Keto Thru-Hiking: Lessons from Two Years (& 2650 Miles) Later
Exactly two years ago, I crossed into Canada on foot. I'd just completed my keto thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. The 2600+ miles from Mexico to Canada took me nearly five months and was done almost entirely on a ketogenic diet. The hike was long, and tiring, and difficult, and painful…
And I miss it every day.
Thru-hiking was hard; thru-hiking while keto was surprisingly easy. The healthy choices we make each day when eating keto were made for me in advance, and the benefits of a low-carb/fat-fueled metabolism helped in other ways:
Are you craving pizza?
Too bad, your only choices are what is in your backpack. Removing the effort of decision making from each meal made choosing the healthiest option non-negotiable and simple.
Does your pack feel heavy?
Good thing your food weighs less than it would have if you had hiked non-keto. If you're doing the calories/ounce math to keep your pack weight down but your energy up, keto is a cheat code to shave a few more grams off your bag.
Is it 30 miles to the next water source?
Hiking in ketosis means you can hike farther and longer than most of your hiking friends, so you'll reach that creek without much effort.
Before I left, I was told I "wouldn't last 100 miles" on the trail if I didn't have carbs to fuel the journey. I was told (sometimes to my face but often behind my back) I would run out of energy and be forced to make a choice: give up the diet or leave the trail.
They were wrong. The general advice is to not broadcast that you're eating keto until you have results to show for it. Well, I think a successful thru-hike is the best result I could have asked for.
Whenever I'm talking about the hike and my decision to stay low carb for the length of the trail, I'm asked about what worked and what didn't, or what I would change if I could go back to my first step on that first day.
My Backpacking Meals
There’s a reason why we launched a company. Each night, my keto dinners were a joy that I looked forward to at the end of each long day of hiking, and it's been so rewarding seeing others experience it as well. We're so happy that my PCT experience now helps others stay ketogenic during their outdoor adventures!
Homemade Keto Trail Mix
The trail mix that Christopher made—rationed out in a bag for each day—was a treat I always looked forward to. I would often munch on it as I walked, not wanting to stop to eat for any more time than was necessary. There were miles that needed to be hiked and the trail mix kept me moving.
My (Also Ketogenic) Partner
Christopher couldn't join me on this adventure for a few reasons (but he'll be on the next one for sure!) so he provided at-home support, diligently tracking where I was and how fast I was hiking, and seeing if fires or snowpack would change my route and pace. Every few days, he packed and shipped another box of food and supplies, using spreadsheet formulas to determine the number of days and meals between pickups, checking and adjusting the macros and calories of each day's meals, and even counting out enough ibuprofen to get me through every day of that section. He was so integral to the success of this hike that my trail family began to call him "Mission Control", as he quickly became a resource for them as well: sending along trail updates for upcoming sections and even grinding and vacuum-sealing some fancy coffee for them to enjoy on the hike.
My hike took over his life as well, and I'm forever grateful for that gift and effort. If you're planning a thru-hike where your partner is supporting you from afar, make sure they know what they're signing up for—and make sure you understand the magnitude of what you're asking.
What I would do differently
There was a time on the trail when I was eating a slice of Spam every day: in a wrap, or just with mayo, or chopped up with my dinners. I loved the stuff. I literally said to Christopher, “SEND MOAR SPAM. IT'S INCREDIBLE.”
But this turned out to be a phase, and that phase was called “California”.
At the Oregon border, mile 1702, I ate my last slice of Spam and barely choked it down. “No more,” I texted Christopher, defeated. Spam has its time and place, and my love affair with the processed low-carb meat product had run its course. A year later, it's tolerable but I think there's too much baggage there to repair the relationship.
More Keto-Friendly fresh foods
I wished I'd packed out more avocados and fresh vegetables from towns. This isn’t always possible in smaller trail towns (e.g. Warner Springs, Kennedy Meadows, Stehekin, etc…) but if there’s a real grocery store, grab some produce. It’s worth the extra weight and usually lasts a few days into the next stretch. Early on, I was overly concerned with sticking to the pre-planned food for each section, and I was unsure how well avocados would keep, so I went without them for most of the desert section. Looking back, I should have packed a few every chance I got.
Would I do it again?
In between the lost toenails and the planters fasciitis and hip blisters and all the other not-so-glamorous side effects of walking 25+ miles a day for five months, there were also beautiful vistas and wildlife and an intense feeling of solitude. It was a record snow year which forced many to skip the Sierra. As I hiked through, I experienced nearly 12 days of isolation where the only person I saw or heard was my hiking partner.
Christopher kept a map of my route and the mail-drops and the visits he made, and I often look at it and think, "whoa… I walked that… for real?"
Thru-hiking fills you with a sense of accomplishment that, for me at least, eclipses graduating college, a promotion at work, and buying my first home. It's addictive in the both the best and worst ways. There are worse obsessions than hiking through the woods for months on end, but even years later I vividly recall and reminisce about specific moments along that route.
When I tie my shoes each morning, I remember how painful this simple act was most days on trail as we all hobbled around for the first few moments while our joints warmed back up.
While relaxing in my living room, I suddenly laugh to myself as I randomly remember the disaster of that first night on trail as I learned how to (or how not to) pitch my new tent as the wind tore through Lake Morena.
While navigating traffic on my commute home, I remember cramming myself into the back of a pickup truck after my first (nervous) attempt at hitchhiking, only to throw out a thumb without a second thought just a few weeks later.
Thru-hiking stays with you, and the PCT won't be my last.
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Next Mile Meals is a small, family-run business that came to life on the Pacific Crest Trail. This blog is our way of giving back to the hiking community; sharing our successes, our failures, and our learnings as we try to eat better, pack lighter, and go farther in our many outdoor adventures.