Getting Started Tips: Hydration and Snacks

Welcome back to my “Getting Started” series.   So far, we have had some great information about exercises you can do to prepare yourself for hiking, some normal pains and how to prevent and avoid injuries. 

I also recently talked to nutritionist and dietician, Dr. Melissa Masters, about Fad Diets and Exercise and how nutrition plays an important part in starting any exercise program and In a previous section, Physical Therapist Cristin talked about recovery and how protein and water were important in the recovery process. Today I wanted to dive into that a little bit more. More specifically in how water and the snacks you choose can have an affect on the hikes you take.

Joining me is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Emily Hunt. Emily completed her Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition & Dietetics and her dietetic internship at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver).  Emily is also a current graduate student at MSU Denver continuing to study Human Nutrition & Dietetics as well as working for the nutrition department as a tutor for graduate and undergraduate students. 

She is currently working on research focusing on energy expenditure in backcountry athletes and hopes to focus her work and future research on nutrition needs for different backcountry activities including hiking, trail running and backpacking, skiing and snowboarding, and climbing.  Emily is an avid snowboarder and hiker and enjoys anything outdoors! 

Disclaimer: This is for general education purposes only.  You should consult with a physician before beginning any exercise program.  Each person is different, and opinions given in this article are not to be construed as a diagnosis, personal medical advice, or a treatment plan. Always personally see a medical professional for individual ailments and medical advice.   

The Importance of Hydration


Fatman:  Emily thank you so much for joining us today. Hydration is obviously important in any exercise program.  People may take it for granted though while walking or hiking because it isn’t high intensity.  What are some early warning signs that you may be getting dehydrated? 

Emily Hunt, RDN: Hydration is so important!  Especially when out hiking.  About 50-75% of body weight is water, with 70-75% of muscles being water.  Water is often considered the most important nutrient.  Even though it does not provide us with energy the way food does, we could not survive without it.  Without water, our bodies can’t function properly.  

Even light exercise can deplete body water, leaving you feeling lousy and performing poorly.  Some early warning signs that you may be getting dehydrated include thirst, dry mouth, and a decrease in energy.  

A common mantra for hiking (or any sport really) is “drink early and drink often,” because unfortunately if you just drink when you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated.  Being dehydrated while hiking can cause headaches, GI issues (cramps, constipation, bloating, and stomach pain) and can make you feel tired, lethargic, cranky, and affect your muscles and performance.   

Are Sports Drinks worth it?

FM:  Is water the best way to rehydrate or is it better to drink sports drinks that talk about having extra electrolytes?  

EH:  The electrolytes involved in fluid balance in the body are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphate.  An electrolyte is a substance in a solution that conducts an electrical current.  What does this have to do with hydration? Water needs the help of electrolytes to perform its functions in the body, such as conducting nerve impulses, activating certain enzymes, and keeping water in the right compartments either inside or outside of our cells.  

You lose electrolytes when you sweat, mainly sodium.  If your bout of exercise is an hour or less, replacing electrolytes is usually not an issue.  If you are exercising for over an hour, hiking included, it is important to replace electrolytes, specifically sodium.  

Exercising in the heat can cause a loss of up to 1,000 mg of sodium for every two pounds of sweat lost. The amount of sweat lost depends on the individual (some people sweat more than others, and some people are “saltier sweaters” than others) as well as the environment (hot, cold, humid) and the intensity and duration of the activity.  

For example, an acclimated and conditioned hiker can lose up to 2-3 liters of sweat per hour hiking on a hot day, (two liters of sweat equals 4.4 pounds) which means they are losing 2200 mg of sodium, a lot of sodium! But 1 tsp of table salt (which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride) contains approximately 2,400 mg of sodium. 

 It is not difficult to get this much sodium from foods.  For most hikers, eating and drinking a variety of different foods and beverages throughout the day should be adequate to replace electrolytes.   

Sports drinks are made with sugar (carbohydrate) to keep our energy reserves topped off during exercise.  They also contain sodium (salt) to replace losses from sweat (as well as the small amount of potassium and other electrolytes lost in sweat), and to help you retain the fluid you are drinking.  Sports drinks can be convenient, but the same effect can be achieved from eating a salty snack and drinking water 

Snacks

FM:  Let’s talk about snacks now.  I’m a big fan of beef jerky on the trail and I have friends who like to eat nuts and seeds.  I have also tried some of the honey chew products out there.  Is it better to go with a high protein or high carbohydrate snack to regain energy during a hike? 

EH: Jerky, nuts and seeds, and the honey chew products can all be great options on the trail! Personal preference has a lot to do with snacks for hiking. Figuring out what works for each individual can sometimes be trial and error when it comes to timing and GI tolerance, and what feels best for energy.  Eating enough calories, in general, is the most important, but beyond that, in order of importance I would focus first on carbohydrates, then protein, then fat.   

Carbohydrates (glucose) are our brain and muscles’ preferred energy fuel. Glycogen (the storage form of glucose) is stored in our muscles to fuel physical activity and in our liver to fuel the brain.  About 1400-1800 calories of glycogen can be stored in the body, enough to fuel about 1-3 hours of continuous moderate to high-intensity exercise. 

 As Dr. Masters’ mentioned in one of your previous posts, at rest we typically burn fat as fuel, at moderate-intensity exercise, we burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat, and as exercise intensity increases, so does the need for carbohydrates as fuel. 

There are three body sources that provide carbohydrates for energy for all body function, blood glucose (about 20 calories), liver glycogen (about 300-400 calories), and muscle glycogen (about 1200-1600 calories).  

About one hour of aerobic exercise uses over half of our liver glycogen supply, so prolonged exercise such as hiking relies heavily on muscle glycogen (and fat depending on the intensity).  The feeling of “bonking” or muscle weakness and fatigue that can happen when hiking is due to a depletion of muscle glycogen and a need for dietary carbohydrates (a snack!) to regain energy during a hike.   

As Dr. Masters also mentioned, protein is important to maintain lean body mass because it is literally the building block of our muscles, organs, tissues, and cells.  Protein is crucial to rebuilding our muscle tissue from the damage that prolonged exercise can cause. 

And fat is not to be forgotten! Having foods that contain some fat while hiking or backpacking is great because fat is more calorically dense than carbohydrates or protein.  Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram whereas fat contains 9 calories per gram.  

Why this matters is calorie density. When hiking or backpacking not carrying a ton of weight from food is something to consider.  By picking foods that contain fat, you can pack more bang for your buck so to speak (less food by weight, with more calories). 

So, thinking about snacks that are carbohydrate-rich but still, contain some protein and fat are all great options!  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banana with peanut butter and honey wrapped in a tortilla, trail mix, granola bars, jerky, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, etc.  

What to look for in Energy/Power Bars

FM: There are about a million options of power/energy bars on the market these days.  What should I be looking for in a bar and what should I look to avoid when picking a bar to take on a hike? 

EH:  You aren’t kidding!  There are so many options now that it can definitely be overwhelming!  The first thing I look at is the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list.  Depending on the type of activity, duration, and intensity of what I’m about to do, I then look at the number of calories, and grams of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber and think about what other foods I’m planning to eat throughout the day.  

The number of calories a person needs while exercising is highly individual, based on height, weight, activity level, etc., but a good ballpark number is 200-300 calories per hour.  As for macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) I would look for at least 20 grams of carbohydrates (but avoid anything higher than 60 grams as most people can only process 60 grams per hour without GI distress), at least 4 grams of protein, but ideally 10 or more grams and fat can vary.  

When it comes to the ingredients list, I look for whole-food ingredients like dates, dried unsweetened fruits, whole grain oats, brown rice, pea protein, nuts, nut butters, and seeds and try to avoid too much added sugar.  I also look to see where the sugar is coming from (whole food sources like dates vs. refined sugar and corn syrup). I also try to avoid anything marketed as low carb or low sugar as they usually contain sugar alcohols or synthetic fiber which can cause diarrhea, something you definitely do not want on the trail! 

Pre-Hydration

FM:  I remember having some salty pizza and a beer the night before a hike and I drank a ton of water on the hike the next day.  Is hydration something that is day of or, if I’m going to try a 14er or something strenuous, do I need to think of hydration the night before? 

EH:  Pre-hydration is definitely important, especially for something strenuous like a 14er.  It is important to be fully hydrated prior to exercise, and if not fully hydrated, to the greatest extent possible.  

To be conscious of being well hydrated the day before something like a 14er, drink plenty of water or other fluids throughout the day.  One indicator of good hydration status is that you are urinating regularly and that your urine is straw-colored.  

As for hydrating right before the hike, a general recommendation is to drink about 17-20 fl. oz. about two hours before beginning your hike.  And of course, to continue to drink plenty of water often during the hike.  

Strenuous hiking in heat can require drinking up to 1 liter per hour or more!  Small sips frequently throughout the hike is a good strategy to stay well-hydrated and avoid cramps or discomfort from drinking too much water, too quickly.  

I also think it’s important to mention that things like altitude and hot or cold temperatures can lead to dehydration.  So, for something like a 14er, it would be extra important to make sure you are drinking enough!   

Carb-Loading

FM:  I have friends that run marathons, for some reason, I won’t understand, and they always talk about carbo-loading the night before and eat like 200 pounds of pasta.  Like the earlier water question, how important is what I eat the night before or the morning of a hike?  Anything, in particular, I should eat or avoid? 

EH: Carb-loading or “glycogen supercompensation” has some interesting research around it and is certainly something some endurance athletes experiment with in an effort to maximize the muscle glycogen stores that we were talking about earlier.

The idea is to eat a low carb diet for a few days while training intensely, followed by a few days of high carbohydrate intake and less intense training. Newer research focuses just on the loading stage, but it isn’t something that would be necessary before a hike.  

Just like our hydration discussion, properly fueling the day or two before the hike is important for your body to perform well and for you to feel good during your hike (enjoyment vs. bonking).  

For the meals leading up to the hike, focus on making sure you have a combination of complex carbohydrates (carbohydrates that take longer to digest) like oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, etc., lean protein like fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, or protein of choice, and healthy fats like nut butters or avocado for example.  

The morning of the hike can be a little trickier.  I’d still suggest something high in carbohydrates with some protein and fat, but this is when refined carbohydrates (like a plain bagel for instance) may actually bode better than whole grain or more complex carbohydrates, as they are digested easier, one to four hours before exercise. 

FM: Anything I am forgetting to ask or any points you really want to emphasize? 

EH I’d say the take-home message here is to consume a variety of foods, that way you’ll always have a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, as they are all important, and to eat and drink frequently throughout your hike to prevent the dreaded bonk!   

Thank you so much, Emily!  This is some great information and should really help people who are looking to start hiking or exercising the right way. 

When you look at what Cristin said in the recovery blog and what Emily says today, you really start to get the picture of how important what you put in your body helps in terms of performance and recovery. 

If you would like to see more of my Getting Started Guides you can find them on my “Thoughts” page. If you have a suggestion for a future guide or any comments feel free to email me at fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com or you can follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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