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Memoirs of Hiker Box Meals: The Good, the Bad, and the (Almost) Unmentionable

By Andrew Marshall


Living life on the trail means occasionally eating whatever noxious or confusingly paired combination of things happens to fit into your food bag and/or fall into your lap. In short, thru-hiking is a great way to discover that any sensitively palleted gourmand is always 60 miles and three days away from smearing Jiffy on a mouse-nibbled flour tortilla and washing it down with water filtered from a cattle tank.

I mention this because I’ve eaten some pretty weird stuff on the trail, but it all pales in comparison to something I pulled out of a hiker box on a recent trip around Mt. Rainier in Washington state.

“I’ve eaten some pretty weird stuff on the trail, but it all pales in comparison to something I pulled out of a hiker box on a recent trip around Mt. Rainier in Washington state.”

Mt. Rainier National Park, a beautiful place where a very bad thing happened to your author’s stomach. 

But first, some context.

In the last hours of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I found myself with no water, one package of ramen noodles, and an almost empty packet of Spam.

I say almost empty because I’d eaten the Spam for breakfast, and the package retained the translucent goo that Hormel packs around its most famous meat-like substance. The goo isn’t flavorless – that would be a mercy – but I’m hard-pressed to remember what it tastes like. 

Perhaps I’ve edited it from my memory out of self-preservation.

Your author as a sprightly young lad on the Appalachian Trail. The dry ramen/Spam goo meal eaten at the end of this thru-hike is probably what caused all his hair to fall out a year later. 

I have no excuse for the meal that followed, other than to say that after walking from Maine to Georgia in four months, both my brain and body were turning to tapioca pudding. Rather than just eat the dry ramen – something that’s almost palatable – I smeared the Spam goo on top of the dry ramen and dusted the whole thing with a full package of ramen flavoring. The resulting meal contained 2190 mg of sodium and still managed to be essentially inedible, which is really spectacular when you think about it.

Things you discover in a hiker box are no better. 

“You’ll never find a Snickers or one of Packit Gourmet’s excellent freeze-dried meals. Instead, it’s always a sketchy-looking sandwich bag filled with rice and beige, suspicious-smelling flavor powder.”

You’ll never find a Snickers or one of Packit Gourmet’s excellent freeze-dried meals. Instead, it’s always a sketchy-looking sandwich bag filled with rice and beige, suspicious-smelling flavor powder. Someone will have written something like “July 11th, 2020” on it in Sharpie, and though you may not know what day of the week it is (ah, the hiking life!), you certainly know that the month is September and the year is 2022.

At the store in Twin Lakes, Colorado, I snagged a bottle of syrupy cinnamon-flavored liquor and a bag of Bob’s Textured Vegetable Protein out of the scuffed hiker box that sits on the porch. I didn’t know at the time that TVP is famous for its flatulence-causing properties. I, therefore, spent a merry 24 hours adding it to every meal I made (for the calories, y’all!), sipping on cinnamon hangover juice all the while.

The resulting bowel distress could have propelled me all the way to Durango if I’d pointed myself in the right direction and let her rip.

But it hasn’t been all bad. Once in a shelter in Pennsylvania, I found a box of pancake mix and a bottle of syrup and had a blast eating what amounted to flapjack soup. I also once stress-ate an entire can of blueberry pie filling in one sitting while an unseasonable fall snowstorm dropped two feet of snow onto the trail I was about to walk down while wearing Chacos.

None of that, good or bad, is as memorable as what I pulled out of the hiker box while thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail.

Behold, the Keto Brick.

Herein lies the first lesson: never attempt to eat anything that self-identifies as a friggin brick. 

Especially – and this is crucial — never attempt to eat anything that prominently displays an illustration of a brick on its packaging. Believe it when snacks (and people!) tell you how bad they are.

“Never attempt to eat anything that prominently displays an illustration of a brick on its packaging. Believe it when snacks (and people!) tell you how bad they are.”

This is a crucial life skill.

So why, despite these warning signs, did I grab the Keto Brick? Because it crammed 1000 calories into a five-ounce package, that’s why. The part of me that thru-hiking has warped into viewing food in terms of caloric density couldn’t pass it up. 

That alone should be a good indication that backpacking is not a universally positive influence on people. The habit of 20-somethings who own $3,000 worth of high-end camping gear to refer to themselves as #hikertrash is another, but that’s a different essay.

In any case, I guess I just assumed it would taste like, I dunno, bacon, or butter, or something keto-esque like that.

I did not, repeat did not, look at the ingredients before opening it up and trying to eat it. Yet another important life skill that most 16-year-olds have mastered and that I, an ostensibly high-functioning 37-year-old man, neglected to put into practice before unwrapping the monstrosity and taking a chomp.

Imagine trying to chew a chalkboard.

Imagine if dirt decided to cosplay as concrete.

Imagine if the most annoying parts of the most annoying CrossFit enthusiast you know were somehow distilled, bottled, flown to Jupiter, and there compressed by titanic gravity for a hundred years into a block of unholy yellow stone.

Imagine if a January 6th rioter were somehow a shelf-stable food.

You might assume that I am exaggerating. Allow me to point out that the primary ingredient of the Keto Brick is cocoa butter, which is found in chocolate in small quantities but in much larger quantities in ointments, toiletries, and pharmaceuticals. The makers of Keto Brick seemed to have leaned into the latter ratio. The rest of the ingredients are mostly salt, pea protein, and salt.

Yes, salt is on the ingredients list twice.

No, I did not taste any salt.

I tasted nothing but despair. 

Your author, an expert long-distance backpacker with roughly 4000 trial miles logged, after falling into a stream while collecting water on the Wonderland Trail. He blames Keto Brick. Does this make sense? No. But he stands by it. 

I nibbled on the Keto Brick for two straight days on the Wonderland Trail, shaving razor-thin layers of it off with my front teeth and then sucking on them until they melted. Like watching a group of children perform a holiday presentation called, “The Best of Ringo Starr’s Christmas Songs!”, it took both longer than you’d think and longer than you’d want.

When I finally reached the Longmire Visitor’s Center south of Mt. Rainier National Park, I found the nearest trash receptacle and tossed the Keto Brick gently to the bottom of the can, where its density caused it to punch through the metal and deep into the earth’s mantle. 

There it passes from this record, with the exception of the bits I’m convinced remain undigested in my gullet. What is to be done about these is anyone’s guess. Maybe I’ll just get giardia again and do a complete system reset. 

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning freelance writer, illustrator, and poet. He is the former Managing Editor of Backpacking Light, a former photographer, a former educator, and a former documentary filmmaker. He’s relieved that writing and painting seem to have stuck. 
When not holding a brush or tapping on a keyboard, you can find him trail running, bikepacking, mountain biking, backpacking, paddling, skiing, or practicing the martial art of Aikido. You can find Andrew online at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, Instagram @andrewmarshallimages, and Twitter @pawn_andrew.

 

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