by Diane Spicer
Choosing hiking nutrients seems pretty straightforward:
Just grab a bunch of lightweight food and hit the trail.
Simple as that, right?
Then chew, swallow, and you're good to go.
Hikers, like soldiers, march on their stomachs.
High quality, digestible food which is quickly and easily absorbed into the bloodstream to provide sustained energy along the trail (aka fuel) is the secret to successful hiking adventures.
OK, only one of the secrets.
The rest are here on other pages of this website, so be sure to browse around!
And here's another little fact you've probably already discovered: your gut is unique and has its own little foibles and preferences.
Go ahead and fill in the picture with your own particular scenario(s).
Which leads to this important question about the best hiking food for your plans.
So if hiking nutrients are the key to a strong hiking body (and they are), how do you maximize your digestive abilities? (i.e. burn fuel efficiently)
And what clues should you expect to see when your digestive system is not operating efficiently?
To answer those questions, let's take a quick look at the digestion process.
No boring science stuff, I promise.
Your hiking nutrient digestion begins in your mouth, at least for certain types of food such as sugars (carbohydrates).
Visualize a toddler gumming a cracker.
But if the cracker had a little peanut butter, cheese or salami (protein and fat) on it, that's a whole different story.
So fatty food passes undigested through the stomach into the small intestine.
Digestive enzymes pour into the small intestine - they're made by the nearby pancreas, and released only when needed.
The large biomolecules in the peanut butter, cheese and salami are chopped into tiny pieces by the enzymes, and hauled out of the intestine into the bloodstream.
It's only fair to give a nod to the liver and gallbladder here, too.
Where do your digested (as in "chopped up") sugars, fats and proteins go once they leave your intestinal tract?
Into the bloodstream, for swift delivery to all of the cells in the body.
They are fuel sources (like gas in your car's tank), which every cell is going to use.
Hiking nutrients, in other words.
Proteins are used to repair injured areas of the body, or to make DNA molecules or other important things to keep your cells humming along.
Best choices for hiking protein are outlined here.
Fats (a.k.a. lipids) have two fates: immediate use for fuel (fatty acids), or storage for later needs (adipose).
Carbohydrates (sugars) are burned immediately as a fuel source, or can be stored in skeletal muscle or liver.
Great carb choices for hiking are found here.
For example: if the hiking nutrients are NOT chopped into little pieces, or CAN'T be pulled into the bloodstream.
How would you know that digestion is not happening correctly to provide you with hiking nutrients?
In which case, you're in a honeymoon phase.
But sooner or later, if there's an underlying problem (not enough digestive enzymes, or an imbalance between your normal gut microbiota and intruders) your body sends your brain a "postcard" about lack of hiking nutrients.
These postcards can include little messages written as:
You know, the fun stuff (NOT!) regarding hiking nutrients and digestion.
Or maybe little clues are showing up elsewhere.
Like in the toilet bowl.
One of your best clues to digestive problems is the quality of your stool.
Dry, hard stool which is hard to expel from the body might be a clue that you need to consume more water.
This hard brown clue might also be related to lack of fiber in your diet.
If most of what you eat comes out of wrappers or cans, and you eat refined flour (no bran) products, you're robbing your digestive system of a vital component: fiber.
Combined with water, fiber ensures bulky stools which pass easily from the body - no straining, no chance of hemorrhoids, less risk for diverticulitis.... all good reasons to eat a (dehydrated) apple a day while backpacking, and follow it up with a lovely plate of veggies and beans.
Well re-hydrated, of course!
And a fiber rich meal will make you feel full and satisfied (especially if there's a bit of fat thrown in, like high quality olive oil).
Need one more reason to increase your fiber intake?
Luckily, I have one for you!
While fiber isn't technically a hiking nutrient (because it produces no energy), it enhances hiking nutrient absorption by keeping food in the intestines for a longer period of time than if fiber were absent.
Just because I'm having so much fun with this topic, I'll throw in one more good reason to ingest fiber rich foods:
Fiber creates a good environment in the gut for the healthy bacteria which thrive there.
Hurrah for the Microbiota!!
Don't all of these good reasons to ingest more fiber make you want to eat an luscious juicy unpeeled apple, right now?
Not to mention give your gums and jaw a good work out, and help to decrease plaque on your teeth.
... frequent bowel movements of watery stool (diarrhea, or dysentery if it contains blood) might indicate an infection with nasty microorganisms.
Hikers are at risk for certain water borne illnesses, so be cautious about your water sources.
Don't forget, water is on the list of hiking nutrients. You can't avoid ingesting it, but you can be smart about how you treat it prior to ingestion.
Your stools should be bulky and float around (or at least be buoyancy neutral), not sink like a rock.
Are you now convinced that fiber is your friend?
Looking for ways to get more of it into your hiking diet?
It's really easy!
Ground up flax seeds are a great way to add fiber, along with fresh fruits and vegetables (which can be hard to come by on a long hiking trip).
So pack some dried fruit (apples, cherries, peaches, or whatever appeals to you) to enjoy as a trail snack, and either chew it slowly for maximum digestibility, or rehydrate it overnight or while hiking.
And remember that flax is lightweight and easy to add to your morning oatmeal (which is a great source of fiber all on its own).
If you're feeling extra adventurous, try some chia seeds on top of your grains.
No need to grind these, as you would for flax seeds.
Along with your fiber, you'll get lots of antioxidants and essential fatty acids from these tiny, but mighty, ancient seeds (cultivated by Aztecs and Mayans).
And if you're feeling a bit lazy, try fresh dried foods that are lightweight and easy to mix into a pre-trail smoothie.
How many digestive enzymes do you have in your stomach and small intestine?
WHO KNOWS?? would be an appropriate answer.
There's really no way to calibrate this, but if you're experiencing post-meal uneasiness or gas production, look into chewable tablets which supply digestive enzymes.
You don't want to be missing all of those hiking nutrients you work so hard to carry with you, right?
The type I take contains proteases, bromelain, amylase, papain, and lipase and they taste great, too, thanks to their papaya sources.
Bonus: The enzyme bromelain has anti-inflammatory properties, which will help you recover faster from your trail exertions.
These small tablets are my lightweight, portable insurance policy that I'm going to digest all of the hiking nutrients I'm lugging around in my backpack.
Tip: Carry these in heavy duty ziplock bags. They are worthless if they dissolve before you swallow them.
Don't want to carry supplements on a backpacking trip?
Bonus: The hit of sweetness might satisfy your after-meal craving for "just a little extravsomething".
Is it possible that you react negatively to certain foods? Then you're going to have to plan your hiking nutrients very carefully.
Some dehydrated and processed foods have lots of chemicals in them, which could trigger a digestive upset.
Or maybe a component of your menu is upsetting your gut.
It might take a bit of detective work to figure out which foods are upsetting your digestive system, but it's worth it to ensure you are getting your hiking nutrients.
Wheat, dairy, soy, citrus, corn, carrots, onions, peanuts.... there are many foods which cause people to feel weird after eating.
"Weird" can include
If you suspect you might be sensitive, intolerant, or allergic to gluten, read my tips for how to hike gluten free.
If your symptoms include difficulty breathing, you should be very motivated to find out what triggered it.
Your body is being sensitized to go into Type I Hypersensitivity - also called an allergy attack, which can escalate into anaphylactic (circulatory) shock.
You DO NOT WANT this to happen, especially when you're miles and miles away from medical care.
What to do if you're in the middle of a hiking trip and your digestive system is severely upset?
That question is beyond what I can answer, since I'm not a medical doctor.
But there are a few general tips to keep in mind.
Blood in your stool could be telling you about a bacterial infection which has invaded the lining of your gastrointestinal tract.
Certain bacteria & parasites are notorious for causing dysentery (a fancy word for bloody poop).
You won't be able to determine "who" is the culprit while you are out on the trail, but you will want to get to a health care provider soon to have that sorted out for you.
If you're not close to health care & won't be for several days, curtail your food intake until you can identify what might have gotten contaminated.
Short term, it's better to deprive yourself of hiking nutrients than to push your already upset system into overdrive trying to digest heavy, spicy meals.
If you are getting systemic trouble signs such as headache, fever, nausea, or fatigue, you're going to have to stop and rest, possibly even take a rest day & establish a base camp.
If you inconvenience your hiking partners, don't worry. Their turn for inconvenient episodes will come, one way or the other!
If you do receive antibiotics when you get home, be sure to recolonize your digestive system with the "good guys" (probiotics) which are normally found in your gut but which die right along with the trouble makers.
Probiotic supplements that you can chew, swallow, or add to food are an easy way to re-establish, and maintain, a healthy gut environment.
This is not medical advice, just common sense.
Pro means in favor of, and biotic means life, so this is a good idea on many levels.
Things to look for in good probiotics:
Expect to pay extra for all of these good qualities.
The really cheap probiotics might have a lower CFU count than advertised, because the microbes are non-viable (not capable of binary fission, so won't be able to do fast and effective colonization).
Store your probiotics in the frig at home, and add them to your pack at the last minute. This habit prevents heat or dehydration damage.
products have these added in as part of the production process. Read the
label to be sure you're getting a wide range of the good bugs (and good luck with pronouncing those long Latin names).
Just to be sure, you might want to consider prebiotics, which create a healthy environment (FOS, or inulin) for the gut bacteria to multiply quickly to re-establish and maintain harmony and bliss in your gut.
There are some products which combine probiotics with prebiotics, meaning you will only have to swallow once to do your gut good.
These are a great idea even if you don't experience digestive upset at home. Trail food is notorious for binding you up, creating gas, messing with your normal bowel movement cycle, and more.
And here's a product to investigate as one part of your plan to achieve a stronger body and peaceful digestive system.
Another thing to consider is pain.
If your abdominal muscles are cramping, there could be bacterial toxins signalling your body to swing into action and expel the invaders.
You'll need to distinguish between cramps caused by gas production versus cramps related to impending diarrhea (and rule out menstrual cramps, if applicable).
Strong word of caution:
If it's diarrhea, pay attention to hand washing hygiene afterward. You don't want to share the infection with anyone else, or reinfect yourself.
If you're producing a lot of gas, where is it going?
The message here is that what you are eating is not being fully digested.
Get to the bottom of it. (That was not an intentional pun. Sometimes things just slip out.)
(I'll stop now.)
Keep a hiking nutrients log a.k.a. a food diary of what you ate, and when, on your hiking trip.
Then play "scientist" by making one change in your diet at a time.
Systematic = scientific.
Try to keep all the important hiking nutrients without causing symptoms.
Do this detective work until you can identify what's causing the digestive problems.
C'mon! Isn't symptom free hiking worth it? You know you want to feel great on the trail, rather than being bothered by gas and cramping.
Your tent partners might appreciate it, too. (Just sayin')
Which brings up another clue:
odors associated with your gas.
A sulfur smell might be indicating that your protein sources are not being digested.
Time to mix it up a little, until the gas goes away!
When you get home, ask your health care provider about checking into how much acid you're producing in your stomach.
Stomach (gastric) acid is the first thing to attack and break down proteins. If your stomach pH is too high (not enough acid), undigested protein is passing into the intestine, and you're not getting the full benefit of the protein you're ingesting.
In essence, highly valuable hiking nutrients are being sent through your body without benefiting you.
But they definitely benefit the bacteria that digest them, producing methane gas as a by product.
Note: Everyone produces methane gas. But excess amounts with a strong sulfur smell?
Your emotional state also affects your hiking nutrient absorption.
You have lots of nerve fibers throughout your body, with plenty of them devoted to the digestive organs.
Eating when you are stressed or angry will be reflected in how your abdomen feels within a few minutes of chewing and swallowing.
Your gut is telling you to NOT eat when you're emotional, because your blood supply is being directed away from your digestive organs.
You might also experience acid reflux, where the stomach contents are splashing back into the esophagus (food tube) area. That hurts!
And in the long run, it is a dangerous condition for your esophagus and stomach.
Stomping off down the trail right after eating is not a great move, either.
The body diverts its blood to the digestive organs so your hiking nutrients can be processed efficiently. Makes sense, right?
But now, by charging off down the trail right after lunch, you're asking for increased blood flow to the skeletal muscles.
This throws off the normal balance (homeostasis), and you will feel an uneasy sensation in your abdomen.
You might experience muscle cramping, too.
Your immune cells have a strong presence here.
So an inflamed or upset gut will weaken your immunity, leaving you vulnerable to parasites and other microbial pathogens that you could pick up from untreated surface water, unclean hands that prepare food, or contact with soil.
If you have chronic gastrointestinal (GI) issues, please see a health care provider to rule out other health problems.
These little postcards are being sent to get your attention before something major develops.
My best advice: When your body talks to you, listen!
And Round Two of best advice:
Respond to the whispers before they turn into roars.
On the trail, your best ally is your intuition.
If you feel "off", sit down immediately and tune into that feeling.
The incubation times for various food borne infections can vary between a few hours and a few days.
Consider all of your food & water as suspicious until you can piece together what might be making you sick.
If you're base camping, you've segregated your latrine (bathroom) area from your water source, right?
Consider the possibility that you are coming down with a viral infection, having nothing to do with your food or water supply.
Anti inflammatory relief from your 1st aid kit, probiotics, more frequent rest breaks, and water will help you through this while you get back to the trail head.
Or you might need a rest day (a zero day for thru hikers).
Don't fight Mother Nature unless you really have to.
Human imposed deadlines can wreak havoc with your body.
It's a tough call sometimes: you want to suppress or ignore the problem so you can get back home and into a medical setting.
But if it's not a severe problem, and you can grant yourself some space and time, you might want to work with the admittedly inconvenient and unpleasant process, without suppressing the symptoms.
Only you can make that decision, after considering all the facts and constraints in your situation.
Don't let peer pressure sway your decision. Listen to your body and make the best choice possible under the circumstances.
One more possibility to consider when digestive issues arise:
Are you carrying along emotional turmoil, which is showing up as turmoil in your gut?
Make a sincere effort to let any tensions and turmoil go, as in eliminate it (ok, cheap gut pun).
Your gut is charged with the responsibility of eliminating waste and toxins from your body.
So follow its lead:
Let. It. Go.
The problem, whatever it is, will be waiting for you when you get home. Don't squander precious trail time on it now.
And is it possible that it's not a matter of hiking nutrients, but soul & spirit nutrients, that you're craving?
Like alone time, as in hiking solo?
Or nature therapy: food for thought!
If you find yourself in any of the following categories, please take extra time to plan your hiking menus and trail snacks carefully.
The key to meeting any of these challenges as a hiker is to try out your trail food at home, where you have the convenience of a bathroom and a kitchen.
Record what works well, and especially make a note of what to avoid.
Thanks for hanging in there with me through poop, pain, gas and bad puns.
Please let me know if you have questions about what you've read about hiking nutrients and digestion. I can point you toward some resources, or give you more ideas to identify food sensitivities or digestive problems.
Just remember, I'm not giving medical advice.
It's up to you to do your own background research and consult with medical authorities!
But I have a gut feeling that you already knew that :)
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Thanks for your support!
And Happy (Non-Digestive Woes) Trails.
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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