Healthy Lightweight Eating for Hikers: A Day in the Life (part 2)

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.
  • have high antioxidant, and/or ‘medicinal’ value, such as anti-inflammatory spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric), superfood powders (e.g. cordyceps: a functional mushroom that supports endurance), and tea (like this organic instant premium tea-here’s a link for 15% off)
  • 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.

A complete five days of healthy lightweight food for my 2019 CDT resupply boxes.

Examples of Foods I Eat on Trail

Here’s a smattering of foods you’ll commonly find in my resupply boxes:

Fat

  • -olive oil
  • -coconut oil
  • -avocado oil
  • -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
  • -coconut flakes
  • -homemade or fancy packaged trail mixes made from any of the above

Proteins

  • -grass-fed collagen powder, like this one
  • -grass fed jerkies, such as this one and this one
  • -tuna and salmon packets
  • -freeze-dried meats, like chicken and beef
  • -nuts and legumes (these add a bit of protein, but aren’t dense protein sources)

Carbohydrates

  • -dried fruits, such as plums, dates, cranberries, raisins, etc.
  • -bars with dried fruit as the first ingredient, such as this one and this one
  • -clean ingredient granola, like this one
  • -legumes, such as dehydrated refried beans and hummus powder
  • -chips, such as sweet-potato chips or grain-free chips (read labels!)
  • -dried veggies, such as kale, peppers, carrots, beets, spinach, broccoli
  • -greens powders, such as this one

See a Sample 5-day Healthy Lightweight Meal Plan here.

The best parents in the world mixing 60+ bags of smoothies 🙂

Sample Meals + How this all comes Together

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.

Skip the Sugar Crash Smoothie

Protein, fat, greens, superfoods, and anti-inflammatory spices. Find the full recipe here.

Fatty Coffee

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.

My Super Simple Dinners

  • Chicken and Veggies
  • Beans and Veggies

For detailed recipes and more resources on specific products as well as where I buy them, see the Healthy Lightweight Backpacking Meal Planning Resource Page here.

resupply

A Day in the Life: A few #protips

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.

Mid-afternoon usually involves another snack or two (or sometimes three). This is likely to be a healthy bar (the fewer the ingredients the better) or a grass-fed jerky. A few of my favorites are Fourpoints Bars, Trail Nuggets, Supernola, Wild Zora, and Mighty Organic.

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.

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Healthy Lightweight 5-day Backpacking Meal Plan

backpacking

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:

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.

If you’re looking for recipes, meal ideas, and food sources, see this Healthy Lightweight Meal Plan Resource Page. For info on putting this into practice, optimizing macronutrient timing, and a look into a “Day in the Life”, see this post.

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.

5 days of food at a total of 6.77 pounds (~1.35 lbs per day)
backpacking healthy lightweight food
A single day of food. (Only part of the almond butter, chips, and chocolate would be eaten. The remainder is for the other days).

Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.

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Healthy Lightweight Eating for Hikers: How to Reduce Pack Weight & Have More Energy (part 1)

hikers

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.

Being part of various endurance communities, I’ve been fascinated to witness hikers loading as much sugar as they can fit into their food bags, thinking it’s the only way to have lots of energy. Of course, it’s the traditional carb-loading approach, and it’s not uncommon to hear nutrition professionals preaching it too. “Calories and carbs are all that matter. It’s not important where they come from.” (You can read here why I think that’s a terrible idea if you want to eat for optimal performance and health.)

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.   

The Benefits

‘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:

Lighter Pack

*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.

*Additionally, “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.”  By training our bodies to use fat more efficiently as a fuel source, we can go longer without bonking. More on that in a moment.

Less Extreme Hiker Hunger

*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.

Better Immunity

*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.

Less Inflammation

*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.

As mentioned, the high fat, low carb paradigm goes against traditional endurance nutrition practices, but is backed by solid science. Researchers supporting this approach include Dr. Jeff Volek and Dr. Stephen Phinney, Dr. Peter Attia, and Dr. Tim Noakes, among others. Furthermore, this nutrition strategy is being employed by endurance all-stars like Timothy Olson and Zach Bitter.

Curious to see what type of foods and brands I carry on my endurance endeavors, from long day hikes to thru-hikes? Click here for a free copy of my “Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide“.

How to Improve Metabolic Efficiency

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.

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The Thru-hiker Calorie Myth: What Your Diet is Missing & How to Eat for Energy, Endurance, and Optimal Health Instead

wind river high route

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.”

health coaching options

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.

The main drivers of inflammation in a typical hiker diet are refined sugar and trans fats. Refined carbs found in ultra-processed foods have been shown to promote overeating, negatively impact your microbiome, and damage your intestinal barrier, which we’ll go into in a moment. Junk food also tends to be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammation when not balanced with omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, the food additives found in many processed foods have been shown in mice studies to contribute to colon cancer and inflammation.

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.

odt water

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.

oregon desert tral

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.”

continental divide trail desert

The Alternative

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The shorter the ingredient list, the better. This free Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide has some of my favorite options.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Make small changes. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:
    1. Add in a greens powder, such as athletic greens, amazing grass, or organifi each day.This can make up for micronutrient deficiencies on a long hike.
    2. 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.
    3. Look for chips and other crunchy/salty snacks with as few ingredients as possible. For example, compare the following:
      • Ingredients in Sweet Potato Chips: sweet potatoes, organic coconut oil, sea salt.
      • 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.

Related Posts:

The Dangers of Fueling on Faux Foods

Skip the Sugar Crash Trail Smoothie Recipe

How to Eat Healthy On a Thru-hike

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

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Managing Tendinitis Naturally

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The Trail Show Salty Segment April 2019

The Question

Dear Salty,

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.

Thanks, Lemuel

The Answer

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.

Click here to download a FREE guide with the top 5 anti-inflammatory foods to eat daily.

Supplementation

It’s best to get your nutrients from whole foods, but if you want to supplement, consider the following.

  • Zinc: supports the immune system and tissue repair
  • Curcumin (found in turmeric): very effective anti-inflammatory properties
  • Fish Oil: contains high amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids
  • Magnesium: supports muscle recovery and restful sleep
  • Bone broth: contains collagen, which helps form tissue in the body

That’s my A to your Q, Lemuel. Hope you heal up quickly and get #backonthetrail.

To learn more about how you can get your health completely dialed in for your upcoming adventures, click here to check out the online Adventure Ready course!

If you’d like to submit your own question for a future Trail Show Salty Segment, click here.

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Why All Electrolytes Aren’t Equal & How to Choose a Good One

thru hike

The Trail Show Salty Segment March 2019

The Question

Dear Salty,

There are a LOT of electrolyte powders and pills out there and I’m not sure how to choose the best ones. I’m obviously going to stay away from high fructose corn syrup but aside from that, I know there are different kinds of salts and sweeteners in there. Are there specific things I should avoid and/or look for? Should I just scrap electrolytes and go with POD’s method of water and plain potato chips? Should I just lick the salt off my own skin? Do I even need electrolytes if my trail meals have salt in them? Please help this guy hydrate!

Saltlick

The Answer

This is a great question because Saltlick is right, there are SO MANY options out there, and it’s helpful to know what you’re paying for and whether you even need it. Being a frugal hiker who likes to keep things simple, I get it.

What is an electrolyte?

Let’s lay some groundwork and cover what an electrolyte is and what purpose it serves in the body.

Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that help balance fluid pressure and maintain blood pH in the body. Proper nerve, heart, and muscle function depends on adequate amounts of electrolytes dissolved in the body’s fluids. These minerals can be lost from the body through sweat.

For optimal performance, it’s important to consume both water and electrolytes. A deficiency or imbalance of electrolytes can result in dehydration, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, cramps, and spasms.

Do I even need electrolytes?

Water and food are our primary sources of electrolytes, but depending on one’s diet, water source, and level of exertion, it may be necessary to supplement with exogenous electrolytes. In general, if your activity doesn’t involve much sweating or is less than an hour in duration, the electrolytes found in whole foods should be sufficient. During activity lasting longer than an hour and in extreme heat, electrolyte powders can be a great way to supplement.

And while I 100% support POD’s method of salt intake via potato chips, sodium is just one of the minerals you need to replace to keep your body functioning optimally. So, while you’re welcome to continue licking salt off your own skin, if you’re on a long distance hike, I’d encourage you to supplement with an electrolyte powder or pill.

How do I choose a good one? Here’s what to look for & what to avoid.

If you’ve determined that you could benefit from electrolyte replacement, here’s what I’d look for:

A power that contains all of the electrolytes lost through sweat, is tasty, has a reasonable price per serving, and is convenient to use.

At minimum, all electrolyte powders should have the following electrolytes: Sodium (Na+), Chloride (Cl-), Potassium (K+), Calcium (Ca++), and Magnesium (Mg+). According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), “all electrolytes work together to maintain fluid balance in the body at rest and during physical activity, so be sure [to focus] on all electrolytes, rather than focusing on only one or two.” This is important because some outdoors people talk about taking supplements of one mineral (often sodium, potassium, or magnesium), when the body really requires all of the electrolytes. A good mix will have everything that it should and nothing that it doesn’t.

Ideally, an electrolyte mix contains the most bioavailable form of a mineral. Bioavailability refers to the amount of ingested material which is absorbed and available to the body. For example, the magnesium in the aspartate, citrate, lactate, and chloride forms is more bioavailable than magnesium oxide or sulfate.

Cost is also an important consideration. Based on my research, you should be able to find a quality electrolyte replacement for $0.35-0.60 per serving .

Taste and convenience of use (such as ones that dissolve easily and come in single serving packets), are also important considerations, especially for use in the back country.

Here’s what I’d avoid:

To reduce adverse reactions, an electrolyte mix should be absent of common allergens, such as soy, gluten, dairy, nuts, and artificial colors or sweeteners. Additionally, I would look out for unnecessary additives or fillers, like sugar, maltodextrin, or cornstarch. Some of these are linked to inflammation and gut dysbiosis, and some are just unnecessary in an electrolyte replacement.

Good Options

Based on a thorough meta-reviewed I performed for Treeline Review, my top choices considering the above information were Ultima Replenisher, Lyteshow, and Nuun.

That’s my A to your Q, Saltlick. Drink up and be safe out there!

To learn more about how you can get your health completely dialed in for your upcoming adventures, click here to check out the online Adventure Ready course!

If you’d like to submit your own question for a future Trail Show Salty Segment, click here.

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Cinnamon Ginger Scones (gluten free)

scones

Scones! I used to make them every day as part of my job as a pastry chef, but it’s now been ages since I whipped up a batch. Probably because I’m not a huge sweets person. However, a scone-loving friend of mine recently had a birthday, so I decided to make a quick batch. After all, it’s always relaxing to spend time in the kitchen working with you hands (and to make treats for others!).

As always, my objective is to make healthy (or at least healthier) AND tasty baked goods. My old scone recipe wouldn’t do, so I went in search of new ideas.

The recipe I ended up using is based off of this one, with several modifications based on my preferences plus what I had on hand.

Ginger and cinnamon is a classic combination, anytime of year. These scones turned out buttery and delicious, with just a hint of sweetness. This is how a scone ought to be in my opinion 🙂

They were just a bit crumbly and could’ve used a little more of a ‘binder’ like arrowroot. Preparing them in a food processor makes them super quick to whip up, even on a busy weekday morning. Plus, the ginger and cinnamon are anti-inflammatory-bonus!

Cinnamon Ginger Scones

Yield 8 scones

Prep Time 10 minutes

Cook Time 12 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup oat flour
  • 1/4 cup potato starch (could also use arrowroot powder or tapioca starch)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling on top
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ounce fresh ginger root, peeled, chopped into chunks
  • 8 tablespoons grass-fed cold butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • turbinado sugar for sprinkling on top, optional

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  
  2. Combine the oat flour, potato starch, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and ginger in the food processor. Turn it on and process for about 30 seconds, until the ginger is minced and incorporated into the mixture.
  3. Add the butter and pulse for 10-15 seconds, so the mixture is the texture of coarse crumbs.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and molasses. Add the contents of the food processor to the bowl and mix until just incorporated.
  5. To shape the scones: Flour your hands. Using a large cookie scoop or spoon, drop the dough into balls into the palm of your hand and gently press it into a flat ball.
  6. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and/or cinnamon, if desired.
  7. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until baked through and golden brown.
scones
scones

Simple, easy, delicious. Eat them plain or split in half and schmeared with a little almond butter. Enjoy!

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Five Steps to Prepare for a Successful Thru-hike

thru-hike

So you’ve got a thru-hike planned for this summer and you’re deep in preparation mode as hikers are wont to do in the cold, dark months of winter. But it feels like there are a million pieces to get in place. Where do you even start? What are you forgetting? As you dream of alpine lakes and sunshine, here are five key steps to consider before embarking on your adventure.

This post is designed to provide a very broad overview of the planning process and some things that you should likely be thinking about. Each of these topics alone could be an entire article (and they may be at some point).

I’m far from being the most experienced hiker out there, but I’ll share what I’ve learned from ~5000 miles of backpacking and planning multiple thru-hikes.

thru-hike
Cross country travel on the Oregon Desert Trail

Master Your Mindset

  • Commit. You can’t be wishy-washy. You must commit in your heart to what you intend to achieve because thru-hikes don’t just happen accidentally. You can’t go out with the mindset of “well, I’ll give it a shot and see what happens”. That rarely works. Yes, be flexible and fluid, but also know your end goal. That (not fully in) was my mindset when a friend asked me join him on his thru-hike of the AT. I figured I’d tag along, and who knows, maybe I’d thru-hike. Of course, I didn’t. Shit hit the fan in my off-trail life and I had to bail early. Compare that with my PCT hike, where I went in with the mindset of “I will do everything in my power to thru-hike this trail”. And I did. Because I’d been mentally preparing for months.
  • Take personal responsibility. Commitment means taking personal responsibility for the results in your life. This means you take responsibility for your thoughts, your feelings, your words, and your actions. You stop blaming and complaining and outsourcing your happiness to the control of anyone other than yourself. When you fully step into this mentality, it’s incredibly liberating. You realize you create the results you desire and you get caught up a lot less by all the road bumps along the way.
  • Know your WHY. To stay motivated over the long haul, have a clear sense of why you’re out there. If you know your why, when the going gets tough (and it will), you’ll find reserves of energy and perseverance you didn’t even know you had.
  • Anticipate challenges and how you will work through them. Know that you’ll miss your loved ones, you’ll be physically & emotionally uncomfortable (frequently), things won’t work out as you planned, and you may be alone more than you’re used to. Be mentally prepared for all of this. But also know that your time spent on your adventure will likely be deeply transformative and nourishing to your soul, so prepare for that too 🙂
  • Spend your energy on the right things. Preparation begins in the mind, but it doesn’t end there. It helps to prepare your physical body as well. Many hikers spend far too much time obsessing over gear, food, weather and other minutiae, and while those things have their importance, it’s physical preparation (more on that in a moment) and mindset that will result in a successful journey.
thru-hike colorado trail
Snacking and strategizing on a Colorado Trail thru-hike

Start Planning. All the Planning.

  • Dial in your budget. Running out of money is one of the top reasons hikers quit long trails. That’s unfortunate because it’s totally preventable. There are lots of planning resources out there. Know your budget. Start saving months in advance.
  • Get the maps you need and know how to navigate. Do your research to determine which maps you need. If you’re hiking one of the triple crown trails, the ATC, PCTA, and CDTC are good places to start.
  • Know the skills you’ll need for your chosen adventure and prepare accordingly with classes, practice, and proper gear. Will there be snow travel? Desert travel? Off trail navigation?
  • Learn Leave No Trace ethics and practice them on trail. Also learn about proper town etiquette and practice that as well. Remember, that you’re an ambassador of the trail.
  • Make an itinerary and share it with loved ones. You’ll almost certainly stray from it, but it’s good to have a general outline of where you’ll be and when.
  • Talk with someone who has done what you’re planning to do. This can help you spot holes in your preparations and relieve a lot of anxiety (and get you even more excited). The American Long Distance Hiking Association-West Rucks are a fantastic opportunity for this. You can also read blogs and visit forums, but be careful with that. It can be a total time suck and, remember, everyone will have an opinion, but that doesn’t mean their advice is right for you.
  • Plan, but don’t over-plan. Realize that life on trail is no different than life at home and that things happen which you can’t predict. Stay fluid and flexible and willing to roll with whatever comes your way. Remember that you’re capable and nearly everything is figure-out-able. One of the greatest gifts of the trail is the self confidence gained from realizing that you can handle whatever comes your way, and that in most cases, it’s not that big of a deal.
  • A lot of anxiety comes from fears in the back of our mind. Because we haven’t articulated those concerns, they feel nebulous and give us a sense of dread. Try ‘worst case scenario’ thinking. For example, say your resupply box doesn’t show up at your town stop. Now what? What’s the worst case scenario? What would you do to fix the situation? You’ll likely come up with a solution. Play out these scenarios ahead of time and you’ll often find that you’re overemphasizing the negative consequences in your mind and it really wouldn’t be that bad.

Download this free 12 page guide to dial in your diet, improve your health, and prep your body for your upcoming adventure!

Dial In The Gear

  • Proper gear is worth the investment. I’m not saying you need to spend a fortune, but you do need to find gear that’s durable, functional, and fits your body. I’ve made the mistake of carrying a backpack that didn’t fit me properly, but it was given to me, so I went with it. That resulted in months of back pain that didn’t resolve for weeks, even after my hike was over. Silly mistake. You don’t need to obsess or spend months shaving ounces and researching fabrics, but do make informed choices and purchase decent gear. In the same vein, replace old or worn out gear. This is essential in avoiding injury.
  • Once you’ve acquired your gear, field test it. Know how to use it. Go on a shakedown hike. You may find there’s something you need that you don’t have. Or more likely, things you have which you don’t need. Be selective. This will all be carried on your back for mile upon mile and a heavier pack means more wear and tear on your body.
  • Get a pack shakedown. Find a seasoned hiker to look over your gear. They may see something you don’t. Having an outside opinion can help you evaluate your choices.
  • Choose what’s best for you. What works for your hiking buddy or for the guy in the forum or for your sister may not be what works for you. Test your gear and choose what’s best for YOU. After all, you’ll be the one using it for months.
tiny town healthy resupply
A relatively healthy resupply bought from a tiny town convenience store on the Oregon Desert Trail

Strategize Your Food/Resupply

  • Food is a deeply cherished topic of hikers, and rightfully so as you could be burning 4000+ calories daily. There’s so much information available on choosing and planning food for a thru-hike and ultimately, it’s a highly individual choice.
  • That said, here are a few considerations: Decide whether you want to send resupply boxes or buy along the way or a combination of both. Plan ahead so you know where you can buy in town and where you’ll need to send a box. Focus on eating as clean as you can. You’re putting your body under tremendous strain, so give it the best fuel possible. You’ll be able to hike farther with less illness, injury, and inflammation.
odt trio
Happy hikers on the ODT

Optimize Your Health

  • Physical preparation is essential to a smooth transition to full time exercise. You’ll be hiking for 8-12 hours per day. The body is incredibly adaptable, but to avoid injuries, it’s wise to prepare the body for this endeavor. There are several training plans on the internet. There’s also an entire 5 lesson module devoted to developing a personalized training plan in my online course Adventure Ready. Suffice it to say, physical preparation is a good idea.
  • Get as healthy as you can before your hike to build resiliency and to get the most out of your experience. Don’t just survive out there. Instead choose to THRIVE. Backpacking can put a tremendous strain on the body and a long hike is incredibly depleting. Illness and injury take hikers off the trail every season. Give yourself the best possible chance of success by getting your health dialed in for a successful adventure.
  • I teach all of this in my 6 week online course Adventure Ready. It’s the ultimate road map to optimizing your energy and endurance so you can take on your adventure with confidence and stay healthy to the finish line. We cover mastering your mindset, eating for endless energy, optimizing gut health, preparing yourself physically, hacking sleep for better performance, and managing stress so it doesn’t undermine all your other efforts.

To get a jump start on the course, download this free 12 page guide to dial in your diet so you can experience more energy, endurance, and better digestion immediately!

I hope this gave you some ideas and helped fill in gaps in your planning process. What did you find most helpful here? Which of the steps do you want to hear more about? Leave a comment below!

Get inspired, get outside, and have a safe and healthy adventure!

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Healthy Daily Detox Practices

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Spring is just around the corner and our minds naturally turn to cleaning, both for our physical spaces and for our bodies. After a season spent mostly indoors, we yearn for sunlight, movement, and fresh food.

Though our bodies are built for detoxification, we are exposed to an unprecedented number of toxins. This includes herbicides, pesticides, air pollution, medications, household cleaners, cosmetics and body care products, artificial ingredients in our food, and pollutants in our water. That’s just to name a few!

Think of your body like a cup.When toxins are coming in too quickly, they begin to accumulate and build up. The cup overflows. When that happens, we can experience all sorts of issues from weight gain to brain fog to hormonal imbalances and more. That’s why it’s essential to support our bodies detoxification processes.  

While deeper cleanses are helpful a few times per year, incorporating detox into your daily life is imperative for long-term health. Here are 6 practices to get you started.

hydrate detox

Hydrate First

Start each day with 8-16 ounces of filtered water with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Detox with Food

Focus on eating organic food, especially when it comes to meat and dairy. If you can’t afford to always go organic, check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen” to decide what to prioritize. Eating foods in their natural state will help you avoid many of the added chemicals in processed foods. Prioritize fresh veggies and aim for a salad every day. Bonus if you can incorporate bitter greens like arugula and dandelion to stimulate the liver.

veggies

Support the Liver with Herbs

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. Herbs such as dandelion root, milk thistle seed, and turmeric root used in teas, decoctions, and tinctures help the liver function better. See this post for more.

Have a Daily Bowel Movement

Ensuring that the bowels are moving daily is akin to cleaning out the garbage. A daily BM moves toxins out of your body. Eat plenty of fiber from whole foods, especially dark leafy greens, to help keep things moving. Stay hydrated. Add in a 2-3 tablespoons of fresh ground flax daily to help bind toxins and move them out of the body. You can also supplement with magnesium citrate in the evenings to get you going.

Sweat

Sweating is one of our body’s natural processes to move toxins out of the body through the skin. Sweat on a regular basis through exercise and sauna.

Detect & Remove Food Intolerances

Food allergies and food intolerances are more common than most people suspect. Intolerances cause a low-grade reaction in the body. Detecting and removing foods that trigger a response can reduce inflammation and improve detoxification.

For a free step by step guide to uncovering food intolerances, click here.

By using these simple practices on a daily basis, you’ll notice better energy, improved brain function, and a better mood within a few weeks.

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What I Wish I’d Done for My Health Before My First Thru-hike

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This post originally appeared on the Trek.

Imagine this: You’ve just hiked 2,660 miles and you’re in the best shape of your life. You luck out and get an entry into a well-known race you’ve been eyeing for years. It starts in a month. You give yourself a week to recover and you set out on your first training run.

But something is off. You can’t run more than a couple of miles without extreme muscle fatigue. You’ve been exhausted for days and no amount of sleep relieves the fatigue. You’re cold all the time and you’re unmotivated. You wonder, “What is happening? Isn’t this the body that just hiked 2,660 miles?” You have no choice but to pull out of the race.

This was essentially my experience after hiking the PCT. The point is not that thru-hiking caused this health crash. That’s a story for another time. The point is that despite living a very healthy lifestyle before the PCT, I was not as bulletproof as I thought.

Reclaiming my health has been a roller-coaster, but I’m grateful for the journey because I can now share information on how to optimize your health before a hike, so you can thrive and have a successful journey. After all, it’s a lot more fun to be out there when your body is at its peak.

Whether you struggle with a specific health condition or you’re just out of shape from sitting at desk for eight hours a day, use these practices to dial in your health for an upcoming adventure. It’s what has moved the needle the most for me (and those I’ve worked with) in terms of having incredible energy, endurance, and resiliency on my next hike.

How I Prepare My Health for a Thru-Hike

Prioritize Gut Health

Let’s face it: you’re going to encounter a lot of less-than-optimal foods on your hike. Thru-hiking doesn’t exactly lend itself well to healthy eating. From lack of fresh foods (too heavy) to tiny resupply towns with limited options, it can be hard to meet nutrient requirements on trail. Couple that with the intense physical demands you’re putting on the body and you can quickly become depleted and develop deficiencies.

This translates into less energy, slower recovery, and compromised immunity (i.e., slower wound healing and an increased likelihood of getting sick from eating your hiking partner’s GORP). You can try to make up for deficiencies and take care of your gut in town with lots of fresh food and probiotics. But a) that’s unlikely to happen, especially if you’re busy eating beer and pizza, and b) you have a much better chance of staying healthy if you build resiliency before you leave home. It all begins in the gut.

Gut health impacts your immune system, nutrient absorption, energy levels, hormone production, weight, and much more. I thought my gut was fine going into my hike. I lived a pretty healthy lifestyle and I wasn’t experiencing any noticeable digestive symptoms. However, it turns out there’s much more I could’ve been doing to build a healthy, resilient gut.

Short of getting your microbiome tested, it’s difficult to quantify gut health. Luckily, that’s not necessary. You can ensure good gut health, and therefore your ability to get the most nutrition from your food, with the following tips:

Increase Variety and Prioritize Whole Foods

The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbiome, and the more adaptable it will be to disruptions.

Up Your Fiber

Aim to eat at least 30 grams of fiber daily. Research indicates that soluble fiber is the best food for sustaining a healthy, diverse population of microbiota. Legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are all great choices.

Probiotics

Consume probiotic-rich foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and kombucha or supplement with a high quality probiotic.

Limit Inflammatory Foods

Lastly, it’s important to stop taking in inflammatory foods (discussed next) as well as behaviors that inhibit gut health. These include taking antibiotics (obviously), consuming alcohol, consuming preservatives and food additives, smoking cigarettes, not getting enough sleep, and being stressed.

Limit Inflammatory Foods with a Personalized Diet

One of the largest sources of inflammation in the diet for many people is undetected food intolerances. These are foods, specific to you, that trigger inflammation.

Because I didn’t have any overt digestive symptoms, I assumed I was healthy. I was a baker at the time and even though the bread I was eating was made from organic, locally milled wheat, it turns out that it was creating a lot of inflammation that kept me from being my healthiest.

I figured this out by completing an elimination challenge. This is where you remove potential food triggers for three to four weeks, then reintroduce them one by one to see if your body reacts. This method is the least expensive and most reliable way of detecting food intolerances.

Once I discovered and removed offending foods from my diet, things turned around quickly. My inflammation went down, my energy soared, my digestion improved, and my muscles stopped aching.

Even if you don’t think you have any food intolerances, I encourage everyone to try this at least once. Often it’s not until you remove a potentially triggering food, allow the body to reset, and then reintroduce it, that you may find it’s not working for you. Sometimes you don’t know how good you can actually feel.

To complete an elimination challenge at the most basic level, follow the following process:

  1. Eliminate gluten, dairy, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and processed foods for 28 days.
  2. One by one, reintroduce each food. Ideally this is twice daily for two to three days before moving on to the next food.
  3. Track your symptoms. If you notice a reaction in your body (such as changes in digestion, energy, or sleep), remove that food again. If not, move on to the next.

Focus less on the idea of elimination, and more on removing the impediments to success, so your body can become stronger and truly thrive.

To get the best feedback, it’s important to follow the process properly. Because this was a game-changer for me, I created a guide on how to properly complete an elimination challenge. No more guessing in the dark about which foods are good or bad for you. You can find out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. This leads to better energy, better endurance, and it may just clear up any nagging symptoms you’ve been dealing with, like skin rashes, headaches, joint pain, and digestive issues, like bloating, gas, and heartburn.

Live an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle

There’s a lot that goes into this piece, but here’s what it boils down to: we live in a time when most of us have some level of chronic inflammation.

Acute inflammation is a beneficial healing response. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, slowly breaks down the body and is at the root of most diseases. Inflammation is caused by different stressors. Sources of stress can include environmental (i.e., pollution), physical (i.e., overtraining or eating inflammatory foods), and emotional (a fight with a partner or inability to pay your bills).

We can’t control it all, but we can manage it. With every action or decision, I ask, “Will this lead to more or less inflammation in my body?”

Use the following three practices as a foundation to manage stress:

  1. Make sleep a nonnegotiable. Aim for eight hours per night.
  2. Engage in some form of mindfulness practice, such as meditation, for ten minutes daily.
  3. Have a wind-down ritual each night, whether that’s dinner with a partner, a walk with your dog, or a good book and a cup of tea.

Applied consistently, these practices can make a massive impact on your overall health, as well as on how you feel each day of your hike. It’s a great starting point. We dive much deeper in my six-week online course Adventure Ready. It’s designed to optimize your health, so you have the energy and endurance you need to hike long days and stand at that terminus monument, having successfully completed your adventure.

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