What to Eat Before a Hike: Things to Consider
- How long will it be from the time you eat until the time you hit the trailhead?
- How many hours do you expect to be on the trail?
- Are you normally a breakfast eater?
- Does you thrive on carbohydrate rich foods or more protein and fat?
The reason these questions are important is because if you know that you are not a breakfast person, eating something smaller than the recommendations below might be a good idea. Or, if you are a fat-adapted or keto-adapted athlete, my recommendations for carbohydrates will need to be modified to meet your needs.
Nutrient timing is a crucial component when deciding what to eat before a hike, or long day in the mountains.
If you expect to embark on your journey in an less than an hour, carbohydrate-rich snacks are recommended. It is recommended that large meals be consumed 1-3 hours before your exercise and consist of a balanced ratio of carbs, fat and protein (1).
Digestion and the Parasympathetic Nervous System
We have a component of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which has two arms: fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system) or rest and digest (parasympathetic). After we eat, our bodies go into the rest and digest phase (2). Blood flows to our stomach and gut to help us break down food. On the other hand, when we exercise, the fight or flight response will stimulate blood flow to our extremities, giving us the strength to push ourselves, make it to the top of the mountain, or lift heavy objects.
If we eat too much right before a hike, we may experiencing stomach cramps or feel lethargic as our bodies are working to breakdown food. Having a balanced, full meal a few hours before your hike will give your body time to digest and absorb the nutrients from your food. This way you will be light on your feet and energized by the time you hit the trail.
Carbohydrates are considered the greatest performance enhancing aid available to us (3). Shoot for 50-100 grams of carbs, depending on the length of the hike and how much food you can tolerate in the morning.
Our brain and muscles thrive on glucose, a simple carbohydrate. Our bodies store glucose in our bodies, in a form known as glycogen. In fact, we have up to 2,000 calories worth of glycogen stored in our liver and muscles at anytime (4). If we run out of this we can hit the wall. This term refers completely running out of energy, to the point where we can’t think clearly and movements are slowed. Avoid this by following these tips:
Whole grain foods, such as wheat bread and old-fashioned oatmeal, are great breakfast foods. However, they also contain fiber, which can slow digestion and create unfavorable symptoms on the trail if you don’t allow enough time for digestion. Consume these foods a few hours before the trail as part of a balanced healthy meal. Carbs that are easier for us to digest, such as instant oatmeal, white tortillas or couscous, are better options for right before the trail.
Gels and Gummies
Many hikers and backcountry sports enthusiast enjoy sports gels and gummies because they claim to experience an extra boost of energy. This may be due to a type of complex carb called maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate, whose molecular structure is two glucose molecules bound together. This means it has a high glycemic load and converts into glucose rapidly. It is able to enter the blood stream even quicker because it is absorbed in the stomach. While the results of gums and gels can be profound, it can also cause stomach upset if you are new to these gels. Try them out first before hitting the trail.
Final Word on Carbs: They are Necessary, but Don't Overdo It
Eating too many carbohydrates stimulates a large insulin release, which brings your blood glucose back down. It is best to avoid large spikes in blood sugar, followed by large dips (from the insulin release). You do not have to fuel your whole day in one meal, that is what trail snacks are for! Plus, exercise stimulates the release of glucose into our blood stream.
On long hikes, we are likely to lose more water than we drink. This is due to expiring water vapor when we exhale and water losses through sweat. Fluid keeps our joints lubricated, our electrolytes balanced, and removes metabolic waste from our cells (5).
The best way to hydrate is to do so slowly, over the course of a few hours. Aim to consume 1 liter before you get to the trail. That way, you will start your hiking day hydrated and energized. There is nothing worse than starting your day dehydrated. You are more likely to run out of water during your hike, or have to carry extra water if you do this.
Start your day off with a half liter of warm lemon water (16 oz), and continue to drink another half liter of water, tea, smoothie or sports drink before your begin your day in the mountains. If you are doing something really long, like over 5 hours, begin hydrating the night before.
Protein is an important factor to consider when deciding what to eat before a hike. A moderate amount of protein during exercise is recommended to avoid muscle degradation and post-exercise muscle soreness for exercise longer than 2 or 3 hours.
When we exercise, our muscle fibers break down in order for them to rebuild into bigger, stronger muscles. The process of muscle protein synthesis doesn’t occur until we return to a resting state (7).
Eating the right amount of protein before exercise can enhance the rebuilding of muscles and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. Consuming the right form of protein in the right form is also important.
Whey protein, eggs, soy and other animal proteins have the highest biological value, meaning it is the most readily available and easiest for our bodies to utilize. Rice protein powder is a great plant-based choice, because of the ready availability of leucine, an important amino acid (7). Shoot for 20-35 grams of protein in your pre-exercise meal.
Fats: Lightweight Sustenance
Fat is the fuel source for slow, moderate exercises such as walking. It is difficult to assess if fat is the primary fuel used during hiking because this depends on how difficult the hike is, how steep, how fast you walk and the differences among individual bodies.
Regardless, some fats are ultimately better before working out than others. This is because some fats are easier to convert into energy. Medium chain triglycerides, or MCT, is the preferred type of fat to consume before exercise. MCT can be found in butter, coconut oil, cheese, whole-fat yogurt and palm kernel oil
Too much fat before exercise can slow digestion and push us into that ‘rest and digest’ portion of the nervous system (1). So, keep your fat intake below 20-30 grams prior to starting your hike and remember the more time you have before your start your hike, the more fat that you can reasonably consume without making you sluggish.
Did someone say coffee? Chocolate flavored bean juice is one of my favorite things about mornings. And, it is recommended before exercise, including hiking or any other mountainous adventure.
Caffeine can improve athletic performance, delay fatigue and make you feel like a unicorn (8)! But don’t drink too much because it can make you jittery and cause you to crash.
If you are a regular coffee drinker, you may know how caffeine effects you. This helps gain insight on how much is ok to consume for your body
Generally, it is recommended to consume 2-4 cups of coffee 1 hour before exercise (8). It is important to remember that caffeine is a diuretic, so it can cause some mild fluid losses. Make sure to consume water and then wait about 30 minutes before your morning cup of Joe.
Summary of Recommendations
- 50-100 grams of carbohydrates
- 20-35 grams of protein
- 15-25 grams of fat
- 1 liter of fluids, consumed over a reasonable period of time
- 2-4 cups of coffee
Pre-Hike Meals + Snacks
More than 1 hour before hike
- Beet and spinach smoothie + peanut butter and Honey Sandwich
- Grass-fed Greek yogurt (whole milk) + granola + fruit
- Veggie and Egg Scramble with 2 pieces of whole grain toast and grass-fed butter
- Veggie + egg + cheese breakfast burrito
- Kodiak Cakes with peanut butter and maple syrup
- Peanut butter, banana, chocolate protein powder smoothie with buttered toast and jelly
Less than 1 hour before hike
- Chocolate banana bread with coffee flour recipe here
- Dried Fruit
- Instant oatmeal with maple syrup, honey or brown sugar
- Clif bar, ProBar, or other whole-foods based sports bar
- Honey Sticks with almond butter pouches
- Sourdough toast with honey and butter
The experience of high mountain summits and remote forest regions is exhilarating, yet requires a great deal of energy. Proper nutrition will help you get there with a positive state of mind, energy to explore and with less pain and inflammation. Overall, eating the right foods will make your experience better.
Remember to eat until you are 80% full to avoid feeling sluggish and lethargic. The best pre-work out meals are filling, yet light and have a balance of all the macronutrients. Whole foods should comprise the majority of your fueling regimen, because it is associated with less muscle soreness and packs more nutrients than pre-packaged stuff you find at the store.
Whatever your goals are fitness, exercise, hiking and backcountry adventures, I hope this article helps you meet them!
Bishop VS. Exercise and the Autonomic Nervous System. Primer on the Autonomic Nervous System. 2004:183-184. doi:10.1016/b978-012589762-4/50048-7
SCAN RDN. Caffeine and Exercise. Sports, Cardovascular and Wellness Nutrition. https://scandpg01-prd.s3.amazonaws.com/resources/DOCS/FactSheets/CaffeineandAthletePerformance_2016.pdf.
Castro-Sepulveda M, Johannsen N, Astudillo S, et al. Effects of Beer, Non-Alcoholic Beer and Water Consumption before Exercise on Fluid and Electrolyte Homeostasis in Athletes. Nutrients. 2016;8(6):345. doi:10.3390/nu8060345
Cermak NM, Loon LJCV. The Use of Carbohydrates During Exercise as an Ergogenic Aid. Sports Medicine. 2013;43(11):1139-1155. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0079-0
Chad K. et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(38).
Duvillard SPV, Braun WA, Markofski M, Beneke R, Leithäuser R. Fluids and hydration in prolonged endurance performance. Nutrition. 2004;20(7-8):651-656. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2004.04.011
SCAN RDN. Eating Before Exercise. Sports, Cardovascular and Wellness Nutrition. https://scandpg01-prd.s3.amazonaws.com/resources/DOCS/FactSheets/EatingBeforeExercise_2016.pdf.
Talanian JL, Spriet LL. Low and moderate doses of caffeine late in exercise improve performance in trained cyclists. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2016;41(8):850-855. doi:10.1139/apnm-2016-0053to