When planning out your backcountry meals and how you want to eat on your backpacking trip, you need to focus on many essential things.
From volume and calories to protein to repair your body, focusing on your backpacking food is a top priority for anyone doing long-distance hikes, so what to eat when thru-hiking then?
A backpacking meal plan should focus on getting enough high-quality protein, minimally about 80+ grams daily, to allow the body to rebuild efficiently. Additionally, concentrating on micronutrients and caloric density is necessary to provide power and complete nutrition per ounce of weight.
Thru-hikers are always talking about diets that consist mainly of candy and, in general, primarily pure crud content and, at best, unfortunate nutritional value when they should be focused on their nutrition on the trail.
This is why backpackers tend to have body issues long after their hikes, and their bodies haven’t been able to repair all the cumulative damage from a long trail.
Managing your health and nutrition along the trail must be a primary focus while continuing the hike and afterward, regardless of the trail from the Appalachian Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail and beyond!
Thru-Hiker Caloric Requirements
Let’s talk deeper about what thru-hikers eat while on a long day of hiking that helps them to last six or more months hiking between trail towns and resupply boxes.
At the same time, the total volume of calories, typically measured in calories per ounce of carried weight, is essential to maintaining lean body weight and not losing muscle mass.
If your focus is only to eat a specific number of calories daily, you can do your body a disservice.
You, instead, must focus on the overall nutritional value of those high-sugar and high-fat foods to ensure you provide your body with the consistent energy required for peak operation.
Fueling Your Muscles: Protein Needs on the Trail
While this can be argued in many directions for average 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.
Good sources of protein for hiking meals and snacks while on a hiking trail can be quite tricky. This is why many will eat just enough protein based on what they want to carry via pack weight and less on what would be optimal for health.
The optimal protein intake that would stimulate 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 while you’re backpacking over the thousands of miles on 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.
Men’s Daily Protein Intake
|During Hiking Days
Women’s Daily Protein Intake
|During Hiking Days
As you can see above, it isn’t a crazy amount of protein you need for your health each day, but it will take good food choices and planning to ensure you have enough with you for multiple days out on the trail, allowing you to be able to last.
We will now tackle your energy needs as proteins can help you rebuild your body as it takes abuse non-stop, but you will need a good balance in foods that also provide energy to make it through days of bigger miles.
Powering Every Step: Planning Your Energy Needs
The next thing you have to think about after protein will be planning to provide enough raw energy to your body to power you through the good and bad days, the sun and the rain, and also maybe snow!
While carbohydrate offers a small, powerful punch with four calories per gram, you could expand your options by choosing fats, which contain nine calories per gram. This makes fat one of the best possible macros for energy.
On the trail, you will be burning through somewhere in the range of 2500 to 5000+ calories per day on average, which is a lot of calories to try and consume to balance energy use.
Then, depending on the terrain and distance you cover each day, you can face an energy crisis, meaning you need to replenish the calories consistently or face tanking.
One thing all backpackers will agree on is that managing your food weight is essential to help manage your backpack weight as longer hikes, and this weight can suck to carry.
Don’t Neglect Micronutrients: The Importance of Vitamins and Minerals
These are the more minor nutrients, or micronutrients, that make up the additional needs of your body for your overall health.
Many people will focus on the macronutrients and electrolytes, but your micronutrient intake should be focused on a long-duration physical workout like hiking.
Micronutrients can be divided into four types or categories: water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals.
Each fulfills specific needs to help your body run at peak performance:
These vitamins 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 creates 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
|Whole grains, meat, fish
|Organ meats, eggs, milk
|Meat, salmon, leafy greens, beans
|Organ meats, mushrooms, tuna, avocado
|Fish, milk, carrots, potatoes
|Eggs, almonds, spinach, sweet potatoes
|Beef, liver, black-eyed peas, spinach, asparagus
|Clams, fish, meat
|Citrus fruits, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts
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
|Retinol (liver, dairy, fish), carotenoids (sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach)
|Sunlight, fish oil, milk
|Sunflower seeds, wheat germ, almonds
|Leafy greens, soybeans, pumpkin
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
|Milk products, leafy greens, broccoli
|Salmon, yogurt, turkey
|Almonds, cashews, black beans
|Salt, processed foods, canned soup
|Seaweed, salt, celery
|Lentils, acorn squash, bananas
|Garlic, onions, Brussels sprouts, eggs, mineral water
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
|Oysters, white beans, spinach
|Pineapple, pecans, peanuts
|Liver, crabs, cashews
|Oysters, crab, chickpeas
|Seaweed, cod, yogurt
|Fruit juice, water, crab
|Brazil nuts, sardines, ham
Maintaining Electrolyte Balance Between Town Stops
Electrolytes are used constantly while you sweat and work out, 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 completing the workout in a thru-hike. This only comes consistently in town.
Many hikers choose only caloric intake and value as opposed to the 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.
This keeps balance with your body’s 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
- Loss of energy, drowsiness, and fatigue
- Restlessness and irritability
- Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
This is why you need to ensure 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 is frequently maintaining a balance with sodium in the body. When you have a lack or a large 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 we can lack on trail. Some other frequent signs include:
- A feeling of skipped heartbeats or palpitations
- Muscle damage
- Muscle weakness or spasms
- Tingling or numbness
Health.gov here has a large array of foods you should look at to get a good potassium value. I would suggest beans and other matches for hiking foods primarily.
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:
- muscle cramps
- muscle spasticity
- personality changes
- abnormal heart rhythms
Slimming Down Food Weight Without Sacrificing Nutrition
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 a calorie-to-weight ratio 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.
De-package and Declutter
Everyone has a favorite way to store the food they purchase from the stores while on a thru-hike, to more effectively carry it you will want to repackage and sort foods into manageable methods of access.
There are 2 trains of thought that are prevalent when it comes to repackaging your food for your hike. The first is to have a bag per day and you eat what is interesting but 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 afterward.
Many people leave the trail as hardcore sugar addicts who have issues letting go of the consistent sugar supply.