Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
No doubt, cutting simple (but bulky) carbs like bagels and bread can lighten your load. But are today’s popular low-carb diets compatible with life on the trail? “You bet,” says sports nutritionist Liz Applegate, Ph.D., author of Encyclopedia of Sports and Fitness Nutrition. “When done properly, low-carb eating is really about making healthy carbohydrate choices.”
The trick is eating enough of the right carbs to keep you strong for 5, 10, even 18 miles. If you fill up on mac n’ cheese and other high-glycemic index (GI) carbs, says Arthur Agatston, M.D., author of the best-selling South Beach Diet (published by Rodale, our parent company), your blood sugar will spike, then dive. But don’t throw the whole-wheat penne out with the bagels. You still need carb-driven energy–roughly 2,800 calories’ worth for every 6 hours of backpacking. More importantly, says Dr. Agatston, “backpackers need the sustaining energy they’ll get from a mix of complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats.”
Fortunately, you can maintain your weight-loss goals and trail energy by fueling up with low-GI carbohydrates like oatmeal (not instant) that digest and release energy slowly and evenly. As a rule, low-GI carbs are higher in fiber, so go for whole-wheat pastas and whole-grain breads rather than refined brands. And Dr. Applegate recommends keeping your fuel tank topped off by eating every 2 hours; try to average 30 grams of carbs for every hour of hiking.
The time to indulge in high-GI treats like jelly beans and energy bars is during and immediately following your hike, since these fast-acting carbs keep your energy high at the end of a hard day, says Dr. Agatston. Finally, include protein with every meal. “A healthy carb and protein combination will optimize muscle recovery,” says Dr. Applegate, “so you feel fresh the next day.”