Well, as you know hiking season (what could be salvaged from 2020) is starting to wrap up. Of course there is still some fall hiking available, but not the consistent months of travel and hiking that go along with many long trails. There is about a month or two before it gets too cold for a "thru-hike." Day and section hikes can always still be accomplished in this winter season, but the calorie tanks that are our stomachs no longer need unlimited calories daily. In fact, they have shown us and told us that they are done with that part of the year. As hibernation starts to set in the belly of many a thru hiker, let us tell you how to handle the off-trail hunger, because there are many strategies and many stages. We are beyond happy to finally announce that we are in a stage past the initial bottomless pit, but it took awhile to get here. Let us go along a journey into the depths of the thru-hiker stomach.
Where this journey begins, like many journies, is on trail. No matter what trail, what thru hike, what longevity, if you are hiking almost everyday for multiple months at a time, your body is going to demand calories. Usually this demand translates into food that in "regular" life is a treat every so often, or food that should generally be stayed away from. The food that is located in the aisles of a grocery store that are pretty packages and marketing, to try and hide what is inside of them. What we are trying to say is the thru-hikers diet is generally not a healthy one. It is a diet built around what will give you the most calories for the least amount of weight. The food that tends to revolve around this is chips, candy bars, muffins, and carb-o loading to the max! Not to say that there are not healthy alternatives out there such as peanuts, nut butter, and all the seeds of different trees, but at least personally it is hard to chew down that food month after month. There are many hikers out there that have gone this route, and it is extremely impressive, due to the fact that small towns usually do not provide all these healthy options. The planning that goes into having a healthy diet on trail is much more intense than going along and creating your diet for what you crave. We tend to go after something with a little more flavor, and a ridiculously high calorie packed punch. Hence, ALOT of JUNK FOOD.
A LOT OF JUNK FOOD.....
If you reference the above picture you will see what we are talking about. This was an especially unhealthy resupply due to being extremely calorie deficient in the previous section, but a picture is worth a thousand words. You can see here, carbs for all dinners, snacks are "protein bars" that tend to lean towards more sugar and carbs then protein, and then a lot of candy and chips. The answer to your question is no we are not proud of what we did here, and yes it did hurt our bellies during and still hurts our mind to look at this, but during that time on trail that is what our body demanded. MORE CALORIES!
So, while all of this food is extremely unhealthy and high in calories, it is the food thru hikers tend to gravitate to. You are expending so much effort day after day that if you did not consciously and purposely go for the high caloric food, you would come off the trail emaciated and very low on energy. Well many hikers come off the trail regardless this way, even while eating a plethora of junk food.
As hiking season tends to wind down, the food choices on trail for us personally tend to reflect this wind down. We have found this is what works best. There is no perfect solution to taming the beast that is your stomach after a thru hike, but there are ways to pacify the raw hunger. Our last few resupplies of the season, we tend to go back towards eating lighter and eating healthier. We got through the brunt of the miles, the weight loss, the calorie deficiencies, so our body is capable to finish, no matter what we put in now. Be warned though the stomach will protest at this drastic change in diet, and drastic cut down in calories. Having every calorie you put in your body being burned no matter what, reducing the fuel that your body runs off of is generally not pleasant, it can lead to more fatigue. In the long run though it will pay off, because we found if on trail you start to train for off trail eating, it is easier than the extreme of going right back into where all you could possibly desire is at your fingertips. Not to say we have not gone through every extreme of trail and error, we will get into that later.
Still not "healthy" by any other standards, but generally thru-hiker healthy
As you can see one of our last resupplies of the hiking season, we started to gravitate to more food that had substance not just calories. We went heavily into the fruit bars, protein sticks abundant, protein bars that had more protein than carbs, and then well.....yea we were still thru hiking so don't judge us on our candy lifestyle!
Okay, next stage of the thru hiker diet. Your hiking season is wrapping up, your generally very underweight compared to your usual body weight, and you have been deficient in quality food but not caloric food. As you tend to wean back towards everyday life, your stomach still is demanding to be fed. It has been fed a buffet of calories everyday for multiple months, this is what it knows, this is what it demands. You will listen to the stomachs demands or pay the consequences!!!!
Seriously, we joke around this point, but in all seriousness the body is still emaciated and still needs a high intake of food. Well we are happy to oblige, we will feed the body more. This time quality food, fresh fruit, fresh veggies, proteins, real carbs (not processed), and we will still sprinkle in some junk food, because hey we have some weight to catch back up on!
It would not be in full honesty if we did not also tell you about the ENTIRE CAKE that we ate within 1 night.... The system is a guideline for a reason, it is not perfect by any means, and will remain beautifully flawed, so if you find away around eating a ENTIRE CAKE within a day off a trail, please, please, please let us know. Our body will thank you. Okay fine, your really pulling out all the stops saying well what else did you eat, I know there was more than just the cake... Well fine then! We will also admit that off of the GDT (Great Divide Trail) when the last three days consisted of only (1) power bar a day to feed a extremely depleted body, we went a little haywire. We might have....well we did.... eat (4) dozen Tim Horton's donuts in 48 hours. If you do the math that is a donut an hour, counting sleeping hours. There might have been a few 15 minute windows that (4) donuts would disappear. Would we do it again? We would like to say no, but our mind is back in that state of extreme hunger and being honest we would have to say absolutely!!
We wish we could say this was a resupply.... but it might have been a grocery run, we wanted to cover all the cravings basis for being off trail.
We may have gone off track on how to eat healthy after a thru-hike, but hey you wanted all the nitty gritty real details so there you go, once again it is not a perfect system. You will eat like a thru-hiker when you instantly get off trail, but the trick is finding where and when that cut off point is. This is where we had to go through many off-trail lessons to learn. There were times that we would eat like a thru-hiker off trail, for a week, for two-weeks, and a gorging time that it lasted a month. Our body still demanded it and we could not say no, until it eventually said no for us, by being filled to the brim.
The weight tends to not go on too fast because of how much you lost and how fast your metabolism became, but your body still feels pretty heavy due to the extreme influx of food without as extreme output. When judging your eating habits off trail, we found that if you go by how you feel and how the food is affecting your mind, instead of looking in a mirror and seeing how it is affecting your body, it tends to produce better results. You will see a change in your mood and your energy levels quicker than you will see the weight being put on in the mirror. So, listen to your body first and fore-most and do not say, well now I can see I am putting on weight time to cut back, because that can lead to a long and difficult journey off trail. Your body keeps the score internally and mentally before you can see it physically.
We finally found the balance that seems to work for us. The first day or two off trail, you simply are not going to control your bodies cravings. Accept this, embrace this, dive into this, enjoy it! You just pushed yourself hard for many months, let your body re-acclimate with what it wants, even if that is an entire pizza. After the first and second day off, make a conscious effort to limit but not completely deplete your body of the high calories (junk) it wants. Forego maybe that extra cookie, forego that second bowl of chips, but do not withhold every craving just taper it. If you begin to taper it each day for the first week you are off trail, your body will thank you. You will start to not crave the high dosage of food as much, because you are continuing to satisfy the cravings that your body demanded for multiple months just in smaller doses. At the end of this first week, is when the real work begins.
This is when drastically changing the diet should be implemented. There was time enough to indulge and satisfy your bodies demands, but it is now for you to take control again. DO NOT let the off-trail eating style of the first week lead into a second week, we have done this and it is a very slippery slope. Before you know it you are rationalizing every food decision with, "well I did this many miles this year... and well I will be on trail before you know it again, time to bulk up!" Draw a firm land in the sand of eating healthy again. Your mind might still be craving the bad food from trail, but your body is craving real, healthy food. You will notice this, do not let the mind win, when the body wins this argument it is so much more enjoyable. We found that a (1) week window of being off trail is the perfect line for transitioning, where it is not instantaneous, but also not habit forming.
We are a HUGE fan of EGGS off trail, protein up! Still not perfect, but better, it is an ongoing process....
Now that the first week of indulgence is over, what now? Well we tend to find that protein heavy diets help our bodies transition. You are going to be putting back on weight after a thru-hike it is just that simple. There is no way around this fact, your body isn't going to be covering 30+ miles a day anymore, but you do have a choice of what that weight looks like. Muscle building off of trail has been a great way to train the brain around a healthy diet. Proteins, veggies, fruits, and simple grains is our go to.
Okay, well we seem to have gone on for awhile and touched on a lot of choices that can be made. We also showed you that the system is not perfect. We showed that it is okay to indulge, it is okay to eat an entire cake, but there has to be a line. There is no perfect system for eating once you are done a thru-hike, only the perfectly imperfect one for you. Find out what works for you, because what might work for us, might not be the best fit for you. Experiment, have some trial and error to see what your body needs. Overall, just listen to your body. It will keep the score, and it will let you know what it needs. Try to ignore the thru-hiking mind of, " I NEED to calorie-pack for the next mountain or next section!", because sadly that may be another few months away. You completed an amazing feat, you thru-hiked this year, whether that was 100 miles, 250 miles, 500 miles, 1,000 miles, 2,000 miles, or even 3,000+ miles, but now the real work begins.... taming the wild beast that is a thru-hikers stomach. Good Luck!
Let us know what works for you, let us know what techniques you have found to quiet the beast of thru-hiking hunger. Do you eat an entire cake off of trail? Do you eat 2-3 entire cakes off of trail?!? How many dozen donuts do you eat? When is the line for you? What does that line look like? We are interested in all the ways hikers have found their imperfectly perfect system, so please let us know, and please for the love of everything that is holy, stop making Tim Horton's Blueberry Cream Donuts so delicious!
P:S: We still remember you Shorts you are always on our hearts and minds, and we love you!