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

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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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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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How to Create a Healthy Resupply in a Tiny Town

oregon desert trail

What to Eat When the Healthy Choices are Non-existent or Obscure

Let’s start with a quick story of an experience I had like this on the Oregon Desert Trail. We had just walked the remaining 7 miles into McDermitt, NV, arriving around 8am for what would be the closest day we’d have to a zero on this 750-mile route through the very sparsely populated region of eastern Oregon.

It’d been 10 days of 90-degree dusty desert hiking since we’d had a shower, and 6 days since we’d had any meals other than backpacking food. I was jonesing for some vegetables. I’d been dreaming of a big bowl of dark leafy greens with tomatoes, beets, walnuts, avocado, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Alas, as much as I’d prayed to the desert gods for some real, healthy food, I knew I wasn’t going to find it here. McD is a ranching, farming, and mining town that straddles the NV/OR border. It consists of a motel, a cafe/casino, a PO, a high school, and an all-in-one gas station/market/convenience store. This was one of the few places I didn’t mail myself a resupply box on the ODT and I was immediately regretting it.

tiny town resupply
Veggies were sparse in McDermitt, NV.

After our first (of four) meals at the Say When Casino and Cafe, it was time to create our resupply for the next 5 days. We walked into the small gas station/market/c-store and I saw about 8 rows of packaged foods, some coolers of soda and beer, and a small stand of “fresh” produce (Hey, at least there’s some produce at all!). Time to get creative.

There are many such towns from which you may have to resupply, especially if you are going to hike any trails or routes off the beaten path. And especially if you decide to hike in one of the most remote regions of the country.

convenience store

How to Approach Eating for Optimal Health and Energy in a Tiny Town C-Store

First, accept that you’ll have to make some compromises, but don’t give up on the goal of healthy eating entirely! It may all look like junk, but some choices are better than others here. Let’s look more closely.

Don’t make the process overwhelming. The process is simple.

  • Make Your List

Until you get the hang of what items you need for a healthy resupply, and before going into the store, write a short list of ideas for breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks/beverages. For efficiency and cost, choose items that can be used in multiple ways for different meals (like corn chips you’ll eat with PB for lunch and again with beans for dinner OR trail mix that can be added to oatmeal for breakfast or used as a stand alone snack). Keep your list general: nut butter, salami, breakfast bars, oatmeal, nut butter, etc. Be sure to have a mixture of flavors and textures as well as macronutrients (aiming for about 20% protein, 40% fat, 40% carb-or whatever feels best for your body).

  • Choose Your Food

Browse the shelves. When you see an item from your list, you’ll likely see multiple different varieties (chips/pb/trail mixes/etc). Which to choose? Look at the ingredient label. You are looking for the least number of ingredients possible. You are also looking to avoid added industrial oils, preservatives, food colorings, and high fructose corn syrup when possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible in these tiny stores, but do your best. You are also looking for items in their most whole food/least processed form. Focus on proteins, healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, nuts), and low sugar carbs.

If there is a produce section, look for the freshest (not wilted or bruised), most nutrient-dense items to either pack out or eat before leaving town. Amazingly, many of these tiny places sell avocados (great for potassium, fiber, antioxidants). Bags of spinach or carrots are also widely available and easy to pack out.

  • Calculate Your Calories

Before leaving the store, use your phone calculator to quickly get an estimate of the calories. This takes less than 5 minutes and can help you avoid overspending on (and carrying) food you don’t need and/or assure you that you have enough if you’re feeling uncertain.

For the amount of calories you need each day, that will take a bit of experimentation, but use this calculator (or something similar) to get in the ballpark, and adjust from there depending on terrain, climate, and whether you’re losing a bunch of weight or not. Add up the calories in your basket and divide by the number of days you plan to be out. Voila. If you want to go above and beyond, calculate your macros to be sure you have the right ratios of fat, protein, and carbs. This would likely be easiest by entering the foods into a free app, such as MyFitnessPal.

tiny town healthy resupply

What I Chose in McD for my 5-Day Resupply

My calorie goal for 5 days early in the trip was about 11,500, or 2,300 per day. Here’s what I found in the convenience store. A couple items, where noted, were leftover from my last box, but these calories could have been substituted with other bars or trail mix or another avocado from the c-store.

1 lb bag Tortilla Chips=1500 calories

1 lb whole carrots=150 calories

1 large avocado=300 calories

1 apple=100 calories

Dehydrated Refried Beans=300 calories

2 Coconut Oil packets (leftover from my last resupply)=240 calories

3 coconut-greens-collagen smoothie mixes (leftover from last resupply)=600 calories

3 Kates/Fourpoints bars (leftover from last resupply)=900 calories

3 Granola packets (leftover from last resupply)=750 calories

4 tuna pouches=300 calories

1 lb peanut butter=2600 calories

3 bags of fruit/seed/nut trail mix=2300 calories

Chocolate Bar=600 calories

Pepperoni=800 calories

Salami=700 calories

Electrolyte drink mix=50 calories

Kombucha (drank in town)=80 calories

total= ~12,200 calories

I usually pack just a little bit extra, such as a couple bars, for calories in case I’m hungrier than expected or take longer to reach the next town than expected.

As you can see, it’s not ‘perfect’ in terms of being organic, super high quality food, but it covers my nutritional bases, and it’s far from the typical pop-tarts/snickers/doritos resupply that could be purchased from the same store.

Even when options are limited, you can still make good choices that will fuel you for optimal energy and endurance!

 

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Oregon Desert Trail Resupply Planning

ODT resupply

Food Resupply Plan for the Oregon Desert Trail

This post details how I planned my food for the Oregon Desert Trail. I’ll post more on general trail information and planning resources in a separate post. This one is all about where, what, and how much I planned for food resupply for the ODT. I’ll do a follow-up post when I return about how this plan worked out.

Grab a cup of coffee. This is a long one, but hopefully you’ll find it’s jam-packed with useful info.

The following table details where I sent each box, the calorie goals for each day, the specific food I sent, and how that broke down in term of macronutrients (percentages of fat, carbs, and protein), as well as total food weight carried.

The calorie goal for each resupply box is in the top left corner of the table for each location. The actual calories in the box are at the bottom of the table for each section, which is also where you’ll find the macro breakdown and the food weight of the box.

ODT resupply

Determining Goal Calorie Intake

I loosely track daily calories and nutrients with the app MyFitnessPal. To create my calorie goals, I used that data of my current intake and expenditure, coupled with knowledge from previous hikes.

The numbers may seem low considering that I’m 5’7″, have a normal BMI, and I’ll be hiking 25-30 miles per day. However, I made them low for a couple reasons:  1) I’m still recovering from a hypo-thyroid issue, and the thyroid is the master regulator of metabolism, so my current basal metabolic rate (BMR) is lower than it has been in the past. I know this because I track my calorie intake and weight. While some might consider the downside of this being that ‘I have to’ eat less food to maintain my weight, the upside of a currently lower BMR is that ‘I get to’ eat less food to maintain my weight. That’s convenient when you’re backpacking and you have to carry it all on your back 🙂 And reason 2) The time frame (30 days) is relatively short, so I won’t get into full on hiker hunger, and if I do go into a calorie deficit, it won’t be for long.  You’ll also notice that in each box I include several hundred additional calories above the goal amount, just in case.

Macronutrient Percentages

Let’s start by saying that I strongly believe in bio-individuality. Every body is different. Figure out what works best for you. I mean that in terms of both what your diet is made up of, as well as in terms of calories and macronutrients, and in terms of specific foods you do or do not tolerate well. Food quality and a focus on whole foods is the constant and the details are variable.

I’ve found that I thrive when I eat a diet higher in healthy fats, moderate in protein, and slightly lower in carbs. The numbers in this chart show my diet as generally being 50-60% fat, 10-20% protein, and 30-40% carbohydrate. Off trail, the fat number tends to be higher and the carbs lower, but this is how it settled out for the trail and I’m comfortable with that. We’ll see how I feel.

Also, I’m aware that in the table, the macro percentages don’t always add up to 100%. In a couple spots they add up to 102 or 105%. I believe this is due to averaging values for different varieties/flavors of granola, bars, etc. While this is not ideal, the data is still accurate enough to give a good reflection of what the nutritional spread looks like.

Food Planning on a ‘Restricted Diet’ while Going Stoveless

All foods in this resupply plan are gluten free and dairy free. This list does also not rely heavily on grains or added sugars, though there are a few in there. The focus is on including real foods with either no ingredient list or very short ingredient lists made up of recognizable foods. To avoid toxin exposure, most of these foods are organic.

I firmly believe in doing the best you can, and not obsessing about being perfect. While I’m all for eating a high-quality diet on trail, don’t let the idea overwhelm you to the point where you give up before you start. Start where you’re at and any small improvements you can make in food choices and quality will translate into feeling better on trail and supporting a cleaner environment.

 

Supplements & Other Items in Each Box

There are a few items that went into each box that aren’t listed in the chart. This includes maps for each section, wet wipes, and supplements. Oh, and resupply baggies of coarse celtic sea salt 🙂

Supplements I’m carrying: Magnesium Citrate Powder to help with muscle relaxation and sleep; Turmeric capsules to reduce overall inflammation; Vitamin C for electrolyte replacement and antioxidants; and probiotics to maintain optimal gut health.  Not a ton, just the basics.

I also have cordyceps mushroom powder in my morning smoothie mix, along with the coconut creamer, collagen, chia, and spices. The cordyceps is for improved oxygen utilization and endurance. The spices, while not necessarily  supplements, serve similar anti inflammatory and medicinal roles.

Need help planning your own resupply? Learn more here.

ODT resupply

Specific Brands I Carried

In the table, I left most food descriptions fairly general because I want to convey that in many instances you don’t have to choose one specific brand, and you can often find healthy substitutions that are either more available to you or suit your preferences better. I want the focus to be on the overall quality of the food and the idea that you can fuel a long distance hike with whole foods, made up of real ingredients.

The following are the specific brands I carried on this hike. While some of this food was donated to me, these are all brands I had tried in advance and approve of the ingredients and nutrition profile. Trust me, I wouldn’t be carrying them if I wasn’t certain they would fuel my hike properly. Having gone through adrenal and thyroid issues in the past, I’m well aware that my energy and my body are my greatest asset on any long distance hike.

It’s worth it to me to be thoughtful in my food choices, as well as in what brands I support. I like to feel aligned with the brands behind the products I consume to the extent that I can. This also goes for the gear I purchase.

Laird Superfood Coconut Creamer

Laird Superfood Hydrate Coconut Water

Vital Proteins Collagen Powder

Amazing Grass Greens Powder

Nutiva Chia Seeds

Trader Joe’s Almond Butter

Trader Joe’s Organic Tortilla Chips

Supernola Granola

Gorilly Goods Trail Mix

Wild Zora Meat & Veggie Bar

Trader Joe’s 85% Cocoa Chocolate

Wild Zora Meals

Sante Fe Dehydrated Beans

Natural Grocers Dehydrated Bulk Veggies

Trader Joe’s Individual Coconut Oil Packets

Kate’s Real Food Bars

Four Points Bars

Trail Nuggets

Cusa Premium Organic Instant Tea

If you want ideas for additional foods on my shopping list beyond what’s listed here, download my free Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide here

Without further ado, the data…

calories/serving fat g/serving carb g/serving protein g/serving weight/ serving (grams) servings taken total calories total fat (g) total protein (g) total carbs (g) total weight (g)
Start/eastern terminus (5 days) @ 2000 cal/day = 10000 cal
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 75 3 3 0 4 5 375 15 0 15 20
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 5 150 25 5 35 50
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 5 350 12.5 50 5 75
chia seeds (1 tbl) 60 5 5 3 13 5 300 25 15 25 65
almond butter 190 17 7 7 32 14 2660 238 98 98 448
organic corn tortilla chips 140 8 15 2 28 8.5 1190 68 17 127.5 238
trail mix 200 17 6 12 34 6 1200 102 72 36 204
granola 210 16 14 6 42 4 840 64 24 56 168
bars 260 12 31 10 70 4 1040 48 40 124 280
chocolate 250 20 13 4 2.5 625 50 10 32.5 0
jerky 110 6 10 7 31 4 440 24 28 40 124
beans 130 0 24 7 35 6 780 0 42 144 210
mixed veg 30 1 8 3 13 5 150 5 15 40 65
coconut oil 120 14 0 0 15 4 480 56 0 0 60
spices 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
wild zora dinner 310 7 38 35 85 1 310 7 35 38 85
TOTAL 9715 662 381 736 4.20
Calories from F/C/P 5958.00 1524 2944 pounds
Percent of Total 61.33 15.69 30.30
ROME (5.5 days) @ 2200/day =12,000 cal
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 135 3 3 0 4 5 675 15 0 15 20
chia seeds (1 tbl) 60 5 5 3 13 5 300 25 15 25 65
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 5 150 25 5 35 50
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 5 350 12.5 50 5 75
hydrate mix 40 0 10 0 12 9 360 0 0 90 108
0
almond butter 190 17 7 7 32 14 2660 238 98 98 448
organic corn tortilla chips 140 8 15 2 28 8.6 1204 68.8 17.2 129 240.8
granola 200 16 14 6 42 6 1200 96 36 84 252
jerky 110 6 10 7 31 4 440 24 28 40 124
bars 260 12 31 10 70 8 2080 96 80 248 560
trail mix 210 17 6 12 34 6 1260 102 72 36 204
chocolate 250 20 13 4 2.5 625 50 10 32.5 0
0
wild zora dinner 340 2 32 41 85 1 340 2 41 32 85
beans 130 0 24 7 35 6 780 0 42 144 210
mixed veg 30 1 8 3 13 5 150 5 15 40 65
coconut oil 120 14 0 0 15 4 480 56 0 0 60
spices 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
TOTAL 13054 815.3 509.2 1053.5 5.73
Calories from F/C/P 7337.70 2036.8 4214 pounds
Percent of Total 56.21 15.60 32.28
(MCDERMITT: BUY IN TOWN)
FIELDS (3 days) @ 2500 cal/day =7500 cal
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 75 3 3 0 4 3 225 9 0 9 12
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 3 90 15 3 21 30
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 3 210 7.5 30 3 45
chia (1 tbl) 60 5 5 3 13 3 180 15 9 15 39
0 0 0 0
almond butter 190 17 7 7 32 14 2660 238 98 98 448
potato chips 140 7 17 2 28 7 980 49 14 119 196
bars 260 12 31 10 70 3 780 36 30 93 210
trail mix 210 17 6 12 34 4 840 68 48 24 136
granola 210 16 14 6 42 2 420 32 12 28 84
jerkey 110 6 10 7 31 3 330 18 21 30 93
0 0 0 0
wild zora meal 310 2 32 41 85 1 310 2 41 32 85
beans 130 0 24 7 35 6 780 0 42 144 210
mixed veg 30 1 8 3 13 5 150 5 15 40 65
coconut oil 120 14 0 0 15 4 480 56 0 0 60
spices 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
TOTAL 8435 550.5 363 656 3.82
Calories from F/C/P 4954.50 1452 2624 pounds
Percent of Total 58.74 17.21 31.11
FRENCHGLEN (4 days) @2500 cal/day =10,000 cal
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 75 3 3 0 4 5 375 15 0 15 20
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 5 150 25 5 35 50
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 5 350 12.5 50 5 75
chia (1 tbl) 60 5 5 3 13 5 300 25 15 25 65
0 0 0 0
almond butter 190 17 7 7 32 14 2660 238 98 98 448
potato chips 100 7 17 2 28 10 1000 70 20 170 280
trail mix 210 17 6 12 34 5 1050 85 60 30 170
granola 200 16 14 6 42 4 800 64 24 56 168
bars 250 12 31 10 70 8 2000 96 80 248 560
chocolate 250 20 13 4 2.5 625 50 10 32.5 0
jerky 110 6 10 7 31 3 330 18 21 30 93
0 0 0 0
wild zora dinner 370 8 33 36 85 1 370 8 36 33 85
beans 130 0 24 7 35 6 780 0 42 144 210
mixed veg 30 1 8 3 13 5 150 5 15 40 65
coconut oil 120 14 0 0 15 4 480 56 0 0 60
spices 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
TOTAL 11420 767.5 476 961.5 5.24
Calories from F/C/P 6907.50 1904 3846 pounds
Percent of Total 60.49 16.67 33.68
PLUSH (2 days) @ 2500 cal/day = 5000 cal
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 75 3 3 0 4 5 375 15 0 15 20
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 5 150 25 5 35 50
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 5 350 12.5 50 5 75
chia (1 tbl) 60 5 5 3 13 5 300 25 15 25 65
0 0 0 0
wild zora breakfast 520 36 43 10 92 1 520 36 10 43 92
trail mix 210 17 6 12 34 4 840 68 48 24 136
granola 200 16 14 6 42 4 800 64 24 56 168
bars 250 12 31 10 70 10 2500 120 100 310 700
jerky 110 2 220 0 0 0 0
nut butter 180 14 8 9 32 1 180 14 9 8 32
wild zora dinner 370 8 33 36 85 1 370 8 36 33 85
TOTAL 6605 387.5 297 554 3.18
Calories from F/C/P 3487.50 1188 2216 pounds
Percent of Total 52.80 17.99 33.55
(LAKEVIEW: BUY IN TOWN)
PAISLEY (2 days) @ 2500 cal/day = 5000 cal
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 75 3 3 0 4 5 375 15 0 15 20
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 5 150 25 5 35 50
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 5 350 12.5 50 5 75
choc coconut creamer 35 1 2 0 3 12 420 12 0 24 36
wild zora breakfast 520 38 40 11 92 1 520 38 11 40 92
trail mix 200 17 6 12 34 4 800 68 48 24 136
granola 200 16 14 6 42 4 800 64 24 56 168
bars 260 12 31 10 70 10 2600 120 100 310 700
jerkey 110 6 10 7 31 2 220 12 14 20 62
wild zora dinner 340 7 38 35 85 1 340 7 35 38 85
TOTAL 6575 373.5 287 567 3.18
Calories from F/C/P 3361.50 1148 2268 pounds
Percent of Total 51.13 17.46 34.49
CHRISTMAS VALLEY (4 days) @ 2500 cal/day=10,000
coffee/tea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
laird superfood creamer 75 3 3 0 4 5 375 15 0 15 20
greens powder, cinnamon, ginger, cordyceps 30 5 7 1 10 5 150 25 5 35 50
collagen powder 70 2.5 1 10 15 5 350 12.5 50 5 75
choc coconut creamer 35 1 2 0 3 12 420 12 0 24 36
almond butter 190 17 7 7 32 14 2660 238 98 98 448
potato chips 100 7 17 2 28 10 1000 70 20 170 280
trail mix 200 17 6 12 34 6 1200 102 72 36 204
bars 260 12 31 10 70 7 1820 84 70 217 490
chocolate 250 20 13 4 2.5 625 50 10 32.5 0
jerky 110 6 10 7 31 5 550 30 35 50 155
beans 130 0 24 7 35 6 780 0 42 144 210
mixed veg 30 1 8 3 13 5 150 5 15 40 65
coconut oil 120 14 0 0 15 4 480 56 0 0 60
spices 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
TOTAL 9685 647 362 811.5 4.35
Calories from F/C/P 5823.00 1448 3246 pounds
Percent of Total 60.12 14.95 33.52

Despite my best efforts, this chart is a bit difficult to read. For a copy of the chart, as well as a template for your own resupply planning, click here: ODT resupply.

Questions? Post them in the comments below.

Need help planning your own resupply? Learn more here.

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How to Eat Healthy on a Thru-Hike

hiker eating

Of the many tasks hikers must think about before a long distance hike, food is at the top of the list.

Where will you resupply? How much food will you need? What will you eat? How do you choose which food to carry?

Either because they see no other option or because they don’t see the benefits of choosing healthier foods, many hikers settle on the standard diet of highly-processed packaged foods by default.

In this video, I give you a glimpse into what a sample day of eating might look like on trail for hikers who prefer simple to prepare, whole food options for increased energy, faster recovery, and better endurance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

continental divide trail

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

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

Chris:

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

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

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

Katie:

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

continental divide trail desert

Breakfast

Chris:

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

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

Here was the breakfast breakdown:

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

Katie:

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

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

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

Makeover:

hiker eating

Snacks/Lunch

Chris:

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

Here is what I snacked on:

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

Katie:

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

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

Makeover:

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

trail

Dinner

Chris:

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

My Usual Dinner Options:

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

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

Makeover:

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

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

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

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

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The Danger of Fueling with Faux Foods

wind river cirque of towers

This post originally appeared on The Trek, which you can find here

 

Hikers burn thousands of calories a day, so the quality of the food doesn’t matter, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

When it comes to food on a long trail, the focus is usually on calories and palatability. Little attention is paid to the long-term impact of our food choices on our health and the environment.  I’ll outline 10 reasons to make real food your primary fuel for endurance endeavors, as well as simple steps for how to make the transition.

What are Faux Foods?

Before we can avoid them, we must know how to identify them.

Faux foods are:

  • Foods where real ingredients have been stripped out and replaced with substitutions.
  • Foods that are created in a lab rather than grown in soil.
  • Foods that have an ingredient label containing substances you can’t pronounce.
  • Foods that are produced in a way that’s destructive to the environment.

‘Faux foods’ may not be the most accurate descriptor, as the foods are not necessarily fake, but it’s a good catchall for these foods, and it’s catchier than ‘non-food junk’, so that’s what I’ve settled on.

real food backpacker

What This Means for Hikers

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 dangers of faux foods and the alternatives which exist.

While many hikers can get by on Snickers and Doritos for a few months with seemingly few consequences, junk food has real implications on your energy, your performance, and even the outcome of your hike.

PCT katiegerber.com

 

10 Reasons to Reconsider Your Resupply

1) You Are What You Eat

You’ve no doubt heard this before, but just let that sink in. What you eat literally becomes the components of your body. Do you want to be made up of artificial ingredients that were synthesized in a lab or would you prefer your cells to be made up of real, living things which grew from soil, sunlight, water, and air?

2) Inflammation

The full body inflammation caused by excess intake of faux foods makes us more susceptible to injury and illness. In 2017, injury and illness accounted for 17% of AT hikers quitting their thru-hike attempt. The main drivers of inflammation in a typical hiker diet arerefined sugar and trans fats.

3) Gut Health

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 – especially when exposure is chronic. This also impairs absorption of the limited nutrients that are being taken in.

4) Slower Recovery

If your body is lacking in essential micronutrients, it takes longer to get back to full speed. Thru-hikers beat their bodies up daily, so fast recovery is key to feeling great day after day.

5) Increased Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease, Autoimmune Conditions, and Allergies

Faux foods are more likely to result in these long-term health conditions that will affect you long after you’re off the trail. Processed foods are also more likely to cause allergies.

6) Slower Wound Healing

Chronic inflammation suppresses your immune system, thereby causing slower wound healing. 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.

7) Blood Sugar Balance and Bonking

Completing a long hike often requires long days. The key to having sustained energy and hiking big miles is maintaining balanced blood sugar by steering clear of highly-refined, processed foods.

8) 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. Steady blood sugar helps you make better decisions and stay motivated over the long haul.

9) Post-hike Depletion

Most hikers are ambitious people with big plans. Rather than ending your hike exhausted and burnt out, it’s possible to recover faster and be ready for your next adventure without having to spend months on the couch in front of the TV. Faux foods lack the nutrients and antioxidants that will help you bounce back faster.

10) Overeating and Carrying Extra Food

Faux foods often have plenty of calories, but are deficient in nutrients, leaving the body unsatisfied. This leads to endless hunger and results in carrying more food than you may actually need.

BONUS:

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.

pollution

5 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of Faux Foods

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% Faux 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) Eat more 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

This will help 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) 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.

4) Make up for micronutrient deficiencies in town

Choose fresh vegetables and salads instead of (or at least in addition to) pizza, burgers, and beer.

5) Make small changes

It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:

Add in a greens powder, such as athletic greensamazing grass, or organifi each day.This can make up for micronutrient deficiencies on a long hike.

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 Organic Tortilla Chips: organic corn, organic sunflower oil, 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.

http://www.personaltrainervancouver.com/adventures/attachment/hiking-stock-image/

Start slow and do what you can.

Even making a few small changes is a good step towards fueling yourself for performance and creating a better environment at the same time.

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Could Adrenal Fatigue Be Hindering Your Physical Performance?

pacific crest trail

This article originally appeared on The Trek, which you can read here.

Is your stamina and endurance suffering? Have you been getting more colds? Do you often hit a mid-afternoon slump? Do you feel anxious, down, and lack the motivation you used to have?

If you had asked me these questions a couple of years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “yes to all of the above.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but through long-distance running and hiking, plus ignoring my body’s feedback, I was gradually developing Adrenal Fatigue.

While there’s a lot of debate within the medical community about the existence and etiology of Adrenal Fatigue, the term is still widely used in popular media and within the general public. Increasingly, “Adrenal Fatigue” is replaced with more accurate descriptors like “HPA (hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary) axis dysregulation” and “General Adaptation Syndrome.” But regardless of what you call it, the condition describes a set of symptoms resulting from the many effects of chronic stress on the body.

More on that in a moment.

What are the adrenals and how do they become “fatigued?”

The adrenals are two pea-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys and are part of the HPA axis, which controls our stress response (aka the fight or flight response). When we encounter stress, whether real or perceived, a series of hormones trigger the adrenals to release cortisol into the bloodstream to make us focused and alert. Heart rate increases and glucose is released to fuel muscles. Once danger has passed, cortisol levels return to normal, insulin takes care of the extra blood sugar that was released, and all is well.

Historically, dangers were short-lived. Imagine the lion chasing the gazelle. The gazelle goes into the flight response, outruns the lion, and then goes back to grazing. The problem occurs when the danger or perceived danger never stops. This is common in our world where stress comes in many forms from physical stress, such as over-training, to emotional and psychological stress, such as concerns over finances and relationships.

lion gazelle
Photo source

Constant stress is not common in nature. The gazelle doesn’t keep stressing about the lion after the danger has passed. When we’re constantly stressed, in addition to having extra cortisol in our bodies, we also pump out extra insulin. This leads to insulin resistance, weight gain and cravings for sugar, salt, and fat.

This results in the HPA axis becoming dysregulated. The HPA axis affects systems throughout the body including thyroid and metabolism, immune function, and hormone production.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Because the HPA axis governs several functions in the body, the symptoms are wide ranging. As anyone who has hiked a long trail will attest to, it is a demanding endeavor, and physical, emotional, and psychological stress is a constant companion. If you find yourself nodding yes to most of these, read on to discover steps you can take to mitigate adrenal stress.

Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Waking up not fully rested and having difficulty falling asleep.
  • Craving sugar, fat, and salt.
  • Hitting an afternoon slump and craving sugar, caffeine, or both.
  • Gaining weight without changes in diet or exercise.
  • Feeling anxious, down, or lacking motivation.
  • Getting sick more often.
  • Experiencing low libido and hormonal issues, such as infertility,
  • Experiencing brain fog, such as issues with memory and focus.

Why are hikers particularly at risk?

Mt Whitney

Adrenal Fatigue exists on a spectrum ranging from adrenal overdrive to burnout and exhaustion.

As mentioned, stress is the driver of HPA dysfunction and that stress can come in many forms. It can be long-term emotional stress, like worrying that you’re not going to successfully finish the trail, that you’ll run out of money, or that you won’t find a job when you get home. It can also be physical stress, like walking 20+ miles daily and maintaining  a poor diet. A disrupted circadian rhythm caused by poor sleep, disrupted blood sugar from eating processed foods and refined carbs, and inflammation from substance abuse, gut issues, chronic illness, bacterial infections, and wounds, among many other factors, can all contribute to the overall stress load of the body.

When you are chronically under-eating and over-exercising, the body goes into survival mode. Your body reduces thyroid production (which plays a large role in metabolism), reduces sex hormones, and increases cortisol while you try to meet the demands of these stressors. Eventually this leads to HPA dysfunction.

The physical stress of a long hike, coupled with the nutrient-poor diet and often low-quality sleep of hikers, sets them up as prime candidates for developing HPA axis dysfunction. Those who set out on thru-hikes also tend to be driven, Type-A personalities who ignore their bodies’ red flags and push through the discomfort.

I know that was the case for me on the PCT in 2014. I actually felt great for the majority of the trail. I didn’t experience any injuries or illnesses on trail. I ate a fairly healthy whole foods diet. It wasn’t until I returned home and tried to start training for my next ultra marathon that I discovered my stamina and endurance were completely gone. Many other symptoms, such as lethargy, muscle fatigue, and hair loss were surfacing as well. After a long process of searching for answers, I discovered I had adrenal dysfunction and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Some of the symptoms were there all along and I’d been ignoring them. My salt cravings, for instance, which gave me my trail name (Salty), are one that come to mind. Frequently experiencing cold hands is another symptom I’d been ignoring. Most of it didn’t hit me until I’d returned home though.

Before you end up with complete adrenal exhaustion, look for these early indicators:

  • You experience a loss in appetite. If you’re normally hungry, then suddenly you’re not, this may indicate that you’re over-stressed.
  • You have an inability to fall asleep and stay asleep, even when you’re exhausted.
  • Your mood is off and you’re unmotivated, even though you’re living your dream and hiking through some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
  • You’re really cold all the time (disrupted thyroid function).
  • You’re sore more frequently, long after you have your “trail legs.”

How do I know if I have Adrenal Fatigue?

hammock

There are a couple tests which can be done by an integrative or functional medicine doctor to assess adrenal health. The most common is to check salivary or serum cortisol levels over a 24-hour period to see where there are dips and spikes in cortisol. Additionally, doctors can test other hormones such as DHEA, progesterone, and insulin, as well as immune markers to evaluate the effects of stress on your body.

If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms, you don’t need to wait for a test to begin treating yourself. Hikers may be able to improve symptoms with the following approaches:

  • Reduce your stress as much as possible. Uncertainty is a big driver of stress. Set yourself up for less stress by having good health and solid finances before your hike as well as a plan for when you finish. Also, find support on your hike through fellow hikers and staying in touch with loved ones at home. Enjoy your adventure and don’t pressure yourself to hike at a pace that doesn’t suit you.
  • Improve your sleep habits. Sleep is your prime recovery time, and how you sleep is how you hike. Make sure your sleeping pad is comfortable, your bag is warm enough, and avoid stimulants before bed.
  • Regulate your blood sugar levels. Adjust your resupply strategy to include less sugar and more nutrient-dense foods. Include a healthy fat and protein with each meal. Fuel consistently to avoid bonking.
  • Cut back on caffeine consumption. Caffeine can be a major adrenal stressor and it’s easy to overdo it on trail. Many drink mixes contain a lot of caffeine. For more consistent energy, opt for low-sugar electrolyte blends instead to flavor your water.
  • Exercise, but not too much. This is next to impossible for thru-hikers, of course, but you can still listen to your body. If you’re constantly fatigued, give yourself an extra zero day in town. It’s your hike. Take care of your body, so you can finish the trail healthy.
  • Add in adaptogenic herbs, such as Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, or Rhodiola. These can be sent in resupply boxes as teas, capsules, or tinctures. These herbs have a long history of traditional use in various cultures as well as scientific research showing their stress-protective properties. If you’re prone to stress, consider them an insurance policy.
  • Take a daily multivitamin with B-complex and Magnesium. Even when you’re eating healthy on trail, you can run low on key micronutrients and stress depletes them even faster. Again, consider it a nutrition insurance policy. Throw a Ziploc with a few multi-vitamins in each resupply box. They’re not that heavy.

It’s important to note that I’m not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice. I don’t diagnose, treat, or prescribe. HPA axis dysfunction is a complex topic and it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss it in full detail. This article is intended to raise awareness of an issue that hikers may be prone to experiencing, and which frequently goes undiagnosed since symptoms are wide-ranging and often confused with the ‘normal’ discomfort of thru-hiking.

If you want to know more, speak to a licensed medical professional.

If you’re seeking support with other health-related goals, such as increasing energy and stamina, eating well on trail, and preparing for or recovering from your hike, check out my other blog posts or schedule a free discovery session

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