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Thru-Hike Nutrition

Preparing food for a five month journey is daunting. The photo below was taken while preparing for a one month trek in the Australian outback with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Looks kind of intimidating, right? NOLS made our meal decisions for us — we just had to repackage the food. Prior to our PCT thru-hike, we have a lot more decisions to make and work to do. We need to figure out when we will mail food boxes to local post offices (vs. buying food from a local grocery store), what food we want to eat (best nutrition, taste, and cost), and how much of each item to bring. Once we have those questions answered we will embark on a massive grocery trip. And finally, we will repackage items into smaller containers, and fill shipping boxes with our meals.

I’ve decided to tackle the food planning challenge bit by bit. Here I’ll discuss thru-hiker nutrition.

Anna (with short hair!) surveying a month's worth of backpacking food for her trek in Australia

When backpacking, as with any exercise, you burn more calories than when you are sedentary, so you need to consume additional calories to maintain a high energy level and keep a neutral weight. Reading the NOLS Cookery book and various websites, I determined that 4,000 calories per person per day is about right for our daily hiking mileage, temperature ranges, and trip duration.

There are many ways we can fill our bodies with 4000 calories each day, but some will leave us feeling stronger three months into our journey than others.  Brenda Braaten, a registered dietitian and thru-hiker, posted some informative articles entitled Pack Light, Eat Right on the nutritional needs of thru-hikers. In her articles she recommends eating a higher fat diet than normal. Ideally, a thru-hiker’s diet consists of 50% carbohydrates, 35% fat, and 15% protein. Fat is the most calorie (energy) dense food,  so a high fat diet allows a thru-hiker to reduce food weight while maintaining a high calorie count. The high fat diet isn’t dangerous to a hiker’s health because the fat is being used upon consumption, and is not stored in the body.

The human body can store sufficient nutrients and minerals for several days, but those stores need to be replenished on a longer journey. Braaten recommends thru-hikers pay special attention to keeping their vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, and calcium levels high. She also warns against consuming too much salt when not in the desert. This may be tricky because many of the typical trail foods are filled with salt. Her suggestions will guide our food choices.

In summary, we will be aiming for 4000 calories per day per person, with half of our calories from carbs, more fat than typical, less protein than the typical American diet, low salt, and high iron, calcium, and vitamin C and E.

Phew, one piece of the food preparations puzzle solved!

Preparing dehydrated soup on our recent trip to Kings Canyon National Park

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cool article! I’ve decided that my one luxury item on our bike tour next year should be fresh eggs :-) We eat eggs almost every morning so I can’t imagine not having them for days at a time.

    November 6, 2011
    • Whoa, you are daring! Have you checked out powdered eggs? They might save you some packing headaches. Although they admittedly aren’t quite as delicious as fresh eggs. Either way, sounds like a great way to start off your day.

      November 6, 2011
  2. Charles #

    That is a daunting logistical task. Stupid question time: Who/what will be carrying all that food for Anna’s trek into the outback? Will it be staged at some sort of depot along the route or..? And as an aside, a month long hike in the Australian outback = cool.

    November 6, 2011
    • It’s not a stupid question. There aren’t post offices or small grocery stores in the outback. After packing all the food, we split it into three 10-day sets. Every ten days we met a resupply truck at a predetermined spot along a seldom used dirt road. Carrying ten days worth of food is quite heavy, but it’s manageable.

      Yes, the Australia trip was amazing! In addition to hiking, we spent two weeks kayaking in an archipelago on Australia’s western coast.

      November 7, 2011
  3. Charles #

    Ah, i see, that makes sense. About how heavy were your packs with 10 days of food added in?

    I had heard of NOLS but never looked at their website until i read this post – very, very cool/interesting stuff there. Ill have to put one of those on my ‘bucket’ list for the future.

    November 8, 2011
    • When hiking a ten-day stretch in the Sierras on the PCT we are hoping for 30lbs each. In Australia, before I learned about ultralight backpacking, my pack with 10 days of food weighed around 40lbs. We didn’t hike quickly after a resupply!

      I highly recommend NOLS. It was such a fun and informative trip. I’ll share stories whenever we get to visit you next…maybe March or April.

      November 8, 2011
  4. Great stuff guys! I am planning a thru-hike next year as well, and I’m running across the same food decisions. I have decided on 10 package resupplies and the rest in-town resupplies. I might revisit that though and make sure all my in-town resupply stops have adequate food. I’ve found the website OnePanWonders.com to be helpful. dehydrated Quinoa and CousCous are probably going to form a big part of my diet. Orzo looks promising as well. Good luck with your planning. I’ll keep posting my own preparations on my blog.

    See you out there!

    December 10, 2011
    • Thanks, Russ. We also plan to bring quinoa and couscous. Both grains are nutritious, pack well, and are easy to cook. I added your blog to my google reader. Thanks for introducing yourself!

      December 10, 2011
  5. suzanne marr #

    Anna – Wow! You guys are a wonder of organization! So do those post offices, near the trail heads, have a whole area set aside for thru-hikers’ boxes; or are there just not that many thru-hikers?

    April 5, 2012
    • Most post offices have an area set aside to store general delivery packages, which they keep for 30 days. Businesses which accept packages for PCT hikers also have storage areas for the packages. We’ve read that sometimes it can be hard to find the correct priority mail box if there is a big pile of boxes. Often hikers will put stickers on their boxes, or draw on them, to make them easier to find.

      April 7, 2012

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