One of my essential activities for the warm weather season is hiking at least one 14’er in Colorado. It’s like a recertification for being an outdoor badass. There are few essentials for hiking at such an intense altitude like the right shoes, clothing, backpack and headgear. But one of the more important pieces is fueling your body correctly.
As a holistic health coach, my general advice is to reduce sugar and follow a diet that is similar to that of our ancestors. But one thing that’s for sure is that our ancestors were not hiking 14’ers for fun and didn’t need to think about eating for thousands of feet of vertical and miles of rocky terrain unless they were in the Donner Party.
Fuel for hiking a 14er
Hiking a 14’er is a serious endeavor. Choosing how to fuel your body is critical for a successful climb. Here’s what you need to know about hiking nutrition.
Water, water water. H2O is our life source and it is the #1 thing to be sure you have enough of. Drinking enough water 2 days before your climb is important to make sure your body has a solid foundation of hydration. The standard recommendation during the hike is to drink every 15-20 minutes, especially while increasing altitude. The amount is dependent on the person but enough to wet your palate.
Electrolytes. The loss of electrolytes happens when we sweat and can cause a dip in energy, muscle cramps, and brain fog. Replacing them, especially sodium, is extremely important. Sports electrolyte drinks can be found in many grocery stores and sports shops. Gu’s are popular as well and include all of the essentials for replenishing.
Do not count calories. On my first 14’er, I was not in charge of prepping food, and I am thankful for that! My team packed sugar filled cliff bars, trail mix with M&M’s, PB and J sandwiches and lots of other foods I would normally avoid. Although you may spend most of your day counting calories to not gain weight, this is an opportunity to forget that and indulge!
Carbohydrates and fats. Your body will be burning mostly glycogen and fat during this type of exercise. This is why you need to eat a balance of fat and carbs. These are the sources of energy your body wants to pull from because hiking, particularly at high altitude, is a fat burning activity. Make sure your carbohydrate is mixed with a fat to enhance performance.
Eat a surplus before the hike. You want your energy stores, your stored muscle glycogen, and fat, to be full. This means having enough of it stored so your body has plenty to last it many hours of activity. Eating junk food is actually a preferred fuel source for this. It will be the energy that your body taps into first.
Tailor your caloric load to the intensity of the hike. All hikes are created differently so load your body appropriately. If your hike is 9 miles long, don’t load your body calorically for a 2-day hike (you also will not want to carry that much food). If your hike is 25 miles long and more vertical, be sure to prep and pack appropriately with more food and supplies.
During your 14’ er adventure (or any long hike), it’s almost as if the normal time that we are all used to watching, stops. All that matters is the next step in front of you. And the one after that. Summiting a mountain is one of the most incredible feelings in the world. Cheers to smart fueling on your next summit adventure!
We love hearing from our readers, let us know your tips and tricks for hiking nutrition and your fuel for hiking.
I’m a 40 something father of two girls who loves the mountains, still plays in the sand and enjoys being in the great outdoors. The mountains are always calling my name.
“Wilderness is a necessity” – John Muir