Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
How one hiker turned her passion for food and the outdoors into a new business and a new way of life | By Jessi Loerch
Aaron Owens Mayhew’s business, Backcountry Foodie, began with a massive life change.
“I had a midlife crisis. I think we can put it that way,” she said. “I was at a job where I was unhappy and getting ready to turn 40. So, I decided to quit my job that I had intended to retire from and thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail.”
Aaron, who was living in Seattle at the time, had been a dietitian for 16 years. As she prepared for her PCT hike she had a realization.
“I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I know how much I eat — and I eat a lot,” she said. “Once I started preparing for the hike I started panicking. I thought ‘how can I physically carry this much food?’”
On her shorter trips, she’d been able to get away with tossing in whatever. And, if her nutrition wasn’t ideal, no big deal. She’d just recover when she got home. But the PCT would be different.
She knew she’d need 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day. So, being the dietitian that she is, she started doing the math and she began experimenting with making her own lightweight food — something that would fulfill her calorie needs as well as all of her nutritional needs for protein and vitamins so that she could stay happy and healthy on the trail for months.
“I was able to get all those calories and all that nutrition in two pounds or less,” she said. “And people were just in awe. But I was new to this, so I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.”
Aaron’s PCT journey didn’t go exactly to plan. She had a shoulder injury after 375 miles. After rehabbing from that, she hiked on both the Appalachian Trail and the PCT in Washington for a total of 1,200 miles in 2017. The next year, she thru-hiked the entire Oregon Coast Trail, all without a stove. After all of that, it was time to figure out what was next.
Ultimately, what was next was creating her own business, her husband quitting his job and the two of them moving into a van full time.
The van, a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter, made their business possible by allowing them to dramatically reduce their living expenses. But getting it ready to go was a lot of work.
“Essentially, it was empty when we got it. It was just a cargo shell,” she said. “It was really nice, because we could start from scratch. We built all of it ourselves — with zero building experience.”
The build was specifically designed to support Aaron’s recipe development. The kitchen includes a deep sink, large refrigerator, extended countertop and lots of cabinet space not typically found in camper vans. Two 30-gallon totes including ingredients, a dehydrator, vacuum sealer and other meal prep items are stored in the rear of the van. And then, they made room for the rest of the gear. The build was challenging, but actually living in limited space was easier than expected.
“We’ve actually downsized four times since we’ve been in it,” Aaron said. “It’s kind of like being a thru-hiker. You realize that you just don’t need a lot.
Now, Aaron and her husband, Chris, both work out of the van. Chris, who has a corporate background, runs the business aspects of Backcountry Foodie while Aaron is in charge of all things food.
They’ve been on the road full time since April 2019, and they love it. They work in the van, live in the van and adventure from the van.
They primarily spend their time on forest roads and in primitive campgrounds — the more remote, the better. They only stay in town when they are passing through or need to do town chores.
“We are in such a better place than we were before,” she said. “That’s made it worth every bit of it. Life is too short to be miserable. … I try to talk everyone one in to it. If you’re in a miserable job, get out. Figure it out. If you never try, you never know if you can make anything of it.”
Backcountry Foodie is a one-stop shop for nutritional needs on trail. It’s designed to work for everyone from casual backpackers to folks hoping to set a fastest known time on a long-distance trail.
As part of the service, members have access to an ever-growing website including ultralight recipes, meal planning worksheets, sample meal plans, webinars and group web calls. New recipes are released each week.
All of the recipes are designed to be made in 5 minutes or less, either at home or on the trail. They’re lightweight, use minimal water and are non-bulky — important when you need to carry a bear can.
Aaron maximizes all of the ingredients to provide as much nutrition as possible. She looks for foods that have protein, fats and carbs all at the same time. So, for instance, she doesn’t use white rice but instead uses quinoa, which packs in more nutrition for its weight. She uses chickpea pasta instead of regular pasta, because it’s so much higher in protein.
For those who love to geek out about the numbers, Aaron provides detailed information on nutrition and weight. If you’re counting grams, Aaron can help.
To learn more about the service, and to get 40 percent off a 1-year membership, go to backcountryfoodie.com/wta. You can try out the service for free for 30 days before you commit.
Substitution: Coconut milk powder may replace whole milk powder.
Note: Canned chickpeas can be easily dehydrated at home. Rinse, drain and remove the skins. Dehydrate at 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius) until completely dry.
Note: PB2 peanut powder is lower in fat and does not provide the same nutrition per gram weight. Emergency Essentials peanut powder is a higher fat (per gram) option that can be purchased at discount grocery stores such as Winco.