If there’s a group of people that is notorious for talking about food, its thru-hikers. You will often find them talking about what food they’re carrying, their calorie to ounce ratio, where they were able to source food from, and the strange meal they created out of the most random of ingredients.
There’s a reason for this: when you hike for thousands of miles carrying your backpack throughout, you need a considerable amount of calories a day to keep you fueled. Counting calories is vital to ensure you can continue on to your next destination.
Therefore, proper food and nutrition are essential if you want to embark on one of these months-long journeys.
A primer on thru-hiking food and nutrition
After thinking about it for months, or even years, you’ve made up your mind. You’re going to undertake the grueling 2,650-mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail. Or the John Muir Trail. Or the Appalachian trail, or any of the various other 100+ mile hikes that can be found worldwide.
Once the decision has been made, it’s planning time. You need to consider a number of things including inclement weather, durable clothing, gear, and base weight. The best way to do this is to be prepared and know what you’re in for while minimizing the variables. Luckily, there are loads of resources out there to help you plan, and since this journey won’t be an easy one, thoughtful and considerable planning is a great asset.
Even with all that planning and resource, nutrition is one subject that often gets glossed over. Thru-hiking will present your body with demands you never even thought possible. Hiking for such an extended period of time is nothing like training for a marathon, and while it may not be a high-intensity workout, it will push your body to its endurance limits.
Macronutrients and weight loss
Loads of thru-hikers experience a notable amount of muscle and fat loss, and many end up losing too much weight. While there are many factors that could lead to this, the most significant one is a lack of proper nutrition, which often correlates with an energy lapse. We are trained to believe that losing fat is always a plus, but losing muscle is concerning, as it means your body is not getting sufficient protein, and you won’t be as healthy or strong as you need to be, both during and after the hike.
Macronutrients are sources of energy, and three primary sources are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Hiking is a low to moderate form of exercise, so fats will play a more significant than average role when it comes to muscle fuel. If you don’t consume enough fat during your thru-hike, then your muscles – which are made of protein – will start to break down.
The rebuilding of muscle fiber, which experiences small tears during arduous physical exertion, is facilitated with protein. Since thru-hiking can be likened to an ultramarathon run and is considered an endurance exercise, you need to plan your food and nutrition same as any other endurance athlete.
Food and nutrition planning
Part of your training for your thru-hike should include taking along some foods on day or weekend hikes, so you can build up your routine and establish how comfortable the weight is, how it makes you feel, and what you like.
Thru-hikes generally last a few weeks to a few months, and you will be presented each day with a unique set of challenges, such as exertion, elevation, and length of travel (along with mental exhaustion). There isn’t one diet plan that will fit comfortably with a thru-hike framework, as you will be on a constant loop of running out of food, getting more food, and getting some grub whenever you stop at a town.
With that being said, an excellent way to plan out your nutritional needs is to intake around 50% of your calories from carbs, and split the remainder as 35% from fats and 15% from proteins. There are various ways this can be done, and some of the most common foods to eat while thru-hiking include specialty foods that have a lot of fat (such as margarine), pasta, protein food packets, protein bars, and energy gels.
Pack snacks rich in nutrients
One of the biggest debates amongst thru-hikers is the amount of junk food that should be eaten, and even if you should be eating it at all. Most junk food is packed with fats and carbs, but most of the time, they aren’t the right kind, meaning they won’t also give you the necessary nutrients.
If you have the money and space in your bag, the main part of your diet should be whole foods, such as trail mix, which is a snack rich in nutrients and a right mix of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You can also research superfoods such as spirulina, which will give a nutrient boost if added to granola for example. Another option is to make or buy energy balls or squares that have a long shelf-life and are packed with essential nutrients.
Proper nutrition, such as the one that comes with eating whole foods and superfoods or even freeze-dried meals, can make a big dent in your wallet, so it’s vital that you do some research beforehand. Once you know the number of calories you’ll be needing, look into the cheapest and lightest versions of these foods that are available to you.
Eat your vitamins
A challenge that many thru-hikers give up on before even starting is having a healthy and steady supply of vitamins and minerals. It comes as no surprise, as while sometimes they are able to grab more supplies at a grocery store, most of the towns you’ll come across are remote and don’t have a varied selection, and they’ll find themselves at a gas station convenience store, picking amongst the less bruised fruit and vegetables.
One way to make sure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals is to take along dried vegetables and fruits, though this strategy is not entirely effective, as dried fruit only contains a sliver of the vitamins fresh fruit gives you. On the other hand, packing a bottle of multivitamins may not be useful either, as your body doesn’t store water-soluble vitamins in the long term. To combat this issue and avoid ending up with a vitamin-D deficiency, you can chew your multivitamin, or choose a fortified drink, whose nutrients are better absorbed by the body.
It also goes without saying that whenever you come across fresh fruit or vegetables, make sure to eat a big dose of them, no matter if they are slightly bruised. Hey, thru-hiking is no time to be picky!
Flexibility is key
While proper and careful planning is essential and helpful, an imperative part of your preparation should be flexibility, as things will never go as smoothly as you’ve planned them to be. There are days where you may pull a muscle and need a couple of recovery days, or you will reach your resupply location a couple of days earlier than expected so that you can enjoy more than one sort-of home cooked meal at the town’s restaurant. So, plan thoroughly, but also roll with the punches and enjoy this incredible experience!