January 9, 2017

What to Eat (and Drink) Before, During, After a Day Hike

Planning a day hike? Here’s what you need to know about proper hydration and nutrition for your next outdoor adventure.

It should come as no surprise, but proper eating and drinking the day of, and even a couple of days before, a hike can impact whether you have an enjoyable time or whether you hit a wall on the trail.

Beware of the “bonk,” which is described as total glycogen depletion from the muscles and liver, and prepare with proper hiking hydration and nutrition. We’ve outlined some of the basics and some insider hiking tips below to make sure you’re in great shape the next time you lace up the hiking boots to hit the trails.

Nutrition

Not all calories are created equal. According to the American Heart Association, the main fuel for your muscles comes from carbohydrates. Select easily digestible carbohydrates to eat before exercise so you don’t feel sluggish. The act of hiking can suppress your appetite, so plan to feed yourself anyway as calories play an important role in regulating body temperature.

If you’ve spent any time on the trail, you’re likely familiar with that member of the group who refused to eat breakfast and now looks at all the crumbs in desperation.

“Are you going to finish that Clif Bar? Got any extra gummies?”

Don’t be that person.

What to eat before a hike

As stated above, carbs are key. For a short morning hike, fuel yourself with a light breakfast like eggs, whole grain non-sugary cereal or oatmeal. Other pre-day hike food ideas include whole-wheat toast, low-fat yogurt, whole grain pasta, brown rice, fruits, and vegetables.

What to eat during a hike

Snacking throughout a hike is equally important, especially if you start to take on longer day hikes or multiple-day hikes. Try to snack at least once an hour, in addition to your routine, full meals. For longer, more intense hikes, such as hiking Grand Canyon National Park, the National Park Service recommends eating double your normal intake of carbohydrates and salty foods.

Nutrient dense day hike snack ideas include:

  • Trail mix
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Ready-made tuna pouches
  • Peanut butter
  • Crackers
  • Cheese
  • Whole-grain tortillas
  • Beef jerky
  • Energy bars
  • Granola bars
  • Fresh or dried fruit
  • Sandwich

If you like to eat fruit on hikes, consider picking durable fruits like an apple, instead of a banana that may end up squished in your pack. And for dried fruit, be aware that your stomach re-hydrates the fruit to digest it, so if you don’t replenish your body with enough fluids, dried fruit could end up dehydrating you and making you feel light-headed, which undoes the effort altogether.

When selecting dried fruit and granola bars, look for options that don’t have any added sugars, as high sugar levels can work against you, sparking a short burst followed by an epic energy crash. For a hike that has a great view at the end, consider packing a picnic lunch with a sandwich, just make sure you have an ice pack or another cold source to prevent food-borne illness.

What to eat after a hike

When picking your after-hike meal, look for options with protein and complex sugars. It could be a quick energy bar snack in the car, a packed meal left in a car cooler or a meal at your favorite restaurant on the way home. No matter the source, it’s advised to refuel within one hour of your hike.

From maple bacon chocolate bars to oat and fruit squeezes to crunch popcorn, food technology has increased over the last few years, resulting in many new snack options. Check with your local outdoor retailer to find the right pick for your intended adventure!

Hydration

Pre-hike, try to drink about 20-32 ounces of water. Avoid hitting the trail if you haven’t pre-hydrated. Once your hike has begun, plan to drink another 32 ounces for every two miles hiked, give or take. Take frequent, small sips—even before you feel thirsty. And don’t forget about your furry friend! If you hike with man’s best friend, make sure to bring along a second supply of water and container for your pup to drink from.

As a simple rule, if you’re only drinking water when you’re thirsty, you’re already behind.

As appealing as a summit beer may sound, save any alcohol consumption (or sodas, tea, coffee, etc.) until after you’ve finished the hike and have replenished food and water levels. To replenish your water levels, drink at least 8 ounces immediately after your hike. Alcohol and beverages with high caffeine levels can have adverse effects when trying to stay hydrated.

A day hiker stops on a hiking trail to take a drink from her water bottle.

Finding safe drinking water

If you find yourself in need of water, be careful on the source. Even if the water from a lake or stream appears clean, it could house microscopic pathogens invisible to the naked eye. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends boiling any water to ensure the safety of it. Writes the USDA, “Boiling will kill microorganisms. First, bring water to a rolling boil, and then continue boiling for 1 minute. Before heating, muddy water should be allowed to stand for a while to allow the silt to settle to the bottom. Dip the clear water off the top and boil. At higher elevations, where the boiling point of water is lower, boil for several minutes.”

To stay prepared, consider carrying water purification tablets and water filters in your pack. Keep your supply fresh, though, as over time, the tablets can lose their effectiveness.

Expert Tips

Keep an eye on fellow hikers and don’t be afraid to ask how everyone is doing. If you can spare some food or water, share your resources with any hikers who may not have come prepared. And always remember to Leave No Trace. Pack it in and pack it out because nobody likes a trail covered in wrappers.

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