What you eat before, during, and after a long day hike has a huge impact on how your hike goes. Ideally, you want to be optimally fueled so as to have an awesome, energy-filled hike and quick recovery after your long effort.
Hiking food and distance running fuel look a lot alike in basic nutritional concepts: lots of carbohydrates. These are the main fuel source used by your body during a marathon or long hike.
It is critical that you have a plan for proper nutrition and hydration.
No matter what you eat, you will need to hydrate during your hike. The biggest key to keep in mind is that if you don’t drink until you are thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. So: front load and maintain your hydration efforts.
Before your hike
Hydrate: aim for 20-30 ounces of water pre-hike. It’s easy to slurp down some water as you drive to the trailhead.
Nutrition: Some easily digested carbohydrates make an ideal hiking breakfast. A sandwich, breakfast burrito, or oatmeal are all portable and make for a good mix of carbs and protein to prepare you for your adventure.
During the hike
Hydrate! Temperature, humidity, difficulty of terrain, and other factors all affect how you lose water through sweat. A good general guideline is to take about a half liter of water for every hour you plan to be out, so, if you’re out for a two hour hike, you’ll need at least 1L water. Keep in mind that warmer temperatures, more challenging terrain, and your physical condition likely mean you will need more water with you.
Be sure to keep in mind that you will need to map out how much water you think you will ingest during the day. Be prepared to carry all the water you will need in areas of low flowing water; bring tools to purify water if you plan to refill water along the way.
Just as you would sip water throughout your hike, you also want to be steadily ingesting calories. I’m a born snacker, so this is my ideal setup.
In general, you want to consider taking 200-300 calories per hour spent hiking with you, and be ready to increase that amount seriously for the faster you hike, the heavier your pack, the more uneven the terrain, and the bigger you are (giant men need more fuel to stay upright than tiny women). For all-day hikes, consider taking an extra days “emergency rations.” This is not a huge meal, but handful of nuts, an apple or other hardy fruits/veggies, peanut butter, energy bar, jerky, etc. Many runner-hiker types will pack some gu, gel, or gummies. I like gummy bears, myself!
The options are pretty endless when it comes to finding foods that you find appetizing on the trail. You do not need anything fancy to make good hiking food. One tip is to put your food in a plastic tub or lunchbox to keep items from getting squished.
After the hike
After finding your way back to the trailhead, it’s time to refuel. Aim to eat a combination of protein and complex carbohydrates within about an hour of finishing your hike. If you’re at a remote trailhead, pack a post-hike meal and store it in a cooler in your vehicle (or put it into a bear locker if bear activity is a concern). If you’re close to your favorite restaurant, go enjoy that burger and fries (& milkshake, in my case!).
Likewise, be sure to refresh your water reserves. Leave a can of sparkling water in your cooler for an extra cold and refreshing treat.