Long-distance hikers are legendary for their hunger–and also their willingness to eat anything and everything. What’s the strangest or most extreme food challenge you’ve heard of a thru-hiker doing on the trail?
For many thru-hikers, a long trail isn’t just a life experience: It’s their one shot at winning an eating competition. Food challenges don’t just replenish calories, they are the basis of hiker legends and tall-tales that live on for years.
Some of the best known food challenges are place-based. Pacific Crest Trail hikers sometimes try the Pancake Challenge in Seiad Valley, CA, consuming 8.7 pounds of pancakes in 2 hours (and usually dooming their chances of making the 5,000-foot climb out of town that day).
Many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers will take a stab at the Half Gallon Challenge and attempt to eat half a gallon of ice cream at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA near the halfway point of the trail. The record to complete the 1.5 quarts of ice cream is just short of 25 minutes. (In 2008, I finished off half a gallon of Cherries Jubilee ice cream at the AT’s halfway point. I haven’t touched that flavor since.)
Other food challenges can happen in any—and every—town near a long trail. There’s the impromptu eat-offs that create belly-aches in the short-term and good stories in the long-term. It’s not uncommon on any trail to see two friends challenge each other to see who can first finish off, say, an entire pie in one sitting. If speed-eating isn’t your thing, one hiker, Rolling Thunder, created a goal of eating a burrito in every town where he resupplied along the ~3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail, if it was available on restaurant menus. Legend can’t confirm whether he met his goal, but he’s an inspiration either way.
The craziest, however, are the on-trail, out-of-town food challenges. Heaps, a Continental Divide Trail thru-hiker, set a goal before he started to eat 1,000 Pop-Tarts over the length of his 5 month hike. As legend goes, he ate his first Pop-Tart at the Canadian Border and finished his last at the Mexican border.
Long distance hikers can challenge each other to a food duels while hiking, too. Heaps and one of his hiking partners, Hawkeye, decided to hike 100 miles of the CDT while eating only one food. Heaps chose Pop-Tarts and Hawkeye went with Peanut M&Ms. They both carried 5 pounds, hoping it would provide the sustenance necessary to complete the journey. According to legend, in the middle of their trip, they ran into some hunters who offered they a home-cooked meal over their campfire. While others in their group enjoyed the respite from their usual mac and cheese and GORP, the stalwart two stared on longingly, each refusing to let the other man win.
Long distance backpacking is your chance to do crazy things you’d never do at home. So while I don’t recommend attempting any of these at home, don’t be surprised if you run into a hiker eating something outrageous on your next trip outdoors.