Between navigating rough terrain, breathing in the fresh air, and catching glimpses of the breathtaking vistas, hiking is undoubtedly a thrilling pursuit that tests both the physical and mental limits. But with every step you take and every hill you conquer, your body calls out for nourishment. Fueling your body correctly becomes an essential part of the hiking equation, just as important as picking out the right boots or studying the trail map.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the nutritional requirements of your body at each stage of this adventurous endeavor. We will guide you through the best food choices to maximize your energy, keep you hydrated, and aid in recovery. Whether you’re gearing up for a challenging day-long trek, a leisurely woodland stroll, or a multi-day hike, understanding what, when, and how much to eat can make a world of difference to your performance and overall hiking experience.
Let’s embark on this culinary journey together, equipping you with the knowledge to fuel your body right for your next great adventure.
What to Eat Before a Hike
The basic idea for a pre-hike meal is that we want to focus on foods that our body breaks down slowly: a nutritious mix of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat. You should eat this meal about 1-2 hours before you start hiking.
Lets dive more in-depth to each of these nutrients to get a better understanding of why they work so well together.
- Complex Carbohydrates: Carbs can be a great, long-lasting source of energy. Complex carbs, such as whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables, take longer for the body to break down and digest. This means they provide a steadier stream of energy that can help power us through a hike.
- Protein: Protein is essential before any physical activity because it helps build and repair muscle tissue. It also serves a secondary source of long-lasting energy. Lean protein sources such as grilled chicken, fish, tofu, turkey, legumes, and eggs are all great options.
- Healthy Fats: Fat is another important source of energy that our bodies break down slowly, which also plays an important role in keeping us feeling full for long periods of time. Good sources of healthy fats include nuts, seeds, seed butters, and healthy oils like avocado oil.
It’s also important to stay hydrated before a hike. Drink plenty of water in the days and hours leading up to your trek, and bring along water to keep you hydrated on the go. If you’re looking for something more substantial than water, integrate a sports drink or two. They contain electrolytes which help keep you hydrated.
10 Best Foods to Eat Before a Hike
Now that we know what exactly the nutrients we are looking for before a hike, let’s talk about some of the specific foods that provide everything we need. Here’s a list of the 9 best foods to eat before hiking:
- Lean Meat: If you are looking for a more substantial source of protein before your hike, lean meats like grilled chicken, turkey, or fish are good options.
- Vegetables: Vegetables are a great way to get in some complex carbs before your hike. Try carrots, broccoli or bell peppers for an easy and healthy snack. Take your vegetables to the next level by dipping them in hummus for additional healthy calories.
- Fruits: Like vegetables, fruit is a good way to get in some complex carbs before your hike. Try an apple, banana or orange for a quick and healthy snack.
- Water: Getting hydrated and staying hydrated is essential for a good hike.
- Pasta: If you are getting ready for a long day of hiking, whole grain pasta has the carbs to keep you going. Just make sure you use a lighter sauce, as the heavy, creamy sauces will weigh you down.
- Eggs: Eggs are a great source of protein and healthy fat, perfect for pre-hiking.
- Greek Yogurt: Greek yogurt is packed with protein and probiotics which can help keep your gut health in check while hiking.
- Nutrition Bars: There are tons of different nutrition bars on the market, and they can all be a great source of energy before your hike. Just make sure to choose one that is low in sugar.
- Nut Butter: Another good way to get in some protein and healthy fat before your hike is by eating a nut butter like peanut, sunflower, or almond butter.
- Oatmeal: Complex carbs in the form of oatmeal provide sustained energy throughout your hike. In fact, oatmeal has been shown to help improve recovery. Adding honey provides a natural sugar and makes it taste even better. If you don’t like oatmeal for breakfast, consider replacing it will a whole grain protein pancake or waffle mix.
- Coffee: coffee and caffeine has been use in pre-workouts for a while now and it has been shown to improve performance. More studies are needed but if you enjoy drinking coffee, having a cup before you go may help. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before you head out.
What Not to Eat Before a Hike
The worst thing we can do to our body before a hike is load it up on sugar! Sugar gives your body a quick burst of energy and then breaks down just as quickly, otherwise known as a sugar high and a crash.
Some foods to avoid before hiking are those that are high in sugar and low in nutrients like fast food, processed snacks, and candy bars. These types of foods will not give you the energy you need for a hike and might make you feel sluggish or sick.
Another thing to avoid is eating too much right before hiking; if you have a large breakfast it might be hard to stomach anything else during your trek.
Here’s a list of the 7 worst things to eat before hiking:
- Cream based soup/sauces: Cream based soups and sauces are high in fat and calories, and will only make you feel sluggish during your hike.
- Carbonated Drinks: Carbonated drinks like soda or energy drinks are high in sugar and caffeine, which is not a good combination before a hike. Caffeine isn’t necessarily bad – in fact, making coffee on trail is a personal favorite. Opt for black coffee instead of a sugary drink.
- Diary Products: Milk and cheese are high-fat, high-calorie foods that will only make you feel weighed down during your hike.
- Fruit Juices: Fruit juices are high in sugar and low in nutrients, which is not what you want before a hike.
- Burger & Fries: This is a classic example of a low-nutrient meal. Not only will it make you feel sluggish, but it will also leave you feeling heavy and bloated.
- Candy: Candy is loaded with sugar and will give you a quick burst of energy that will quickly wear off.
- Spices: Foods with a ton of spices like Mexican or Indian food can irritate your digestive system when you’re hiking. This can lead to an upset stomach or diarrhea and you definitely don’t want that on trail.
What to Eat During A Hike
As you expend your energy on the trail, eating the right food can make or break how you feel. It’s important to keep fueling and eat small meals as you go, preferably at least every two hours or so.
Our personal favorite is when we hike to a viewpoint or destination, then sit and eat a snack before continuing on. We call this ‘scenic snacking’ and it’s our favorite pastime.
What Foods Should You Eat During Your Hike?
Focus on foods that are made of carbohydrates so they’re easy to digest. Just make sure they aren’t overly salty or sugary, which can just make you feel worse. Some examples include trail mix that includes fruit and chocolate, nut butter, dark chocolate, dried fruit, and some candy.
For shorter hikes, you should mainly eat easy-to-digest carbs and sugars. While you can eat protein-based snacks (like jerky and hard boiled eggs), they shouldn’t be your focus. They provide energy in the long term, but you need energy now.
Our favorite ‘quick energy’ snack is Haribo Gummy Bears. Because the main sugar ingredient is dextrose, the body breaks it down for quick energy easily. This gives you an extra boost, especially towards the end of your hike.
For longer day hikes, start to incorporate slow-digesting foods like protein and complex carbs. Supplement with easy to digest foods and you’ll have energy all day long.
Our favorite mini-meal for hiking is peanut butter and honey sandwiches. You get protein (nut butter), carbs (bread & banana), and natural sugar energy from the honey.
If you want to eat a full meal while hiking, consider bringing along a camp stove and making a dehydrated meal. This will have the best nutritional balance and keep you full for the next phase of your adventure. Our favorite meals are Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai and Peak Refuel Biscuits and Gravy.
What Foods Should You Avoid During A Hike?
When hiking, avoid foods that are overly sugary or salty, as well as heavy foods that will upset your stomach.
While it’s tempting to bring along fresh fruit and vegetables, this may not be the best option, especially when weight is a concern. These foods have high water content, which makes their weight-to-nutrition ratio quite low. You want to minimize weight and maximize calories, so look for more calorie-dense foods like nut butters, dried fruit, chocolate, oils, and more.
What to Eat After a Hike
After you long hike, you’ll need to refuel with lots of water and a calorie-dense meal. We’ve experienced ‘hiker hunger’ after a long or strenuous hike and trust us, the hunger is real. Our go-to meal is a burger and fries, which tasted especially delicious after a four day backpacking trip on the Four Pass Loop.
Now that you’re not worried about how your tummy feels in the wilderness, you have to the go-ahead to eat whatever you consider a ‘good meal’. Try to intake lots of protein, a good amount of carbs, and some vegetables to keep it healthy.
One of the most important things you can do after a hike is hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Even if you drink a lot on trail, you probably didn’t take it enough and it’s essential to catch up post-hike.
As we wrap up our exploration of the nutritional intricacies of hiking, it’s evident that the food choices you make – pre, during, and post-hike – can significantly impact your performance, endurance, and recovery.
Remember, each hiker is unique, and the best approach is to listen to your body, experiment with different foods on smaller hikes, and discover what suits you best. Hiking is not only about the destination, but also the journey, and a properly nourished body is the perfect companion to make this adventure an enjoyable one.