Thru Hiker’s Eating Strategy
Strategy: No Weight Loss
Backpacking consumes a high amount of calories. In general, you will need to consume 2,000 calories for easier hiking and 4,500+ calories for difficult terrain or cold weather to avoid weight loss.
Most backpackers are not climbing up mountains all day, but rather gradually ascending and descending. Therefore, let’s assume that the average hiker will burn approximately 3,500 calories per day. This means you will need to consume this many calories over the course of each day to maintain your body weight.
Tips for Consuming Extra Calories
1. Snack Frequently!
This simple suggestion is often overlooked. Munching throughout the day on high calorie, healthy snacks such as trail mix (GORP), granola, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and energy bars while hiking will keep your caloric needs maintained.
- Energy Bars – we like those made by LÄRABAR. These vegan-friendly, wholesome bars are made from only fruit and nut ingredients, resulting in a variety of chewy flavor combinations. All bars are 200+ calories per 1.7 ounce bar except the Apple bar (190 calories). The highest calorie bars are the ginger (240 calories) and cashew cookie (230 calories). LÄRABAR: minimal, nutritious, delicious! Learn how to make your own Larabars.
- GORP & Granola – the possibilities are endless. Find or make one you like and enjoy! Here is an excellent Granola Recipe which we make with a few substitutions (to make it healthier and vegan). Our substitutions: use ground flax seed instead of wheat germ, substitute brown rice syrup for honey, use coconut oil for the vegetable oil.
- Backpacking Finger Food – we’re always making something new in Outdoor Herbivore land. Check out the latest high-calorie snacks.
2. Add “Extra” Fat Calories to Meals
Consume a greater amount of fat to make up for lost calories from hiking. Fat is the most calorie (energy) dense food there is, providing 9 calories per gram, which makes up more than the combined calories of protein (4 calories per gram) and carbohydrate (4 calories per gram).
Not all fats are good. The good fats come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish.The two categories of beneficial fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Pack these healthy, high-fat foods to get the highest number of calories for the least amount of weight –
- Unsaturated Fats – Unsaturated fats from vegetable and nut sources include olive oil, vegetable oils (safflower, corn, sunflower), nuts, seeds, powdered peanut butter, and nut butter (cashew, almond, sunflower). The packets of olive oil are handy for backpacking. See also our tips for packing bottles of oil.
- Polyunsaturated Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Chia seed – excellent for endurance and long-term storage (4 – 5 years). Unlike flax, chia can be ground and stored without refrigeration. Use within 6 months after grinding or (2 years if refrigerated/frozen). Add chia seeds to oatmeal, cold cereal, and drinks. The seeds are gelatinous because they contain soluble fiber; they become gummy as they absorb water, but will retain a bit of crunch.
- Flaxseed (ground) – grind the seeds right before your trip to prevent oxidation and spoilage, which occurs quickly. Ground flax seed provides the maximum nutritional benefit. Add ground flax to soups and oatmeal.
- Sesame seed – Add to pasta, rice, or top on a trail sprout salad. Smear Instant hummus powder made with ground sesame on tortilla. Try making gomasio, a ground sesame seed seasoning by toasting sesame seeds and adding some salt and seaweed (optional) for rice and soup meals.
- Hemp seed – use the same way as flax seed, but no need to grind. Taste great with oatmeal.
- Soybeans (tempeh, tofu) – the dried forms can be found at Asian grocery stores or online. Purchase soy that is organic or non-GMO.
- Wakame (dried sea vegetable) – can also be found in Asian grocery stores. Adds a sweet flavor to soups and rice dishes.
- Nuts – such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, and pecans provide great flavor when added to trail snacks, pasta dishes, and oatmeal.
Also, refer to our list of high-calorie vegetarian fats. A diet high in fat is not dangerous to a hiker’s health because it gets used by the body for energy while hiking.
Fish for Omega-3? Not Recommended
We are a vegetarian food company, so our opinions may be biased here. Regardless, here are some facts that support our opinion:
Over 70% of the world’s fish population is severely depleted due to overfishing. Many sources recommend eating fish 2-3x per week for the Omega 3 benefit. The popularity of this advice has helped contributed to over consumption.
Fish farming (like factory farming) fulfills present demand, but has many negative consequences – surrounding water is polluted with concentrated fish waste, antibiotics, and diseased fish. The result is a cheap-to-buy, tasteless fish with inferior nutrition.
If you eat fish, instead of factory farmed fish, purchase wild-caught cold water fatty fish (or fish you catch yourself) for an occasional treat. Cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies are high in healthy omega-3 fat. Print out the pocket guide to seafood to help you choose ocean-friendly seafood near you. For backpacking, look for foil packets of tuna fish – if you must. Otherwise, stick to the plant-based omega-3 sources above.
3. Consume Healthy Carbs & Protein
Carbohydrates, which include starch, sugar, and fiber, are the body’s primary source of energy. We get 4 calories from each gram of starch (or sugar). Fiber does not provide calories because we can not break it down during digestion. Nonetheless, consuming high-fiber foods while thru-hiking is important because it helps maintain healthy gastrointestinal function and makes us feel full longer.
Refined sugar, common in candy and baked goods is called an “empty calorie” food because it provides calories in the form of sugar, but no nutrients. Focus on consuming carbohydrates (starches) primarily from whole grain sources. These take longer to digest in the body which means they’ll give you gradual energy throughout the day.
Proteins are necessary for growth and tissue repair. Proteins provide 4 calories per gram.
- Sweet Calories – look for organic dried fruits and naturally harvested sugars (maple sugar granules, honey, cane sugar).
- Fast Cooking Grains and Pulses – such as couscous, vermicelli pasta, instant brown rice, split lentils, dehydrated beans, and quinoa.
- Milk Powders – soy milk and full-fat dairy. ‘Nestle Nido’ is a popular full-fat dried milk. Many of the other instant milk powder brands are non-fat. ‘Better than Milk’ makes a great tasting instant soy beverage.
See also Vegetarian Backpacking Foods for additional suggestions.
4. Eat 3 Large Meals per Day
If you purchase commercial backpacking meals, make sure the portions are adequate. Plan to eat twice the amount that you eat at home. You may want to test out the meals at home first to make sure you like the taste.
- Calories to Weight – select meals that will provide you the “lightest bang for your buck.” Compare the calorie per unit of weight, not just the cost! Generally, 100 calories/ounce is a good ratio; supplement with the extra fat calories mentioned above as needed.
- Check Ingredients – many food manufacturers cut costs by adding cheap fillers to food products. These meals will not provide the sustained energy levels you will need for a thru hike. These fillers are often simple carbs, which will leave you feeling hungry and tired (even miserable) later.
- Check Sodium – would you dump the entire salt shaker to your meal at home? Stay clear of any meal that contains more than 1000 mg of sodium per serving. The guideline for healthy adults is to consume no more than 5.8 grams of salt per day (2300 mg sodium, about 1.25 tsp) to replace the amount lost daily through sweat.
5. Drink High-Calorie Beverages
Consume drinks that are higher in calories such as shakes, smoothies, and fruit juices instead of always drinking plain water.
- Fruit Drink – make your own fruit drink from dried fruit by soaking it in water as you hike.
- Hot Drink – treat yourself to a cup of hot chocolate or hot apple cider as part of your evening routine. Have a cup o’ joe in the morning. Nescafe Classico is ok; Starbucks VIA tastes great.
- Alcohol – reward yourself with alcohol in town because 1 gram of alcohol provides 7 calories. Beer is an excellent source of calories, between 150 – 200 calories per 12 oz. A margarita is even better – around 700 calories!
6. Fatten Up Before Your Thru Hike
The body depends on burning calories from fat stores once it burns through carbohydrates from foods. We seem to have an unlimited storage capacity for fat, making it our largest reserve of energy. Start adding fat calories to your diet before you plan your thru-hike. Eat the foods listed above and have that extra beer.
We can’t help to notice how many thru-hikers we meet that look emaciated. This goes without saying, but make sure you eat as much as you can when you resupply in town or take a zero day.
For those of you that have some spare fat to lose, read on.
Strategy: Weight Loss
It takes 3,500 calories to lose one pound. In other words, one pound of body fat equates to approximately 3500 calories. To lose 1 lb of fat each week, you will need to burn off 500 additional calories each day.
500 x 7 = 3500
As a result, a 1000 per day calorie deficit will allow you to lose 2 pounds per week. This number is considered the maximum amount of weight you should lose to stay healthy. Consume about 2000-2500 calories per day if you are backpacking at an average rate (3000 calories) to lose 1 – 2 lbs per week.
If you are trying to lose weight while hiking, be sure to consume enough complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are needed to restore glycogen (muscle fuel), which is the energy you’ll need to continue your hike.
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