Hiking the Wonderland Trail: Fueling up for the long haul

Ideas for eating right while challenging your body on the trail

craig.hill@thenewstribune.comMay 19, 2013 

By our fifth day on the trail, I thought I’d grown accustomed to the exotic eating habits of Matt Misterek.

Earlier on our 93-mile hike around Mount Rainier, I’d seen him pull from his pack hardboiled eggs, pizza and even a small bag of ice.

But as I peeled the wrapper off of a protein bar, the same lunch I’d had the previous four days, I couldn’t help but laugh.

The News Tribune editor was sitting shirtless on the front porch of the Indian Henry patrol cabin delicately placing clams on crackers.

“You’re the most persnickety person I’ve ever hiked with,” I said.

“Sounds like you’re a little jealous,” Misterek said.

He had me there, but it didn’t stop me or our other hiking partners from poking fun at him the rest of the trip.

Recently, I talked backpacking nutrition with Sally Hara of Kirkland’s ProActive Nutrition. The registered dietitian who helps train endurance athletes confirmed that I was spot-on with three assumptions I had about Misterek’s diet.

First, carrying a variety of foods is a good way to stay motivated to refuel when less creative packers might suffer flavor fatigue.

Second, his menu of carbohydrates and protein were ideal for maintaining energy for 12-15 challenging miles per day.

Third, Hara said, “I’d make fun of him for packing clams, too.”

Hara says endurance athletes typically can be classified as one of two types of eaters.

“Those who eat to refuel and those who eat for taste,” she said. “And those who eat to refuel are usually easiest to work with.”

I’m an eat-for-energy backpacker, and it makes planning quite easy. I load up on Pop Tarts, almond butter, tortillas, trail mix, protein bars, gummy bears, freeze-dried stroganoff and I’m set for the week. (Although, Hara would probably cringe at the amount of processed food in my pack.)

Regardless of what type of eater you are, proper nutrition is a crucial part of long hikes such as Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.

Hara estimates most backpackers burn twice as many calories as they do on a typical day. And because they are exercising much of the day and traveling at elevation, dehydration is a constant threat.

Essentially, whether you fancy yourself an endurance athlete or not, if you’re taking on a physical challenge like the Wonderland Trail, you better eat and drink like one.

Here are some tips:

LOAD BEFORE YOU GO: Like an athlete training for a marathon, in the days before your trip be sure to load up on carbohydrates and keep yourself hydrated. It’s important to start your trip with a full tank, Hara said.

FOCUS ON hydration: Staying hydrated could be the most important key to a successful backpacking trip.

Every drop of sweat is much-needed liquid and electrolytes leaving your body.

To avoid cramping, Hara recommends sports drinks and making sure you also get additional sodium from your food.

Many sports drinks can be purchased in small pouches or tablets that can be added to your filtered drinking water along the trail.

In addition to being infused with electrolytes, sports drinks also are important because they add taste, increasing the chance you will drink more often, she said.

You can find a sports drink that works for you at places such as a grocery store, an outdoors store or a specialty sporting goods store.

Hara recommends checking how much sodium is in the drink. Look for one that offers at least 100 milligrams of sodium per 8-ounce serving. If the drink recommends taking an additional electrolyte tablet, consider a different drink.

Think you need more electrolytes? No problem. There are various options on the market including a NASA-developed water additive called The Right Stuff. One pouch adds 1,780 milligrams of sodium to 16 ounces of water.

CARBS AND PROTEIN: When picking backpacking food, think carbs and protein, Hara said. The right mix of carbs and protein will maximize your performance and keep you from running out of energy.

Hara recommends foods such as nut butters (spread onto bread or a tortilla), energy bars with at least 45 grams of carbs, trail mix, pretzels, jerky, and hard cheese and salami.

Be careful however, with fatty foods. Fattier foods are best eaten at the end of the day when your body has time to digest it properly, Hara said. When eating fatty foods such as peanut butter on the trail, eat them with carbs to help you digest them without feeling sick.

TASTE TEST: Don’t wait until you’re heading out for a weeklong trip to try new foods and energy drinks. While a can of clams might taste great at home, who knows how they’ll sit with you when you’re working hard on the trail.

Sample foods and energy drinks on day hikes and short backpacking outings to see if they work for you, then add them to the menu for longer trips.

CONSIDER MREs: Meals Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, are energy-dense rations most frequently associated with the military.

MREs are sometimes larger, heavier and more expensive than freeze-dried fare, but they’re easier to prepare, offer interesting options (such as milkshakes) and are designed to fuel troops who are working harder than most backpackers.

If you’re a label reader, you’re bound to notice MREs also have more trans fats than freeze-dried foods. Trans fats raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol.

While anybody with arteries is wise to avoid trans fats, Hara says backpackers shouldn’t worry.

While the USDA recommends consuming less than 2 grams of trans fats per day, Hara says those guidelines are “pretty much aimed at sedentary” people.

“Exercising, in and of itself, lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol,” she said. “You have to look at the big picture.

“In general, if you are minimizing processed foods and eating more fresh foods, you are doing just fine.”

BE CREATIVE: The more creative you are with your food, the more likely you are to load up on the calories you need.

Some recommendations:

 • Hara suggests making your own “vegetable leather” by dehydrating pureed vegetables. “Think of the chewy version of a V8.”

 • She has a client who packs instant rice and dried pudding, and mixes them together for rice pudding. Pull a few raisins from your trail mix for extra flavor.

 • Bring spices such as cinnamon and garlic powder to liven up foods like oatmeal and mashed potatoes.

 • After hiking 45 miles in three days, Spam suddenly isn’t so bad.

 • Dehydrate your own fruit and vegetables.

 • Create your trail mix and bake your own energy bars.

And, if you don’t mind the harassment from your hiking buddies, there’s always clams and crackers.

PACKING CALORIES

You’ll need to eat plenty of calories to keep up with your energy output on a long backpacking trip. Even if you eat more than usual, “expect to lose weight on a long trip like the Wonderland Trail,” said Sally Hara, a registered dietitian who works with endurance athletes at ProActive Nutrition in Kirkland. In just five hours on the trail, a hiker can burn more calories than they would in an average low-activity day at home. Here are two examples:

male hiker

40 years old

6-foot, 180 pounds

Calories recommended for a normal day, low-activity level:

2,822

Calories burned during five hours of backpacking:

3,024

female hiker

40 years old

5-foot-6, 140 pounds

Calories recommended for a normal day, low-activity level:

2,111

Calories burned during five hours of backpacking:

2,352

Sources: USDA and healthstatus.com Craig Hill: 253-307-5373 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune/adventure @AdventureGuys

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