In regards to food, long distance hikers can be a very demanding bunch. We want items that are tasty, nutritious and filling, but we would like them to come in a compact, lightweight, easy to prepare, high caloric density package. Preferably they should be economically priced as well!
On shorter trips of a week or less, our body’s natural reserves are such that we can pretty much eat anything and still be relatively ok. However, for longer walks, nutritional (ie. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet. So what exactly does one eat on a multi-month hiking trip? It comes down to finding a balance between quantity, quality and taste.
I work on carrying 1 kg of food for each hiking day. This usually equates to between 4500 and 5000 calories. How these calories are divided up will play a large part in dictating my energy levels and overall health whilst out on the trail.
Food consists of three main elements: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. To achieve optimum hiking efficiency you need to strike a balance between all three. For multi-month hikes trips, Dr. Brenda Braaten, Ph.D, nutritionist, long distance hiker and trail angel extraordinaire, recommends the following caloric breakdown: 50% carbs; 35% fats and 15% protein. For shorter hikes, where potential weight loss is not so much of an issue, one can decrease the amount of fatty foods you carry and increase the quantity of carbs and proteins.
Snacking regularly (say every two hours), as opposed to three big meals a day and little in between, is conducive to a more efficient approach to hiking. You are not as weighed down with a full stomach, your muscles won’t be as stiff because your breaks aren’t as long and it’s better for your digestive system. In addition, by feeding your body small amounts at regular intervals, it is easier to maintain your energy levels throughout the hiking day.
Although I emphasize regular snacking, I still tend to eat two larger meals each day (scroll down to Daily Diet for details). These meal times, which double as my main rest breaks, roughly equate to a late breakfast and an early dinner.
As mentioned above, during the 12 Long Walks I will be consuming approximately 4500-5000 calories per day, which equates to about 1 kg of food weight. This presents a conundrum in so much that on an average hiking day of 13 – 14 hours, I will be burning approximately 6000 calories (varies according to exertion level and conditions). Therefore I will be running a calorie deficit of approximately 1000-1500 per day. How to compensate? The answer: Every time I hit a town, eat like that little Japanese bloke that wins all the eating contests. It never ceases to amaze me how many calories one can consume in a short period of time if sufficiently motivated (upwards of 15,000 during a full rest day).
Away from the trail, my diet is simple one. I’m not really interested in calorie counting or gimmicky eating regimens. When it comes to my health I’m in for the long haul. The way I figure it, if I exercise regularly and eat a balanced, nutritious diet 90-95 percent of the time, than the occasional chocolate, ice cream, beer or glass of wine won’t do me too much harm.
On-Trail: I adopt a similar approach whilst hiking. My on-trail diet generally consists of a core group of healthy items (eg. dried fruit, nuts, organic energy bars, natural cereals, full cream milk powder and legumes), supplemented with the occasional chocolate bar and tub of peanut butter (extra crunchy) to boost my fat intake.
Town Stops: Fresh food items are superior from a nutritional standpoint, however the catch for long distance hikers is that they are usually heavy and have a limited use-by date. Therefore, when I hit a resupply stop, my culinary focus will invariably be lasered in on fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products. In addition, I will always try to pack out a handful of fruit and veggies, which I will eat during the first day or two back on the trail.
All the boxes may have been ticked in regards to nutrition, high calorie density and overall weight, but the fact is if you don’t enjoy the items you have packed, it’s like a metaphorical black cloud is looming over each and every meal. A balance needs to be struck.
I am fortunate in that I have never minded eating the same foods day after day. My taste buds don’t get bored easily. That being said, when I arrive at a town or resupply point, the last thing I am thinking about is eating more dried fruit, nuts, cereal or beans!
On an average hiking day, my diet more or less breaks down as follows:
- 5-5.30am – Break camp. Grab one or two energy bars (800-900 calories) for the trail. Favourites include: Probar, MealPack and Clif Bars.
- 7.30-8am – Another energy bar and/or a handful of trail mix (500 calories).
- 10am – Breakfast: Generally consists of a big bowl of natural muesli or granola with full cream powdered milk (1000 calories).
- 12.30pm – Energy Bar and/or trail mix (400-500 grams).
- 2.30pm – King size snickers bar (510 grams).
- 4.30-5pm – Dinner – The second main meal of the day will often be dehydrated beans (Fantastic Foods). Before eating, I will leave them soak for approximately 30 minutes in a securely placed container near the top of my pack. These are usually mixed with corn chips and occasionally some olive oil (1200 calories total). Maybe some trail mix or chocolate for dessert (200 calories). The “no-cook” beans idea is not an original. I first heard about it in 2007 from my friend, Mike Towne, who I think may have picked it up from Pacific Crest Trail legend, Scott Williamson.
- 7-7.30pm – Set up camp. Have a high protein energy bar (400-450 calories) before going to bed.