Here’s a full 5-day healthy lightweight backpacking meal plan. Healthy and lightweight?? Yep. That’s what I’m all about. Ramen, poptarts, and Snickers? Hell nah.
You’ll notice that each day of this meal plan is about 60% fat, 20% protein, and 20% carbohydrate. It’s based around whole foods and is designed to be stoveless (optional) and anti-inflammatory.
This healthy high fat approach helps me reduce pack weight, eliminate bonking, reduce hiker hunger, and decrease digestive issues. If you’re curious about the science and rationale of how I landed on this approach after years of experimentation, check out this post.
You’ll notice that this diet is a bit different than the standard, processed thru-hiker diet. Yup. It’s not perfect, but in general, this meal plan is designed to:
be organic/free-range/grass-fed when possible (so I can avoid the damage of glyphosate on both my body and the environment)
emphasize nutrient density
The following meal plan was pulled straight from my spreadsheet for my Continental Divide Trail resupply plan. As such, it’s based on my calorie needs and food preferences. For an idea of how many calories you need, I recommend starting with a BMR calculator, like this one, and adjusting from there based on activity level.
The 5 days shown here is a box I’m sending around mile 1200, so it’s based on ~2700 calories per day. The total weight for this 5 days of food is 6.77 pounds or about 1.35 pounds of food per day. This is significantly lower than the commonly recommended 2 pounds per day.
I also carry a few key supplements that help me stay healthy and energized on trail. Read the what and why about those here (link coming soon).
I hope this gives you some ideas for your own backpacking meal if you’re looking for something a bit less junk food-y. And yes, it’s somewhat repetitive, but I appreciate the simplicity of that. It makes shopping in bulk easier and I can add variety by rotating through different varieties/flavors. For example, with a trail mix, it might be almonds, coconut flakes, dried cranberries, and ginger powder in one box, then walnut, cacao nibs, banana chips, and cinnamon in the next box.
The chart represents all the food for 5 days and the photos show what each day would look like. Post your Q’s or comments below.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in proximity to the long distance hiking community, you’re likely aware that food is a frequently discussed topic. What will I pack in my resupply box? When is my next snack break? What will I eat in town? Food, food, food…and rightfully so, as thru-hikers burn through 3,000-6,000+ calories per day.
It won’t take long and you’ll notice a common mentality surface: hikers need a lot of calories and the source of those calories doesn’t matter. In fact, some even claim that you need junk food to fuel a long distance hike because it’s assumed to be calorie-rich. This sole focus on calories is the thru-hiker calorie myth.
I call B.S. You can finish a hike relying solely on processed carbs. I’ve seen hundreds of hikers do it, but it’s certainly not necessary, and you’ll likely plow through your body’s reserves and compromise performance in the process. If the junk food diet approach doesn’t interest you for whatever reason (i.e. long-term health, performance optimization, environmental impact, dietary restrictions), rest-assured that there are feasible alternatives.
While the body can and will use any source of energy you give them, I’d submit that there are definite advantages to fueling on whole foods and significant disadvantages to relying solely on junk food.
What is the ‘thru-hiker diet’?
It’s hard to imagine a diet worse in quality and nutritional benefits than the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is an obvious culprit in the U.S. obesity epidemic (affecting 1 in 3 adults) and a strong contributor to the current chronic disease crisis (affecting 1 in 2 adults).
But there is one diet that is arguably even worse, and that’s the standard Thru-Hiker diet. This diet consists primarily of heavily processed, packaged foods, which are loaded with preservatives, artificial ingredients, colorings, trans fats, and excess sugar. Of course, this way of eating developed because hikers need high calorie food, which is light, packable, and tasty, but many are unaware of the true impact of fueling on these foods, and the alternatives which exist.
Why Not Maximize Performance, Health, and Enjoyment?
It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to bring a long distance hike to life. Why just survive out there when you could feel truly awesome? It’s simply a matter of tweaking something you’re already doing: eating.
The intention of this post is not to impose guilt or even to persuade you to eat a certain way. Rather, the intention is to provide a resource for those seeking an alternative to the thru-hiker junk food paradigm (as I was). On a deeper level, the intention is to provide a beacon of truth in a very crowded landscape of marketers who are trying to sell you their products. It’s to help you develop your own compass, so you can take control of your health (because no one else is going to do that for you).
So, what are the downsides to fueling on junk food? What does the science say? What’s the alternative?
First, Some Definitions
When I refer to ‘junk food’, I’m referring to highly processed, packaged foods. They are often high in refined sugars and have lengthy ingredient lists containing additives, preservatives, food dyes, and artificial ingredients. Generally, they’re high in calories and low in nutritional value.
‘Whole foods’, on the other hand, are unprocessed, unadulterated, and generally quite close to the form in which you’d find them in nature. They are free of artificial ingredients and additives, and if they’re in a package at all, the ingredient list is short and consists of recognizable ingredients.
Calories matter, but that’s not all you need.
When you’re moving for 10+ hours per day, the obsession with calories is understandable. And while junk food certainly provides calories (though not always as much many assume), the primary downside is that it lacks the nutrients that will keep your body functioning optimally during rigorous physical demands.
I often hear hikers say, ‘I’m losing weight eating this way. How can I be unhealthy?’. Frankly, on trail or off, the focus on weight in the overall picture of health is myopic. Energy balance is important, but your food should do more than just provide calories.
When your muscles are strained as they are during a long distance hike, vitamin and mineral stores are depleted more quickly than when sedentary. These micronutrients are essential for athletes because they contribute to energy metabolism, amino acid synthesis, red blood cell synthesis, and overall reduction of inflammation (which increases during exercise). The increased nutrient turnover in athletes leads to an increased dietary requirement. Where are these micronutrients found most abundantly? Whole foods (especially fruits and veggies).
Fitness ≠ Health
It’s commonly assumed that because thru-hikers are fit that they are healthy. However, you can absolutely be fit, but unhealthy. In a 2016 review in Sports Med-Open, the authors clarify the difference between fitness and overall health.
Fitness is the ability to perform a given exercise. Health is an overall state of well-being where physiological systems are operating optimally. The general term given to unhealthy athletes is overtraining syndrome, and the authors argue that the primary drivers of this are “high training intensity and the modern-day highly processed, high glycemic diet. Both factors elicit a sympathetic response through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, in turn driving systemic reactive oxygen species production, inflammation, and a metabolic substrate imbalance towards carbohydrate and away from fat oxidation, manifesting in an array of symptoms often labeled as the overtraining syndrome.”
The Dangers of a Junk Food Diet
Inflammation and Impaired Long-term Health
What does inflammation mean for the hiker? When inflammation is high and persistent, it affects all body systems. In the short term, this means suboptimal performance,increased muscle soreness, longer recovery times, slower wound healing, increased susceptibility to illness, and less mental acuity. Not good when you’re hiking a marathon a day for 5 months. In the long term, chronic inflammation increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Highly refined vegetable oils as well as sugar, both found abundantly in junk foods, provide the raw materials for inflammation in the body. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that in healthy populations, reliance on fast foods and sugars is positively correlated with symptoms of metabolic syndrome. While this may not manifest during a hike, it’s still something to consider as you choose your food for a multi-month thru-hike.
Increased Illness, Slower Healing, and Slower Recovery
You can decrease the likelihood of ending your hike early by changing what’s in your food bag. The full body inflammation caused by excess intake of ultra-processed foods increases susceptibility to injury and illness. In 2017, injury and illness accounted for 17% of AT hikers quitting their thru-hike attempt.
Chronic inflammation also suppresses your immune system, thereby causing slower wound healing and slower recovery. It’s not uncommon to endure small wounds on trail, and quick healing reduces the chances of developing a serious infection that could end a hike.
Impaired Gut Health & Intestinal Permeability
Intricately tied to inflammation is the health of the gut lining. Sugar and refined ingredients, as well as several food additives and preservatives, have been shown to disrupt the digestive system and contribute to intestinal permeability. This is particularly true when exposure is chronic.
It’s helpful to remember that your liver has to process everything that you put into the body. Think of it like a water filter. Think about what happens when you filter from a dirty cow tank, for instance.
Decreased Mental Clarity & Motivation
It’s often said that thru-hiking success is 90% mental. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no doubt that the mental game is a huge part of successfully completing your adventure. And what you eat directly affects your brain. Steady blood sugar helps you make better decisions and stay motivated over the long haul. Eating a nutrient-dense diet also helps with navigation and making smart decisions in the backcountry.
Energy Imbalance & Bonking: One ticket for the energy roller coaster, please.
Another aspect of relying on processed carbs all day is the effect on your energy. When you eat food, your blood sugar levels rise, and your pancreas releases insulin to shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into cells. This is a good thing. It gives you energy. However, how quickly your blood sugar rises and falls depends on the source of the energy. Refined carbs alone will cause a rapid spike and then crash in blood sugar. You’ll crave more sugar and start the cycle over. This is the energy roller coaster and once you’re on it, it’s hard to get off. More complex carbs, on the other hand, along with eating healthy fat, fiber, or protein with meals and snacks will slow down the response and provide more sustained and lasting energy.
Think about tending a fire. You need the kindling for a quick burning fuel source and you need logs for a long sustained burn, so you’re not constantly feeding the fire with kindling. Carbs are the kindling and can be great for quick energy, but pair them with fats and protein for more sustained energy.
When you rely solely on simple sugar all day, you tend to have a lot of energy spikes and crashes. Completing a long hike requires long days. The key to having sustained energy and hiking big miles is avoiding the spikes and crashes by steering clear of highly-refined, processed foods.
Increased Hunger & Increased Pack Weight
Consuming foods devoid of nutrients leaves the body unsatisfied, even when a large amount of calories have been consumed. This leads to endless hunger and results in buying and carrying more food than you may actually need. A 2019 study indicated that people eat more on an ultra-processed diet than on a whole foods diet. Just by cutting out the processed foods, your hunger will naturally regulate itself. Studies also suggest that a high micronutrient diet (vs. a low micronutrient, but high calorie diet) can not only help you experience less hunger, but can make the hunger symptoms more tolerable. While many hikers aren’t trying to lose weight intentionally, most would agree that it’d be nice to not constantly feel ravenous.
Ultimately, when you’re hungrier, you eat more. When you have to eat more, you have to buy more and carry more, which obviously results in more money spent and a heavier pack. A heavier pack not only decreases enjoyment, but can lead to increased wear and tear on the body, and ultimately to injury. Of course, there’s the very real fact that your body is working hard and needs a lot of calories, but most hikers I know who’ve shifted to more whole foods don’t seem to have the same level of hiker hunger as those eating only processed foods.
Creation of Unhealthy Habits
Repetitive behaviours turn into habits in as little as 3 weeks. When you’ve been training your body for months to eat and crave junk food, it can be difficult to shift to healthier patterns once you return home. The consequences on your body and mind are real. It may seem like no big deal at the onset, but most of us know how difficult it can be to retrain ourselves and form healthy habits.
Post-trail Weight Gain & A Messed-Up Relationship with Food
An infrequently discussed topic in the hiking community is adjusting to life post-trail, especially when it comes to eating and health. Hikers may lose weight in the short term, but over the course of a few years, a highly processed diet contributes to obesity and metabolic syndrome (two of the mostly costly worldwide epidemics), and mounting evidence suggests that these foods also play a part in immune-mediated metabolic dysregulation. This is relevant for the hiker who is taxing her system on trail and needs a healthy immune system to remain strong and resilient, both in the short and the long term.
It’s not uncommon to hear hikers joke about having two wardrobes: one for hiking season and one for non-hiking season. Obviously there’s a massive decrease in physical activity which can lead to rapid weight gain if one doesn’t regulate food intake. Consider that it’s easier to regulate food intake when 1) you’re eating whole foods (as cited above) and 2) your taste buds haven’t been trained to crave highly processed foods.
It’s rarely discussed, but when hikers return home and attempt to shift their diet, it can also be emotionally challenging. Cycles of binging and then restriction are not uncommon and are worsened by cravings for highly palatable, ultra-processed foods. This can not only lead to a disturbed relationship with food, but can contribute to the post-trail depression many experience.
Increased Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease, Autoimmune Conditions, and Allergies
We’ve already covered the increased risk of metabolic syndrome from eating a processed diet over the long term. A junk food diet is more likely to result in cardiovascular disease and autoimmune conditions that will affect you long after you’re off the trail. Processed foods are also more likely to cause allergies.
Looking at the Bigger Picture
We evolved with whole foods and we’re only beginning to understand the health implications of the alterations being made to foods, such as genetic engineering, pesticide residues, and the addition of preservatives, food colorings, synthetic chemicals, and more.
As a reminder, highly processed foods were not created the way they are for your health. They were created to be cheap for the companies to make, to have a long shelf life, and to make you eat more. You’re literally up against billions of dollars of research and food scientists focusing solely on those outcomes. When reading headlines or even when looking at the literature, it’s helpful to look at who sponsored the study and how it was conducted.
For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), the world’s largest association of nutrition professionals, was funded by Coca-cola until 2015, and many of their ‘Fact Sheets’ were written by industry sponsors. This is the organization Registered Dieticians (RDs) are credentialed through. This is not at all to imply that there are no ethical dieticians, but rather to suggest that you might consider looking into the research for yourself. Look at who is funding that study telling you that candy bars are healthy.
Again, it’s not about moralizing food and saying that some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’. But it is true that some foods contribute to overall health, while others are more likely to cause your health to deteriorate. Be informed.
Finally, the environmental impact of our choices is something we all need to be aware of. Industrial, highly-processed, GMO-filled foods increase the profits of mega-corporations at the expense of the environment we love so much.
What does the grandfather of long distance hiking have to say? (#whatwouldraydo?)
Interestingly, in Beyond Backpacking, originally published in 1992, author Ray Jardine suggests that in regards to backpacking food we “consider not only the whims of our taste buds but the physiological need of our bodies and brains… If our journeys degenerate into battles, in terms of lost energy and mental buoyancy, then I think those battles are usually won or lost in the grocery stores, rather than on the trails”.
Jardine goes on to point out how to recognize junk food in its various forms and reveals how not all “food” is food. He states that “poorly nourished hikers often find themselves low on energy and endurance. They usually assume that hiking is inherently tiring, and that the steepness and length of the trail is to blame for their weariness. Malnutrition can also manifest in the hiker’s mental outlook.”
Jardine points out the dangers of nutrient poor foods and food additives. He even covers the ‘calorie myth’, stating “sugars are high in calories but they do not provide us with usable energy. Nor do they encourage recuperation from strenuous exercise, cleanse our muscles of their byproducts, help repair micro-damaged muscles fibers, or help strengthen our muscles and increase their stamina. Sugars are also quite useless at promoting mental acuity.”
Somehow, the junk food diet became the norm in thru-hiker culture, which seems odd, really. In what other realm do you see athletes pushing to the edge of their physical limits by fueling on the worst foods they can find?
Fueling for energy, endurance, and overall health does not have to difficult or expensive as many hikers believe. At a very basic level, just do your best to eat real food. Yes, food manufacturers have made it more difficult to do this. However, with a few simple tips (see below) and a bit of practice, you’ll soon be a pro, reaping the benefits of increased energy, endurance, mental acuity, and long term health.
Removing the junk from your food bag doesn’t mean you need to go buy expensive foods marketed as ‘sports’ foods (like clif bars or gatorade). Many of those are just candy bars in sheep’s clothing: similar ingredients with a marketing spin. Whole foods from bulk bins are often less expensive and, as covered earlier, you’ll likely need to carry less to fuel you.
If you’re not eating the ultra-processed stuff, where will you get your carbs? Carbs are an important part of fueling a long hike, but you can get them from dried fruits, tubers, legumes, whole grains and other real food. Relying on the highly processed ones is not only unnecessary but can be damaging to your performance and long term health, as discussed.
5 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of the Junk Food Diet
When it comes to eating for endurance, and overall personal and planetary health, I tend to follow a credo more than a specific diet. I don’t like the word ‘diet’ because it conjures up ideas of strict rules and restriction, which is not what I’m suggesting. A credo is more of a set of principles that guide your actions and beliefs.
Think of your food choices as a continuum with a 100% Junk Food diet on one end and a 100% seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local (SOUL) diet on the other end. This framework helps me work towards making better choices when I can, but not getting so caught up in rules and ‘shoulds’ that I give up entirely.
Here are a few of the basic principles and how you can apply them to your next outdoor adventure.
Focus on whole, unprocessed foods on trail. Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and dehydrated veggies are all great choices. There are lots of ideas online and you can also check out my free Eat for Endurance ebook for more ideas.
Read labels and avoid excessive added sugar, trans fat, and additives like artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrate, sodium sulfate, food dyes, potassium bromate, and MSG.
Send resupply boxes to places with limited options. Don’t be stuck eating gas station food for a week because you didn’t plan ahead. You’ll feel gross and you’ll compromise your energy and performance. Here’s how I plan my resupply boxes.
Make up for micronutrient deficiencies in town by choosing fresh vegetables and salads instead of (or at least in addition to) pizza, burgers, and beer.
Make small changes. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:
Swap out some candy for dried fruit. If your body is craving quick energy, eating fruit will give you a quick dose of carbs, with enough fiber to maintain blood sugar balance, and without all the added junk. And there are SO MANY options: raisins, cranberries, apricots, blueberries, mango, banana, etc.
Look for chips and other crunchy/salty snacks with as few ingredients as possible. For example, compare the following:
Ingredients in Nacho Cheese Doritos: whole corn, vegetable oil (corn, soybean, and/or sunflower oil), salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese (part skim cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, corn flour, disodium phosphate, lactose, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, spices, lactic acid, artificial color (including Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40), citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, red and green bell pepper powder, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, nonfat milk solids, whey protein isolate, corn syrup solids.
Start slow and do what you can. As they say, the dose makes the poison. Even making a few small changes is a good step towards fueling yourself for performance and creating a better environment at the same time.
The good news? You’re FREE. Absolutely free to make your own decisions. Free to choose pesticide-laden junk or free to fuel on nature’s buffet of whole foods. You decide.
The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) is a 750-mile route through the high desert country of Eastern Oregon. In the shape of a lopsided W, the Oregon Desert Trail made is up of a network of trails, cross-country travel, and two-track dirt roads. Oregon Desert “Trail” is a bit of a misnomer as the route is actually only 9% trail. The remainder of the miles are comprised of 35% cross-country travel, 51% unpaved/dirt roads, and 5% paved roads. The route was established in 2011 and has been thru-hiked by fewer than 30 hikers, who generally take four to six weeks to complete it. The ODT traverses some of the most spectacular natural areas of Oregon’s dry side, including Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Steens Mountain, and the Owyhee Canyonlands.
Oregon Desert Trail At-a-Glance
Distance: 753.5 miles (variable depending on the specific route you choose).
Location: Southeast Oregon.
Trail type: Point-to-point.
Scenery: Sagebrush seas, fault-block mountains, lava beds, canyonlands, pinyon-juniper forests, deserts, and hot springs.
Terrain: Moderate to difficult, with rolling hills to river crossings and steep off-trail navigation through dense vegetation.
Navigation: The route is unmarked and requires map and compass skills and/or use of a GPS. The best resource for maps and way points is the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) website. There are occasional cairns or sections where the route follows other signed trails, but this is rare.
The termini are located in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness near Bend, OR, and in Lake Owyhee State Park, near the southwest border of Idaho. The trail can be hiked east to west or west to east. For most people, accessing the Western Terminus near Bend is easier. You could fly into Redmond Municipal Airport, 17 miles from downtown Bend, and taxi or Uber to the Badlands Wilderness, or to the bus station (see below) if you’re starting at the Eastern Terminus.
The Eastern Terminus at Lake Owyhee State Park is more remote. If you can find someone to drop you off, that’s definitely the easiest option. If that’s not possible, take the POINT bus Eastern route from Hawthorne station in Bend to Vale/Ontario and taxi from there. A possible option detailed on the ONDA website is trail advocates in the Lake Owyhee area who may be willing to help out hikers with transportation. Be a good trail steward and treat these people with generosity and kindness.
Of interest for those planning a section hike of the trail, the ONDA website offers the following information: “The Lake County Senior Citizen Association (LCSCA) Lake County Public Transportation program offers rides around Lake County. The priority for the service is for seniors needing medical services, but if space is available hikers are welcome to ride. Trips may travel between Christmas Valley, Bend, Paisley and Lakeview. The cost depends on location (usually between $10-20). Call to inquire about availability and schedule: 541-947-4966.”
Which Direction Should You Hike?
This trail can be hiked in either direction. Most ODT thru-hikers have gone eastbound, but in the last few years, at least five of us have gone westbound. The pros of traveling westbound include finishing in Bend, with its many tasty restaurants and 22 microbreweries (the highest per capita in the US). Getting home from Bend is also likely to be easier. On the downside, westbound travel means more challenging terrain at the start of your hike. Traveling eastbound, on the other hand, may mean more logistics getting home from the Eastern Terminus, but more gentle terrain to start and a much more scenic finish at the spectacular Owyhee Lake terminus.
Why Hike the Oregon Desert Trail
The ODT is unlike any other trail you’ve hiked, and that alone is a good reason to hike it. Southeast Oregon is one of the least densely populated regions of the country and many of the towns you travel through are one stoplight with one combined gas station/convenience store/bar/post office. I found that being on a trail without so much trail culture around it made for more genuine interactions with the locals.
Another reason to hike this trail is the lack of crowds. The total number of permits issued for the PCT in 2018 was 7,313. That’s in stark contrast to the number of other hikers I saw aside from my hiking partners, which was zero in 30 days. This provides a wonderful opportunity to unplug and truly clear your mind.
Another benefit of the remoteness of the ODT is the lack of light pollution, which allows for some of the most incredible night skies I’ve ever experienced. The wide-open expansive horizons also showcased vibrant sunrises and sunsets almost daily.
I found that being on a trail without so much trail culture around it made for more genuine interactions with the locals.
This trail also passes several hot springs, including Summer Lake Hot Springs and Hunter’s Hot Springs, as well as Hart Mountain Hot Springs, Alvord Hot Springs, and several soaking pools in the Owyhee Canyonlands. This is thanks to the region’s rich volcanic history, which adds to the interesting geologic features of the region.
Aside from all this, the greatest reason to hike this trail is for the freedom and challenge it provides. From heat to navigation to water challenges, the ODT will test your limits every day. Furthermore, the freedom to hike as you wish, without anyone telling you you’re “doing it wrong” is also extremely refreshing.
Climate, Weather, and When to Hike
This region gets HOT in the summer, making the ideal seasons for hiking here in the spring or fall. Each option has its own unique challenges and considerations. For example, water is more likely to be available in the spring than in the fall. However, if you start late enough, the fall is likely to be cooler. I also just find autumn to be a very pleasant time to be in the desert.
We completed our ODT thru-hike from Sept. 1-30. The first week, daytime temperatures were in the high 80s and low 90s, but cooled to high 50s and mid 60s later in the hike. Our nighttime temps ranged from low 20s to mid 40s. The only rain we experienced was a brief shower our last morning on trail.
Oregon Desert Trail Gear Suggestions
Like most desert ecosystems, the ODT is harsh. There are many pokey things, as well as venomous fauna like scorpions and rattlesnakes (we saw 13). The biggest challeng,e however is water. Water sources may include streams or springs, but more often include cow tanks. Having reliable water treatment as well as a backup method is a good idea. For example, carrying a filter plus Aquatabs, in case your filter breaks (as mine did) or freezes. This is not the trail to test your luck with not treating water.
Because sources can be as far as 40 miles apart, I’d recommend a ten- to 12-liter carrying capacity. Keep in mind that these can be challenging cross-country miles with very little shade. On that note, a sun umbrella can also be incredibly helpful for creating your own personal shade.
Finally, while you certainly could hike this trail with only map and compass, I found having a GPS in addition to my paper maps made for more accurate and efficient navigation.
As long as you’re not on private land, which is something to stay aware of on the ODT, you can essentially camp wherever you’d like. As expected, there are no shelters, and the route does not travel through any fee areas.
Oregon Desert Trail Highlights
The ODT was much more diverse than I expected. In addition to the hot springs mentioned earlier, some standout sections include Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert, and Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. The trail also passes by petroglyphs as well as several fascinating volcanic features, like Crack-in-the-Ground.
Water is the crux of the route. When I hiked in 2018, the region experienced one of the hottest and driest summers on record, making water during our fall hike a challenge. At one point, we each carried three gallons (that’s 24 pounds!). Sources range from streams to lakes to springs to cow tanks. Some are clear, many are murky.
The most valuable resource for water on the ODT is the water report hosted on ONDA’s website. It’s a Google spreadsheet, so hikers are able to make notes in the field and it syncs once you’re back on Wi-Fi. Sources are ranked as unreliable, questionable, and reliable, and the report contains notes from the current year as well as past years. This was incredibly helpful as we found 2018 more closely matched with 2015 in terms of which sources we could expect to be reliable. We never counted on a source that wasn’t labeled reliable.
Most hikers will also want to cache water in the western 160 miles of trail. ONDA may be able to assist with this for a $10 donation. More details are found on the ‘Water’ tab of the Trail Resources page.
The trail travels through or near 16 communities, allowing hikers to resupply often. Many of the towns are on trail or only require a short (<10 mile) hitch. ONDA offers an extensive town guide to help with resupply planning.
Several of the towns are quite small, with limited or expensive options, so it’s helpful to send boxes. In terms of food, you can see where and how I resupplied here, which includes where, what, and how much food I sent. I mostly mailed myself boxes and regretted the stops where I didn’t. Here’s how I approached creating a healthy resupply in a remote town with limited options.
Small, remote towns also mean you need to be more self-sufficient in your packing than you would on more well-populated routes. Be prepared for something to go wrong. For example, when my phone died on day three, there was no Apple store anywhere within hundreds of miles, let alone in the next resupply town. Without GPS, having paper maps and compass was essential. Also, do not expect many gear stores, so carry what you need or send it to yourself in advance.
The upside of all this is that the ODT was for sure, mile for mile, the cheapest trail I’ve ever hiked. With only two hotel stays, a few restaurant meals, and no reason to linger in towns, it’s hard to blow a bunch of money even if you’re trying.
The ODT is a remote and challenging route for experienced hikers (after all, you have to sign a waiver to access planning materials on ONDA’s site). The landscape is diverse and rewarding, and those night skies and hot springs can’t be beat.
The ODT is also unique because of ONDA’s focus on conservation through responsible use. Furthermore, trail coordinator Renee “She-ra” Patrick is a thru-hiker, and she’s done an impressive job creating a wealth of resources for anyone planning an ODT hike.
“AG said you have a great trail smoothie recipe. Do you mind sharing it with me?” This was a text I recently received from a friend who’s prepping his resupply boxes for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike this year.
Of course I’ll share! AG was my ODT hiking partner and beneficiary of surplus smoothie packets from my resupply boxes. As I wrote up my recipe, I thought it’d be great to share with you as well. Anything that helps people feel great and get outside more, I’m all about!
Whether on trail or at home, I like to start my days with healthy fat and some protein. This gives me sustained energy rather than the spike and crash I get from high carb, high sugar meals first thing in the morning.
Nutrition: 220 Calories, 11.3 g fat, 10 g carb, 22 g protein
Of course, you can use different spices, add more or less of the ingredients, etc. But no matter what changes I make, I always follow the template of liquid base + healthy fat + protein (I aim for 20+ grams) + greens + spices.
What’s the Benefit?
The greens provide micronutrients. There’s fat from the coconut milk powder and protein from the collagen to keep energy levels steady. The collagen is also great for joint health, which is particularly helpful on trail. The chia seeds are an additional source of healthy fat. The cordyceps mushroom are for immunity and enhanced endurance benefits. The spices are anti-inflammatory and make it all more tasty.
For long trails, I make individual packets ahead of time and drop them into resupply boxes. It’s a bit of effort to order the ingredients and assemble, but I find it’s a great way to start my day with a lot of nutrition right up front.
Each night before bed, I dump the smoothie packet into my clean soaking jar, add water, and allow it to soak overnight. When I wake up, I like to get going, so I pack up and hit the trail right away. I can sip my smoothie immediately or whenever hunger strikes.
I love to see people getting out and eating to fuel their bodies well. Give this a try and tag me on Instagram (@katiegerber) out on your adventure!
Want to dial in your diet so you can have more energy on your next adventure?Click here for a free 12-page guide where you’ll get a 28 day plan and learn the top 8 inflammatory foods that could be holding you back from feeling your best.
The ideal scenario is to get all the nutrients you need from whole foods, but there are many circumstances when supplementation can benefit nearly everyone.
Supplements can be a controversial topic. On one extreme, there are health advocates claiming you need a supplement for every ache and pain. On the other extreme, you have skeptics claiming that supplements are unnecessary, a waste of money, and even dangerous.
As with many divisive topics, the truth is somewhere in between. Nutritionally speaking, we know that the body requires certain levels of nutrients to function optimally. We also know that due to the abundance of nutritionally poor foods available today, many of us do not get the daily requirements of several key nutrients. Furthermore, chronic illness, gut dysbiosis, exposure to toxins, stress, and heavy physical demands on the body all deplete nutrient stores more quickly.
For that reason, supplements can be a good form of nutritional insurance. During the extreme physical demands placed on the body during a long distance hike, supplementation is helpful for optimal energy and endurance, enhanced immune function, faster recovery, and reduced illness and fatigue. If you’re curious how certain deficiencies manifest in the body, here is an excellent article on that by Dr. Aviva Romm.
A long distance hike is unique in that it’s a feat of extreme endurance. In most sports, you exert the body, and then you have recovery time to restore depleted nutrients. It’s not unusual during a long distance hike to walk a marathon a day, with a pack on, day after day for 5 months. Couple that with the lack of fresh foods and the notoriously ultra-processed diet of the thru-hiker. It’s no wonder that many hikers end up emaciated, sick, injured, and ending their hike early.
Supplements for the Trail
Supplements are not a substitute for a good diet. A high quality, anti-inflammatory diet is always the place to start when you want to feel and perform your best. Nutrients in their whole food form are absorbed into the body better than in supplement form, and there’s often more control over sourcing and quality with food.
For high quality supplements, I prefer to shop exclusively through specific trusted companies. Shopping from random sources can be hit or miss in terms of buying products that are real, safe, and effective. To ensure you’re buying safe products, you can access my online dispensary of professional-grade supplements by clicking here. There are hundreds of brands and you can save 10-20% with this link. There are no gimmicks. It’s simply a resource I want to provide to readers. If you insist on shopping Amazon, you can find links to a few of my favorites by clicking on the supplement name below.
One last note before we dive in: I am not a doctor and, as such, I don’t diagnose, prescribe, treat, or cure. The following ideas are simply what I’ve seen work for myself and for others. For personalized health advice, see a qualified practitioner. If you’re on prescription medications, don’t start supplements without the guidance of your doctor.
To cover your basic nutritional bases, a high quality multi-vitamin is helpful. This is especially important as we live in a time when our food sources are compromised, we don’t always take time for proper meals, and we experience more stress than ever. This certainly applies on a long distance hike when you’re consuming fewer fresh fruits and veggies, which are likely a major source of your nutrients in off-trail life.
You’ve probably heard me say it before, and you’ll likely hear it again, which is that gut health is one of the most important foundational pieces to optimal health. Over 80% of disease can be linked to lifestyle choices, and our gut is ground zero for our immune health, brain health, and production of important hormones. It’s also where digestion, absorption, and assimilation occurs.
To be sure you’re getting the most out of the foods and supplements you’re ingesting, it’s important to pay attention to your gut health. This includes eating fiber-filled prebiotic foods, as well as eating probiotic foods. Because it’s difficult to get probiotic foods on trail, consider a supplement with a diversity of strains, and rotate brands regularly. Also note that these microorganisms are sensitive to heat and light, so store capsules in a dark container deep in your pack.
Krill Oil is fantastic for brain and heart health and for keeping overall inflammation low. Most modern diets are high in inflammatory Omega 6 fats and low in anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fats. By increasing Omega 3 fats in the diet, we get closer to the ideal 4:1 (omega 6:omega 3) ratio. By comparison, most modern diets are closer to 20:1.
As explained on the Bulletproof website, “Krill oil is a superior source of EPA and DHA because the polyunsaturated fats are packaged as phospholipids, which can be used immediately by your body. The EPA and DHA in fish oil, on the other hand, are typically packaged as triglycerides and have to undergo additional processing in order to make them bioavailable. Krill oil is also more stable because it includes astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant, that protects the fragile fats from oxidizing.
Animal-based omega-3’s from krill and fish oils are both better sources than vegetable-based omega-3’s, such as the Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA) in flax oil. Only about 1-4% of ALA is converted into DHA, so getting those higher potency sources from krill and fish is more efficient.”
Storage of your krill oil is important because fats are prone to oxidation. This not only makes them ineffective, but makes them damaging to the body. Heat, air, and light degrade oils. Use capsules rather than liquid, and store in an airtight amber or cobalt bottle. Place them in the middle of your pack, where temps are more stable (ideally below 100*F).
Turmeric is a major source of the plant polyphenol Curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. A 2017 research review of it’s effects on human health attributes the following benefits to this powerful spice:
“It aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia. It may also help in the management of exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness, thus enhancing recovery and performance in active people.”
There are many forms of magnesium to choose from. For sound sleep and a healthy morning BM, magnesium citrate is a great choice. For general magnesium deficiency and a highly bioavailable form, magnesium glycinate is helpful. Do your research and choose what’s best for you.
If you’re curious about the strategies I use and the types of food I pack for optimal energy and overall health on a long hike, download my free Eat for Endurance eBook here. It includes a sample menu and principles I use to stay illness and injury free.
Supplementation in the ‘Off Season’
Beyond supporting performance goals on trail, supplements can be a key additional to optimal health at home as well. In addition to the above supplements, which I also take at home, I often cycle through others. My choices depend on what aspect of my health I’m focused on improving, such as adrenal or hormone health. This may include vitamin D3, B vitamins, antioxidants (like glutathione and Vitamin C), and adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms (like Reishi, Ashwagandha, and Cordyceps).
Every body is different. For an individualized approach and deeper guidance, working with a health practitioner is helpful to determine what supplements may be helpful specifically for you. Again, if you’d like access to my online dispensary where you can save 10-20% off top brands, click here.
With a bit of planning and preparation, you can vastly enhance the experience of your hike with targeted support and supplementation. In addition to whole nutrient-dense foods, consider taking some (or all) of these along on your next big adventure.
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I have an (almost) daily habit of journaling, whether on trail or off. My journals are less of a play by play trip guide (“we hiked X miles to Y canyon, which is part of Z wilderness…”), and more of a free-flowing reflection on my inner experience. It’s a way for me to process the moments, the days, the feelings that make up this bizarre experience called life.
In the fall of 2018, I hiked the Oregon Desert Trail westbound, with 2 hiking partners. See this post for an overview of the trip. The present post is mostly a photo essay to provide a visual representation of the ODT, loosely in chronological order, with a few random notes from my trail journal mixed in. I hope it gives you insight into how diverse and stunning this landscape is.
“We dropped down into the aptly named Painted Canyon. Cool early morning hiking. A million shades of rocks. Bruise purple, juniper berry blue, sage green, burnt orange, sun-baked-bone white. The canyon walls pockmarked with thousands of tiny caves.
The sunrise touched the tips of the surrounding rock as we continued down the wash, hopping and picking our way over water-smoothed rocks. ….The terrain opened up, the canyon walls become tall grassy hillsides on either side of us. Spires of rust-colored rock jutting out of yellow grass.”
“Once the sun is up, the day becomes unbearably hot very quickly. We realize we’ve miscalculated our mileage to the next reliable water. We come upon a horse trough. It’s full of water covered in algae. We remove the scum to unveil cool murky brown water. Grateful, we drink.”
“Up one wash after another, cheatgrass filling my shoes and socks. Several carcasses and piles of bones scattered about. The remains of a desiccated snake.”
“We continue on, hiking cross country, up drainages and canyons. We round a bend, and a quarter mile in front of us, a wild horse stares back in our direction. We approach slowly. With surprising grace, it swiftly climbs the hillside and disappears behind a rock outcropping.”
“Many people don’t understand why you’d want to go on a desert hike. ‘Isn’t it lonely out there? Barren?’
There are mule deer and horses and lizards and snakes and hawks and coyotes and sages and thistles and wildflowers and rabbit brush and juniper and just so much life out here. How could one get lonely in the desert?”
“My legs were scratched to pieces and burnt with heat rash, and my shoes and socks were filled with sharp cheatgrass, but the moment I stepped into the rushing Owyhee, all the aches melted and everything, yet again, was okay. The current was swift and I held tight to some rocks underwater. It’s difficult to describe how glorious a dip in the river feels to a dust-caked, sun-soaked desert walker.”
“Despite the rough day, I’m grateful to be out here. Grateful to walk. Grateful for incredible hiking partners to laugh and suffer with. Grateful for a strong body. Trail (and life) will always bring challenges. It’s up to us how we perceive and handle them.”
“We walked dirt roads for 8 hours today. The landscape went on forever. You reach the top of a small rise and the scene resets, road and sage on into infinity. Dust devils danced in the wind. Heat waves rose from the ground. So much space for the mind to wander.
At lunch, we create personal shade patches by propping our umbrellas on sage bushes and scrunching underneath. We kept imagining we saw shade trees in the distance, but they all turned out to be weird shaped rocks or just more sage.”
“The fine dust lent itself well to telling the desert’s story. I could detect the tracks of so many different animals and invented a whole narrative in my mind. The snake, the giant millipede, the mouse, the antelope, the coyote, the jackrabbit… So many creatures have traveled here before me. People think the desert is lonely. I have to laugh. ”
“Up at 4:30 and hiking by 5 under a crescent moon and starry milky way. We walk directly east into the soon-to-be rising sun. The light filters rose, purple, orange through the clouds. Walking along the canyon rim, we make good miles on old jeep roads before the sun climbs too high in sky. Jack rabbits dart from one sage bush to the next.”
“Within a few miles, we’re forced into the river to make our way forward. The walls of the canyon are rocky and steep and the small bank that comes and goes on either side is full of willows, grasses, briers, hackberry trees, sage bushes, and massive boulders. Canyon travel is difficult and we move at 1-1.5 mph.
I’m swimming towards some large red boulders on the opposite bank, determining how I’m going to get up out of the water and onto the rock. I begin to pull myself up, eye level with the top of the boulder. I look up, searching for my next hand hold and spot a rattlesnake about 3 feet from my face. It doesn’t rattle. It begins to slither away, then stops, flicks it’s tongue, and coils into strike position.”
“We stop for a break at a bend in the canyon. In one of the most wild and remote regions of the country, it’s unbelievably silent…. As we pack up to move on, I hear what sounds like a jet coming around the canyon wall, and swooooosh, a flock of grouse is flying directly at our heads. They head straight for us, not veering up until the last moment. We whip our heads to follow their path, and as quickly as they appeared, they had flown out of sight. “
“We hike across the playa of the Alvord desert, a 12-by-7-mile dry lake bed. Mountains in every direction. Steens Mountain, which we will climb 5,000′ up and over tomorrow, is in the foreground.”
“I rolled my ankle in the Pueblos yesterday and it’s throbbing now. We make it to the hot springs by dusk. We snack and soak and rinse our clothes and linger until our skin is pruny. It’s glorious.”
“This type of travel requires you to constantly be on; to be flexible and adaptable. You might find cow trail to follow for a few hundred yards until it peters out, or you get cliffed out, and you have to let go, and find the next path of travel until that peters out or you realize you’re off your trajectory, and then you adjust again. Constantly changing your plan, experimenting, trying, failing, and not getting frustrated in the process. Good practice for navigating life.”
“The Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge is beautiful. Easy walking along rolling hills covered in sage brush, groves of aspen, and lone junipers. We’ve seen several herds of antelope. The aspens are golden-orange-yellow-bright green. I’m grateful for this taste of fall on the autumnal equinox. We descend down to Hart Lake and pass several boulders covered in petroglyphs. ”
“The rocks here are diverse and beautiful. And sometimes painful. Lava rock strewn everywhere, including all throughout the fields of sage and cheatgrass we traverse. There’s obsidian, opal, quartz, and many more whose names I don’t know. Remnants of the region’s volcanic history.”
“I wake up to the sounds of coyotes howling again. This morning, the twilight is a lovely red glow as we climb up to a ridge. We’re up high on single track (an ODT luxury). The nearly full moon is a big orange Harvest moon setting in the valley. We crest a mountain just as the sun rises and treats us to spectacular views of the Warner mountains in all directions.”
“This trail was a time warp. 30 days felt like 4 months. I didn’t come with many expectations. I just wanted adventure. The diversity and beauty of this landscape has amazed me. Much more than miles of sage, this area holds true remoteness and hidden gems. We’ve walked 700+ miles through one of the most remote regions of the US, in one of the hottest and driest seasons on record. We didn’t see a single other hiker. We laughed a lot and never passed up a chance for shenanigans. It wasn’t a relaxing month-not by any stretch of the imagination. But it provided the space and freedom and challenge I needed. It slowed me down. It was a salve to my irritated soul.”
“Ahh, to walk all day. To explore the limits of the body and the mind. What a blessing.”
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A couple ounces of mixed nuts or seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds
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:
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.
Granola, ideally homemade (higher in nuts/seeds, low in added sugars)
Nut/seed butters, such as peanut, almond, sunflower, without added sugars or oils
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)
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
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.
Rice noodles (just the noodles, without the preservatives)
Instant Potato Flakes (just the potatoes, without preservatives, like this one)
Summer Sausage (grass fed sources)
Spices such as garlic powder, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne
I recently prepared an unusual resupply box for a friend who is currently thru-hiking. This was not your average resupply box full of ramen, snickers, and pop-tarts though. This box focused on performance-enhancing ingredients. He’s nearing the end of a 2200-ish mile route, so his body is getting tired. His primary concerns are enhancing recovery and optimizing sleep. These maca coconut energy bites were a key component of the goodies I sent him.
Food is always the first line when it comes to optimizing performance. However, during a demanding endeavor, such as a thru-hike, supplementation can certainly support the mind and body in performing better.
There are many supplements that came to mind when I began brainstorming around endurance, recovery, and sleep. Note: Since I am not a doctor, I don’t prescribe, treat, or diagnose. However, I do know what I’ve seen work for myself and others in the past.
I included several items in the box, but an area I focused on in particular was a class of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens have become one of those buzz words in the holistic health space as of late, but they’ve been studied since the 1960s and herbalists have used them for decades. Simply put, adaptogens aid the body in adapting to stress. From the journal Pharmaceuticals, “studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity.”
In addition to an adaptogen tincture I included in his box, I was also interested in including Maca root (Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon). While more clinical trials are needed, Maca has a long history of traditional use. It’s a Peruvian staple food grown in the harsh, high plateaus of the Andes. It’s been used to improve stamina and endurance, balance hormones, and improve immunity. It’s also believed to be an aphrodisiac and improve libido. Due to these properties, many consider Maca to be an adaptogen.
Maca can be purchased in powder form and lends itself easily to including into foods. It has a pleasing nutty flavor, and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, so it boosts the nutrition of any food to which it’s added.
These bites were designed to be energy-dense and durable. They are a convenient and tasty way to get in nutrient-packed maca, as well as healthy fats from the hemp hearts, coconut oil, and walnuts. The dates provide sweetness and quick energy. Due to the fats, protein, and fiber, they’ll boost your energy without the sugar crash afterwards.