Hiking and nutrition: what to eat and what to take with you
Trekking and nutrition: how to choose food
Hiking, being an energy-intensive activity, requires a higher than normal energy intake, but it is good to remember that each macronutrient has a specific function, and for this reason it is necessary to balance energy sources according to needs.
Carbohydrates are our main energy supply and are the first to be burnt by our bodies. Carbs should make up 50% of a person's diet before and during a hike as they provide a good energy reserve to manage prolonged exertion.
Carbohydrates include simple sugars, which are easily absorbed, and complex sugars, a longer-lasting energy reserve due to their longer absorption times.
Some foods that contain carbs are:
Fats are another energy reserve for the body and are burned in greater quantities when needed, i.e. when carbohydrates are scarce. It is a very important energy supply, but burning fat is very consuming for the body: it requires twice as much oxygen as is used in the processing of carbs. The recommended diet for hikers is that fats make up only 20% of the diet in preparation for a hike.
It is also good to know that a distinction is made between fats of animal origin and fats of vegetable origin.
Some foods that contain fats are:
Protein plays a less important role in the body's energy supply but, due to amino acids, plays a key role in building cells. Protein should make up 30% of the diet of a hiker preparing for a hike.
Some foods that contain protein are:
- Daury products
Vitamins are micronutrients, i.e. substances that the body needs in small quantities. These nutrients do not have the function of supplying the body with energy, but they make a fundamental contribution to the functioning of our organs, so much so that their lack or excess can lead to serious disorders of various kinds.
Vitamins are commonly divided into groups and the most important ones for hikers are:
- Group B, useful for resisting fatigue. Often found in foods such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, whole wheat bread, and nuts
- Group C, which helps the immune system. Often found in foods such as citrus fruits, fruit, green vegetables
- Group E, which helps improve oxygen utilization. Often found in foods such as oils, tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds), seeds, whole grains
If you decide to go on a multi-day hike or a pilgrim way and do not have the opportunity to have a varied diet, it may be useful to supplement vitamins absorbed from food by taking a multivitamin.
Mineral salts are inorganic micronutrients that are essential for the functioning of our bodies. Think of the fundamental role of calcium for our bones or the iron of which the haemoglobin in our blood is composed. Other examples of mineral salts are chlorine, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, which each play a different but important role in the delicate balance of our bodies.
There are many food sources of mineral salts, which is why it is important to have a varied diet. In general, however, dairy products, legumes, and fish are an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus, vegetables and wheat are sources of magnesium, while table salt provides sodium and chlorine. Potassium can be taken in by eating vegetables, legumes, mushrooms, fruit, and dark chocolate.
Nutrition before a hike: what to know
Since hiking is an activity that expends almost three times as much energy as a day spent at the office in front of a computer, it is necessary to eat enough and stock up on energy before a hike.
If you want to embark on a day's hike, you should eat a hearty but easily digestible breakfast so that you are not weighed down. It is recommended to consume caloric and carbohydrate-rich foods, but don’t forget to balance the meal with a portion of protein and fats.
Some proper foods for breakfast before hiking are:
- Hazelnut cream
If you want to prepare for long, demanding hikes or treks lasting several days, it is a good idea to build up an energy reserve a few days before departure, for example by taking in plenty of carbohydrates, so that the body can cope with prolonged exertion. The evening before the hike, it is recommended to eat a hearty meal rich in carbohydrates and sugar: vegetables and fruit are perfect foods. On the other hand, it is recommended to limit the intake of proteins as they are not useful for the hike.It’s always essential to drink plenty of water.
What to eat on a mountain hike: what to bring with you
When deciding what food to take with you on a hike, you must always find the right balance between energy intake, weight, and digestibility. It is a good idea to put quickly digestible foods in your backpack in order to have a good energy boost in the short term. Foods that are rich in simple sugars and take up little space in the backpack, such as nuts, dehydrated or dried fruit, dry biscuits, dark chocolate, and granola or energy bars, are perfect for this purpose.
However, don’t forget to drink plenty of water to replenish the fluids lost through sweating and breathing during the hike. Very demanding hikes can lead to losing up to two litres of water per hour, so it is good practice to drink water every half hour, possibly supplementing with mineral salts.
It is also important to learn how to manage hunger and thirst, because during a hike you may not feel hungry due to fatigue, altitude, or extreme temperatures. Therefore, it’s necessary to make frequent stops to eat and drink to replenish energy, liquids, and mineral salts.
As far as lunch is concerned, it is advisable to take carbohydrates with a medium glycaemic index, preferably easily digestible so as to not weigh you down. Protein foods are easily digestible so they can accompany carbohydrates during the meal. A good example of lunch during a hike is the classic sandwich, preferably consisting of whole wheat bread, lean meats, and some low-fat cheese (such as parmesan). If you plan to go on a multi-day hike, consider ready-made or freeze-dried foods because they do not require as much water, as well as dishes and cookware, which increases you have to carry.
Finally, it not recommended to consume alcohol during a hike because it slows down reflexes and can alter thermoregulation.
Food at the end of the hike
After a hike, it is important to relax, regain energy and rebalance the body properly. At dinner, you can take advantage of a full meal, with a focus on carbohydrates to recover lost energy. It is also essential to replenish the mineral salts that are lost through sweating, especially sodium and chlorine, but also potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
Good foods for dinner are therefore soup, minestrone, and risotto, which are sources of carbohydrates and minerals at the same time. Legumes and low-fat cheeses are also recommended as post-hike food, and you can also drink a glass of wine, which has an antioxidant function.
To recover glycogen, which has an energy reserve function, you can eat bread, potatoes, rice, or polenta. To replenish vitamins, on the other hand, you can drink milk or eat fruit and vegetables. Finally, drinking fruit juice can help recover potassium levels.
Why is correct nutrition important for hiking?
As we have seen, hiking is an activity that challenges the body and therefore requires a lot of energy. Nutrition is important because it is our body's only source of energy and, consequently, it is what allows us to have the strength to move and carry out daily activities, from the simplest and most repetitive to the most complex and demanding.
Nutrition, however, must be well-balanced, calibrated according to energy needs. As you have read, there are several nutrients that come into play to a greater or lesser extent in the conversion of food into energy, which is why it is recommended to consume carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and all the other nutrients in the right quantities, trying to maintain the balance that allows the body to stay healthy.
If you do not consume enough carbohydrates, for example, the body will get energy from fats, which require twice the amount of oxygen to be converted into energy. This results in a higher oxygen demand for the body and consequent fatigue during activity.
Speaking of mineral salts and water, on the other hand, it must be emphasized that their scarcity can lead to cramps, fatigue, headaches, a drop in body temperature, and in the most critical situations to dehydration, a very serious condition for the body.
The symptoms of improper nutrition can become a further risk when they put hikers in a dangerous condition, for example a sudden illness during an exposed passage or on a section of an equipped trail.
In conclusion, it is important not to underestimate nutrition when it comes to hiking so that you are always in the best condition to tackle the trail.
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