your body is screaming for fat anywhere you can get it while hiking a trail like the PCT, it just didn’t cut it. But fear not, milk drinkers, there IS an option out there that doesn’t taste like pale-white water! Nestle’ makes a product called “Nido.”

Buy it. Just. Buy. It.

It can be hard to find, but not impossible to get. Many Wal-Marts, Target food sections, or Mexican groceries will carry it, as well as online at Amazon and directly from Nestle’. Nido is a dried WHOLE MILK product that I was finally able to get my hands on after my hike. I love the stuff. It tastes good at home. My theory is that when something tastes good at home, it will taste AWESOME on the trail. I’m already stocking up on Nido now for my Great Divide Route ride.

I will be making a list that’s more or less just the items, the calorie counts, and the resupply strategy I would use if I did the PCT again.

If you have any questions or comments, shoot them over using the comment section below!




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3 Responses to PCT Food Review: What I liked, Would Do Differently, and Recommend

  1. jayo says:

    Quite gratifying for a real newbie hiker to read that someone who’s done a serious trail shares my love of ramen noodles, Idahoan potatoes and Snicker bars on the trail.

    I can’t do oatmeal though. I’ll pack eggs and shelf stable bacon…I’m sure there will come a time when this won’t work… GSI frying pan, egg holder, heavy stuff.

    • Hey, if you can make an egg holder and frying pan work, more power to you! I hiked with a PCT’er who had about 14 pounds of camera equipment…so I think about anything can be done…But, for me, I know I’d go as light as possible! 🙂

  2. John says:

    Hi Dug. Followed your advice on taking action against traffiking during your PCT hike last year.

    May I share: Did you know ther’re many monasteries along your biking route? These monks will provide spiritual supports, contacts, & a cheap place to stay….

    I would be happy to compile a list of locations and contacts from your trail.
    John at joshua18_9@yahoo.com.

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