This Spring, I’ve been experimenting with foods and nutritional science to improve on-trail diet and help me carry less food weight during my backpacking trips. The justification for this was simple: A better diet means less food to get the nutrition I need, meaning less weight carried on my back, which means being able to walk further.
I’ve noticed on hikes that a diet loaded in sugar (hiker favorites include Poptarts and Snickers) can lead to crashing (aka “hitting the wall,” “bonking,” and “pooping out”). I usually burn through high sugar energy after an hour and then am hungry again, even if I just downed 500 calories! As a result, I end up needing to eat more and eat more often—and thus carry more food.
While there’s lots of info on the Internet about fat loss associated with long slow distance exercise (aptly named LSD)—essentially what thru-hiking is—it’s a bit harder to find info about eating fat. In fact, googling long slow distance just results in a lot of Crossfitters hating on LSD and calling it boring (Guess what? I think what they do is boring compared to thru-hiking).
Birds, whales, and pretty much every other animal relies on stored fat to go on migrations—again, essentially what thru-hiking is. It turns out that not just stored fats, but also high fat diets may improve endurance in long slow distance activities.
Like all things, nutrition on trail requires a balance. Some marathoners recommend balancing your diet with 50% carbohydrates 30% fat, and 20% protein. But frankly, a lot of hikers walk farther than marathoners, and we certainly do it slower. In fact, our goals are different than most runners; we’re not trying to beat times, lose fat, or even build muscle. We’re out there to have a good time, see some nature, and not feel like garbage while we’re doing it. Since our goals, speed, and distances are different than marathoners, our nutrition should be slightly differed, too. At least one nutritionist suggests that for thru-hikers to meet our goals, the hiking diet should contain 35%-40% fat.
The best suggestion I’ve found anywhere is that thru-hikers should eat foods that our stomachs can actually hold down. Getting food—any food—to your stomach is better than having a pack full of all the “right stuff” and not eating it (that, or puking it up—that’s bad too).
Along those lines, while nuts and seeds are considered a thru-hiker staple, I’ve been eating the same boring fatty foods for enough seasons that downing this “typical hiker fare” feels like the proverbial “eating my vegetables”—I do it because it’s good for me, not because I like it.
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a few high fat foods that take a twist that proms them up and makes them amazingly delicious. Like, I keep coming back for them delicious and can’t wait to have more. Sure, there’s a little sugar in these, but not anything near the usual hiker favorites—Little Debbies, Homerun Pies, or even many bars.
These food items pack out easily, have a great calorie to ounce ratio, and taste awesome enough that I can’t wait to down my daily fat:
I took this on a dayhike where I was just starving all the way to the top of the mountain. In fact, I’d been starving when I started. I had one 2 oz bag to share between two people. Amazingly, the fat—or something—in these chips made me feel immediately full and satiated afterwards. That would’ve never worked with 1 oz (ok, maybe I ate more than my fair share…) of any food I’ve hiked with before. Future plans involve carrying nothing but these coconut chips to trick my thru-hiking body into fullness.
For people like me who are highly food motivated, sometimes food serves more than just fuel for a hiker’s body, but also for a hiker’s inquisitiveness.With flavors like Maple Masala Kettle Roasted Pecans and Cinnamon Cayenne Almonds, these nuts are never boring. I first discovered these at OR last year, and horde them whenever I find them on sale. They’re definitely pricier than the usual roasted nut, but come in such intriguing flavors that they never sit at the bottom of my pack and actually become a huge incentive that has gotten me through some big climbs. I wasn’t sure what a Mango Chipotle almond tasted like, but my curiosity got me pushing over the next bump.
As a person who is allergic to peanuts and hazelnuts, it’s really hard to find nut butters that come in anything but plain or creamy. Once again, the crazy flavors are a winner for me, from the Breakfast of Champions Vanilla Espresso Almond Butter to the Maple Sunflower Butter. The butter comes in plastic jars (a must for backpacking) and they are also available in single serving squeeze packs for dayhikes or backpackers who enjoy the easy clean up. There’s pretty awesome peanut butter flavors like Honey Pretzel Peanut Butter or Cinnamon Raisin for those who can eat them without dying.
I’ve taken this tasty standby on two urban thru-hikes in areas where I knew the only food I would find would be fast, fried, and disgusting. I wanted instead to carry a food in my urban hiking pack that would be tasty and fatty enough that I’d be able to say “no” to the temptation of the abundant town food nearby, but also something a heck of a lot more nutritious. I can’t say I enjoy hemp seeds or pepitas raw—I’ve just eaten waaaay too many of them. I don’t know what Navitas did to these seeds, but it took a lot of resistance not to eat the entire pack in one sitting. Delicious—and at 170 calories per ounce, it makes a perfect trail food, even when you’re not walking right through town.
This carries more calories per ounce than the hiker-favorite, olive oil, while also having a subtler taste. I’ve met numerous thru-hikers who’ve downed so much olive oil that they gag at the sight of it in a hiker box. Avocado oil mixes well with breakfast drinks like the hiker favorite Carnation Instant Breakfast without making it taste like dinner.