Nutrition for Thru-Hikers Part 1: Food for Fuel

Story and photos by Laura Lancaster

Thru-hikers are notorious for talking about food: what they found in a hiker box, what the calorie/oz. ratio was, what strange meal they created out of cream cheese and Fritos and raisins. And there’s a good reason for this: backpacking for thousands of miles requires a huge calorie load—regular people might count calories to keep from gaining weight, but hikers count calories to make sure they can reach their next resupply stop. But while it’s fun to break away from society’s fixation on low-fat, low-sugar foods, the right diet can also make or break your thru-hike.

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No one knows this better than Dr. Brenda Braaten (trail name: Wilderness Woman). She first witnessed the effects of a thru-hiker’s diet while southbounding on the Appalachian Trail in 1996 during a sabbatical from her position at Framingham State University. With a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry, she was already familiar with research on the diet of long distance runners. But during her hike she started to realize that thru-hiking is a completely different ballgame.

While many aspiring thru-hikers look forward to being able to eat as much as they want without gaining weight, there is a dangerous corollary to this: It is sometimes difficult to eat enough to stop losing weight. Even hikers that were eating more than necessary might end up suffering from massive weight loss. To better understand what and when to eat during a thru-hike, Dr. Braaten began researching how calories are transformed into energy in a thru-hiker’s body.

Today, Dr. Braaten runs a trail angel stop, Little Haven, on the PCT in Belden, CA, where many thru-hikers stop to pick up a box, grab a quick shower, or take a night off from the heat of Northern California. Here’s what she believes all hikers should know before starting out on their first (or third) thru-hike.

Thru-hiking vs. long distance running

In just about any town located near a long distance trail, it’s not uncommon to see groups of hikers attempting to eat enough food for a week in one sitting. In fact, some hikers deliberately plan to underfeed themselves while hiking, in order to save on pack weight. Then, not unlike a marathoner carb-loading before a big race, they make up for their caloric deficit by binging on food when they get to town. But is this a good strategy for thru-hiking?

“The fuel needs for long distance hiking are not the same as for a marathon runner,” says Dr. Braaten. “When you’re running a marathon, the amount of oxygen being demanded by your muscles keeps your heart rate up and in that target range. But it’s for a short duration. If you are hiking up a hill you are not trying to get your heart rate up. Your pace is comfortable, or at least it should be.” This difference in pace and heart rate turns out to have an important impact in how your body processes glycogen, a major source of fuel for your muscles. Marathoners burn almost exclusively glycogen during a race. But, the slower your pace the more likely your body is to burn a mix of glycogen and fat–this is why the average thru-hiker is able to travel longer distances than a marathoner before hitting the wall. And because they are burning both fat and glycogen, thru-hikers, unlike marathoners, can also rely on the food they are carrying to power themselves through the next 25 miles, rather than relying solely on the stores built up in their bodies. So what does this mean for your food choices?

Is the Snickers diet right?

If the best way to boost your muscles’ glycogen stores during a thru-hike is to make sure you are carrying and eating enough fat, then an ideal thru-hiker diet would eliminate all of those pesky carbs, and include the highest fat food available, right?

Not so fast, says Dr. Braaten: “The body will prefer to use protein to rebuild muscle, but it will prefer to use carbs to refuel muscles.” A hiker’s body will start to replenish its glycogen stores within the muscles 30 minutes after each meal. “We’re not growing muscles, we’re feeding muscles,” says Dr. Braaten. When you’re resting, your body is busy replenishing the starch stores within your muscles.

This means that the ideal hiker food, one that balances a high-carb (to refuel your muscles), high-fat (to burn as pure energy as you hike) load, really is that bane of the frontcountry: junk food. High-fat and high-sugar foods, even processed ones, turn out to be great fuel sources, ones your body will rapidly transform into energy. But making sure that you’re not overly emphasizing fat over carbs, or vice versa turns out to be an important factor in maintaining energy levels: “Junk food is great, but it needs to be balanced junk food,” says Dr. Braaten.

 For Dr. Braaten, balanced junk food means the high fat/high protein/high carbs of a Snickers bar. “For the long haul,” she said, “I would choose Snickers over a trail bar any day. Most of those bars have a health-spin on them, like honey instead of high fructose corn syrup, but it doesn’t matter to your hiking body.”

This change in how thru-hikers think about food can take some getting used to. In a normal, sedentary life, a diet consisting almost solely of junk food could be downright dangerous. But, for thru-hikers covering 25 miles or more a day over some of the most challenging terrain in America, food is consumed as fuel first, and for health second. In fact, eating for health, including maintaining proper levels of vitamins, minerals, and digestive enzymes, can prove to be a difficult challenge. We’ll touch on strategies to maintain the nutrient levels necessary to complete your thru-hike in Part 2 of this series.

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An important time to eat

From her perch at Little Haven, near the halfway point of the PCT, Dr. Braaten has watched countless hikers stumble through her door emaciated, exhausted, and ready to quit. “They’ve exhausted their stores,” she says, “But each hiker has to decide, how important is this to you? If you want to keep going, think about how to vary your diet.”

But varying your diet isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about when you eat. It’s common for thru-hikers, especially when the heat index is high, to eat their biggest meal of the day in the mid- to late-afternoon and then hike on until sunset. When they finally stop for the day, they’re completely exhausted, and are fast asleep in their sleeping bags within minutes without having eaten again.

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As it turns out, this means that they’ve skipped the most important meal time of the day for a thru-hiker. “When you’re done for the day, make sure you eat something significant within a half an hour of falling asleep, because that’s when your body is trying to restore the energy you’ve used during the day,” says Dr. Braaten. “Way too many hikers don’t do this. Pick something significant with proteins/oils/fats/carbs. This is essential for your body to restore the sugar stores in your muscles.” And eating a snack within a half an hour of stopping for the day doesn’t just help to refuel your muscles, it will also prevent your muscles from cannibalizing themselves to replenish their glycogen stores.

A woman’s advantage

Of course, the majority of hikers that are losing weight at a drastic rate have one thing in common: their gender. Just like in the real world, men will lose weight more easily than women during a thru-hike. Unlike the real world, a woman’s propensity to hold onto body fat can be a big perk after months on the trail. Some have speculated that this is the reason that women are able to complete thru-hikes in similar timeframes as compared to their male counterparts. During frontcountry competitive events, “testosterone gives males an unfair advantage since it is a muscle booster, but during a thru-hike males will tend to burn off muscle mass, including skeletal muscle and heart muscle, over a balanced mix of other body reserves,” says Dr. Braaten. “Women tend to burn off fat and protein more evenly, partly as a result of the estrogen hormone that will also help a woman carry a fetus, and its many demands, for nine months successfully.”

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So, when you’re planning the next leg of your thru-hike, remember: carry enough calories to meet your energy needs for each day of hiking, seek out a balance of both fat and carbs in your diet, and remember to eat a meal before going to sleep each night. Part 2 of this series will discuss how to stay healthy while you hike through vitamins, minerals, and digestive health. You can read more about Dr. Braaten’s research here.

Snicker Trifle

If you’re looking for a dessert to add to your thru-hike menu—one that will help replenish your glycogen levels at the end of tiring day—try out this no-cook snicker trifle. It’s perfect for those days when the heat index is high and you’re looking for something nutritious that will come together on its own while you set up camp.

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Ingredients:

  • ¼ Jell-O Chocolate Fudge Pudding
  • 3 tbsp. Powdered Milk
  • 1 tbsp. Powdered Butter
  • ¼ cup Caramel Bits
  • 3 tbsp. Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Bits
  • 2 tbsp. chopped roasted and salted peanuts

Frontcountry:

  1. Add all ingredients to a Ziploc bag and mix to incorporate.

On the trail:

  1. When you arrive at camp, add ¾ cup cold water to the dried mixture.
  2. Stir thoroughly to incorporate.
  3. Seal the bag.
  4. By the time you’ve finished setting up camp for the night, the trifle will have set and will be ready to eat. Enjoy!

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Originally Published May 5th, 2016.

Laura Lancaster started backpacking at the age of 12 and hasn’t let up since. Currently a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, she thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and the Wonderland Trail in 2015. Laura has been published in Backpacker, Survivor’s Edge magazine, and American Survival Guide. You can see more of her work at lauralancaster.net.

  • TEEJAYZ

    This was solid information.
    And man I’m SO on board with that Snickers Trifle.

  • Matt King

    I thru now twice on the PCT. Earlier in my days I was a guide on Denali and dealt with the need for nutrition of my clients under extreme conditions. As a RN I have a better than average understanding of the need in the human animal for fluids and nutrition in extreme sports.

    In 2011 I read Eric the Blacks blog where he wrote that in order to survive the six month journey on the Trail than one had to ‘Embrace junkfood’. SOund advice when trying to find comparable food for six months at 4-5000 KCALs per day.

    In 2014 I came up the term CDN or Calorie Dense Nutrition to describe what I and other thru hikers were eating just to maintain our base weight. This included not only junk food but olive oil, sardines, protein shakes, cheese, hummus, P. Butter, nuts, halvah, etc.

    As many of you may recall back 15 years ago the Snickers was lauded as the official ‘Snack Bar’ of the US summer Olympic team. 9 grams of protein in ever bar!

    Now, it is impossible to eat before a hike and have any lasting effect on performance over a 2,660 trek. Heck, I doubt anyone could travel by foot 22 miles a day for more than three days without food going in. You have to eat, and eat well each and every day to do this extreme sport.

    I will share this observation. Men that I met at the beginning of the Trail who were morbidly obese (measured not by their BMI but my assessment of a hanging gut: none of these men made it past a hundred miles. Pre-trail nutrition that results in obesity is a predictor of a failed thru hike.

    Acorn the Elder.

  • BrightFoot

    This is a really helpful article! When is the aforementioned Part 2 going to be posted?

  • I’m confused about Snickers being the ‘perfect’ high carb, high fat, and high protein food… The ratios for Snickers is 52:42:6. That’s a pretty crappy protein load.