Hiking is truly an unparalleled workout: You get all the benefits of strength training coupled with aerobic cardio training (and even some anaerobic cardio if you have some hopping, skipping or climbing to do).
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Before you set out on any hike, no matter the difficulty level, you should prepare and pack fuel. The last thing anybody wants is to get stuck on a trail with symptoms of dehydration or serious hunger — headaches, dizziness and nausea, to name a few.
"Our bodies are like car engines: They need fuel to keep running," Amanda Steinberg, RDN, says. "Bringing snacks on a hike, even if it's short, will give your body the energy it needs to keep moving and feel your best."
To help you prepare for your next hike, we spoke with registered dietitians to get the scoop on what you need — and what you don't — to bring on hikes of varying lengths and intensities.
Hiking Level: Beginner
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Time: 1 to 3 hours
- Terrain: Mostly flat with some slight inclines sprinkled throughout, no switchbacks or climbing
Naturally, a short hike of just 1 to 3 hours on easy terrain won't require as much fuel or water as an elite-level hike that takes all day. But, that doesn't mean you should hit the trail on an empty stomach or empty-handed, Michele Alonso, RDN of Essence Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"It's important to bring fuel with you for many reasons, but most importantly, if you start to run low on energy, this not only will make the hike more difficult and a lot less fun, but you run the risk of feeling light-headed or feeling faint," Alsonso says.
"However, if you are going to be out for 1 to 3 hours, I would just recommend eating a balanced meal about 30 minutes prior and bringing something small with you," she says, noting that hydration will be most important for hikes like this.
Alonso says she would bring a small snack that includes all three macronutrients — protein, fats and carbs — on a short, easy hike. She recommends:
- Protein bars: A protein bar with no added sugar and at least 10 grams of protein will keep you fueled.
- Fruit: A piece of fruit that won't get smashed in your bag, such as an apple or clementines
- Nut butter packet: Pair it with the fruit!
- Dry-roasted or raw nuts
Hiking Level: Intermediate
- Difficulty level: Moderate
- Time: 3 to 5 hours
- Terrain: Some elevation and inclines, some switchbacks
"Hiking requires lots of energy, engaging many parts of the body to traverse various terrains," Marisa Moore, RDN, an Atlanta-based registered dietitian, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Snacks provide essential fuel for climbs both big and small."
Practically speaking, most hiking trails are out in nature where you won't likely be able to purchase food or drink so it's best to pack your own. Without proper snacks, you might risk low blood sugar or become too fatigued to finish the hike, Moore explains.
"Specific needs will vary by person based on fitness level," Moore says, "but being out for as long as 5 hours, you might plan a meal break." If you don't plan a meal, be sure to fuel consistently or whenever you feel hunger, to avoid symptoms like dizziness or fatigue.
Here are some of Moore's favorite hiking snacks and meals for intermediate hikes:
- Tuna, crackers and fruit: A pouch of tuna with crackers and fruit has a great balance of carbohydrates and protein.
- Pasta salad: If you have room for an ice pack, bring pasta salad. Pasta is a great way to refuel, Moore says.
- Trail mix with seeds and dried fruit: Moore likes prunes for a sweet treat that's easy to pack — just four prunes counts as a whole serving of fruit!
- Granola bar: Store-bought or homemade granola bars or energy bites made with oats and nut butter are filled with energy-promoting carbs.
- Banana: Fresh fruits such as bananas, which are portable, easy to digest and packed with potassium to help replace what could be lost in sweat.
As far as bringing along electrolyte drinks, Moore says it really depends on the hike's length and intensity.
"If you're going to be doing a strenuous or high-intensity hike or hiking when it's warm outside and you find yourself sweating for 60 minutes or more, sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes," she says.
Hiking Level: Advanced
- Difficulty level: Moderate-to-difficult
- Time: 5 to 7 hours
- Terrain: Much of the route is on an incline, several switchbacks and tough terrain that may include some occasional scrambling
This is the point at which things can get really sticky if you don't have food on hand, Amy Gorin, RDN, a registered dietitian in the New York City area, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Going 5 to 7 hours without food during intense exercise is potentially very dangerous, she says.
"Any time you are doing strenuous activity, especially for long periods of time, you will need to refuel," Gorin says. "This is important not only to provide energy (aka calories) for your exercise but also to help fuel your muscles."
In general, it's a good idea to pack enough food so that you can eat every 2 hours or so, Gorin says. For a hike this long, you can also plan a full-out picnic meal break. If you get hungry more often, have a smaller snack in between bigger snacks and a meal, Gorin says — just keep yourself fueled!
As for what to actually pack, Gorin notes that while carbohydrates are essential for energy and protein is essential for muscle repair, high-fat foods may not be necessary because they can sit heavy in the stomach, which might make you feel uncomfortable during your hike.
If you like higher-fat foods, such as nut butters, pack them by all means, but be careful not to munch on anything that can cause digestive distress.
On your next advanced hike, pack some of Gorin's snack recommendations:
- Apple and peanut butter: Fruit makes for a great snack while hiking, and apples are portable. You can bring along a snack-size pack of peanut butter for protein.
- Fruit-and-nut bar: The combo of fruit and nuts is pretty stellar when you're hiking, as you can tell from how popular trail mix is! Try KIND Cranberry and Almond Bars.
- Sandwiches: Here, you get the perfect combo of nutrients. Consider combining apple slices with sunflower butter for a combo of carbs and protein. Unless you're carrying a cooler, you'll want something that'll stay good for hours.
- Beef jerky: This is another good option because you get protein and also sodium — which is an electrolyte!
Speaking of electrolytes, Gorin encourages you to bring an electrolyte-fortified beverage, such as Propel or Powerade, on a hike that lasts 5 to 7 hours and/or is on strenuous terrain.
"No doubt you are going to be sweating, hiking for hours," she says. "This is also a time where you don't have to worry about eating low-sodium foods because sodium is an electrolyte. So go for that beef jerky or a handful of salted nuts!"
Hiking Level: Elite
- Difficulty level: Difficult
- Time: 7 to 9 hours
- Terrain: Most of the route is on an incline, many switchbacks and tough terrain that includes scrambling, ducking and dodging throughout
The risk of hitting the trails unprepared, Steinberg says, is that you can deplete your glycogen stores (energy stored in your muscles and liver) and feel too tired to keep going.
"Also, hikes can sometimes be unpredictable," she warns. "When you don't have enough energy from food and have used up your glycogen stores, your body will find alternative energy to use by breaking down muscle mass, which is something we want to avoid."
For a very long hike of 7 to 9 hours — especially one on difficult terrain — carbohydrates and protein are key, Steinberg says. She recommends eating about 30 to 60 grams of carbs every hour to keep your body fueled, and about 5 to 7 grams of protein per snack to encourage slower digestion of the carbohydrates.
Small amounts of unsaturated fat from nuts, nut butter and seeds can also help slow down the absorption of carbs, promoting a steady, long-lasting bout of energy, Steinberg says. Here are Steinberg's packing recommendations:
- Fruit and nut or seed butter: Fresh fruit and nut or seed butter to-go packets provide carbs, healthy fats and some plant protein.
- Sandwiches: Try nut butter and fresh fruit on whole-wheat bread. Add mashed raspberries or sliced banana to one slice of bread and your favorite nut butter to another slice.
- DIY trail mix: Your favorite nuts, dried fruit, cereal, peanut butter or yogurt chips, seeds, pretzels, popcorn. The options are endless!
- Dense energy or protein bars: Try Perfect Bars and RX Bars.
And don't forget your electrolytes on a tough hike, Steinberg says: "With the length and intensity of a 7- to 9-hour hike, your electrolyte stores can become depleted," she explains, adding that although electrolyte loss is different for everyone, supplementing with electrolytes can prevent dehydration.
Choose from a sports drink like Gatorade, use electrolyte tabs that dissolve in water, or opt for pure coconut water.