Nutrition on the Trail

The eating habits of thru-hikers can be quite abysmal. We typically look for calorie-dense, easily accessible, and cheap options. This is where you can insert the ongoing joke of thru-hikers eating a snickers bar a day (but seriously, I have eaten a snickers bar a day for some of my adventures).

Access and price are often determining factors when filling your food bag, especially when you decide to resupply on the way, meaning for the duration of a hike your provisions come from the next grocery store you encounter. Sometimes that grocery store is a gas station or remote wilderness outpost where you are lucky to find ramen, pop tarts, chips, and candy at three times the usual cost.

For many of the 13 different long-distance trails I’ve hiked over the last 20 years, resupply along the way has been my strategy. It massively cuts down on the logistics of putting together food boxes before you go (can you imagine how many food boxes you would need for a 2,000-mile trail?). Buying your food along the way can lead to more flexibility, for example: if you send your food box to a post office, you are tied to the post office’s open hours (which can be quite minimal in very small towns), where most grocery stores (and gas stations) keep much longer hours. Buying along the way also allows you to change up your diet as your tastes change. I’ve met more than one hiker that got a deal on 200 energy bars of a certain brand only to find by week two that they couldn’t stomach eating even one more….and…as luck would have it…those bars were in every pre-made resupply box for the whole trail.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I’ve started experimenting with eating more nutrient-dense and healthy foods off-trail, so accordingly have begun to experiment with how I could eat that way on the trail. No more She-tos for me! (The She-to mix combines cheetos – a long staple in my trail diet – with nuts and cheddar pretzel bits. If your blood pressure just went up reading that, then you get the salt-bomb intent of the snack.)

She-to mix

I’ve had some hikers try to impart the wisdom of nutrition on the trail over the years; probably the most passionate food-aware hiker I know is Zoner, who I met in 2006 on the PCT. Zoner created his 2,000-mile Hot Springs Trail with the express purpose of routing you through towns with farmers markets. His real agenda for this route was to help hikers eat better. Wow!

Katie Gerber is a nutritionist who hiked the Oregon Desert Trail a few years ago and is a frequent guest on hiking podcasts to talk about eating and nutrition on the trails, she also has a hiker nutrition consulting business. So the knowledge and resources have been there for a while, I just needed to listen.

Last year I started to experiment with a plant-based diet. I was given the nudge by my good friend Carrie and her journey in exploring how food can improve different aspects of life.

What changed my perspective about my eating habits was considering food as medicine, that everything I put in my mouth could be working for me instead of against me.

Once I started eating this way I would bring actual fruit instead of gummy bears on a hike (I used to say I would eat something from the gummy family every day on a thru-hike). Instead of chips, I choose roasted chickpeas or veggies and hummus. Instead of a potato bomb (ramen with instant potatoes to soak up the salty msg soup), I would eat meals from Food for the Sole (a vegan and gluten-free backpacking food company started in Bend), or something that had a list of ingredients that contained real food (can’t pronounce an ingredient? Don’t eat it).

Pocket of gummies

the way lunch can be if you try…

I know, I needed to do this years ago.

For short trips this strategy works great! Kirk and I hiked the Timberline Trail around Mt Hood last year, and for the 5 days we were out I could eat and carry lots of fresh foods, but for longer trips fresh gets heavy, and the availability of good fresh fruits and vegetables in gas stations or very small remote towns can be hard to come by.

Then the pandemic happened…I let the global pandemic derail my new-found good habits, and I’m still not quite where I’d like to be with treating everything I put into my mouth as a performance enhancer or detractor. (It really can be that simple).

But I’m trying to pay attention to how my body feels and acts when I eat certain foods and think critically about changing my resupply strategy thanks to COVID. On a recent 100-mile section hike to ground-truth part of the Blue Mountains Trail, I hiked out of town with 7 days of food. 7 days is really the longest stretch I’ll do between resupplies. It’s just an almost unbearable weight and quantity if you try to carry much more than that. I spent some time dehydrating food and making my own cold-soak lunches and hot dinners. I carried dried fruit, dried veggies, and tried to find bars and other snacks with as few ingredients as possible.

I’ve always eaten a lot of nuts, and they can provide a powerful punch of calories and protein on a hike. A lovely and tasty addition to my diet has been to carry Gather Nuts, a soaked and then roasted line of very flavorful nuts and seeds. I met the owner, Shanna, this summer and was taken with her process of soaking each batch for 24-hours then slow roasting them on a low temperature… which all allows for better digestion and nutrient absorption…and they taste AMAZING! The nuts and seeds come out super crunchy (I love a good crunch), and the variety of flavors can satisfy both my sweet and salty tooth. (I have a trail “happy hour” with the Rosemary Olive Oil nuts, and the Maple Cinnamon Brasil Nuts are….well…you’ll just have to try them for yourself.)

Good with breakfast

Good until they are gone 😦

I have also found MicroBiome Bars which includes four prebiotic fibers, omega-3 fatty acids, beta-glucans and fermented protein (that’s all to say they include whole foods like organic wheat, oats, flax, and barley malt) and other ingredients like chocolate, cherries, oats, honey, peanut butter, cranberries, raspberries, apples, and almond butter. YUM.

MicroBiome bars are good on a ski tour too!

So finding healthy foods that have a shelf-life, or dehydrating whole foods (check out this great dehydrator cookbook by Julie Moser, founder of Food for the Sole) has become part of my food resupply strategy, and with COVID in our lives for the foreseeable future, making my own food boxes and avoiding extraneous contact on a hike is the new normal.

And lucky you! You can try some of this too. Gather Nuts has created a coupon code so that you can get 20% off an order of $25 or more at their store using the code: WEAREHIKERTRASH (my instagram handle).

Food for the Sole has a one-time use code you can use to get 20% off your order by using the code: SHERAHIKES.

So join me on my journey to be more intentional about what I put into my mouth, I can’t promise that cheetos and gummies will never pass these lips again, but I want to make them the exception, not the rule.

8 thoughts on “Nutrition on the Trail

  1. Yes, yes, yes to all of this! I especially like your line about food being either a performance enhancer or detractor. Using meat as a condiment rather than a main dish works well for me. Thanks for the codes; I’m curious to try Gather Nuts. (Of course, I already love Food for the Sole and Julie’s great book!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Renee, I just love your writing!  This is such an interesting report on nutrition I’d hire you to be my chef I’ve always wanted!!!  This all sounds like we should have been eating plant based long before now but, you know how it is for us.  You can try to teach us when here! Love it and your,Mom

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow I adore this post! I am guilty of planning a hike and then heading to the nearest grocery store to stock up on all of my favorite junk foods. I absolutely want to start being more mindful of what I am bringing with me! I will have to keep an eye out for those MicroBiome bars.

    Liked by 1 person

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