Q&A: Vegan Long-Distance Hiker Sam Maron
Sam Maron met the Appalachian Trail (AT) in eighth grade and fell for it, hard. He was at summer camp, where a four-day backpacking trip through the Maine end of the nearly 2200-mile path settled in his bones. Maron finally trekked the whole thing almost a decade later, hiking 12 to 20 miles per day for six months in 2009. But when Maron finally did it, he wasn't eating meat anymore. Or dairy. Or honey. Maron, now 26, is working toward a masters degree in environmental advocacy and social justice from Antioch University New England. He also runs the blog Backpacking Vegan to show it can be done.
Q. What called you back to the Appalachian Trail? And why vegan?
A. What appealed to me is that it is one interconnected wilderness experience that goes thousands of miles. You’re always in the environment, you’re always in nature. That doesn’t exist many places. I transitioned to being vegan in college. That was 2005. Definitely an interest in activism and wanting to live my life in a way that is less impactful to the Earth is the primary reason. The more I learned about the environmental and social impacts of the meat and dairy industries, the more strongly I felt that I didn’t want to be a part of it.
Q. How did you prepare for the AT?
A. When I was thinking about it in the years leading up to when I actually did it, I started researching [hiking vegan] and I couldn’t find anything about it. When I started hiking, I decided I was going to try as hard as I could. I also decided I was going to start with an open mind. It’s totally doable. It’s also a challenge, but it’s really important to me. Why would I compromise something that’s important to me when I wanted to travel?
Q. Did you do this alone?
A. I started alone. I finished with about five people in our group — four others I met early on — and we stuck together the whole way. There were a set of identical twin girls and a couple from Ohio. The five of us, plus some others who came and went. We would plan where we would stop for lunch and where we would stay that night. It made the hike so much fun to have friends to hike with.
Q. Were any of them vegan?
A. None of them were. I’ve only met one other person who hiked the AT vegan — I’ve heard that there are about one or two a year. One of my friends was a vegetarian. Her husband, Half Moon, is not. . . so Sunbeam and Half Moon usually eat vegetarian. There are quite a number of vegetarians.
Q. Sunbeam, Half Moon?
A. Everyone has a trail name. Trail names are a very interesting, unique thing to long-distance hiking, traditionally given to hikers by other hikers. My trail name is “Samwise,” like Samwise from The Lord of the Rings.
Q. So how do eating vegan and vegetarian compare to the standard trail diet?
A. The sort of typical omnivorous, backpacker diet is a lot of processed meat, such as packages of tuna and beef jerky. The typical dinner was dehydrated rice — or pasta-base with meat or cheese mixed into them — because they’re cheap, available in every grocery store and convenience store. Eating vegetarian is not that challenging because cheese is a common backpacker food and lasts a long time. A lot of the processed food that’s available has cheese in it, and it has a lot of protein and calories. There are very few other foods like dairy that are as calorie rich and as calorie dense. Peanut butter is similar to cheese from a backpacking perspective — it doesn’t go bad, and it’s incredibly protein and fat rich.
Q. What did you eat?
A. I ate cereal or oatmeal every morning. Lunch, I ate peanut butter [with] chocolate chips or tortillas. I would eat spoonfuls of it. A jar would last about three to four days. I remember estimating that it’s about 2000 calories in a whole jar, and I was eating a quarter a day. I also made myself a GORP mix [“good ol' raisins and peanuts”] from peanuts, raisins, chocolate chips and sunflower seeds. My typical intake was probably between 3,000 and 5,000 calories a day. I still lost 15 pounds.
Q. What about dinner?
A. For the first several weeks, all I was eating was couscous and dehydrated beans. That’s all I could think of that was easily cooked in boiling water. After five or six weeks, I was sick of it. I found some other processed foods that I hadn’t thought of before. One of the things I found and really ended up liking were prepackaged Indian meals. I also found dehydrated rice and bean mixes. Some brands make wet, packaged grain and rice mixtures that have vegetable compounds in them. It was very hard to get vegetables. Realistically, produce is heavy and fragile. Most of my vegetable content came from eating in town when I was in town for resupplies.
A. The hardest part was staying interested in my food and finding food that I really wanted when I was in town. At some point, the trail is so challenging physically and mentally just in general, to add this restrictive layer. . . . When I went to town, it wasn’t purely relaxing. It took me several laps around the grocery to find something that I wanted to eat and that came in a small enough package. [But] the biggest challenge of the trail was not being vegan, but the trail itself. It’s not a romantic walk in the woods for six months. There were a lot of days that it was terribly wet and muddy. If you don’t keep going, you won't be on schedule to finish in the five or six months, or you will run out of food.
Q. What's the story with your ice cream picture?
A. At the half-way point in Pennsylvania, at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, there is a tradition to do the "Half-Gallon Challenge." Hikers will buy a half-gallon of ice cream from the camp store and eat the whole thing. Lucky for me, my hiker friend was meeting a family member at the park, so they brought me a half-gallon of vegan soy ice cream. It was delicious!
Q. Did you finish?
A. I did complete the challenge! At that point in the trail my appetite was huge.
Q. So why did you start Backpacking Vegan?
A. My goals for the blog are to share my positive experience and also be a resource and inspiration to other potential hikers who are vegan and are nervous. When I had the idea of making a blog, I realized it was a totally unfilled niche that existed; I didn’t know unfilled niches were even around anymore. In general, the community of long-distance hikers is small, but the community of long-distance hikers who are vegan is smaller. Most of the views are coming from Google searches and come from people who search “vegan hiking boots,” “vegan thru-hiking,” “vegan Appalachian Trail.” People usually write with questions about where I did my resupplies and what kind of food I ate. There’s another Appalachian Trail thing — hike your own hike. When you start to read about the trail or start to hike, a lot of people will try to tell you what the right way to do the hike is. You can’t listen to everybody. There is no wrong way to hike the AT. As long as you hike every day and in the same direction, you’re doing it right.
Mackenzie Mount is an editorial intern at Sierra. She's cleaned toilets at Yellowstone National Park and studied sustainable cooking at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.