Nutrition tips for walking

Food to take with you on a long distance trek

July 09, 2015

"I lift my spork up to eye-level. A gruel-like paste of oats and boiling water despondently oozes glacially over the edge, slowly dripping back into the bowl below. Day 117. Same breakfast. Again. With a sigh I think about how in about five minutes I’m going to be picking run-away globules out of my beard. There’s nothing like porridge for getting tangled up in trekking beards. Occupational hazard I’m afraid.

The paste, incidentally, is also bright, knock-your-eye-out pink.

Pink.

Funny colour for porridge.

But then again, this is no ordinary porridge…"

Welcome to the exciting world of trekking food. In this blog, Rob Candy, talks about the best food to pack for a multi-week or -month trek to keep up vital energy levels for the long walk ahead. Rob speaks from experience following his 3,000km (almost 19 miles) charity hike along New Zealand's Te Araroa trail.

"Walking around my local supermarket before starting my Te Araroa trek, I quickly realised that I only had a vague idea of what I’d need for the walk. Resupplying in towns along the way became progressively easier – in fact, I got it down to a fine art – but in those early pre-walk days it was just down to Google and me.

There really are some great websites out there for hikers, and some really helpful people from the hiking community. This blog gives a good overview for fellow beginners, based on thigns I read, advice I received, people I spoke to and my own subsequent experiences. If you need more indepth advice, Google is a great tool and can put you in touch with many more hiking blogs, forums and top tip guides.

Here's my main hiking nutrition recommendations:

1. You’ll need to eat more and often

Depending on the parameters of your walk (see next point), your diet will vary, but any long distance walk will demand more fuel for your body. You want to make the finish? Keep eating. You’ll be amazed how much you can consume and it not make the slightest difference on the surface. For example, while on the walk I once ate 2kg of chocolate in five days… No weight put on. My energy on that section of the walk was pretty good though. Eat regularly, and introduce snacks throughout the day. Not eating enough can have serious health consequences so take note.

2. Make sure what you’re eating is best for your activity

What’s the terrain – flat or mountainous? Average temperature – hot or cold? Distance between resupplies? All of these things should help you to decide what you need to take with you and will determine what will work and what won’t. For example, if you’re hitting a town every other day, the weight of the food you pack isn't a huge factor as you don't need to pack much of it. However, if the towns are 10 days walk apart, you need to be extra savvy and choose foods that are lightweight so you can pack enough without your backpack weighting you down. 

3. Eat the right stuff in the right ratios

This is the slightly more technical part - a balanced diet is absolutely essential. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats - these are your friends. There are a few useful online ‘calorie calculators’ out there that I recommend taking a look at; fill out your details and you’ll be given a rough break down of your recommended daily nutritional needs. I’d probably compare a few to get a mean average. As a rough guide you’ll probably be looking at 15% protein, 50-65% carbohydrates, 20-35% fats. Proteins are good for muscle anabolism (building up), carbs give readily accessible energy for your muscles and brain, while fat (in the absence of enough carbs, and therefore glycogen) serves as your primary fuel for low intensity and long duration activities – such as a long distance hiking trek!

4. Beware dehydration! Drink. Then drink more. 

Keep in mind that dehydration significantly reduces performance and energy. The worse it gets, the more likely you are to make poor decisions; not ideal for when you’re on top of a remote mountain. So stay safe and keep hydrated at all times. There's an easy way to tell if you’re sufficiently hydrated – just take a look on your next toilet break! The clearer your urine the better. Energy drinks are a good choice; isotonic is your best bet for energy, while you should go hypotonic for the best rehydration rates after excercise (not before). But as you'd expect, the overall best option to avoid dehydration is water. Drink a large volume of water at the start of the day, then top up every 20 minutes or so.

5. Keep your pack weight down

This really, really matters. If you’re not careful it’ll feel like you’re carrying a baby elephant every time you leave town after a resupply. This actually contributed to an Achilles problem for me, so best thing to do is compare your food calories per gram. Usually I was looking at about 600g of food per day. Basically, calories = energy, so choose food that will give you maximum calories for the lightest load. Apply this to your ratio of carbs, protein and fats and get shopping. Another quick Google search will help you here.

I will say though, that it’s not exclusively about calories. Diversify your food choices and…

6. Take supplements

No matter how precise you are with the above, I’d always recommend taking along a daily multi-vitamin. The food you’ll be taking out onto the trail will rarely (if at all) be fresh food and a fair amount is likely to be processed, so supplement your diet with a good all-rounder like you did as a kid. This is what made my porridge a brilliant pink colour during my trek – strawberry flavoured Complan was my favourite trick, stuffed with 22 vitamins and minerals. And it definitely made boring porridge taste that little bit better.

Other supplements are around too, but are more down to the individual. Overly sore muscles? Joint pain etc.? Talk to your local chemist for more advice.

 

A few last tips:

  • As hinted above, get your fill of fresh fruit and vegetables in towns; they’re too heavy to take out and will quickly perish anyway.
  • Scroggin (to borrow a New Zealand word); a bag of mixed nuts, dried fruit and chocolate will go a long way. Great for snacking on the go.
  • Rotate your meal choices. Repetition on a long hike can be a killer. You want to look forward to your next meal, so mix it up on different legs of the trip.
  • The weight of yor backpack is important on a long hike, but take a little more food with you than you think you need to reach the next town. Weather and accidents can happen and you don’t want to be caught short. I typically took an extra day’s worth with me.
  • Treats. Have something to look forward to at the end of the day and before you hit your tent. Be that an actual cookie with a cup of coffee, or a slab of expensive chocolate. It will help to invigorate your senses and will just top off each day on a high.

Good luck!"

 

Thinking of challenging yourself to a long distance trek? Read our Introduction to Long Distance Trails - The Big Ones blog for more inspiration. When it's time to choose your footwear, be sure to explore our blog for top tips and handy infographics on choosing the best walking boots, how to break in your boots, lacing techniques and more.