Hikers and outdoor sports enthusiasts in general expend enormous amounts of energy just maintaining essential bodily functions during an outing. If they are not consuming sufficient nutrition to sustain their activity, the result will be an imbalance in energy, which will deplete the body.
If you’re a hiker you need to replenish the energy you are expending, so it is crucial that you stick to an optimal diet in terms of the quality of the food you eat and quantity. You should make a habit of eating well-balanced meals that are nutritious, healthy and varied so your body can perform at its highest level.
Hikers should follow a diet as closely as possible to the recommended composition: 60% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 10% fats. Their diet should also contain the necessary vitamins and minerals (trace elements), either in food and/or in the form of nutritional supplements.
The hiker’s diet essential nutrients
Carbohydrates are the foremost source of fuel for providing power to your muscles. Eating an adequate amount of carbohydrates before, during and after a hike helps sustain energy levels and postpone fatigue during your hike while enabling a faster recovery once you’ve finished.
Simple carbs are provided by the sugar in honey, soft drinks, and candy bars. The body can break down sugary foods quite easily, so they provide a quick burst of energy. The problem is that this spike in blood sugar stimulates the pancreas to discharge a large amount of insulin. This causes blood sugar levels to plummet, which makes you hungry again and wanting even more sugar. Furthermore, simple carbohydrates don’t supply the vitamins, minerals and all the other nutrients so essential to good health.
Complex carbs are rich in fiber and take a lot longer to break down in the body, reaching the blood stream little by little, which is why they keep the level of sugar in the bloodstream steady. By consuming complex carbohydrates you are able to continue your activity or hike for a longer period of time.
Good sources of complex carbohydrates are found in black breads, fruits, grains, vegetables and whole-wheat pasta. Other carbohydrate foods and meals rich in nutrients include:
- Fiber-rich cereals with milk
- Fruits mixed with plain or flavored yoghurt
- Blended fruit smoothies
- Whole wheat (sandwich) wraps
It is very important that you consume protein after a long day’s hike because while hiking you are actually tearing muscle fibers apart. Your body then has to repair torn muscle tissue and this requires protein. Protein works in the body to build bones, along with muscle tissue, skin, cartilage, and blood.
How much protein is recommended?
The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, the American College of Sports Medicine, and Dietitians of Canada recommend that you have 1.2 – 2.0 grams of protein a day per kilogram of body weight. You should consume protein intermittently throughout the day including after a workout.
Good sources of protein are foods like legumes, meat, fish, and dairy products. For a more compact and convenient way to get the carbs and protein you need, there are energy bars and liquid meal supplements that are easy to take with you on your hike or to consume when traditional foods are unavailable or too cumbersome to carry around.
Fats provide energy so they’re important to include in a hiker’s diet, as are fat-soluble vitamins and of course, essential fatty acids. Fats help stabilize the internal organs to keep them operating smoothly during exercise as well as keeping a constant body temperature. But, fats should be consumed in moderation. Select fats that are good for you, like polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated fats, which are contained in nuts, fish, seeds, avocados and olive oil.
Water is by far the most critical nutrient for anyone going on a hike. Drinking water before, during and after taking a hike is essential for keeping the body well hydrated and at the correct temperature. When you exercise your body naturally produces an abundance of sweat to help it cool down. Hikers who walk and climb for long periods of time in hot weather can lose large quantities of bodily fluid by sweating (up to 3% – 4% of their body weight), which can cause dehydration. Therefore, hikers should drink about 2.5 liters of water per day or more depending on the how intense their physical activity is.
When fluid losses are high, the foods and drinks consumed must also contain enough sodium to replace the amount of salt being lost in sweat.