It’s Time for a Mountain Dew Smackdown

Our soft-drink warriors both believe this sugary, caffeine-packed soda is the perfect refreshment after exercise or adventure. (Hmm. OK.) They disagree about flavors, and be warned: it might get loud.

Photo: Courtesy PepsiCo; Art by Jonathan Ver Steegh

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I’m All for Trying New Things, but the Original Mountain Dew Flavor—Citrus—Is the One True Path

By Jonathan Dorn

Let me begin by commending my opponent for joining this important debate. Adam is a caring parent, a world traveler, and a charismatic champion of spiders, snakes, and other unfairly despised creatures. His empathy for underdogs extends to his work as an editor, where he has created space for historically marginalized voices in the pages of Backpacker, and to his free time, much of which he devotes to volunteer work.

Of course, being righteous and different can get you in trouble. By publicly announcing he’s a Mountain Dew fan, Adam is exposing himself to ridicule by corn syrup-loathing coastal elites for whom this drink is the archetypal symbol of Middle America’s arrested development. Search the Twittersphere and you’ll quickly see why my friend will soon suffer the vicious slings and arrows usually reserved for political pariahs. Despite his otherwise ultra-woke diet and politics, Adam’s public embrace of Mountain Dew will forever taint him—in smart circles from Boulder to Boston—as a backward, junk food-loving deplorable.

As a fellow Midwesterner whose small-town dentist never pulled his sweet tooth, I applaud Adam’s courage. In standing up for a beverage with fewer calories than a caramel frappuccino—ponder that during your next macrobiotic liver cleanse, you sanctimonious, hemp-smoking snowflakes!—he is not afraid to endorse a guilty pleasure that many parched, palate-deprived backpackers have happily quaffed after a long, hot walk in the wilderness.

And yet … as much as I stand in solidarity with Mr. Roy’s choice of brands, I cannot abide his apostasy in promoting alternatives to the original citrus flavor. My young friend has always possessed an admirable iconoclastic streak, but in this case he’s gone too far. Purple Thunder? That’s not a proper beverage; it’s what happens when I eat too many grapes. Major Melon? Sounds like a character in Transformers: Part 16. Baja Gold? Cheech called and he wants his weed back. VooDEW? Is no one else appalled by the glaring cultural appropriation?

These wackjob flavors don’t bother me as concepts—for an entirely different brand. It’s the principle. I’m okay with adaptation. For instance, I believe laws should change, gradually and thoughtfully, to keep pace with human evolution. But with Mountain Dew, my head is buried deeply and passionately in the sand, like Clarence Thomas’s is on, well, just about any issue involving civic progress.

I mean, what backpacker has ever come down from the summit of Mount Rainier thinking, “I could really chug a DEWgarita right now”? Perhaps young Mr. Roy fantasizes about portobello burgers at the end of a 50-miler. Maybe, after days of rehydrated hummus, oat bars, and instant bloatmeal, his stomach is screaming for kale chips. I can picture him, celebrating a punishing R2R2R by guzzling a Fruit Quake with his tofu scramble. Almost makes me want to drive to the Grand Canyon right now.

No, over-the-top flavors and focus-grouped products are not for me. The last time I climbed Rainier, my friends and I devoured the obligatory huckleberry pie at Copper Creek Inn before beelining to Eatonville’s old-school Plaza Market for the first course of our traditional post-hike feast. The main event varies depending on locale—burgers, pizza, sometimes BBQ—but our appetizers are always the same. We wolf down beer, chips, and soda, a nostalgically consistent trio of indulgences rich in the nutrients deprived to us by an ultralight diet, namely: salt, sugar, and fat.

Mountain Dew original bottle on green background
(Photo: Courtesy PepsiCo; Art by Jonathan Ver Steegh)

Speaking of fat, a quick digression: There’s a conspiracy theory floating around the dark web that Mountain Dew glows underwater, thanks to an alien bioluminescence that PepsiCo is creating in cahoots with NASA. I tested this by taking a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew on a recent SCUBA trip, and can confirm that it’s almost as legit as the one about Hugo Chavez stealing your vote. At least down to 60 feet. For all I know, the unearthly luminescence only activates in the depths where Nancy Pelosi is keeping the megalodons. (None of this is true, but here’s the thing: In our current society, it could be true. Meanwhile, this is true: PepsiCo used to put a substance called brominated vegetable oil in Mountain Dew. Perhaps it softened the mouth feel. Or helped when baking a bundt cake. Don’t know, don’t care. The shit still tasted good.)

But back to our feast. Over bags of Tim’s Cascade Style jalapeño kettle chips and Mountain Dews—chased with a few PBRs—we recount the rigors and wonders of the trip, reveling in type 2 windbaggery and cementing the memories that will sustain us until the next adventure.

Old-fart backpackers like me know that the interstitial moments between escape and reentry can be as important as the hike itself in nurturing friendships and future epics. I treasure them, those fleeting and bittersweet minutes before we turn our phones back on. And, for better or worse, I’ve grown as doctrinal about the traditions surrounding them as my father was about the proper method for carving a Thanksgiving turkey.

What the otherwise-astute Mr. Roy may be too green to realize right now is that these moments can only happen while sitting on a curb in the parking lot of a Plaza Market, all smelly and salt-streaked, with the sun on your face and the citrusy goodness of an original Mountain Dew in your hand.

With time and a few more adventures under his belt, I’m confident Adam will come around.

Purple Thunder? Major Melon? Yes. Open Your Heart (and Mouth) to the Rainbow Selection of 21st-Century Dew

By Adam Roy

“When we get to the drive-thru, I’m going to ask them what the biggest size Baja Blast they can sell me is,” I said as I slipped and slid down the gully. “And then I’m going to buy two.”

It was 10 p.m. in Boulder’s Skunk Canyon, and my friend Kevin and I were roughly eight hours into the mini-epic that had slowly consumed our entire Sunday evening. We had set out earlier that day to climb an easy trad route in the Flatirons before a series of wrong turns, an unexpected thunderstorm, and an improvised descent by headlamp had landed us one gully over from where we had stashed our packs. Now, we were picking our way down to the creekbed below, our climbing shoes scrabbling for purchase on the pine duff-covered slope. And all I could think about was Mountain Dew.

At first, it was a joke—“I can’t wait to get out of here and order a refreshing Mountain Dew Baja Blast at Taco Bell!”—but as my water bottle slowly emptied, I became increasingly serious. By the time I drained the last drops, my desire for Dew had turned into the kind of desperate, full-body lust that people normally reserve for breathable oxygen. I wanted—needed—a cup, could almost taste that electric, fizzy burst of sugar and artificial tropical fruit flavoring on my parched tongue.

In the world of Mountain Dew, I am a proud explorer. Ask me to buy some and I’ll come back with one of every flavor the store has to offer, a rainbow of pop with comically aggressive names like Live Wire, Berry Monsoon, and Frost Bite. Each has its own merits, from the tart citrusy nip of Spark to the slightly complex, grape-berry notes of Pitch Black. You can pair them with your meals, your mood, or just have a different one for every day of the week. And I’m not the only one imbibing: Each flavor has its own following in the outdoors, thanks in part to Mountain Dew’s Red Bull-like action sports sponsorships. (If you turn your nose up at soft drinks or fret about the 70-plus grams of added sugar per bottle, I can’t help you. As one of my personal heroes once said: Dew or Dew not, there is no try.)

Mountain Dew Baja Blast
(Photo: Courtesy PepsiCo; Art by Jonathan Ver Steegh)

There are people, like my colleague Jon Dorn, for whom the original flavor is the only kind of Mountain Dew that matters. I understand that, even if I don’t agree with it: Cracking open a can and sipping something so familiar that your tongue anticipates the taste is its own kind of nostalgic comfort, like slipping on a pair of well-worn jeans in the car after a long hike. But comfort and nostalgia aren’t what make Mountain Dew great. More than any other pop, it’s about joyful sensory overload, pushing hard on the full spectrum of pleasure buttons built into our primate brains. That’s why there are more than two dozen flavors of it for sale in the United States today, most packing 54 milligrams of caffeine per 12-ounce can—nearly 60 percent more than Coca-Cola.

No, the New Dews may not be as balanced and tweaked and perfected as the original flavor. At first sip, Code Red—Outside staffers’ favorite by a wide margin, per an informal poll—bursts with sweet cherry flavor. By the bottom of the can, it becomes cloying, like they left out the water and just carbonated the syrup instead. I rarely finish one in a single sitting.

But listen: One time, I went backpacking in Colombia’s highlands and it rained every day. We were soaked from head to toe; it was so wet that eventually we stopped trying to skirt the puddles and just walked through them, muddy water topping the cuffs of our boots and squishing out the mesh with every step. At night, we’d huddle under the floorless group tipi, wring the moisture out of our socks, and try to massage the life back into our pallid, pruney feet.

Then, the morning would come, and we’d emerge to a world blanketed in that soft, pillowy quiet that follows a storm. Droplets dripped off frailejones’ fuzzy leaves and ran through the meadows in rivulets, filling ponds that chirped with frogsong. As we hiked, the ridges around us emerged from the clouds, mist spooling and unspooling around the rocky peaks. That’s how it is, sometimes: A thing’s flaws don’t just balance its strengths, they contain them. The drizzle that soaks your clothing sparkles in the light; the cherry soda that overwhelms your taste buds electrifies them, too; the clifftop sunset is the beginning of the long, steep hike down in the dark.

Should we avoid those experiences just because they sometimes make us uncomfortable? I say no. Because for an adventurer, the lows are just the price of admission to experience the spectacular highs of the world. For now, I want to immerse myself—to swim in its sticky, carbonated, occasionally too-sweet goodness. Maybe someday I’ll prefer lying in a lounger, a cooler of classic Mountain Dew at my side, to climbing mountains. And on that day, I’ll be so far gone that not even a bracing draft of Baja Blast will be able to bring me back.

From 2022