Ramen Noodles and Snickers Bars – Is the Typical Thru-Hiker Diet Really Wise?

One of the questions I’ve been mulling over as my husband and I prepare for our 2017 thru-hike is what to eat on the trail.  This is not a minor issue.  Hiking ten to twelve hours every day for months on end requires an incredible amount of calories — somewhere between five to seven thousand each day.  But food isn’t easy to come by in the wilderness.  Whatever we carry has to be lightweight, calorie-dense, and non-perishable – thus the infamous hiker diet of Ramen noodles and Snickers bars.  But is junk food really the best thing to eat on a thru-hike?  Does what we consume on the trail influence how much energy we’ll have?  With only eight months left before my hike, I decided to find out.  I wanted answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the best way to fuel an endurance event that lasts six months? I know about carbo-loading from my long-distance running days.  But a thru-hike is not a one-day event like a marathon.  How do we prepare for something that lasts this long?
  1. How can a hiker avoid a post-hike weight gain? Many of the former thru-hikers I’ve met are overweight, which took me by surprise.  Why have so many formerly athletic people put on weight after their hikes?  Did they simply have trouble eating normal portions after binge-eating for half a year?  Or did hiking somehow change their metabolism?
  1. Most people want to lose a few pounds on their hike. Most of them will succeed, whether or not they keep it off long-term.  But what if you don’t want to lose any weight?  Is it possible to maintain your current weight while exercising like a maniac? Or does everyone end up skinnier, whether they want to or not?

By researching, I found some answers.  Now keep in mind that I’m not an expert.  I have absolutely no nutritional training, so take this for what it’s worth.  But here is what I’ve learned and how I plan to incorporate this information into my hike:

– In general, a long distance hiker’s diet should consist of about 20% protein, 50% carbohydrates, and 30% fat.  These percentages vary depending on the source, though, so this is just an estimate.

peanut butter-To have the energy for a multi-month endurance event like a thru-hike, your body needs to burn both fat and glycogen for fuel, not just glycogen like a marathon runner’s does.  Interestingly, in order to train your body to burn fat, you should consume foods containing medium chain triglycerides.  The best sources are coconut oil, palm kernel oil (not palm oil, which is different), and sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.  Since I doubt I’ll be able to find Spanish cheese at convenience stores along the trail, I’ve decided eat peanut butter/coconut oil sandwiches for lunch, along with other healthy fats.

Start the day with complex carbohydrates.  Simple sugars will raise your blood sugar too quickly, causing a subsequent spike in insulin, followed by a crash a few miles down the trail.  It’s better to eat oatmeal or other whole grains, along with some protein and fat.  Complex carbs will burn off more slowly, keeping your energy high.breakfast

-Half an hour before a steep ascent, add some simple carbs, such as a handful of dried fruit.  This will give you a quick burst of energy.  If you mix the dried fruit with nuts (gorp), you’ll still have energy after you reach the top.

It’s essential to eat at the end of the day. This is when your body replenishes its glycogen stores and builds muscles.  Immediately after hiking, you should ingest at least 20 grams of protein with essential branch chain amino acids, particularly leucine.  Leucine is critical for muscle recovery.  One way to get enough leucine is by drinking some sort of recovery shake immediately post-hike.

protein-If you don’t eat enough protein, your body will start burning lean muscle mass, which will make you weak.  You should eat approximately .8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight each day.

-In addition to their other health benefits, the Omega-3’s in fish, flax seed, and olive oil have an anti-inflammatory effect, which can help with aching joints.

-On your rest days, you need to fill your depleted glycogen stores with lean protein and whole grains.  Unfortunately, most thru-hikers do the opposite, eating mostly carbs on the trail and then gorging on fat-laden foods in town, such as ice cream and pizza.  This throws their bodies out of whack.

-Don’t forget your vitamins and minerals, along with electrolytes.

So what about that post-hike weight gain?  It appears that the typical hiker diet really might change your biochemistry.  Eating a diet high in simple sugars trains the body to only use carbs for fuel.  On the trail, while you are exercising twelve hours a day, the problems this causes aren’t that obvious (other than feeling chronically lousy and tired).  Once you return to more normal levels of exercise, though, those problems are unmasked.  Your body has now become overly sensitive to insulin.  When you eat a typical diet high in refined foods and sugar, the resulting surge in insulin prompts your body to begin storing fat…and the pounds quickly pile on.  The solution is either to never stop hiking, or eat healthier foods both on and off the trail.

These are just some basic concepts, and since I’m not a nutritional expert, I can’t swear to their accuracy.  But at least this gives me a foundation for planning my meals.  I’ll still eat some junk food, of course, including those Snickers bars – but I’m going to take care of my nutritional requirements first. I’ll let you know how it works out!

Weaverton view





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Comments 13

  • TBR : Aug 15th

    Interesting analysis.

    A lot depends, though, on what they sell in the one and only grocery store in town.

    But if you know what you are looking for, you can find ingredients that might fit the bill.

    Very helpful post.

    • Gail Barrett : Aug 15th

      I agree, TBR. I’m going to do mail drops with the essential foods, and then supplement with whatever I can find locally. Protein should be easy to get, for example, even if it is just beef jerky. I think the biggest problem will be variety. I have a feeling I’m going to despise oatmeal before the hike is done, even jazzed up with flax and various seeds!

  • Pari : Aug 15th

    This is all really good information! But, I’d just like to forewarn you as someone who is about a month and a half away from reaching the end of my AT thruhike, that all of the items you posted in the photos are wishful thinking unless you plan on doing maildrops. As someone who generally relies on resupplying in town, you get what you can (which usually is ramen noodles and snickers bars/similar products) because that’s what’s available in towns. Most of the nearby towns are remote and small, thus you’re limited to resupplying in markets or convenience stores, and if there is a grocery store, it’s usually far away. This is not to say grocery stores don’t exist on the trail because they certainly do and I light up like a Christmas tree at every opportunity I get to resupply at one, but because they’re sparse, you won’t want to do all of your resupplies at them; you’ll end up being excruciatingly heavy on food if you’re picky. Your body will end up craving carbs through any means of getting them. As a 5 feet tall, 120 pound female, I can attest to this by having the ability eat an entire large pizza and pint of ice cream (possibly more) without any problem. But I don’t eat like that in “the real world.” The same products you posted can all usually be found in my cabinet. Yada yada, that’s my two cents. If you can maintain better eating on the trail, I commend you. But I do recommend looking into maildrops if you’re adamant about particular products and brands.

  • Gail Barrett : Aug 15th

    Thanks so much, Pari. And congratulations for nearly finishing your hike! I do plan on doing mail drops. From everything I’ve read, I’ve come to the conclusion that actual grocery stores are hard to get to much of the time, just as you said. There is no way to mail myself everything I’ll need, though, and I imagine that the hungrier I get, the less I’ll care what I eat as long as it is food. Not to mention the fact that I have a sweet tooth! Still, I hope I can stick to this basic plan.

  • Ruth Morley : Aug 16th

    Gail, I really look forward to following your blog. I am a 63 year old female who plans on beginning my AT adventures in 2018, either doing a thru-hike or doing the southern half in ’18 and finishing the north in ’19. Can’t decide yet. I have a lot of food sensitivities, most notably gluten, dairy, and soy, so my interest was piqued by your questions about eating on the trail. I’ve been trying to figure out how I’m going to do it, too, because I believe it’s of utmost importance for me to eat as healthfully as possible to have endurance and avoid inflammation and pain of the joints. Like you, I anticipate sending myself a great number of food packs, because pizza, ramen, ice cream, hot dogs, etc. are completely out of the question for me.

    Good luck in all your planning, and I can’t wait to read about your hike next year!

    • Gail Barrett : Aug 16th

      Good for you, Ruth! You’ll have to blog about your experiences so I can follow them, too. This is a huge undertaking at any age, but in our 60’s I think we need all the help we can get. I’ve always been interested in nutrition, so I wondered how much of a difference it would make on a hike like this. What I’m discovering is that it might play a pretty big role. I don’t have any food issues like you do, but I really want to try to eat the best foods possible. My biggest problem right now is figuring out dinners, and especially how to get good vegetables. Any ideas?

    • Gail Barrett : Aug 16th

      Ruth, I forgot to add that I’ve seen turmeric mentioned in several articles as a way to reduce inflammation. I’m not quite sure how to work it into my diet, though. I hate to swallow pills. I have arthritis in my hips and neck, so anything that reduces inflammation and pain interests me!

  • Refil : Aug 17th

    Hey Gail,
    Also on my thru hIke right now. On thing to keep in mind as well is how thoroughly sick you will get of certain foods, especially the classic ‘hiker foods’ . I would advice against getting stuff like goro whenever possible, so you will be OK with it when you have to (speaking as a no mail drop person). It will probably be hard to allow for that in pre-prepared maildrops, since the rate at which it happens seems to vary wildly. I.e. I’m still cool with snickers, but I would eat gravel before touching gorp.

    Ps. ‘Pari ‘ is that you brave turtle?

    • Gail Barrett : Aug 17th

      Excellent point, Refil, and thank you for the advice. I’m trying to find as many options as possible so I can have some variety, but I doubt there is any way to avoid getting sick of certain things. It’s just too bad there aren’t more good grocery stores along the way! Good luck on the rest of your hike. I’ll be rooting for you:)

      • Kelley : Aug 21st

        Gail maybe that can be your next business op-open a chain of health food store along the trail!

        • Gail Barrett : Sep 1st

          There’s definitely a need for it, Kelley!

  • Laurel "Duchess of Slug" Seus : Aug 17th

    Great post! I’m about 4 months into my thru hike and have been able to put on muscle and maintain my weight. I added whey protein to my breakfasts and tried to cut out sugary snacks and have noticed I don’t have a sugar crash in the afternoon. I definitely eat my share of ramen but add a handful of dried veggies ($12 a quart on Amazon) and protein. It’s hard to find healthy snacks in the southern and northern parts of the trail, but since I hit Mass going sobo I’ve had a lot better selection of healthy hiking snacks like seeds and dried chickpeas.

    • Gail Barrett : Aug 17th

      Wow, that’s great to hear, Laurel! I’m already thin (5’10”, 127 lbs) and would look absolutely skeletal if I lost weight, so I’ve been worrying about how to avoid it, especially since I have to carry my food. Can I ask how you are using the whey protein? Is it in powder form, bars, etc? Thanks for the tip about the dried veggies, too. I live on fruits and vegetables, so going without would be a real shock to my system. Chickpeas are supposed to be really good for you, so it’s great that they come in dried form. I’ll put them on my list! Thanks again for the info, and good luck on your hike!


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