800 Miles = Nutrition Breakdown

In one of our first post about trail nutrition we made a comment about coming back and touching on this all important topic as the hike progresses. For the first 700 miles nothing came up worth wring about but in the last two weeks it seems like almost every hiker we meet up with is starting to question their diet of Pop-Tarts and ramen noodles! It makes sense, the body is running out of fat reserves and trying to bump up mileage in the not-so-flat terrain of Virginia is starting to take its toll. So with that in mind, this is some of what we have been seeing and hearing the last couple days.

Turtle and Bullfrog getting down on some Devil's Backbone Brewery burgers
Turtle and Bullfrog getting down on some Devil’s Backbone Brewery burgers

The average thru-hiker eats a predictable diet. With cost constraints, weight restrictions and often being forced to buy what is available at a small town convenience store, the ability to have a well-rounded diet geared towards sports performance is severely diminished. More often than not, hikers wake up with a Pop-Tart for breakfast, snack on cookies, chips or candy bars during the day, eat a mid-hike lunch involving a tortilla and peanut butter or sometimes cheese, and then finish the day by cooking ramen, a pasta side or powdered mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, without even realizing it, people are fueling their body on simple sugars and bleached flour which is turned into simple sugars. The problem only gets worse in town, when Dairy Queen is the first stop we want to make for a 2,000 calorie Blizzard as opposed to a rotisserie chicken, bundle of bananas and two avocados. It seems that most of us began the trail with sufficient fat reserves to sustain such a diet for about two months but as the miles add up and the body becomes more and more broken down those depleted reserves are not able to sustain 20 mile days.

Action shot of Lindsay eating, likely some part of this was donated by section hikers.
Action shot of Lindsay eating, likely some part of this was donated by section hikers.

We’ve been making as much of an effort as we can to continue to eat a balanced and sport specific diet, sacrificing a pound or two of pack weight in exchange for healthy fats and proteins. When fellow hikers find out that Lindsay had her own training/coaching business and Human Performance/Exercise Physiology is what I plan on going to graduate school for we often get the inevitable question of “What should I be doing differently?”

A nutritionist could give a laundry list answer to that question, but if it was rephrased more properly to “Given that I’m hiking on $100/week, buy my food at any gas station or supermarket and I can’t carry cans of chicken or a bag of carrots, what should I be doing differently?”

Cooking a hiker dinner as the sun sets on Cold Mountain
Cooking a hiker dinner as the sun sets on Cold Mountain

We can only speak from experience on the AT, but here is our answer to that question: The body is under recovered from a lack of good fats and no protein. 1. Make your own trail mix to snack on, dump nuts other than just peanuts into a bag for fats and protein. Put in any dried fruit other than just raisins for vitamins, minerals, fiber and fructose. Finish it off with a few hand fulls of M&Ms for quick burning sugars and morale. This gives you a cheap, healthy snack with both quick and long burning energy. 2. Finish every night with protein in your dinner; tuna, pepperoni, summer sausage or fresh steaks. It doesn’t matter what it is but you need some dead animal in your nighttime meal. 3. Trade out the ramen and pasta sides for some Jasmine or Basmati rice. It still cooks fast, adds carbohydrate variance and even saves some money. 4. Powdered Eggs!They are light, precooked, cheap and can go with any meal. Seriously, powdered eggs are the best experiment we have tried out here. 5. When in town eat different food from what you get on the trail, especially those missed veggies.

So there it is, hopefully this has given a little more perspective to non-hikers about what is going on during a thru-hike and has helped some future long distance hikers plan their next trip!

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6 thoughts on “800 Miles = Nutrition Breakdown”

  1. I just got done with an outdoor educator course through the National Outdoor Leadership School and they have a great cookery book that you should check out. They have been experimenting with cutting weight but still getting all the benefits of nutrition. In the book it describes what to eat, how to eat, and all the stuff you probably already know. With their book though it gives you recipes and math calculations to make sure you get everything you need (plus some chocolate for the hard times). It includes some sample shopping lists. Our last section they gave us $160 for a cook group of 4 and we survived off of it. Here is the link to it. It looks like yall are having a great time and I hope all is well. http://store.nols.edu/store/pc/NOLS-Cookery-6th-Edition-p511.htm#.U8__0IBdVjA

    1. Hey man, thanks for the link. The NOLS guys definitely have their stuff together and what a dream job to be an instructor out there. I think the hardest part in a nutrition plan on the AT might just be finding the ingredients you want on the trail at a resupply stop. It’d be nice if gas stations had good ingredients instead of just honey buns and slim jims.

  2. It is so refreshing to have a healthy and economical perspective on hiker food! We’re about 400 miles out on our flip-flop, and have been watching fellow sobos subject themselves to pop tarts and ramen since day 1. I can’t help but think we’re all doing some lasting damage to our bones and muscles by eating all of these simple sugars! Our mail drop situation has helped keep our diets varied and nutrient-dense with dehydrated veggies and TVP mixed into real parboiled brown rice. Anyway, your reminder about trail mix variety and powdered eggs is so helpful, so thank you. Do y’all have a go-to meal? Can’t wait to run into you on the trail! –Big Fox and Little Fox

    1. Hey guys thanks for following along and glad we could help a little bit! In town our go-to meal is either a giant tub of Greek Yogurt, frozen berries and a bunch of honey or a rotisserie chicken and a deli salad. On the trail our special meal is a bit of quinoa, dehydrated potatoes (I know…), dehydrated veggies and crumbled smoked Alaskan Red Salmon that we caught last summer and vac packed. We don’t have a ton of salmon in our mail drops but it is awesome when we get it!

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