Energy on the trail part 2

In part one of Energy on the Trail I talked about the need for calories while hiking and also approximately how many kilocalories the average male or female hiker need every day. In this blog entry you can read about how this translates into different food sources.

By Jörgen Johansson


I think it is well worth the time to return to the email I received and the questions posed by my female friend from chapter 1:
The last year I have been very careful to eat enough when I am backpacking, since I used to lose weight and become very tired from eating too few calories. I have seen fellow hikers, women, make the same mistakes I did. They bring some packaged soups and a sandwich, which might be OK the first day, but then you start running a deficit.
The danger is that you lose your appetite and cannot eat at all. I have tried to save weight in my pack and ended up bringing to little to sustain me. Women often ask me if I have managed to lose weight during my hiking and biking trips. It seems like many female hikers have a touch of annorexia. Couldn't you write something about this, how you combine a light weight pack with the right - and light - food?

It is always dangerous to generalize about differences between men and women Particularly since you run the risk of having people of strong persuasions on the subject, male and female, to come down on you like a ton of bricks. But I would venture to agree with was is written above, that perhaps more women than men see hiking as an opportunity to lose a few pounds. And what my friend had experienced herself was that this could be potentially dangerous, and if not, very unpleasant.
Some of the food for two weeks solo hiking in Alaska's Brooks Range.
Losing weight while backpacking
Let me point out, which I do in most of my books, that I do not think that you should combine any pleasurable activity, like your vacation, with giving up smoking or getting rid of other bad habits. Or loosing a few pounds. You will run the risk of making your vacation unpleasant both for yourself and people in the vicinity.

That said and done, you can in fact lose weight, and plan to lose weight during a backpacking trip, but you have to know what you are doing. This is how it can be done.

The trick is to eat less calories than you need, which forces the body to use its stored energy, a k a fatty deposits. BUT you have to do this in a controlled mode. This means taking small steps every day and in such a way that your blood sugar does not get low, leaving you discontented, hypothermic and a poor decision maker.

To do this you pack perhaps ten percent less calories than you expect to use while hiking and spread the intake of these calories during the day. Do NOT walk entire days almost without food, do not walk for long periods of time almost without food. Just eat a little less than you need every day.

Using you bodyfat to supply you with calories is all right, but it is difficult keep control of the rate of which this bodyfat is turned into actual fuel by your body. Actual fuel is glucose. And glucose levels in the blood is what we mean by the term 'blood sugar'. This is what the body, and particularly the brain, needs to function. So what I am saying is that you must keep a close watch on how you feel.

If you feel tired and irritated, your blood sugar is probably low and you need a quick pick-me-up. Straight sugar of some kind, especially of course straight glucose, works fastest. It is however better to continually supply your body with food stuff that is transfered to you blood stream as glucose. That way you can avoid blood sugar spikes that can, exaggeratedly, have you bouncing with energy one second and being flat out on your back the next.

The above involves trial and error and some homework. To begin with you have to make an assumption of how many calories you might need per day, using the info in Energy on the Trail part 1.

Then you make a menu for one day and check the amount of calories this will give you. Use food you eat anyway or think would be suitable. Checking calories is easy these days when all packages contain information about energy content. Otherwise just make a search for it on the internet. Just make sure you recalculate the calories/100 grams into what you actually consume.

Then you check this during a couple of backpacking trips and try to determine if you bring too many calories. Like you cannot eat all the food you brought. Or if it is too few calories. Like you are constantly hungry.
An aluminum pie tin weighs 5 grams, can be bought in any supermarket and serves as a lid for the pot.
In what form should I bring my energy?

We are not talking about day hikes or overnight trips, when you can bring almost anything you like. Or hikes when you do not walk much but are more of a camper than a hiker. We are talking about longer hikes for several days, weeks or months where you have distances to cover and want to do this with a light pack and still be fully nourished.

To start with, I think that backpacking food should be as calory dense as possible. The largest number of calories per gram of food. On a backpacking trip for a couple of days or weeks, what most of us do, we do not have to worry much about vitamins, minerals and things like that. What we need is energy to move and to enjoy and some proteins to balance the wear and tear and growth of muscles and other tissues.

Fat (9 kcal/gram) in different forms contain twice as much calories as carbohydrates (4 kcal/gram). However, there is a limit to how much fat we can ingest. 0,3-04 litres of olive oil has enough calories for a days need of calories, but I have yet to see someone who can subsist only on that. However, fat comes in many forms and easy to eat and digest is fat in nuts, seeds and the all time favorite for many hikers, chocolate.These fat sources are also easy to transport, with the possible exception of chocolate in really hot weather. Many people claim that when you are tired and nauseous from altitude sickness, chocolate is the only thing you can force down. I have experienced this myself high up in the Rocky Mountains.

Lunch on the trail, always a high light for me.

Carbohydrates found in bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cous cous etc (the 'starch' part of most meals) are known as "slow carbs" because it takes a while for them to be made available to the body. They work long term. Straight sugars are also carbohydrates and they are "fast", immediately available to the body. Good to know in emergencies, not so good to subsist on entirely, since they give you blood sugar "spikes". These spikes can make you, at least feel, that you alternate between triumph and disaster all day long.

Protein, found most concentrated in meat, fish, eggs, peas and beans are about equal to carbohydrates when it comes to energy content. However, they are not mainly energy sources but should be seen as repair material for cells, muscles and other tissue.

So fat and carbohydrates are the main sources of energy for a hiker and you should bring enough to cover your daily energy needs. If you have to carry your food a long way it makes sense that it is dry (water is heavy) and has a high energy content. For long trips it should have a long shelf life, so it does not turn inedible on the trail.

In part 3 of Energy on the trail we will look at examples of how all this translates into menues.

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