Food & Water

Hiker drinking waterYou should carry some kind of food and water on even the shortest Appalachian Trail hike, but anything longer than a short day-hike presents special considerations.

What sort of food should I take?

If you're out for the day or the weekend, you can probably pack whatever foods you like best—even fresh vegetables and fruits. But since these spoil quickly and are heavy, due to their high water content, they're not good for extended backpacking trips. Whatever food you choose, be sure to pack out all your garbage, including items such as apple cores and orange peels. Don't burn garbage in a campfire; it rarely burns completely and will produce harmful fumes.

Carry lots of snacks, including things you can stow in your pockets and nibble while you’re walking. You’ll have more energy than if you eat just a few big meals. Energy bars or a mix of dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate bits work well. Crackers and cheese, tuna and chicken in foil packets, pita bread or bagels, and peanut butter are popular lunch options. Instant oatmeal or grits, breakfast cereals that won’t crush easily and powdered milk, and toaster pastries are quick favorites.

For dinners, backpackers generally carry dried foods such as pasta that they boil and prepare on portable stoves; tuna or chicken in foil packets can add protein. Some instant foods require only that you boil water. Ramen noodles are inexpensive and lightweight, and can either be cooked or eaten raw. Don't rely on building campfires. Not only are stoves more convenient and reliable in wet weather, their use minimizes your impact on the environment around you. In some areas, campfires are prohibited altogether.

How much food should I carry?

Hiker eatting dinnerBackpacking burns a lot of energy. However, novice backpackers on the A.T. often make the mistake of carrying too much food. An overly heavy pack with excess food can take the fun out backpacking. When deciding how much food to carry for your trip, keep these tips in mind:

  • 1.5 to 2 lbs. per day is adequate in most circumstances, if your food is high in calories
  • Avoid canned foods or foods high in water weight
  • In cold weather, when you need more calories to stay warm, carry 2.5 lbs. per day
  • In winter or early spring, carry enough food for an extra day or two in case you are stranded by a snowstorm
  • Many lightweight backpacking staples can be purchased at a grocery store—you need not rely on expensive, prepared “backpacking food” sold at camping stores, although these products can offer convenience and variety
  • Dehydrating your own food can provide you with nutritious and lightweight meals and snacks, but is labor- and time-intensive

How do I resupply along the Trail?

You can either buy food along the way or mail it ahead to yourself. The A.T. passes directly through fewer than a dozen towns—all of them small. But, about every three to seven days, you’ll pass within a few miles of a town or a business with resupply options. Many hikers buy food as they go. Not only is this method simple, but it helps support local businesses that cater to hikers. Others ship food ahead to post offices, hostels, and businesses near the Trail. Here are some additional tips:
  • The A.T. Thru-Hikers’ Companion provides details on Post Offices and businesses that offer resupply and hold packages for hikers close to the A.T.
  • Businesses catering to are often open seven days a week during hiker season
  • Resupply points are further apart and further off the Trail in the South and the far North

How do I use Post Offices along the A.T.?

  • Hiker with packagesAnyone can have a package sent addressed to their name, c/o General Delivery, city state, zip code
  • Also provide a return address and add “Hold for A.T. hiker” and your expected arrival date. Writing legibly is important!
  • Do not use your “trail name” or initials
  • You will need a photo ID to pick up your package
  • Post Offices are only open Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings—hours vary from Post Office to Post Office
  • Priority Mail is recommended for mailing packages—it’s faster, more reliable than parcel post, and you can forward an unopened package at no charge

What’s a “Bounce Box”?

A “bounce box” is popular with long-distance hikers. It allows you to continually send ahead items you’ll need periodically but don’t want to carry. Hikers fill them with supplies such as extra batteries, cell phone chargers, “town clothes,” and toiletries. A bounce box also will allow you to send ahead the extra when you have to buy more of something than you need. Also be sure to include mailing tape, labels, and magic markers so you have supplies to send your box ahead.

Where and how do I find water?

Water faucets, pumps, or spigots are rare. Reliable, natural water sources are listed in guidebooks, and springs and streams are marked on most official A.T. maps. Most, but not all, shelters are near a reliable water source. Some springs and streams dry up during late summer and early fall, so plan carefully.

Is the water safe to drink?Water Filter

Water in the backcountry and in water sources along the A.T. may be clear, cold, and free-running and may look, smell, and taste good but can still be contaminated by microorganisms, including Giardia lamblia and others that cause diarrhea or stomach problems. Go to www.cdc.gov/healthywater  for detailed information on water treatment methods and their effectiveness in removing pathogens, as well as information on less common treatment methods that are not listed below.

Boiling. The most certain treatment to destroy Giardia and Cryptosporidium is to bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute. If you are above 6,562 ft., boil water for at least three minutes. Boiling will also destroy other organisms causing waterborne diseases. However, this method is time-consuming, requires additional fuel, and may affect the taste of water.

Portable water filters. Filtration can be used as a pathogen reduction method against most microorganisms, depending on the pore size of the filter, amount of the contaminant, particle size of the contaminant, and charge of the contaminant particle. Use a filter that has been tested and rated by National Safety Foundation (NSF) Standard 53 or NSF Standard 58 for cyst and oocyst reduction (Absolute greater than or equal to 1.0 micron filter). Only filters that contain a chemical disinfectant matrix will be effective against some viruses.

Iodine, Chlorine, or Chlorine Dioxide. Disinfectant tablets or drops can be used as a pathogen reduction method against microorganisms. However, contact time, disinfectant concentration, water temperature, water cloudiness, PH, and other factors can impact the effectiveness of chemical disinfectants. The length of time and concentration of disinfectant varies by manufacturer and effectiveness of pathogen reduction depends on the product. Depending on these factors, 100% effectiveness many not be achieved.

Combination. If boiling water is not desired or possible, a combination of filtration and chemical disinfection is the most effective pathogen reduction method in drinking water for backcountry use.

For short trips, take a supply of water from home or from other treated domestic sources.