Is the Thru-Hiker Diet Affecting Your Performance?

There are four big things to tackle when planning a thru-hike. Gear, logistics, training, and food. There is enough information about the first three out there, but food… food is my thing.

Everyone who knows me knows how much I love food. In the last three years health and nutrition have become my focus (although I’m still very capable of gorging on an entire pint of chocolate ice cream). I’ve become very mindful that what I put in and on my body can be harmful or nourishing.

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be thy food” – Hippocrates

Most thru-hikers think that a thru-hike is the perfect moment in your life to have a kid’s dream diet and get away with it.

The way I see it is I have never done anything so demanding, therefore I think my body needs the best fuel that it has ever had to be able to make it.

I am going to talk about my approach to food and then about what I am doing to get my fuel ready for my SOBO PCT hike.

A little bit of science first

A lot of hikers focus on having X amount of calories per day, but this focus can lead one to consider all calories alike, regardless of the source. An example is eating a package of four Oreo cookies (213.3 calories) is the same as eating a cup of lentils (226 calories).

This focus can also lead you to fill yourself up with empty calories from solid fats and added sugars. Such foods may be calorie rich but have zero or very little nutritional value.  As such, they do not contain vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, or essential fatty acids.

Back to the comparison: almost 80% of the calories in Oreos are empty calories vs 0% of the calories in lentils. This would vary depending on how you cook them, but the calories in the lentils themselves have 100% nutritional value.

Empty calories can compromise your performance because they won’t give you long lasting energy. They also promote inflammation, which can lead to a slower recovery of your muscles and make you prone to injury. And not to scare you, but chronic inflammation can have bad long-term consequences.

The lack of nutrients won’t leave you satisfied for long and could make you even hungrier. I think this plays a huge roll in the famous hiker hunger. This is a hypothesis (based on my understanding of nutrition), I’ll be testing it and keeping y’all updated.

So now in the positive side, this is what you can do
  1. Choose whole foods or minimally processed foods. Look for foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Highly processed foods tend to be full of empty calories and depleted from fiber.
  2. Look for nutrient density, which are foods that have a high nutrient to weight ratio.
  3. Don’t underestimate spices. Spices are full of antioxidants, which help with recovery. For example, turmeric has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
  4. Eat your greens. Leafy greens are packed with calcium and iron, which can help with muscle damage and performance. I am dehydrating some greens with my meals and I’ll also have some powders from Amazing Grass (although there are other good brands like athletic greens).
  5. Consider sending some resupply boxes with nutrient dense foods that would be hard to find in town.
Some simple swaps
  1. Look for bars that have simple and few ingredients, try to stay away from high fructose corn syrup and look for naturally sweetened. I’ll be having Larabars and Thunderbird bars, which use mainly dates as their sweetener.
  2. Look for nut butters without added oils and sugars.
  3. Swap your gummy bears for dried fruit.
  4. Make some of your meals so you can control what’s in them (more to come on this subject). For example, make your own oatmeal instead of buying the instant packet.
Here are some of the staple foods that I will have in my resupply boxes.

My intent with this article is not to judge the way you eat. I know the food conversation is very heated right now because of all the different trending diets. There is a lot of misleading information out there. I encourage you to do your own research and do what makes you feel best.

If you want to go deeper into some of the topics, here are some resources:

This video is the explanation of a study that shows the importance of antioxidants and what processed sugar does to our body https://nutritionfacts.org/video/minimum-recommended-daily-allowance-of-antioxidants/

Spices that fight inflammation https://nutritionfacts.org/video/which-spices-fight-inflammation/

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Comments 9

  • Ruth Morley : Jun 30th

    I’m with you on this, Laura. I spent nearly 3 year’s dehydrating and freezing all my meals for my diet that’s full of veggies, fruit and high quality meat and free of gluten and dairy. It has been a lot of work, but I feel my energy level on the trail has remained strong. It makes me sad to see what people put in their bodies for what is probably the biggest physical endeavor they will ever do.

    Reply
  • Henry : Jun 30th

    Great article, those empty calories can be cheap and tempting when hiker hunger hits but it’s so not worth it!

    While not readable for the whole resupply, I find that some veggie focused dehydrated food brands like Food For The Sole work really well for getting good micros and macros.

    Reply
    • Laura Garcia : Jul 3rd

      I didn’t know that brand. It looks great thanks!

      Reply
  • Tressa Zimmerman : Jun 30th

    This is some great information. My partner and I are planning a section hike on the Appalachian Trail next year. I wanted to make sure we are able to stay fueled properly. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Laura Garcia : Jul 3rd

      I’m glad! I’ll be posting some recipes soon 🙂

      Reply
  • Felipe Rocha : Jul 2nd

    I recommend reading NOLS backcountry nutrition: eating beyond the basics. It’s an excellent book on the topic covering everything you need to know including special diets. You can find it on Amazon or the NOLS store online.

    Reply
    • Laura Garcia : Jul 3rd

      I will for it! Thanks!!

      Reply
      • Laura Garcia : Jul 3rd

        I will look for it*! Thanks!

        Reply
  • Leif : Dec 6th

    Could you also write an article up on how you went about dehydrating food for your supply boxes? I’ve never looked into it, but I will eventually if you don’t end up explaining it. I still have roughly three months to figure this all out for the AT. My wife said she has no problem sending me boxes along the way, which I also need to look into. Doing what you did seems like the best way to go about it. I have no idea what foods will be available at supply points along the route, nor how expensive it will be, but I imagine it’s much less to prepare your own, even with the cost of shipping it all.

    Reply

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