One of the most important things to consider when doing multi-day hiking is food. When you are hiking many miles (for me that is over 15 miles a day) for several days in a row, you have to ensure you consume enough calories for your body to burn. Not eating enough or not the right type of food can cause you to tire easily, cramp, and in general feel bad. The wrong type or not enough food can also have a negative effect on your outdoor experience.
During my highest mileage day (just over 26 miles) I discovered this. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I have hiked similar miles and terrain in the past, but about midafternoon I was just tired and didn’t have any energy. Looking back, I just didn’t eat enough (and often enough). This caused me to not have the energy to complete the hike in the time I wanted.
Another thing to consider is the type of food you carry and eat. It is more difficult but not impossible to eat healthy on the trail. Fresh fruit and vegetables don’t carry well and only last a day or two on the trail. Dairy products don’t either with the exception of hard cheese that will last several days. Most prepackaged dehydrated/freeze dried meals have a very high sodium content and full of other preservatives.
So, what should you NOT eat? I wouldn’t suggest eating prepackaged meals for every meal. They are expensive, bulky, and most are not the healthiest options available. Some people make and dehydrate their own meals to eat healthier and this is on my list to do one day. To help prevent intestinal distress, I avoid spicy foods and items that cause issues such as beans, cabbage, or other “gassy” foods. Intestinal distress is one thing I do NOT want on the trail. Although I do carry a few treats or candies, I try to avoid bringing a lot of junk food that I see many other people eat. Examples are Pop-Tarts, a lot of candy bars, or items that contain a large amount of sugar with little nutritional value. I’m also not one to eat the same thing/flavor every single day at the same time, so I have to carry a variety of different foods.
What DO I eat? One general rule before I proceed is eating several small meals/snacks often instead of the standard three meals a day. I’ll give you an example eating schedule and food list for a 5 day hike. This particular trip is a planned 5 day (four night) solo hike on the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama. I planned my camping spots so I camped near or on water. As this is a planned hike, my plans could change as I hike, but I at least have a daily goal.
Often I’m headed to the trailhead on the first day of my hike, so I eat breakfast on the way so that’s one less meal to carry. If I plan on reaching the trailhead a couple of hours after breakfast I’ll plan on having a snack before I start hiking. I’ll hike for a couple of hours and have my midmorning snack if I haven’t already had it or lunch depending on the time of the day. For lunch, I generally don’t cook, but eat something that doesn’t require cooking. For my meals I’ll generally bring a powdered drink mix for a change from water. I’ll take a long break, take of my socks and shoes and let my feet air out, and rest a bit.
I’ll hike to midafternoon and then take another short break. I’m normally tired and need a boost. I’ve started having coffee with protein powder as an afternoon snack. The caffeine and calories are enough to get me to my next meal. This can be either hot or cold depending on the weather. Depending on the mileage, I’ll often eat my evening meal before reaching camp. This will give me the fuel and energy to hike a few more miles before camp and help keep food smells away from camp. After I reach camp, I’ll often have a snack that doesn’t require cooking, maybe some hot tea or hot chocolate if it’s cold.
This is a hiking trip, so I will be concentrating more on hiking than camping, so I plan on breaking camp fairly early. But before leaving camp, I will need something in my stomach to get me going. I will eat a small package of instant oatmeal and coffee. After hiking for a couple of hours, the metabolism will have kicked in and now I will be ready for more calories. Hikers often call this “second breakfast.” My daily second breakfast is a small package of peanut butter, a protein bar (a different variety and flavor from the one I ate the previous night), and a flavored drink mix. Sometimes this will be eaten while hiking, and other times I may take a short break to eat.
This brings me back to lunch. At this point, it will be a repeat of the above with a variety of foods. Here is a breakdown of my packed food. The exception would be the last day where I plan on finishing midafternoon so I won’t pack an evening meal or bedtime snack. I also pack what I call my “snack bag.” In the snack bag is a little extra food just in case I need the calories or am delayed. In this particular snack bag, I have some Ramen noodles, hot chocolate, and some soup mix.
Here is a detailed breakdown of my planned food for the hike (click the link for a larger view):
That comes to a total of just over 5.5 pounds in food. If you notice that some of the weights are different for the same item (oatmeal, protein bars, and Complete Cookie) it is because I carry a variety of flavors and the slightly vary in weight. You may also notice that I eat the same thing on multiple days, but at different times. This satisfies my need for not always eating the same thing at the same time every day. This isn’t the healthiest foods available, but for me it worked. You may also notice the mileage difference. You not only have to consider the mileage but the terrain and elevation change. The shortest mileage day on this trip (day 3) also had the most elevation change (it was almost all up) and I didn’t want to overestimate my mileage. It is easier to slow down than to speed up.
This particular trail had limited access points so I had to plan my pickup point in advance. The next available trailhead was almost 20 miles from where I planned on stopping. If I made great time, I did have that as an alternative but there wasn’t a resupply point as the trail was almost entirely in a National Forest.