Posted on June 30th, 2011
You will be in pain. You will wonder whether you are secretly a masochist because at the end of the day you will feel your pain and yet, you will feel good. Hello, my name is Marie-Laure and I’m a backpacker. That’s right, I walk with a massive pack on my shoulders for days at a time over uneven terrain when I could just as easily – more easily – take a car, a bus or a train. Let me give you an idea of how it feels:
Day 1: Massive pain everywhere
Day 2: Worse pain because the blisters have formed and you haven’t given your muscles any time to recuperate
Day 3: Probably the same as Day 2
Day 4: See Day 1
But then something magical happens: you get over the pain. You get your hiking legs in less than a week and instead of thinking about the bruises on your hips or the burning under your feet, you start to think about other things. In short, you feel like a rock star. You know that you can survive with only the pack you carry and your own body – a body formerly neglected and forgotten when you usually spend your days with eyes fixed to a computer screen.
When you meet fellow trekkers you forget that you haven’t bathed in 10 days and you start to talk about two subjects without fail: gear and food. Of course you would; all you’re doing out here is mimicking the nomadic tendencies innate in all of us. So you exchange technology with the tribes you run across, learning the best methods of protection from the elements and the most energy efficient ways to carry the essentials. For instance, in 2006, a thru-hiker I crossed on the Appalachian Trail recommended I carry Crocks rather than my Reefs flip-flops for camp-wear because Crocks are so lightweight. You also find new ways to feed yourself by tasting and enjoying foods you never liked before nor will ever like again. These foods are more a matter of survival than gustative ecstasy now that every calorie and every ounce counts. Each backpacker has a food she swears by but we are always looking for creative ways to diverge from the routine.
My go-to trekking foods are 1) peanut butter, 2) Snickers, 3) a brick or wedge of hard cheese. A thru-hiker named Boots shared her calorie-weight ratio study with me that indicated that peanut butter is the best food for hiking because it is compact and relatively lightweight for the number of calories it packs. Since then I swear by the stuff. This weekend I hiked with a Frenchman who admitted he had no desire to eat peanut butter ever, except when trekking and biking great distances. The energy needed during intense physical activity is stronger than any taste bud no matter how refined.
A gentleman thru-hiker later on the trail confessed that every time he begins to feel ill or weak or tired, he grabs a mini Snickers bar and the chocolate-caramel-peanut morsel gives him the boost he needs to keep walking. So now when I plan my meals, I always purchase a bag of “fun-sized” Snickers, and if you happen to visit New Hampshire’s classy Trail Huts you’ll notice their full-sized Snickers bars available for sale, often next to a hearty soup of the day.
Meanwhile, I advocate for an Alpine or cheddar-style cheese to spice up your lunch… or your dinner or breakfast, why not? Be certain to avoid carrying soft or fresh cheeses because they will inevitably get smooshed and will certainly run wild in the summer heat. While any cheese will invariably sweat in your pack, a durable, compact cheese will keep well enough to satisfy your slow energy craving. Unless you have a large proportion of expendable income, your backpacking budget will be tight – especially if you’ve purchased any new gear. I recommend heading to the nearest grocery store for your cheese selection and skipping the fancy cheese aisle. This is no time for dishing out hard-earned cash for a cheese that will not be handled properly. As Ali G memorably said: respek.
My personal preference is Cabot’s Extra Sharp Cheddar in the black plastic wrap. Yes, in the past I have contested plastic brick cheeses but there is a time and a place for everything and this is it. A trekking friend and I couldn’t decide between Cabot’s Extra Sharp and Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar. I always assumed that “Seriously” was more than “Extra,” so a taste test ensued (obviously). The conclusion drawn was that, at the time of tasting in late July or early August 2006, Cabot’s Extra Sharp was sharper than Cabot’s Seriously Sharp. However, the company’s website reads, “When Sharp goes awry, when Extra Sharp earns a pucker, Seriously Sharp is born. It never tastes the same from one batch to the next.” Thus, you will have to decide for yourself the subtleties of the brick o’ Cabot. In passing, if you happen to find yourself near Cabot, Vermont, I recommend checking out their Visitor’s Center and Tour if only for their tasting selection – try the Private Stock! You’ll also get to look into the make rooms to see the giant vats of milk and curds.
Regardless of your choice of cheese, I can guarantee it will taste like the most exquisite slice of dairy paradise when you’re covered in dirt and the blisters are bursting. And always bring a pocketknife. And duct tape.