Backpacking Nutrition: Tips for Recovery on the Trail

Implementing recovery strategies on the trail is just as important as fuel for your hike. However, it can be easy to overlook. Proper recovery can support your hiking experience. Focus on replenishing fuel stores, reducing soreness, preventing muscle breakdown, and maintaining hydration status.

Recovery on the Trail: What to focus on

Fluid and Electrolytes

Hydration goes hand in hand with the food we eat for fuel. Without it, we feel fatigued and experience negative physiological symptoms (e.g dizziness, rapid heartbeat, fatigue, headaches). Fluid and electrolytes work together to help hikers recover quickly, both physically and mentally. Electrolytes are minerals — such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium — that allow our bodies to work properly. These minerals are important in maintaining our fluid balance, muscle contractions, and energy production. We lose electrolytes, mainly sodium, in sweat therefore it is important to re-hydrate with sodium. Factors that affect hydration include extreme heat/cold, high sweat loss, and altitude. Plan ahead to track your water intake throughout the day and drink additional fluid needs after your hike.

For every 1 lb lost during your hike, drink an additional 24 oz (720 mL) of fluid. Or maintain the goal of 90-150 oz (3-5 L) per day.

For example, if you lose 3 lbs after a day of backpacking, add 72 oz (~2L) of fluid.

Calculation: 3 lbs x 24 oz = 72 oz

Water is not the only way to re-hydrate. In fact, food and other drinks provide more electrolytes than water and even sports drinks. To meet your fluid and electrolyte needs, try these food ideas:

  • Powdered chocolate milk drink – Carnation Breakfast Essentials®
  • Whole milk powder – Nestle®Nido
  • Crackers with peanut butter
  • Pasta with meat sauce

Over-hydration (Hyponatremia)

There is such a thing as too much hydration. Our bodies can only absorb so much fluid at a time. When we consume too much, this will throw off our fluid balance and dilute electrolytes. Bad headaches, puffy fingers and ankles, and a bloated stomach are some easy signs of over-hydration. Lethargy and confusion are also signals of a disturbed fluid-balance. It is important to know the signs of over-hydration as they may lead to seizures, comas, and death.

Tips for staying hydrated:

  • Know where to find water
  • Have drink mixes available
  • Pre-hydrate to produce light-colored urine
  • Increase fluid intake when intense sweating anticipated
  • Drink early and often, but don’t overdrink
  • Pack adequate fluid in your backpack
  • Train yourself to drink more while hiking than at home
  • Check your body weight after hiking
  • Complete rehydration requires fluid AND sodium
  • Drink by schedule not thirst
  • Know the warning signs of dehydration

Carbohydrates and Protein after Backpacking

Hiking depletes your carbohydrate stores (muscle glycogen) and causes muscle breakdown. Carbohydrates provide our main energy source, therefore, we need to replenish what was lost while hiking. Protein will stimulate muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle protein breakdown caused by hiking. When paired together, there is a greater insulin response. Insulin is a hormone that will transport carbohydrates into the muscle for storage and help build muscle. In addition, carbohydrates reduce cortisol, a hormone that breaks down muscle. In other words, carbohydrates and protein make a great team and will speed up recovery.

To offset the negative impact from hiking, consume a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. For example, consuming 60 grams of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein would equal the ideal ratio for recovery while hiking. To maximize muscle repair, aim for 15-25 grams of protein for recovery after backpacking.

Examples of a 3:1 ratio:

  • Powdered chocolate milk drink (Carnation Breakfast Essential)
  • Trail mix: 70 grams (1/2 cup) of nuts + 45 grams (1/3 cup) of dried fruit
  • 56 grams (2 cups) of Freeze-dried yogurt + 45 grams (1/3 cup) of nuts
  • 300 grams (2 cups) of Quinoa/rice/pasta + 56 grams (2 oz) dehydrated meat + sauce
  • Fig bar + 28 grams (1 oz) of beef jerky

Examples of 15-25 grams of protein:

  • 56 grams (2 oz) of dehydrated meat
  • 70 grams (1/2 cup) of nuts
  • 1-2 scoops of protein powder
  • Protein bar 
  • 190 grams (1 cup) of beans/lentils

Try it!

A powdered chocolate milk drink, such as Carnation Breakfast Essentials, provides all of the key factors of recovery; fluid, electrolytes, and a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. In addition, it is tasty and affordable. Consuming powdered chocolate milk immediately after exercise may reduce muscle damage and prepare you for another day of backpacking.

 

 

 

Antioxidants and Backpacking Recovery

The physical demands of backpacking create stress on our bodies. Focusing on antioxidant (Vitamin C & E) rich foods may diminish these effects. It is recommended to consume an antioxidant-rich diet, rather than supplements to protect against damage.

Antioxidant sources on the trail:

Dried fruits: cherries, strawberries, blueberries, and mangoes

Nuts: sunflower seeds, peanuts, and almonds

Find out more about antioxidants and diet tips: Exercise-Induced Inflammation and Thru-Hiker Diets: Are You Helping or Hurting Your Recovery?

Key Nutrition Tips to Remember:

Goals
Strategies
Replace fluid and electrolyte losses Drink 24 oz (720 mL) of fluid for every pound lost during exercise, or maintain goal of 90-150 oz (3-5) L per day
Restore muscle/liver glycogen stores Focus on a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein at least 2 hours after exercise and again 2 hours later
Promote muscle repair 15-25g of high-quality protein should be consumed immediately after a hike
Add antioxidants into diet Focus on Vitamin C & E foods

 

Pin it for later and share it with your fellow backpackers!

 

Interested in learning more about recovery on the trail? Check out these posts:

What to Eat and Drink while Exercising in Hot Weather

Top 6 Nutrition and Hydration Tips for High Altitude

A Look at Supplements, Meals and Snacks for Muscle Recovery

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jordan Marthens, MS is completing her Dietetic Internship at Seattle Pacific University to pursue a career as a Registered Dietitian. As a former collegiate athlete, she takes a special interest in sports, active lifestyles, and overall wellness. She loves all things food-related and does not go a day without coffee or dessert.

Sources:

Clark, N. (2019). Nancy Clark’s sports nutrition guidebook. Human Kinetics.

Ivy J. L. (2004). Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise. Journal of sports science & medicine, 3(3), 131–138.

Karpinski, C., & Rosenbloom, C. A. (2017). Sports nutrition: a handbook for professionals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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