Are you carrying the most calorie-dense foods?

junk food

Looking for the most calorie-dense backpacking food? Double check those labels before filling your food bag with the common ultra-processed fare.  If you’re looking to reduce the food weight you’re carrying, read on.

eat calorie dense food

A common objection I hear about healthy eating on trail is that healthy foods are not calorie dense enough to fuel such a demanding physical endeavor as thru-hiking.

Hikers assume that all ‘junk food’ is going to be the better option for caloric energy. While many of the junk food staples are calorie dense, deeper investigation reveals that not all junk foods are as calorie dense as assumed and that many healthy foods pack as much of a calorie dense punch, if not more, than many common ultra-processed backpacking foods.

trail mix calorie

The purpose of this post is to illustrate that even if calorie density is the only metric being looked at when it comes to healthy foods, that healthy foods still come out higher in calories than many of the junk food options. Side note: caloric density should not be used as the sole metric because healthy foods add a lot of other benefits to the diet beyond calories.

For reference, hikers are often encouraged to aim for 125 calories or more per ounce. Packing items with more calories per ounce allows the hiker to carry less overall food weight.

Check out the following list to get an idea of which foods meet the calorie mark and which fall short. I chose 10 common processed hiker foods and 10 unprocessed alternatives. They are presented in order of descending calorie content. For ease of reading, calorie density values are in bold, as are whole food choices. Processed food options are italicized.

  • Olive Oil
    • Serving = 13.5g= 119 cal=248 cal/oz
  • Coconut Oil
    • Serving=14g= 120 cal =240 cal/oz
  • Walnuts
    • Serving=1 oz=185/oz
  • Nut butters
    • Serving=32g=210 cal= 184 cal/oz
  • Almonds
    • Serving=1 oz=163 cal/oz
  • Fritos
    • Serving=1oz= 160 cal/oz
  • Sweet Potato Chips, with just sweet potatoes, coconut oil, sea salt
    • Serving=1oz= 150cal= 150 cal/oz
  • Snickers
    • Serving=48g= 248 cal= 145 cal/oz
  • Doritos
    • Serving=1oz= 140 cal/oz
  • Oreos
    • Serving=34g=160 cal= 133 cal/oz
  • Top Ramen
    • Serving=42g=190 cal=126 cal/oz
  • Trail Mix
    • Serving =45g= 200 cal= 125 cal/oz
  • Knorr Rice Side
    • Serving=63g=240 cal= 106 cal/oz
  • Instant Oatmeal
    • Serving=40g=150 cal= 105 cal/oz
  • Poptarts
    • Serving= 55g= 200 calories= 100 cal/oz
  • Instant Mashed Potatoes
    • Serving=29g=97 cal= 97 cal/oz
  • Dehydrated Refried Beans
    • Serving=35g =116 cal= 93 cal/oz
  • Flour tortillas
    • Serving=70g=210 cal=84 cal/oz
  • Dried Apricots
    • Serving=1oz=68 cal/oz
  • Tuna, in water
    • Serving=2.6 oz= 80 cal= 31 cal/oz

calorie dense olive oil

Overview

While this analysis does not definitively suggest that packing all healthy food will be the most calorie dense option or that packing all junk food will be either. Interestingly though, the top 5 most calorie dense options are whole foods.

Again, while this post was primarily looking at calorie density as the only metric, it’s worth noting that the whole food options are packed with more vitamins, minerals, and healthy fat than the junk food alternatives. This demonstrates that you don’t need to sacrifice calorie density while getting all the benefits that come from eating whole foods, and avoiding the pitfalls of junk food, such as inflammatory preservatives, dyes, and trans fats.

I do realize that this is by no means an exhaustive list of backpacking foods, either from the processed list or the whole foods list. I randomly chose 10 of each to compare. Also, exact values may vary slightly depending on the brand selected, or the specific variety in the case of items like trail mix, nut butters, rice sides, etc.

However, the exact values will not be far off those listed above, and I believe those listed are clear enough to illustrate the point that junk food isn’t always better when it comes to caloric density.

What are your favorite foods? Does this list make you rethink your back country food choices?

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Boulder Skyline Traverse

green mountain boulder

A version of this post originally appeared on the Trek website here

I love this hike (or run–depending on how fit I am). It’s a convenient and easy option when I want a longer day on trails, with respectable elevation gain, but I don’t have the time to get deeper into the mountains. Planning is easy and I also don’t have to fight traffic.

I’ve done this hike a few times. The photos here are from a hike in early April 2018 while we were still getting occasional spring snow in the front range. The morning was chilly and there were light snow flurries in Boulder. I hiked through fog up Shadow Canyon and arrived to sun and the most beautiful inversion (see photos below) at the saddle between South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak. The sea of clouds remained for most of the day.

The intention for this particular Skyline Traverse, beyond just an enjoyable day in the foothills, was to test my fitness level for a bigger hike I had in mind.

skyline south boulder peak

The Basics

Length: Ranges from 16-26 miles, depending on which trails you choose and whether you hike point to point or create a loop. 

Location: Located in the iconic Rocky Mountain Flatirons, this hike hits the five highest peaks in the foothills surrounding Boulder, CO. The peaks include South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, Flagstaff Mountain, and Mount Sanitas.

Trail Type: Due to its proximity to an urban setting, this hike can start and finish in several different locations, depending on your logistics and the level of challenge you’re seeking.

Scenery: A mosaic of ecosystems from grassland to mixed ponderosa pine-douglas fir forests to rocky outcroppings and mountain streams. The traverse also showcases views to the east overlooking Boulder, Denver, and the plains beyond.

Terrain: Moderate to Difficult. There’s a system of well-maintained, connected trails throughout the area. With a total elevation gain of about 6000’, this hike makes for a solid day. However, if you’re heading south to north, once you climb the initial 3000’ to your first peak (South Boulder Peak), you’re mainly hiking rolling terrain along the ridgeline until you drop back down to Boulder before ascending your final peak of the day (Mount Sanitas).

Navigation: Straightforward. Check out a trail map of the area in advance and know your turn-offs. The trails are not particularly well-marked, but if you’ve looked at a trail map in advance, you should have no problem. The city of Boulder provides a good interactive map of the trails on Open Space and Mountain Parks land here. You could print out a map of the area and highlight your route or plot it on a mapping app.

 skyline strava

skyline elevation

Getting There: Depending on which direction you hike and whether you want to make it a loop, there are many options for where to park, including South Mesa Trailhead, NCAR, Shanahan Trailhead, Chautauqua Park, or Mount Sanitas Trailhead. For a point to point hike, park at either South Mesa or Mount Sanitas and get a shuttle to the other end (or bring a buddy with a second car). If you have non-Boulder County license plates, there’s a $5 fee to park at South Mesa.

The Hike 

For my south to north hike, I parked at Mount Sanitas Trailhead and rode with a friend to South Mesa trailhead. I chose south to north to get the biggest climb of the day behind me early. It’s about a 3,000’ climb up Shadow Canyon to South Boulder Peak. From there I crossed the saddle over to Bear Peak, and descended via the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail. At the fork, I turned left on Green Bear Trail and hiked about 1.5 miles to the Green Mountain West Ridge Trail. I took that to Green’s Summit then backtracked to Ranger Trail, which descends about a mile until it forks left towards Flagstaff Road. Once over the underwhelming Flagstaff summit, I found Flagstaff Trail, which I followed down to View Point Trail, then down into Eben G. Fine park. After crossing Boulder Creek, I made my way towards Sanitas via Sunshine Canyon, hit the summit, and returned to my car via the East Ridge Trail.

 skyline

Why Hike This Trail: If you live in the area, this is a classic run or hike. The Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks are arguably some of the best in the country. Planning this hike is simple enough to be done in an afternoon and the logistics are easy. The terrain is challenging enough to keep you engaged, but not overwhelmingly difficult. This trail allows you to put in a good day of miles and elevation gain, travel through the beautiful foothills ecosystems, and be rewarded with views of the city. Plus, you get to relax and refuel afterwards in Boulder, with it’s many good restaurants and breweries.

 ranger trail boulder

Climate and Weather: This hike can be done year-round. Microspikes are recommended in the winter, as snow and ice often remain on the peaks, even when the ground is clear in town. Late spring and summer are beautiful times for wildflowers, and fall is a great time to spot golden aspens along the trail.

Beware of afternoon showers in the summer. Due to the change in elevation, weather and temperatures can be quite different from your car to the peaks, so bring layers, and always have at least a wind/rain jacket. Don’t let your proximity to town cause you to be careless. It’s still a mountain environment with common dangers like sudden thunderstorms and snowstorms, slippery rocks, sun exposure, and areas with steep terrain.

 flagstaff mtn boulder

Camping & Water Sources: While there is no overnight camping along this traverse, there’s a lot of national forest near Boulder where you can camp before or after. A Google search will provide several options. In terms of water sources, there are a few creeks along the traverse where you could collect water if needed, but since it’s a day hike, it’s also easy to just bring the couple of liters you’ll need.

 green mountain

Closing Thoughts: The length and elevation gain of the Boulder Skyline Traverse are ideal for a challenging day hike. Logistics are a breeze due to the accessibility of the trailheads and the proximity to town. The diverse ecosystems, the stunning views of Boulder, and the availability of post hike libations make this hike a great activity for well-trained visitors and locals, alike.

Much has been written about the Skyline Traverse, so you’ll have no trouble finding more information. If you’re in the area, do a bit of planning, then get out there and hike (or run) this classic Boulder traverse. You won’t regret it!

skyline boulder

 

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Herbs & Lifestyle Strategies for Managing Stress

stress relief

Nearly everyone I know faces unprecedented demands on their time. We all have several roles we play, each with a different set of expectations, whether that’s at work, with our families, in our social lives, or elsewhere. It can be all too easy to over-commit, and when that happens, stress can quietly (or not so quietly) sneak up on us. However, keeping stress at bay is essential to be our most productive, creative selves and perform at our highest level.

As we navigate a world of ever-increasing demands, it’s essential to build a personal toolbox of strategies which support us in reliably managing stress. You may already have a toolbox without consciously knowing it. Test out the following ideas, see what works for you, and build a set of practices you can utilize anytime you feel stress creeping in.

herbs

Take Adaptogens

Adaptogens are a class of herbs which help the body adapt to stress and promote homeostasis, or stability, within the body. Some common examples include Ginseng (Panax ginseng), Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus),  Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis), and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Adaptogens can be taken as a tincture, capsule, tea, or powder added to foods. Use the single herbs or take an adaptogen formula with several different herbs. Adaptogens are a key resource in your toolbox which can be used daily to keep your mind and body resilient.

 

exercise

Exercise

Incorporating movement into your day is crucial to keeping stress at bay. Exercise reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, while also boosting endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Whether you choose cardio or weight lifting or something else, find an activity you enjoy and create an exercise habit if you don’t already have one.

 

nature time

Spend Time in Nature

Studies have shown that wilderness-based stress management tools, such as time in nature and gardening are effective at reducing burnout and other stress-related symptoms. Whether it’s a walk in the park, a weekend backpacking trip, or an afternoon in the garden, make space for more time in nature.

 

time

Learn to Say No

Perhaps more important than any strategy to mitigate stress is learning to avoid it in the first place. A key tool to prevent stress is to steer clear of taking on too many commitments in the first place. Most of us like to say yes when something is asked of us, but learning to discern the important few from the trivial many is crucial for stress management. For more ideas, check out books like Essentialism, and The One Thing.

 

toolbox

Other Tools

A few other stress management strategies to consider include: social time with friends and family, journaling, meditation, taking a hot bath, dancing to music you love, cuddling a pet, making art, and doing something kind for another person.

Test different strategies, find what works for you, and build a toolbox to alleviate stress when it comes creeping in, as it inevitably will.

Rim to Rim to Rim in a Day: Nutrition

Fueling for a long day on trail can make or break the outcome of your hike. As you can imagine, I’m pretty intentional about giving my body what it needs to succeed, especially when I’m undertaking a physically stressful endeavor, such as hiking 40+ miles with 11k’ of elevation gain in a day. This post covers my Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) nutrition strategy.

If you’re interested in reading a full account of my hike, please see this post, where I discuss the gear I wore/carried as well as details from my day of hiking in the Grand Canyon.

What follows is a list of what I ate during my day of hiking R2R2R. Of course, how I eat, move, sleep, etc. on a daily basis has a greater overall impact on performance than what I do in one 24 hour period, but for those interested, here’s how I approach fueling a long day of hiking.

I’ll also explain a bit about why I chose what to eat and why I chose to eat it when I did. The intention is to provide insight into how I eat for endurance and lasting energy, and hopefully you can take some tips away to use on your own adventures.

rim to rim to rim food

This photo provides a general idea of the food I brought with me to the Grand Canyon, from which I would choose what to carry on my R2R2R hike. I didn’t take all of this and I only carried a serving or two of the items pictured in bulk (e.g. the greens powder, the protein powder, the almond butter). Some of it I didn’t take at all (e.g. the bagels and the coconut chocolate).

To determine how much to carry, I used calories as the primary metric. Because I wanted to be sure I had plenty for an over-nighter should I need to stay in the canyon, I carried a bit extra, and aimed for ~4,000 calories.

Here’s approximately what I ate and when, followed by an explanation of why.

5am: 3 scoops Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides + 1 scoop Trader Joes Organic Maca Powder + Four Sigmatic 10 Mushroom Blend + 1 scoop Amazing Grass Superfood + 1 spoonful almond butter (my favorite is Natural Grocer’s fresh ground… so fluffy and creamy) + 12 oz. strongly brewed Puehr Tea.

Supplements taken with breakfast: 1000 mg Vitamin CSelenium, Zinc, Omega Complex and Cellular Vitality Complex (found here, search lifelong vitality pack).

8am: Primal Kitchen Bar

10am: 1 banana, a couple servings Jackson’s Honest Sweet Potato Chips

12pm: 2 homemade date bites (similar to this recipe)

1pm: More sweet potato chips + 1 spoonful almond butter

3 pm: Primal Kitchen Bar

4pm: 1 date bite

5:30 pm: Good Day Caffeine Chocolate, 2 spoonful almond butter, a couple servings Jackson’s Honest Sprouted Red Corn Tortilla Chips

6 Nuun electrolyte tablets in water throughout day

Explanation

Whatever time you choose to break your fast (breakfast), it’s arguably the most important part of the day, nutritionally speaking. I started the morning with 30 grams of protein and a healthy fat, as I often do, whether on trail or off. This breakfast is satiating, so I don’t have to think about fueling again as quickly, and it also boosts leptin, a hormone which decreases appetite and leaves me feeling more satiated for the rest of the day.

I find that having a high carb/high sugar breakfast puts me on an insulin roller coaster of sugar spikes and crashes. High carb breakfasts cause me to be hungry an hour later, after the sugar has worn off, and I find myself craving more carbs. There’s nothing wrong with carbs, and of course, they’re necessary for glucose-dependent activities such as hiking, but glucose (carbs) is a quick-burning fuel. Adding fat and protein to meals slows down digestion and creates slower-burning, longer lasting, more stable energy. Adding fat and protein to pretty much everything I eat balances blood sugar and helps me have stable energy all day.

In an effort to postpone getting into too much of a calorie deficit, I had a protein bar after I reached the river, while walking through the canyon. Food would be easier to digest during easy walking. Our bodies only process about 200-300 calories per hour, so I try to eat throughout the day, so I can keep moving, as opposed to eating a lot at once.

Right before beginning the climb to the North Rim, I wanted to take in a decent amount of carbs to fuel me, so I had a banana and chips. I also knew I’d be in the sun and beginning to sweat a lot, which is why I chose a salty snack. The potassium from the banana was also helpful for mineral balance while sweating.

About 2 miles from the North Rim, it was getting hot and I was hitting a wall, so I had a couple of date bites, which are high carb, but with a little fat and protein.

At the rim, I took a short break for some chips and almond butter to replenish some salt, and because it’s my favorite trail snack. I also wanted the carbs and fat to fuel me on the way down.

Back at the bottom, walking along the river, I was beginning to get tired, so I had another bar and a date bite to keep me moving.

My last snack was before crossing the river, heading back up to South Rim. I chose caffeine chocolate to give me an extra boost on the 5,000′ climb, chips for the salt and carbs, and almond butter for the fat to fuel the last 7 miles. I probably should’ve snacked again on some carbs a couple miles before the end because I was definitely hitting a wall, but I pushed on instead.

I made sure to drink a lot of water throughout the day, especially at sources, where I would ‘camel up’. I added Nuun tabs to replenish electrolytes lost through sweat.

Whatever your adventure, whether long or short, hopefully this provided some insight into how I think about maintaining energy for a long day outdoors.

If you want more ideas on fueling for endurance, check out my free ebook here.

grand canyon

Simple Sauerkraut

New research is coming out daily about the impact of gut health on almost every aspect of human health, from immune function to mood and brain health. A PubMed search for “microbiome” (the term used to describe the collection of 100 trillion bacterial cells that inhabit our bodies) returns over 60,000 results!

Needless to say, our gut bacteria play an important role in our health. and keeping a healthy population and diversity of the right bugs is key to optimal performance in every area of your life.

One of the best ways to support a healthy microbiome is to include both prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet. Prebiotics are the food that feed the good bacteria. Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves.

Put quite simply, foods high in fiber are good prebiotoics (think fruits and veggies). Examples of probiotic-containing foods include fermented and cultured foods such as kimchi, yogurt, kefir, miso, and the focus of today’s post: sauerkraut.

If you’ve never heard of the microbiome, including gut-healthy foods may feel intimidating to you. But, fear not!

It can be incredibly simple, tasty, and affordable.

While you can purchase your fermented foods at the grocery store, you can save money by making your own ferments at home. An easy place to start is with sauerkraut.

Below is a basic recipe from which you can create many variations!

Simple Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 1 large head green or red cabbage
  • 1/8 cup sea salt
  • Water

Directions

  1. Cut the cabbage in quarters, cut out the stem, slice finely, and place into medium bowl.
  2. Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage.
  3. Squeeze the cabbage with your hands until it begins to break down and ‘wilt’.
  4. The cabbage will eventually begin to release liquid. When this happens, pack the cabbage into a clean Mason jar. Push the cabbage down hard to remove most of the extra space.
  5. Pour remainder brine from the bowl into the cabbage jar.
  6. Be sure to submerge the cabbage below the liquid.
  7. If there is not enough liquid, add salt water until the cabbage is completely covered. To do this, mix 1 cup of water with 1 teaspoon sea salt.
  8. LOOSELY place the cap on the mason jar, but do not tighten it.
  9. Keep jar at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. (e.g. on a counter top).
  10. For the first few days, check on the cabbage and add extra liquid to keep the cabbage submerged. A bit of white foaminess is normal. However, be on the lookout for anything that looks or smells moldy.
  11. Taste the cabbage after 6-7 days. It should be tangy, but will probably still be quite crisp. Speed of fermentation depends on the ambient temperature  in your home.
  12. Ferment your kraut until taste and texture meet your preferences. I like to ferment mine about 10 days.  At this point, cap the jar and store in the refriegerator.
  13. Enjoy a dollop daily with meals!

For variations, I add different spices, such as caraway seeds or peppercorns. You can use this same method to create kimchi or ferment any other vegetable easily at home!

How to Use Herbs to Enhance Athletic Performance

trail

The days are growing longer and if you haven’t already started getting back outside and getting after it again, it’s time.

It’s easy to understand how what you eat and drink can impact your body’s performance, but did you know that you can optimize your active lifestyle with certain herbs as well?

Herbs can aid in reducing inflammation, improving stamina, and increasing speed of recovery, among other benefits. Include the following herbs in your daily routine to help your body perform better, whether your preferred style of movement is running, biking, backpacking, yoga, or a stroll in the park.

runner

Adaptogens are a class of herbs which promote homeostasis and increase a person’s resistance to stress. Some key adaptogens to consider for an active lifestyle include Rhodiola, Eleuthero, and Ashwagandha.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)

In regards to athletic performance, Rhodiola has been shown to reduce both lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after an exhaustive exercise session.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Eleuthero, also called Siberian Ginseng, has long been used by athletes to improve endurance. This study showed that 8 weeks of supplementation (800 mg daily) “enhances endurance capacity, elevates cardiovascular functions and alters the metabolism for sparing glycogen”.

Ashwagandha (Ashwagandha Somnifera)

Ashwagandha is another herb that has been shown to improve aerobic capacity. Eight weeks of supplementation (500 mg twice daily) significantly improved VO2 max and time to exhaustion.

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)

Turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. Studies indicate that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, the active component in turmeric, may offset some of the performance deficits associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) & Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

This 2014 study indicated that athletes supplementing with Cordyceps and Reishi mushrooms showed an increased capacity to quench free radicals, thereby protecting them from oxidative stress and over-training symptoms.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

In addition to its hormone-balancing effects, research suggests that Maca root, taken daily for as little as 14 days, has the ability to improve endurance in athletes.

stretching

In addition to considering these herbs to facilitate an active lifestyle, support a healthy, balanced body by including a mix of strength training, aerobic training, and stretching into your physical routine.

With a little planning, supplementing with high-quality herbs can enhance and optimize your active, healthy lifestyle!

Five Herbs for Liver Health & Detoxification Support

crocus spring detox

The crocuses and dandelions are popping out of the ground, and the days are getting longer. After a season spent mostly indoors, our bodies yearn for sunlight, movement, and fresh food. Spring is an ideal time to give your body a reboot by optimizing detoxification.

A great way to enhance your body’s natural detoxification system is to support the function of your liver. The liver filters blood coming from the digestive tract before sending it to the rest of the body. It detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes drugs. Among other metabolic processes, the liver produces bile, which breaks down fat into fatty acids to produce energy. Liver health is also essential for healthy hormones.

Align with the seasons and move into spring feeling fresh and energetic by including these 5 liver-supporting herbs into your day.

dandelion

Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelions support the digestive system by maintaining a proper flow of bile. Dandelion root also has a natural diuretic effect, allowing the body to eliminate more toxins. Dandelion tea is a great substitute for coffee while cleansing the liver.

 

milk thistle

Milk Thistle Seed (Silybum marianum)

Milk Thistle contains a flavonoid called Silymarin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Silymarin has been found to increase glutathione (an antioxidant necessary for detoxification), and it may also support the regeneration of liver cells.

 

yellow dock root
photo courtesy urbol.com

Yellow Dock Root (Rumex crispus)

Yellow Dock aids in detoxification by increasing bile production. It also supports elimination and removal of toxins by stimulating bowel movements and increasing frequency of urination.

 

turmeric root
photo courtesy specialtyproduce.com

Turmeric Root (Curcuma longa)

Besides the well known anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric, recent research has shown that curcumin, the primary polyphenol in turmeric, may have liver-protective and regenerative properties for damaged livers.

 

licorice root
photo courtesy magicalbutter.com

Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Recent studies indicate that Glycyrrhizic acid, a key active constituent in licorice root, has anti-inflammatory and immune regulatory actions. It also has antiviral effects, antitumor effects and has been shown to inhibit premature cell death of liver cells. As an adaptogenic herb, licorice can support the overall functioning of the body during detoxification.

Spring Detox Decoction

2 parts licorice root

2 part dandelion root

1 part ginger root

1 part cinnamon bark

When working with hard, woody parts of the plant, such as these liver-supporting roots, use a decoction to extract the active compounds. Use 1 cup water per tablespoon of herbs. Place herbs and cold water into a saucepan and bring to a simmer for 20-40 minutes. Cool and strain. Store in a sealed glass container in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.

As we move into spring, consider consuming more water, getting outside for sun and movement, and giving your body a rest by cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine for 30 days.

Fueling a Healthy Adventure on a Budget

wind river hike

This post originally appeared on the Trek

 

Besides “Do you carry a gun,” one the most common questions on trail is “What do you eat?

From battling constant hunger, to pack weight considerations, to sticking to a budget, planning your food strategy can be one of the most challenging aspects of a long-distance hike. If you want to eat healthy on trail? That can feel even more daunting. Aside from gear, food is one of the biggest expenses of a thru-hike.

A trait I’ve noticed in the most savvy, enduring hikers—those who find the resources to hit the trail again and again—is frugality. I don’t mean simply being cheap—I’m referring to an ability to optimize and use one’s resources wisely. Whether you’ve got a $3,000 budget or a $10,000 budget for your hike, the goal is finding the sweet spot of saving money without feeling deprived.

happy hikers sunset

If you don’t know your budget, try to figure it out. In 2017, running out of money was the second-leading cause of hikers quitting the AT and PCT, second only to injury. Make a plan and do your best to stick to it. More on that in a moment.

Many hikers believe that eating healthy on trail is more expensive than eating junk food. They also assume it’s time-consuming and difficult, which can drive many otherwise healthy eaters to choose readily-available, packaged foods. If you’re not sure how healthy eating can increase your performance on trail, check out this article about the potential dangers of fueling on processed foods.

Tips for hiking healthy on a budget

Yes, it’s possible to eat well on trail without breaking the bank. Once you train your mind to optimize for both healthy and budget-friendly options, they’ll start popping out everywhere. All recommendations are designed to be calorie-dense, nutrient-dense, and as lightweight as possible.

budget

Preparation before hitting the trail

Planning for a thru-hike is a lot of work, but preparing for a life-changing endeavor is part of the excitement. As far as food prep goes, I’m not going to sugarcoat it: healthy eating on a budget involves more effort than winging it and hoping you don’t go broke. Having a plan will prevent impulse spending and easily avoidable budget mistakes.

Many hikers are ambitious Type-A planners anyway, so dig into the details, make a spreadsheet, and have fun optimizing.

How to prepare in advance:

  1. Determine your resupply strategy. Will you be mailing boxes, resupplying in towns, or a combination of both? Do your research and choose what’s right for you. For the purposes of healthy eating and saving money, I’ve found a mix of in-town resupply and maildrops to be optimal. If you prefer hard-to-find items, such as specific supplements or protein powders, or if you have food intolerances, consider sending those items to your resupply location, and buy common items, such as cured meats, nut butters, and trail mix in town.
  2. Look over your potential resupply locations. In the places where a gas station or tiny store is your only option, send a box. Otherwise, you’re stuck paying high prices for less than optimal food. Five dollars for a Snickers bar? No thanks.
  3. Now that you know how many boxes you’re sending and where you’re sending them, it’s time to gather food. It’s beyond the scope of this article to detail how you determine your food requirements, but as a general rule, it will be based on your body size (and correspondingly, your base metabolic rate) plus how many miles you plan to hike per day. For example, I need about 3,500 calories per day—or about two pounds of food—to fuel 25-30 mile days once I’m a few weeks into a thru-hike. If it’s colder or the terrain is particularly rugged, that fuel requirement amount increases. Each person will have different needs based on their size, climate, terrain, etc. Make a list of healthy trail foods you know you’ll enjoy. Consider dried fruit, dehydrated beans and veggies, oats, quinoa, nuts, and nut butters, plus any other whole foods. The shorter the ingredient list, the better. For additional ideas, dive online or reference my ebook.
  4. With this list in hand, search online for the best price. Buying in bulk is a great way to cut costs.
    1. Consider Costco, Trader Joes, and grocery outlets like Shop’n’Kart, where you can find both conventional and organic options at lower prices. Find stores with bulk bins, which not only cuts down on packaging, but is often where you’ll find more whole-food options like nuts, dehydrated beans and grains, and dried fruit.
    2. Watch out for freeze-dried meals or protein bars marketed as “backpacking food.” These are often overpriced and not always particularly healthy. With a little know-how and experimentation, creating your own healthy meals can be easy and inexpensive.
    3. Consider shopping online. Find dehydrated fruits, veggies, and beans here and here . Choose products with nothing added-just the fruit/veggie/bean. Rehydrating these on trail is simple and an easy way to pack in fiber and vitamins. There are many online hubs for healthy snacks including Vitacost and Direct Eats.
    4. Depending on time and budget, you may opt to dehydrate some of your own meals. This is more labor intensive, but can save money in the long run. If you have access to inexpensive organic produce, a dehydrator, and you enjoy the process, consider this option. However, dehydrating your own meals is not essential for eating healthy on a budget.
    5. Brainstorm options based on personal connections, and where you live. Do you have a friend in the restaurant industry? Ask them if you can tack on items to their next wholesale order, or ask if they’ll take you to Restaurant Depot. Pay them back promptly and do them a favor in the future. I worked as a pastry chef before my PCT hike and this strategy is how I made 30 pounds of various trail mixes for much cheaper than purchasing retail.
    6. Once you have all your materials, sort them into location-specific boxes. The amount of food in each box will depend on your daily calorie requirements, your daily mileage, and the distance to the next resupply point. Estimate for now, then dial it in on trail and make adjustments. Supplement your box with town purchases or hiker box snacks. Repackage food into appropriate serving sizes and divvy the food up into boxes. Spreadsheets are great for this.

For the love of whole foods

Eating more whole foods means you need less food. Even if personal and planetary health is low on your list of priorities, pretty much everyone cares about saving money and reducing pack weight. Research suggests that the added fiber, essential fatty acids, protein, and micronutrients in whole foods are more satiating and filling than ultra-processed foods. This means you can eat less, buy less, and carry less. Win win win.

cascade locks pct

On trail and in town

It can be hard not to spend a ton of money when you walk into a town famished. You’ve been dreaming about burgers, pizza, and beer for the last 100 miles. Enjoy yourself, but remember to have a plan.

  1. If you have a resupply box, pick it up before going to the store. Pack your food bag, and use extra food as town snacks. Yes, you’ll want to eat 24/7 while in town, but lessen the blow to your wallet by snacking on food you’ve already paid for.
  2. Take advantage of hiker boxes before you resupply at the grocery store. Sometimes you find gems like nut butters, healthy bars, olive oil packets, and dehydrated veggies. Be judicious, don’t empty the entire box into your food bag, and be sure to pay it forward by donating to hiker boxes down the line.
  3. At restaurants, have a tall glass of water (or three) and a salad before binging on all the pizza and ice cream. Celebrate that you didn’t have to carry that water from the source. When you fill up on veggies and hydrate yourself, not only are you making up for micronutrient deficiencies in your normal veg-poor diet, but you won’t need three large pizzas, two burgers, a case of beer, and a gallon of ice cream to feel full. Plus, the extra fiber will benefit your gut microbiome, which impacts your immunity, energy levels, and mental health.
  4. Buy in-town meals and snacks from the grocery store rather than going to restaurants for every meal. You’ll eat healthier and spend less. Pick up materials for a deluxe salad to make at the hotel room. Grab a bag of veggies to finish before hitting the trail again. Shop at stores with bulk bins, so you can get the exact amount you need and reduce packaging. Team up with your hiking buddy to add variety and split purchases when a desired item comes in a bigger size than you need.
  5. Buy from the grocery store rather than a gas station or small market. You’ll find healthier options, fresher food, and lower prices.
  6. Limit your time in town. Ultimately, spending time in town costs money—everything from lodging to food to transportation, so get in, get your chores done, rest, and get back out.

pacific crest trail

The Most Important Rule: Know Thyself

  • How much prep are you willing to do? Remember that buying is easier than dehydrating your own food.
  • What do you actually like to eat? Test it out before you send it in every resupply box.
  • Do you mind eating the same thing everyday? I don’t, but many people need variety.
  • How much do you eat? Hiker Hunger is real and it will set in eventually.
  • Are you prone to impulse buys in town? Set yourself up for success. Enjoy a good meal or two, but keep your long-term goal in mind.

Sticking with your budget shouldn’t feel like deprivation. It should feel good because you’re being considerate to your future self who wants to have the health and cash to finish the trail.

Pay attention

This final tip is simple, but generally overlooked (on and off trail). Awareness is the first step to behavior modification. Pay attention to where your resources are going. If you’re always looking for ways to optimize eating healthy and cheaply, the opportunities present themselves.

Small improvements in your eating and spending habits add up to big changes. You make it to the end of the 2000-mile trail one step at a time.

Matcha Energy Bites

matcha energy bites

What to do on a snowy Colorado day (after going out to play in the snow)?

Play in the kitchen, of course!

I was craving vibrant colors, so in addition to trays upon tray of roasted veggies (meal prep for the week), and starting a new batch of purple cabbage & fennel kraut (yay fermented foods!), I whipped up these matcha energy bites.

They’re a delicious snack to have on hand when you’re craving a little something sweet in the afternoons, and they’ll definitely treat you better than a handful of candy and a latte.  They’re also easily portable, so they’re great for taking on a long run, ride or hike.

The carbs are good for immediate energy and the healthy fat and protein will keep you going through your afternoon at the office or your day in the mountains. Note: Matcha is a type of green tea and does contain a small amount of caffeine, so if you’re highly sensitive, avoid these in the afternoon or evening.

These bites are vegan, gluten free, and grain free. They don’t require baking and they’re quick to whip up with nothing but a food processor. Plus, these portable little energy bundles contain just 6 real food ingredients!

Oh, I almost forgot! The benefits of Matcha? It’s packed with antioxidants to help fight inflammation, it’s loaded with EGCg (a compound with cancer-fighting properties), it contains L-theanine (which enhances calm and increases focus and memory), and it supports a strong immune system, among so many other benefits!

matcha energy bites

Match Energy Bites

Makes 10 bites @ 35-40 grams each

Ingredients

1.5 Tablespoons Matcha Powder

1.5 Tablespoons honey

4 Tablespoons almond flour

1 dash of cinnamon (optional)

2 Tablespoons coconut oil, melted

1 Cup coconut flakes, unsweetened, finely shredded (plus coconut to coat outsides)

110 grams Medjool dates, pitted

 

matcha bites

Put all ingredients, except the coconut oil and dates into the bowl of the food processor. Process the mixture for 30 seconds to a minute, until well combined. Add dates, one a time, through lid, while processor is running. While processor continues to run, pour in coconut oil through the lid. Allow mixture to blend thoroughly, 30 seconds to a minute. Remove lid and dump contents into a bowl.

matcha bites

Add half a cup of coconut flakes to a separate bowl. Either with or without a scale, measure out chunks of ‘dough’ about the size of a golf ball, or 35-40 grams each. Roll into a ball, toss the ball in the coconut flakes to coat, and place on a napkin lined tray.

All done!

matcha bites

Transfer to an airtight container and store in fridge up to a week or in the freezer for longer.

Grab one the next time you head out the door and never be caught again without a healthy snack on hand!