According to a recent survey, almost 50 million people in the U.S. regularly hike. This figure is estimated to be a lot higher now, as a result of government lockdowns due to the pandemic. Hiking is a great way to exercise, spend time in nature, socialize and enjoy yourself. That’s why it’s reported to be the fourth most-popular outdoor activity in the U.S. today.
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It takes the average person 30 minutes to hike a mile on a gentle terrain, and an hour to hike a rugged terrain. With this considered, a beginner hike is five miles and some advanced hikes are around 28 miles – more than a full day! Whether you’re a hiking newbie or have been hiking for decades, you may be asking yourself: “How can I sustain my energy throughout a long hike?”.
In this article, we’re going to cover some essential pre-hiking recommendations like nutrition and wellness tips to ensure you can sustain your energy throughout a hike and reach the peak.
Beginners guide to hiking
Before we get into some of our hiking recommendations to sustain your energy, we’re first going to cover some beginner-friendly hiking tips to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success before the hike has even begun!
If you are constantly Googling ‘hiking trails near me’ but that’s about as far as you get, here are some things to consider before you embark on a long hike:
- It’s exercise!
It may seem obvious, but often hiking can get mistaken for walking - but depending on the terrain, it can be more like climbing. A 180-pound person will burn around 700 calories on a three mile 10 percent grade hike, which is deemed a beginner-friendly hike. In light of this, preparing your body is key to avoid tiring easily.
- Don’t hike alone
Hiking can be dangerous. Approximately 2,000 people get lost in the woods during a hike every single year, and many thousands more get injuries ranging from blisters, sunburn and bug bites, to serious sprains and hypothermia. It is essential to hike with at least one person for your safety.
- Get the gear
You couldn’t play football without the pads and protective gear, so don’t attempt a long hike without some of the most basic hiking gear like hiking shoes, water, hiking backpack, and sunscreen. To get a more detailed run through of the hiking gear you need, check out this article we wrote "Hiking gear and clothes for beginners."
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to start getting prepared for a long hike.
What should you eat before a long hike?
As with all types of exercise, you need to make sure your body has enough energy to sustain itself. This is also the case with hiking, and particularly important for long hikes. During exercise, your body uses circulating energy and stored energy. When glucose is not used, it is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, which is then broken down and used to fuel exercise. This process is known as anaerobic glycolysis, also producing adenosine triphosphate (ADP).
But there aren’t never-ending supplies of glycogen! Your body’s muscle and liver glycogen capacity is around 1,800 to 2,000 calories worth of energy. This equates to roughly 90 to 120 minutes of continuous exercise-activity. When you deplete glycogen stores, your performance trails off and you feel a need to rest. If you continue past this point, you are at risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which causes fainting, light-headedness, dizziness, shaking, and visual disturbances.
So with that being said, what should you eat before a hike to sustain your energy? In one word: CARBS.
Why do carbohydrates help to sustain your energy during a hike?
Carbohydrates break down into glucose, the main fuel source used during exercise. As mentioned, once your blood glucose and glycogen stores are depleted, you will hit a wall. So the way to counter this, is to replenish your body with glucose aka carbs!
Consume a carb-dense meal prior to your hike to maximize your glycogen stores. The night prior to your hike and in the three hours leading up to your hike, eat a large portion of slow-release complex carbohydrates like brown rice, oats, quinoa, vegetables, beans, or lentils. These carbohydrates digest slowly due to the fiber they provide, meaning the glucose is slowly released into the bloodstream, gradually supplying energy.
In the hour before your hike, consume a fast-releasing simple carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates high glycemic index which is more easily broken down, spiking your blood glucose more rapidly to provide energy more quickly. Quick-digesting carbs include: bananas, white rice, potatoes, pineapple, kiwis, berries, or white bread.
During your hike, eat a quick-digesting carb every hour and a half, or whenever you feel your energy lagging. This will prevent your glycogen depleting or blood sugar getting too low. These intra-workout carbs include quick-digesting carbs, as well as sports drinks and candy, which may be even more effective later into the hike.
Don’t forget to drink water!
When it comes to hiking and backpacking nutrition, the key is carbs. But staying adequately hydrated can not be forgotten, and is critical to ensure your body is healthy and energized throughout. As hiking is an outdoors activity, you may be under the hot sun, which dehydrates you quickly and can lead to heat stroke.
When you are on a hike, aim to drink half a liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. What this means is, if you’re working at a higher intensity or in a hotter climate, scale up the water consumption to prevent dehydration. According to REI, this may involve drinking more than a liter of water per hour.
To sustain your energy during a hike, the key is carb-loading. Consume carbohydrates strategically to provide slow and fast-releasing glucose throughout the duration of activity. Aside from this, drink water consistently and ensure you are following the simple guidelines like hiking with a friend and wearing the right gear to guarantee your safety. Enjoy the great outdoors!