4 Must Have Supplements for Long Distance Backpacking

Let us first address the hyperbolic nature of this title.  There really are no “must have” supplements.  You can walk across the earth without taking a single pill, powder, ointment, tincture, etc, and many backpackers do- either because it’s not worth the weight, money, or they simply aren’t interested.  That said, people have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail without shoes.  Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s recommended.

Like shoes, I find that supplements improve the long-distance backpacking experience.

I consider supplementation to be an important part of my “normal” life, but this is especially true with increased physical exertion, a suboptimal diet, and exposure to many foreign elements- also known as the conditions of backpacking.  In other words, supplements are “must haves” for me.

A bit of background

Halfway into my thru-hike in 2011, I contracted West Nile virus.  Not only did my health suffer for the remainder of my hike, but the symptoms persisted for more than two years after finishing the Trail.  As a result, I became obsessive about improving my immune system and overall cognitive and physical performance.  This resulted in several thousands (yes, thousands- I moved home to make ends meet) of dollars spent purchasing and testing various supplements.  For most, there was no difference (or at least the difference was too small to detect).  A few however, have unquestionably had a positive impact on my mood, energy, and overall quality of life.

Because, like you, I am anal mindful about pack weight, so not every supplement that’s part my daily routine makes the cut for backpacking.  The below list contains those supplements which I consider most necessary (with the addition of a protein supplement, which I use only when backpacking).

4 Must Have Supplements for Long Distance Backpacking

1) Fish Oil

Because getting high quality fats on the AT can be tricky, or more accurately, low quality fats are seemingly ubiquitous, fish oil tops my list for backpacking supplements.  Muscular and joint inflammation is such a huge issue on the trail that ibuprofen has earned the nickname “Vitamin I”.  Many hikers will take upward of 8-10 pills per day- I was one of them during my thru-hike.  Unfortunately I have since learned of both its short term (impaired muscle recovery) and long term (damage to the stomach lining) side effects.  If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Instead, I now rely solely on fish oil, which is rich in omega 3 fatty acids which, due to its potent anti-inflammatory properties, has been shown to protect against a range of disorders ranging from heart disease to arthritis to depression.  In addition to the boost to my mood, I’ve found that consistent doses of fish oil all but eliminates any knee stiffness / pain.

Unfortunately, with fish oil, you get what you pay for.  There are many factors which play into a fish oil’s quality- this Chris Kresser article does an excellent job explaining these variables.  The biggest concern for backpackers is oxidation, as exposure to heat can damage the fats, rendering them harmful as opposed to beneficial.  The product which I use (for this very reason) is Vital Choice’s Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Oil as it contains astaxanthin, an additive which protects the oil from oxidative damage.

vital choice fish oil

Extra credit: In addition to / instead of fish oil, eat fish.  I don’t recall how difficult it was to find canned wild salmon at the grocery stores along the Trail (perhaps one of our readers can let us know in the comments), but if you’re sending yourself mail drops, I recommend including a few cans of wild salmon in each.  I prefer the convenience of fish oil pills, but this is merely a personal preference.

2) Probiotics

If you looked at the average thru-hiker’s “food pyramid”, its base would be a portrait of Little Debbie.  Not only do hikers need the high calorie value that these treats provide, but they’re also (frighteningly) non-perishable and cheap: all important considerations for long distance backpackers.  Unfortunately, what’s good for the wallet is terrorism on the gut.

Sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, and wheat (three hiker staples) encourage the growth of bad bacteria in the gut.  An unhealthy gut microbiome has been linked to “diseases ranging from autism and depression to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s, inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes.”

At the time of my thru-hike, my greatest nutritional concern was getting enough calories in order to sustain the energy needed to cover 18-26 miles a day.  I have since learned of the long-term repercussions of neglecting the quality and type of food I was putting into my system.

It’s all-too-common for thru-hikers to regain the weight they lost during their trek (and then some); I suspect that a shift in gut flora plays at least a small part in this (merely speculative, however gut bacteria and weight gain go hand-in-hand).

I use and recommend Prescript Assist for three reasons:

  1. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated (absolutely essential for backpacking)
  2. It’s a combination prebiotic / probiotic.  While probiotics have proven helpful for immune support, prebiotics (despite popular belief) are actually more effective at populating healthy bacteria.
  3. It’s the only prebiotic / probiotic I know that is clinically proven to meet its claims.

Prescript-Assist

I recommend a probiotic while backpacking not for the athletic gains, but instead as a safeguard against the piss-pour diet you’re subjecting yourself to.  Probiotics (and in my experience, Prescript Assist in particular) are also effective at keeping you regular and maintaining a healthy stool consistency (he called the poop, ‘stool’), which can be difficult to achieve on a diet of Oreos.

I’ve also heard and read good things about Garden of Life’s Primal Defense, but have not used it myself so cannot attest to its effectiveness.

Extra credit: Maximize your intake of bananas (raw, not dehydrated), raw garlic, and onions (cooked or raw) on the Trail, all high in prebiotics. 

3) Electrolytes

My thru-hike landed me in the hospital a couple of times as I was displaying symptoms of Lyme disease.  Both tests came back negative- the doctors surmised that I was simply dehydrated (it wasn’t until after the Trail that I was tested for West Nile virus- which as you now know, came back positive).

While I was sweating like a hairy ginger in heat (both a joke and an accurate description) in the triple digit temperatures of the southern Pennsylvania summer, I was still surprised to find out that I was dehydrated. After all, I was consuming ungodly amounts of water- up to 8-10 liters per day (that’s more than 2.5 GALLONS)!

It wasn’t until a fellow hiker told me about hyponatremia, a condition with dehydration like symptoms, which can be caused by drinking too much water, especially in conjunction with heavy sweating.  Sweat contains both water and electrolytes, and simply replacing this lost fluid with water will throw off your body’s sodium-balance.  Severe cases of hyponatremia can (and have) result in death.

Although my symptoms didn’t disappear, I felt SIGNIFICANTLY better after including an electrolyte supplement into my daily routine, especially in the summer months.  My body was retaining far less water (at times, I looked like a water balloon), the dizziness lessened, and best of all- my energy improved drastically.

The product I have had the best success with is Hammer Nutrition’s HEED Sports Drink as it includes very little sugar, while still providing ample carbohydrates (whereas Gatorade uses only sugar and fructose) which I find easier to stomach- and HEED provides a large profile of vitamins and minerals beyond just the basic electrolytes.  That said, Gatorade is still better than water.

HEED electrolyte supplement

I’ve also been experimenting with evaporated coconut water lately- and with promising results.  I will be embarking on a 50-mile trip in the next few weeks- I will have a more definitive review when this happens.  (If anyone has tried this brand, please let me know how it’s worked for you)

Extra credit: You think it’s a coincidence those Mountain House meals are so high in sodium?  Think again (from the Mountain House website): “Our products were originally designed to fit a high-performance lifestyle, replacing some of the sodium lost during heavy exertion”.  In other words, if you’re sweating heavily on the Trail, salt is your friend. 

4) Protein Powder

Last but not least is protein powder.  In my observation, very few of the thru-hikers around me were getting enough protein in their diet (myself included for most of my hike).  Studies have shown that 1.3g per kg to 1g per lb. of protein per bodyweight can be beneficial for “extreme training”, which 6-10 hours of carrying yourself plus 20-30lbs up and down mountains certainly qualifies for. The low end of this estimate calls for 1.2 lbs of steak, 15 eggs, or 3 cans of tuna per day, while the high end says I should be consuming 2.2lbs of steak, 28 eggs, or 4.25 cans of tuna (!!!!).

Although my appetite would have been up to the challenge, my budget (not to mention my willingness to carry 25 cans of tuna) would not.  Meeting these protein requirements is easier when in town, but on the Trail, a powder protein supplement should be considered mandatory. After all, when hiking is your job, your work performance is dependent upon your strength.

For this reason, I strongly recommend whey protein since vegetable sources don’t supply the necessary essential amino acid profile and bioavailability to support adequate muscle growth.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Health Organization (succinctness is not their strength) developed a measure called the “protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score” (again) which evaluates the quality of various protein sources.  The top 8 (casein, egg, milk, whey, chicken, turkey, fish, and beef) were all animal sources.  In other words, not all proteins are created equally, and if muscle building is important (it is), plant sources are second-rate.

Whey protein allows for easy (or easier) consumption of larger volumes of protein without breaking the bank (or your back), and is more easily tolerated than casein.  There are a billion whey proteins on the market, and for the purpose of muscle building, they all do the job.  If health-value / quality is a concern (as it is for me), I use and recommend Reserveage Nutrition’s Grass-Fed Whey Protein, which has no added sugar, is hormone and GMO-free, comes from grass fed cows, and tastes great.

grass fed whey protein

Extra credit: One scoop in the morning and before bed will provide you an extra 42g of protein for the day.  Mix it with a scoop of the electrolyte supplement and wash down your fish oil and probiotic to kill all birds with one delicious stone.

I am no doctor.  I have no certifications in nutrition or food science (although it is a passion).  What I do bring to the table is obsessive self-experimentation.  I can’t promise you that any of the above supplements will offer you the same (or even any) benefits- but I can say with 100% conviction that they have had a definitive positive impact on my life and backpacking performance.

What about you?  What supplements do you swear by?  Let us know in the comments below.  

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Comments 17

  • P : Mar 14th

    Those sound like good choices. You can also buy those vacuum packed pouches of tuna and salmon instead of cans. For me, I would do that, whey protein isolate powder, macadamia nuts, and coconut oil. I would add Vit C, probiotics, Vit D3.

    Reply
  • Jessica McCoy : May 17th

    It’s not so different from what I’ve done as a distance runner. I’d also add a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement and a good multi-vitamin to the mix.

    I’ve been thinking a thru-hike is the next step beyond marathons and ultras, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how you properly fuel your body for a 4-6 month thru-hike. This article is helpful. Thanks!

    The reliance on junk food has my head spinning. That might be calorically dense, but it’s nutritionally terrible. I may need to experiment at how I can make a good “weight-gainer” shake with a quality protein powder supplement, maybe by combining it with instant yogurt smoothie powder.

    Reply
    • zrdavis : Sep 4th

      Hope the thru-hike plans are coming along swimmingly!

      Reply
      • Jessica McCoy : Sep 4th

        They are! I think I know what I *want* to buy, now it’s a matter of saving money and working out. 🙂

        I’m always keeping my eyes open for good places to get quality used stuff.

        Reply
  • Paws : Aug 14th

    I totally agree with your approach to supplement your trail food.
    Been taking Whey protein for years now on the trail. Every morning two scoops in a dedicated 12oz water bottle. With some sort of fiber bars. Also every other water bottle I add electrolytes and sodium rich dinners. When I resupply in town or the start of a trip from home. I’ll bring single serve bags of salads and bananas and apples usually have room for three each at minimal weight. Will eat these up on the first three days on the trail so have had no problem with keeping fresh in my pack. Like your fish oil idea and will look at adding that to my suppliments. Thank for the nice article.

    Reply
  • Bell-Yvonne Schnalle : Sep 4th

    How many of the fish oil gels do you take per day on the true hike?

    Reply
    • zrdavis : Sep 4th

      Typically between 2-3000 mg. A couple things worth noting: 1) I typically don’t carry fish oil during the height of summer. Even the highest quality fish oil will oxidize under enough heat. 2) I will cycle my fish oil intake, as there is some known health risks with continued intake. Typically this means 2-3 weeks on for every week off. I’ve lessened my intake altogether when not on the trail, as I have fewer excuses to not eat fresh fish (the preferred option). If you can get enough fresh fish while in town, fish oil is likely unnecessary. I’m typically too cheap and gluttonous to go for the grilled salmon during a hike, however, so I try to lessen the damage with supplemental fish oil. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  • Bob : Dec 16th

    Just thought I’d add that in the “3 week diet” fish oil is essential in that it’s an essential fatty acid and it suggests 2g EPA to 1g DHA each day. Regular strength fish oil is about “10 EPA/DHA capsules each day or 5 teaspoons of straight fish oil.”

    I don’t suppose it would too much of a stretch to say thru-hiking the AT is a 24 week diet.

    Reply
  • Brenda : Feb 3rd

    This may not be the right place to ask, so forgive me in advance. I will be hiking the Appalachian Trial alone in April and I’m trying to strategize the food situation. Unfortunately, I don’t have any support people to ship things to me along the way. I want to take some of this advice and eat well, so I have a chance of being successful. Is stocking up on enough of everything and then doing the bump box the way to go? Or do I try to make prepackaged boxes and see if my neighbor will ship them to post offices? I just worry about trying to time that all out.
    Thank you for any feedback.

    Reply
  • Andrew : Oct 24th

    You have to be careful about the protein because protein requires a lot of water to digest. If there is an ample water supply then no problem.

    Reply

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