Timberline Lodge Buffet on the Pacific Crest Trail
Photo provided by Dahn Pratt
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Thru-hiking 101: Tips for Planning your Food in Town

“Town food” can be one of the most expensive parts of long-distance hiking. Here are some tips on where to eat and how to best spend your money when in town.

Paul Bodnar      Educational       7/9/2020

“Town food” can be one of the most expensive parts of long-distance hiking. A restaurant meal is typically 3-4 times more expensive than the cost of trail food. This means two days of town food is almost equivalent to a week of trail food. Limiting your restaurant outings in town can save hikers a lot of money, especially if you are spending multiple days in town.

Hiker Hunger

Let’s be honest – many hikers can’t stop talking about town food while hiking. On a long hike, the craving and obsessive talk increases as hiker hunger kicks in. “Hiker hunger” is the continuous, deep hunger that allows one to eat astonishing quantities of food in town. Some hikers crave salads while others crave a hamburger and fries, but trust us, your food cravings will undoubtedly be exposed on trail.

Town Food & Calories

For this blog post I looked at the cost of some typical town food and calculated the corresponding cost per 1,000 calories. As such, this information is designed to help you determine the types of food that may help satisfy your hiker hunger without breaking the bank. Remember: calorie value is only one metric. It is also extremely important to look at the nutritional value of the food you consume.

McDonald's food spread out on a table.

Typical Fast Food

Below is a list of some popular menu items at Taco Bell and McDonald’s, including the menu price, price with estimated tax, and the calculated cost per 1,000 calories. (All prices reflect non-promotional prices. This is not a sponsored post.)

COST PER 1000 CALORIES = 1000 X COST PER UNIT/CALORIES PER UNIT

Restaurant Food

Below is a list of menu items at common restaurants. Olive Garden, Texas Roadhouse, and Outback Steakhouse were selected for this analysis because these restaurants are both well-known and have published nutritional information. The list includes the menu price, price with estimated tax/tip and the calculated cost per 1,000 calories. (All prices reflect non-promotional prices. This is not a sponsored post.)

COST PER 1000 CALORIES = 1000 X COST PER UNIT/CALORIES PER UNIT

Summary

It’s important to be diligent with your restaurant spending, especially if you are hiking on a budget. Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at restaurants can quickly amount to $40 or $50 a day, making a dent in most budgets.  By setting reasonable food limits in town, a hiker can avoid breaking the budget. It is also particularly important to note that eating the most affordable food isn’t necessarily the best way to gain the nutrients that trail food often lacks.

Town Food Tips:

  • Remember to load up on nutritious fruits and vegetables since you are likely not eating enough while hiking. 
  • Most grocery stores have full-service delis that offer a wide variety of ready to eat food at more reasonable prices than restaurants. 
  • Splitting a large pizza is almost always cheaper than ordering two smaller pizzas. Sharing is caring!
  • All You Can Eat Buffets are best consumed on an empty stomach, plan accordingly.
  • Limiting your alcohol consumption at restaurants and bars will save you a lot of money.
2010 Prices at Kennedy Meadows California
Photo provided by Paul Bodnar
Del Prado Mexican Restaurant
Del Prado Restaurant, New Mexico
Photo provided by Dahn Pratt

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About the Author
A man wearing an Arizona Trail baseball cap stands in a field in front of a mountain.

Paul Bodnar

Paul has always liked hiking and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 1997 after college. After years of working in chemistry, he wanted to create a career involving the outdoors, so he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail again in 2010 to do research for his guide book Pocket PCT. He realized that creating a smartphone app for navigating the outdoors would make it easier to keep the data current and provide a better way to navigate. While hiking with Ryan (aka Guthook) in 2010, they decided to work together to create the first comprehensive smartphone guide for the Pacific Crest Trail. Now with the help of a team of great people they have created over 50 guides for trails around the world.