The Hiker’s Diet

“A hungry stomach seldom scorns plain food.”

~   Horace (65 BC – 8 BC)

Mealpack Bar

600th and final MealPack Bar of the 12 Long Walks.

Food tastes better in the outdoors. I guess it’s a combination of fresh air, beautiful surroundings and all that exercise you’re doing. It also represents the most regularly anticipated and most commonly fantasized about subject that occupies a hiker’s mind. Yep, even more than that other one.

In keeping with its exalted status, it stands to reason that no matter whether you are a gourmet, spartan or somewhere in between, food will play a significant role in your hiking plans.

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 (i.e. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet. Ideally, a balance should be struck between the following five elements:

  1. Quantity
  2. Quality
  3. Taste
  4. Variety
  5. Simplicity

Resupply Heaven | Castella, CA | Pacific Crest Trail, 2007

1.  Quantity

How much food you need depends on multiple factors such as metabolism, level of exertion, age, sex and climate (i.e. you need more in cold weather).

Your own personal experiences in the outdoors will ultimately be your best guide. As a general reference point, it is estimated that for three-season (i.e. summer, autumn, spring) conditions the average hiker should carry approximately 0.9 – 1 kg (2 – 2.2 lb) of food per day.

How that quantity is divided up will dictate your energy levels and ultimately your overall health whilst out on the trail.

The Breakdown

Food consists of three main elements: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. To achieve optimum hiking efficiency, we need to strike a balance between all three.

For extended hiking trips, nutritionist and long distance hiker, Dr. Brenda Braaten, Ph.D, recommends the following caloric breakdown: 45-55% carbs; 35-40% fats; 10-15% protein. For shorter hikes, where potential weight loss is not so much of an issue, you can decrease the amount of fatty foods you carry and increase the quantity of carbs and proteins.

Eat Small and Often

Snacking regularly (every one to two hours), as opposed to three big set meals a day, is conducive to a more efficient hiking approach. 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. Most importantly, by feeding your body small amounts at regular intervals, it is easier to maintain your energy levels throughout the hiking day. TIP: Keep your day’s snacks in a hip pocket and/or near the top of your pack for easy access.

Mid-morning breakfast break | Southwest Tasmania Traverse, 2016.

 2.   Quality          

When it comes to food, long-distance hikers can be a very demanding bunch. We want nutrition, but we want it to come in a compact, lightweight, easy to prepare, high caloric density package. Oh yes, preferably it should be economically priced as well.

For an in-depth overview of the nutritional side of backpacking foods, see Dr. Braaten’s excellent series of articles, Pack Light, Eat Right.

Fresh Foods

Whether on trail or off, fresh and organic foods will always be nutritionally superior and provide greater energy than processed and refined fare. Unfortunately, for backpacking purposes, fresh foods are generally heavy and have a limited use-by date. If you choose to carry fresh items, eat them in the first couple of days of your hike, thereby eliminating the heavier items straight off the bat. TIP: When leaving towns/resupply stops during longer hikes, whenever possible I try to pack out a bag of fruit and vegetables along with half a dozen boiled eggs.

Finding berries along the trail is always a welcome bonus | Salmonberry heaven in the Chuckanut Mounains, WA | Pacific Northwest Trail, 2011.

3.  Taste

Bring food that appeals to you. You may have ticked all the boxes in regards to nutrition, high-calorie density, and overall weight, but the fact is that if you don’t enjoy the items you have packed it’s like a metaphorical black cloud is looming over each and every meal. Find a balance.

4.  Variety

Unless you can subsist on the same food day after day (and some long-distance hikers do), plan on packing a variety of options. Don’t underestimate how easily you will become bored with certain foods.

5.  Simplicity

During extended treks, pack easy to prepare items (e.g. quick-cook pasta and dehydrated foods) which require little preparation time. At the end of a long day, you want to be spending your time eating and relaxing rather than slaving over a three-course feast. Even the most simple foods usually taste great when you are out in the wilderness…….especially when washed down by a couple of beers that your hiking buddy has secretly packed in.

Unexpected post-dinner beer | Gobi Desert | Mongolia, 2009.