Fueling for Day Hikes
Nutrition for hiking is something we see people make mistakes with by either overcomplicating it and bringing too much food, underestimating how much one should eat, or choosing types of food that simply aren’t as optimal for a day hike (like protein bars, veggies, and low-carb snacks).
Why Hiking Nutrition is Important
The short and sweet bottom line: you need to be fueled and alert out on the trail so that you don’t get lost, hurt, etc. You do not want to end up dizzy or tired to the point where you aren’t paying attention to what you are doing, where you are going, or how you are moving... as that is how you epic (or worse). You need to be fueled up and alert when on trail! The time to cut calories is not when you’re on a long hike. Period.
Now that we have that very important bit out of the way, let's get down to business!
When planning a hike and trying to determine how much food to bring, don’t be too concerned about total mileage or vert. Be most concerned with how long the hike is going to take you and how hard that hike will be for you.
If going on a quick hour-long hike, you can bring a little something to snack on if you want to, but it’s not totally necessary. Nutrition becomes more important on 90-minute plus hikes that require energy in order to sustain you throughout your send!
Once you determine how long a hike is going to take you, there are some considerations when planning how much, how often, and what to eat...
Plan on eating between 200-300 calories per hour. If it’s a harder hike – meaning more vert or tougher terrain – aim for 300-cals/hour marker. If it is an easier hike, aim for 200/hour. Let’s say you’re going out on a 6-hour hike that’s rated difficult; you are going to want to try bring about 1,800 calories with you. Where as an easy 4-hour hike would require planning and binging 800 calories.
If you have no idea how long a hike is going to take you, you can roughly calculate how many miles per hour you’re going to move. People hike anywhere from 15-40 minute miles depending on fitness, terrain, altitude, weather, pack weight, etc. Do some simple math to guess how long a hike will take you based on your level of hiking fitness, the terrain, and anticipated conditions. But don’t overthink it too much!
Don't go over that 300-cal/hour mark, as it is just not necessary since you can eat a big meal before and after a day hike. The heavier your pack is, the more it’s going to slow you down no matter how fit you are. You can move so much faster even when your pack is just one pound lighter, believe it or not! Also, this is good practice for overnight trips!
We see people go 2-3 hours without eating on a hike because they don’t feel ready for food, but then they start to get really tired or cranky. This is because even though they don’t feel hungry, their body wants energy. With that said, do NOT wait to eat until you’re hungry. We suggest setting an alarm on your phone for every 60-90 minutes to remind yourself to eat 200-300 calories.
- When planning out food, try bringing both denser things and lighter things, then alternate every 60-90 minutes based on hunger. You don’t have to do it this way, but that’s just what works for us! Also make sure to bring a combination of sweet and savory items because you never know what you’ll feel like having once you are on the trail.
If you plan an all-day hike, lunch is something to consider. In this case, it might not be realistic to just eat snacks the entire time, especially since you can bring better food on day hikes than you can on overnight trips. But remember that a meal won’t digest as quickly as a snack will, which means you might feel slow or lethargic if you don’t give yourself a little time before hitting the trail again. If you’re hiking to a summit, a lake, or some sort of destination, packing a lunch is a great idea! It’s way more enjoyable to stop and eat a meal than it is to pound three snack bars. (Leftover cold pizza is our favorite).
- If you have the time and ability, eat a big breakfast before you head out for a big hike! Just make sure you have at least an hour before you hit the trail to digest. If you won’t have that option, make sure you eat a super carb heavy meal the night before a big hike.
When you hike, blood is moving away from your stomach into your legs, which will make you feel not super hungry. Altitude will also reduce your hunger (and thirst). “Hiker hunger” isn't going to set in at night, or even a day or two later depending on the difficulty of the hike. This is why you need to eat even when you’re not hungry; you’re still burning energy and need to replace it. This is where high-carbohydrate, quick-digesting snacks come into play.
Ok now let's get to the good part... WHAT to eat
CARBS ARE YOUR HIKING BFF!!!
The last thing you want is to bonk on the trail. This is why you NEED to bring carbs. We see a lot of newer hikers bring protein bars which are fine, but truthfully those calories are best served as carbs and fat – mostly carbs. You can increase the fat if you have a longer day planned. If you’re going out for a couple hours, you don’t really need to worry about protein. Protein is not going to fuel you on the trail - eat that after you hike to help repair your muscles!
Now let’s get down to the part that everyone wants to hear - what exactly should you bring?
→ Chews or gummies of any kind are great, but you can’t only eat these. We promise you don’t want a belly full of sugar when you’re hiking. Try to stay in the 40-60 grams of carbs per snack realm. These are going to be super-fast digesting so they’re great to throw down when you’re hitting a wall:
- Sour Patch Kids, Skittles, Hi-Chews, Gummy Bears, etc.
→ Goos aren’t just for running! If you have a hard time eating/chewing while hiking for whatever reason, gels are a great way to carbs and cals down easily.
Honey Stinger Gel (as an alternative, we really love the Honey Stinger Waffles)
Spring Energy Gel (made with more whole ingredients)
→ Meal bars or food that is denser/heavier or has more calories!
- Clif Bars
Beef jerky, salami, cheese, sandwich/wrap
Split (almond butter and jam in one)
- Trail Mix, nuts, etc.
Fruit jerky/leathers, dried or freeze dried fruit
- Chips, cereal, Corn Nuts, crackers, cookies, rice krispy treats, granola
→ Juice! We never really were juice drinkers until we started bringing Natalie’s Juices with us after we partnered with them for a branding photoshoot on a ski tour. Now we almost always take one with us!
→ Fresh fruit: Fresh fruit carries a lot of water which is a nice bonus for hydration. We really like kiwi when hiking because they’re small and you can eat the skin (is that weird?!). Also, bananas, apples, and dried fruit are good options and easier to pack. Just be aware that they will make your pack heavier. We don’t recommend carrying it all day so eat it sooner rather than later. *Note: You CANNOT leave your apple cores, banana or orange peels or any kind of food in the backcountry. Just because they are plants doesn’t mean they are natural in the backcountry ecosystem. Bring an extra stuff sack or Ziploc bag and pack out your food scraps.
Personally, we don’t see any point in bringing vegetables on the trail because they’re not going to provide you any calories to sustain you. If you really want to bring something like veggies and hummus with lunch, that’s definitely doable in a Tupperware container. But we suggest crackers and hummus instead!
Most med kits come with electrolyte powders in case of a dehydration emergency but bring something extra with you if you are worried about hydration for whatever reason. If you have a hard time drinking water, something like Liquid IV can help with that since it tastes good. If you are going to have to ration your water because you are hiking somewhere with no water source to refill, electrolytes will help keep you hydrated. If you are hiking in the heat, electrolytes will help with heat stress.
Some hydration supplements (aka electrolytes) we like and recommend:
- Liquid IV
- GU Drink Tabs
- GU Drink Tabs
- Salt Stick products
Packing Your Food
Pack your snacks in a small dry bag (Ziplock, Stasher, stuff sack, etc) so that your food is all safely in one place. You will know what you have, what’s left, and can visualize it and be responsible with snack eating this way. Plus, you can put your wrappers back into it and not have any loose trash floating around your pack. We also like putting things that are easy to eat while walking in our hip belt pockets – like chews and candy – that are easy to eat on the go.
Why bringing a little extra food isn't a bad idea...
Obviously, we’ve seen our fair share of shit in the backcountry now, so we feel obligated and responsible to prepare you for all situations that could arise.
- Let’s just say nothing happens to you – you’re fine and your group knows what you’re doing. However, you come across someone who broke their ankle on the trail. They’re alone or with one other person, they don’t know what they’re doing, and didn’t bring food. Maybe they have to wait an hour or two for help. Having extra food (and safety gear for that matter) isn’t as much about an emergency for you as it is for helping others who aren’t as prepared or experienced. This isn’t meant to scare anyone but bring extra snacks! Whether it’s you or someone else who gets into a bind, you’ll be really happy you have them.
- Maybe you’re just hoofing it one day and decide that you want to go a little further than you planned - now you have enough fuel for that! There have been times where we didn’t go as far as we would have liked because we didn’t have enough water or food.
By: Krissy Harclerode & Whitney Doiron