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Healthy Foods to Pack for a Long Hike

Posted on the 28 October 2013 by Pacificprime @ThePacificPrime


It’s relatively easy to pack for short hikes that last just a few hours: a snack or two to boost energy levels and carrying enough water to last the entire hike will be your main priorities. Longer hikes – for dedicated hikers that can mean three days or more – will require a more precise approach, with hydration, nutrition and weight considerations a priority.

Top of your list will be how to acquire and carry water. It’s probably not necessary to carry more than a liter or two at any given time if you have access to clean water along the way. If you are using streams you will likely be treating the water with a filtration system. If using purification tablets which require a few hours, it’s a good idea to do this in a larger, commercially purchased 1.5 liter bottle and use a smaller one to drink from. Hydration packs can be worn around the body, but they are heavy and it’s probably not necessary to carry excess liters unless it’s really hot and you have large distances between recharges. One thing to remember, particularly when hiking in strenuous, hot conditions, is to ensure you replace any electrolytes lost through sweat. Tablets can be easily purchased and dropped into water.

Planning Your Energy Needs – A Balancing Act

Meeting your nutrition fuel needs is something of a fine art and takes careful consideration – long hikes require more calories (up to double what you might burn just sitting around all day watching TV) and energy-rich food than usual, and yet you’ll have a limited amount of space for carrying it all and no means of refrigeration. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to carry enough to meet all your energy requirements and experienced hikers will expect to lose a little weight on demanding hikes. It’s important, therefore, to ensure any food and snacks contain plenty of what a healthy individual may eschew in large quantities in everyday life: calories, sugars, carbs and proteins. This isn’t the time for a self-indulgent binge-fest of all the wrong things, however. Empty calories and sugar and fat-laden snacks are going to provide merely short term boosts  - which is okay too at times – but none of the essential and long lasting synergistic effects gained from an appropriately balanced nutritional intake.

When considering the weight to energy ratio, fats are going to provide the highest calories to weight ratio, so although it may feel counter-intuitive, it’s a good idea to pack some foods with a high fat content; many hikers swear by peanut butter, for instance, thanks to the additional protein, vitamin and mineral content of the nuts, which act in a multi beneficial way. Of course the downside is the high trans fat content of most peanut butter brands, and so it’s wise to pick a healthier, omega oil-based brand that contains essential omega-3 fatty acids. It makes sense to ensure the other high fat foods in your pack are also non-trans fat whenever possible.

Of course, in order to keep your engine running you’re going to need to provide your body plenty of carbohydrates and a few proteins too. Carbs are the body’s main source of fuel and though quite dense – and therefore potentially heavy – they should make up an essential component of your meal plan. Processed or simple carbs such as white bread, white rice and potato chips are high in sugar and easy to digest and will provide a short term burst of energy, but will result in a crash shortly after. Complex carbs, such as brown breads, oatmeal, brown rice and so on will take longer to break down but provide a steady and extended release of energy throughout the day.

Protein, such as meat, fish and dairy will provide calories, but take a little longer to break down and spoil easily, so on a hike you will be limited to dried or vacuum sealed options. Protein is an essential component of our diet and ensures a healthy metabolic function, which is particularly relevant for a long hike requiring optimum physical performance. Overall, a good rule of thumb would be to eat meals that are around 50 percent carbs, 30 to 35 percent fats and 15 to 20 percent protein.

Many hikers achieve a good balance by firing up the tank properly in the morning, at lunch and in the evening with some complex carb-based meals such as oatmeal, reconstituted wholegrain noodles, rice or pasta, with the addition of fats and a little protein. Then, aim to graze throughout the day on energy-rich snacks such as trail mix, granola bars, dried fruits, jerky bars or even chocolate (dark is best).

Ultimately your food choices will reflect your tastes and depend on the length of the hike, the weather and environment, and the physical demands required of the hike. Making healthy choices requires planning and a dose of common sense. A packet of Reese’s Pieces on the occasional long weekend hike with an otherwise healthy diet isn’t going to hurt your body too much, but for serious distance hikers, nutritional balance is of a much greater importance. Regular hikers need to make healthy food choices that will last the entire trail, without compromising performance or morale. Meal choices are as critical to your planning as the trail itself. Finally, it’s important not to underestimate how food can affect mood; days of bland, same-y food can be a downer, so it’s a good idea to pack a little variety and perhaps even some milestone treats.

Tips and Suggestions for Healthy Trail Food:

- A handy tip adapted from the Australian site Our Hiking Blog is to take individual zip-lock bags filled with a breakfast cereal – a whole grain cereal is best – or muesli, pre mixed with milk powder. A little water can be added directly into the bag and mixed for an instant and healthy breakfast in a bag (or indeed can be eaten at any meal).

- Another great thing to pack – if you like the taste – would be some vacuum packed marinated oily fish such as sardines, herrings or mackerel. These work well as a snack or as an addition to main meals.

- Jerky bars offer lots of protein and fat, and this salt enriched marinated beef snack  can last for weeks without refrigeration. An energy-rich hiking staple.

- Oven dried, whole wheat bread sticks made with olive oil can easily be store bought or home made and will keep for a couple of weeks or longer in a sealed zip-lock bag. Try sesame and cheese versions for a tasty hit of essential calories, fats and protein. You could even add pre-cured, dried meats.

- Trail Mix is another hiking staple, and this mix of dried fruit and nuts is, as the name suggests, the perfect, healthy snack for a long hike. Get creative and make your own blend containing organic nuts such as almonds, flax or sunflower seeds, unsweetened and dried fruits such as raisins apples, apricots, bananas, cranberries, dark chocolate and dried coconut.

- Plain kernels of home-popped popcorn can be flavored with sunflower oil and sprinkled with salt to provide a tasty snack and replace salts lost through perspiration. This lightweight snack can also be hung outside the backpack, so it won’t take up much room.

- Military Ready to Eat Rations (MRE’s) are freeze-dried, lightweight meals that keep for years without refrigeration. Mountain House is a popular U.S. brand with a wide variety of pouch options including vegetarian and gluten-free.

- A vacuum-packed self heating meal is another alternative for long hikes if you want to enjoy a hot meal without boiling water or building a fire. Brands such as Heater Meals produce genuine emergency meals used by organizations such as FEMA, the American Red Cross and even reserve military units. These meals are designed to provide a balanced and nutritious ‘luxury’ meal that makes for a great morale boost at the end of a long, tiring hike.

- Energy and granola bars are readily available everywhere and are designed to meet short-term energy needs. There is a wide selection of healthier options that pack the required punch while delivering great taste and nutrients too.

- Noodle packs are a staple for many hikers but often contain little nutritional value beyond a quick, simple carb-laden hit and a bunch of artificial additives. Consider instead a wholegrain Japanese Soba noodle that can be augmented with dried vegetables, seaweed or fish.

- Dried beans and grains such as quinoa are a weightier, but nutritious alternative to noodles and can be soaked for half an hour or so prior to eating. Powdered bouillon or stock is a good addition to your pack and can be added to cooking water and sprinkled over bland meals to pep things up.

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Healthy Foods to Pack for a Long Hike

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