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Eat Better

Want to hike farther, explore tougher terrain, and carry big loads without bonking? To achieve your biggest backcountry goals, you have to change how you eat.
Backpacker_Magazine_eatbetterintroPhoto by Justin Bailie

Sport-Specific Nutrition | Snack For All-Day Energy | Balance Your Backcountry Diet | Food Expert Q & A | The 10 Best Backpacking Foods | The Perfect Menu | A Day of Eating Healthy | The Burning Curve… | …And a Radical Deviation

You Have Questions – Our food experts have answers.

Should I take a multivitamin on the trail?
Don’t bother, says Brenda Braaten, a nutritional consultant for the website Pack Light, Eat Right ( It’s better to get your vitamins from a balanced diet of high-quality protein, fruits, and vegetables (fresh or dried). The exception: Keep taking calcium supplements if you already do. Your body adjusts to having a certain amount of the bone-building mineral and it’s best to have a steady stream.

What are the best foods to eat on my rest day?
"Your muscles are like a sponge" after days of hard hiking, says Kim Gorman, an exercise physiologist at the University of Colorado Denver. Refill depleted glycogen stores with whole grains and lean protein. If you can, add fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and dairy products for extra antioxidants, protein, and carbs. And don’t neglect your Nalgene–drink up.

There’s so much salt in my favorite trail foods. Should I worry?
Not unless you have high blood pressure or are already on a salt-restricted diet. In fact, because you’re probably sweating buckets, you should be more concerned with getting enough sodium, says Gorman. Aim for the recommended daily allowance of 2,400 mg–and then some.

What am I eating that’s making me so gassy?
Some of the most energy-packed trail staples will also get you booted from the tent. Foods high in fructose (dried fruit) or fiber (legumes, beans) are common gastro-offenders. Adding them to your diet in the weeks leading up to your trip may help–but don’t forget the Beano.

Can I eat anything to speed up acclimatization?
There’s no magic pill for adjusting to the air above 8,000 feet. However, you can boost your chances by "training" your body prior to your trip. Starting a few weeks out, drink an extra glass of water per day; this prepares your system for maximum hydration. Stock up on carbs (which help transport oxygen to your tissues) with extra fruit or rice at meals. Once you’re elevated, stay hydrated by avoiding alcohol and sipping water often. (Hint: Your pee should be pale yellow or lighter.)

My appetite disappears above 10,000 feet. How can I make sure I’m eating enough?
Ironically, during the first few days at altitude your basal metabolic rate cranks up while your appetite simultaneously bottoms out, says sports dietician Monique Ryan. Translation: You’re burning calories faster than ever, but freeze-dried beef stroganoff never looked less appealing. Stay fueled by munching on highly concentrated energy sources (dried fruit, energy bars, and nuts). Fluids containing extra carbs, such as Kool-Aid or sports drinks, are also a great way to cram in calories.

Fact or fiction: Fat-loading before a winter trip will keep me warmer. Fiction.
Cold temps and heavy gear mean you’re burning up to 40% more calories than you would doing the same activity in moderate temps, says Melanie Hingle, a registered dietician at the University of Arizona’s Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition. On the trail, increase your fat intake to 45% to keep your fires burning, but don’t expect any benefit from a deep-fried Twinkie on the way to the trailhead. Bottom line: It’s worse to run short on calories than it is to temporarily bump up your fat consumption, but make those calories the healthy fats found in nuts, nut butters, and seeds.

What is a glycemic index, and should I care about it?
"It’s a measure of how quickly–and how high–your blood sugar rises after eating carbohydrates," says Susan Kleiner, author of Power Eating. High glycemic index foods (candy, refined pasta) cause the biggest spike, while low glycemic index foods (whole grains) break down slowly for sustained energy. Hikers want both–whole grains for lasting power and simple sugars for boosts.

My joints ache after long hikes. Are there any foods that prevent the pain?
Eat your omega-3s, says Braaten. The fatty acids in fish and olive oil not only prevent heart disease, they also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Pop some antioxidant-packed dried tart cherries too. They inhibit the enzymes that cause inflammation.

Sports drinks: Which one’s best for me?
Look for a powder or tablet with a carbohydrate concentration of 6 to 8 percent (our favorites include NUUN and GU20). A drink with a small amount of protein may boost performance, but could also upset your stomach. In hot weather, opt for the extra sodium of a formula like that in Gatorade Endurance to replace what you’re pumping out.

Sport-Specific Nutrition | Snack For All-Day Energy | Balance Your Backcountry Diet | Food Expert Q & A | The 10 Best Backpacking Foods | The Perfect Menu | A Day of Eating Healthy | The Burning Curve… | …And a Radical Deviation

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