Hiking and Backpacking Nutrition Guide
Hiking or backpacking through our natural areas can be some of the best times you ever spend in the outdoors. That unexpected animal sighting, a mid-day swim below a waterfall, or a spectacular sunset can make lifelong memories. But in order to make your experience memorable for good reasons, you have to plan your nutrition and hydration properly. This article from Rock/Creek Race Team member Josh Wheeler goes over what you’ll need to stay comfortable and healthy on your next adventure.
Proper hydration is at the forefront of any activity you plan to participate in, whether you’re in the outdoors or not. If your body is in motion, then you need to make sure that you are hydrated. Water is essential to the human body. 60-70% of our body mass is water, up to 90% of our brain mass is water, and up to 75% of muscle tissue is comprised of water. Water is also the main component of blood — the important carrier of glucose, oxygen and other nutrients.
In general, your body loses 64-80 ounces of water daily through urine, feces, sweat, skin, and expired air. This water needs to be replaced by daily fluid consumption of 64-80 ounces. An easier (albeit much less scientific) way to determine daily fluid requirements is to evaluate your urine. Dark and concentrated urine is indicative of inadequate fluid intake. Urine should be pale yellow to clear, and copious.
Finding clean, purified water can be a problem out in the backcountry. Never drink water straight out of a stream, lake or pond. Micro-organisms can easily be mixed into your drinking water and cause serous stomach distress or possibly even death. To avoid these potentially life-threatening aliments always treat your water.
In warm weather, the only way to ensure that you will not become dehydrated is to stop it before it happens. When you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. That is why it is important to properly hydrate during any hiking trip. The cliché eight glasses a day does not take into account your standard active athlete or body in motion.
If you are hiking in the heat, you need not worry about how many glasses you are drinking. Rather, you should concentrate on drinking periodically throughout the day. Keep a water bottle close to you at all times and sip from it continuously. During a backpacking trip a great accessory for your pack is a water bottle holder that is easily accessible. Typically when I hike, I like to have a water bottle within reach at all times. Another great alternative that most backpack manufacturers have started to incorporate is an internal bladder system within the pack. This added convenience ensures easy access to water at any time during the hike. These relatively small considerations can make or break a pack design, so choose your pack carefully and pay attention to the details.
In the cold you need to remember that you still have to hydrate. Your hydration needs in cool weather are just as important as in hot weather. You will not feel like you need to drink as much liquid; however, you still need to avoid becoming dehydrated. While you won’t be losing as much liquid through perspiration, you still need to have water on hand, especially if you plan to hike over thirty minutes. Try to drink every ten to fifteen minutes to avoid becoming thirsty.
Although water is great for most sedentary activities, if you are active you should be hydrating with a carbohydrate solution, preferably one with anywhere between 6-8% carbohydrates. This will ensure that your body not only gets the hydration it craves but also that it maintains the right amount of electrolytes.
During the hike itself, focus on continuing to sip continuously from your water bottle. If applicable, weigh yourself before and after a hot weather workout to ensure proper rehydration. For every pound that you lose while exercising, rehydrate with 24oz of liquid or 150% of your total water loss.
Choosing the right liquid is critical to your hydrating success. Find a carbohydrate drink that will sit well with your stomach and budget. If you are preparing for a long-distance hike, train with the drink that you plan to be consuming. Find an electrolyte-containing beverage with 4% to 8% carbohydrate.
Avoid “sports drinks” currently on the market that are sweetened with simple sugars. Remember that sugars can masquerade under other names such as sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. Besides having too high a percentage of carbs, these simple sugars are being proven to cause other long-term negative effects on your health. In the short term, drinking a 10% carbohydrate solution can potentially cause gastrointestinal issues, which can be considerably uncomfortable in the backcountry. The high sugar content can also slow the release of fluids into your intestine and delay the rate of absorption.
On the other hand, with a 4-8% combination of carbohydrates, your body is able to absorb a proper balance of electrolytes. Try something like Hammer Nutrition HEED sports drink for a healthy mix of complex carbohydrates, providing you with consistent energy. HEED buffers lactic acid and helps prevent cramps, so you’ll have a better time while on the trail and you’ll recover faster from strenuous hikes. HEED also takes care of your electrolyte needs with a full-spectrum electrolyte profile, providing your body with everything lost through sweat.
Though beverages with caffeine provide hydration, they are not the best choice, as excessive caffeine consumption may interfere with sleep patterns and will have a mild diuretic effect. Try to limit your intake of these liquids throughout the day, especially if you are planning on a long-distance day hike.
Watch Your Calories: You Need Fuel!
If you are planning on hiking over an hour, then you need to make sure that you take into account your nutritional needs as well as hydration needs. Your body’s size and the activities you choose will determine how many calories you need to consume while exercising. Typically, most experts recommend that athletes eat anywhere from 100 to 150 calories per hour to maintain proper glycolic and caloric balances.
Regardless of what type of food or gel you use for fuel delivery, carbohydrates remain your best source of energy for training and racing. Remember not to shun real food for synthetic food options. Fig Newtons, banana, peanut butter sandwiches and bagels are all great options that can be easily crammed into a pack or carried on a day hike. We do have a number of bars that will keep you going all day but are still only made with natural ingredients.
Remember the more you eat the better you feel. A 200 pound man can easily burn upwards of 800 calories an hour while walking uphill with a loaded pack! To ensure energy balance, concentrate more on grazing and snacking throughout the day. There’s no point in try to replace the same number of calories as you’re burning, though. Remember that stomach distress can be caused by eating too much during vigorous exercise.
You’ll work out your own thresholds over time, but listen to your body, shoot for 100-150 calories an hour during exercise, and then use the evening meals to replace calories and recover for the next day.
During multi-day hiking trips, staying topped off on proper calories is vital to maintaining good morale and stamina during the day. Before launching out on any backpacking trip, planning is crucial. Plan out each day’s meal before embarking upon your trip and plan on buying fresh foods before leaving. Fruit, vegetables, and many cheeses last a week in all but the hottest temperatures. Buy fresh ingredients right before the trip, keep them cool on the way to the trailhead, and pack them in the center of your pack, away from direct sunlight. A favorite: fresh mozzarella vacuum-packed in plastic; it’s lighter and lasts longer than mozzarella in water.
Prepackaged foods such as Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House or Enertia Trail Foods provide a well balanced, delicious, lightweight meal that is easily stuffed into any pack.
Hard cheeses are a great thing to carry into the backcountry because they will not spoil for a couple of days and are chock full of energy and calories.
Let’s face it, we’re not all natural gourmet cooks, and sometimes a little expert help is in order. A great backpacking cookbook is NOLS Cookery. Whether you’re new to cooking on the trail or a seasoned wilderness chef, you’ll find helpful hints, ideas, and information on: menu and ration planning; packaging; nutrition; fire preparation; stove and fuel use; open-fire cooking; Leave No Trace site maintenance; 190 field-tested recipes.
As your body pushes its limits, make sure that you are providing it with the right fuel for the job. To sum up, staying properly hydrated throughout the day is crucial to your workout success. Find a 4-8% carbohydrate drink that your stomach can tolerate if you plan to be pushing yourself for longer than an hour and plan to consume 100-150 calories per hour of exercise. Finally, experiment with different hydrating options until you find a hydration system that works for you. Everybody is different, but taking the time and finding the right way to stay hydrated and fueled will yield major advantages in the backcountry.
Get the Gear: Finding the Right Hydration System
Hydration packs are ideal for long day hikes. If you are just getting into day hiking, you need to find the hydration system that will work best for you. This can take some time and will only improve with experience, so be patient. For a long distance trail hike, find a hydration system that is lightweight, comfortable and will be able to carry enough liquid to meet your hydration needs.
Personally, I prefer to hike with handheld water bottles like those from CamelBak or Nathan Sports, because holding the water bottles reminds me of the need to drink. If I hike with a hydration pack, I find myself becoming consumed in the hike and forgetting to drink. However, by holding the bottles I have a constant reminder that I need to stay hydrated.
The only downside to carrying water bottles is that you have something in your hands. This can become a problem on a long distance hike when your body becomes fatigued and the last thing you want to do is hold onto a multi-pound water bottle. Also, you may prefer to hike with trekking poles, in which case you’ll have to have your hands free.
That is why hiking with a pack can be an advantage. When hiking with a pack you are able to carry food, clothes as well as other amenities comfortably throughout the day. This can be advantageous if the weather turns sour or you get hungry during the day. If hiking with a partner, swapping off the pack-carrying responsibilities can spread the load more evenly.
Just a few years ago, hydration packs could be cumbersome and not worth the discomfort that they brought. However, in recent years that has changed as the outdoor industry has consistently improved on the lightweight, comfortable hydration pack. You have more choices now that ever before.
In cool weather conditions a pack is ideal.
Early in the morning when you first start out hiking you will likely be wearing excess clothing. Shedding a few layers with nowhere to stash them can be a problem; however, with a pack you can easily stuff them away. Then, if the weather turns bad, you can just pull them back out. Also, since more than likely you will not be drinking as much liquid as you would be in the heat, you can better regulate how much liquid you are carrying by how much fluid you put into the bladder.
If you enjoy hiking with a hydration pack in warm weather, look for one that will be able to keep your back cool. Most new packs have mesh backpanels that offer superior breathability.
Two great options are the Osprey Manta hydration pack — available in three sizes, which feature a “suspended” mesh backpanel that keeps the pack completely off of your back — or the genre-defining CamelBak Classic hydration pack, a simple and ultralight solution if you’d like to keep things fast and light and don’t need much additional pack capacity beyond its hydration system. Both of these packs come with integrated hydration systems, including hydration bladder and tube.
Josh Wheeler is an avid trail runner, cyclist, and swimmer who is currently combining his talents for all three and has begun a grueling triathlon training program.
Josh overcame brain cancer during his senior year at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, TN to become the number one ranked triathlete in the Southeast in his age division. He is currently training for the Collegiate Nationals and the age group Nationals; in hopes to qualify and represent the US at the Worlds in Germany. Josh also continues to excel as an honors scholar at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.
In his rare spare time, he also works for rockcreek.com.