Backpackers and athletes have a unique lifestyle - one of 'high output and high input'. ie high levels of physical exertion (output) and high levels of food and nutritional consumption (input). This is in direct contrast to our civilized counterparts with a lifestyle of relatively low exertion and low consumption.
We want to climb mountains and crush miles, not sit on the couch worrying about our waste line. But, long durations of activity over an extended period of time burn enormous amounts of energy and zap the body's reserves of nutrients like sugars, salts and fats. In order to stay healthy, we need to replace those nutrients sufficiently.
What You Need to Know
Nowhere is it more important to get proper levels of nutrition than in the backcountry. Your intake directly affects everything from your immune system to your digestive tract to your energy levels. You want all of these operating optimally when you are miles away from civilization.
It's good to think of your food as fuel. Just as a car needs a certain amount of gas to travel miles, your body needs a specific amount of "fuel" to cover the length of your hike.
We are going to breakdown the big macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals below. It is important to understand the importance of each one and ensure you know a good backpacking food source for each of them.
*Note the recommended daily amounts are from the FDA and are estimated to be roughly double for big days on the trail.
A calorie is a measurement of energy, not a nutrient. It measures the amount of energy your food provides, but it doesn't tell you where that energy comes from. Calories can come from 3 different sources - carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We take an in-depth look at calories in our article How Many Calories Do I Burn Backpacking?
Each one of these sources has a different caloric density - the amount of calories per gram of food. Fat provides 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and protein both provide 4 calories per gram. Since you'll have to carry all of your food on your back, you'll want to maximize the caloric density of your food.
Fat has the highest caloric density, and thus it's the most efficient source of calories for backpackers. Foods high in fat (like oils and dairy products) are ideal for meeting your calorie goals while keeping your pack weight low.
FDA Recommended DV: 2,000
Backpacking Food Source: See good high in carbs, fat and protein below - peanut butter, olive oil and almonds.
Carbohydrates are critical to maintaining proper energy levels while hiking. Carbs supply the body with glucose, an essential form of energy for humans. Roughly 50% of your trail diet should be carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates come in two forms: complex (starches) and simple. Simple carbs are found in sugar: candy, corn syrup, and soda, for example. Complex carbs and starches are found in fiber-rich food, like oatmeal, brown rice, and green vegetables.
In daily life, complex carbs are generally much healthier. But both simple and complex carbs have their use on the trail.
Complex carbs provide longer lasting, slow-burning energy and have low caloric densities. They should be your primary source for carbohydrates in meals, since they'll help you maintain a steady level of energy over time.
Simple carbs, in contrast, burn quickly and have high caloric densities. They cause a spike in blood sugar, giving you a shorter, more intense burst of energy.
FDA Recommended DV: 300g
Backpacking Food Source: Starches: Oatmeal, Dried Potatoes, Pasta, Couscous. Sugar: Dried Fruit, Candy
As mentioned, fats are the most calorie-dense food and thus the best for keeping your pack weight low. Fats help absorb vitamins and provide a great long term storage of energy.
FDA Recommended DV: 65g
Backpacking Food Source: Olive Oil, Nuts, Cheese
Protein is great for it's muscle recovery power. Protein helps repair damaged tissue as well as build new tissue. With the high levels of strain backpacking puts on your muscles, protein is an essential backpacking nutrient.
FDA Recommended DV: 50 g
Backpacking Food Source: Nuts, Meats, Grains, Eggs
Fiber is not necessarily associated with performance nutrition. But, you when you are out on the trail consuming large volumes of food - fiber is there to regulate your digestive tract. Fiber also helps regulate and maintain your blood sugar levels which can be crucial in controlling simple sugar spikes and crashes.
FDA Recommended DV: 25 g
Backpacking Food Source: Oats, Dried Berries, Almonds, Pecans, Walnuts, Beans
Electrolytes are important minerals to pay attention to, particularly sodium, potassium and calcium. However, there are 7 major electrolytes total - the other four are bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and hydrogen phosphate. Electrolytes perform a few roles in your body, including controlling water levels and transporting signals between your brain and other parts of the body.
When you sweat, you lose some of these important minerals—and you'll sweat a lot while backpacking. Lose too much of your electrolytes, and you'll notice cramping and muscle weakness.
Sports drinks, tablets, chews and supplement powders are some of the easiest ways to restore electrolytes. When possible, electrolytes are best consumed in the foods and drinks where they naturally occur.
Calcium is critical to maintaining general bone health, an important consideration with the constant stress hiking places on your bones... especially with a heavy pack. Calcium also ensures our blood clots properly when cut.
FDA Recommended DV: 1,000 mg
Backpacking Food Source: Dehydrated Milk, Cheese. Some Breads, Fish, Soy and Greens
The mineral potassium is essential to the proper function of the hearts, kidneys and other organs. Most people get enough potassium in their day to day life, but extended strenuous exercise can lead to a potassium deficiency.
FDA Recommended DV: 4,500 mg
Backpacking Food Source: Dates, Dried Banana, Dried Potatoes, Coconut Flakes
Like potassium, the average person gets more than enough sodium from their diet. Excessive sweating can lead to a deficiency though. Sodium helps maintain the water balance in your cells, in addition to playing a role in brain and muscle function.
FDA Recommended DV: 2,400 mg/day
Backpacking Food Source: Anything salted - Noodles, Beef Jerky, Nuts.
Sanitation can be an issue on the trail - adequate soap and hot water for dishes, washing your hands, etc. You are also exposed to a lot of new elements in the backcountry. Vitamin C protects against immune system deficiencies. Vitamin C is usually obtained from fresh fruits and veggies, so it can be tricky to get the proper amount on a long term trip down the trail.
FDA Recommended DV: 60 mg
Backpacking Food Source: Fresh Citrus Fruits ideally, fortified Drink Powders otherwise
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that prevents free radical damage within your tissue, damage that extended exercise may promote. Vitamin E can be a great antioxidant and be key for strong immunity - particularly related to your skin and eyes. With the limited bathing facilities on the trail, getting enough Vitamin E may help prevent skin issues.
FDA Recommended DV: 30 IU
Backpacking Food Source: Peanut Butter, Whole Grains, Seeds, Olive Oil
Vitamin A helps maintain healthy skin and bones. Like calcium, vitamin A can help maintain your bone strength through the stresses of hiking. It is also crucial in retina formation and vision. It's not recommended to take vitamin A as a supplement, however, except in a daily multivitamin or at your doctor's instruction - it is toxic in high quantities.
FDA Recommended DV: 5,000 IU
Backpacking Food Source: Dried Apricots, Dried Sweet Potato, Parika, Basil, Kale Chips
Iron is critical to the production of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen through the body. Iron is best absorbed through meat and fish, so it's especially important for vegetarians to make sure they eat enough iron-rich foods.
FDA Recommended DV: 18 mg
Backpacking Food Source: Hummus, Lentils, Beans, Meats, Tuna, Salmon
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.