Low carb is easy in the woods... right??
A week before hitting the trail, I smoked my last cigarette. "This is the perfect time to kick this habit: no one will be smoking on the trail, and I'll be completely removed from temptation," I thought naively. I was so, so wrong. On day two, I prepared my first on-trail breakfast in a haze of cigarette smoke as numerous hikers chain-smoked while patching blisters and drinking their morning coffee. I had severely underestimated a nicotine addict's willingness to bear the extra weight of a few packs of cigarettes.
Just as with smoking, I had hoped that walking into the woods, away from the French fries and burritos and Indian rice that taunted me daily in San Francisco, would remove the temptation, and the miles would put some distance between me and the carbs addiction that I was trying to kick. And again, I was wrong. "Free beer for hikers!" in the friendly towns we passed through, all-you-can-eat pancakes at every diner, "best burger and fries on trail" designations in the hiking guidebook... it was unavoidable.
For the first month, resistance was easier than I'd expected. My meals were carefully pre-packed by my incredible boyfriend/resupply partner, so there were no supermarket trips to worry about, no Reese's in the checkout line. I just had to abide by the rule, "Eat out of your resupply box", and everything would be fine. After a few weeks, the monotony set in along with the hiker hunger, and I had to make a new agreement with myself: "If you're going to fail, fail keto." This meant I could join my trail family on restaurant trips in town, and I just had to order two burgers without a bun. I could have diet soda from a convenience store, and (on more than one occasion) eat peanut butter directly from the jar with a spoon. But as every town day came to a close, so did the window of gluttony, and I went back to my carefully calculated and packaged meals. With this food freedom in towns, I started to enjoy my meals more, and I used my in-town cravings as an indicator of what I needed more of in my daily diet: still hungry after lunch? Add more fats with mayo or olive oil. Want sweets and soda? Add Crystal Light packets to satiate a sweet tooth.
After two months on trail, we had my resupply strategy nailed down. It was so fine-tuned that Christopher had a spreadsheet that calculated number of days into daily item counts for each box. A four day pickup? Four Spams, eight mayo packets, 1.5 tortillas per day = 6 tortillas, etc…
As the days progressed, I watched my body change alongside my hiking companions. My body's "fluff" burned off and my leg muscles built up, but as my friends got skinnier and skinnier (their fluff and muscle wasting away in equal measure) they still craved more and more food. I began to feel confident that I was doing right by my body and health: the choice to forgo Pop-Tarts for almonds and the snickers for salami was the right call, and I was getting the nutrients I needed to stay healthy into the third, fourth, and fifth month of hiking.
Wait, what about the pancakes I posted; I'm not 100% keto on trail?
I've watched my nutrition and body adjust over the past three months and gotten a good feel for it, so I started to allow myself the freedom to have a non-keto meal if it was part of the experience. To my mind, this meant the pancake challenge in Seiad Valley, the burgers at Paradise Cafe, and a few other carefully selected (and timed—no more than cheat one meal a month) of non keto dining. The trail is 80% of hiking the PCT, but 20% of the adventure is in the towns and stops along the way. Good keto compliance for my day-to-day means I can handle the eating experiences that come with a thru hike. Note: I don't consider these "rewards" for hard days; if that were true, I'd be eating fries after every 30 mile day (or every day in the Sierras...). These are carefully chosen meals that come up as a "yes" when asking the question, "is this food/meal going to make my hike better? Or will eating it make it worse?"
I wrote this to clear up any notion that this has been easy or without effort, or that I've been perfect every single day, all the time. Willpower is a muscle that's tested daily, even when you're four days from the nearest town: you never know when you'll stumble upon a bit of Trail Magic, such a carefully-placed cooler filled with popsicles on a hot day in the Mojave Desert. As the hikers around you squeal with joy and dive into icy treats, remember that popsicles are NOT going to be the highlight of your hike, and you're doing the right thing by your body for the hiking days to come.