Picking Foods When Thru-Hiking: Protein and Calories Matter

Post By: Josh

When you are planning out your meals and how you want to eat while out on the trail you need to focus on many things that may not jump out at you immediately as a need is protein along with calories for thru-hiking so what to eat when thru hiking then?

A thru-hiker should look at focusing on getting enough high-quality protein, minimally about 80+ grams daily, to allow for the body to build back strong. Additionally, a focus on micronutrients and calories is necessary to provide power and more complete nutrition.

Thru-hikers are always talking about diets that consist mainly of candy and, in general, mostly pure crud content along with at best incredibly sad nutritional value, when they should be focused on their nutrition on the trail.

This is why many will have body issues long after their hikes have completed, their bodies weren't able to repair all the damage done while also taking the abuse of continuing the hike, so lets agree here and now, not you and not this time!

Thru-Hiker Caloric Requirements

Let's talk about what do thru-hikers eat while on the trail so that they can last 6 months and not fail. While the total volume of calories is vastly important to maintain your body and not lose too much weight what these calories are made of matters also.

If you just try to hit a number of calories you can be doing your body a disservice, you need to balance out the nutritional value of those foods also to ensure you provide your body the actual resources required for peak operation.

Daily Protein Needs for a Thru Hiker

While this can be argued in many directions for normal daily consumption as a thru-hiker you will want to increase this amount to help counter the consistent work you will be forcing your muscles to perform.

Sources of protein for hiking on the trail though can be quite difficult which is why many will eat just enough protein based on what they want to carry and not what would be optimal for their needs.

The optimal protein intake that would stimulate the protein synthesis is about 0.3 g/kg (or 0.4 if you are in an energy deficit, which is likely during long hiking) or 20-30g per meal/snacks for most adults

Gourmet hiking

This is broken down to approximate needs for males and females based on weight and protein needs to keep you healthy over the long duration of your thru-hike.

If you prefer doing math and not following the rough numbers provided below you can follow the below to work these out for your own weight.

Convert your weight in pounds to kilograms by taking your weight and multiplying it by 0.45359237. You would then use this number as your base to figure out zero versus hiking day protein needs.

Mens Daily Protein Intake

Weight
(lbs)
Weight
(kg)
During Zeros
(1g/kg)
During Hiking Days
(1.3g/kg)
15068.036888
16072.577394
17077.1177100
18081.6482107
19086.1886112
20090.7291118
21095.2595124
22099.79100130
230104.32104136
240108.87109142
250113.4113147
260117.93118153
270122.47122159

Womens Daily Protein Intake

Weight
(lbs)
Weight
(kg)
During Zeros
(1g/kg)
During Hiking Days
(1.3g/kg)
9040.824153
10045.364559
11049.95065
12054.435471
13058.975977
14063.56483
15068.036888
16072.577394
17077.1177100
18081.6482107
19086.1886112
20090.7291118

As you can see it isn't a crazy amount of protein you will need for your day but it will take a bit of planning to ensure you have enough with you for the days out of town along with being able to last.

We will now tackle your energy as proteins can help you rebuild your body as it takes abuse non-stop but you will need energy to make it through days of bigger miles, especially if you have a very low body fat to start.

Daily Energy Needs for a Thru Hiker

The next thing after your protein needs will be to provide enough energy to your body to power you through the good and bad days, the sun and the rain, and also maybe snow!

This is a toss up and while carbohydrate offers a small punch with 4 calories per gram you could expand your options by choosing a higher fat content food as fat contains 9 calories per gram making it the BEST possible energy source.

You will be burning through somewhere in the range of 2500 to 5000 calories on average depending on the terrain and distance you are covering each day, and you need to replenish this consistently or face tanking.

The one thing all hikers will agree on is that managing food weight is vitally important to helping cut the backpack weight on longer hikes over 5+ days in sections, we will jump to that after we explain micronutrients and their roll in your health.

What are Micronutrients and What Role They Play

These are the smaller nutrients that make up the additional needs of your body for your overall health, while many focus on the macronutrients and Electrolytes your micronutrient intake should be a focus on a long physicals duration workout like hiking.

Micronutrients can be divided into four types or categories: water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals. Each fulfilling specific needs to help your body run at peak operation.

Water-Soluble Vitamins

These are vitamins that can only be absorbed by your body when taken with water as they require water to be absorbed by your body. Water-Soluble vitamins are not easily stored in your body and will be flushed out with urine when overconsumed.

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine): Helps convert nutrients into energy
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Necessary for energy production, cell function and fat metabolism
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin): Drives the production of energy from food
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): Necessary for fatty acid synthesis
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): Helps your body release sugar from stored carbohydrates for energy and create red blood cells
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin): Plays a role in the metabolism of fatty acids, amino acids and glucose
  • Vitamin B9 (folate): Important for proper cell division
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin): Necessary for red blood cell formation and proper nervous system and brain function
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): Required for the creation of neurotransmitters and collagen, the main protein in your skin
NutrientSourcesRDA
Vitamin B1Whole grains, meat, fish1.1–1.2 mg
Vitamin B2Organ meats, eggs, milk1.1–1.3 mg
Vitamin B3Meat, salmon, leafy greens, beans14–16 mg
Vitamin B5Organ meats, mushrooms, tuna, avocado5 mg
Vitamin B6Fish, milk, carrots, potatoes1.3 mg
Vitamin B7Eggs, almonds, spinach, sweet potatoes30 mcg
Vitamin B9Beef, liver, black-eyed peas, spinach, asparagus400 mg
Vitamin B12Clams, fish, meat2.4 mcg
Vitamin CCitrus fruits, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts75–90 mg

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Fat-soluble vitamins do not dissolve in water. They’re best absorbed when consumed alongside a source of fat. After consumption, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your liver and fatty tissues for future use.

The names and functions of fat-soluble vitamins are:

  • Vitamin A: Necessary for proper vision and organ function
  • Vitamin D: Promotes proper immune function and assists in calcium absorption and bone growth
  • Vitamin E: Assists immune function and acts as an antioxidant that protects cells from damage
  • Vitamin K: Required for blood clotting and proper bone development
NutrientSourcesRDA
Vitamin ARetinol (liver, dairy, fish), carotenoids (sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach)700–900 mcg
Vitamin DSunlight, fish oil, milk600–800 IU
Vitamin ESunflower seeds, wheat germ, almonds15 mg
Vitamin KLeafy greens, soybeans, pumpkin90–120 mcg

Minerals

These minerals are needed in larger amounts than the trace minerals (which we cover below) in order to perform their specific roles in your body.

The minerals and some of their functions are:

  • Calcium: Necessary for proper structure and function of bones and teeth. Assists in muscle function and blood vessel contraction
  • Phosphorus: Part of bone and cell membrane structure
  • Magnesium: Assists with over 300 enzyme reactions, including regulation of blood pressure
  • Sodium: Electrolyte that aids fluid balance and maintenance of blood pressure
  • Chloride: Often found in combination with sodium. Helps maintain fluid balance and is used to make digestive juices
  • Potassium: Electrolyte that maintains fluid status in cells and helps with nerve transmission and muscle function
  • Sulfur: Part of every living tissue and contained in the amino acids methionine and cysteine
NutrientSourcesRDA
CalciumMilk products, leafy greens, broccoli2,000–2,500 mg
PhosphorusSalmon, yogurt, turkey700 mg
MagnesiumAlmonds, cashews, black beans310–420 mg
SodiumSalt, processed foods, canned soup2,300 mg
ChlorideSeaweed, salt, celery1,800–2,300 mg
PotassiumLentils, acorn squash, bananas4,700 mg
SulfurGarlic, onions, Brussels sprouts, eggs, mineral waterNone established

Trace Minerals

Trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts than the other minerals but are equally important functions in your body.

The trace minerals and some of their functions are:

  • Iron: Helps provide oxygen to muscles and assists in the creation of certain hormones
  • Manganese: Assists in carbohydrate, amino acid and cholesterol metabolism
  • Copper: Required for connective tissue formation, as well as normal brain and nervous system function
  • Zinc: Necessary for normal growth, immune function and wound healing
  • Iodine: Assists in thyroid regulation
  • Fluoride: Necessary for the development of bones and teeth
  • Selenium: Important for thyroid health, reproduction and defense against oxidative damage
NutrientSourcesRDA
IronOysters, white beans, spinach8–18 mg
ManganesePineapple, pecans, peanuts1.8–2.3 mg
CopperLiver, crabs, cashews900 mcg
ZincOysters, crab, chickpeas8–11 mg
IodineSeaweed, cod, yogurt150 mcg
FluorideFruit juice, water, crab3–4 mg
SeleniumBrazil nuts, sardines, ham55 mcg

What are Electrolytes and What Role They Play

Electrolytes are used constantly while you sweat and workout and as a hiker you may have issues replacing them as consistently as you should as you sweat.

Typically you would exercise for a set amount of time and then have a chance to replenish your losses after the workout is completed, in a thru hike this only comes consistently in town.

Many hikers choose only caloric intake and value as opposed to complete nutritional value which is why most hikers have muscle and joint issues long after the trail, lack of taking care of your body can hurt in the long term.

Sodium

This keeps balance with your bodies stored water in your body and excess will typically just be peed out of your body. When this gets out of whack you will start to feel it first in the following ways:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Loss of energy, drowsiness and fatigue
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps

This is why you need to make sure that when you are sweating hard out on the trail that you feel the need to eat salty foods, your body is signaling it is not right and you need it ASAP.

Potassium

Potassium is frequently maintaining a balance with sodium in the body and when you have a lack or a large over consumption you can feel your pulse speed up and the heartbeat become irregular, it is one thing that we tend to get enough of in daily life that can lack on trail.

Other frequent signs include:

  • Constipation
  • Feeling of skipped heart beats or palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle damage
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Tingling or numbness

Health.gov here has a large array of the foods you should look at to get a good potassium value from, I would suggest beans and other matches for hiking foods primarily.

Magnesium

When you think about magnesium you can think of issues with muscles twitching and restless legs, when this is starting to happen you need to look at evaluating foods and making sure to get more magnesium in when you get into town.

Other frequent signs include:

  • numbness
  • tingling
  • muscle cramps
  • seizures
  • muscle spasticity
  • personality changes
  • abnormal heart rhythms

Thru-Hiker Food Weight

The one thing that all thru hikers will agree with is that food comes in a lot of packaging that adds up fast over time. This typically is focused entirely on calorie to weight to maximize caloric intake but heed needs to be paid to staying healthy.

Many who leave the trail after a thru hike will have destroyed their diets so badly that any weight they lose and muscle they gain is lost due to poor habits following you back home, learn to manage your health and it will pay dividends for years to come.

Depackage and Declutter

Everyone has a favorite way to store their food they purchase from the stores while on a thru hike, to more effectively carry it you will want to depackage and sort foods into manageable methods of access.

There are 2 trains of thought that are prevalent when it comes to repackaging your foods for your hike. The first is to have a bag per day and you eat what is interesting but that you need to finish everything in the day.

The other method is to package all foods of like types together, so you would package all the breakfast foods in one bag. This way you can choose what sounds interesting from a meal on a given day, allowing you a better opportunity to swap out foods without issue.

Final Thoughts On What to Eat When Thru-Hiking

In the end you should HYOH, or hike your own hike, I would urge you to think more about your food variety and choices that will help you be strong and healthy for your entire hike.

I have seen many people bring items like electrolytes, and trace minerals on trips when they can find small bottles and packages. You can help yourself by adding a few into your boxes, should you choose to ship any for yourself.

I hope in the end to have more people be overall successful while also keeping their bodies fine tuned for real life again afterwards. Many people leave the trail as hardcore sugar addicts who have issues letting go of the consistent sugar supply.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I love hiking and exploring as many trails as I can find the time to get onto, my plan is to complete the triple crown and to thru hike as many trails as I can find.
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