Nutrition Tips Hiking and Backpacking

The Ultimate Hiking & Backpacking Nutrition Guide

Fueling for Adventure

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a nature lover eager to embark on your first trek, one thing remains constant: the importance of nourishing your body to conquer the majestic landscapes that lie ahead. In this comprehensive hiking nutrition guide, we’ll uncover the secrets of maintaining peak performance while trekking through rugged terrains. Whether you’re planning a short day hike or gearing up for an epic multi-day expedition, we’ve got you covered with some tips and advice to keep you energized and fueled for every step of your adventure. 

Understanding the significance of nutrition during hiking adventures can significantly impact your overall experience. From avoiding dreaded energy crashes to ensuring muscle recovery, the food you choose to carry in your backpack plays a crucial role in determining the success of your journey.


How to Determine What Your Body Needs

Depending on your skill level and adaptation to endurance sports, the nutrition recommendations for hiking or backpacking are fairly broad.

When planning your journey and determining how much food to bring, you don’t necessarily want to worry much about total mileage or vertical gain. Sure, these factors are important, but we are most concerned with how long the hike will take you and the level of intensity of that hike for you. While mileage and vertical gain definitely play a role in the intensity piece, we don’t necessarily plan for those factors specifically. 


Caloric Intake

Depending on the hike and all the factors we’ve already discussed, you should plan to eat about 2,500-4,000+ calories per day.

An easy way to quantify this would be to plan to eat about 200-300 extra calories per hour of the hike. If it’s a harder hike, in terms of elevation, obstacles, and weather, you’re probably going to want to aim for closer to that 300-calorie/hour marker. 

For example, if you’re hitting a 5-mile hike with 4,000 feet of elevation, you’ll likely want to aim for about 1,500 extra calories throughout the day. 

If you have no idea how long a hike is going to take you, you can roughly calculate the timing by multiplying the number of miles by 15-40 minutes, depending on how fast you plan to move. 


When to Eat

We recommend eating before, during, and after hiking activity, but sometimes eating WHILE hiking can be really challenging. This is because the activity is actually causing blood to move away from your stomach, which will decrease your appetite overall. Altitude will also reduce your hunger (and thirst). 

In fact, “hiker hunger” is totally a thing, and usually, it hits us at night, or even a day or two later, depending on the difficulty of the hike (tougher hike = the longer it takes for your digestion to normalize). Because of this phenomenon, it’s important that you eat even when you’re not hungry. If you’re burning energy, you need to replace it. The worst thing you can do is wait until you’re hungry to eat. 

One thing you can try is setting an alarm on your phone every 60-90 minutes to remind yourself to eat those planned 200-300 calories. 

While you can definitely go 2-3 hours without eating while traversing the trail, you’ll likely find that you’ll be really tired, even in peak backpacking shape. That’s because even though you don’t feel hungry, you are running out of fuel. Now you know why trail food recommendations typically consist of high-carbohydrate, quick-digesting snacks.


Worried About Eating on the Trail?

If you have the time and ability, eat a big breakfast before you head out! Just make sure you have about an hour or so before you hit the trail to digest. We suggest eating about 800-900 calories before even hitting the trail – think a full American-style breakfast with eggs, pancakes, sausage, and hashbrowns. If you’re starting super early, you can also do a small carb-loading meal the night before, similar to preparation for an endurance race. 

Another option is planning a meal for the halfway point. While this might help you avoid eating a bunch of snacks along the way, you have to also remember that eating a 500-600 calorie meal won’t digest as quickly. The only consequence here is that you might feel a little lethargic if you don’t give yourself a little time before hitting the trail again. If you’re hiking to a lookout point, this is a great opportunity to enjoy a break and have a little picnic before heading back down. 


What to Eat

You can take most foods hiking, but it’s best to stick with foods that are portable, lightweight, and not too bulky. You have to remember that the heavier your pack is, the more it’s going to slow you down, no matter how fit you are. 

The most important types of calories you can eat WHILE hiking are carbs. A lot of people will want to bring protein bars, which are fine! But if you really want to maximize your performance, aim to eat mostly carbs and fat, but mostly carbs. You can increase the fat if you have a longer day planned, as it will keep you fuller longer. 

We recommend planning to have a variety of fast-digesting, high-carb snacks, around 40-60 grams of carbs per hour. If you’re not super hungry to eat, having some easy carbs like this to eat every hour is a great way to ensure you’re fueled without feeling overly full and heavy. 

Also, remember that if you’re only going out for a couple of hours, you don’t really need to worry about protein! Protein is not going to fuel you on the trail. Instead, save the protein to eat after your hike to help repair your muscles and recover!


Food Ideas for Hiking & Backpacking

Breakfast ideas: instant hot cereal or oatmeal with dried fruits and nuts, overnight oats, pre-made burrito, pre-made pancakes or waffles, breakfast bar, quinoa porridge, Pop-Tarts, granola or cereal, bagel with nut butter, pre-made breakfast sandwich. 

Snack ideas: trail mix, banana chips, no-bake energy bites, chocolate-covered cashews or almonds, spicy nuts, dried fruit (apples, mangos, cranberries), fruit leather, string cheese, crackers, fig bars, peanut butter pretzels, cookies, Chex mix, pumpkin seeds, gummy bears, licorice, candy bars, applesauce squeeze packs, Nature Valley bars, CLIF bars, juice, Honey Stinger waffles, energy chews, fresh fruit.

*if opting for nut options be sure to have some other snacks that are higher in carbs

Backpacking lunch ideas: jerky, PB&J, energy bars, dried fruits, nuts, sandwich thins with tuna, tortillas with peanut butter, pita with hummus, bagels with cream cheese, crackers with smoked salmon, ramen noodles, string cheese with salami, premade sandwich.

Backpacking dinner ideas: macaroni & cheese, pasta, ramen noodles, instant soups, instant mashed potatoes and beef jerky, instant stuffing with cooked chicken, tuna with rice. 

If you’re planning to hike for multiple days in a row, the best way to prepare is to make a meal plan ahead of time and prep as much food as possible to take with you, so you only have to worry about the act of eating it once you arrive to your campsite or stopping locations throughout the day. 


Packing Your Food

When planning out food, try bringing something heavier like a bar or squeezable almond butter packet, and something lighter like chews, and alternate every 60-90 minutes. A variety of foods can also be key to staying motivated on the trail. Aim for a balance of flavors (salty, sour, sweet, spicy) and textures (soft, crunchy, crumbly, crispy). This will keep your palate satiated so you will keep moving without getting discouraged. Trail nutrition isn’t just physical – it’s a mental game too!

Pack your snacks in a small dry bag so that your food is all in one place. It’s helpful to be able to visualize the food you have left throughout the day, especially once you get tired. We also suggest packing a little more than you think you need, because you never know if you’re going to end up going further than planned, or if one of your hiking buddies will need some extra nourishment along the way. You want to be prepared for any situation. 


Water

Our favorite way to carry water is to bring a camelback with at least a 3-liter bladder, plus 1-2 collapsible water bottles. You can also buy water bottles that have a built-in filter that you can refill along the trail if you know you’re going to be close to a water source. If you struggle to meter your water intake it may be better for you to *only* bring bottles, and plan out hydration. For example, if you bring 4L of water, you’ll want to have finished one bottle at 25%, halfway point, 75%, and finish line.

Also, it is paramount that you bring some electrolyte packets. We recommend LMNT, Liquid IV, or NUUN tablets, or at least drink some before and after your trek. It’s not unusual to pound 2-3 of these on the day of the hike. You’re going to be losing a lot of electrolytes as you burn calories up and down the trail.


Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, hiking and backpacking are dangerous sports. These activities require you to be alert out on the trail so that you don’t get lost, traverse through terrain you might have never seen before, and be ready for emergency situations along the way. The last thing you want is to end up dizzy or tired to the point where you aren’t paying attention. You are more likely to get hurt and get lost than if you’re fueled up with lots of calories.

The last thing you want to do when hiking is worry about limiting your calories. If anything, you want to eat more than you think you’ll need.

If you’re looking for a training program to pair with your adventurous side, you’ve come to the right place at Paragon Training Methods. To learn more:

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