Nutrition Strategy for Optimal Performance During a Thru-Hike

After geeking out on ultralight gear, I started preparing my resupply strategy. And I quickly got one concern: do we really have to eat unhealthy during a thru-hike? Of course, you can finish a thru-hike relying only on processed carbs, but the price to pay is high: Increased hunger, increased pack weight, rollercoaster energy levels, decreased endurance and performance, nutrient deficiencies, digestive issues, etc. You might save some money, but is it worth it? In this article, I share how I crafted my nutrition strategy.

“I totally regret eating healthy today” said no one ever.

The day I understood that health is the foundation of every aspect of my life, I completely changed my relationship with food. I always have been fit with my work in the military. I looked good from the outside, but I knew things could improve. So, I learned how to nourish my body well, and it totally changed my life! Wanting to spread that positive change, I went ahead and got certified as a coach to help others make similar shifts in their diets and lifestyles.

Let’s simplify things: to function properly, our body needs macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs) and micronutrients (minerals and vitamins).

For most of our evolution, we could never provide our body with the exact nutritional requirement every single day, so the human body adapted to store and release nutrients whenever needed. For example, vitamins are stored in the liver and fatty tissues, some minerals are stored in our bones, and energy is stored as glycogen in our muscles or as fat. We have a fantastic body!

A thru-hike requires tremendous daily effort. And the first thing that comes to mind is: I need energy! And yes, we indeed do. A lot.

Just as a reference, I am 75kg (165 lbs ) and 1,81m (5’11”).  My basal metabolism (how much energy my body needs just to survive if I do nothing) is about 1800 calories per day.

On average, we can count 125 calories per mile hiking (this will vary widely depending on the terrain, weather, pack weight,…). Let’s stay. If I start my thru-hike with 15 miles a day, I would need to eat around 3675 calories per day (basal metabolism rate + energy needed for hiking).

I am muscular, with about 10% of body fat. So, I don’t have a lot of energy storage, and if I don’t want to lose all my muscle mass during my thru-hike on the PCT, I’ll have to eat. Especially later in the hike, when the mileage per day increases. Starting at 4000 calories, I estimate it will be between 5000 and 7000 calories per day by the time I reach Washington (going NOBO).

Having enough calories is definitely a concern. And it is no wonder that hikers binge on junk food in town and eat food extremely high in sugar (poor pancreas) on trail—things like candies, snickers bars, chips, pop tarts, etc. It is cheap and available everywhere. But not all calories are created equal! 

You don’t need a nutritionist’s degree to understand that the nutritional value of this type of food is very poor. Yes, you need calories, but you should have them from the right place.

Food fuels performance

Your performance and well-being during your thru-hike are directly correlated to what you eat. While researching, I found the channel GearSkeptic on YouTube, and I learned a TON! So here is how I crafted my ideal nutrition plan based on my knowledge and what I learned in GearSkeptic’s videos. I say ideal because, I’m well aware that things don’t always go according to plan.

**Before going further, please note that I am not a licensed nutritionist, physician, etc. This is not advice; this is what made sense to me and the thought process that helped me craft my nutrition plan for my hike. By all means, do what works for you. My only recommendation is that you think it through because your health matters.

Ok, first, let’s talk about energy.

Our body’s choice of fuel—whether carbs, protein, or fat—depends on the nature of the exertion and the available macronutrients, with carbs and fat being the preferred sources. The determination of which energy source the body favors can be determined through VO2 analysis.

VO2 Max is the amount (V = volume) of oxygen (O2) your body uses while exercising as hard as possible. So, if you are sprinting, you are at 100% of your VO2 Max; if you are slowly walking, you are at 20%. Depending on the intensity, our body will use more fat or more carbs as energy to keep us going.

Graph Fat vs carb as fuel





*Graph for illustration purposes only

In a slow and steady activity, our body primarily uses fat as fuel and, on a very intense anaerobic exercise, uses glycogen (stored carbs). Hiking with a pack is about 45% of the VO2 Max, meaning 70% of the energy comes from fat and 30% from carbs.

Fat: the good, the bad, and the ugly

So when hiking, the body will use fat as fuel, either by pumping in the fat storage or directly processing the dietary fat you eat. Based on that, it makes sense that we should provide our body with more fat than carbs. 

Theoretically, because excess carbs will be stored as fat, if you keep eating only carbs, your body will still use 30% carbs and 70% fat. Still, giving our body more fat than carbs makes sense from a nutritional standpoint. But that’s not all; we will see how that impact positively impacts our pack weight in the next section).

When it comes to fats, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good fats, like those in avocados and nuts, are the unsaturated ones that benefit your health by lowering bad cholesterol levels and supporting heart health, etc. Then there are the bad fats, like saturated fats found in butter and fatty meats, which can raise bad cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease if eaten too much. And finally, the ugly fats are the trans fats often lurking in processed foods like cookies and fried snacks, etc.

So, in short: no trans fat, and mostly unsaturated fat.

Calorie density: what is ultralight food?

While you worry about shaving off every once from your pack with the newest ultralight gear, food is also where you can make a BIG difference. 

Fat is the most concentrated energy source, with 9 calories per gram, compared to carbs and protein, with only 4 calories per gram.

Most hikers seem to eat 70% carbs, 20% fat, and 10% protein. Which would be for 3500 calories per day:

612 grams of carbs
87 grams of protein
77 grams of fat

Total = 776 grams = 1,7 lbs

While if you eat 70% fat, 20% carbs, and 10% protein:

175 grams of carbs
87 grams of protein
271grams of fat

Total = 533 grams = 1,1 lbs

If you carry food for five days, there is a difference of 1,2kg = 2,6 lbs

Imagine that difference if you pack 5000 calories per day! Not only in weight but also in volume! I know those are rough estimations, but it is still quite convincing.

The goal is to maximize calorie intake while minimizing pack weight, making high-fat foods ideal due to their calorie density, ultimately lightening your load.

Ok, so let’s see what it looks like to pack 70% fat, 20% carbs, and 10% protein.

Meal planning

Daily Meal Plan Guideline

I don’t intend to calculate everything during the hike; that would be a waste of time (and extremely boring). I simply want to know more or less what I need and when so I have a guideline. 

Based on a 3500 calorie daily intake (beginning of the hike), here is what makes sense to me:

  • Breakfast: 600 cal 
  • Snack 1: 300 cal 
  • Lunch snack: 400 cal
  • Snack 2: 400 cal
  • Electrolyte drink: 100 cal 
  • Snack 3:  400 cal 
  • Recovery mix: 300 cal
  • Dinner: 800 cal 
  • Dessert: 200 cal

All my meals will be roughly 70% fat, 20% carbs, and 10% protein. Except for the electrolyte drink (100% carbs), and the recovery mix (50% carbs + 50% protein).

What it looks like:

Breakfast: Mostly overnight oats with a bit of protein powder, some nuts, coconut milk powder, granola, and chia seeds.

Lunch: Either a dehydrated backpacking meal or a meat pouch (chicken, tuna, or salmon) with a side of rice, tortilla, mashed potatoes, and couscous. 

Snacks: Protein bars, jerky, nut butter, nuts mix, dried fruits, chips, dark chocolate,… Trying as much as possible to limit artificial flavors, sweeteners, colorants, etc.

Dinner: Mostly dehydrated pouch meals. One portion at first and then two portions when I start increasing the daily miles.

To have most of the calories from fat (70%), I will add some olive oil, coconut oil, and butter powder to my lunches and dinners.

Whenever I am in town, I will try to stay away from fast food and have some healthy, real, whole food. I know some people will laugh and say that I will do that for the first two weeks and then give up. But it’s been years since I don’t eat processed food, junk food, fast food, drink sodas, or all those kinds of things. And I don’t intend to start.

Supplements for performance on trail

Powering Up: Essential Supplements for Peak Performance on the Trail

We talked about calories, but if I drink only olive oil, yes, I will hit my daily calorie intake. Still, I will probably die in a matter of days when my body runs out of the essential macro and micronutrients it needs to function properly (and my liver will probably capitulate before that, anyway…). Here are some essential supplements I’ll be bringing along:


Proteins are essential for muscle recovery. Consuming an adequate amount of protein helps repair and rebuild muscles that are broken down during physical activity, promoting faster recovery and muscle growth (we all want those trail legs fast, right?). I aim for approximately 0.7 grams per pound of body weight or 1.5 grams per kilogram, totaling around 115 grams per day.

I will make sure my dinner contains at least 30 grams of protein, and the rest will come throughout the day with protein bars and the natural protein content of the food I eat. 

To hit the daily intake, I will drink a protein recovery mix with about 25 grams of protein (vegan protein, as I don’t eat dairy products). 

When you eat carbohydrates along with protein, it triggers the release of insulin. Insulin helps transport amino acids (the building blocks of protein) into the muscles, which can be used for muscle repair and growth. So, including simple carbohydrates in the recovery drink will optimize protein absorption (a spoonful of pure dextrose will do the job).

Green powder

My current diet is primarily whole-food plant-based. But on the trail, carrying carrots, zucchini, and salad is a bit tricky, especially when most of the food I carry is high in fat.

So, I plan to supplement with green mix powder. AG1 comes first in most lists, but my wallet doesn’t really like it at about 3 USD per serving. I found Amazing Grass to be a good option for me at about half the price. But I will probably try another brand later on.


Creatine is one of the most researched supplements in the fitness industry. It is an excellent supplement for muscle recovery because it helps to replenish ATP stores in muscles, which are essential for energy production during intense exercise. By increasing ATP availability, creatine allows muscles to perform better and recover faster between exercises. Additionally, creatine has been shown to reduce muscle damage and inflammation, leading to quicker recovery times and less soreness after exercise. This supplement can be particularly beneficial for us engaged in high-intensity daily exercise, as it supports muscle strength, power, and endurance while promoting optimal recovery. I’ll add 5 grams per day to my recovery drink.

One more thing: creatine draws water into muscle cells. This shift in cellular water is minimal, and there is no evidence to suggest taking creatine can cause dehydration. But still, as a precaution, I will skip the scoop on the days when water intake is very low or when feeling dehydrated.


I don’t know about this one. Have you ever heard the phrase “supplements just make you have expensive urine”? We don’t always absorb those supplements well; they are just washed out. But still, it became very cheap, and a pill is pretty light. So, in the best case, it gives my body the vitamins I can provide with my food, and in the worst case, I’ll pee it out.


There is no discussion about the importance of supplementing with electrolytes on a thru-hike. But this will require a whole section about my hydration strategy (see next!).

Hydration strategy

Hydration Strategy: Tips for Safe and Successful Thru-Hiking

So we talked about nutrition; now, let’s talk about hydration. I always paid extreme attention to my water intake, but after watching GearSkeptic’s videos, my understanding went to a whole new level.

Basically, a dehydration of more than 2% of your body weight ( for me, it is about 1.5L) becomes dangerous. Simply put, more than that, you can die. 

While hiking, we lose, on average, 0.5L of sweat per hour. Now, this is a very rough average, different for everybody, and will vary based on the terrain and the temperature. But let’s assume that as a base.

One could say you’d be good if you drank 0.5L of water per hour during your hike. Well, it is not that easy. First, we don’t absorb all the water we drink. Second, when we sweat, we lose water and minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, called electrolytes.

Risks and Consequences of Electrolyte Imbalance on a Thru-Hike

Electrolyte imbalance occurs when the levels of those electrically charged particles become too high or too low. When electrolytes are out of balance, it can lead to dehydration, muscle cramps, irregular heartbeat, fatigue, weakness, nerve problems, and, in severe cases, seizures. 

It’s not something we want on a thru-hike!

Sodium is the primary electrolyte we lose when we sweat. But when we sweat, we lose more water than sodium. The problem is that even if we lose sodium, the sodium concentration in your body increases (imbalance between the amount of water and the sodium level). It results in a condition called “hypernatremia.” This happens when you sweat and don’t drink anything at all or if you don’t sweat and have a massive sodium intake.

When sodium levels are too high, it disrupts the balance of fluids in the body, drawing water out of cells and into the bloodstream to dilute the sodium. Basically, your cells are shrinking. This leads to dehydration and symptoms like thirst, dry mouth, weakness, confusion, restlessness, and, in severe cases, seizures or coma.

Ok, we want to avoid that, so let’s say we drink a lot of water! We replenish (excessively) the water but not the loss of sodium, so sodium concentration in the body diminishes.

When the concentration of sodium in the body is too low, a condition called hyponatremia occurs. Hyponatremia disrupts the balance of fluids in the body, causing water to move into cells, which can lead to swelling or edema. Symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea, headache, confusion, fatigue, muscle cramps, seizures, and, in severe cases, coma or death.

So, in short, if you don’t drink = you die.

If you drink excessive water = you die.

Hydration strategy thru-hiking

Maintaining electrolyte balance

I heard people saying that they don’t carry much water. Instead, they “camel up” at a water source. This is nonsense!

First, your kidneys can’t process more than 1L per hour, and second, you risk over hydration, which leads to hyponatremia. Plus, it is stupid not to carry enough water; what if you break your ankle, can’t walk, and must wait hours for rescue? Always prepare for the worst and expect the best!

Something I learned is that over-hydration symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of heat exhaustion! People sometimes mistake them and drink even more water, making things worse. Don’t mistake them!

The key is to drink the right amount of water and supplement it with the right amount of electrolytes. 

Let’s do some math:

The daily intake of sodium on a normal day should be a minimum of 1500mg.

Let’s say that, on average, I will sweat around 0.5L per hour while hiking.

I estimate my sodium loss to be around 900mg / Liter. So we can calculate for a 10h hike:

Total sodium needed = 1500mg + (sweat rate per hour × duration of hike × sodium concentration in sweat)

Total sodium needed = 1500mg + (0.5L/h × 10h × 900mg/L)

Sodium loss during hike = 4500mg

Total sodium needed = 1500mg + 4500mg = 6000mg

Sodium intake from food (rough average) = 3000mg

Sodium supplement needed = 3000mg

I will not calculate how much sodium is in my food every day to determine how much I need to supplement with (imagine doing that for five months?!) But I want to know the average so I can plan accordingly.

PLEASE NOTE: this is not an accurate number; it is just a rough estimation, as numerous factors can influence its accuracy. I will not calculate how much sodium is in my food every day to determine how much I need to supplement with (imagine doing that for five months?!) 

My goal is to have an idea about how much I should supplement, on average.

So, a minimum of 3000mg of sodium is the amount I will aim for. Is there a maximum? I am not too worried about that; as long as I keep drinking water and taking in electrolytes, it should be fine. Just as a reference, IV fluid bags doctors use in hospitals are, on average, a 0.9% saline solution. So, it is 9000mg of sodium chloride per liter!

Based on this, I will aim to drink around 0,5 – 1L of water per hour and have two servings of electrolytes per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. 

Looking at the electrolyte content (and flavor reviews) of different brands, I choose to use LMNT, which has 1000mg of sodium per serving. On very hot and long days in the desert, I will also supplement with extra salt tablets to boost the intake of sodium and potassium.

The Cost of Optimizing Nutrition

All of those supplements and more expensive food will have a cost. Yep. It is cheaper to eat ramen bombs and pop tarts; I get it. But although the immediate cost is less, what about the long-term price you are paying for it?

It’s the same with eating packaged junk food. Yes, it is cheap now, but you pay the price tenfold later in doctors and hospital bills when you are sick, without talking about how miserable you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Per day:

  • Electrolytes = 3 USD
  • Green powder = 2 USD
  • Protein powder = 2 USD
  • Creatine = 0,5 USD
  • Dextrose (mix in my recovery drink) = 0,3 USD
  • Multivitamin = 0,1 USD
  • Salt tablet = 0,1 USD

It is about 7 USD of supplements per day. That seems reasonable (until you realize the total for a 5-month thru-hike will be a bit more than 1000 USD). Well, I’ll save on a few coffees until my starting date and will cut out the beers in town during the hike.

Resupply strategy

Strategic Resupply for Optimum Nutrition

Here starts the headache! My wife and I are not living in the US. So we have nobody to send us resupply boxes. I know we can buy food in most towns, but I want to stick to my plan as much as possible.

Here is our plan for the desert section (I didn’t plan further than Kennedy Meadows as I want to leave room for adaptation):

Before our start date, we will send ourselves resupply boxes to Warner Spring, Idyllwild, and Big Bear Lake. In Idyllwild, we will prepare a box and send it to Agua Dulce, and we will do the same in Tehachapi and send a box to Kennedy Meadows.

In short:

  • Mont Laguna: buy one day of supply
  • Warner Spring: mail
  • Idyllwild: mail supplements and buy the rest
  • Big Bear: mail
  • Wrightwood: buy
  • Acton: mail
  • Tehachapi: buy
  • Kennedy Meadows: mail supplements and buy

After that, we’ll see what works and what doesn’t.

In a Nutshell

Things will probably not go 100% according to plan. That’s ok. I am not walking with a scale and measuring every calorie or how much I sweat per hour. I planned so I could have a rough idea about how I should nourish myself during my thru-hike for optimal performance and recovery. I’ll make sure I stay as close as possible to the plan, but if I don’t occasionally, that’s ok. Our body is incredibly resilient.

Your health is the foundation of every aspect of your thru-hike. Your mood, well-being, performance,… If you feel better, you will enjoy more!

This is my plan. It is not perfect, but it works for me. I hope I inspired you to figure out what will work for you, at least.

Those five months should not be an excuse to ruin our health by suddenly changing our rules about food. It will already push the limits of our body; there is no need to make it more difficult.

You wouldn’t fill up the tank of a luxury sports car with orange juice and then push it at full speed, would you?

No, you would be too afraid to damage the engine and destroy the car. 

Well, your body is a very, very, very luxurious sports car. In fact, it has no price tag. You might be able to repair some pieces if damaged, but there are parts you will never be able to change…

Be respectful of this wonderful machine that will take you one step at a time from one terminus to the other.

Happy hiking!

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Comments 18

  • Beth Malchus Stafa : Feb 12th

    Yea… Another hiker thinking about this. Your table is just like mine. We found during the planning phase that we did not have enough protein. Read Adventure Ready and it really but meal planning into another level. We also used Outdoor Eats and threw in fresh veggies when possible.

    • François de Neuville : Feb 13th

      I’ll have a look at it! Thanks, Beth!

  • Brice : Feb 13th

    This is an incredibly well-written and resourceful article. I particularly liked this point: “your kidneys can’t process more than 1L per hour, and second, you risk over hydration, which leads to hyponatremia.” In my search for the perfect backpack, I’ve found that proper ventilation is key. If interested, check out Vaucluse Backpack Ventilation Gear. They make attachable ventilation frames to improve your favorite backpack’s airflow system. Feel the breeze, not the burden.

  • Dylan Bean : Feb 13th

    Thanks for this thorough review and information. Very helpful. I will be looking into creatine especially, never thought about the importance of that on a thru hike.

    • François de Neuville : Feb 13th

      Thanks, Dylan! I’m glad you found the information helpful! I’ve personally incorporated creatine into my workout routine and plan to continue using it during my thru-hike. While it’s not essential, I believe it can be beneficial. But everyone’s body responds differently, so the best is to test and see!

  • Grandpa : Feb 13th

    As soon as I saw the picture of you with your backpack at Moraine Lake, I had to read your post! I lived in Calgary when I was a child and Moraine Lake has always been my favorite place in the Canadian Rockies.

    Between the AT and the Grand Canyon, I’ll be on the trail about three weeks this spring. I’ll be looking a little more at my food and my hydration after reading your column.

    I had hyponatremia in 2010 after a major surgery. The doctor told me to up my fluid intake and I started drinking about a gallon of ice water a day. I ended up passing out twice one morning and broke and severely sprained my ankle the the process.

    I also had severe run-ins with dehydration in both the Grand Canyon and on the Appalachian Trail when I ran out of water and couldn’t replenish. On both those occasions, I went through way more water than I thought I would and there weren’t more water sources to draw from. Those incidents taught me to be more careful and plan for contingencies. When it comes to water, I do pack my fears now!

  • Murali Chinnakonda : Feb 13th

    Hmm…..what backpacking meals are you eating? When you say rice, mashed potatoes, tortilla etc, they are more carbs than fat. So just curious as to how you are able to get to 271 grams of fat. I think Peak fuel has more fat than carbs while I feel mountain house has more carbs than fat.



    • François de Neuville : Apr 1st

      Yes, not so easy to get the right ration with those meals. So I’ll be supplementing the meals with healthy fat like olive oil, coconut oil, butter powder, coconut milk powder, nuts, etc.

  • Harry Poppins : Feb 13th

    Article is incredible and addresses many of my concerns for thru-hiking speaking as a family physician. Just a thought. Peanuts are generally considered to be less healthy than tree nuts. When I talk about “nuts” I differentiate between the two. Peanuts are actually related to beans and not tree nuts. I would say that where possible use tree nuts instead of peanuts. Things like almond butter over peanut butter, etc.

    • François de Neuville : Apr 1st

      100%! I tried to avoid peanuts in general, worried about potential aflatoxins (or the bleach manufacturers might use to eliminate them).

  • Jules Le Menestrel : Feb 14th

    I appreciate that you acknowledged the price of the supplements, but one thing missing here is that the food gets really pricey too. Dehydrated meals cost $10-15 even in bulk, and high quality protein bars are very expensive too. Add in the expense of shipping and you’re looking at food costs that are many times more than typical thru hiker diets.

    • François de Neuville : Apr 1st

      Yes, you are completely right… A thru-hike is everything but cheap! And my nutrition plan will not make it cheaper, that’s for sure. But I always put my health first, the hike is demanding enough on the body. I’ve been saving money for a few months. In the end, it’s all about choices and priorities.

  • Mike : Feb 14th

    Amazon Prime can be another resource as it will allow you to buy and have shipped your food resupply items to Amazon Lockers located at towns along the PCT. Based on your comments about diet, you might like
    For PCT weather
    Have a great hike

  • Roger Hayse : Feb 14th

    Really, really well done. I have been a long time fan of the GearSkeptic YouTube channel but found your post to be very well written and informative. Thanks for taking the time. My hike will benefit from your insights.

    • François de Neuville : Apr 1st

      Thanks, Roger! Happy hiking!

  • Dianne Augustine : Feb 16th

    I am so happy to have found your blog. I agree with so much of what you said regarding junk being viewed as adequate nutrition because this is what our mainstream medical doctors who have never had a course in nutrition teach. Fat as fuel is far superior as it is cleaner burning and the ketones produced are healing to the body and brain. However, I pray you will have time to learn even more before embarking on your journey. There is research going in the world of nutrition which contradicts the theory of bad fats and high cholesterol being the cause of heart disease and strokes. Cholesterol is made in the human body and provides 70% of our needs. Every cell of the human body is composed of a cellular wall made of cholesterol! Cholesterol is the backbone of hormones and they are the chemical messengers that control proper bodily function. Most importantly, cholesterol has been shown to NOT be the culprit behind heart disease! Rather than a boring you with a list of research, I hope you will check out some of the doctors and health advocates like Dr Anthony Chaffee, Dr. Shaun Baker, Dr. Ken Berry, Dr. Elizabeth Boswell (Dr. Boz), Dr. Mark Hyman, Thomas DeLauer, and Kerry Mann (Homestead How). After twenty years of disability due to numerous autoimmune issues, I am mostly healed after eating keto for six weeks and 6 months of carnivore diet. In addition to the research there are thousands of others who have been healed when mainstream doctors told them there was no hope. The last channel I mentioned, Kerry Mann is filing a documentary “Healing Humanity” to give a glimpse into the benefit of a proper human diet. I do hope you will check these guys and gals out, there are so many many more but too numerous to mention. If we can at least get the hiker community to stop stuffing themselves with sugar, we would see so many less injuries that take people off the trail. I aspire to hike the AT. I had hoped this year, but I have at least six months of dehydrating to do! I will prepare much more knowledgeable with your information. Thank you! I look forward to your journey!

    • François de Neuville : Mar 1st

      Thank you for your comment, Dianne! I will have look at it! Nutrition is definetly a rabbit hole and I think there is so much yet to discover about the human body. All the best for your future thru-hike! Cheers!


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