Long Distance Hike Nutritional
Nothing beats the great outdoors for boosting both your physical and mental health, which is why hiking is such a popular way to spend your spare time. You can burn around 440 calories an hour power hiking out on your favorite hiking trail, and the varied terrain gives your body an awesome natural workout that puts a session in a stuffy, sweaty gym firmly in the shade.
But for any endurance hike, your body needs to be correctly fueled and prepared to sustain the physical effort it takes to get to the end of the trail. And, when it comes to long distance hikes – including multi-day hiking trips – the need for the right nutrition goes up to a whole new level.
If you are planning a hardcore hiking trip or are taking on an extreme hiking challenge, then you need to prep your food like a boss in meal prep containers, so you have all the fuel you need. A chocolate bar and a bag of candy alone simply just won’t cut it as an energy food. To help, we’ve put together the ultimate nutritional guide for long distance hikes that will see you eat up those grueling miles.
Your nutritional plan for any long distance hiking challenge should start well before you pack your rucksack, it should be a key factor in your fitness preparation plan. A well-nourished and hydrated body at the start of your distance hike will boost your chances of getting to the finishing line in good, physical working order.
In preparation for a multi-day hiking trip, you should be working on your cardio, strength, and endurance. This means that, alongside those muscle ripping workout sessions and stamina-boosting runs, you should be prep-fueling your body to deal with all the physical demands of long-distance trekking.
Ensure you eat a good power breakfast every morning and include a healthy balance of protein, good carbs, and fats in your daily diet. Boost your hike training workouts with protein shakes (check out our best protein powders and vegan protein powders) and drink at least two liters of water each day, plus more when you work out, so keep your water bottle always handy. You are aiming to build and strengthen your muscles so that your body can sustain its stamina for hours on the trail. Eat well in the run-up to your long distance hiking adventure and you can ensure you at least start off with a full tank.
Food As Fuel
If you’re going to walk seven hours a day as part of your long distance hike, then based on a rough guide of 440 calories per hour, the simple math says you need to be consuming at least 3,000 calories while on your trekking adventure. But this doesn’t take into account those unique hike challenges such as super-steep hills and tough, changing terrain as well as the pace you choose to take.
For a single day hike, you can get away with fueling up with a hearty, healthy breakfast, sustaining yourself with a few snacks on the route, and then replenish your energy stores with a good meal once you get home. But when it comes to multi-day or endurance hiking, the nutrition rule book turns to a whole new page. And the first rule becomes making sure your body is getting more than just calories.
Hiking experts say that for a sustained fuel load, your daily intake while on the trail should be around 15% protein, 50%-65% carbohydrate and 20%-35% fats. The logic for this carb-heavy/good fats/quality protein food plan is that the carbs will provide the fast fuel you’ll need as you power through your body’s energy supply, the fats give a longer burn time while the protein will help to sustain those aching muscles.
The Importance Of Keeping Hydrated
As well as the right nutrition, you will also need to keep sufficiently hydrated if you are to take on a hiking endurance challenge. For everyday activity, we are advised to drink at least two liters of water but factor in the physical challenge of a long distance hike, and your hydration needs will really spike. Sustained physical exercise will mean you lose fluids through sweating and heat loss, so you need to ensure you are replenishing your water levels throughout the day. Good hydration will also keep you energized and can also help to prevent muscle cramp.
As a general rule of thumb, the average adult will need at least 3-6 fluid ounces per mile and should be drinking around every 20 minutes (or even more frequently if thirsty). For an eight-hour sustained and physical hike, that adds up to at least four liters of fluids. This should be mainly water, but you should also include a sports drink to replace the sodium and other electrolytes you are losing due to the extended physical effort of long-distance hiking.
Hiking at higher altitudes will mean you need to up your hydration even more as your body will slurp up more fluids than at lower levels so if your route includes some serious elevation, you need to factor this into your hydration planning too. So don’t forget to pack that filtered water bottle when you prepare for your trip.
How To Eat On A Long Distance Hike
Knowing you need to plan for specific nutrition on a long distance hike is one thing, but actually preparing and packing all that you need for a long trek is a whole new challenge and can be easy to get wrong.
Fail to plan and prep properly and you could find your body powering down well into your trek, and at a time when there’s no opportunity to pop to a shop to stash up on energy bars and snacks! Joking aside, not having enough fuel and hydration with you on a long hike can leave you compromised and potentially in a risky situation, and no-one wants that.
Most multi-day hikers will need to carry around 1.5 to 2 pounds of food per day, plus their essential hydration. And while this sounds like a lot and you could well now be asking where you are going to stash it all, stick with us, we have a cunning plan!
For hydration, the key is to split your daily allowance across your backpacking backpack, so you have your main supply and also some in reserve. Use a large hydration pack bladder in your main pack with a couple of liter water bottles stashed inside pockets and you’ll easily be able to get at those all-important fluids when on the move.
For your food, you may need to carry a couple of days’ worth if you are camping out between hiking days. If you are out on the trail for longer than this without decamping to a hostel, then you will need to seriously look at the special dehydrated camping food packs you can buy to ensure you can carry everything you really need.
But for a day or two’s hiking, with a little thought and planning, you can prep and make your own nutrition and fuel supplies. Before we move on to the ‘what’ of this nutritional guide –the actual food you need to take – let’s spend a few moments more on the ‘how’ – our top tips on how to eat for endurance out on the trail.
Little And Often For Endurance
Your hike-fueling focus should be on keeping your body supplied with enough carbs as well as the right mix of protein to keep you going and optimize your overall performance. And, when it comes to eating for distance and endurance, little but often is the way to go.
Smaller amounts of food eaten at regular intervals are easier to digest by your already hardworking body, rather than one or two heavier meals. Power snacking this way means you are not weighed down by a full stomach and you won’t need to take too long a break from the pace and routine of your hike, meaning your muscles won’t get the downtime to go stiff. But just as importantly, you will be feeding your body at a steady rate, making it easier for you to maintain and sustain those all-important energy levels when the going gets tough.
What To Prepare And Pack
So, we’ve covered the why, the when and the how of good hiking nutrition, let’s crack on with the (hopefully) tasty bit – the ‘what’ in what you should be eating.
When packing your day’s food supply, it’s important to consider their suitability for packing, including how well they will keep in warm, possibly moist conditions, how well they will stand up to tight spaces and how balanced they all are in terms of carbs, protein and good fats. Here’s a list of our favorite food and snacks to fuel our day-long hikes:
- Sachets of instant oats – these are a good bet, especially as a nourishing cold morning starter. You will need to be able to boil up some hot water (or have some to hand in a good thermos flask) but they are quick and tasty to make and are good slow release carbs to sustain you on that first leg.
- Dehydrated fruit and vegetables – easy to buy and simple to stash, packets of dried fruit and veg (such as parsnips) can be kept to hand to keep your energy levels topped up and your vitamins boosted.
- Peanut butter and apples – protein, carbs, and high energy, peanut butter scooped up with a slice of apple is a sweet hit to have and helps to stave off those mid-morning sugar slumps that could slow you down. You could also make up peanut butter and banana wholemeal sandwich for lunch, another excellent slow energy releaser.
- Protein-packed trail mix – another on-the-go food fuel you can pack up into small bags and tuck into the pockets of your backpack. Buy from any good health-food store or make your own from almonds, cashew nuts (or any of your favorite nuts), dried banana chips, dried cranberries and a pinch of sea salt. You can then style it up for more flavor – add chopped up strips of beef jerky, a few chili flakes, even nibs of cacao if you fancy.
- Packet soups and ramen noodle packs – a nice carb-hit at lunchtime or when the sun goes down on camp, with the minimum of fuss. Either makeup before you set off and store in a good flask or make fresh out on the trail. The noodles will also give you a boost of electrolytes.
- Fruity flapjacks – they’re tasty, fruity and if you make them yourself, you’ll know exactly what’s in them! The fruit gives you an energy boost, while the oats provide nice and slow energy release. Or pack up several slices of malt loaf, with a small amount of butter or low-fat spread. Malt loaf contains starchy carbs so a good source of energy to sustain you.
- Dried meat– for a protein hit and a tasty on the go snack for the carnivores, pop a pack of air-dried meat into your rucksack and you can chew as you walk. Beef jerky works well although just be aware of high salt levels.
- Freeze-dried food – for convenience and to enjoy something more ‘meal like’, you could pack some sachets of pre-prepared dehydrated food. But do read the label, they can be low on nutritional value and high in sodium and you will need to be able to boil or add hot water to eat.
How To Eat At The End Of The Hike
The final rule in our nutritional guide for long distance hikes is what you should do when you’ve successfully completed endurance hike and you are finally resting your walk-weary feet. This is the point where your body needs the time and support to bounce back from the physical exertion it’s just been put through.
The recovery phase after a long distance trek also needs the right fueling to get you and your body back on track. It’s recommended that you aim to eat a portion of carb and lean protein immediately after your hike, so now’s the time to chomp down on a sandwich, protein smoothie or sports drink as you carefully peel those walking shoes off your feet.
The aim is to avoid a blood sugar drop and sustain the energy levels you have left. You should then eat a good meal within two hours, which includes a good carb to replace the stored carbohydrates you have been totally torching up. This also sets you up for a good night’s sleep…and the all-important slumber downtime during which your body will work to recover, ready for tomorrow – and another day out on the endurance trail.
- How to use carbs to burn more fat – WikiHow