When I first started researching backpacking and hiking food/meals, for our first trips, I was shocked by what most backpackers ate on trail. I watched many videos on Appalachian Trail through hikes (completing the whole trail) and watched as hikers refueled with candy, pop tarts, oreos and the infamous “ramen bomb” (see the video below).
The problem with focusing only on calories
The issue with hiking is trying to get enough calories and refueling lost carbohydrate stores. Hikers burn A LOT of calories each day. According to dietandfitnesstoday.com, the average man burns 672 calories per hour, while the average woman burns 577 calories per hour, while hiking. That’s at least 5000 calories per day or more. This estimate is on the low side. Some sites say it could be as high as 9000 calories per day. As a result, understandably, many hikers turn to quick sources of energy, aka: refined junk food and candy, to replenish energy. This results in a focus solely on calories, ignoring the all important vitamins and minerals.
Hiking/backpacking, like all exercise, is hard on the body and requires proper nutrients to heal, not just calories. While hikers absolutely need calories during a hike, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plant based nutrients) are also needed, and are just as important, to help us heal muscles and and bones from the impact of hiking. Actually, one could argue that nutrients are actually MORE important? WHY? The human body can make energy (calories) from fat stores. However, almost ALL nutrients are “essential”, which means our body CAN NOT make them, but must acquire them from outside food.
Sugar is an anti-nutrient
While this refined food is a quick and easy way to bulk up calorie intake on a hike, it takes a tremendous toll on the human body. When you consume refined food/sugar, you actually DEPLETE the body of much needed nutrients. The body has to use precious stores of nutrients to process the refined sugar and many chemicals in refined junk food, leaving fewer nutrients to heal the body. So, by eating refined foods to replenish calories, hikers hit their body with a double nutrient depleting whammy. First, their body uses nutrient stores to heal the body. Second, their body uses nutrient stores to digest the refined junk food they’ve been ingesting.
If you watch enough Appalachian trail through hike videos, you’ll hear through hikers say they crave big salads when they spend time in town. This isn’t just because they miss eating vegetables, as many hikers believe. Your body craves what it needs: vitamins and minerals. Normally, the main point of eating is two fold, calories and nutrients. Eating mainly refined food on a hike, will indeed give you calories, but at the cost of depleting nutrient stores, not adding to them.
Starting the day right
Now that we’ve established why avoiding refined food on trail is important, some may be asking “okay smartie, what SHOULD I eat?” Always try to eat food as close to nature as possible. On short day hikes or hikes lasting a few days, this is relatively easy. However, long through hikes are more difficult, due to the need to resupply in towns.
Here’s my 2 general rules when buying processed or packaged food:
- Try to buy food with 5 ingredients or less.
- You should be able to easily read all ingredients. If you can’t read it, don’t eat it.
When you’re getting ready to put your body through the paces of a long day of backpacking, filling your body with calories and nutrients are super important. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
6 ideas to start your day right on the trail.
Blueberry Chocolate Smoothie (Trail.Recipe)
Yes, it’s possible to have a smoothie on the trail without a blender. This genius recipe uses powdered ingredients. Prep ingredients into a ziplock bag at home. Pour ingredients int a mug or bottle, add water at camp, shake/stir and let it stand for 5-10 minutes. (Break down your camp while you wait.) You can drink it while you hike.
Backpacking Oatmeal (Amanda Outside)
Oatmeal is really the perfect food for backpacking: quick, easy, healthy and filling. My better half and I like to prep it the night before. We add water to our oats before we go to bed, and breakfast is ready when we wake up. Get creative! You can make your own “instant oats” that are a much healthier option than store bought varieties.
These recipes from Amanda Outside, have you adding water in the morning. Prep it which ever way works for you. Follow the link to her website for 3 recipes: Vanilla Almond Berry, Tropical Pineapple Coconut, and Dark Chocolate Peanutbutter. Just put the ingredients into a ziplock bag at home, then, on the trail, add your oats to a mug or soaking container.
Spinach, Mushroom & Goat Cheese Brekkie Bowl (Outside Eats)
The recipes at Outside Eats, with Chef Corso, are the best, in my opinion. Most recipes are made with fresh ingredients, when possible. This recipe includes fresh mushrooms, sourdough bread, spinach, goat cheese and either powdered or regular eggs. (Serves two with a pack weight of approximately 8.5 oz) This recipe does require your burner, but is ready in less than 5 minutes.
Cheesy Potatoes (Andrew Skurka)
You don’t have to limit yourself to grits, oatmeal or smoothies every day. Here’s a breakfast using instant potatoes, cheese, butter and chiles. It requires your burner, but will be ready in less than 5 minutes.
Breakfast Quesadilla (Jet Boil)
Like Outside Eats, this recipes uses fresh ingredients. It takes a burner, but ready in just a few minutes. It’s a great way to start your trail day!
Coconut Chocolate Granola Recipe (REI)
Who doesn’t love granola? This is a “prep at home” recipe, then put it in a ziplock bag and bring it along. Many backpackers make pre-portioned bags and add dried milk. Then, on the trail, you put it in a mug and add water. Trail cereal! Here’s a quick video showing how to make it. This is a nice change from standard oatmeal.