Cooking on the trail
Many people who hike, particularly those who have not hiked a lot, will carry a stove that burns Coleman fuel (white gas) on the AT. Like a single burner Coleman stove, or an MSR stove. I own one of each. If you were out in the winter and had to melt snow for water, they would be great. In warmer weather on the AT, I think they suck. And they are a fire hazard. If you wear synthetic clothes and they catch fire, you have a serious problem. The fabric will melt and burn you badly. At virtually every shelter on the AT is a picnic table, and every such picnic table I have seen is covered with charred and burnt spots where such stoves leaked burning Coleman fuel. Plus these stoves are heavy. Almost all of them weigh a pound or more.
You can get stoves that burn butane from metal canisters. These are a better choice in the sense that they aren't as heavy and don't have as many moving parts that can malfunction and spew out burning fuel. If you knock one over when it's burning, however, a lot of fuel will shoot out of it and make a great big fire in a split second. The eco-sensitive might feel a bit uneasy about discarding a lot of steel canisters from a butane stove.
Some beginners think gas and butane stoves are good because they boil water fast. There's no need to boil water on the AT. It's pointless. I have never done it.
Most people I have seen who are trying to walk the AT all the way through cook with alcohol. You can buy an alcohol stove and you can make one. The most simple alcohol stove is a small can with a completely open top, and something rigged up to hold the pot. Some alcohol stoves are elaborate affairs designed to produce a hotter flame (that burns the alcohol more quickly when they heat up), when compared to a simple open can.
An alcohol stove is another thing you don't want to knock over when it's burning. Alcohol is a poor choice for extremely cold weather. It's the fumes from the alcohol that ignite and burn. If it's too cold, there will be no fumes and the alcohol won't ignite.
If I had a 20-ounce plastic Coke bottle filled with alcohol, I could make it last me two weeks on the AT, easy. Maybe three or four. A lot of places along the AT will sell Coleman fuel by the ounce to hikers, and most will sell alcohol, too. It's usually denatured ethanol. A well-equipped hardware store will sell it, also.
I have done a lot of experimenting (at home and on hiking or camping trips) cooking with alcohol. I concluded that a plain open-top can works so well as a stove that I don't need to consider a stove designed to make alcohol burn extra fast and extra hot. I use an empty cat food can, 2 3/8" in diameter.
What I cook is stuff like Lipton sides, ramen noodles and mac and cheese. I have a titanium pot that holds 0.8 liter. Cost $50 but I think it's worth it because titanium is very light and tough and won't get beat to hell like aluminum will. I dump the noodles in the pot with about 10 ounces of water. (If making mac and cheese, don't put the cheese powder in till after the noodles cook because the stuff will boil all over the place if you cook it with the powder mixed in.) I put the lid on the pot. I put a half ounce of alcohol in my little can. I light it and put the pot on. It will burn five minutes and before it goes out, the water will be steaming and start to bubble. It doesn't need to get hotter than that. After the fire goes out, I keep the lid on and wait at least five more minutes. And the stuff in the pot is then cooked, and at this stage is still probably too hot to eat. I almost always add some cold water before I eat it. If by some chance, it didn't cook enough, then I just cook it some more.
Some hikers buy or make a "cozy." This is an insulated cover for the pot that keeps more heat in during the wait between taking the pot off the fire and eating. This might be helpful in freezing weather. During moderate temperatures, I see no need for such a thing.
On most of my hikes, I use Esbit tablets. Each one burns about 12 minutes at something like 900 or so degrees. I can cook a pot of stuff with half a tablet. I bought a little folding metal thing that holds the pot and the tablet. It weighs 3 ounces. If you knock an Esbit stove over, all you have to do is pick it back up or blow out the flame before it sets the grass on fire. Unlike butane or alcohol, there is no danger of an instant conflagration.
For someone hiking the whole trail, alcohol will be easier to find than Esbit tablets. They also sell Esbit stoves that are little metal things that fold up into a box. That's what I use for a pot stand with the can that's my alcohol stove. Esbit's manufacturer says the burning tablets emit no toxic fumes. There are other kinds of fuel tablets that do.
I could never figure out an easy way to clean the pot until I found a message board where a woman said she bought little nylon pot scrapers from an online outdoor place called REI. She eats what she can with a spoon and then uses the scraper to eat the rest. Works like a charm. The scraper will make the pot almost completely clean. All I do to finish up is swish some water inside the pot and rub the insides with a toothbrush.
Alcohol and Esbit stoves need windscreens. You can buy a heavy foil cookie sheet at a supermarket, cut out a big rectangle and that makes a fine windscreen. Just bend it so it stands up and put it on the upwind side of the stove.
On the trail, I cook an entire package of Lipton sides with maybe something like beef jerky tossed in also. If I make mac and cheese, I cook and eat the entire box.
I have seen people carry heavy food items, liked canned stuff and jars of peanut butter. If they wanna carry it, fine. Some people don't cook at all, but eat a lot of cheese and crackers and dried fruit, etc. One guy I met claimed to eat only noodles, bread and canned chocolate cake frosting.
I often carry bagels, power bars, Snickers bars, etc. Packages of cheese crackers, like Lance, for example, are about 140 calories per ounce. That's more calories per ounce than about anything else. So I carry a ton of those. It's important that you carry out all your trash, so I prefer food choices that don't create a lot of trash. Most AT hikers carry enough food for 7-10 days.
I used to carry and make coffee but decided it was too heavy to lug around. Tea and Splenda, on the other hand would be pretty light.
Powdered Gatorade is heavy but it's awesome stuff and I always carry it.
There are tons of cooking and food ideas on the White Blaze message board.
I have never seen anybody try to fry anything on the AT. Too much of a pain.
In many places on the AT, cooking fires are not permitted.
Besides the pot, I carry a small cup, a metal spork and a Lexan spoon.
I used to eat a lot of freeze-dried stuff sold specifically for hikers and campers, but that stuff costs 5 times as much as the same thing at a grocery, and the packaging is much heavier and bulkier. I would buy two-serving packages of the freeze-dried stuff and eat the whole thing for a meal.
Here is a great article on the weight of hiking stoves:
AT hikers find faucets at places where the trail passes through a town, goes by a store, campground or gas station, etc. The great majority of water sources on the AT are springs (where water comes up out of the ground) and streams. All AT shelters I have seen are located next to one or the other. Streams are pretty easy to find. A spring might not be. Many I have seen are a smallish hole in the ground with water in it. (Some of the holes are lined with stone.) Some springs are running pipes sticking out of the ground. Some springs are considered seasonal -- they only run when it has rained a lot. If you find a dry one, you'll be looking (at best) at a muddy hole in ground or (at worst) a completely dry hole or a dry pipe. Some springs are 200 or more yards off the trail and it can be irritating to climb yet another hill to get to one. I have once or twice seen springs listed in guidebooks (more on these later) yet I couldn't find the spring to save my life when I was sure I was at the right spot.
I once stopped for the night at a shelter (more on these later) with a dry spring. Along came a dad and two teenage sons (one son had type 2 diabetes). We traveled to two spots where the books said there were springs ... yet we found nothing. (I later learned we overlooked one which was described as a "concrete structure" when in fact it was inside a small shed.) This dad ended up making cell phone calls from a small mountain road miles from nowhere, with the idea of trying to get someone to bring water so his son wouldn't get sick. He failed. We ended up going back to the shelter, where the spring had only mud in the bottom. I pulled out all the rocks and leaves from the bottom, and used a small plastic garden shovel to dig a small hole in the bottom. This hole soon filled with muddy water. Using bandannas, etc., to strain it, we soon had about 1.5 quarts among us. They drank theirs, I didn't.
We were in Virginia, which is where dad and the boys lived. I told the dad, "If this was Ohio, we could get water out of a wild grapevine. I don't suppose you have anything like that in this #$#% state?"
No, he said.
I have ended two hikes early -- in 2002 and 2007 -- because there was a drought and I couldn't find enough water. Most hikers I have questioned start hiking in the morning with two quarts. The idea being they will drink the two quarts during the day and find water when they stop at a shelter. I start out with at least three, so if by some chance I can't find water that night, I still have a quart. That's what happened the night we strained the muddy water. I used my good quart first, sparingly, and didn't plan to drink my still somewhat muddy half-quart unless I was truly desperate and found nothing better. I did find better the next day, and dumped the muddy stuff. One consequence of that night was I didn't cook anything, since cooking and eating would use up maybe a half quart, 16 ounces. A young and strong hiker could avoid these kinds of problems under dicey conditions by carrying two gallons. If he or she didn't cook, I could see that lasting three solid days. Since two gallons weighs 16 pounds, I have never entertained the idea. I once encountered a guy who said he started off trying to carry only one quart. He said it wasn't enough.