Women Who Hike: Specific Nutrition Needs

By Ashley Napoleon & Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, LD

Updated January 14, 2024
This post may contain affiliate links.
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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. When these nutrient recommendations are not met, it should be noted that it negatively impacts the duration and how you feel throughout your hike.

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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.

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    5 Tips to ensure you are getting adequate nutrition while backpacking:

    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 (0.5-0.7g/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 1000-1200 milligrams of calcium per day.
      • Choose calcium-rich items such as dairy or soy products for meals or snacks.
    5. Include foods high in Vitamin D.
      • Aim for 15-20 micrograms of Vitamin D per day.
      • Add a source of Vitamin D when eating 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 at the importance of vitamin D for women who hike.

    Conversely, an inadequate vitamin D intake can be one of the leading causes of low bone density and related conditions such as osteoporosis. Consuming Vitamin D paired with calcium-rich foods ensures that the nutrients are fully absorbed. With this in mind, as women age, their bodies absorb a smaller percentage of calcium 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 fortified cereal (such as Raisin Bran)
    • 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 topic warrants more research, it is essential for women who hike. As more women join the backpacking world, it can empower them to invest in their nutrition for the best performance and long-term health.

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    DISCLOSURE: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means we may receive a modest commission if purchases are made through those links. This adds no cost to our readers and helps us keep our site running. Our reputation is our most important asset, so we only include links for products we use ourselves.

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    author, RD to be, PNW

    Ashley Napoleon is a former nutrition intern mentored by Aaron Owens Mayhew and 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. She really loves food and nutrition because 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.

    Backcountry Foodie Aaron Owens Mayhew with her dog Ella

    Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD, is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with over 20 years of nutrition and backpacking experience. She’s also the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie, an online ultralight recipes and meal planning platform for backpackers. She also enjoys teaching hikers about backpacking nutrition via virtual masterclassesYouTube videos, and podcast episodes. You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.

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