Nutrition On The Trail
Whether you’re day hiking, backpacking for a few days, or thru-hiking a long distance trail, nutrition is extremely important. After having hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail, two sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, and countless shorter backpacking trips and day hikes, I can speak from personal experience that nutrition on the trail is just as important as daily foot care and having the right gear.
Food is probably the number one thing hikers think about while on the trail, but it is not always the most thought out. Making sure you have enough food and the right kind of food can play a huge part in making or breaking your adventure. Often times the mindset is, “I am burning so many calories out here, and I can eat whatever I want!” It is true, you burn an immense amount of calories hiking 10-30 miles a day, but it is important to choose the right kind of calories so that you can fuel your body and have it work optimally for you during your trip.
Let’s talk about calories from sugar.
Processed sugar is what a lot of people crave when they’re hiking, and for good reason. Eating some M&M’s, a Snickers bar, or some gummy bears, offers the body an almost immediate boost of energy. Unfortunately, this energy is not sustainable and after about 30 minutes, your body crashes and you will feel even more depleted than before you ate the Snickers bar. Even healthier options such as dried fruit can have this same effect. If you are craving a sugary snack, make sure it is paired with some protein and some healthy fats. This combination will help sustain your body much longer and you also won’t have that sugar crash. Some examples of healthy sustainable energy snacks are:
Trail Mix such as Ginger Berry Fusion by Outdoor Herbivore
Now let’s talk about actual meals.
There are countless meal options for backpacking, and they’re most likely all going to be very different than what you eat during your regular day-to-day life. This can send your stomach into a tizzy, so here are some tips that can help your body adjust to trail food and also help you feel energized during your trip.
Avoid eating too many meals that have lots of preservatives. The fast and easy meal options are frequently some of the worst for our body, and even though Ramen noodles and mac and cheese are high in calories, in the long run, these foods are not sustainable for your body because they are packed with preservatives and they there are almost no vitamins and nutrients in them. If you are going to prepare Ramen on the trail, a great way to make it more nutritious is to throw some tuna and dehydrated vegetables into the meal, this will give it a boost of vitamins, healthy fats and protein, and it also adds calories. Many weekend backpackers love Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry meals, and while these meals do taste amazing, they are packed with more sodium than we could ever need, and tons of preservatives (the shelf life on these packaged meals is generally 10 years!!!) A great alternative to a freeze-dried meal is to cook and dehydrate your own meals for backpacking, or to purchase a dehydrated meal from some of the below options:
The key is to get ‘dehydrated’ meals not ‘freeze dried’. Dehydrated meals will generally only have a shelf life of 1-2 years and don’t have all of those nasty preservatives in them that have the tendency to hurt your tummy, especially if you’re used to eating a lot of fresh foods in your day-to-day life.
Another common issue regarding eating on the trail is getting enough calories.
If you are long distance backpacking, it is hard not to lose weight, however there are some tricks you can do to make sure you are getting the maximum amount of calories you can during each meal.
For breakfast you can add protein powder into your oatmeal, however, make sure to test your ratio before getting on trail, because it can be a little chalky if you have too much powder. Depending on what type of protein powder you use, this can add 150-250 extra calories to your breakfast! Another option is to add nuts, chia seeds and dried fruit to your oatmeal, although this option can get a bit heavy if you're long-distance backpacking.
For lunch, there are countless high-calorie meal options such as Probar Meal bars, for a quick on the go type of meal, tortillas with nut butter, cold soaked couscous with tuna and crackers, guacamole or hummus packets with crackers or chips, and so much more. Some items that can add calories to your lunches are mayo packets, summer sausage, and cheese.
For dinner, it is easy to add things to your meals that will add lots of calories like olive oil or coconut oil packets, and if you're using tuna or chicken pouches, make sure to get the packets that say ‘tuna in oil' rather than tuna in water. Also eating a tortilla with your meal, or adding peanut butter to your noodles, making them Pad Thai style, will definitely add a lot of calories.
And last but certainly not least is something many hikers do not think about, electrolytes!
Regardless of the season, you're hiking in, you are definitely sweating, which means you are depleting your body's electrolytes. Electrolytes are important because they help regulate the balance of fluids in your body, they make sure your kidneys are functioning properly and they facilitate muscle contractions (this one is key for hiking!). If your body's electrolytes are depleted, you can also feel lightheaded, dizzy, and it can lead to severe dehydration. Replenishing your electrolytes is very easy and is done by consuming Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, and Potassium. To make sure that you’re getting an adequate amount of each of those there are many drink mixes that make this process easy and delicious. Some options include:
Making sure you are fueling your body properly, whether it is for a day hike, a weekend backpacking trip or a thru-hike is extremely important and will make all the difference in your mood, energy levels, quality of sleep and overall enjoyment of your adventure.
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