Fuel the Love: How Nutrition Can Shape Life on the Trail

Despite knowing better, I occasionally make the mistake of completing a strenuous activity and only refueling with junk food. It’s the same story every time: later in the day I crash and realize what I really needed a burrito, so–weak with hunger–I force myself either to the kitchen to cook or to a restaurant down the street. After tortuous work on an empty stomach, I finally obtain the object of my desire, eat it, and then sigh as my body yells, “YES, THANK YOU, THIS IS WHAT I WAS BEGGING FOR ALL ALONG YOU DUMB-DUMB.”

Midday crashes are not fun, but at a desk job they’re more annoying than anything. When your job is to move your body up and down mountains wearing a heavy pack all day, crashes move from “annoyance” to “debilitating day ruiner.”

I hear about “hiker hunger” often. While I do not have experience backpacking, as a long-distance runner I’m no stranger to the importance of quality and adequate nutrition. Food = energy, providing us with the strength to carry on the necessary tasks of our lives. Hikers, it seems, will devour just about anything. And who can blame them? Being in a constant state of near-starvation will make you so desperate for calories you’re not going to care about the quality of those calories. But what would happen if we did focus on quality?

Here I am on my hike yesterday, all smiles before an epic hunger meltdown.

The Issue with Low Quality

I can recall being in the depths of ultramarathon training last December, walking around my classroom while my students were working. My stomach was rumbling and lunch already seemed a distant memory. From across the room I heard the familiar sound of a student opening a chip bag. I swung around and saw a glorious purple bag of Takis. Those crunchy, spicy little rolled up chips are delicious and all, but they contain soy, which my body refuses to tolerate. Nonetheless, I scooted toward the student and held out my hand. He grinned, shook some Takis into my palm, and laughed as I casually walked away munching on his food.

Believe it or not, swiping junky snacks from my students is not the lowest I’ve stooped while hungry at work. Desperate searches through the English Department office and puppy eyes at coworkers have earned me some small pieces of candy and stale crackers. Though this may have helped keep my caloric intake up, the low quality of the calories left me sluggish, unsatisfied, and made afternoon workouts more difficult and less successful.

Alternately, I’ve spent training cycles hyper-prepared with meals and snacks high in protein, fiber, fats, and other nutrients. During those cycles I found I spent less time contemplating how to sniff out snacks at work and more time feeling energized in whatever task I was completing. And bonus: I rarely got sick. It’s truly remarkable how food can act as medicine.

Why wouldn’t this apply to hiking as well?

 

This cake was the BEST mid-hike fuel in Banff NP, Canada a few months ago. But cake can only take you so far.

Trail Nutrition Is Tricky

I understand thru-hikers are at quite a disadvantage when it comes to quality nutrition. For starters, we do not have access to a kitchen and a full fridge and pantry of ingredients. We are nomads, carrying what we own on our backs and finding what we need at resupply points. If packaged cakes are flaunting their quick energy, sugary goodness, and–bonus–cheap price in front of our faces, how can we resist? This is where I believe just a smidge of planning can help us combat those choices and opt for some higher-quality calories.

Now, I have not yet thru-hiked the AT. I understand this sounds a lot like when people without kids give unsolicited parenting advice. “Why is this newbie trying to take our Snickers bars away from us?” I get it. And I’m not, I promise.

 

The Theory and Experiment

I know myself. When I’m hangry, I need food RIGHT NOW. Whatever is in front of me will be devoured. My mission on this thru-hike is to make sure that at least a majority of the time, those choices are quality choices. That doesn’t look the same for everyone. For me, that may mean soy-free fruit and nut bars as opposed to candy bars, or almond butter and honey on pita bread instead of Pop-Tarts. I’m not going to act like I have this figured out yet. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this. Over the next few months, my plan is to find the best trail foods for me. To start, I need to outline my priorities.

My Priorities

Below is a list of my nutritional priorities for the AT. Since we are not all made the same, I encourage you to establish your own priorities. You can start by asking yourself what foods make you feel satisfied and energized.

Balance of macros: I can’t live on carbs alone. In order to feel satisfied and energized, I need to ensure I’m eating enough protein and fats. Protein, I think, will especially be the challenge.

Fiber: Typically, my diet is full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other fibrous foods. On the trail, though, fresh fruits and veggies will be hard to come by, and my fiber intake will likely plummet. Not only could this cause digestive issues, but a diet high in fiber keeps us fuller longer and helps prevent those quick-fix junky snack binges.

Soy-free, egg-free: I actually have a lengthy list of food intolerances, but the two ingredients I need to avoid the most include soy and egg. If you’ve never had to worry about soy, just know that it’s in almost everything hikers like to eat (i.e., packaged foods).

Vitamins and minerals: Since the age of 16 I’ve fought a constant battle with iron-deficiency. Low iron means low energy means not wanting to hike 15 miles with a heavy pack. I need that iron. Also, I’d like a lot of vitamin C to keep my immune system top notch. Also also, pretty much every vitamin and mineral would be nice to have in my diet.

Calorie density-to-weight ratio: OK, I’m not a numbers gal, but I know enough to understand that I don’t want to carry around a five-pound bag of carrots. Not enough calories there.

Cost: Higher-quality foods often means higher price. But spending money on cheap quick calories that don’t fuel you long-term can become a waste of money. I’m trying to find that balance.

The Mission

I want to be clear: I’m not saying hikers are eating too much or should never eat junk foods. Not at all. What I am saying is that by including more quality foods in our diets, we can prevent a lot of trail woes and improve our ability to trek 2,000+ miles. This is why nutrition has been at the forefront of my planning–it’s such an important piece of everyday life on the trail. Over the next five months, I will research and test various foods while keeping my priorities in mind. Everyone, especially those of us with food intolerances, benefits from quality food. For the best hiking results, we need the best fuel. Plain and simple.

I’m extremely doughnut-motivated. But even I can’t last several months on junk food alone.

Your Turn!

What are your nutrition priorities? I’d love to hear from experienced hikers about their fuel choices on the trail. Also, if you think of a nutrition concern I did not cover, let me know and I can include it in my research!

 

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Comments 7

  • Avatar
    evan : Oct 19th

    Great piece!

    Quite refreshing to read about nutrition and health rather than caloric density! I try to evaluate my backpacking food selections according to micronutrient content first, then by caloric content. I will even take foods that are relatively high in micronutrients despite being low in calories. I count on other food items specifically for their caloric abundance — typically rich in healthy fat as opposed to sugar — such as olive oil, trail mix, nuts and seeds. As you mentioned, the challenge is protein: I evaluate amino acid profile rather than “protein” content exclusively as a macronutrient. Many “high-protein“ bars have poor quality protein content, such as hydrolyzed collagen. I would certainly like to have more ideas for a variety of high quality protein sources on the trail!

    Thank you for putting this out there — glad to see it!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Becca : Oct 20th

      You know, I pay attention to the types of fats and carbs I’m eating but it hadn’t occurred to me to pay attention to the types of protein (outside of avoiding soy and eggs). Such a great point to make, thank you!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Bob Taylor : Oct 20th

    My favorite doc once told me, “You body will tell you what it needs, you just have to learn to listen.” I’ve spent my life trying to dial-in that hearing. “Yes, body, I hear you, you want vegetables, but have you heard of Taco Bell?”

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Annie Jenkins : Oct 23rd

    My son (The Breadless Horseman), who has celiac disease, thru-hiked the AT in 2007 on a gluten free diet. I cooked, dehydrated and shipped all of his food. He says he was among the best fed hikers on the trail, and he lost only 5 pounds in the 5 months, 5 days on the trail. He’s 6’4” and looked much the same at the end as at the start.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Tamara Carter : Oct 29th

    I loved this article. I plan on doing my thruhike in 2021.
    I follow a fairly strict keto/ very low carb diet. I plan on continuing that on my hike. I love eating clean. I do plan on carrying some peanut butter despite it not being keto but it is the one thing I am addicted to. Other than that, I continue to plan. So far I plan on using fat bombs nut butter, pumpkin seeds, nuts, unsweetened coconut chips, albacore tuna or chicken packs. Beyond that I’m not sure yet. Still looking for suggestions. Especially in regards to fiber intake as well.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Becca : Oct 30th

      Fbombs are tasty! And I agree, fiber can be a challenge. I’ve been searching for some options and I think I’ve found some good ones to share in an upcoming post!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Rainwolf : Nov 9th

    My priority, believe it or not, is fat – if I don’t get enough high quality fats (like coconut oil,) my heart tends to misbehave itself by skipping the odd beat, which isn’t dangerous in my case (according to my doctor,) but IS kinda disturbing. I need to feed my brain good fats so that it doesn’t glitch its signals to my ticker, and I also need to ensure that I’m consuming enough salt/electrolytes (a weird problem, I know,) because in my experience, if I don’t get enough electrolytes, I end up drinking a lot but peeing a bit excessively, which means that I’m not properly absorbing the H2O that I’m consuming. So, I’ll be that weird girl on the PCT in 2022 who’s stealing all the salt packets from restaurants. (I also plan on drinking Emergen-C everyday for breakfast liquid if I can – preferably mixed with a Nuun tablet because then it tastes like 7-Up. (I’m not joking, it really does!) Actual breakfast will be a bar because I got no time for sitting around wasting fuel on hot oatmeal and cold oatmeal is super gross to me. I might eat the occasional Poptart.)

    I’m not too concerned about protein, but I’m going to eat as many Kind Bars as can be stuffed into my face/found, because that’s pretty much the only nut delivery system which I tolerate. (For a lifelong hiker I am bizarrely picky about nut consumption. I hate trail mix and I’d much rather eat hard cheezies or chips.) I plan on also putting a heaping sporkful of powdered milk in all my cooked meals for calcium to help my muscles and bones; carb-wise I plan on pretty much living off of instant rice and couscous mixed with various things. (Like cheese. Lots, and lots of cheese.) I will also probably eat the classic tortilla (preferably with cheese,) because whenever I go backpacking I crave bread like crazy. (If there is a bakery with tasty bread like foccacia in a resupply town, I WILL buy tasty bread!) I don’t think there will be a lot of fresh food, but if there’s a bulk section at a resupply grocery store, I’ll be grabbing stuff to throw in my dinners. I’ve already been thinking up ideas for weird trail recipes to try, like Hiker Trash Poutine (Idahoan Mashed Potatoes mixed with a gravy packet and a cheese stick.)

    I have yet to figure out how to actually cook in the backcountry sans Backpacker’s Pantry, but I have time. (The one time I tried cooking ramen on my Pocket Rocket it boiled over despite being on low heat and made a huge attract-a-bear mess.)

    I share your love of doughnuts, and I’m afraid that if there is a doughnut joint in a resupply town I will not be able to resist at least one! (But I also plan on resupplying less than most people seem to, so I think that mitigates treats like that? Maybe? My plan is to go at least 100 miles between resupplies.)

    Anyway, those are my thoughts on chow. I think you’re off to a great start with yours!

    Reply

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