Eating Ethically on the Trail
Sadie Weinberger ‘14 spent a summer hiking—she contemplated all sorts of things while on foot, she says, but particularly wrestled with making ethical food choices while also having to depend on the staple foods of any hiker—oftentimes highly processed. Not to mention, she stuck to her vegan diet the entire journey.
I never want to look at another Clif bar again. Nor am I particularly interested in viewing, smelling, or ingesting in any form or fashion any food whose package advertises how quickly it cooks. And please, for the love of god, do not come within fifty feet of me with a package of Pop Tarts, Corn Nuts, or Nutter Butters.
Over the summer, I backpacked about 750 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. It was indescribably amazing, and it was also, by far, the most physically difficult thing I have ever done (and ranks pretty high on the emotional and mental difficulty scales as well). In order to complete this most difficult of feats, I needed to put calories in my body. And sometimes, those calories came from sources of which I wasn’t too fond.
I know it seems like an obvious statement, but I’ll say it anyway: food is fuel. And I don’t often think of it that way because I’m not often hiking twenty miles a day with a thirty-pound pack on my back. I think that probably, people who are not food-insecure don’t usually think of food that way either. I wasn’t just eating because it tasted good or because it was time for dinner, I was eating because if I didn’t, I physically would not be able to do the things I wanted to do. I was choosing food for the most number of calories per the least amount of weight. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that in our modern food system, those foods tend to be the most processed, the worst for your body, and the worst for the environment. On top of that, I was already struggling to get enough calories without consuming animal products.
I decided it would be my goal to find a way to eat ethically on the trail by the end of the summer. And by the time I was off the trail for good, I felt like I’d come pretty darn close.
Fresh food in your pack will go bad or get squished very quickly, and the most calorie-dense and lightest foods aren’t the ones I wanted to be eating—eating ethically posed quite the challenge. After consulting hiker guides and online forums, I came to a list of foods: Pop Tarts, Clif bars, Corn Nuts, trail mix, granola, Gatorade powder*, Oreos, dehydrated soup, quinoa, vegan cheese, hot sauce, Knorr’s Cajun Rice and Beans, curried cashews, Mission tortillas, and peanut butter. There’s some stuff in there that isn’t too bad, but I was generally pretty uncomfortable with the amount of processed, industrially produced food.
Before my second leg, I went to the People’s Co-op in San Diego to ease my discomfort. I kept the Pop Tarts and the Clif bars (I never got rid of these—they’re a pretty perfect vegan trail food), but I bought all my dinners from the co-op: things like dehydrated soup in bulk, quinoa and brown rice, instant risotto, instant mashed potatoes, and high(ish) quality ramen. Snacks were banana chips, dried fruit, goji berry “energy chunks,” and Annie’s saltines.
I got my diet down to a science. By the time I’d hiked in the California desert, the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades, the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, I felt pretty okay about the things I was putting into my body. I started eating a lot of textured vegetable protein (TVP), a perfect trail food in that it is light, cheap, nutritious, and about doubles the size of my dinner. I also started taking dehydrated vegetables, garlic, olive oil, and spices. I kept eating dehydrated soup mix and dehydrated potatoes from various co-ops, and I also started taking Larabars, which are fantastic—small, a few ingredients, and calorie-dense. They were a perfect way for me to get some fruit in my diet. I stopped eating trail mix, rice, and lentils, since they’re all pretty heavy and the latter two are too time- and fuel-intensive to cook. This meant I was eating a lot of ramen for dinner, something I wasn’t too happy about (even though, mixed with miso powder, veggies, and TVP, it was pretty delicious). But, considering how far I’d come, I was willing to make that sacrifice.
I thought a lot this summer about the nature of backpacking and how strange it is. Most of the people I met on the trail were on a diet closer to what I started with, and many of them were out there for five to six months. Most people hike the trails to get closer to nature in some way, but how can you commune with your surroundings when the things you put in your body are so far from anything resembling a product of nature? I hope to continue backpacking in the future, and I intend to continue exploring what it means to be an ethical eater on the trail.
For now, I’m eating as many fresh veggies as I can get my hands on.
*The Gatorade powder is something I never got rid of, since it’s less a “food” than a way to make sure I stayed hydrated. I didn’t feel good about it, but I also wasn’t willing to take the risk of dehydration.
How Good is Good Enough?
Farmers’ Market intern Sadie Weinberger ‘14 on the challenges presented by trying to figure out how to eat ethically:
I became a vegan at the start of the academic year, at the same time I moved into my off-campus house. I’d been feeling it out over the summer—I filled the refrigerator with Earth Balance and soymilk and popsicles galore—but living with a certain steadfastly omnivorous roommate made commitment a little difficult. Now, for the first time in my life, I am responsible for everything I put into my body, and it causes the sort of crisis that so often accompanies freedom of choice: how good is good enough?
I am vegan because I object to the practices by which the majority of animal products are produced in this country, mostly for environmental reasons. I have no moral objection to the consumption of animal products like dairy and eggs, but I find it easier to commit to the whole lifestyle rather than to try to pick and choose which sources I trust.
But my convictions on the matter of the environment create problems like, am I still allowed to eat Oreos? Oreos are technically vegan, and they are undeniably delicious, but their production also has a negative effect on the environment. So does the fact that I buy my vegetables at the farmer’s market and refrain from eating cheese really make my contribution any greater than anyone else’s?
And problems like, don’t I have an obligation to support farmers who provide alternatives to factory farming? It is somewhat unrealistic to expect that a significant percent of the population will be going vegan anytime soon, and in the meantime, most people will continue to consume animal products produced by factory farming. By refraining from eating any animal products, am I also hurting farmers that use humane and sustainable practices?
I don’t have good answers to these questions; if I did, I’d write a New York Times bestseller and move to Bora Bora. Even though I find myself in the privileged position to be able to make these kinds of choices, it is neither simple nor easy to determine which issues take precedence and which get sacrificed. But I think the important thing is that we keep trying. My ideal diet is all local, organic, sustainable, [insert buzzword here]. Do I live up to that ideal? Of course I don’t. I’m busy, I don’t have the money, etc. But maybe next time I go shopping, I’ll skip out on the Oreos.