Trail nutrition: Simple foods and drinks for summer hikes

By Erin Cazel, guest contributor

This article was originally published in June 2023

Hiking girls

Summer in the Pacific Northwest inspires a deep appreciation for the wonders of the natural world. Many hikers respond by gearing up to explore all the region has to offer. But before you hit the trails, it’s important to consider your nutrition needs for optimal performance and enjoyment. Your fuel doesn’t need to be fancy or pricey, all it requires is a little advance planning.

One of the most important considerations for summertime hiking is staying hydrated. Hot temperatures and dry climate can lead to dehydration, causing dizziness, headaches and muscle fatigue—diminishing your endurance and dampening your enjoyment of the trail. Prepare your body by drinking 2 to 4 cups of water about two hours before your hike. Keep a water bottle with you (or more than one; REI recommends about a half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures, or potentially a liter or more per hour for strenuous hikes in high heat). Once you’re outdoors, don’t wait until you feel thirsty to take a sip. Thirst is actually a sign of mild dehydration, and it can take an hour or more to replenish your body’s water level. Instead, take small sips of water regularly throughout the hike. 

Similarly, it’s important to keep a steady supply of energy to your working muscles. Glycogen stores in the body are your muscle’s go-to fuel source when you start out on the trail. Glycogen is a complex carbohydrate—the mammalian equivalent of the starch molecules produced by plants. It functions as a fuel reserve for the body when it needs a burst of energy. But with prolonged physical activity, your body’s glycogen stores are rapidly used up. Depending on the intensity of your activity, it’s possible for your glycogen stores to be depleted within an hour or two, leaving you wiped out. Carbohydrates are the best option for replenishing this energy while hiking because they’re easier for your body to process than protein or fat, providing a more accessible source of energy for muscles. For the same reason, they’re also less likely to upset your digestion.

Keep in mind that your body is only able to process a limited amount of calories per hour while exercising, usually a few hundred. Too much food at once overloads the stomach and diverts blood away from your working muscles in favor of digestion. Not only can this decrease your performance, but it can leave you feeling bloated and sluggish. Aim to eat small, frequent snacks throughout your hike to keep your stamina steady. Some ideas for good carb choices include dried or fresh fruit, energy bars and salty crackers. 

Salt is also important for electrolyte balance during a prolonged hike, especially in the heat. Electrolytes are minerals essential for maintaining proper fluid balance in the body. They include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes and need to replenish them. Salty snacks like pretzels or salted nuts will do the trick for shorter hikes. For longer or more intense hikes, consider packing some electrolyte tablets or drink mixes to add to your water. 

Finally, don’t forget to plan for your recovery. While carbohydrates are essential for energy, protein is important for muscle repair. Hiking can be tough on your muscles, especially if you’re navigating challenging terrain. To help your muscles recover and stay strong, consume a snack or meal that includes protein as soon as possible after your hike. Jerky, nuts and dried beans or edamame are good options for portable protein. 

Summer in the Pacific Northwest is a gift: a time of vibrant natural beauty and endless opportunities for adventure. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or a beginner, taking care of your nutrition needs can help you explore the trails with confidence and energy. 

Try these PCC recipes to fuel your favorite hikes.

 

Cashew Coconut or Chocolate Truffle Power Balls

Makes 16 to 18 (1-inch) balls

⅔ cup pitted dates
⅔ cup cashew pieces (preferably the roasted, salted variety) or hazelnuts
¼ teaspoon sea salt (leave out if you use salted nuts)
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup shredded coconut or ¼ cup unsweetened cacao powder
½ cup cooked (warm) brown rice (optional)
¼ cup protein powder (optional)

In a food processor, pulse dates, nuts (either cashews with the coconut or hazelnuts with the cacao powder), salt, cinnamon and either shredded coconut or cacao until well mixed with little bits of nuts visible. If you would like to add rice or protein powder, do so at the same time as the dates and nuts.

Roll into small balls about ¾- to 1-inch in diameter. If they are not holding together, add more dates. You may roll the balls in either shredded coconut or cacao powder to coat the outside. Serve these up as breakfast to-go, as dessert “truffles,” or put into a container with a lid for travel or hiking. They freeze well in bags.

 

Homemade Energy Bars

Makes 18 bars

2 cups rolled oats (see note)
2 cups prepared trail mix from bulk bins, or nuts, seeds and dried fruit of your choice
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 cup nut or seed butter

In a bowl, combine oats, trail mix and salt. Over medium heat, place maple syrup and honey and in a saucepan and bring to a low boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Add oil and nut or seed butter and heat until it is thoroughly mixed and is an even consistency.

Stir wet mixture into dry ingredients and combine until evenly mixed. Press into an oiled 6-cup rectangular or square baking dish. Let cool, then flip out onto a cutting board and cut into 18 bars.

Wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap to keep the bars from drying out.

Note: For a more robust flavor, place oats on a baking sheet and toast in the oven at 325° F for about 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Nuts and seeds can be toasted in the same way for 6 to 7 minutes.

 

Erin Cazel is pursuing a master’s in Nutrition at Bastyr University. Radical hospitality is Erin’s life passion—she loves gathering community around a table filled with food and conversation, and cares deeply about using foods to nurture the body, heart and mind.

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