So you’re vegan and thinking of starting a long-distance backpacking trip:
First of all, it can be done! There is a lot of misinformation out there, much of it from people that are either not vegan, not backpackers, or both! Let me allay your fears right at the start: I’m vegan and maintained my diet during my 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
I hope that this article will help you feel a little more prepared, and hopefully answer some of the questions you may have.
My first piece of advice is to be flexible. I don’t mean that you should be OK with eating dairy, I mean be prepared to eat some foods that you normally avoid at home. Long-distance backpacking puts an enormous strain on your body and it is incredibly important that you get the appropriate caloric intake. For example, at home my diet tends to exclude most processed foods and products that contain ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. I also made a decision before I hiked that I would eat certain ingredients that are classified as “sometimes not-vegan;” these include sugar, food dyes, and other food additives.
I did most of my shopping locally, right off of the trail. I did have some mail drops prepared, but for the vast majority of my hike, I resupplied from grocery stores. I ate a variety of the same kinds of packaged and processed foods that most backpackers eat, but without the meat or dairy. I did this by trying to eat as much of a variety as I could, and I also made a decision that I was ok carrying a little bit more weight in order to eat well.
One piece of advice I was given is that you’ll never go hungry, you’ll always be able to find something you can eat in a store, even if it means extra peanut butter and a can of beans. But that may be all that you need to get to the next town.
Long-distance backpacking also affords many challenges that a shorter trip does not have such as eating meals in town. This was the most difficult part of staying vegan for me. Often a diner was the only place to eat and I would end up with just a plate of home fries, while my friends were wolfing down plates of blueberry pancakes! It was a huge test of will-power, but something that can be done for sure.
This next section I will outline some of my eating strategies and foods I often ate while on the trail.
Breakfast: For the first half of my hike I ate instant oatmeal every morning with a little bit of sugar and cinnamon. For the second half I carried cold cereal and ate it with water. If you have never tried cereal and water, it’s really not bad at all. I ate raisin bran mostly, as it had raisins and good fiber. Most cereals are also fortified with B12, as well as several other vitamins and minerals. Powdered soymilk I have found is very hard to come by, and it’s expensive when you do.
Lunch: I ate peanut butter almost every day, usually with a tortilla or bagel, though I rarely made it into a sandwich, and would just eat spoonfuls. I usually would get “natural” peanut butter from one of the bigger brands like Jif or Skippy. These were available in most grocery stores and were one way I avoided hydrogenated oils. These brands still have sugar in them, which I found was necessary to make it tastier to eat on a daily basis. I would often also add chocolate chips or something else sweet as well.
Dinner: Ok here’s the big one and the most challenging for a vegan. It was always hard to find interesting food that had some nutrients more than just protein (read: vegetables!). Most non-vegans add cheese to most of their dinners, so many “normal” backpacking foods are out. I usually ate tortillas with most meals to add carbs. I also carried nutritional yeast and olive oil to boost nutrients and calories.
I ate a lot of couscous in the beginning, as it cooks instantly. I would pair it with some dehydrated black beans or refried beans. These were often available in natural food sections of bigger supermarkets. Several brands of dehydrated rice and bean mixes are vegan as well from brands such as Zatarains and Vigo. These are pretty good tasting and available everywhere, they also contain good amounts of protein and carbs. In the second half of my hike I ate more “wet” food, such as Kashi brand pouches. Uncle Bens also has several flavors, and I would also look for Indian dishes in the same packaging from brands like Tasy Bite. These are delicious, and they contain some vegetables too, so it’s more than just beans. The downside is that they can be heavy, and I had to add instant rice or couscous to them in order to fill me up. I thought they were well worth the extra weight.
Snacks: I usually ate a bar at least once a day. Clif and Luna bars are vegan and contain lots of good vitamins. I also ate Pro Bars, which are raw, vegan, and packed with calories. I also carried gorp made with peanuts, chocolate chips, raisins, and sunflower seeds. Sometimes I made this on the trail, but it was really heavy unless I had a friend to split it with. The exception is if I found a natural food store with a bulk section, then I could mix up a small amount. I also sometimes carried pretzels to snack on in between meals.
My biggest advice is not to worry about it! I always found food to eat, and felt good knowing that I was able to enjoy backpacking without relying on animal products. Happy trails!
-Samwise GA>ME ’09