Women Who Hike: Specific Nutrition Needs

Let’s get this straight-not all bodies are created equal. But have you ever noticed how nutrition recommendations are a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to backpacking? Furthermore, despite both men and women having similar basic nutrition needs, there is one larger difference to consider for women who hike.

Active women are more at risk for health conditions when they do not eat enough for the energy they are burning. 

Although this condition can happen to both sexes, Relative Energy Deficiency, or RED-S, happens when you increase your exercise regimen but have a low caloric intake. Admittedly, some women who hike may not realize the increased quality of nutritious food they need as ultra-endurance athletes. The fuel that is burned during a hike in the backcountry, is greater than your everyday workout routine. Therefore, the food you pack needs to have increased calories, carbohydrates, and protein versus what you may eat while at home. It should be noted, when these nutrient recommendations are not met it negatively impacts the duration and how you feel throughout your hike.

Here are 5 signs that you may be struggling with this:

  1. Early fatigue due to not eating enough calories
  2. Irregular or nonexistent menstrual cycles
  3. Reduced exercise stamina and endurance because of low glycogen stores
  4. Weakened muscle strength
  5. Heightened feelings of depression or irritability

This is especially harmful when backpacking. Women who hike, specifically longer than a weekend trip, may not realize they need to eat a lot more versus daily routines at home. In general, when women don’t eat enough, they start experiencing amenorrhea, or a loss of their periods. If women do not regularly menstruate they are more at risk for bone density loss and faster energy drain. In that case, you might be wondering how to make sure you are eating adequately while hiking in the backcountry and meeting your increased nutrient needs.

Five Tips to ensure you are getting adequate nutrition while in the backcountry:

  1. Consume adequate protein
    • Protein is important not only for muscle strength but also for maintaining bone structure
    • While hiking it is important to meet the 1.2-1.6 g/kg (1200-1600 g/lb) increased need. This is 60% higher than while at home.
  2. Eat a least 20% of your calories from fat
    • Try a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids
    • Snack on trail mixes with a combination of nuts and dried fruit
    • Use canola or olive oil in your recipes
  3. Schedule meals and snacks consistently
    • Consume a meal or snack every 60-90 minutes 
    • Start your day out with a carb-rich breakfast, followed by frequent meals and snacks
    • Eat even when you are not feeling hungry
  4. Maintain a diet rich in calcium
    • Reach a total of 1500 milligrams of calcium per day
    • Choose calcium-rich items such as dairy or soy products at every meal or snack
  5. Include foods high in Vitamin D
    • Aim for 1,300-3,000 milligrams of Vitamin D per day
    • Add a source of Vitamin D when eating a high calcium food for better absorption
    • Take a supplement of at least 400-800 IUs per day if unable to get enough through food alone

Let’s take a deeper look on the importance of vitamin D for women who hike.

Conversely, an inadequate intake of vitamin D can be one of the leading causes for bone density issues and possible conditions such as osteoporosis. In final analysis, consuming Vitamin D paired with calcium-rich foods ensures the nutrients are fully absorbed. With this in mind, as women get older, their bodies absorb a smaller percentage of calcium that is consumed due to decreased estrogen levels.

Add these foods high in Vitamin D into your next backpacking meal plan to increase calcium absorption:

  • 1/2 cup tuna
  • 1/2 cup dried oats
  • 1 tablespoon dried egg powder (mixed with 1/4 cup water)
  • 4 tablespoons whole milk powder fortified with vitamin D
  • 2 tablespoons cheddar cheese powder

Maintaining adequate nutrition should also be something we focus on in our everyday lives.

Undoubtedly, what we practice at home will affect our physical performance when participating in ultra-endurance sports. It is also key to take factors into consideration such as the weight you carry, the duration of your event, and any pre-existing health conditions you may have. While this is a topic that warrants more research, it can further be developed and essential for women who hike. Therefore, as more women join the world of backpacking, this is a topic that can empower women who hike to invest in their nutrition for the best performance and long-term health.

Want to learn more? Take a peek at our other blog posts!

How to Follow a Nutritious Vegetarian Diet while Backpacking
Backpacking Meal Plans: Not all are created equal
Proteins, Fats, and DIY Backpacking Meals. Oh My!


About the Author:
Ashley Napoleon is an aspiring Registered Dietitian, completing her Dietetic Internship through Seattle Pacific University. Some of her favorite hobbies include working out, reading, watching Disney movies, and baking. One thing she really loves about food and nutrition is how it speaks to everyone of various cultures and backgrounds. Follow her love for food, the holidays, and supporting her community through her Instagram at @ashley.napo3.
author, RD to be, PNW
women who hike nutrition needs backcountry foodie ultralight meal planning

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