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Backpacking Food Basics

Ask a Thru-Hiker: What Nutrients Do I Need?

When you're putting your body through the strain of 5 months on the trail, you need to take care of it.

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This is Ask a Thru-Hiker, where record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your questions about life on the trail. 

Dear Snorkel,

What vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients do I need to make sure I consume during a thru-hike, and how what’s the best way to get them? I love walking, but I’m not so crazy about my teeth falling out.

Worried About Scurvy

Dear Scurvy,

On a normal backpacking trip, it is possible (though not advisable) to eat nothing but junk food. Depending on your off-trail diet, most bodies store enough nutrients to last through a short trip. But try the same tactic on a thru-hike, and you could compromise your health.

To get into the nitty gritty of how a thru-hiking diet differs from a backpacking diet, I’ve enlisted the help of our Thru-hiking 101 class nutritionist, Katie “Salty” Gerber. In addition to being a pedigreed thru-hiker—she’s traveled the length of the Pacific Crest Trail and Colorado Trail—she’s a nutrition coach who helps fellow travelers optimize energy and endurance. Her coaching, meal planning services, and free Eat for Endurance ebook can be found on her website.

The demands of thru-hiking, with high daily mileage and inadequate recovery, can deplete your body’s stores of calories and nutrients more rapidly than a typical backpacking trip. To perform at your potential and minimize the chance of injury and illness, focus on nutrient-dense, calorie-dense whole foods. Most hikers get the calorie-dense part right with candy bars and potato chips, but think about including food with lots of nutrients as well, such as dried fruit, nuts, and dehydrated beans.

Thru-hikers also have less access to fresh produce, the nutritional powerhouses of a diet, so focusing on antioxidant-rich food keeps inflammation, illness, and injury down. Antioxidants support a strong immune system, and quench the free radicals that create inflammation, which exacerbates both illnesses like stomach bugs and overuse injuries common to thru-hikers.

While every thru-hiker will excel on slightly different ratios of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein), it’s important to include healthy sources of each in the diet. For example, carbohydrate from dried fruits, fat from coconut or olive oil, and protein from beans, nuts, or grass-fed animals are ideal. Carbohydrates and fat should make up the bulk of the calories, with protein being less than 20%. To have energy throughout the day, thru-hikers should make sure to eat some fat and protein with each meal or snack.

Also crucial to thru-hikers’ health are vitamins, which influence energy production, recovery, immunity, and more. (They’re also among some of the most essential antioxidants.)

Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and B vitamins are especially important for thru-hikers: The antioxidant properties of Vitamin C help repair inflammation from heavy exercise. Vitamin D is important for bone health, immune function, and managing inflammation. B vitamins, on the other hand, are essential for energy and cell production. Eating a variety of whole foods, such as dried fruits, nuts, seeds, dehydrated veggies, and legumes is a good start. For nutritional insurance, consider a greens powder, or a high quality multi-vitamin.

Minerals are essential for muscle and nerve function, building strong bones, and enabling many metabolic processes. As with vitamins, they can be depleted more rapidly through exercise and heat exposure. Like vitamins, one quick way to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of minerals like selenium, iron, and magnesium is to take a regular multivitamin. In hot weather, adding electrolyte tablets to your drinking water may help as well.

One last tip: Don’t obsess over your food planning. One of the biggest mistakes I see first-time thru-hikers make is to spend too much time plotting out their meals. Eat a varied, balanced diet, and you’ll avoid any serious problems.