Knowing what foods, what quantity of foods, and how much water to bring along and consume on your hike can be extremely overwhelming.
While I’m not a doctor or nutritionist, I pulled together my personal experiences with dependable external sources to share eight ways to improve your nutrition on the trail.
Though nutrition guides aren’t universal to every body type and every hike, there are some basic ways to improve your hiking nutrition and drinking habits that will help you to stay healthy and energized until the very end of the trail.
Things to Consider
There are a variety of things to consider prior to packing your food and water; these factors could potentially alter your nutrition choices:
- How long is the hike?
- How intense is your hike going to be? In other words, what is the elevation gain, distance, and terrain?
- What is the weather going to be like?
- What is your combined pack and body weight?
- How many calories will you burn?
- How many hours (or days) will you be out?
8 Ways to Improve Your Nutrition on the Trail
1. Calculate Your Body’s Burned Calories
Before you pack your food and set foot on the trail, it’s good to know how many calories your body burns on any given day.
From a relaxing recovery day at your house to a long, physically strenuous day on the trail, those numbers act as a roadmap to determine the number of calories that you’ll personally need to consume in order to keep up with the amount that you’ll be burning.
- Backpacker Magazine’s Calorie Calculator can be used to determine your range of calories used per day.
- Outside Online’s Calorie Estimate can be used to determine how many calories you’re burning as a function of your weight, your pack’s weight, your hiking speed, the incline of the slope you’re walking on, and the nature of the terrain.
2. Fuel Before You Hit the Trail
Whether you’re eating breakfast at home or at your campsite, it’s important to fuel your body before hitting the trail. Attempting any kind of physical activity on an empty stomach suscepts you to low energy levels, plummeting stamina, inevitable lethargy, and possible fainting.
According to Backpacker Magainze, your breakfast should be low in fat and fiber, high in carbohydrates, and contain some protein. They recommend eating 300-500 calories at least an hour prior to your hike.
Energy bars and fresh fruit are good options if you need to hit the trail as soon as you wake up.
Nutritious Pre-Hike Breakfast Options
- Oatmeal with dried fruit
- Scrambled egg and cheese breakfast burrito
- Bagel with peanut butter and banana slices
- Greek yogurt parfait with granola
- Granola with powdered milk
In regards to pre-hike hydration, consider guzzling 16 ounces of water about two hours before your start time to prepare your body for the physical exertion that it’s about to endure.
3. Pack Balanced Snacks
There are three main elements to food: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. As a hiker, it’s important to have a balance of all three so that you can perform at your optimum strength and highest possible energy levels.
Aside from impressive stamina, the right balance of nutrition will also ensure that you are less susceptible to injury and muscle loss.
If you’re embarking on a backpacking trip, Dr. Brenda Braaten, Ph.D., nutritionist, and long-distance hiker, recommends the following caloric breakdown:
- 45-55% carbs
- 35-40% fats
- 10-15% proteins
If you’re embarking on a small day hike, Dr. Braaten recommends decreasing the number of fatty foods and increasing the number of carbs and proteins because weight loss isn’t as big of an issue on shorter trips.
4. Eat Every Hour
Hikers should eat every hour instead of the typical three meals per day that are consumed on a normal work or leisure day.
Eating every hour is recommended for a few reasons:
- Your body will maintain a high energy level.
- Your muscles won’t stiffen due to lengthy meal breaks.
- Your digestive system will benefit.
- You won’t be weighted down with a full stomach.
- Consuming too many calories at once could potentially reroute blood from working muscles to digestion.
5. Fuel Your Body With Carbs
Carbohydrates may be many people’s enemy in their typical day-to-day lives, but these sugar molecules are a saving grace on the trail.
Carbs are the body’s preferred energy source while hiking and backpacking because they’re easier to process than fats and proteins. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose; glucose is the main source of energy for your body’s cells, tissues, and organs. Carbs are also less likely to put you at risk of an upset stomach.
Backpacker Magazine shares on its blog that hikers should devour 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour to improve strength, boost endurance, and delay fatigue.
So what happens if you don’t consume enough carbs? The body will be forced to burn muscle protein and stored body fat. This is how many long-distance hikers succumb to losing weight, shedding valuable muscle, and becoming dangerously thin and frail.
Some Hearty, Carb-Loaded Snacks (and Drink) to Consume on the Trail
- Dried fruit
- Protein bars
- Peanut butter pretzels
- Chocolate-covered cashews
- Sports drinks
6. Drink Water Before You Feel Thirsty
Did you know that when you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated? Thirst is an early symptom of mild dehydration. To keep your endurance from plummeting, drink before you feel thirsty.
Water intake will vary from hiker to hiker, and hydration needs will change based on factors like weather, terrain, elevation gain, and distance, but an average hiker completing an average hike in average temperatures will need about 0.5 liters of water per hour.
The fact that water is essential to human bodies should be engraved in pretty much everyone’s brain, but understanding what exactly water does for us could help encourage hikers to never forget to sip.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, water helps the following:
- Aid digestion and get rid of waste.
- Work your joints. Water lubricates them.
- Make saliva (which you need to eat).
- Balance your body’s chemicals. Your brain needs it to create hormones and neurotransmitters.
- Deliver oxygen all over your body.
- Cushion your bones.
- Regulate your body temperature.
So contrary to popular belief, it is essential to drink water no matter the season, no matter the weather, and no matter the temperature. Though summer heat does escalate the importance of hydrating, you need to be consuming water daily, even hourly, regardless of activity.
Signs of Dehydration
- Dark urine
- Fatigue and drowsiness
- Dizziness or lightheaded
- Dry mouth, lips, or eyes
- Peeing fewer than four times per day
7. Consume Electrolytes in the Heat
Replenishing sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and calcium on a consistent basis by consuming electrolytes is just as crucial as hydrating with water.
Hydrating without electrolytes is actually quite dangerous and can lead to hyponatremia, a life-threatening condition where your blood doesn’t have enough sodium to function.
In high heat, when you’re sweating, your body is losing those precious electrolytes needed to regulate blood pressure, transmit signals to your nervous system, and communicate with your muscles.
Electrolyte-Rich Snacks and Beverages
- Salted chips
- Salted nuts
- Chia or sunflower seeds
- Green tea
- Electrolyte replacement drinks
8. Eat a Generous Post-Hike Meal
Soon after any form of exercise, the body needs to be refueled, repaired, and recovered. No later than 45 minutes after your hike should you consume carbs and protein to repair muscle tissue and replace lost muscle sugar.
According to Backpacker Magazine, it is recommended to eat a 4:1 ratio of carbs to proteins post-hike.
Post-Hike Foods to Repair Lost Muscle Sugar and Muscle Tissue
- Beef jerky
- Yogurt with berries
If you do your own research on hiking and backpacking nutrition, you might find yourself overwhelmed, as I did. Every website, every hiker, and every study shares a different method of staying fit and healthy on the trail. This can be confusing for beginner and advanced hikers alike, but the most important thing to do is to respond to your body’s specific needs.
Everyone’s caloric intake and burn rate and food and drink quantities and frequencies may look different on the trail, and that’s perfectly normal. After all, there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of different diets on the market claiming to be “the best,” while the truth is each body responds to diet and nutrition uniquely.
My advice to beginners (aside from potentially consulting a professional nutritionist or physician) would be to use credible sources and reliable studies as an outline for your next hike’s nutrition plan. Peruse this blog post and use it as a general guide to point you in the correct direction in regards to eating the right foods and guzzling the right fluids on the trail. Observe how your body reacts to different types of foods and varying amounts of carbs, fats, and proteins, and gradually tweak your plan until you feel energized before, during, and after your hike.