Trail Food Makeover: How to Eat for Optimal Energy & Endurance

Besides gear, there are few other topics hikers like to discuss as much as food. The ins and outs of resupplying are often one of a hiker’s primary concerns before embarking on any long distance trail. In this 2 part series, we break down the before and after diet changes to optimize performance, as well as compare cost, calorie density, and overall nutrition.

This ‘trail food makeover’ is a collaboration between Chris and Katie. In 2017, Chris hiked the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) eating wh

at most would consider a typical ‘thru-hiker’ diet (i.e. cheap, highly-processed foods). How did he feel? He had days where he felt great, and days where he felt completely fatigued, especially towards the end of the hike. Chris recalls one particularly rough day:

It was barely noon, and he felt lethargic, like he was in “zombie-mode”. He kept pushing through, but finally had to stop for an early dinner around 4 pm. He gorged himself because he was so hungry.

That day was an eye-opener, and he thought, “Man, I’m not doing something right here.” He wasn’t sure whether his resupplies contained enough calories, he lost a lot of weight, and by the end of the trail he was feeling worn down. Read more about his hike here.

Enter Katie. As a nutritionist, health coach, and fellow long distance hiker, Katie understands the specific concerns of thru hikers and the physical demands of a long distance hike on the body. After working through adrenal fatigue and autoimmune issues herself, Katie now helps other hikers fuel for optimal energy, endurance and performance with meal planning, personalized coaching, and through her website.

continental divide trail

Heading into the 2018 hiking season, Chris knew he needed to revamp his trail diet to have the energy necessary for hiking big miles and climbing peaks. His goal was to eat for sustained, consistent energy throughout the day, and to make sure he was getting enough calories, and the right kind of calories, for long term health.

In this post, Chris breaks down what his diet looked like on the CDT, and Katie adds insight into what he could change to eat for improved energy, endurance, and optimal performance.

Chris:

In April of 2017 I was brand new to thru-hiking. I planned to thru-hike the CDT and my preparations were constantly on my mind. One of my biggest concerns was resupply. Would I have to send myself resupply boxes? How much food would I need? What would I eat? What foods would last on trail?

The logistics of food resupply quickly sorted themselves out once I was actually on trail. I spoke to fellow thru hikers who had way more experience than I did. I pieced together bits of their resupply strategies to create my own. (Nobody I met ate what might be considered a “healthy” trail diet). Before long I was carrying a food bag of what might be considered a thru hiker’s traditional resupply: Snickers, cheese, summer sausage, rice sides, chips of varying kinds, and candy.

After 2,000+ miles of hiking, I had dialed in my food plan.  Below is what I ate in a typical day on trail.

Katie:

Remember, you don’t have to completely overhaul your diet all at once. Nor do you have to give up all your favorite foods. Even small improvements, substitutions, and tweaks can make a big impact on your health and how you feel. Below are my suggestions for how Chris can meet his energy goals by adjusting his diet.

continental divide trail desert

Breakfast

Chris:

I typically start my day around 5:30-6:00 am. The night before I usually filled a powerade bottle ¾ of the way full with water, add an instant coffee pouch and a Swiss Miss hot chocolate pouch, then give it a good shake. I’d wake up to a nice, cool, caffeinated drink in the morning.  

I’d also eat a 20-gram protein bar from either Power Bar or Gatorade. This temporarily eased my immediate hunger upon waking. I’d also eat a caffeine-containing Clif Bar (Mint Chocolate or Toffee Buzz). Another part of my morning food intake became cookies, most often Nutter Butters!

Here was the breakfast breakdown:

  • Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Packet
  • Starbucks Via Instant Coffee Packet
  • Either a Power Bar or Gatorade Bar containing 20g of protein
  • Clif Bar containing caffeine
  • 5-6 Nutter Butter cookies

Katie:

When eating to sustain energy levels throughout the day, I find that many hikers feel best starting the day with fat and protein. By eating a lot of sugar first thing in the morning, you may feel an initial surge of energy as glucose enters the bloodstream, but you’ll soon experience a “crash” as insulin shuttles glucose into cells and blood glucose levels rapidly decline. This is experienced as bonking, fatigue, and hitting the wall. For more sustained energy, consider fat and protein, which do not spike glucose and insulin levels as much, thereby giving you longer-lasting energy without the crash.

For Chris, I suggest cutting back on the sugar at breakfast and increasing healthy fats. By healthy fat, I’m referring to saturated fat and unsaturated fat from whole foods, as opposed to the harmful trans fats found in many commercial products.

Chris can keep his instant coffee drink, but consider having it black, with powdered full fat coconut milk, or even with just half the Swiss Miss packet. He’s doing great by eating a bar with at least 20g of protein first thing. This will help satiate him. Ideally, if he can find one with fewer processed ingredients, he can further reduce inflammation. Finally, rather than reaching for artificial energy with the caffeine Clif Bars and sugary cookies, Chris could save himself stress on his adrenals, and fuel with healthy fats instead.

Makeover:

hiker eating

Snacks/Lunch

Chris:

I’ll start by saying I never had a specific lunch-type meal. Instead, I carried several snacks to munch on throughout the day during several short breaks, rather than taking a longer lunch break. So, from the time I broke down camp until the time I stopped to cook dinner, it was all about a variety of snack foods!

Here is what I snacked on:

  • Chips
    • Ranch Doritos
    • Pringles
    • Cheetos
    • Fritos
    • Frito Twists
  • Bars
    • Nature Valley
    • Power Bars
    • Pro Bars
    • Beef Jerky
    • Slim Jims

Katie:

Most of Chris’s snacks are highly-processed foods, consisting of simple carbs. Many of these foods have preservatives, artificial colorings, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup, which can all create inflammation. This leads to greater fatigue, as the body tries to keep up with the physical demands of hiking all day coupled with the demands of combating chronic inflammation. Also, relying solely on simple carbs without adequate protein and healthy fats will keep Chris on the blood sugar roller coaster of energy swings.

Snacking throughout the day can be a great way to maintain energy, and carbohydrates are essential for fueling a long distance hike; however, I’d suggest choosing more whole food sources, and pairing them with protein, fat, and fiber for stable blood sugar. For chips, look for varieties with less than 5 ingredients, ideally without vegetable oils, such as canola (though that can be hard to find). For jerky, look for grass-fed sources, raised without antibiotics, with no added nitrates, MSG, or gluten.

Makeover:

  • Other
    • Granola, ideally homemade (higher in nuts/seeds, low in added sugars)
    • Nut/seed butters, such as peanut, almond, sunflower, without added sugars or oils
    • Dried Fruit
    • Nuts & Seeds
    • Homemade trail mix, with dried fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut, chocolate chips, etc. (Go down the bulk bin aisle and choose your favorites for endless variety)

trail

Dinner

Chris:

I would tend to stop and cook my one hot meal of the day around 5:30pm. I often ate a Knorr rice side or Idahoan dehydrated potatoes with chunks of cheese and summer sausage. After dinner I’d continue to hike on and treat myself to some candy when I set up my camp for the night.

My Usual Dinner Options:

  • Various Flavors of Rice Sides
  • Various Flavors of Pasta Sides
  • Various Flavors of Idahoans
  • Cheese
  • Summer Sausage
  • Skittles

Katie:
Chris could upgrade his dinners by looking for less processed versions of these staples, which would help keep inflammation lower. Consuming carbs at the end of the day helps restore muscle glycogen, so he’ll be ready to hike again the following day. Having protein with those carbs can further aid in restoring muscle glycogen. Aiming for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein works well for many athletes. Additionally, I would suggest adding in a healthy fat, such as olive oil or coconut oil, to help replenish calories and aid in satiation. Chris’s diet also contains virtually no fruits or veggies, so I would suggest adding dehydrated veggies to his dinner and/or a greens powder sometime during his day. Dinner is also a great place to add in spices, which can boost the overall nutrition and antioxidant content of his meal. Finally, I would swap out the highly processed skittles, for a dessert such as dried fruit or dark chocolate, which are loaded with the antioxidants your body desperately needs to repair.

Makeover:

  • Rice noodles (just the noodles, without the preservatives)
  • Couscous
  • Instant Potato Flakes (just the potatoes, without preservatives, like this one)
  • Dehydrated Veggies
  • Cheese
  • Summer Sausage (grass fed sources)
  • Coconut Oil
  • Olive Oil
  • Spices such as garlic powder, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne
  • Dark Chocolate  (85% cacao or higher)
  • Dried fruit

In part 2, we’ll discuss how these resupplies compare in terms of calories, macronutrients, and nutrition. We’ll discuss the importance of considering both calorie dense and nutrient dense foods and compare common options. We’ll look at the weight of each of these resupplies, and finally, we’ll address the all-important concern of price and budget when it comes to the standard thru-hiker diet versus the healthier thru-hiker diet.

To follow Chris’s progress this year as he takes on the JMT and LT, subscribe to his blog here and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Download a free copy of Katie’s “Eat for Endurance” ebook here for more ideas on how to eat for sustained energy. Learn more about her private coaching, meal planning services, and read more of her articles here. Follow her adventures in the kitchen and in the outdoors on Facebook and Instagram.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up here to be the first to know when a new post comes out!

Please share this post!

Natural Remedies for Bug Bites & Stings

mosquito

Summer is just around the corner, which for many of us means more time spent outside. As any gardener or outdoor enthusiast knows, it’s likely just a matter of time until you have an unpleasant encounter with an  insect that bites or stings. The effect can range from slight annoyance to infections and even disease. Some of the most common biting or stinging bugs are mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, bees, chiggers, black flies, horse flies, and deer flies.

bees

Natural remedies can be a great alternative to bug sprays which contain chemicals such as DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) and permethrin. DEET has been linked to many harmful effects, including impaired cell function in the brain, memory loss, tremors, shortness of breath, headache, and joint pain. Excessive exposure to permethrin can cause nausea, headache, muscle weakness, excessive salivation, shortness of breath, and seizures.

‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ as the saying goes, and when it comes to bug bites, this is no less true. Several plant essential oils are useful for their insect-repellent properties. A few of the most common ones include pennyroyal, cedarwood, citronella, eucalyptus, cinnamon leaf oil, and catnip oil. These can be added to water to create a bug spray. Note, pennyroyal should be avoided by pregnant women. Alternatively, citronella candles are commonly available. When purchasing essential oils, look for high quality therapeutic grade oils. Here’s where I get mine.

If you do your best to keep bugs at bay, but still end up with a bite or sting, the primary goals become soothing inflammation, reducing pain, and healing the skin in order to prevent infection. The following herbs can be helpful in this instance.

mint

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Peppermint oil or crushed leaves are cooling and can provide temporary relief from itchy or inflamed bites.

Plantain (Plantago Major)

Fresh plantain leaf can be used to provide immediate pain relief for insect bites and stings. To make a poultice, fresh plantain leaf can be mixed with bentonite clay and water to form a paste. Alternatively, a leaf can be chewed and placed directly over the inflamed area.

calendula

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula oil or fresh leaves can soothe irritated, itchy skin, and can aid in healing bites and stings. A simple salve can be created with calendula, beeswax, and antiseptic essential oils, such as tea tree, rosemary, and lavender.

salve

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Comfrey infused oil or fresh juice from leaves can be used topically to treat many skin conditions, including rashes, scrapes, and wounds. For bites and stings, it can reduce inflammation and relieve itching.

tincture

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis)

Witch hazel distillate is commonly available at pharmacies and is approved by the FDA as an over-the-counter remedy for relieving minor skin irritations. Create an itch-relieving poultice by mixing 3 parts baking soda with 1.5 parts witch hazel.

These remedies are made with easily found herbs and ingredients. It’s wise to keep a few (or all) on hand, especially in the summer months, when those bites, stings, scrapes, and scratches inevitably occur.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to be the first to know when new blogs are posted!

Please share this post!

Coconut Maca Energy Bites

maca bites

I recently prepared an unusual resupply box for a friend who is currently thru-hiking. This was not your average resupply box full of ramen, snickers, and pop-tarts though. This box focused on performance-enhancing ingredients. He’s nearing the end of a 2200-ish mile route, so his body is getting tired. His primary concerns are enhancing recovery and optimizing sleep. These maca coconut energy bites were a key component of the goodies I sent him.

Food is always the first line when it comes to optimizing performance. However, during a demanding endeavor, such as a thru-hike, supplementation can certainly support the mind and body in performing better.

There are many supplements that came to mind when I began brainstorming around endurance, recovery, and sleep. Note: Since I am not a doctor, I don’t prescribe, treat, or diagnose. However, I do know what I’ve seen work for myself and others in the past.

I included several items in the box, but an area I focused on in particular was a class of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens have become one of those buzz words in the holistic health space as of late, but they’ve been studied since the 1960s and herbalists have used them for decades. Simply put, adaptogens aid the body in adapting to stress. From the journal Pharmaceuticals, “studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity.”

In addition to an adaptogen tincture I included in his box, I was also interested in including Maca root (Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon). While more clinical trials are needed, Maca has a long history of traditional use. It’s a Peruvian staple food grown in the harsh, high plateaus of the Andes. It’s been used to improve stamina and endurance, balance hormones, and improve immunity. It’s also believed to be an aphrodisiac and improve libido. Due to these properties, many consider Maca to be an adaptogen.

Maca can be purchased in powder form and lends itself easily to including into foods. It has a pleasing nutty flavor, and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, so it boosts the nutrition of any food to which it’s added.

These bites were designed to be energy-dense and durable. They are a convenient and tasty way to get in nutrient-packed maca, as well as healthy fats from the hemp hearts, coconut oil, and walnuts. The dates provide sweetness and quick energy. Due to the fats, protein, and fiber, they’ll boost your energy without the sugar crash afterwards.

Maca Coconut Energy Bites

Makes 11x30g bites

  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup hemp hearts
  • 1/2 cup dried unsweetened coconut
  • 2 tbsp organic maca powder
  • 1 Tbl coconut oil
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 Tbl cacao powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Blend all ingredients in a food processor until mixture is well blended and creates a soft dough. If dough is not coming together, add a bit more oil or a tiny bit of water.

maca bites

Roll dough into 30 gram balls (a hefty tablespoon), roll them in coconut and put into an air tight container. Store in the freezer until you’re ready to eat.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up here to be the first to know when new posts come out.

maca bites

Please share this post!