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Hiking Nutrition 101: How to Pick Trail Snacks that Beat the Bonk
Your choice of food for should never be an afterthought on your adventures. Guest writer Doc Anarchy helps you find what you need, based on body type.
Extending a quick welcome to the more than 100 people who have subscribed in the last week alone, since reading my most recent article!
Outdoor news is a big part of what I do. I also put out resources to help the community have a safer, more enjoyable outdoor experience. I’ve spent a lot of time on gear, but food had always been something of a footnote.
Reality is: nutrition is an important topic. The right snacks fuel your summit push. The wrong ones will bring on the dreaded bonk. On longer trips, this becomes even more challenging to manage.
I’m not a doctor. But my friend is! He has his own publication, writing about how you can have real agency in your healthcare while resisting excessive pill pushing.
He put together the following post going over some suggestions based on your body type. If you find it helpful, go check out his work, linked below.
I want to start by saying thank you to my friend Cole for the opportunity to write a guest post. For those of you who aren’t familiar with me, my name is Doc Anarchy, the author of the Doc Anarchy Substack and the creator of Renegade Health Magazine.
As a physician, I saw the hysteria and psychosis that was rampant during the COVID pandemic and decided to speak up. In order to protect my identity and medical license, I write under this pseudonym.
I was excited when Cole reached out to me. I’ve been an avid hiker since I was a child, and grew up hiking in the Northeast. At this point, I’ve lost track of how many individual mountains I’ve climbed or how many trips I’ve taken.
The topic we’ll be discussing today is nutrition when hiking. This is not medical advice. Talk to your own doctor first.
If you don’t understand the basics, this article won’t make any sense. You must understand the difference between the three macronutrients and the myriad micronutrients. Let’s cover them briefly.
Put simply, carbs are sugar. Regardless of their original form, they all break down into glucose. Glucose is broken down and used as energy or converted to storage (fat). They are the bodies preferred source of energy. Things like bread, pasta, vegetables, fruits, and so on are the primary source of carbs.
These are molecules built from chains of amino acids. They perform a wide range of functions in the body at the cellular level. They are important for muscle building, immune function, cell signaling, enzymatic reactions, and so on. Meat and beans are the primary source.
These organic compounds come in many different shapes and sizes. They perform a wide array of functions such as maintaining membranes, cellular signaling, hormonal signaling, and much more. They can be found naturally in animal products (saturated fat), in some vegetables (monounsaturated) or made by humans (polyunsaturated and trans).
This is the umbrella term for everything else. All the vitamins and minerals your body requires to function are in this category. There are way too many to cover here.
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Standard American Diet
I don’t agree with mainstream dieticians or nutritionists on most things. The food pyramid was one of the worst public health failures in history and still haunts us to this day. The average American shouldn’t follow the food pyramid recommendations.
Hikers are not average Americans.
The CDC recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, plus some strength training. According to survey data, less than 1/4 of Americans meet this threshold. And let me assure you, that survey data is not reliable. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual number is below 10%.
A short hike up a small hill gets you over that threshold. Keep that in mind as we discuss nutrient demands later.
What makes the Standard American Diet (SAD) so terrible?
The SAD diet basically consists of processed food, fast food, carbs, and seed oils. These are the things that make you metabolically unhealthy, fat, and ultimately lead to chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, etc.). Most Americans consume way too many carbohydrates and fats while under-consuming protein.
This diet isn’t ideal for anyone. It’s catastrophic for sedentary people.
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution in health. You must consider your individual circumstances and adjust accordingly. I’ll show you how you can think about this with three different hypothetical hikers.
You know these people just by looking at them. They’re slim as a rail with long, stringy muscles which, despite their emaciated appearance, somehow easily propel them up the mountain.
The rules of physics don’t apply to these people. They usually have an absurdly high metabolism and are so active that they can’t possibly store excess fat. These people can basically eat whatever they want, whenever they want.
These people are overweight and don’t hike often. When they do, they bring way too much food.
Here’s the reality, if you are above 15% body fat as a man or 25% for women, you can stand to lose a few pounds. Food for hiking should simply sustain you. You don’t need to bulk up.
In these people, carbohydrates should be avoided. Focus on food that’s high in protein, add in some fats, and keep carbs to a minimum. If you are feeling sluggish and need a kick, then some carbs are fine.
This physique can be difficult to maintain on the trail. Muscle needs stimulation in order to stick around. If you focus on cardio (hiking) then weightlifting tends to fall off. That said, you occasionally see these people on the trail.
In this case, more carbs are fine. Carbs promote the release of insulin, which is anabolic (builds/maintains muscle). This can help counteract the catabolic (breaks down muscle) effects of sustained cardio and calorie restriction. They should also prioritize protein.
You must individualize your diet to meet your particular goals and energy demands. However, there are some basic rules you should take into consideration.
You need fat - the body uses fat for too many different processes to even describe. Many hormones (like testosterone) are made from fats you consume. If you don’t eat enough fat, your body won’t feel right. You’ll be fatigued, brain fog develops, joints will ache, your skin will become dry, and so on. Shoot for 20-30% of your daily macronutrients to be fats.
Choose complex carbs - hiking is rarely a sprint to the finish. Your body doesn’t need a sudden jolt of energy and a quick spike. Rather, a sustained release of energy should be the goal. This is best accomplished using complex carbohydrates. This means carbs with a lot of fiber the body has to break down before accessing the sugars. Instead of grabbing Wonder bread, try something whole grain. It also doesn’t crush as easily as white bread full of simple carbs.
Don’t neglect protein – Most people do not consume enough protein. You can’t get enough eating meat once per day and a handful of beans. This is especially important when hiking. Your options are pretty limited so find a good option and stick with it. Dehydrated meats (jerky), beans, nuts, and even protein powder are good options as they are all light and nutritious.
Protect your joints – omega 3 fatty acids and collagen are absolutely vital for preserving your joints. Don’t lose your hobby because you neglected to eat the right foods. Salmon, and fish in general, is a good source of omega 3s. Collagen can be found in most animal meats or supplemented if necessary. A nice bone broth provides a ton of collagen.
Hydration - this is more important than calorie intake in my opinion. You can go weeks without food. Especially if you have extra body fat. Don’t neglect your water intake. Your performance and enjoyment will drop very quickly when you’re dehydrated.
Be careful with supplements - I don’t have any issue with supplements. But now is not the time to start taking any. This is especially true for creatine. I am a strong supporter of creatine in almost everyone. But do not start it before a long hike. You’re setting yourself up for dehydration.
This is where you need to individualize the diet to meet your goals and status. However, some hiking foods are staples because they simply work.
Freeze-dried food - these can be disgusting but they can also be pretty nutritious in some cases. Be careful when you’re picking because a lot of them are loaded with fat and additives. Try to find higher protein options to the extent possible.
Dehydrated food - this is an excellent option. The benefit here is you can dehydrate your own food and know exactly what’s in your food. Meat can be dehydrated to help meet your protein demands. Dehydrated eggs are the perfect hiking food. Just add water and cook them like a normal scrambled egg.
Canned food - if you can afford the extra weight, you can find some good options here. Canned meats particularly are a good way to get some protein in. They tend to be salty, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re hiking - salt helps maintain hydration when you’re sweating.
Packaged food - I am not a fan of granola bars. They are convenient, but basically worthless when it comes to nutrients. Most of them are just carbs and additives. That said, there are some good ones out there. The Outright Bar from MTS Nutrition is a good one.
Trail Mix - be careful with this one. Trail mix can be a really good option because it’s lightweight and calorie-dense. However, it’s very easy to overeat. And if you’re buying the kind with M&M’s it’s really more like dessert than trail food.
Wrapping it up
When it comes to most things involving health, individual circumstances must be considered. It’s no different when we’re talking about nutrition and hiking. If you follow the basic outline provided here, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Focus on eating approximately 30% of your daily caloric intake in fats. Get as much protein as you can, and finish the rest up with carbs. You don’t need to overeat on the trail, you simply need enough to sustain yourself.
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I started writing on substack in July, 2021. Now two years, and 141 posts later, things have certainly changed in ways I never really could have predicted. Next week I’ll be back with “Perspective, Part III,” an annual tradition to mark our progress together. I’ll see you then!