• Greg Marshall

Meal Planning for a 14 Day John Muir Trail Thru Hike

Updated: Jun 14

Everything you should know about fueling yourself to support your hiking goals

Selden Pass John Muir Trail

Meal planning is a crucial aspect of any backpacking trip. It can also be really challenging if it’s the first time you’ve planned your fueling for a long backcountry trip. It is essential to have enough food to keep you energized, but a major detriment to carry more weight in food than you can eat.


Series Map

Part 1: Previous Experience and Physical Training

Part 2: Setting your Itinerary, Permitting, and Logistics

Part 3: Meal Planning (you are here)

Part 4: Gear List Deep Dive

Part 5: Hiking the JMT in 14 Days


Your taste and appetite change dramatically on the trail compared to in normal life, making it hard to know what the right foods to pack are. We’re limited in volume too since it all has to fit into a backpack or– even more constraining– a bear canister.


As a general rule, backpackers are seeking the lightest, smallest, and most calorie-dense foods they can stomach. That means large amounts of low-quality carbohydrates and fats. Candy, chips, cookies, nuts, potatoes, and Kraft Mac and Cheese are not only normal, but staples of fueling on backpacking trips. The standard recommendation is to plan 4,000 to 6,000 calories per day, depending on the backpacker’s size, metabolism, and the physical demand of the itinerary they have planned.


Shae and I both knew from experience what kinds of foods were required on a backpacking trail and had sorted out some of what did and did not work well for us. From my time backpacking the Appalachian Trail, I took three major lessons into the JMT Food Plan:


Drinking instant coffee every morning of the JMT
  1. Emphasize protein. Even though I was well fueled on the AT, I always felt hungry because of a lack of protein and fiber in my diet (since fiber offers no caloric benefit and adds significant weight to food, it wasn’t something I cared to incorporate for the JMT).

  2. Make coffee. On the AT I gave coffee up entirely for 6 weeks, even as a cup-a-day coffee drinker before the hike began. Making a cup in the morning on the JMT would be worth it, if for no other reason than getting a warm beverage in the morning.

  3. Cook less and cook smarter. Shae and I chose to plan a no-cook breakfast for every day so all we needed to do was boil enough water for two cups of coffee in the morning, which was much more time efficient than cooking a hot breakfast. We also streamlined all dinner cooking to require nothing more difficult than boiling water. All food would be eaten out of a freeze dried meal bag to eliminate the need to carry or wash bowls.


I had also received some advice from my friend Kevin while planning for the JMT. Kevin is an elite ultrarunner that completed the John Muir Trail twice, the second time fastpacking it in under 6 days, so I had a decent amount of respect for his opinion on ultra endurance efforts. His advice to me was, despite conventional wisdom, to plan for no more than 3,000 calories per day. His argument was that while I’d be hungry at times, the combination of reducing pack weight, being able to realistically fit it all into my bear canister, and the appetite suppressing effect of the high altitude made it worth the caloric sacrifice.


For the duration of our trip, I planned no more than 3,000 calories per day and Shae planned for no more than 2,500. A quick disclaimer: we both lost weight on this diet and knew we would. We lost weight at a rate we could get away with for two weeks but would not be able to sustain for a multi-month effort. We also were both well trained endurance athletes going into the JMT and Kevin knew this. This meant our bodies were already well adapted to burn fat as fuel to make up the calorie deficit in our diet, without us having dangerously low energy. The same strategy could work for you too, but be cautious here.


8 Days of food crammed in the Bear Vault BV500

With all of the above in mind, Shae and I set our food list for the entire trip up front, before sending any of our resupplies buckets out. We repackaged everything for space efficiency in the bear canister using Ziploc bags. When we were done, our bear cans were completely maxed out with our first 7+ days of food in them. We needed to pack all of our most dense snacks for this first period to make it work, and put less space efficient snacks in our resupply buckets for when we only needed to carry 4 days of food at a time.


Here is my full list of foods for the JMT:


Breakfast

  • Instant Coffee: Mount Hagan, Alpine Start, Swiftcup, Voilà, Stoked Roasters (coffee was a special item for us. Read why)

  • Brown Sugar Pop Tarts

  • The Complete Cookie: flavors Peanut butter, Macadamia Nut, and Snickerdoodle


Snack

  • Brown Sugar Pop Tarts

  • Strawberry Pop Tarts

  • Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts

  • Jalapeño fritos

  • Honey BBQ fritos

  • Regular fritos

  • Cheez-its

  • Pringles*

  • Sharp cheddar

  • Starkist Tuna Packs (various flavors)

  • Wild Planet Chorizo Tuna Packs (MVP)

Chorizo tuna for the win
  • Sweet potato chips

  • Trader Joes Chocolate bars

  • Enjoy Life Chocolate protein balls*

  • Almonds

  • Cashews

  • Dark Chocolate Granola

  • King size Payday Bars

  • King Size KitKats

  • Snickers

  • Sour Patch Kids*

  • RX Bars

  • Beef Jerky

  • Trader Joe’s Sunflower butter cups

  • Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Peanut butter cups

  • Justin’s Almond/ Hazelnut butter squeeze packs

  • Wildfriends Nut butters

  • Honey Stinger Energy Chews

  • Honey Stinger Waffles

  • Honey Stinger Gels*

  • Little Bites Chocolate Chip muffins*

  • Oreos

  • Jolly ranchers*


Dinner

  • Summer sausage

  • Sharp cheddar

  • Starkist Tuna Packs (various flavors)

  • Wild Planet Chorizo Tuna Packs (MVP)

  • Instant mashed potatoes Idahoan

  • Maruchan Ramen noodle

  • Backpacker’s Pantry: Lasagna, Pad Thai, Kathmandu Curry*, Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo what others?

  • These freeze dried meals tend to get a bad rap because they are notoriously hit-or-miss on flavor, and are always a bit pricey. They are also bulky for the weight. For the duration we were out, it seemed worth it to splurge and get some variety. They pack a pretty good calorie punch and are easy. Flavor standards should be adjusted for a backpacking setting. That being said, we thought some of these were pretty good (particularly Lasagna and Pad Thai). I can’t speak to the quality of other popular brands.

  • Annie’s Mac and Cheese

  • Work and fuel-intensive compared to everything else on this list, but packs a big-time calorie count so still worth it to us

  • Nestle’s Hot Chocolate

  • Crushed red pepper/parmesan/black pepper/salt envelopes


Read next: Deep Dive: 14 Day John Muir Trail Gear List


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Landscape Descent to Suspension Bridge JMT

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