Hey! Sarah here. I’m a fitness coach who helps mountaineers get in the best shape of their lives for big peaks. And I’m here today to talk to you about nutrition, and specifically, the best hiking foods to eat so that you can have monster energy all day on trail.
This is a question that comes up a lot in the Facebook group. Some things we hear a lot:
- “Oh my gosh. I’m so hungry. I almost can’t eat enough to keep myself going.”
- “What is some food that is light, that is easy to carry, and that’s also packed with energy?”
Now a quick disclaimer: It’s really hard for me to give you specific food recommendations (though I will share a few examples that seem to work for most people).
And that’s because everybody’s body responds differently to food and exercise.
It’s funny. I can drink straight Gatorade and go for a run and be just fine. And I have a running partner who has all kinds of stomach trouble if she consumes anything sugary during her workouts.
So even more than specific food suggestions, I want to show you what to eat and when. The tips below will help you to make good use of the fuel that’s in your food — and also the fuel that’s already stored in your body.
This will allow you to do really long hikes — like a 12-hour climb on summit day — and not have to eat a ton of food!
And then you can take those guidelines and apply them to all kinds of situations.
First, Hiking Food Doesn’t Have to Be Fancy
Before I start, I’ll share a funny story from last week when I was climbing Mount Olympus in Washington.
Our guide for that trip also guides Mount Everest. So of course we had like a billion questions for him.
One of the things we were super-curious about was, “What’s he gonna eat?”
I thought maybe he’d have some really special sports nutrition, fancy-shmancy bars or goos.
But then I was spying on him and peeking in his snack bag, and I saw Reese’s peanut butter cups. He also had those little cheese and peanut butter crackers in packages. And Starburst.
In short, things clean eaters and paleo nerds would never touch.
We thought that was hilarious, but it also put the whole health food industry in perspective.
Because while keto and low-carb diets are in vogue right now, this story underscores that fact that:
Carbs Are Absolutely Essential for Endurance Athletes
The one thing that your body really, really wants during a long hike is glucose.
Pretty much all the carbohydrates in your food — whether it’s quinoa or a Plantar’s Cheese Ball — get broken down into glucose.
(Glucose is a super-simple sugar that your body converts to a substance called ATP. ATP is what your muscles burn to contract and keep moving.)
So how do you get more glucose in your body? Let me take you through what you can eat before, during, and then after your hike.
What to Eat Before a Long Hike
2–4 Days Before: Carbo Loading
If your hike or climb is going to be a long, hard one (say, more than 3 hours), you can do what’s called carbo-loading. Yes, it’s exactly like what you learned about in high school track.
About two to three days before, start gradually increasing the percentage of carbohydrate in your diet. Plan it so that on the day before your hike, about 80 percent of your calories are from carbohydrates.
And on the night before, eat a big, carbohydrate-rich meal. (This is the reason lots of marathons hold pre-race pasta dinners.)
In addition to eating a lot of carbohydrates, cut back your exercise intensity and duration. This is a training technique called tapering, and you can actually do it for 1–3 weeks before your long hike.
The goal of carbo-loading and tapering is to build up your glycogen stores. Glycogen is a form of glucose that your muscles can actually hold inside their own fibers. That way, once you start your hike, your muscles can actually run off their own glycogen stores for a few hours.
When you have plenty of glycogen stored up, you’re also less likely to “bonk” and flame out in the middle of your hike.
You also rely less on eating, which is useful. Because as we’ll talk about in a minute about, you literally can’t eat enough food to fuel yourself for a 10-hour hike.
Right Before Your Hike: Hydration and a High-Carb Snack
A couple hours before you start hiking or climbing, drink 17-20 oz. of water or sports drink.
And then, right before you take off, drink another 10-12 ounces.
That being said, don’t go overboard. It’s possible to over-hydrate, which can really mess you up. You don’t need to “store up” water. Just drink enough to keep your body functioning well.
Also, right before you leave the trailhead, have high-carbohydrate snack. Something like a banana, granola bar, or a piece of candy.
What to Eat During a Strenuous Hike
During your hike, keep a few high-carbohydrate sources of fuel handy. (This is a good reason to wear pants with pockets or a backpack with pockets on the hip belt.)
Some of my favorite hiking snacks:
- Pretzel nuggets filled with peanut butter
- Dried fruit
- Plantain chips (salted)
- Honey Stinger energy chews, energy gels, and waffles
- Peppermint Patties and Dots (candy)
- Fritos (just three ingredients!)
- Larabars (very clean, doesn’t melt or freeze)
- Bobo’s Oat Bars (hearty and satisfying, gluten-free)
- Cold pizza slices
These all work because they’re all rich in carbohydrates that your body can quickly break down into glucose.
And it doesn’t really matter where that glucose comes from. Your muscles aren’t going, “Stay away, Frito glucose. Give me quinoa glucose.” They just want glucose. So this is a great time to indulge in some guilty pleasures.
When planning your snacks, you want to budget about 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. While hiking, I usually stop every 60 minutes and eat. And at the same time, I drink about 16 oz. (half a Nalgene bottle) of fluid.
Another tip is to consume foods with a high glycemic index during exercise.
Basically, these are foods that release glucose into your blood faster. Here’s a helpful list of foods by glycemic index from Harvard Medical School.
By the way, when you’re not exercising or recovering, you can keep your blood sugar steady and promote weight control by eating LOW-glycemic index foods.
It’s a great example of how our nutritional needs are very different when we’re exercising!
I also recommend adding some sports drink to your water.
This creates an additional source of calories that’s really easy to consume and digest.
- There are plenty of commercial sports drinks that will do the trick. Dilute them if they upset your digestive system. You can carry them in powder form for overnight trips.
- If you like to eat (and drink) super clean, check out Nuun Performance drink powder. It provides a healthy dose of electrolytes and carbs derived from real fruit ingredients.
Avoiding Digestive Distress (aka Pooping Your Pants)
Another concept to keep in mind during exercise is called gastric emptying. If you’ve ever had stomach distress during your aerobic workouts — things like cramps, diarrhea, or nausea — here’s why.
Whenever you’re exercising moderately, your digestion pretty much works like normal. Hiking is an endurance sport, so you should mostly be going at a conversational pace!
But when you push harder (effort level 5 on a 1-10 scale), your digestion slows way down.
That’s because your body diverts blood away from your internal organs and toward your working muscles.
It also pulls more blood to the surface of your skin to help release heat and regulate your temperature.
When you’re exercising at this level, your stomach stops releasing partially digested food into your intestines (gastric emptying). So anything you eat just sits in your stomach and sloshes around. (Blech.)
Your intestines (notably your colon) also lose tone, which is what sometimes causes that poopy-pants feeling or actual diarrhea.
If this sounds familiar, know that digestive distress does tend to improve with training. While you’re working on it, try eating smaller meals more frequently as you hike.
You can try different foods. Some people do a little better with the really simple sugars, goos and candies that are easy to digest. You can also try adding lightly sugared drink mix in your water. (Keep it really diluted at first, then gradually make it stronger if things go well.)
If you’re going to hike at high altitude, eat less fat for the first few days.
Your digestion doesn’t work as efficiently whenever you’re up high (above 10,000 ft. or so).
That’s because you need a lot of oxygen to digest food and convert it into energy. And at altitude, you have less oxygen circulating in your blood than you do at sea level.
Burning fat requires more oxygen than burning sugar. So at first, it’s a good idea to keep your hiking snacks low-fat.
If your digestion is doing all right after a day or two of hiking, gradually reintroduce fat, because it’s an important fuel source.
But if your stomach goes in knots after you eat, stick to a low-fat diet until you acclimatize. (Most people who struggle with altitude sickness start feeling better around day 3.)
What to Eat After a Hike or Climb
Right away, within 30 minutes of crossing the “finish line,” have a high-carbohydrate snack or drink that also has some protein in it.
The classic one you see marathoners and runners drinking is chocolate milk. (You can actually mix chocolate protein powder and milk powder together and carry it with you if you’re backpacking.) Or, you could eat something like a granola bar or trail mix.
The important thing is to eat within 30 minutes, because there’s a window right after exercise when your body is really absorbing things well. If you eat some carbs and protein during this time, it will speed up your recovery.
The carbs starts rebuilding the glycogen stores that you’ve just burned out of your muscles.
And the protein actually helps to repair the damage and microtrauma to your body. (Because any time we’re exercising, we’re making little tears in our muscles. Protein helps heal and rebuild those damaged muscle fibers.)
Eating for recovery is especially important on a multi-day backpacking trip. Because you have to be able to get up the next day and hike again. So you absolutely must replenish your glycogen and start repairing your muscles once you hit camp.
For the Rest of the Day
Every two hours, have another high-carb, high-protein snack or meal. Continue this pattern for four to six hours (longer if you’re feeling really starved).
If that feels excessive, remember that sometimes hikers and climbers burn several thousand calories in a workout. There’s no other sport that I can think of that does that. Maybe ultra-marathoners.
A Quick Word for Vegetarians
Endurance athletes need lots of protein, especially during recovery periods. This presents a challenge for vegetarians, because most plant-based proteins are incomplete (meaning they don’t contain all of the amino acids needed by the body).
However, vegetarians can create a complete protein by combining a legume with a grain:
- Beans and rice
- Peanut butter on a whole-wheat cracker
- Hummus and pita bread
Egg, low-fat dairy, and soy also provide complete proteins (if your vegetarian diet includes them).
Finally, Listen to Your Body
Hiking and climbing are great exercises for weight loss and overall health.
But on trail days, don’t worry about calories. Don’t restrict at all. Just eat when you’re hungry. Your body will often tell you what it’s craving.
When I ran my first marathon, I had been a vegetarian for six years. And I had never cheated. I was a really good vegetarian.
But when I got to the finish line, and my mom was standing there. And she said, “Let’s go out to eat. What do you want to eat?”
And I’m like, “A hamburger.”
The salt, the meat, the protein, the bun. My body wanted it all. And it told me so strongly that I actually did go and eat a hamburger. (And then went back to being a vegetarian for a few more years.)
So listen to your body after a big workout. It will often tell you what you it needs for recovery.
So there you have it. The best hiking food for before, during, and after your workout.
Did you have any specific questions? Or do you have any tips or hiking foods that you recommend? Go ahead and drop those in the comments.
The Facebook Group is also a great place to ask questions and share ideas, so feel free to hop in and join the conversation.
Until next time, happy hiking.
Originally published August 13, 2018.