Nutrition is an important, but sometimes overlooked, part of any outdoor activity. Here we will take a look at the basics to keep you fueled for whatever shenanigans you might be up to in the backcountry.
My favorite outdoor activity is backpacking, so I will use that as an example, but this information can be applied to climbing, paddling, biking, skiing etc. Things like your weight, your pack weight, distance and terrain are going to affect your caloric needs. In an eight hour day some backpackers can burn 4,000-6,000 calories or more so bring on the snacks!
Using this website, you can estimate how many calories you are expending for a given activity. If I enter my information for an eight hour day of backpacking, I get roughly 4,000 calories. Remember that this is an estimate of what you are burning, many factors will influence this number and you will need calories for maintenance and recovery as well so keep those things in mind when planning your meals.
When you are extremely active or on a multi-day trip your nutrient requirements will differ from your needs at home. Let’s take a quick look at each of the three macronutrients; carbohydrates, protein and fats.
Carbohydrates can be found in complex and simple forms. You will need both to help keep you active. Complex carbs break down slower and will provide you with the sustained energy you need. Complex carbohydrates can be found in high fiber foods like whole grains, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, veggies, quinoa, granola and legumes. These are great at breakfast to prep for the day and at dinner to refuel for tomorrow. Aim for complex carbs to make up about 50% of your diet when on the trail or very active.
Simple carbohydrates will give you a burst of energy, they are quick to break down and the burst won’t last long. Simple carbs can be found in things like candy, fruit and energy shots. These are great anytime you need a quick pick me up.
Most of us think we need more protein than we actually do, but on the trail you don’t want to skimp. If you start to deplete your protein stores your body will use your muscle for fuel. This can lead to fatigue and injury. Aim for 1.2-1.4 grams of high quality protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 88 grams of protein per day. For reference, a serving of the ever popular Backpackers Pantry Chili Mac with Beef has 17 grams of protein. Let’s be serious though, who eats half that bag? You can go as high as 1.7 grams per kg of body weight if your activity is extremely strenuous or lengthy, like a thru hike or a multi day, multi pitch climbing trip.
High quality protein can be found in things like salmon, lean meat, powdered milk, quinoa (a trail hero), chickpeas, nuts (and nut butter), beans and seeds. You are looking for about 20% of your diet to come from sources of protein.
We need fat for long term energy output, joint and brain function, vitamin transport and tissue repair. Fortunately, fat tastes really good and most of us excel at storing it. Just like at home, on the trail your best choices for healthy fats are fish, nuts and oils like olive, flaxseed and coconut. You can go as high as 30-40% fat in your diet in the backcountry. Don’t worry too much, now is not the time to be counting calories! Just be sure to choose healthy sources.
There are a few other nutrients to consider while on your adventures. Water, electrolytes and vitamins are also important to maintain your health and activity level.
There really is no good amount of fluid that works for everyone. Hydrate early and often, especially if you are sweating a lot. Keep an eye on the color of your urine. If it is dark, you need more fluids. Water, soup, sports drinks and hot chocolate are all good ways to hydrate. Hyponatremia is low blood sodium concentration and can happen when you over hydrate or lack electrolytes. It has gathered some attention lately and is unlikely, but something to be aware of. Low blood sodium can lead to low blood pressure and cause cells, including in the brain, to swell. Salty snacks and shade should help if you start to vomit, feel fatigued or have muscles spasms. Seek medical help immediately.
Electrolytes & Vitamins
Electrolytes help maintain fluid balance (preventing hyponatremia) and regulate heart, nerve and muscle function. You can add electrolyte powders or tablets to your water or try some electrolyte chews. You probably do not need to add a vitamin supplement to your diet if you do not take one at home. Choose high quality and varied food sources and you should be just fine!
If you lose your appetite due to physical exertion or altitude try bringing along your favorite high calorie foods like candy bars. Drinking your calories can help too. Dry soup mixes, hot chocolate and shake powders are all things to try.
One of the best parts of backpacking for me is eating ‘junk’ I don’t normally eat at home. Jerky, chips, chocolate covered peanuts! It’s all great fuel on the trail. I love to use trips as a chance to experiment with my food. Now, let me go find out how many calories I can cram into my camp mug.
*Maria has a BS in Culinary Nutrition and has been teaching cooking, nutrition and fitness classes since 2005.