Does It Matter?
A question for those that have completed a long hike...
Ray Jardine in his book "Beyond Backpacking" discusses the importance of good nutrition on the trail. He notes that after about a month, a poor diet will deplete the body's nutritional reserves and hiker fatigue will set in.
There's a boatload of stories about hiker weight loss and incidents of "bonking." It seems many hikers leave the trail because they just run out of energy and motivation.
My question: Does the quality of food really make a difference or is it really just a function of getting enough calories? Do you need to eat whole grains, veggies, and good fats or do Snickers and Little Debbies work just as well?
Re: Does It Matter?
Does the quality of the food really make a difference?
In my experience "Yes", but not in the sense that many of the whole food types would argue.
Think about it - you're out engaged in heavy physical labor day in and day out, 10 to 15 hours a day, for months on end, with less time off to rest than a normal 5 day on / 2 off work week. (For me, 28 zero's out of 161 days in '06 - 5 on 2 off indicate 46 zero's would have been in order). Given that, you need complete nutrition in addition to adequate calories (which is simply a measure of the chemical energy in the food).
If you don't get the vitamins and minerals, you can't metaobalize the food correctly and you'll have electrolyte imbalances and all the old school diseases of poor nutrition (scurvy, rickets, etc.). You'll also be more prone to bone injury - you need the calcium and related minerals to keep 'dem bones healty. And remember, you're sweating a LOT - so you're sweating out a lot of those minerals you need.
You'll need adequate quantities of complete proteins. I ate meat and dairy in quantity - typically a 3 ounce can of chicken tossed in with dinner, as well as triple or so servings of powerded milk with breakfast and lots of cheese and salami on the sandwiches for lunch. I knew vegans out there who were stronger hikers than me (finished weeks ahead) so even with a vegan diet, you can do well in this regard if you know what you're doing. A good rule of thumb for heavy activity is 1 gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass. I'm about 80kg, so that translated to 80 grams of protein a day - which I met or exceeded.
Veggies are quite nice, but in my experience, it was from a culinary / taste perspective as compared to a nutritional perspective. I wish I had a lot more dried veggies in my food to make it more appealing.
Given that, I didn't eat the whole grains, orgainc, blah, blah, blah. It's not physically necessary to get the nutrients you need. That said, I did eat reasonably well on the trail - the standard lipton/knorr rice side for dinner with a 1/2 pack of instant spuds, the mentioned can of meat and olive oil for calories. I had 3 packs of instant oatmeal of breakfast with a triple serving of powerded milk mixed in for the protein and calcium. Lunch was bagel sandwiches of cheese and dry salmi.
For snacks I had my share of fruit pies and little debbies - these are excellent ways to wolf down a 400 to 500 calorie snack that tastes good, but just don't count on them to provide much in the way of proper nutrition. Trying to shove down 100 calorie granola bars or 'good for you' food just doesn't cut in on calorie per unit volume.
I also took a daily multi-vitamin supplement. I figured this would balance out and fill in any gaps of nutrients I wasn't getting from the food. One thing I know I wasn't getting in my food was vitamin C - unless you have onions in the diet, there's not too much you can carry on the trail for that one from a food source.
I suggest considering it this way - you can only eat a certain volume of food a day. From that volume of food you can consume, you have to get all the protein, vitamins and minerals you need to stay healty while engaged in extended periods of heavy physical activity with relatively little time to rest. You also must get adequate energy (calories) from said limited volume of food you can eat in a day. To boot, since you have to carry it, unrefrigrated, said food has to be reasonably light to carry and low in volume, won't spoil for at least 3 to 5 days in 100 degree heat and be easy to prepare with only hot / boiling water and little to no extended cooking / simmer time. Since eating on the trail is to a certain extent a chore, the food has to be varied and appetizing as well.
So, bottom line: Snickers, little debbies and fruit pies have their places - they're high calorie for the weight and volume and quite tasty and are, in my mind, a great PART of a hiker diet. But, if thats all you eat, you're not going to get the vitamins, minerals and protein you need for your body to maintain itself which is a recipie for physical breakdown.
Re: Does It Matter?
I agree with TC... it's always good to round out your menu whenever you're in town. In other words, don't always eat at the McDonalds, and try to find fresh salad once in a while. Meat is important too.
Re: Does It Matter?
As my main meal of the day on the PCT consisted mainly of a dehydrated meal packet, breakfast being porridge, (oatmeal with a couple of spoons of milk powder) lunch typically a couple of slices of salami, a couple slices of dry bread and a snicker bar, and then a binge of bacon eggs pancakes and hash browns whenever I hit a settlement that lay on the trail, I consider it was a fairly poor diet to what I'd usually eat. I did consume a daily multi vitamin tablet but never used electrolyte replacement drinks etc., only water. That was over 5 calender months that included nine zero days.
I did noticeably lose weight!
There's no doubt that a properly balanced diet, if possible, will make the experience more pleasant and provide more energy, but just my opinion, I think a main factor on whether you actually bail out or not is as much to do with mindset as it is with food. If you really want to complete the trail, then you will regardless of your food quality as long as you're not starving yourself.
Re: Does It Matter?
I would say that nutrition is probably THE most overlooked aspect of through hiking, bar none.
The other night I saw a guy on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, his claim to fame? He ran 50 marathons (26 miles) in 50 days.
Big Deal!! A through hiker will travel an average of 20 miles a day for 120 or more days!, All the while carrying up to 20 or more lbs, all without the help of "aid" stations and massage therapists standing by.
Through Hiking is more like running a marathon than it is "hiking", and so ask yourself this, is nutrition important to a marathon runner? Then it should be important to you.
I was in a grocery store once in Mojave and watched another through hiker stock up on food. It was almost all cookies, and this guy finished his hike!!
Can you eat mostly cookies and still finish the PCT, I guess you can. Is that what you should do? I wouldn't reccomend it.
I personally "bonked" 2-3 times, just ran out of gas. I tried to eat food high in calories and nutrients, but when I do my next through hike, I'll read up more on nutrition and diet and try to maximize my fuel.
Re: Does It Matter?
Hi Chai Guy,
Originally Posted by chai guy
Yep, put that way it certainly makes you think! But running a full marathon every day for 50 days is quite some deal I'd think. I've run one marathon and quite honestly, I didn't even want to move for a week afterwards! Didn't feel that way at any time on the PCT and I was hauling way over the 20lb mark for 150 days. I think maybe it's the intensity of a marathon that hits you - continuous, non stop running, that's not only burning excess energy requiring greater intakes of oxygen but also causing you to experience repetitive foot strike on a continuously unyeilding surface. In marathons they talk about suddenly 'hitting the wall' at the 20 mile mark and man, did I find that a reality! Thing with long distance hikes, is that basically all they are is a series of one day hikes at walking pace. And that's what we are designed to do - walk. Though modern living has eroded that capability for many.
Food is important on a thru hike and the better you eat (quantity and quality) the easier it will be, but as long as you're taking in enough calories etc., to feed yourself at a minimum level that's a mix of just above or just below the deficit line, then if you have the will, then your body will easily make it over the period required to do the biz.
Surprising how the body adapts to conditions. Just my take on it anyhow, and I suppose that maybe it's a case of different strokes for different folks.
One thing's for sure, I've never ever thought so much about food, to the exclusion of all other things, as I did on the PCT!