Between June 17 and
September 23 of this year, I hiked roughly 2800 miles from Canada to Mexico,
alone, along the Continental Divide Trail.
As I’ve reintegrated
back into “real life”, I’ve been processing the many lessons that were birthed
during this time of deep solitude spent in nature. The lessons are many, and
they include both the practical (i.e. improved navigational skills) and the
conceptual (i.e. the power of surrender). If pressed to choose just one of
these lessons as being the most valuable, I’d undoubtedly say that it’s been
the increased ability to find stillness within.
What is stillness? Why
does it matter? How do you get it?
By stillness, I’m
referring to that inner state that’s available when all the mind chatter
quiets. It’s a steadiness that exists amidst any chaos that may be swirling
around me. From this state, I respond rather than react. There’s more space for
deeper reflection, gratitude, and happiness.
I believe stillness is
a natural state for us and it’s our job to tune into it. There are many ways to
do this. Being immersed in nature on a long backpacking trip is one way to get
there, and the reasons for this are many.
Firstly, engaging in challenging activities like mountain climbing, cultivates presence and stillness because they require every ounce of attention in order to avoid injury or death. When
you’re in the zone, there’s no room for mind chatter. You must be in the now.
Additionally, the solitude
found on a long walk in nature is a gateway to stillness. When we remove the
external noise, it gives us space to just be. True solitude involves not only
being alone, but also removing all external inputs, such as music or podcasts.
Furthermore, when you’re
surrounded by wilderness, it’s a reminder that the stillness present in all of
nature is also present in you. In the words of Eckart Tolle, “Seek out a tree and let it teach you stillness.” If you’ve ever sat alone in a forest, you understand this. You
can feel the stillness and you begin to embody it.
A long distance hike
also facilitates stillness if you learn to let go of expectations. For example,
if I focus solely on how far I have to walk to get to my destination (Mexico,
in this case), I’m easily frustrated because I rarely meet my own expectations
for how many miles I “should” be walking in each hour or day. Once I stopped treating the journey as a means to an end, and
became present to each step, breath, and moment, life was much more
These are just a few
of the ways long distance backpacking increased my ability to find stillness,
but it’s not the only path to reach this inner state. Fortunately, you don’t
need a 2800 mile walk in the woods to get there. Time in nature certainly
helps, but you can implement the strategies of presence, solitude, and removal
of expectations in the “real world” as well.
which can be used anywhere to tap into that place of stillness include
journaling, meditating, focusing on the breath and/or body sensations, getting
proper sleep and nutrition, reducing inputs (less phone time and reading the
news), and by looking for beauty in everything.
ability to create stillness within yourself is so valuable because it taps us
into the present moment, which is where all of life exists. The now is truly
all we have and learning how to access it through presence and stillness can
create true freedom and happiness.
Going into this adventure, I had many intentions, but developing a heightened state of presence and stillness wasn’t one of them. I’ve realized, however, that it’s likely the top reason for why I keep seeking nature immersion again and again.
If you missed part 1 of this series on Healthy Lightweight Eating for Hikers, click here. That’s where I explain WHY I choose a high fat, moderate protein, and lower carbohydrate diet on trail. Some of those reasons include a lighter pack weight, sustained energy (i.e. no bonking), less illness and injury, and fewer digestive issues.
This post will dig into the more practical side of HOW I do this. You’ll learn what this eating strategy looks like in practice, including a sample 5-day resupply guide with nutrition information. I’ll also provide a few of my staple recipes.
As mentioned in Part 1, my aim when choosing food is not just to prioritize fat, but to emphasize nutrient density and anti-inflammatory properties as well.
An important note: this is not a keto diet. I’m not opposed to keto, but for me, I find my hormone balance, thyroid health, and overall performance is better with slightly higher carbs, especially on a thru-hike. My trail diet is usually about 60-65% fat, 20% protein, and 15-20% carbs. For comparison, the typical American diet is 35% fat, 15% protein, and 50% carbs. A ketogenic diet is usually 70-75% fat, 20% protein, and 5-10% carbs. Current dietary guidelines suggest 40-60% of calories from carbs.
Also, on a side note, if you’re considering this approach, it’s wise to eat either high fat OR high carb, but not high fat AND high carb. Diets high in fat AND sugar can be strong promoters of obesity and metabolic syndrome, at least in rat models.
There’s no official ‘low carb’ designation, but it’s often suggested that below 100-150 grams per day is low carb. On a 2000 calorie per day diet, that equates to about 20-25% of calories. Since I’ll be consuming more calories, I’ll probably be around 100-200 grams per day. As you can see, that’s a big window.
Sticking to strict numbers is not important to me. I’m already OCD enough, so I try not to obsess about perfecting ratios on a spreadsheet. Instead, I prefer to focus on energy levels, sleep quality, immune health (avoiding illness and injury), feeling strong while hiking up mountains, and keeping inflammation as low as possible. To accomplish this, I try to include a lot of healthy fat and not a lot of processed or sugary items.
If you want to go deeper, this article details what I call the Thru-hiker Calorie Myth and explains what most thru-hiker diets are missing in their diet. It also reveals how paying attention to food quality can help you experience better energy, endurance, and long-term health.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
What does Healthy High Fat look like in practice?
Again, it’s not nutritional ketosis and it’s not high fat junk foods, which are generally low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats. Yes, it’s about the quantity of fat, but more importantly, it’s also about the quality of the fats (as well as the quality of the carbs and proteins).
In terms of quality of fat, my goal is to eat lots of ‘healthy’ fats and reduce or eliminate ‘unhealthy’ fats. I do my best to avoid all artificial trans fats, which are found most abundantly in junk foods and industrial seed oils. These are linked to chronic disease and other issues, such as cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer, shortening of pregnancy period, nervous system disorders, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergy. No, thank you.
Instead, I focus on saturated and monounsaturated fats, with moderate amounts of polyunsaturated fats. First, let’s cover why fats are essential. We need fat for cell membrane integrity, transporting cholesterol, brain health, eye health, skin health, cell signaling, hormone balance, blood sugar regulation, vitamin absorption, and much more!
According to functional medicine practitioner Dr. Chris Kresser, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. Overall, there is no reason to fear saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet that also includes monounsaturated fatty acids and whole-food sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Check out this article to go deeper on this.
Tips for Improving Food Quality in Your Trail Diet
In general, I focus on foods that:
are as close to their whole food form as possible.
have either no ingredient label, (e.g. almonds, pecans, plums, kale) or as short of an ingredient list as possible. This eliminates a lot of the inflammatory preservatives, food dyes, fillers, and other unnecessary ingredients in many processed products. This also gives me a higher likelihood of eating foods that have a high nutrient density, including lots of anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
are organic, when possible. This is to avoid the effects of glyphosate (e.g. Monsanto’s Roundup product) on both my body and on the environment, as it’s a probable carcinogen.
are farm-raised, pastured, grass-fed, and in the most bioavailable form, when it comes to proteins.
I also reduce how inflammatory my diet is by avoiding gluten, and by highly limiting dairy, legumes, grains, and added sugars. Most people would likely benefit from eliminating gluten and dairy. Legumes and grains may apply on a more individual basis. Some foods tend to be more inflammatory than others for almost everyone, but it’s well established that how we react to any given food is highly individual.
If you’re curious about how different foods affect you, try an elimination diet so you can create a truly customized diet. I have a free guide for that here.
Examples of Foods I Eat on Trail
Here’s a smattering of foods you’ll commonly find in my resupply boxes:
-coconut milk powder
-nut butters, such as almond butter
-nuts, such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts
-seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds
I like to send a lot of resupply boxes because 1) I care about what I eat, and 2) I like the efficiency of walking into town, picking up my box, and walking out of town. But, though I like planning and prepping boxes, I don’t care for dehydrating my own food.
That being the case, my ‘recipes’ and food choices tend to be ridiculously easy to prepare and assemble. Many of my foods are repetitive. This helps me be efficient with my resources (time and money). I add variety by choosing different flavors and changing up specific ingredients (e.g. creating different types of trail mix from a few staple ingredients). Additionally, I don’t carry a stove, so my food choices are suitable for cold soak and/or require no on trail prep.
Lots of fat and a bit of protein to keep energy levels steady through the morning. This is a recipe I adapted from a few different sources including Alpine Science. Full recipe on the Resource page, linked below.
Here’s a look at how this plays out on trail, with some tips I use to make things easier. Each night, after finishing dinner, I rinse out my cold-soaking jar to prepare for the next day. I pour in a little water, add my smoothie mix, and then top it off with water and put on the lid. I shake vigorously and set it aside for morning. This helps keep the powder from sticking to the sides or bottom of the jar. It also gives the chia time to absorb the water overnight and I’m ready to leave camp as soon as I wake up. I can walk or drink as soon as I start to get hungry.
This is also when I have a little bit of caffeine, usually in the form of organic instant tea. Cusa Tea is the best I’ve found.
Mid-morning I usually have a snack. I try to stick with higher fat and protein options, like trail mix, for blood sugar stability. I like Gorilly Goods for healthy trail mixes or I make my own from nuts, seeds, and (occasionally) dried fruit from the bulk food aisle.
Around mid-day, I take a break for lunch, which is usually nut butter and chips or fish and chips or occasionally hummus powder and chips. For specifics on brands, grab this free Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide.
My mid-afternoon break is when I *try* to remember to soak my dinner. Dinner is often a freeze-dried meat or dehydrated beans soaked with freeze-dried veggies. I change up different anti-inflammatory spices to change the flavor and to up the nutrient density. The longer it soaks, the better. But if I forget, which is not uncommon, I just soak it when I get to camp or realize I’m getting hungry. I wait as long as I can and/or just eat a slightly crunchy dinner. I’m disgusting, I know.
Right before I eat, I’ll add some type of healthy fat, like olive oil or coconut oil, and mix it in thoroughly. I then eat my cold mush with a spoon, and chips or a grain-free tortilla. A note on oil storage: I buy individual packets when possible to reduce messiness and spillage. I also recommend double-bagging to keep your pack safe. Better safe than sorry on this one.
Post dinner is always dark chocolate (>75% cacao), but not so much that I can’t sleep (not that this has happened… multiple times).
A Note on Nutrient Timing
I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I tend to focus on fat and protein in the early part of the day. This is to avoid spiking insulin and getting on the energy rollercoaster of sugar spikes and crashes. My morning smoothie is mostly fat and protein which gives me steady energy through the morning. My mid-morning snack is a lower sugar bar with protein and fat, or a trail mix, or grass-fed jerky.
Lunch is usually high fat, with some protein and a bit of carbs. Around lunch or for my mid-afternoon snacks, I’ll start to have more carbs to keep my energy going through the day. This may be more chips or fruit-based bars.
Another way, I’ll use carbs strategically is for intense efforts, such as a steep and/or particularly long climb. I also wrote about this a bit in part 1.
Dinner is a mix of all macros, such as meat with veggies and a starch. The protein helps repair and rebuild muscle. The fat helps keep me warm and satiated through the night. The carbs help refuel muscle glycogen and helps me to produce serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin, so it helps me sleep more soundly.
Another part of my strategy to optimize my health on trail is supplementation. I include electrolytes in this category. More on that in a separate post in the near future.
As mentioned, this is another evolution from how I’ve fueled on trail in the past. Food is massively important in how I manage autoimmune symptoms, continue to get after it outdoors, and take care of my overall health in my everyday life, and my goal was to carry as much of that into my trail diet as possible. I’ll follow up afterwards with what worked and what didn’t.
Here’s a full 5-day healthy lightweight backpacking meal plan. Healthy and lightweight?? Yep. That’s what I’m all about. Ramen, poptarts, and Snickers? Hell nah.
You’ll notice that each day of this meal plan is about 60% fat, 20% protein, and 20% carbohydrate. It’s based around whole foods and is designed to be stoveless (optional) and anti-inflammatory.
This healthy high fat approach helps me reduce pack weight, eliminate bonking, reduce hiker hunger, and decrease digestive issues. If you’re curious about the science and rationale of how I landed on this approach after years of experimentation, check out this post.
You’ll notice that this diet is a bit different than the standard, processed thru-hiker diet. Yup. It’s not perfect, but in general, this meal plan is designed to:
be organic/free-range/grass-fed when possible (so I can avoid the damage of glyphosate on both my body and the environment)
emphasize nutrient density
The following meal plan was pulled straight from my spreadsheet for my Continental Divide Trail resupply plan. As such, it’s based on my calorie needs and food preferences. For an idea of how many calories you need, I recommend starting with a BMR calculator, like this one, and adjusting from there based on activity level.
The 5 days shown here is a box I’m sending around mile 1200, so it’s based on ~2700 calories per day. The total weight for this 5 days of food is 6.77 pounds or about 1.35 pounds of food per day. This is significantly lower than the commonly recommended 2 pounds per day.
I also carry a few key supplements that help me stay healthy and energized on trail. Read the what and why about those here (link coming soon).
I hope this gives you some ideas for your own backpacking meal if you’re looking for something a bit less junk food-y. And yes, it’s somewhat repetitive, but I appreciate the simplicity of that. It makes shopping in bulk easier and I can add variety by rotating through different varieties/flavors. For example, with a trail mix, it might be almonds, coconut flakes, dried cranberries, and ginger powder in one box, then walnut, cacao nibs, banana chips, and cinnamon in the next box.
The chart represents all the food for 5 days and the photos show what each day would look like. Post your Q’s or comments below.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
Carry a lighter pack, eliminate bonking, free yourself from cravings, reduce hiker hunger, and experience fewer GI issues…. Sound good? Most long distance hikers (or any endurance athlete) would say ‘heck yea’! Well, it’s possible, and it starts with what you’re putting in your food bag. Here’s how I approach eating a healthy lightweight diet on trail.
This post will explain why a healthy high fat diet is ideal for backpacking and how to do it right (i.e. without missing out on essential nutrients and compromising your health).
Personal Backpacking Nutrition Evolution
Over the course of 5000+ miles of backpacking, my nutrition strategy has evolved. Going into the AT in 2009, I had no idea how to eat for backpacking, so I started Googling. Pop-tarts, ramen, and snickers? As a lover of veggies (and feeling good), I knew that approach wasn’t going to work for me. I pieced together as healthy of a diet as I could, but it was still fairly processed and I never really felt great on it.
As a cold-soaking vegetarian on the PCT in 2014, I did a bit better. I’d learned a thing or two, both about health and how to carry that onto the trail. I focused a lot on legumes (dehydrated black beans, refried beans, and hummus), nut butters, tortillas, dried fruit, seeds, nuts, and with a handful of dried kale in my dinners. I felt better than on the AT, but by the end of the trail, my digestive system was…um, ‘off’, to put it nicely. Plus, I had a deep fatigue that had built up by the end of the hike and, it turns out, I was anemic.
So, in prepping for the CDT this year, more has changed. I no longer eat much of the gluten, industrial seed oils, grains, and even legumes that wrecked my gut in the past. I’ve also learned that I feel best when I eat a high fat, lower carbohydrate diet, rather than the traditional ‘endurance diet’ heavy in carbs.
Fortunately, that high fat diet works well for backpacking. More on that in a moment. But it’s important to note that ‘high fat’ can be done in an unhealthy way or in a healthy way. It just takes a bit more knowledge and care to do it right within the constraints inherent to backpacking.
I’ve see distance runners struggle with digestive issues as they refuel on sugary gels every 90 minutes. I’ve seen (and experienced) the bonking. And on this standard high carb, high sugar, highly processed diet, I’ve watched hikers suffer with weaker immune systems, experience insatiable hunger, carry heavier packs than necessary, and even have teeth rot from excess sugar.
And that’s just what I’ve witnessed on trail, let alone, what happens to their mental and physical health once they return home.
There’s a Better Way
That said, the focus of this article is to share why my fueling strategy has evolved to what I call Healthy High Fat. I’ll also cover how to execute that in an easy, effective, and efficient way.
Let’s state up front that what I’m NOT talking about is a zero carb diet and going into nutritional ketosis. There’s a time and place for ketosis as a therapeutic approach, but in general, we need all the macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) to stay healthy and to perform at our best.
What I am suggesting is that there are many benefits to be had by using fat as your primary fuel, especially for endurance athletes, like long distance hikers.
I also want to be clear that this is NOT a diet, per say. Just as focusing on eating whole foods is not a diet (but a lifestyle change rather), eating for better metabolic efficiency is a practice that’s implemented over time for improved health and fitness performance. Unlike a ‘diet’, it’s not something you follow for a few weeks, then return to your former ways.
‘Why bother’, you may be thinking, ‘I like candy bars, bagels, and pasta’. I get it. I like carbs too (hi, my trail name is Salty because I eat all.the.chips.), but I like sustained energy and carrying a lighter pack even more.
Favoring a higher fat/lower carb diet and training your body to burn fat preferentially makes sense for endurance athletes for the following reasons:
*At 9 calories per gram for fat and 4 calories per gram for protein or carbs, fats are more than twice as energy dense per unit of weight than protein or carbs. We need a certain amount of protein each day to prevent muscle wasting and facilitate muscle repair. I usually shoot for about 20% of my total calories. The remaining 80% is made up of either fats or carbs, as these two macronutrients are the primary source of your cellular energy.
*Because fat is more calorically dense, you can carry the same amount of calories for less food weight than you can if you were carrying predominantly carbs.
Sustained Energy (less bonking!)
*Favoring fat over carbs leads to more sustained energy. Here’s why: Consuming carbs causes blood glucose levels to spike which causes the pancreas to release insulin to shuttle glucose into cells, which then causes blood sugar to quickly drop, and you bonk, hit the wall, get cranky or tired, and crave another hit of sugar.
*As described earlier, fat and protein are slower burning fuels than sugar. They are absorbed more slowly and do not cause the same roller-coaster spike and crash of sugar.
*While I do eat slightly more calories on a long hike than in my everyday (significantly more sedentary) life, I generally don’t experience the extreme hiker hunger which my companions describe. I believe the difference is that I eat mostly whole foods as opposed to ultra-processed, low fiber, high sugar foods.
*Studies have indicated a significant decrease in hunger on a high nutrient diet when compared with a low nutrient diet. In an attempt to make up for nutrient deficiencies, the body reaches for more and more food despite consuming sufficient calories. Many hikers report needing 5000-6000 calories per day. I generally feel good, experience sustained energy, and little weight loss at 3000-3500 calories per day, even on a thru-hike. Of course it depends on body size, but I believe a reason many hikers consume so much is because their food choices are low in nutrients and fiber.
Less GI Distress
*Most hikers and long distance runners I know talk a lot about poop and farts. It’s not uncommon for endurance athletes to experience frequent gas, bloating, diarrhea, and nausea. This is especially true during challenging efforts, like a race or a particularly hard day on trail. This makes sense as blood is shunted away from your GI tract to fuel muscles. There is also the mechanical pounding of hiking/running and the production of stress hormones that impair digestion during hard efforts.
*While on the one hand, because fat and protein are slow absorbing fuels, high fat or high protein or large volumes of food in general will impair performance if eaten right before a hard effort. However, during a longer, less intense effort (like hiking at a steady pace all day), fueling on fat can reduce digestive distress because you can eat less frequently, which means less work for your digestive system.
*Excessive sugar can set off an inflammatory cascade that suppresses the immune system. Your body is already under a great deal of physical stress on a long hike. Stressing it out more by forcing it to subsist on fare that is high in sugar and low in stress-fighting nutrients sets you up for issues. It’s not uncommon to see hikers catching colds and experiencing injury more often on trail. This may be due to weakened immunity.
*The reduction in systemic inflammation that can result from eating less processed foods, and focusing instead on balancing blood sugar, is the main driver of my interest in high fat/lower carb eating. I balance blood sugar by focusing on plenty of fiber, fat, and protein in each meal or snack. Due to my history with autoimmune thyroid issues, reducing inflammation is critical, especially on trail.
Fat is Ideal for Low to Moderate Efforts
*Fat is an ideal fuel for low to moderate efforts, like hiking all day. When you train at a low intensity, you keep your heart rate lower, in the aerobic zone, where fat is used as the primary fuel. The more you train at low intensities, the more efficient your body becomes at converting fat to fuel. This article and this article explain this concept well, as does Mark Sisson’s Primal Endurance.
*On the other hand, all-out efforts (like sprints) are a more glycogen-dependent activity. This is where carbs can come in handy. It’s why I often eat a bit more carbs when I have a big climb ahead of me and need quick-burning fuel for my muscles. Essentially, I try to use carbs strategically.
Understanding Metabolic Efficiency
What this all comes down to is increasing metabolic efficiency (ME). ME refers to how efficiently the body uses its internal stores of fats and carbohydrates. The goal of ME training is to improve health and performance. This concept was established by Sports Dietician Bob Seehobar. Find the details here.
Through ME training, the body can be taught to favor burning fat over carbs. Increasing ME speaks to your ability to burn more fat versus carbs at the same intensity. As mentioned, the average person has approximately 1,400 – 2,000 calories worth of carbohydrate stored in their body and 50,000 – 80,000 calories stored as fat. Training your body to burn more fat spares it’s limited glycogen (carbohydrate) stores.
According to Seehobar’s website, the benefits of improved metabolic efficiency include 1) decreased body weight, 2) decreased body fat, 3) improved and sustained energy levels and mental alertness throughout the day, 4) improved recovery, 5) improved cognitive function, 6) improved power to weight ratio, 7) improved running velocity, and 8) better sleep.
ME can be tested through a machine that measures the oxygen you inhale and the carbon dioxide that you exhale while exercising on a treadmill or cycling ergometer. By plugging these numbers into an algorithm, one can determine the amount of carbs versus fat they burn at any given intensity.
Generally, as you increase the intensity you shift from burning more fat and less carbs to burning more carbs and less fat. For an example of what this looks like, check out this post by the highly accomplished long distance backpacker and runner Andrew Skurka.
While there is a genetic component to how good of a ‘fat-burner’ you are, it’s something that’s highly trainable.
According to Seehobar, “The majority of improving metabolic efficiency lies in daily nutrition changes and the ability to control and optimize blood sugar through eating proper amounts of protein, fat, and fiber, while accounting for the proper nutrition periodization to support athletes in different training cycles.”
Optimizing blood sugar, or glycemic variability, is something I talk about a lot. It refers to how much our blood sugar shifts throughout the day. According to health guru, endurance athlete, and personal trainer Ben Greenfield, “when it comes to your health, (glycemic variability) is, in my opinion, a more important variable to consider than cholesterol, vitamin D, minerals, telomere length, cortisol, testosterone or just about any biomarker one could ever measure (except, perhaps, inflammation, which I would rank right up there with glycemic variability).”
Reducing glycemic variability is critical to the overall picture of health, including reducing risk for metabolic syndrome, which predisposes you to stroke, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.
As Seehobar states, the key to optimizing blood sugar is to include protein, fat, and fiber with everything you eat. Reducing the overall amount of carbs consumed is also essential, as when you limit incoming glucose, your body will rely on stored body fat for energy.
As mentioned, you don’t need to go extremely low in carbs to see benefits, and in fact, too little carbs can cause issues, such as hypothyroidism. Further, extreme restriction can lead to binge and purge cycles.
It’s difficult to give a blanket recommendation as everyone’s carb requirements are different due to gender, fitness level, body size, and metabolic history. Essentially, consuming carbs (or even too much protein) tells your body to release insulin. Insulin shuts down fat burning in favor of carb metabolism.
How to Do High Fat Healthy
So, fill up on pork rinds and other highly processed fatty junk food? Nope. Sorry. That’s where most folks miss seeing the whole message, and that approach will only lead you down the path of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
As I mentioned, there is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to do high fat. My approach is about HEALTHY High Fat. That means we focus on high fat, moderate protein, and lower carb, all while prioritizing nutrient density.
What does this actually look like in practice? That’s what we’ll cover in part 2.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
This post was originally written for Wishgarden Herbs.
How do you prepare for a 3000-mile hike? It’s a monstrous endeavor, indeed, and after nearly 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve learned that as much goes into the preparation as the execution.
The scope of my upcoming adventure is to hike the length of the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. Depending on the route I take, this will entail walking 2800-3000 miles of continuous foot steps, along the Continental Divide Trail. Commonly referred to as a ‘thru-hike’, I’ll be averaging 30-35 miles per day in order to complete the trail in one season.
Many hikers spend far too much time obsessing over gear, food, weather and other minutiae. While those things have their importance, it’s physical preparation and mindset that result in a successful journey.
To avoid injury and illness, it’s wise to optimize your health before hitting the trail. Before a long hike, I put additional effort into eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet and getting plenty of sleep. This is always important, of course, but the goal is to optimize immune health and resiliency before enduring the physical stress of a long hike.
Building miles slowly is essential to a smooth transition to hiking for 10-12 hours per day. There’s no preparation that compares to putting on a pack and walking all day, but it’s hard to find time for that. Activities like strength training and trail running help build muscle and condition the cardiovascular system in less time.
I’ve seen so many people leave the trail from illness and injury that I created the Adventure Ready online course to help hikers hit the trail feeling healthy and prepared for what’s to come. We cover mindset, diet, gut health, sleep, training, sleep, and stress management.
As critical as the physical preparation is, it’s often said that a thru-hike is 90% mental. Mastering mindset starts with committing to myself to do everything in my power to complete my hike. To stay motivated over the long haul, I like to have a clear sense of why I’m out there. If I know my why, then when the going gets tough (and it will), I find reserves of energy and perseverance I didn’t even know I had.
I find it’s also helpful to anticipate challenges and how I’ll work through them. I know that I’ll miss my loved ones, be physically & emotionally uncomfortable (frequently), things won’t work out as planned, and I’ll be alone a lot. It’s easier to navigate these challenges when I’ve prepared myself mentally. Additionally, I know I’m bound to have a transformative experience.
Connecting with Nature
Hiking a long trail allows me to reach more remote areas which few others take the time to get to. This allows for more intimate connections with the wildlife, which can be both magical and frightening.
The most common question I get, besides “Do you carry a gun” (the answer is no), is “Why?”. Why put your life on hold for 4 months? Why walk across the country, putting your mind and body through so much?
I have many reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is the depth of connection I feel with nature during an experience of total immersion. For me, it takes a week or so of being out, but I can physically feel my body unwinding. The compulsive thought loops of ‘what do I need to be doing right now?’ fall away. I exhale deeply, knowing the only thing I need to do is walk.
The reduction in external input when I’m deep in the wilderness helps me to notice more of what’s around me. Instead of the constant distraction of my own thoughts, I pay more attention to the surroundings. I notice the changing landscape and the weather patterns because they directly impact my experience. I feel the pressure changes of a storm coming before I even see it.
There is space to just be. My mind needs that openness, that white space. I am never more creative than I am while on a long distance hike. I become the truest version of myself. I see this in others as well. They tap into their deepest desires and potential. Creative projects and business ideas are born.
On a 3000 mile walk, I find a different level of presence than I experience in my ‘everyday life’ and that’s what keeps me coming back for more every summer.
If you’re interested in following the adventure or preparing for your own long adventure, I’ll be logging my progress on Instagram (@katiegerber) and on my website.
Food is the through line for me. The growing, the preparing, the consuming, the sharing, and the downstream effects of those things–both on my own health, the health of others, and the health of our environment.
Food is, and always has been, a central part of my life, whether I wanted it to be or not. I write about it, I talk about it, I coach about it. I’ve been on and off of diets (though I never admitted to myself that my strict food rules were diets). I grew up in farm country and worked summer jobs at an agricultural research center. I operated an organic market garden for a season. I worked as a pastry chef, and in restaurants, preparing food for a living. I built wood-fired ovens and hosted community dinners. I’ve always loved the practice of growing food. Hands in the Earth: planting, tending, harvesting. The beauty of simply prepared real food captivates not just my stomach, but my eyes, my mind, and my soul.
But the things is, for most of my life, my relationship with food has been far from serene and charmed. I share this story because food is central life, and the way we relate to food matters. Because how we relate to food is, in many ways, how we relate to all aspects of our lives. Whether that’s from a place of ease, flow, and joy, or from a place of shame, guilt, and restriction.
Your relationship to food, and in turn, to your body, can impact your:
*peace of mind
*ability to carry out your work in this world
*overall quality of life
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a relationship to food. And, outside of the eating disorder community, I don’t think the impact of our day-to-day relationship with food is acknowledged enough. Full blown eating disorders are destructive, to say the least, but I also want to address the more subtle, nuanced feelings and behaviors around food that shape our lives every single day.
By sharing my story, perhaps you can connect the pieces of your own story. If your relationship with food has ever felt tumultuous (especially in your own mind), know that you’re not alone.
If you have no idea what I mean and you’ve never struggled with food, this post may not resonate. And if you’re here looking for strategies on how to eat and train, hang tight, there will be posts on that again soon. But that’s not the focus of this one.
How we relate to food is a topic that I haven’t written on much, but it’s so central to not just our health and how we perform (which is mostly what I write about), but to our entire lives. You can’t talk about health, performance, and diet without talking about our psychology around food.
I’ve avoided discussing it until now because, honestly, it’s something I struggled with for so long and I carried a lot of shame around the fact that it was a thing for me. But I believe shining light on something dissolves the shame (or it helps, at least). I also delayed writing this because my story is an evolving one. I didn’t feel like I was ‘there’ yet. ‘There’ being… completely neurosis-free eating behaviors and body love perfection? I’m not sure what I imagined the final destination to be. I just knew I wasn’t there. Sounds like the familiar trap of perfectionism.
However, I believe our experiences are what we have to offer. Whether or not we fully see their value, it can be helpful to share those experiences, acknowledging that we’re a work in progress. There is no such thing as perfect. After all, I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I used to be when nearly every bit of my mental energy centered around food: planning, calculating, weighing, measuring, controlling. I may not be neurosis-free, but I’ve learned a few things since then.
Ultimately, changing how I relate to food changed everything. Yes, in terms of my health, but also in terms of my creativity, mood, peace of mind, relationships, presence, and overall quality of life. And if this is an area where you’ve struggled, hopefully connecting these pieces can improve every aspect of your life as well. It may sound like a big claim, but bringing awareness to your relationship with food can be more transformative than any diet, exercise regime, or supplement could ever be.
Some days, I wake up shocked that I voluntarily choose to speak to people about food for a living. I was always the person who avoided talking about food and body image to others. I hated when people gave or solicited food/diet/exercise advice. I hated when coaches, teachers, family, and friends would comment on my body. It didn’t matter if the comments were ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. I hated that they noticed that I had a body and that they noticed that it had changed. I think I just hated that I even had a body. I’ve never lived in anything other than a female body, so I can’t say for sure, but I think being a woman and an athlete made this journey even more challenging as I took on everyone else’s expectations about what that body ‘should’ be.
Even more surprising than this being my chosen path is the fact that I actually love working with others around food and health. It’s challenging on every level, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to show up for others compassionately and empathetically as they navigate this intense and complicated space.
It may seem trite, but I believe our greatest personal struggles can serve as a jumping off point for the work we do in the world. Our challenges can be our greatest gifts if we choose for them to be. We can excavate the lessons and share them, if for nothing else than to let at least one other human know ‘I see you and you’re not alone in your suffering’.
In many ways, this feels like a tired story–one which everyone has their own version of. And it could’ve gotten much worse, so it almost doesn’t feel worth sharing. In fact, I know many women for whom it did get much worse. But it shaped who I am, so it’s worth giving voice to it.
There isn’t a single moment that defines this story, but rather a collection of memories. I remember that I learned to fear food early on. It was something to be cautious of. The body was not something to revel in, but something to control. It’s animal impulses were to be suppressed not just in the mind, but in the body as well, through denial, diet, and workouts. Lingering remnants of puritan roots.
One early memory comes from third grade, when a male classmate told me I had a ‘bubble butt’. Thus was born the awareness that I had a body and that this body was different than other bodies. Why, of all the memories, do I still remember that one? I was never overweight, but my build was always athletic and curvy. I also remember seeing my mother judging her own body in the mirror, fighting her appetite, and being compulsive about exercise. She was fighting her own battle and, of course, had no idea that I was noticing and absorbing it all.
And then there was athletics, when I became even more aware of my body and how it was changing. On the one hand, it was empowering to feel my own strength, but participating in sports also invited comparison and judgment. Being forced to march in parades in a skimpy majorette uniform. Track, swimming, and cross country practices and being valued on how my body performed. My shoulders growing too big for my sweaters during swim season. The comments of a male cross country coach after a summer of over-exercising and under-eating: “Now you’re starting to look like a real long distance runner”. What does that mean? What was I before? I wondered.
Then there was the concern/criticism/jealousy (depending on the source) of coaches, friends, and family upon returning from my freshman year of college 20 pounds lighter than when I’d left. I hated the attention on my body, no matter it’s size. No matter if it was criticism or praise.
This is not a pity story. It’s simply the events that I remember shaping the way I viewed myself and my body, and how that then impacted my relationship to food. We all have these stories. During that time, sadly, the primary purpose of food and exercise for me was to experience a sense of control. That view now feels so shallow to me because food, movement, and the body are all portals to so much more.
This path naturally led to an obsession with health. I read every nutrition magazine and book I could get my hands on. I experimented on myself, trying to figure out the secrets, the one right way to keep the unruly body in check. Like a game-show contestant, I knew the calorie count of every food by memory. I tracked and logged.
Looking back, I’m saddened by how much time and energy I wasted thinking about food, calories, exercise, and my body. So much time and energy that could’ve gone into creation, self-expression, learning, connecting, and actually living.
There were so many phases and rules, and it changed by the month. Only skim milk, never whole. Fruit is the only ‘safe’ dessert. Eat meal bars for exact calorie counts. No eating until your stomach growls. Don’t eat meat or dairy. Avoid social events because you don’t know what food will be there or how it was prepared. So. Much. Obsessiveness.
But I never did land on the ‘one thing’ or actually figure ‘it’ out. There was always a new article telling me to do the opposite of what I’d been doing. I tried and I tried. I chased perfection with my diet. I followed all my food rules. I never missed a day of working out. And no matter how my body changed, it never became ‘perfect’ in my eyes. So I beat myself up mentally and became even more disciplined.
In college, I was under more pressure than ever (at least in my own mind). Advanced classes, sports teams, multiple jobs, new peers, dorm rooms, and dining halls. All far from everything and everyone that was familiar and comfortable to me. Of course I grasped for control. The compulsive exercising and undereating became extreme.
After a year or so of anorexia, I was broken. My body was screaming for nourishment and thus came the binges. First it was only rarely. Then it was happening more often. Then it was daily. All the things I’d restricted. I could no longer out-exercise the binges, so then came the purging. And the bulimia. The shame. The secrecy. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, who I had become. A shell of my true self. I was living in a self-created hell of shame and destructive behaviors.
Every aspect of my life suffered as all my thoughts revolved around food and exercise, and how messed up my life had become. Relationships fell away. Money was wasted. I lied to people I loved. I avoided social functions. I wasn’t truly engaged in anything I was doing.
Finding My Way Out
This was controlling my entire life in a way I could’ve never imagined if I weren’t living it.
The cycles of binging and purging, the overindulgence and the restriction, were not limited to food. It affected how I was expressing myself (or lack thereof) in every part of my life. I was ruled by perfectionism, control, and fear. My body couldn’t be trusted to know what it needed. If I just ate when and what I wanted, who knows what might happen? If I had to miss a day of exercise, I was grumpy and angry. My mindset reflected a deeply distrustful relationship to myself, my body, and the world.
Just as there was no one incident that led me into this hole, there was no one moment that pulled me out of it. It’s been a long journey and it’s an ongoing one. And that’s what I want to emphasize: it’s a process. Just as I slowly dug myself into the hole, finding my way out would take time and reprogramming as well.
It involved therapy, building a metaphorical toolbox of tools to deal with challenges, developing emotional resilience, and trusting (my body, my cravings, other people, the world). I worked on incorporating more joy into my life, connecting with a healthy social circle, and learning to see my body for the powerful force that it is. Finding my way out also included being vigilant about what I was feeding my mind, and examining the expectations I was setting for myself. It involved learning grace and learning to hold it ALL lightly.
Part of digging out of the hole of restriction and fear was understanding what these behaviors were doing for me. It’s different for everyone, but personally, these behaviors served as a sense of control when everything else in life felt like too much. So I learned how to bear discomfort.
Eventually, I became more alive, more myself. I learned to spot those Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and to squash them, rather than letting them colonize my brain as I had before. I put more energy into relationships and laughing with people I love. I forgave myself for not being perfect.
In fact, I learned to laugh at the idea of perfection and embrace the beautiful flaws of being human. Indeed, it’s the ‘imperfections’ of others that make me adore them the most. Couldn’t I learn to turn that mindset inward?
Feeding myself and others became an expression of love and creativity. I attuned to my pleasures, my desires, and the way that life was seeking to move through me. I sought to release all the little knots in my heart and the ways I was resisting life.
I began to take immense pleasure in what my body could do. Using my strength and endurance to move through the mountains has been the most empowering, transformative force for changing how I relate to body. I noticed that I shifted from wanting to feel SMALL to wanting to feel STRONG. To feel the power in my legs as I glide up a mountain, to feel my lungs pound in my chest as I run along the trail, to truly inhabit my animal body, that is what lights me up now. The size of my thighs doesn’t cross my mind when I’m out in nature experiencing life.
Why Real Food is Always the Starting Point
But, before any of that, it started with letting go of ALL of the food rules and everything I thought I knew. The only guideline I followed was to just eat real food and listen to my body’s feedback.
When I focused on whole foods instead of ‘diet’ foods (like meal replacement shakes/bars and other highly processed items), everything became easier. I learned that when I ate whole foods containing fat, fiber, protein and micronutrients, that my body regulated it’s hunger levels. I realized that fat doesn’t make you fat.
Sure, it took time and practice, but eventually I could hear the feedback my body was providing. It was telling me how much food I needed. I could feel which foods were nourishing me and which I was better off avoiding for now. I found freedom from the diet mindset through real, as-close-to-nature-as-possible, foods.
It’s true that there are certain foods I tend to avoid, but not because those foods are ‘bad’, but because I feel better without them in my diet. It’s different to come from a place of love than a place of punishment. Unfortunately, most women I know tend to be really good at denying their bodies cravings and punishing themselves through restriction.
Whereas before my ‘food rules’ came from a place of fear and self-hate, any ‘rules’ I follow now come from self-love and a place of wanting to feel my absolute best. I want to be able to show up for myself and for those I care about. I want to be of service and to have all my energy available to do my best work in this world. I want to have my energy freed up to be present to the life unfolding around me.
Finding Food Freedom for Yourself
That’s why I don’t ascribe to one ‘perfect diet’ and why I don’t encourage clients to follow specific diets either. Maintaining an outlook of ongoing learning and adaptability to my body’s feedback is why it wasn’t as difficult as I expected to leave 15 years of identifying as a vegetarian to becoming a conscious omnivore. We have a tendency to think in ideals with diet and, for some, to make it an identity. But that will only limit our freedom and growth.
There are no rules, only choices. Rules are restrictive and prevent you from tuning in and listening to what works for YOUR body. Real health comes from real food and learning how to figure out what works for your body. And learning how to listen to your body is harder than following a set of rules. We want a pill, a prescription, a quick fix. The one perfect diet. But the real work of long term health requires more introspection than that.
There can’t be one simple set of rules because everyone needs something different and that changes throughout their lives. Following what works for someone else while tuning out our own bodies can have real impacts on our health and hormones. Ever had the experience of trying to eat the same diet that ‘works’ for your mom/friend/sister/boyfriend and find it either does not for you, or worse, makes you feel awful?
Our world if full of eye-catching headlines and snappy sound bites telling us what to eat and how to exercise. There’s so much conflicting information out there, with new studies coming out daily. It’s so.damn.overwhelming. No wonder most people are confused about what to eat.
Let go of seeking the perfect diet. Remember that it’s going to be different for everyone, but it will always start with just eating real food. That will never change based on new studies or fads.
It’s time to make peace with food and with our bodies instead of letting how ‘perfectly’ or not perfectly you think you’re eating control your mind, your self-worth, your confidence, your energy, your mood, and your quality of life.
We make it so much harder than it needs to be. And all of the rules and guilt keep us in fear, living a limited life and a limited version of ourselves. And this is not the life I want for myself or for you.
Your relationship to food is central to how you show up in every aspect of your life.
So, what is your relationship to food? Stop distracting yourself long enough to be honest. Because it matters. And it starts with awareness. Guilt? Shame?Joy? Make room for all of it. Because your relationship to food is your relationship to life.
Focus on the Journey (There is no destination.)
As I mentioned, this process is a journey. Give yourself some grace.
Years after I thought I’d healed myself, I was going through a particularly tough spot in life. I’d left a relationship, a business, a career, a home, and a community. I was on entirely new and shaky ground. Everything about my identity was in flux. Without even realizing what was happening, those old behaviors crept back in.
It wasn’t easy to navigate and I certainly stumbled, but I was able to approach it with more wisdom having walked that path before. It took time for me to get a handle on it, but the thing that actually helped was not fighting what was happening, but instead revisiting many of the tools that pulled me out of my mess before. Returning to the basics.
It’s a journey and a practice. There is no destination.
It all starts with real food. Food is a source of nourishment, joy, beauty, sustenance, and fuel for your adventures. It’s not something to fear. It’s can be a connection to others, to culture, to the past. It’s SO. Much. More. than calories, macronutrients, or a way to control life.
Good food is good for the planet.
Nourished humans can live their best lives: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They can live on purpose.
Your body and food are vehicles for pleasure. Whether that means a perfect Greek meal made by your nanna or a lung-busting run up the side of a mountain (type 2 fun), enjoy this animal body while you have one because, as we all know, our time here is short.
That wraps up part 1 on this topic. In part 2, I’ll explore how all of this ties into how you eat on trail, or on any other adventure for that matter.
In the meantime, comment below. Did this resonate with you? Can you relate?
If you’ve spent any amount of time in proximity to the long distance hiking community, you’re likely aware that food is a frequently discussed topic. What will I pack in my resupply box? When is my next snack break? What will I eat in town? Food, food, food…and rightfully so, as thru-hikers burn through 3,000-6,000+ calories per day.
It won’t take long and you’ll notice a common mentality surface: hikers need a lot of calories and the source of those calories doesn’t matter. In fact, some even claim that you need junk food to fuel a long distance hike because it’s assumed to be calorie-rich. This sole focus on calories is the thru-hiker calorie myth.
I call B.S. You can finish a hike relying solely on processed carbs. I’ve seen hundreds of hikers do it, but it’s certainly not necessary, and you’ll likely plow through your body’s reserves and compromise performance in the process. If the junk food diet approach doesn’t interest you for whatever reason (i.e. long-term health, performance optimization, environmental impact, dietary restrictions), rest-assured that there are feasible alternatives.
While the body can and will use any source of energy you give them, I’d submit that there are definite advantages to fueling on whole foods and significant disadvantages to relying solely on junk food.
What is the ‘thru-hiker diet’?
It’s hard to imagine a diet worse in quality and nutritional benefits than the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is an obvious culprit in the U.S. obesity epidemic (affecting 1 in 3 adults) and a strong contributor to the current chronic disease crisis (affecting 1 in 2 adults).
But there is one diet that is arguably even worse, and that’s the standard Thru-Hiker diet. This diet consists primarily of heavily processed, packaged foods, which are loaded with preservatives, artificial ingredients, colorings, trans fats, and excess sugar. Of course, this way of eating developed because hikers need high calorie food, which is light, packable, and tasty, but many are unaware of the true impact of fueling on these foods, and the alternatives which exist.
Why Not Maximize Performance, Health, and Enjoyment?
It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to bring a long distance hike to life. Why just survive out there when you could feel truly awesome? It’s simply a matter of tweaking something you’re already doing: eating.
The intention of this post is not to impose guilt or even to persuade you to eat a certain way. Rather, the intention is to provide a resource for those seeking an alternative to the thru-hiker junk food paradigm (as I was). On a deeper level, the intention is to provide a beacon of truth in a very crowded landscape of marketers who are trying to sell you their products. It’s to help you develop your own compass, so you can take control of your health (because no one else is going to do that for you).
So, what are the downsides to fueling on junk food? What does the science say? What’s the alternative?
First, Some Definitions
When I refer to ‘junk food’, I’m referring to highly processed, packaged foods. They are often high in refined sugars and have lengthy ingredient lists containing additives, preservatives, food dyes, and artificial ingredients. Generally, they’re high in calories and low in nutritional value.
‘Whole foods’, on the other hand, are unprocessed, unadulterated, and generally quite close to the form in which you’d find them in nature. They are free of artificial ingredients and additives, and if they’re in a package at all, the ingredient list is short and consists of recognizable ingredients.
Calories matter, but that’s not all you need.
When you’re moving for 10+ hours per day, the obsession with calories is understandable. And while junk food certainly provides calories (though not always as much many assume), the primary downside is that it lacks the nutrients that will keep your body functioning optimally during rigorous physical demands.
I often hear hikers say, ‘I’m losing weight eating this way. How can I be unhealthy?’. Frankly, on trail or off, the focus on weight in the overall picture of health is myopic. Energy balance is important, but your food should do more than just provide calories.
When your muscles are strained as they are during a long distance hike, vitamin and mineral stores are depleted more quickly than when sedentary. These micronutrients are essential for athletes because they contribute to energy metabolism, amino acid synthesis, red blood cell synthesis, and overall reduction of inflammation (which increases during exercise). The increased nutrient turnover in athletes leads to an increased dietary requirement. Where are these micronutrients found most abundantly? Whole foods (especially fruits and veggies).
Fitness ≠ Health
It’s commonly assumed that because thru-hikers are fit that they are healthy. However, you can absolutely be fit, but unhealthy. In a 2016 review in Sports Med-Open, the authors clarify the difference between fitness and overall health.
Fitness is the ability to perform a given exercise. Health is an overall state of well-being where physiological systems are operating optimally. The general term given to unhealthy athletes is overtraining syndrome, and the authors argue that the primary drivers of this are “high training intensity and the modern-day highly processed, high glycemic diet. Both factors elicit a sympathetic response through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, in turn driving systemic reactive oxygen species production, inflammation, and a metabolic substrate imbalance towards carbohydrate and away from fat oxidation, manifesting in an array of symptoms often labeled as the overtraining syndrome.”
The Dangers of a Junk Food Diet
Inflammation and Impaired Long-term Health
What does inflammation mean for the hiker? When inflammation is high and persistent, it affects all body systems. In the short term, this means suboptimal performance,increased muscle soreness, longer recovery times, slower wound healing, increased susceptibility to illness, and less mental acuity. Not good when you’re hiking a marathon a day for 5 months. In the long term, chronic inflammation increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Highly refined vegetable oils as well as sugar, both found abundantly in junk foods, provide the raw materials for inflammation in the body. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that in healthy populations, reliance on fast foods and sugars is positively correlated with symptoms of metabolic syndrome. While this may not manifest during a hike, it’s still something to consider as you choose your food for a multi-month thru-hike.
Increased Illness, Slower Healing, and Slower Recovery
You can decrease the likelihood of ending your hike early by changing what’s in your food bag. The full body inflammation caused by excess intake of ultra-processed foods increases susceptibility to injury and illness. In 2017, injury and illness accounted for 17% of AT hikers quitting their thru-hike attempt.
Chronic inflammation also suppresses your immune system, thereby causing slower wound healing and slower recovery. It’s not uncommon to endure small wounds on trail, and quick healing reduces the chances of developing a serious infection that could end a hike.
Impaired Gut Health & Intestinal Permeability
Intricately tied to inflammation is the health of the gut lining. Sugar and refined ingredients, as well as several food additives and preservatives, have been shown to disrupt the digestive system and contribute to intestinal permeability. This is particularly true when exposure is chronic.
It’s helpful to remember that your liver has to process everything that you put into the body. Think of it like a water filter. Think about what happens when you filter from a dirty cow tank, for instance.
Decreased Mental Clarity & Motivation
It’s often said that thru-hiking success is 90% mental. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no doubt that the mental game is a huge part of successfully completing your adventure. And what you eat directly affects your brain. Steady blood sugar helps you make better decisions and stay motivated over the long haul. Eating a nutrient-dense diet also helps with navigation and making smart decisions in the backcountry.
Energy Imbalance & Bonking: One ticket for the energy roller coaster, please.
Another aspect of relying on processed carbs all day is the effect on your energy. When you eat food, your blood sugar levels rise, and your pancreas releases insulin to shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into cells. This is a good thing. It gives you energy. However, how quickly your blood sugar rises and falls depends on the source of the energy. Refined carbs alone will cause a rapid spike and then crash in blood sugar. You’ll crave more sugar and start the cycle over. This is the energy roller coaster and once you’re on it, it’s hard to get off. More complex carbs, on the other hand, along with eating healthy fat, fiber, or protein with meals and snacks will slow down the response and provide more sustained and lasting energy.
Think about tending a fire. You need the kindling for a quick burning fuel source and you need logs for a long sustained burn, so you’re not constantly feeding the fire with kindling. Carbs are the kindling and can be great for quick energy, but pair them with fats and protein for more sustained energy.
When you rely solely on simple sugar all day, you tend to have a lot of energy spikes and crashes. Completing a long hike requires long days. The key to having sustained energy and hiking big miles is avoiding the spikes and crashes by steering clear of highly-refined, processed foods.
Increased Hunger & Increased Pack Weight
Consuming foods devoid of nutrients leaves the body unsatisfied, even when a large amount of calories have been consumed. This leads to endless hunger and results in buying and carrying more food than you may actually need. A 2019 study indicated that people eat more on an ultra-processed diet than on a whole foods diet. Just by cutting out the processed foods, your hunger will naturally regulate itself. Studies also suggest that a high micronutrient diet (vs. a low micronutrient, but high calorie diet) can not only help you experience less hunger, but can make the hunger symptoms more tolerable. While many hikers aren’t trying to lose weight intentionally, most would agree that it’d be nice to not constantly feel ravenous.
Ultimately, when you’re hungrier, you eat more. When you have to eat more, you have to buy more and carry more, which obviously results in more money spent and a heavier pack. A heavier pack not only decreases enjoyment, but can lead to increased wear and tear on the body, and ultimately to injury. Of course, there’s the very real fact that your body is working hard and needs a lot of calories, but most hikers I know who’ve shifted to more whole foods don’t seem to have the same level of hiker hunger as those eating only processed foods.
Creation of Unhealthy Habits
Repetitive behaviours turn into habits in as little as 3 weeks. When you’ve been training your body for months to eat and crave junk food, it can be difficult to shift to healthier patterns once you return home. The consequences on your body and mind are real. It may seem like no big deal at the onset, but most of us know how difficult it can be to retrain ourselves and form healthy habits.
Post-trail Weight Gain & A Messed-Up Relationship with Food
An infrequently discussed topic in the hiking community is adjusting to life post-trail, especially when it comes to eating and health. Hikers may lose weight in the short term, but over the course of a few years, a highly processed diet contributes to obesity and metabolic syndrome (two of the mostly costly worldwide epidemics), and mounting evidence suggests that these foods also play a part in immune-mediated metabolic dysregulation. This is relevant for the hiker who is taxing her system on trail and needs a healthy immune system to remain strong and resilient, both in the short and the long term.
It’s not uncommon to hear hikers joke about having two wardrobes: one for hiking season and one for non-hiking season. Obviously there’s a massive decrease in physical activity which can lead to rapid weight gain if one doesn’t regulate food intake. Consider that it’s easier to regulate food intake when 1) you’re eating whole foods (as cited above) and 2) your taste buds haven’t been trained to crave highly processed foods.
It’s rarely discussed, but when hikers return home and attempt to shift their diet, it can also be emotionally challenging. Cycles of binging and then restriction are not uncommon and are worsened by cravings for highly palatable, ultra-processed foods. This can not only lead to a disturbed relationship with food, but can contribute to the post-trail depression many experience.
Increased Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease, Autoimmune Conditions, and Allergies
We’ve already covered the increased risk of metabolic syndrome from eating a processed diet over the long term. A junk food diet is more likely to result in cardiovascular disease and autoimmune conditions that will affect you long after you’re off the trail. Processed foods are also more likely to cause allergies.
Looking at the Bigger Picture
We evolved with whole foods and we’re only beginning to understand the health implications of the alterations being made to foods, such as genetic engineering, pesticide residues, and the addition of preservatives, food colorings, synthetic chemicals, and more.
As a reminder, highly processed foods were not created the way they are for your health. They were created to be cheap for the companies to make, to have a long shelf life, and to make you eat more. You’re literally up against billions of dollars of research and food scientists focusing solely on those outcomes. When reading headlines or even when looking at the literature, it’s helpful to look at who sponsored the study and how it was conducted.
For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), the world’s largest association of nutrition professionals, was funded by Coca-cola until 2015, and many of their ‘Fact Sheets’ were written by industry sponsors. This is the organization Registered Dieticians (RDs) are credentialed through. This is not at all to imply that there are no ethical dieticians, but rather to suggest that you might consider looking into the research for yourself. Look at who is funding that study telling you that candy bars are healthy.
Again, it’s not about moralizing food and saying that some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’. But it is true that some foods contribute to overall health, while others are more likely to cause your health to deteriorate. Be informed.
Finally, the environmental impact of our choices is something we all need to be aware of. Industrial, highly-processed, GMO-filled foods increase the profits of mega-corporations at the expense of the environment we love so much.
What does the grandfather of long distance hiking have to say? (#whatwouldraydo?)
Interestingly, in Beyond Backpacking, originally published in 1992, author Ray Jardine suggests that in regards to backpacking food we “consider not only the whims of our taste buds but the physiological need of our bodies and brains… If our journeys degenerate into battles, in terms of lost energy and mental buoyancy, then I think those battles are usually won or lost in the grocery stores, rather than on the trails”.
Jardine goes on to point out how to recognize junk food in its various forms and reveals how not all “food” is food. He states that “poorly nourished hikers often find themselves low on energy and endurance. They usually assume that hiking is inherently tiring, and that the steepness and length of the trail is to blame for their weariness. Malnutrition can also manifest in the hiker’s mental outlook.”
Jardine points out the dangers of nutrient poor foods and food additives. He even covers the ‘calorie myth’, stating “sugars are high in calories but they do not provide us with usable energy. Nor do they encourage recuperation from strenuous exercise, cleanse our muscles of their byproducts, help repair micro-damaged muscles fibers, or help strengthen our muscles and increase their stamina. Sugars are also quite useless at promoting mental acuity.”
Somehow, the junk food diet became the norm in thru-hiker culture, which seems odd, really. In what other realm do you see athletes pushing to the edge of their physical limits by fueling on the worst foods they can find?
Fueling for energy, endurance, and overall health does not have to difficult or expensive as many hikers believe. At a very basic level, just do your best to eat real food. Yes, food manufacturers have made it more difficult to do this. However, with a few simple tips (see below) and a bit of practice, you’ll soon be a pro, reaping the benefits of increased energy, endurance, mental acuity, and long term health.
Removing the junk from your food bag doesn’t mean you need to go buy expensive foods marketed as ‘sports’ foods (like clif bars or gatorade). Many of those are just candy bars in sheep’s clothing: similar ingredients with a marketing spin. Whole foods from bulk bins are often less expensive and, as covered earlier, you’ll likely need to carry less to fuel you.
If you’re not eating the ultra-processed stuff, where will you get your carbs? Carbs are an important part of fueling a long hike, but you can get them from dried fruits, tubers, legumes, whole grains and other real food. Relying on the highly processed ones is not only unnecessary but can be damaging to your performance and long term health, as discussed.
5 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of the Junk Food Diet
When it comes to eating for endurance, and overall personal and planetary health, I tend to follow a credo more than a specific diet. I don’t like the word ‘diet’ because it conjures up ideas of strict rules and restriction, which is not what I’m suggesting. A credo is more of a set of principles that guide your actions and beliefs.
Think of your food choices as a continuum with a 100% Junk Food diet on one end and a 100% seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local (SOUL) diet on the other end. This framework helps me work towards making better choices when I can, but not getting so caught up in rules and ‘shoulds’ that I give up entirely.
Here are a few of the basic principles and how you can apply them to your next outdoor adventure.
Focus on whole, unprocessed foods on trail. Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and dehydrated veggies are all great choices. There are lots of ideas online and you can also check out my free Eat for Endurance ebook for more ideas.
Read labels and avoid excessive added sugar, trans fat, and additives like artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrate, sodium sulfate, food dyes, potassium bromate, and MSG.
Send resupply boxes to places with limited options. Don’t be stuck eating gas station food for a week because you didn’t plan ahead. You’ll feel gross and you’ll compromise your energy and performance. Here’s how I plan my resupply boxes.
Make up for micronutrient deficiencies in town by choosing fresh vegetables and salads instead of (or at least in addition to) pizza, burgers, and beer.
Make small changes. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:
Swap out some candy for dried fruit. If your body is craving quick energy, eating fruit will give you a quick dose of carbs, with enough fiber to maintain blood sugar balance, and without all the added junk. And there are SO MANY options: raisins, cranberries, apricots, blueberries, mango, banana, etc.
Look for chips and other crunchy/salty snacks with as few ingredients as possible. For example, compare the following:
Ingredients in Nacho Cheese Doritos: whole corn, vegetable oil (corn, soybean, and/or sunflower oil), salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese (part skim cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, corn flour, disodium phosphate, lactose, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, spices, lactic acid, artificial color (including Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40), citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, red and green bell pepper powder, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, nonfat milk solids, whey protein isolate, corn syrup solids.
Start slow and do what you can. As they say, the dose makes the poison. Even making a few small changes is a good step towards fueling yourself for performance and creating a better environment at the same time.
The good news? You’re FREE. Absolutely free to make your own decisions. Free to choose pesticide-laden junk or free to fuel on nature’s buffet of whole foods. You decide.
What diet or supplements would you recommend to help combat tendinitis? I’ve been suffering from Achilles tendinitis for a couple of months now. I’ve been in PT for 5 weeks. It seems I may have turned the corner, but I’m wondering if you can give me some specific foods or supplements that can help me continue to heal. I have friends who swear by collagen and bone broth, but I haven’t tried these things. Anything you suggest for on the trail or at home would be great.
Great question, Lemuel, as this is something a lot of hikers struggle with. As a health and nutrition coach, I don’t diagnose, prescribe, or treat, but I can share what I’ve seen work for myself and others when it comes to tendinitis. Here are some ideas for how you can support your body in recovering more quickly.
What is tendinitis?
For anyone unfamiliar, tendinitis (also called tendonitis) is an inflammatory condition of the tendons. The tendons connect muscles to bones. Tendinitis is often caused by repetitive movements, injuries, or built up inflammation. It can affect people of all ages, sizes, and physical ability, and it’s quite painful. Inflamed tendons are more prone to stress, strain, and tears. Traditionally, treatment involves rest, ice/heat packs, PT, and anti-inflammatory medications.
How To Combat Tendinitis with Diet & Supplements
Follow an Anti-inflammatory Diet
Because tendinitis is an inflammatory condition, the first thing to implement, if you’re not already doing so, is an anti-inflammatory diet. Food can have a dramatic effect on inflammation levels, with some foods combating inflammation and others feeding the fire. This is something I talk about a lot with your trail diet.
An anti-inflammatory diet is one that’s heavy in plants, especially cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale). This is because plants tend to be high in antioxidants. Antioxidants combat oxidative stress and free radical damage, which are the primary drivers of inflammation. Vitamin C is an antioxidant found in high quantities in berries, and it helps rebuild collagen, a key component in tissues.
It’s also important to eat high-quality proteins sourced from grass-fed, pastured animals. This helps the body repair and rebuild damaged tissue. Aim for 4-6 ounces with each meal. Examples include cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught fish. Fish are also a great choice because they contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
Also aim to include a wide variety of herbs and spices, which are potent sources of anti-inflammatory compounds. Ginger and turmeric are great options.
On the other hand, inflammatory foods to avoid include alcohol, excess caffeine, sugar, processed foods, and hydrogenated oils.
The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) is a 750-mile route through the high desert country of Eastern Oregon. In the shape of a lopsided W, the Oregon Desert Trail made is up of a network of trails, cross-country travel, and two-track dirt roads. Oregon Desert “Trail” is a bit of a misnomer as the route is actually only 9% trail. The remainder of the miles are comprised of 35% cross-country travel, 51% unpaved/dirt roads, and 5% paved roads. The route was established in 2011 and has been thru-hiked by fewer than 30 hikers, who generally take four to six weeks to complete it. The ODT traverses some of the most spectacular natural areas of Oregon’s dry side, including Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain, and the Owyhee Canyonlands.
Oregon Desert Trail At-a-Glance
Distance: 753.5 miles (variable depending on the specific route you choose).
Location: Southeast Oregon.
Trail type: Point-to-point.
Scenery: Sagebrush seas, fault-block mountains, lava beds, canyonlands, pinyon-juniper forests, deserts, and hot springs.
Terrain: Moderate to difficult, with rolling hills to river crossings and steep off-trail navigation through dense vegetation.
Navigation: The route is unmarked and requires map and compass skills and/or use of a GPS. The best resource for maps and way points is the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) website. There are occasional cairns or sections where the route follows other signed trails, but this is rare.
The termini are located in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness near Bend, OR, and in Lake Owyhee State Park, near the southwest border of Idaho. The trail can be hiked east to west or west to east. For most people, accessing the Western Terminus near Bend is easier. You could fly into Redmond Municipal Airport, 17 miles from downtown Bend, and taxi or Uber to the Badlands Wilderness, or to the bus station (see below) if you’re starting at the Eastern Terminus.
The Eastern Terminus at Lake Owyhee State Park is more remote. If you can find someone to drop you off, that’s definitely the easiest option. If that’s not possible, take the POINT bus Eastern route from Hawthorne station in Bend to Vale/Ontario and taxi from there. A possible option detailed on the ONDA website is trail advocates in the Lake Owyhee area who may be willing to help out hikers with transportation. Be a good trail steward and treat these people with generosity and kindness.
Of interest for those planning a section hike of the trail, the ONDA website offers the following information: “The Lake County Senior Citizen Association (LCSCA) Lake County Public Transportation program offers rides around Lake County. The priority for the service is for seniors needing medical services, but if space is available hikers are welcome to ride. Trips may travel between Christmas Valley, Bend, Paisley and Lakeview. The cost depends on location (usually between $10-20). Call to inquire about availability and schedule: 541-947-4966.”
Which Direction Should You Hike?
This trail can be hiked in either direction. Most ODT thru-hikers have gone eastbound, but in the last few years, at least five of us have gone westbound. The pros of traveling westbound include finishing in Bend, with its many tasty restaurants and 22 microbreweries (the highest per capita in the US). Getting home from Bend is also likely to be easier. On the downside, westbound travel means more challenging terrain at the start of your hike. Traveling eastbound, on the other hand, may mean more logistics getting home from the Eastern Terminus, but more gentle terrain to start and a much more scenic finish at the spectacular Owyhee Lake terminus.
Why Hike the Oregon Desert Trail
The ODT is unlike any other trail you’ve hiked, and that alone is a good reason to hike it. Southeast Oregon is one of the least densely populated regions of the country and many of the towns you travel through are one stoplight with one combined gas station/convenience store/bar/post office. I found that being on a trail without so much trail culture around it made for more genuine interactions with the locals.
Another reason to hike this trail is the lack of crowds. The total number of permits issued for the PCT in 2018 was 7,313. That’s in stark contrast to the number of other hikers I saw aside from my hiking partners, which was zero in 30 days. This provides a wonderful opportunity to unplug and truly clear your mind.
Another benefit of the remoteness of the ODT is the lack of light pollution, which allows for some of the most incredible night skies I’ve ever experienced. The wide-open expansive horizons also showcased vibrant sunrises and sunsets almost daily.
I found that being on a trail without so much trail culture around it made for more genuine interactions with the locals.
This trail also passes several hot springs, including Summer Lake Hot Springs and Hunter’s Hot Springs, as well as Hart Mountain Hot Springs, Alvord Hot Springs, and several soaking pools in the Owyhee Canyonlands. This is thanks to the region’s rich volcanic history, which adds to the interesting geologic features of the region.
Aside from all this, the greatest reason to hike this trail is for the freedom and challenge it provides. From heat to navigation to water challenges, the ODT will test your limits every day. Furthermore, the freedom to hike as you wish, without anyone telling you you’re “doing it wrong” is also extremely refreshing.
Climate, Weather, and When to Hike
This region gets HOT in the summer, making the ideal seasons for hiking here in the spring or fall. Each option has its own unique challenges and considerations. For example, water is more likely to be available in the spring than in the fall. However, if you start late enough, the fall is likely to be cooler. I also just find autumn to be a very pleasant time to be in the desert.
We completed our ODT thru-hike from Sept. 1-30. The first week, daytime temperatures were in the high 80s and low 90s, but cooled to high 50s and mid 60s later in the hike. Our nighttime temps ranged from low 20s to mid 40s. The only rain we experienced was a brief shower our last morning on trail.
Oregon Desert Trail Gear Suggestions
Like most desert ecosystems, the ODT is harsh. There are many pokey things, as well as venomous fauna like scorpions and rattlesnakes (we saw 13). The biggest challeng,e however is water. Water sources may include streams or springs, but more often include cow tanks. Having reliable water treatment as well as a backup method is a good idea. For example, carrying a filter plus Aquatabs, in case your filter breaks (as mine did) or freezes. This is not the trail to test your luck with not treating water.
Because sources can be as far as 40 miles apart, I’d recommend a ten- to 12-liter carrying capacity. Keep in mind that these can be challenging cross-country miles with very little shade. On that note, a sun umbrella can also be incredibly helpful for creating your own personal shade.
Finally, while you certainly could hike this trail with only map and compass, I found having a GPS in addition to my paper maps made for more accurate and efficient navigation.
As long as you’re not on private land, which is something to stay aware of on the ODT, you can essentially camp wherever you’d like. As expected, there are no shelters, and the route does not travel through any fee areas.
Oregon Desert Trail Highlights
The ODT was much more diverse than I expected. In addition to the hot springs mentioned earlier, some standout sections include Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert, and Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. The trail also passes by petroglyphs as well as several fascinating volcanic features, like Crack-in-the-Ground.
Water is the crux of the route. When I hiked in 2018, the region experienced one of the hottest and driest summers on record, making water during our fall hike a challenge. At one point, we each carried three gallons (that’s 24 pounds!). Sources range from streams to lakes to springs to cow tanks. Some are clear, many are murky.
The most valuable resource for water on the ODT is the water report hosted on ONDA’s website. It’s a Google spreadsheet, so hikers are able to make notes in the field and it syncs once you’re back on Wi-Fi. Sources are ranked as unreliable, questionable, and reliable, and the report contains notes from the current year as well as past years. This was incredibly helpful as we found 2018 more closely matched with 2015 in terms of which sources we could expect to be reliable. We never counted on a source that wasn’t labeled reliable.
Most hikers will also want to cache water in the western 160 miles of trail. ONDA may be able to assist with this for a $10 donation. More details are found on the ‘Water’ tab of the Trail Resources page.
The trail travels through or near 16 communities, allowing hikers to resupply often. Many of the towns are on trail or only require a short (<10 mile) hitch. ONDA offers an extensive town guide to help with resupply planning.
Several of the towns are quite small, with limited or expensive options, so it’s helpful to send boxes. In terms of food, you can see where and how I resupplied here, which includes where, what, and how much food I sent. I mostly mailed myself boxes and regretted the stops where I didn’t. Here’s how I approached creating a healthy resupply in a remote town with limited options.
Small, remote towns also mean you need to be more self-sufficient in your packing than you would on more well-populated routes. Be prepared for something to go wrong. For example, when my phone died on day three, there was no Apple store anywhere within hundreds of miles, let alone in the next resupply town. Without GPS, having paper maps and compass was essential. Also, do not expect many gear stores, so carry what you need or send it to yourself in advance.
The upside of all this is that the ODT was for sure, mile for mile, the cheapest trail I’ve ever hiked. With only two hotel stays, a few restaurant meals, and no reason to linger in towns, it’s hard to blow a bunch of money even if you’re trying.
The ODT is a remote and challenging route for experienced hikers (after all, you have to sign a waiver to access planning materials on ONDA’s site). The landscape is diverse and rewarding, and those night skies and hot springs can’t be beat.
The ODT is also unique because of ONDA’s focus on conservation through responsible use. Furthermore, trail coordinator Renee “She-ra” Patrick is a thru-hiker, and she’s done an impressive job creating a wealth of resources for anyone planning an ODT hike.
Spring is officially here. It’s time to emerge from your winter cocoon to get outside and play, and there’s an increasingly popular class of herbs, called adaptogens, which can boost your performance. Though it’s only recently that adaptogens are getting their moment in the health limelight, the use of these herbs is not new, particularly to cultures like India and China with long histories of natural medicine.
Adaptogens are plants and mushrooms that improve the body’s ability to respond to stress. Traditionally, they’ve been used to balance the body’s stress response, improve sleep, support the immune system, maintain reproductive health, and yes, improve stamina and exercise recovery.
The effects are subtle, but real, and adaptogens are safe for long-term use in most populations. Despite a long history of use, we’re just beginning to see scientific studies to support what many traditional healers have known for centuries.
You already know the importance of fueling your body with whole foods and staying well hydrated for optimal exercise performance. To support your body’s hard efforts and give yourself a boost, consider adding the following herbs to your self-care routine.
Eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is an herb from Siberia, which has been used to support healthy blood sugar levels, optimal use of glycogen, and the production of cellular energy. Eleuthero has also been shown to strengthen the immune system. One study in mice found Eleuthero to increase time to exhaustion by lessening the build-up of lactic acid (the compound responsible for muscle soreness after a workout).
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has long been used by the Native American populations of North America. Studies suggest that supplementation could “reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammatory responses, resulting in improvements in insulin sensitivity”. This herb has been shown to enhance cognitive function, which may support faster reactions times. Ginseng has also traditionally been used to reduce fatigue, making it ideal for endurance athletes.
Studies suggest that supplementation can support endurance and stamina, as well as healthy libido. Furthermore, studies in rats suggest that maca can improve endurance capacity and reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress.
Now, get outside, get active, and consider using adaptogens to improve performance and overall health. As always, it’s important to consult a health care practitioner and find high-quality sources when using herbs or supplements. You sign up for a free account with my online dispensary here to receive 20% off professional grade supplements.