Updated May 2020
First my disclaimer – I am not a nutritionist.
These observations are from my own experiences and some research over time. They also come from some conversations with extreme athletes and accomplished climbers. Every person’s needs are different—be sure to observe how your body reacts. You might talk to your doctor about any specific nutritional needs you might have.
Endurance hikers and climbers will tell you that you need carbohydrates. Carbs are your main energy source, but you can only eat so much at a time: you will find there’s a limit beyond which you will likely get an upset stomach or just lose your appetite. Also, there are different kinds of carbs – simple carbs such as sugars are only OK as a short-term shot of energy, not ideal for hiking. Complex carbs such as those found in nuts and grains are much better – they yield a more sustained energy and let you down gently so that if you eat something every hour or two you won’t have to deal with energy rushes and drop-offs.
The body needs to rebuild tissues and recover after exercise/activity, and that is the job of protein. It can also provide sustained energy on long endurance activities. On longer hikes you will need protein, without which you will start flagging in performance. Eat some protein and you’ll be back in form in no time. There are lots of opinions out there about the difference between plant protein and animal protein. I don’t come at that from an ideological viewpoint, purely personal experience. Animal protein gives me more sustained energy, and yes, I have tried both ways for weeks at a time.
I’m sure you have heard a lot about electrolytes. You need them to help metabolize carbs for proper functioning of muscles. Key electrolytes are sodium, potassium and magnesium. Bananas are a great source of potassium and magnesium; I have a banana every morning and two on the morning of a hike. Sodium is in a lot of foods and energy bars.
Iron provides oxygen to the blood and is another component for endurance.
There is a lot more that can be said about nutrient components, but Carbs, Protein, Electrolytes and Iron are where my focus has been. I’ve got buddies who love to add dark chocolate which is good as an antioxidant but melts easily in a pack. Some amount of fat is good for the mix, but better to be had before the hike starts. Nuts are a good source of multiple nutrition components and some hikers love a trail mix, or GORP which stands for “good old raisins and peanuts.” I don’t prefer that myself because raisins are taboo food for dogs. A nutritionist told me that the more ground up the nuts, the better the absorption, so I like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch on the trail.
Before, During and After Hiking
Before a hike I load up – three eggs, real bacon, a piece of whole grain toast and two bananas. I chug down some electrolyte drink and I’m ready to go!
On the hike, for short hikes of 1 – 2 hours, you may need nothing more, just water. For longer hikes I will have a PB and J sandwich or two in my pack and a few bars.
I have tried dozens of bars and have changed my mind a few times as new choices come on the market. I’ve learned that hiking, depending on how strenuous, can burn 100 – 250 calories/hour, so eating a bar or equivalent every 1 ½ to 2 hours will help keep your performance up.
My criteria for a bar are: 1) high in animal protein and carbs, 2) preferably some good things like iron and electrolytes AND 3) must not get hard to chew in cold weather. That latter requirement knocks out a lot of bars that could break your teeth in cold weather.
My favorite? The Exo Cricket Protein bars, but not all the flavors: some of their bars are too high in sugar for me. The Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and the Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip bars taste good and pack 16 grams of animal protein in a 2.1-ounce bar. The animal protein is cricket “flour” – made from crickets that are farmed, roasted and ground into a powder. Very sustainable, nourishing and doesn’t taste like chicken, nor does it look like crickets.
After hiking, all bets are off for what I’ll eat as a reward. I mean something “evil” that I wouldn’t normally eat, like a pizza or a cheeseburger with fries and ketchup. I have nothing against those foods except they move the needle in the wrong direction on my weighing scale.