Trail Nutrition: 5 Possible Nutrient Deficiencies

Nobody wants to end their bucket list backpacking trip early for any reason – but especially for a nutrient deficiency that could have been prevented by consuming the right foods. While any nutrition deficiency can occur on the trail, there are 5 specific nutritional deficiencies that make backpackers more susceptible. Specifically, they are vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium. Although individual nutrients are valuable to discuss, it is also important to not only focus on one individual nutrient but the whole food itself. 

As a backpacker, you are at higher risk for these deficiencies due to the types of food you are consuming and the methods of preparation of these foods. For example, dehydrated foods lose more of their nutrients than freeze-dried foods, which retain 97% of their nutrients. When possible, choose freeze-dried foods over dehydrated foods. 

Nutrient Deficiency #1: Vitamin A 

Did you know that you are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies while on the trail? Although any nutritional deficiency can develop on the trail, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium deficiency are most likely to occur. If you plan your meals correctly and eat the right trail foods, this does not need to be a worry. That way, you can enjoy and complete the hike of your dreams. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingfood #hikingfood #thruhiking #thruhike

You have probably heard something along the lines of: “Eat more carrots to help you see better.” But, do you know why people say this? That’s because carrots are high in vitamin A! This vitamin is not only important for vision but also for immune function and cellular communication

Since most of vitamin A is destroyed as a result of heat exposure, most backpacking dehydrated foods do not contain any of this important vitamin. This means that you, as a hiker, are at an increased risk of consuming less vitamin A which could lead to a deficiency. 

Vitamin A Deficiency Symptoms:

  • Night blindness (an early symptom)
  • Dry skin
  • Dry eyes
  • Throat and chest infections
  • Poor wound healing 
  • Acne 

Backpacking Foods High in Vitamin A:

  • Sweet potato (freeze-dried) 
  • Milk powder with added vitamin A and D
  • Red bell peppers (freeze-dried)
  • Mangos (freeze-dried) 
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Apricots (dehydrated)
  • Broccoli (freeze-dried)
  • Yogurt (freeze-dried)
  • Tuna
  • Chicken
  • Pistachios
SIDE NOTE: While it is highly unlikely to happen on the trail, you can consume too much vitamin A leading to vitamin A toxicity. 

 

Nutrient Deficiency #2: Vitamin C

Did you know that you are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies while on the trail? Although any nutritional deficiency can develop on the trail, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium deficiency are most likely to occur. If you plan your meals correctly and eat the right trail foods, this does not need to be a worry. That way, you can enjoy and complete the hike of your dreams. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingfood #hikingfood #thruhiking #thruhike

It has been reported that vitamin C deficiency also known as scurvy has been around since the time of ancient Egypt. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s when Dr. James Lind discovered that sailors who consumed oranges and lemons while at sea were cured of scurvy. You might be thinking that this is an ancient problem. However, there have been incidences of scurvy in recent years on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails. 

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and immune system booster. It also aids in the absorption of iron. You also need vitamin C in order to produce collagen, an element of connective tissue. 

As a hiker, you are doing strenuous exercise which puts you at a higher risk for developing this deficiency. In addition, like vitamin A, vitamin C is also destroyed by heat. Therefore, if you are consuming mostly backpacking dehydrated meals, your vitamin C intake will be lower than you might expect. In addition, you are not consuming fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. 

How long will it take for a deficiency to occur?

On average, it takes about 8-12 weeks for signs and symptoms of vitamin C deficiency to appear. 

Common Signs and Symptoms of Vitamin C Deficiency:

  • Impaired wound healing
  • Inflamed gums
  • Corkscrew hairs
  • Bruising and discoloration of the skin
  • Brown-purple spots on the skin 
  • Fatigue
  • Connective tissue weakness
  • Capillary fragility 

Backpacking Foods High in Vitamin C:

  • Red peppers (freeze-dried) 
  • Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons – whole, juice packets) 
  • Green pepper (freeze-dried) 
  • Broccoli (freeze-dried) 
  • Strawberries (freeze-dried) 
  • Tomatoes (freeze-dried)
  • Spinach (freeze-dried)
  • Green peas (freeze-dried)
BACKPACKING NUTRITION TIP: Next time you are thru-hiking, stop, and eat a big bowl of fruit in town to ensure adequate vitamin C intake! 
ANOTHER TRAIL NUTRITION TIP: Keep your eyes open for wild plants. Foods that are commonly foraged are high in vitamin C

Nutrient Deficiency #3: Thiamine / Thiamin / Vitamin B1

Did you know that you are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies while on the trail? Although any nutritional deficiency can develop on the trail, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium deficiency are most likely to occur. If you plan your meals correctly and eat the right trail foods, this does not need to be a worry. That way, you can enjoy and complete the hike of your dreams. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingfood #hikingfood #thruhiking #thruhike

“What does thiamine do?” you might ask. It is critical for energy metabolism which means that it helps cells in your body convert macronutrients like carbohydrates into energy. You definitely want to have enough energy on the trail! 

Why is this important for hikers? If you are thru-hiking and consuming many dehydrated foods, there is less thiamine in these foods because the process of dehydration decreases thiamine. Further, if you consume commercialized dehydrated foods that have sulfur dioxide or other sulfites, then this puts you at greater risk because these additives completely destroy thiamine in order to preserve the deterioration of vitamins A and C.

How long will it take for a deficiency to occur?

It takes about 4 weeks for thiamine deficiency to occur and to notice signs and symptoms. 

Key Signs and Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency

  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability 
  • Short-term memory problems 
  • Loss of feeling in the hands and feet 
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling of the extremities
  • Vertigo
  • Double vision
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion

Backpacking Foods High in Thiamine:

  • Instant white rice
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Egg noodles (pre-cooked and dehydrated)
  • Tuna
  • Macaroni (pre-cooked and dehydrated)
  • Acorn squash (dehydrated)
  • Instant brown rice
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Beef (freeze-dried, dehydrated)
  • Yogurt (freeze-dried)
  • Oatmeal
  • Corn (freeze-dried, dehydrated)
TRAIL NUTRITION TIP: Choose foods, such as whole grains and oatmeal, over highly processed foods. 

Nutrient Deficiency #4: Iron

 Did you know that you are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies while on the trail? Although any nutritional deficiency can develop on the trail, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium deficiency are most likely to occur. If you plan your meals correctly and eat the right trail foods, this does not need to be a worry. That way, you can enjoy and complete the hike of your dreams. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingfood #hikingfood #thruhiking #thruhike

You have probably heard of iron deficiency anemia. That is because it is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world! Iron is an essential mineral in the body because it helps carry oxygen in the blood to tissues. You definitely want to breathe easily while on your thru-hike! 

Hikers are at risk for this deficiency because you are an endurance athlete, yes that’s you, and you might be hiking at higher altitudes which increases your need for oxygen. Another reason is that red blood cells can rupture every time you take a step, also known as footstrike hemolysis. In addition, menstruating females are at greater risk. Vegetarian and vegan (plant-based foodies) have a higher risk as well since they do not consume heme iron which only comes from meat. 

How long will it take for a deficiency to occur?

Iron deficiency anemia does not happen overnight. In fact, it takes many months or even years to develop. You might not even notice you have it until your symptoms are severe. Don’t wait until it is too late. 

Iron Deficiency Symptoms:

  • Spooned nails 
  • Pale skin
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet 
  • Difficulty concentration
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Unusual cravings for nonfood items (pica)
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Weakness

Backpacking Foods High in Iron:

  • Iron-fortified cereals
  • White beans (dehydrated)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Lentils (pre-cooked and dehydrated)
  • Spinach (freeze-dried, dehydrated) 
  • Tofu (freeze-dried)
  • Kidney beans (dehydrated) 
  • Chickpeas (dehydrated) 
  • Tomatoes (freeze-dried, dehydrated)
  • Beef (freeze-dried, dehydrated) 
TRAIL NUTRITION TIP: Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron. When possible, consume foods high in vitamin C and iron together. 

 

Nutrient Deficiency #5: Selenium

Did you know that you are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies while on the trail? Although any nutritional deficiency can develop on the trail, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium deficiency are most likely to occur. If you plan your meals correctly and eat the right trail foods, this does not need to be a worry. That way, you can enjoy and complete the hike of your dreams. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingfood #hikingfood #thruhiking #thruhike

Have you ever heard of selenium? It’s a trace mineral that plays many roles in reproduction, thyroid hormone health, and DNA synthesis. It also acts as a protector for oxidative damage and infection.

Who’s at risk? If you are a vegetarian or vegan or if you have a digestive disorder, you are more at risk than the average person. 

Signs of a Selenium Deficiency:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Mental fog
  • Hair loss
  • Weakened immune system 

Backpacking Foods High in Selenium:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Tuna
  • Enriched macaroni (pre-cooked and dehydrated) 
  • Beef, turkey, chicken (freeze-dried, dehydrated) 
  • Instnat brown rice 
  • Oatmeal 
  • Milk powder
  • Lentils (pre-cooked and dehydrated)
  • Spinach (freeze-dried, dehydrated)
  • Cashews
BACKPACKING NUTRITION TIP: One quick and easy way to avoid selenium deficiency is to have 1 brazil nut a day because that meets your daily selenium requirements. 

 

Prevention of nutrient deficiencies is key to your success on the trail and a crucial part of backpacking nutrition.

It is much easier to prevent a nutrient deficiency than it is to play catch-up while thru-hiking. When you value what you are putting into your body, you reap the reward of accomplishing your bucket list dream hikes, and your body thanks you.

Disclaimer: This information is provided for your personal use and informational purposes only. You should consult a physician before beginning any exercise or nutrition routine. See the reference list below.

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

Did you know that you are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies while on the trail? Although any nutritional deficiency can develop on the trail, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, iron, and selenium deficiency are most likely to occur. If you plan your meals correctly and eat the right trail foods, this does not need to be a worry. That way, you can enjoy and complete the hike of your dreams. #backcountryfoodie #backpackingfood #hikingfood #thruhiking #thruhike

 

Are you interested in learning more about backpacking nutrition?

Check out these past blog posts…

Essential Nutrients for Muscle Recovery

Protein, Fats, and DIY Backpacking Meals, Oh My!

Carbohydrates and DIY Backpacking Meals

Backpacking Meal Plans: Not all are created equal

Backpacking Nutrition: Fueling Farther Using the Goldilocks Approach

 

For even more trail nutrition information, become a member of Backcountry Foodie’s community!

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Additional References:

Johnson L. Vitamin A Deficiency – Nutritional Disorders – MSD Manual Professional Edition. MSD Manual Professional Edition. Published 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Miller J. Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2013;3(7):a011866. 

Wiley K, Gupta M. Vitamin B1 Thiamine Deficiency (Beriberi). Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Published 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Hannah Hoekstra has had the privilege and honor to be mentored by Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD through the Bastyr University Dietetic Internship Program. Besides nutrition, she loves to do anything outside – walking, hiking, running, gardening, etc. and loves exploring the world.

 

3 Comments

  • May I suggest an edit? Instead of “females are at greater risk due to menstruation,” “menstruating females are at greater risk” is more accurate. I haven’t had a uterus for years, and I know women who had hysterectomies as young as in their 20s. Are the nutritional needs of non-menstruating females the same as males?

    Reply
    • Hi Kim,
      Thank you so much for pointing this out! We made your suggested edit in the blog. When it comes to iron, the nutritional needs of non-menstruating females are the same as males. Thank you so much!
      Best,
      Hannah

      Reply

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