A former Graduate Student’s Athlete Nutrition Portfolio: AT Thru Hiker Edition

Hi friends!

I introduced myself (and my frog hat) yesterday but I wanted to share something really quick before my mom drops me off at the Approach Trail tomorrow and takes my laptop with her. I’m going to have to figure out speak-to-text, because the idea of writing these blog posts on a phone sounds super not fun.

The following is the write up of a project I did in graduate school at (THE) Ohio State University when I was working on my Masters in Dietetics (so, like, last year). It was a performance nutrition class, and for a project we had to choose an athlete and create a portfolio on them, breaking down their macronutrient needs and any other significant nutrients based on the demands of the sport. I wanted to challenge myself while also keeping it interesting, so I chose an AT thru-hiker. I had 2 family friends who were out on the trail at the time, and I was about a year and a half out from my start date (which when I started writing this post, was tomorrow, but now its 12:05am so my start date is officially TODAY!!!), so I wanted to do something that would be useful for me outside of class.   

 Here’s a little disclaimer: Being a graduate student, unpaid intern, part time manager, and accidental mother to a gaggle of baby geese (that’s a story for another day) all at once during a pandemic was pretty overwhelming, and I was surviving on more coffee and vibes than sleep and food, so forgive me if there are any errors. I remember getting a good grade on the project, but I’m sure there were some small errors here and there that my professors told me about in feedback that I never looked it. So, my bad on that. Also: This is not me telling you or anyone how they should eat on the trail. The meal plan provided is to meet the average daily needs of a specific person, whose sex, body weight, body composition, and activity level are going to have significant influence on. Links are provided for resources except for classes and notes at Ohio State.  And now, without further ado…My Homework™.

Introducing My Athlete

Athlete being used for this project: Hiker attempting a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Male, age 21, 5’ 9”, 205lbs, 24% BF. Hiking on average 8 hrs/day (usually 2-3 mph pace, (occasionally 1mph pace if terrain is rough), carrying a 30lb pack. This athlete does not want to actively attempt to change his body composition. For a northbound thru-hike starting from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia in mid-March, and finishing at the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine in September. This trail is approximately 2181 miles long, but with walking off trails to towns and whatnot, the total distance hiked in this time frame will likely be much higher, closer to 3000 miles. Along the entirety of the trail, you gain and lose elevation constantly – in terms of elevation gain/loss, it’s the equivalent of climbing and descending Mt. Everest 16 times.

A typical daily schedule:
– Between 5-9am: wake up, eat breakfast, pack up, and head out on the trail
– Hike 3-4 hours (snack along the way) before stopping for lunch/rest
– Hike more, snacking along the way.
– Hike a few more hours until getting to a place to make camp for the night (could be a shelter, hostel, town/motel, or just somewhere to set up a tent) Cook/eat dinner at least 200 yds from camp.
– Approximately once a week, take a zero day in a town to resupply, do laundry, rest, etc.

Energy Needs
MSJ: 9.9 (93.18kg) + 6.25 (175.26cm) – 4.92 (21) + 166 = 2080 kcal
– With Activity Factor: 1.4: 2912 kcal
– With AF: 2.0: 4160 kcal
– With AF: 2.5: 5200 kcal

HB: 66.47 + 13.75 (93.18kg) + 5 (175.26cm) = 2081 kcal
– With AF: 1.4: 2913 kcal
– With AF: 2.0: 4162 kcal
– With AF: 2.5: 5202 kcal

WHO: (15.3 x 93.18kg) + 679 = 2105 kcal
– With AF: 1.4: 2927 kcal
– With AF: 2.0: 4210 kcal
– With AF: 2.5: 5262 kcal

I did not include the TEF (thermic effect of food) in these calculations, as in class and in my class notes it says to only include this for athletes trying to gain weight. However, Thru-hiking is a sport that consumes a tremendous amount of calories. Even using a 2.0 or 2.5 Activity Factor, I don’t think that is enough calories for this athlete to maintain his weight over the course of the “season”. It’s very hard to “outeat” the amount of calories being burned, but some manage to do it. I’ve included the resource I’ve used to determine the energy needs for this specific type of athlete. For this, I’m assuming each week hikes the average (8hr) on 5 days, has one “nero”, or near-zero day (a few miles max), and takes a zero day (no hiking) in town one day to resupply, rest, and do laundry.



Using the Chart on this website his energy needs would be 6752 kcal/day (8hr backpacking,, 8hr resting, 8hr sleeping) on normal days, 3596 kcal/day on nero days (1-2 hrs backpacking, 12-13 hr resting, 10hr sleeping), and 2562 (14hr resting, 10 hr sleeping) on zero days. This averages out to about 5700 kcal/day. This seems high, but on brand with what experienced thru-hikers claim to burn. This is the calorie amount I am going to use for the rest of the portfolio.

In regards to protein, this athlete will require somewhere between 1.0-1.2 g/kg body weight. I determined this range by using the following sources: https://thru-hiker.com/articles/PackLightEatRight/protein.htm and class lecture slides. This equates to 93-112 g protein/day. Due to the amount of calories being consumed for maintenance, the high end of this range (112g/kg) is only 7% of the total kcal needs. I would say this 112g would be a minimum for this athlete, even though according to the resources it is the high end. This athlete will be hiking hundreds of miles for days on end and will require adequate protein to ensure proper recovery.

The range of CHO (carbohydrate) this athlete requires is between 8-12g/kg BW/day. This comes from the macronutrient lecture slides used this semester in class. I believe this athlete falls under the IOC’s “Extreme Commitment, moderate to high intensity, >4-5 hours/day” category. At 93.18 kg, this would equal 745-1118 g of CHO/day.

5700 – (448 kcal from protein + 3200 kcal from CHO) = 2052 kcal remaining for fat;
1852 kcal / 9kcal= 228 g fat

Final Breakdown:
228g fat = 36% of total kcal
112 g protein = 7% of total kcal
800 g CHO = 56% of total kcal


Moving on to Hydration:
When comparing the AT to the other 2 US Triple Crown hikes, water sources are going to be abundant. The CDT and PCT each have a long desert section, which the AT lacks. That does not mean that the hiker should take any for granted, and assume they’ll pass another soon. When in the presence of a water source, they should take the time to replenish their supply of safe drinking water. This could be from a spring, town, creek/stream, rainwater, etc. It’s important that the hiker filters all water except collected rain water or water purchased in town. The Sawyer Squeeze is a water filtration product often used by long distance hikers. One of the most common ways to determine hydration status is checking urine color. However, since many hikers are doing their business outside, this may not be feasible. Other signs of dehydration they can look for are their urine output/frequency, capillary refill time, and/or if their mucus membranes are wet or dry.
A 205lb person will need an estimated baseline of 102-103 oz of water (1oz per lb 1/2 BW). A general rule of thumb for athletes is to replace each pound lost through exercise with an additional 16-24 oz of liquid. Weighing the athlete before and after each day of hiking isn’t really feasible, as they are not going to carry a scale in their pack and lug that around with them for months. For that same reason, I decided not to bother with sweat rate for this athlete, as there is no way they will realistically be able to weigh themselves before and after hiking, or avoid drinking water during hiking on humid days for hours and hours.

The rule of thumb when hiking is at least 0.5 L of water per hour. If the weather is hot or humid, or if the person has a higher sweat rate, then this can be higher. Some important things for hikers, especially long distance hikers, to remember are: Drink often, even when not feeling thirsty; if you are going up in altitude, you may need more water to stay properly hydrated; hydrate in town/before leaving to hike; drink adequate liquids on zero days; be sure to replace electrolytes when exercising for extended periods of time, especially in heat/humid conditions (which you will definitely encounter in the eastern side of the US in thru-hiking season).
Meal Plan:
This athletes average needs: 5700 kcal, 800g CHO, 112 g Protein, 228g Fat
For the meal planning for this assignment, I was originally going to use the highest range of calories (what they would require on a day of 8hrs of backpacking on the AT), This is 6750 kcal, 944g CHO(56% total kcal), 112g protein (minimum, 7% total kcal), 275g Fat (37% total kcal). However, since I’ve been told it is virtually impossible to overeat the amount of calories being burnt on those days – I’m going to stick with the average and do 5700 kcal. Even this is going to be higher than most are actually going to eat on trail. From talking with thru-hikers, most get around 3500-4500 kcal a day and lose a significant amount of weight during the hike. There are a lot of barriers to getting the full amount of calories needed: finances, having to carry much of what you are eating for mile after mile, as well as just the fact that to physically eat 5000-7000 calories a day is very hard to do. I’m going to pretend this is a day of hiking through Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, meaning there will not be any towns/restaurants to stop at, so it will all be food from their pack (aka, not much/any fresh fruits/veggies or dairy as they wouldn’t keep well). This section of the AT is towards the end of a NOBO thru hike. At this point, “hiker hunger” will have long set in (basically like insatiable hunger), so he will be able to eat more than an average person not doing this hike would be able to, or even than he would’ve been able to eat the first few days/weeks on the trail. But even then, due to the reasons above, it is unlikely that a hiker will actually consume their needs on the trail, so please keep that in mind. This meal plan is for their average NEEDS, not what an average thru hiker would actually be able to eat and/or afford to eat daily on their hike.

Step 1: 800 g CHO/15g CHO per exchange = 53 CHO exchanges
2 cups oatmeal: 60g CHO, 12g protein, 1g fat, 320 kcal
2 tbsp maple syrup/honey: 30 g CHO, 140 kcal
1 cup dried mixed fruit: 120g CHO, 480 kcal
2oz potato chips: 30g CHO, 6g protein, 12 fat, 340 kcal
4 chewy fruit snacks/roll: 60g CHO, 280 kcal
2 1/3 cup pasta: 105 g CHO, 21 G protein, 7g fat, 560 kcal
64 oz gatorade: 120 g CHO, 560 kcal
2 sm choc chip cookies: 15g CHO, 10g fat, 160 kcal
1 lg packaged muffin: 60g CHO, 12.5g fat, 393 kcal
1 pkg cheese sandwich crackers (6 total): 30g CHO, 6g protein, 12 g fat, 250 kcal
2 granola bars: 30g CHO, 6g protein, 2g fat, 160 kcal.
5 lg medjool dates: 75g CHO, 300 kcal
Graham crackers (9 squares): 45g CHO, 9g protein, 3g fat, 240 kcal
3 hard candies: 15g CHO, 70 kcal

Total after CHO (starches, fruits, etc): 795g CHO, 60g protein, 59.5g fat, 4253 kcal

Step 2: Protein: 112g-60g = 52 g protein remaining / 7g per exchange = need 7.4 exchanges (rounding to 8):
2 oz beef jerky: 0g cho, 28g protein, 8g fat, 180 kcal
4tbsp peanut butter: 0g CHO, 28g protein, 32g fat, 400 kcal
New total after adding protein: 795g CHO, 116g protein, 99.5g fat, 4833 kcal

Step 3: Fat: 228g – 99.5g = 128.5g / 5g per exchange: 25.7 changes needed (rounding to 26):
Mixed Tree Nuts:
Walnuts (16 halves): 20g fat, 180 kcal
Almonds (18 nuts): 15g fat, 135 kcal
Cashews (18 nuts): 15g fat, 135 kcal
Pecans: (16 halves): 20g fat, 180 kcal
Olive oil (3 tbps): 45g fat, 405 kcal
Sunflower seeds (3 tbsp): 15g fat, 135 kcal
New total after adding fat: 795g CHO, 116g protein, 229.5g fat, 6003 kcal.

Total for this meal plan according to/using exchange system: 795g CHO, 116g protein, 229.5g fat, 6003 kcal.
(**These macros would not be 100% accurate, as the exchange system fails to account for any of the protein in the nuts/seeds).

Broken down into meals:
*Frequent snacks (every hour or so) will be eaten while hiking rather than giant meals. This leads to more efficient hiking*
2 cups oatmeal: 60g CHO, 12g protein, 1g fat, 320 kcal
2 tbsp peanut butter: 14g protein, 16g fat, 200 kcal
2 tbsp maple syrup/honey: 30 g CHO, 140 kcal
1/2 cup dried mixed fruit: 60g CHO, 240 kcal
2oz potato chips: 30g CHO, 6g protein, 12 fat, 340 kcal
2oz beef jerky: 28g protein, 8g fat, 180 kcal
32 oz gatorade: 60 g CHO, 280 kcal
2 chewy fruit snacks: 30g CHO, 140 kcal

2 1/3 cup pasta: 105 g CHO, 21 G protein, 7g fat, 560 kcal
3 tbsp olive oil: 45g fat, 405 kcal
32 oz gatorade: 60 g CHO, 280 kcal
2 sm choc chip cookies: 15g CHO, 10g fat, 160 kcal

Snacks eaten throughout the day:
1 lg packaged muffin: 60g CHO, 12.5g fat, 393 kcal
1 pkg cheese sandwich crackers (6 total): 30g CHO, 6g protein, 12 g fat, 250 kcal
2 granola bars: 30g CHO, 6g protein, 2g fat, 160 kcal.
5 lg medjool dates: 75g CHO, 300 kcal
2 chewy fruit snacks: 30g CHO, 140 kcal
Graham crackers (9 squares): 45g CHO, 9g protein, 3g fat, 240 kcal
With 2 tbsp peanut butter: 14g protein, 16g fat, 200 kcal
1/2 cup dried mixed fruit: 60g CHO, 240 kcal
3 hard candies: 15g CHO, 70 kcal
Sunflower seeds (3 tbsp): 15g fat, 135 kcal
Mixed tree nuts:
16 walnut halves: 20g fat, 180 kcal
16 pecan halves: 20g fat, 180 kcal
18 cashews: 15g fat, 135 kcal
18 almonds: 15g fat, 135 kcal

Some additional things to keep in mind for this kind of athlete:
Fresh fruit and vegetables do not keep well or contain many calories, so most thru-hikers don’t base their diet around them. They are mostly eaten when in towns or immediately after resupplying or leaving a town.
Thru-hiking burns a tremendous amount of calories, which varies day by day.
Common foods eaten by hikers include: granola, protein bars, nuts, trail mix, dried fruits, freeze dried/dehydrated meals, powdered milk, packaged pasta/rice meals that can be cooked on a small portable stove, oats, bagels/tortillas, nut butters, jerky/dried meats, packages of tuna, crackers, mac and cheese, etc.
Supplemental food items often used: Spices, salt tablets, multivitamin, olive oil (can be added to meals to increase total kcal, I’ve even heard of hikers taking swigs of it to keep the calories up). I would recommend a multivitamin to help maintain overall health, especially since this person’s diet is going to be lacking and inconsistent with fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products. With excessive sweating and water consumption in the high heat and humidity of the mid-east states in the summer, hyponatremia could be a potential concern. I would have him keep electrolyte tablets in his bag, just in case he were to run out of gatorade powder.
Fun Fact: Near Harpers Ferry (the halfway point for a thru hike), it’s tradition for thru-hikers to attempt to eat a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting. Most succeed. Hiker hunger is real!

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 3

  • Dan Murray : Mar 20th

    Interesting details. I’m under a month from 64. I’ve been trekking through mountains since my teens and I still enjoy solo section hike over 7-8 days covering 110 to 140 miles of trail hiking. What has changed is I eat dinner around 3PM to maintain energy, then continue hiking until 60-90 minutes before dark. After setting camp, I snack, drink, and go to sleep. Days start around 30 minutes befor dawn. Hiking starts a little after daylight. I typically rest 10 minutes in the morning portio while getting water, 10 minutes for lunch, 60 minutes for dinner 3-4 pm. I have never attempted to count calories or energy burn. I go on how I typically feel. When I was 25 the timing of food intake was less important. At my age a 3pm mega meal is crucial for my energy and enjoyment.

  • Sabrina : Mar 20th

    This was fascinating—thank you for sharing it! I’ve long been curious about the nutritional needs if through hikers, and especially, how to eat more healthfully on the trail. I’d love to read more about nutrition and eating on a through hike

  • Dessert Queen : Mar 22nd

    Go Bucks. I too have been thinking about food of thru hikers. Family history of cvs and a health educator…. something doesn’t add up. Thanks for starting the dialogue….I have been writing a post on the myth of eating on trail, food deserts and what do endurance athletes eat to prevent cvd.


What Do You Think?