What Food to Take Hiking

Spring has sprung and hikers are hitting the trails in groves. As a Fort Collins nutritionist, a number of people have asked me recently about “what food to take hiking.” To clear up all the confusion, I wanted to give you some things to think about for your next hiking trip.

Have you ever gone out hiking and gotten dizzy, nauseous, or cramps? These are common signs of being under prepared and not eating enough. For every hour of hiking you burn between about 350 and 600 calories depending on a few different factors including your gender, weight, the terrain, and if you’re carrying a pack. I rarely advocate counting calories, but when you’re going on a substantial hiking trip, its really important to have an idea of how many calories you’re going to be burning per day and plan your food intake accordingly.

First, determine your daily energy expenditure (or DEE). This tells you approximately how many calories you burn each day at rest. You can use the DEE calculator here. Next, use the calorie burn calculator (CBC) to determine approximately how many calories you’ll burn on your hiking trip per day. Note that you will need to enter your weight and the number of minutes per day you plan to do the activity. Also, there is a different activity for hiking and backpacking so select the right activity. Hiking assumes that you are carrying very little weight and backpacking assumes that you’re carrying a pack. Now that you know about how many calories you’ll be burning, you can plan accordingly and pack enough food to prevent excessive weight loss and symptoms of not eating enough.

There are three main types of hikes, and what food to take hiking depends on how long you’ll be gone:

1. Trail hikes for a few hours up to a day

For a day hike, you’re main goal is to bring enough food to get you through the day comfortably. Its likely that you’ll be eating only 1 to 2 meals or just a snack or two on the trail. Trail mix, fresh fruit, sandwiches, or another trail favorite should be enough. Since you’ll probably be eating a substantial breakfast or dinner in your kitchen, out, or at your campsite on the day of your hike, its less critical that you replace all of your calories while on your hike. Be sure that you pack enough water for your trail hikes and refuel your calories when you get back.

2. Backpacking trips lasting 2 to 5 days

Erin backpacking in the Adirondack Mountains

Food for backpacking is a bit more tricky. For most trips lasting 2 to 5 days, you’ll be in the middle of nowhere with no access to food other than what’s in your pack. Careful planning is required to make sure that you have enough food packed for your entire trip. Weight is also a consideration here since you’ll be packing in all of your food and packing out your trash. Use the DEE and CBC calculators above to calculate approximately how many calories you’ll be burning each day. Pack enough food to replace the calories you’ll be burning and about 10% more than you think you’ll need. Make a meal plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for each day of your trip. There is nothing worse than being in the middle of nowhere with no food left to eat.

Trail mix, hard cheeses, jerky, tuna, bagels, peanut butter in a squeeze tube, granola, apples, dried fruit, and energy bars are favorite foods for backpacking because they all keep well in your pack, have little trash, and are fairly light weight. For dinner at the end of a long day, its nice to have something to heat up. There are a number of healthy camping meals that are easy to prepare. Quick heating packaged dinners are a popular choice because they are cheap, light, and easy to make. Don’t worry about excess salt when you’re backpacking for several days as you need to replace electrolytes. I like to dehydrate fresh veggies and just add water to bring them back to life out on the trail. Tea, hot chocolate, and some sweet treats are also a welcome after dinner warm-up before you hit the sack. As far as water is concerned, plan your water sources carefully before you go to make sure that you have enough water each day.

3. Backpacking trips lasting 6 or more days

Food for backpacking 6 or more days is even more tricky and requires careful planning. All of the advice in previous section is applicable. Often, you’ll have the opportunity to stop at small town grocery stores or gas stations to refuel. While these are not ideal, there are some good choices you’ll find almost anywhere like energy bars, nuts, trail mix, fresh fruit, and packaged dinners or soups. The key is to plan your trip meticulously so that you know how long you have before you stop next so you can consume enough calories each day to prevent excessive weight loss.

When your trip lasts longer than 6 days, there are some extra things to consider. One is nutritional deficiencies. Since fresh fruit and fresh vegetables don’t typically travel well when you’re backpacking, be sure to fuel up on these when you get the chance. In addition, take a high quality supplement containing the essential vitamins and minerals. If you’re not sure which to take, read the article What Vitamins Should I Take? Food Based vs. Synthetic. This is extremely important since your body is being extremely metabolically active and creating oxidative stress. Also, be sure to get enough water each day and rest at least one day each week you’re on the trail. Your body needs time to recover and rebuild to keep you going so make sure you have enough fuel for it to rebuild.

Hopefully this article gives you some things to think about for your next hiking trip. Remember that food is one of the four essentials for survival: food, water, clothing, and shelter. When you’re backpacking, you have to carry each of those on your back. Don’t shortchange your self and pack too light. . . you will be sorry.

If you have questions, suggestions, or wisdom from your own trail hikes, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Erin Harner

Erin Harner is an Integrative Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), author, and speaker based in Ithaca, NY. Erin melds functional medicine and culinary nutrition to help her clients uncover their unique diet and confidently cook healthy nourishing meals that meet the needs of their whole family. Learn about Erin's services and connect on Instagram.

1 thought on “What Food to Take Hiking”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *