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Beginner Skills

Should You Carbo-Load Before a Big Hike?

Instead of gorging on pasta, backpackers should focus on consistency in nutrition, says Adventure Performance Training’s founder and head coach James Fisher.

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It’s common knowledge that backpackers need to maintain a consistent input of calories (both from carbs and other types of nutrients) on the trail. Marathon runners and endurance athletes famously “carbo-load” in the final days leading up to their big event—essentially filling up on pasta, bread, and other starchy foods to rebuild their bodies’ energy supply . It’s a sound technique: The body primarily burns carbs for physical energy, so eating carbohydrate-rich foods before hitting the start line maximizes glycogen stores and gives endurance athletes an energy well to pull from. Should hikers do the same before getting to the trailhead? We turned to Adventure Performance Training’s founder and head coach James Fisher to answer our carb-heavy questions.

Backpacker: Should hikers carbohydrate load before a challenging hike?
James Fisher: No. In general, carbohydrate loading is for quick, high-intensity events. The longer the duration of the event, the less important it is to carbohydrate load. It is more important to make sure to get consistent calories in during the hike and after the hike each day than to try to compensate during the days leading up to the hike. That being said, it takes 8 to 24 hours after an endurance workout to replenish the glycogen stores to 100%.

BP: How should hikers prepare for a big hike nutritionally and fitness-wise?
JF: To go into a big hike, I have my athletes taper for one to two weeks before. This includes reducing the volume of training and getting plenty of adequate rest, hydration, and well-balanced meals. The body can only process a small amount of carbohydrates per hour, so “loading” with a big meal will only cause potential gastric distress the following day. The focus should be on eating on the trail consistently and eating some carbohydrates after the hike each day, especially within 30 to 60 minutes of stopping for the day. There is a short window when the body rapidly absorbs glucose post-workout, which can definitely help with recovery so you’re not at a huge glycogen deficit the following morning when you start hiking again.

BP: What effect does carbo-loading have on athletes?
JF: For long duration, low-to-moderate-intensity endurance events for recreational athletes, there will not be any noticeable physical performance gains [from carbo-loading]. Overloading the gut the night before has more of a chance to have a negative impact on performance.

Bored of Your Go-To Trail Snacks?

Backpackers need to make sure to keep a consistent source of fuel going throughout the day, but pulling out the same bar or trail mix every hour of every single trip can get boring quickly. Keep your tastebuds wanting more with these unique snack ideas: